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Varieties of Conservatism: Traditional, One Nation

Traditional conservatism is defined by a suspicion of change due to a view of human beings as morally, psychologically and intellectually flawed. They support an organic view of society and largely focus on how ideas such as tradition, private property, authority, hierarchy and social order can provide people with a sense of belonging to society. It is usually pragmatic and accepts some change to preserve important aspects of society.

One Nation Conservatism or Paternalist Conservatism was dominant for much of the 20th century. This approach accepted the need for social reform both as a social duty and as a means of preventing revolution and radical reform. It is therefore characterised by a pragmatic acceptance of welfarism and government management of the economy These help the long term interests of the wealthy and privileged by helping to neutralise political discontent on the part of the weak and vulnerable.

In the 1980’s One Nation principles were pushed aside by the New Right. But growing support for ‘compassionate conservatism’, and a move from market fundamentalism has caused some revival of One Nation ideas.

Authoritarian conservatives emphasise the need for a strong state and often express a reactionary desire to ‘turn back the clock’ on changes that have taken place within society. They have also often been associated with strong nationalist arguments

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Varieties of Conservatism: The New Right

The New Right developed in the 1970s and ‘80s as response to changing economic and social circumstances and the perceived failure of the post-war consensus, of which One Nation had been a strong

Neoliberalism or The Liberal New Right supported many classical liberal ideas, particularly on the free market and individualism. They argued for the privatisation and deregulation of the economy and the ‘rolling back’ of the state, particularly from the economy. It seeks to expand individual freedom (understood largely in economic terms) and has a consistently atomistic view of society, based on a model of rugged individualism. Some also applied these arguments to social issues, supporting a libertarian stance,

Neoconservatism or The Conservative New Right comes from traditional conservatism, or, more particularly, from pre-Disraeli conservatism.

It takes an authoritarian approach to social order calling for an end to the permissive society, a stronger role for the state in tackling crime, greater authority in society, strengthening traditional family values, and defence of the nation. Based on an organic view of society, emphasises human imperfection, psychologically, morally and intellectually, and is associated with the notion of a strong, but minimal state.

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Conservatives and Human Nature

Traditional Conservatives have been greatly influenced by assumptions about human imperfection. It inclines them to place their faith in tradition, view authority and a ‘tough’ stance on law and order as desirable, and to believe that society has an organic structure.

Psychologically dependent and security seeking creatures, drawn to the familiar and craving certainty. Lack of security creates uncertainty and a feeling of being lost and Anomie, not knowing how we are expected to behave or how we fit into society.

Morally flawed humans are naturally aggressive, selfish and willing to harm others if they get in our way. This can create criminality and disrupt society.

Intellectually limited. The world is far too complicated for us to fully comprehend – it is “boundless and bottomless” Oakeshott

Not rational creatures but driven by uncontrollable base instincts.

Therefore, we need clear rules and firm control to keep our instincts under control – without this, life would be “nasty, brutish and short” Hobbes

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Conservatives and Human Nature

One Nation Conservatives have, in some ways, modified the emphasis on moral imperfection, being more willing to explain crime and social disorder in terms of social, rather than individual, factors.

Neo Liberal Conservatives Largely ignore ideas of human imperfection and stress atomistic individualism and self-reliance and their belief in a robust, even rugged, form of individualism (there is no such thing as society). They also believe in reason, as human beings are rationally self-interested and only individuals know what is best for them.

Neo Conservatives remains faithful to traditional assumptions about imperfection, notably in terms of moral imperfection and therefore the need to strengthen order, discipline and authority, and in terms of psychological imperfection and thus the need for traditional values and a strong national identity.

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Conservatives and the organic society

Traditional Conservatives

Conservatives have held that society has an organic character. Like living creatures societies are a complex networks of relationships that ultimately exist to maintain the whole that is more important than the individual parts. Society’s parts or institutions have different roles or functions, creating a hierarchy among them that makes social equality absurd and impossible.

