• Created by: Emma
  • Created on: 10-01-13 20:02

Types of conservatism

Early conservatism
Origins of conservatism are in 18th century, a reaction to the French Revolution ideals. Main concern was to hold back the rise of liberal ideas which prompted fearful developments like constitutional reform and free-trade policies.

Stood for romantic ideas in preference to rationalism. Politics was seen largely in terms of paternalism and judgement, rather than rational thought and democratic fervour - desperate appeals to retain the authority of Church, aristocracy and monarchy. It was Sir Robert Peel who understood that conservatism would not survive with such a negative philosophy.

Pragmatic, tied to capitalism, protective of property rights and fundamentally middle class in nature.

Peel recognised that if reform and change were both inevitable and desirable, it was pointless for conservatives to resist it. He insisted that conservatism had to become a pragmatic rather than reactionary movement. 

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Types of conservatism

Capitalism was creating a society of individuals at the expense of a general sense of social responsibility - society was losing its sense of community. Free-market capitalism was dividing the country into the haves and the have-nots.

Disraeli saw this as two nations and class conflict = recipe for revolution. It was the role of conservatives, Disraeli insisted, to unite the nation and create one nation by ruling in the interest of welfare of all classes.

The New Right
Not new at all but linked old ideas to form a new thread of conservatism.

NR neo-classical economics
- State should intervene only to control public finances and currency as to maintain stability.
- Economy contains internal mechanism to restore it to full employment but relies on govt not intervening. Laissez-faire approach ensures economy returns to stability.

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Types of conservatism

NR Neo-conservatism

Although New Right has been suspicious of state power, equally concerned with the potential social disorder resulting from increased freedom and lack of social responsibility.

Adapted aspects of the origins of conservatism to the modern world. Like Burke stresses the need for good order and has paternalistic view of the state.

Strong stance on law and order, attempts to restore traditional values and morality and a firm position on national security have all been adopted.

Putting together the neo-liberal position on the economy and welfare and the neo-conservative stance on law and order, moral values and national security gives a useful summary of New Right philosophy. 

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Types of conservatism

Social conservatism retains these traditional conservatism features:
- A view that society is indeed organic. Continue to stress importance of individualism but this shouldn't be at the expense of a persistent minority who are denied the benefits of an otherwise prosperous society.
- Principle that families are the cornerstone of an ordered society.
- Firm nationalists. Sceptical of excessive European integration.
- Suspicious of constitutional reform and traditionalists with political system.
- Largely authoritarian in law and order. Order over personal liberty.
- Believe free markets are best way to increase wealth, Britain is over-governed and should be less regulation, and taxation is a disincentive to enterprise.

Retain the principles that:
- Social reform can be effective and is a legitimate function of govt and see education as a key element in social reform. Ephasise need for social mobility.
- Tolerant attitude to different forms of family and lifestyle and althoug remain nationalists, accept the reality of a multicultural society.
- Support welfare state but wish to promote involvement of private sector.
- Remain authoritarian on serious crime, but more creative for minor crimes.

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Core values/concepts in conservatism

Closely linked to their desire for public order, desire to keep traditional institutions (monarchy, Church) relates back to Burke who said: ‘No generation should ever be so rash as to consider itself superior to its predecessors’. The fact that values and institutions have survived is a testament to their quality. Traditions provide continuity and stability - prevent social conflict and link past to present. Prevent violent transformations.

Modern British conservatism has largely ignored importance of tradition, especially since 1980s. Has embraced new social theories, such as economic monetarianism, privatisation and opposition to the dependency culture, and attacked some traditional institutions such as the Church of England.

Organic society
Was a reaction to rise of liberal individualism promoted by utilitarians and classical liberals. Society is more than merely a collection of free individuals, but a single entity like a living organism. It’s a reality superior to our individual interests. ‘No such thing as society, only individuals and families’ - implies that goals of individuals = superior to those of society.

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Core values/concepts in conservatism

‘Natural order’ into which each person fits = normal that society should be divided into a number of strata. Class system is inevitable.

Hierarchy supports organic society as it creates an order and stability that individualistic society lacks. Hierarchy has different roles to support each other. Implies inequality but it is an ordered inequality. Those at upper levels take responsibility for the welfare of the lower orders – noblesse oblige.

Conservatives believe our most basic need is order and security. 

