A2 Politics Conservatism Notes

These are a set of notes on all the key concepts and content summary within the AQA A2 Unit 3B Ideologies specification on Conservatism. 

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Key concepts
1) Hierarchy and organic society
o The term `organic society' refers to a belief, which became entrenched in traditional
conservative thought in the latter part of the 19th century.
o It was a reaction against the rise of liberal individualism.
o It proposes that society is more than merely a collection of individuals, but it is a single
o We are connected to each other through our humanity and common membership of
o Organic society is seen as a reality, which is superior to our own, individual interests.
o The ideal organic society ­ where goals and aspirations of individuals coincide with the goals
of the whole society. 1980s ­ Margaret Thatcher famously challenged this remarking that
there "is no such thing as society", implying that the goals of individuals are superior to
those of society as a whole.
o Traditional conservatives believe that there is a `natural' order into which each individual
o It is normal and natural that society should be divided by a number of strata.
o The very rigid feudal system had long since disappeared, but there remained a belief that
some kind of class system was inevitable.
o Hierarchy like this supports organic society in that it creates an order and stability, which
the individualistic society lacks.
o Different parts of the hierarchy have different roles that complement each other.
o This implies inequality, but an ordered inequality, and one in which those at the upper
levels of the hierarchy are expected to take responsibility for the welfare of the lower orders
­ noblesse oblige.
o The idea of hierarchy now appears largely outdated, but the organic society remains a key
idea for many conservatives, not least some of the supporters of David Cameron's style of
2) Individualism
o This is a difficult conservative principle to define.
o It has lost much of its value and distinctiveness since it is a value that is now shared with
liberals, most European democratic parties and the British Labour Party.
o Individual liberty ­ a fundamentally liberal principle, concerns mainly an absence of external
restraint. It refers to the extent to which our activities as individuals or groups, may be
constrained by laws, customs or a moral code. I.e. in Western democracies the right to
freedom of worship.
o Individualism ­ is a more positive concept and refers to choice, opportunity and
o First individualism suggests that each individual and household should be presented with
the widest possible range of choices and opportunities.
o The state should restrict such choices as little as possible, providing a link with liberal
o Individualism also implies a sense of privacy and for conservatives private life is not the
concern of the state. To conservatives, a strong barrier should be preserved between the
public and private or individual spheres.
o For conservatives, the individual can best flourish in a stable social, moral and economic
o The continuity provided by these gives the necessary scenery in which individuals can best
play their roles securely.
o Michael Oakeshott describes such a society as nomocratic, one where people enjoy shared
morality, values, and beliefs thus creating fertile ground for individualism.

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o The idea that humankind is naturally divided into a hierarchy is taken as natural and
o Conservatives gradually modified this view of the natural structure of society as it was
becoming clear that society was more fluid than it had ever been and people had begun to
view themselves as individuals rather than members of a social class.…read more

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Hobbes and Burke ­ individuals have a desire to be free and exercise all the rights, as well as
being intensely competitive and self-seeking.
o If allowed to flourish society would become `nasty, brutish and short' ­ Levianthan, 1651.
o In practice, people would consider themselves to be in competition with every other person
and therefore live in fear of the results of that restless society.…read more

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Suspicious of constitutional reform.
o Remain largely authoritarian in their approach to many law and order issues, higher value on
order than personal liberty.
o However, social conservatives do in fact consider themselves to be reformers:
o Argue that social reform is a legitimate function, supporting the importance of education,
welfare systems and social services. They support Labour's policies of providing a wide
degree of choice in educational provision.
o They accept different forms of family and lifestyle ­ supporting gay marriage and same-sex
relationships.…read more

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Defence of property has included opposition to the introduction of common ownership, i.e.
nationalization, resistance to high property taxes, i.e. Thatcher attempting to replace local
property rates with a non-property-based poll tax in 1988.
o Heavy stress on law and order ­ since high crime levels tend to mostly affect private
o In much of Europe conservative parties also took up the cause of small farmers and business
o Clearest example of conservative support for private property comes from Thatcher.…read more

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Authority ­ see key concepts
Private property ­ see key concepts
Different strands of Conservatism
Early Conservatism ­ the term `conservatism' is probably of French origin, referring to the reaction
against the ideas of the French Revolution.
It's tempting to see the origins of conservatism in reactionary ideas and thereby view it as a wholly
negative philosophy. Certainly, there was a powerful conservative movement in the first half of the
19th century that challenged all the main ideas of the Enlightenment.…read more

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Belief that welfare is a disincentive to Heavy emphasis on national self-interest
work and enterprise should be kept to a and patriotism
minimum Opposition to excessive immigration and
Support for a free market in Europe cultural diversity
USA: as above, plus: Opposition to European political
Preference for power to be reserved for integration
individual states, not federal government USA: as above, plus:
Strong religious element to moral and
social issues
Insistence on protection for US industry
from foreign competition
The nationalist-authoritarian right ­ This is…read more

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This was a moralistic and religious element. Many of society's problems, especially rising crime
rates, were blamed on the excessively liberal and permissive culture of the 1960's.
The main elements of contemporary US conservatism can be summarized:
o A religious and moral attitude to social issues.
o Opposition to socially progressive ideas.
o Deep suspicion of centralized state power.
o An attachment to pluralist, decentralized democracy.
o Classical liberal economic views.…read more

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It was considerable and the challenges it posed to traditional conservatism were numerous:
o Society is made up of free individuals; it is not organic.
o Excessive state interference is counterproductive, holds back economic progress and inhibits
the development of a sense of self-responsibility.
o Traditional institutions may be challenged if they can be shown to hold back progress.
o Conservative paternalism denies the individual spirit of enterprise and so should be curbed.…read more


Old Sir

A very useful set of notes which surveys the most important elements of Conservative thinking in modern history. Students may wish to attach examples as evidence to meet AO2, (Evaluation and Analysis) when they make their own notes.

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