It supports a communitarian tendency that the health of an organic society is upheld by Duty and obligation strengthening the fabric of society:

Upholding established institutions. Supporting traditional values and a common culture,  

Strengthening authority and social discipline

This implies radical change is undesirable as it treats society as if it were a machine whose parts can be unpicked and reassembled in the hope of improving its workings. 

The individual is limited and dependent and needs the rootedness and belonging that only a clear community identity can provide.

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Conservatives and the organic society

One Nation Conservatism gives qualified endorsement of social welfare and economic management. Community is stressed both through the acceptance that the rich have a moral obligation to support the ‘deserving’ poor and in the warning that widening social inequality (the two nations) will result in revolution and social breakdown.

 For Neo Liberal Conservatives Social bonds have a contractual not an organic basis

Social institutions are merely instrumental in that they are fashioned through contractual agreements in order to satisfy mutual interests

Society should be characterised by equality of opportunity, allowing individuals to rise and fall on the basis of merit

Such rugged individualism implies that society should afford individuals the greatest possible scope to make their own moral decisions and accept their consequences 

The Conservative New Right continues to embrace an organic and hierarchical view of society. Its emphasis on the importance of authority, established values and national identity is based on organic assumptions. 

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Conservatives and Individualism

Traditional Conservatives argue the individual cannot be separated from society, but is part of the social groups that nurture him or her, reflecting the dependent and security-seeking tendencies within human nature.

The Liberal New Right adopts a stark form of egoistical individualism. Not only are individuals rationally self-interested, but they also have a strong propensity for self-reliance. In this view, there is no such thing as society, and therefore no such thing as community, outside of family groups at least. In social and economic terms this leads to a desire to roll back the state in the interests of the free market and rugged individualism.

The Conservative New Right however, retains a fondness for community, in emphasizing, for example, the importance of traditional morality and national identity.

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Conservatives and Tradition

Traditional Conservatives

Tradition has been justified on the grounds that it has been tried and tested by history, having proved its value to the larger society by its capacity to survive. In this view, traditions are more reliable than abstract theories as guides to action. Tradition thus establishes continuity between present generations, past generations and future generations. In this view, society consists of a partnership between the living, those who are dead and those who are to be born. It has also been described as a democracy of the dead, reflecting the fact that the dead will always outnumber the living.

Tradition and continuity are psychologically reassuring, generating a sense of stability and belonging precisely because they are familiar.

In some cases, tradition has been justified on religious grounds, linked to the idea that inherited practices and institutions are ‘God given’ and an expression of’ natural law’

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Conservatives and Tradition

Neo-Liberal Conservatives are less keen on tradition, in that they believe in reason and tend towards radicalism. The radicalism of the liberal New Right is evident in its robust efforts to dismantle or ‘roll back’ the state and interventionist government. This is because it is rooted in a liberal rationalism that implies a critical approach to existing institutions and practices, and so, at times, can support radical reform.

Neo-Conservatives re-emphasise the importance of tradition, especially in the form of traditional values

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Conservatives and Private Property

 Traditional Conservatives argue property is a vital source of security, something to fall back on, particularly in times of economic difficulty. This is because of the belief that people are psychologically dependent and want security.

Property has been seen as an exteriorisation on one’s own personality. People’s attachment to property, cars, houses, personal possessions, has a powerful psychological and emotional dimension. Possessions are not merely external objects, valued because they are useful, but also reflect something of the owner’s personality and character.

 One Nation Conservatives argue property ownership gives people a stake in society and promotes a range of important social values, notably a respect for law and the property of others. By strengthening social cohesion, property thus counters the tendency towards anarchy and self-interest.

New Right Conservatives use essentially liberal arguments in support of property, viewing it, variously, as a reflection of individual merit (and thus as a right), an economic incentive and a means of reducing individuals’ dependency on the state.

This view differs from the traditional conservative view in that it suggests that property is merely a right and not an obligation.

