2. Conservatism



What is conservatism?

  • Reform in order to conserve
  • Value traditional institutions
  • Tendency towards impiricism & pragmatism
  • Social order & security are the most basic of human needs
  • Reactionary (against liberealism & socialism)
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Origins of Conservatism

The Enlightenment

  • Reaction against liberalism
  • Importance of the Church, hierarchy, the monarchy, social order
  • Led by the aristocracy & the landed gentry

Class & Conservatism

  • Industrial Revolution led to formation of 3 social classes (working, industrial & aristocracy)
  • Disraeli: The landed classes were privileged, but had to now justify their position (noblesse oblige)
  • Burke: Power of the ruling class justified: can govern in a disinterested way; accumulated wisdom & were superior in their judegment of others' best interests (paternalism)
  • Class has remained important, but conservatism diversified in the latter part of the 20th century (free-market capitalism; individualism)

Conservatism & Ideology

  • Conservatism has changed its character in order to provide an effective opposition to change
  • 19th Century: Liberal emphasis on minimal state & liberty vs. conservative emphasis on social unity & one-nation conservatism
  • 20th Century: Socialist collectivism vs. conservative individualism & competition
  • 1930s & 40s: Conservatives adopted classical luberal ideas in order to distance themselves from fascism
  • Modern liberalism vs. traditional moral values
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Core Values of Conservatism 1

Human Nature:

  • Humans are driven by basic appetites (physical property, power & avoidance of deprivation)
  • Changes based on the nature of society
  • Burke: The relationship between govt. & the people should be like that between a parent & child (paternalism)
  • Individuals are more concerned with their own welfare than that of others. Thatcher: "there is no such thing as society"

Order & Authority:

  • Humankind's most basic need is for order & security
  • Preservation of order & gradual reform

Tradition & Preservation

  • Institutions & values
  • Burke: "No generation should ever be so rash as to consider itself superior to its predecessors"
  • Accumulated wisdom (democracy of the dead)
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Core Values of Conservatism 2


  • Natural & inevitable
  • Fixed hierarchical syste => individualism
  • Total social & economic equality is artificial
  • Inequality = dynamism & competition

Organic Society & Hierarchy

  • Individuals & institutions are interconnected & interdependent
  • Reaction against liberal individualism
  • Class system is inevitable - noblesse oblige
  • Society is superior to individual interests


  • Flexibility - rejaction of dogma
  • Understanding what is best for the people, what is acceptable & will preserve a stable society


  • Everyone should be presented with a wide range of choices & opportunities
  • Implied privacy
  • Continuity of morality, law & order & traditions
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Core Values of Conservatism 3


  • 1860s & 70s: property-owning m/c
  • Opposition to common ownership
  • Resistance to high property taxes
  • Law & order (esp. property-related crime)

Opposition to Ideology:

  • Society should not be directed towards specific goals
  • Resistant to rapid / radical reforms & revolutions
  • Excessive attachment to ideology can lead to tyranny

Scepticism & Empiricism:

  • Express reservations & doubts about all political movements
  • Empiricism: Judging current actions against the experience of the past
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Traditional Conservatism

Two Key Doctrines:

  • The organic theory of society & the state
  • A mistrust of human nature: it is morally, psychologically & intellectually imperfect

Other Central Themes:

  • Tradition: The organic society cannot be severed from its roots; Humans should look to tradition & history as guides to action; Tradition can provide a sense of identity; If something has stood the test of time, then it works
  • Authority: An essectial feature of the organic society; A form of social glue that binds people together; Prevents chaos & disorder; Link to wisdom
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The New Right 1


  • Mechanistic / individualsit theory
  • A view of human nature as rational & self-seeking
  • Radical & reactionary
  • Free-market economics
  • libertarianism
  • principled & doctrinaire thinking


  • Organic / collectivist thinking
  • Natural hierarchy & authority
  • mistrust of human reason
  • reactionary
  • authoritarian
  • prinicpled & doctrinaire thinking
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The New Right 2

Reasons for rolling back the state:

  • They believe the free market is self-regulating
  • High taxation amounts to legalised theft
  • High public spending fuels inflation
  • Nationalised industries are inefficient & uncompetitive
  • State welfare undermines self-reliance & individual responsibility & promotes a dependency culture

The New Right Paradox:

  • Paradox of "limited but strong" government
  • "Limitation of govt. does not make for a weak govt. If you've got the role of govt. clearly set out, then it means very strong govt. in that role. Very strong indeed." - Margaret Thatcher
  • "What this country wants is less tax & more law & order" - Margaret Thatcher
  • "The trouble with a free-market economy is that it takes so many police to make it work" - Neal Ascherson
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Shared views between Tories & the New Right

Shared conservative beliefs:

  • Private property
  • Hierarchy
  • Law & order
  • Christian family values
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