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In the political tradition of England the term Tory was first coined in the late 18th century to describe opponents to the Whigs. English Tories from the time of the Glorious Revolution up until the Reform Bill of 1832 were characterized by strong monarchist tendencies, support of all traditionalist institutions and norms, notably the House of Lords and the Church of England, and hostility to reform, while the Tory Party as an actual organization held power intermittently throughout the same period.

After 1832 and changing of the Tory Party into the Conservative Party, "Tory" has continued to be, wrongly, shorthand for a member of the Conservative Party or for the party in general, sometimes but by no means always, as a term of abuse. Many conservatives still call themselves "Tory" or "High Tory" to differentiate themselves from opponents and from the liberals who have today taken over that party.

The term has also been occasionally used in North America, where "Tory" was originally a description of the Conservative Party of Canada, although that too is no longer "Tory".

During the American Revolutionary War, "Tory" was often used to describe loyalist colonists who sided with Great Britain against the revolutionaries, while another nickname for them at this time was lobsterbacks, referring to the red coats of British soldiers. The term was also used during the American Civil War, when supporters of the Confederacy extended the term to Southern Unionists.