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Conservatives and Authority

Authority is the right to influence others, based on an acknowledged duty to obey rather than on coercion or force. Conservatives tend to emphasise the exercise of authority from above rather than its link to consent as Liberals do through Social Contract Theory.

Because human nature is morally flawed, only the exercise of authority can prevent a descent into chaos and disorder. Authority, backed up by a system of punishments, is the only effective guarantee of public order.

It is an essential feature of the organic and hierarchical structure of society – providing people with stability and a sense of who they are and countering rootlessness and anomie. Authority thus binds people together

Authority is a vital source of support and guidance for the people who do not know what is good for them. As such, authority arises naturally ‘from above’, as in the authority of parents over children. Authority is thus linked to paternalism.

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Conservatives and Paternalism

Closely associated with the One Nation Conservative tradition Paternalism refers to the exercise of authority over others for the purpose of bringing them benefit or protecting them from harm, acting in a fatherly fashion. Paternalism can be justified on:

Moral grounds.  As, in the traditional conservative view, wealth and social position are largely acquired through the accident of birth, the privileged have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate. Duty is thus the price of privilege. This also implies that the poor are deserving of support because they are not to blame for their misfortunes.

Practicalgrounds.  The discharging of paternal obligations helps tie a hierarchical society together. Preventing the poor from becoming so poor that they become a threat to the established order and its institutions.

 New Right Conservatives, both neo-liberal and neo-conservative, have been suspicious of paternalism as providing a justification for state interference. Neo-Libs see it as damaging to the market and neo-cons as affecting individual responsibility. This is the approach Thatcher labelled the Wets.

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Conservatives and Hierarchy/Equality

Traditional Conservatives have objected to social equality on the grounds that society is naturally hierarchical. Hierarchy is an inevitable feature of an organic society, not merely a consequence of individual differences. Society is composed of a collection of different groups, bodies and institutions, each with its own role and purpose, just as the body is composed of a collection of different and 'unequal' organs. Social equality is therefore undesirable and unachievable, as power, status and property are always unequally distributed.

 One Nation Conservatives argue the natural inequality of wealth and social position is justified by a corresponding inequality of social responsibilities, as the wealthy and prosperous have a social duty to look after the less well off.

Liberal New Right, however, has embraced an essentially liberal critique of social equality. This accepts the principle of equality of opportunity (an absurd idea for traditional conservatives), but stresses that individuals should be able to realise their unequal talents and capacity to work.

Social equality is therefore rejected by all Conservatives on the grounds that it is a form of 'levelling' that treats unalike people alike and damages the economy by removing incentives to work and enterprise.

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Pragmatism and Principle

One Nation Conservatism was argued to have changed the nature of Conservatism on pragmatic grounds.

As deepening social inequality contains the seeds of revolution they argued social reform was the best protection against the danger of revolution. A pragmatic concern to alleviate poverty is therefore in the interests of the rich and prosperous.

 Neo Liberals adopted a principled belief in economic liberty and the free market, borne out of a commitment to economic liberalism and thus a rationally-based approach to politics.

This, in turn, significantly altered the conservative approach to change, New Right conservatives being much more inclined to endorse radical reform on the basis of the ideological blueprint that had been provided by free-market economics. This was evident in attempts by conservatives since the 1980s to ‘roll back the state’.


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Pragmatism and Principle

One Nation Conservatism was argued to have changed the nature of Conservatism on pragmatic grounds.

As deepening social inequality contains the seeds of revolution they argued social reform was the best protection against the danger of revolution. A pragmatic concern to alleviate poverty is therefore in the interests of the rich and prosperous.

 Neo Liberals adopted a principled belief in economic liberty and the free market, borne out of a commitment to economic liberalism and thus a rationally-based approach to politics.

This, in turn, significantly altered the conservative approach to change, New Right conservatives being much more inclined to endorse radical reform on the basis of the ideological blueprint that had been provided by free-market economics. This was evident in attempts by conservatives since the 1980s to ‘roll back the state’.


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Conservatives and The State

Traditional Conservatives

Favoured a strong state as a source of authority and a way to maintain those traditional parts of society that produced social stability.

One Nation Conservatism

The state was part of the mechanism for keeping the nation in one piece.

The New Right accept a strong but minimal state, even though the reasons they support a minimal state or a strong state may diverge.

Neoliberals support a minimal state, one that merely maintains domestic order, enforces contracts and provides defence against foreign attack, leaving other matters, especially for economic and moral issues, in the hands of the individual. They do so on two grounds.

Rolling Back the state unleashes the dynamism of the market, offering the prospect of prosperity for all by removing the ‘dead hand’ of the state from the economy.

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Conservatives and The State

Moral Benefits of more individual freedom and strengthened personal responsibility.

Neoconservatives support a strong state, which has an influence that extends clearly into the social and moral realms. They believe that the state should be strengthened.

Law and order: Should be more effective, particularly by using a stronger regime of punishments to deter wrongdoing. Based on Rational Choice Theory.

Traditional Values should be upheld, if necessary by law, in order to ensure that society is bound together by a common culture and the promotion of national patriotism.

But Neoconservatives do not support welfare and social reform, and in this sense agree with neoliberal thinking regarding the state.

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The Free Market

One Nation Conservatism

Disraeli developed One Nation ideas as a reaction to the danger of increasing inequality produced by a free market. In the post war period (Butskellism) the national good was seen as important as the operation of the market.

The restless dynamism of the market and the dismantling of welfare arguably threaten the stable organic structure of society

The economic arguments against state intervention are based on the idea of a free market and the beliefs that markets are self-regulating in that they tend towards long-term equilibrium

Economic intervention thus upsets this fragile balance, endangering growth and prosperity

In particular, high levels of public spending are associated with rising inflation, nationalised industries are seen to be inherently inefficient and high levels of taxation and regulation inhibit enterprise

The market is the only efficient way of allocating resources

The moral arguments against interventionism are grounded in individualism, particularly atomistic individualism

For instance, social welfare is seen to breed dependency, undermining dignity and individual responsibility

Redistribution violates property rights and amounts to legalised theft



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The Free Market

The rise of the New Right, and particularly neoliberalism, has resulted in greater concern with economic freedom, in some respects at the expense of social stability

Traditional Conservatives

Always had some suspicion of the free market as damaging to national stability and traditional order. The transformative power of capitalism always slightly concerned many 

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Conservatism is a form of ruling class ideology favouring the interests of the rich and powerful. In Marxism, the term has a technical definition, which is linked to false consciousness and the role of ideology in deluding the proletariat and preventing it realising its revolutionary destiny.

Conservatives uphold the interests of traditional elites. This can particularly be seen in relation to Traditional Conservative theories and ideas. For example, the commitment to tradition legitimises the status quo and thus the position of currently dominant groups; support for hierarchy and authority suggests that equality is unnatural and undesirable, and that rulers should rule; and the belief in property to favours those who own property rather than those who do not.

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One Nation conservatism has been criticised for perpetrating a form of enlightened  self-interest, in that it only advocates reform in order to prevent the possibility of social revolution.

Supporters of One Nation conservatism argue it works all groups in society, particularly the poor and less well off. It does this through emphasising paternalism and social duty, especially the obligation of the prosperous and privileged to care for the less fortunate.

New Right conservatism has also  been associated with the interests of the privileged  and prosperous, in that free-market economics legitimises social inequality, providingopportunities (through tax cuts and deregulation) for the rich to get richer, while the poor (through spending cuts and the ‘rolling back’ of welfare) get poorer.

New Right conservatives argue that, being based on a belief in individualism and strict meritocracy, their ideas are orientated around all members of society and not merely the prosperous or privileged. In this view, free-market economics provides opportunities not merely for the rich to get richer but for the poor to become less poor, as everyone benefits from the increased vigour, dynamism and efficiency of the market economy. Similarly, all members of society benefit from the maintenance of order and a tough approach to crime.


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