Individuals desire to be free and to exercise their rights, but are intensely competitive and self-seeking. This would lead to an intolerable situation and life would become ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Only way to ensure secure existence is to allow an absolute ruler to govern and protect us from each other.

Ever since Hobbes, conservatives have preferred strong authority and favoured the community’s need for security over individual rights.

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Core values/concepts in conservatism

Believe owning property or shares in businesses would give people a stake in society and thus promote a sense of responsibility - Thatxcher's 'right to buy' scheme in 1980s. Defence of property has included opposition to introduction of common ownership, resistance to high property taxes and stress on law and order since high crime levels tend mostly to affect private property.

Individualism - 2 main elements of conservative individualism:
- Everyone should have best range of choices and opportunities, restricted as little as possible by state (links to liberal freedom, but conservative individualism is different as state can enhance these by playing positive rather than negative role). 

- Implies sense of privacy. Many areas where interference by the state might be seen as legitimate but is also an extensive private sphere. It is the essence of conservatism that a strong barrier should be preserved between public and private or individual spheres.
Too much personal freedom might = instability. Secure society over a free society.

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Core values/concepts in conservatism

Conservative opposition to ideology
Conservatism changes according to dominant ideology at the time. It’s opposition to ideologies runs deeper suspicion of radical change and has number of key aspects:

- Most ideologies propose an ideal form of society but conservatives see this as artificial. Seen as a worthwhile goal, but one that should be pursued in accordance with the traditions of the people, not an abstract set of political principles.
- Ideological change is normally radical in nature. Conservatives have resisted rapid forms of social revolution or transformation. 
- Excessive attachments to ideologies may result in tyranny. 2 main reasons =. ideological leaders tend to become totalitarian in their ruthless pursuit of political goals and revolutionary change sweeps away traditional authority and stability.
- Ideologies have a fixed view of human nature; indeed, several are actually based on such an assumption. Conservatives see human nature as fickle, non-rational and changeable. This makes all fixed political principles fundamentally flawed.  

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Core values/concepts in conservatism

Scepticism and empiricism
Sceptical of most fixed political principles and suspicious of the activity of politics in general. For them, it should be a limited activity since they doubt it’s effectiveness.

Also usually empiricists, which involves judging current actions against experiences of the past. Respect for tradition, pragmatism and suspicion of the new and the untried are all aspects of the empirical approach.

The wise politician builds on wisdom of the past – ‘democracy of the dead’ is Chesterton’s concept which respects Burke’s plea not to believe that the current generation is wiser than the last. Critics see this as permanently looking backwards, but conservatives respond by pointing out that much of what has been achieved is positive and we can learn from it.

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Core values/concepts in conservatism

Human nature
View human imperfection in 3 ways: psychological, moral and intellectual.

Psychological imperfection is rooted in conservative view of human nature. Reject liberal rational view and see humans as weak and security-seeking, dependent on social frameworks which they might suffer psychological harm without. Hierarchy deals with this, giving everyone a secure role and duties to fulfil. Tradition also helps deal with a lack of security as people are reassured by institutions that have stood the test of time.

Moral imperfection flows from the idea that, left to themselves, humans will fall into chaos. Humans lack innate moral values and don’t understand need for social order or the rights of others. Needs to be authority exercised.

Intellectually imperfect because individuals aren't rational. The world is too complex to understand and traditional institutions offer an explanation.

However, the neo-liberal interpretation of conservatism fundamentally disagrees with these views. It is one of the most basic disputes within the conservative tradition.

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Core values/concepts in conservatism

Would be wrong to suggest that conservatism is a doctrine of ‘no change’. Conservatives are, above all, pragmatists. Oakeshott in particular advocated pragmatic approach - politics was a ‘conversation, not an argument’.

Political action shouldn’t be the result of conflict over theories, but of a more gentle relationship between the government and the governed. A good politician reaches decisions based on the ‘intimations and traditions’ of the community. Pragmatism implies a flexible approach to politics and a rejection of the politics of strongly held ideology.

In the 1950s a series of moderate conservative governments in the UK were confronted with a number of radical reforms implemented by Labour governments which encouraged widespread nationalisation of major industries,  created a welfare state and granted powers to local government.

In principle, the party opposed these reforms but accepted that they were popular and successful so reached a pragmatic decision to maintain them.

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Key thinkers in conservatism

Edmund Burke
The key elements of Burkean philosophy are:
- The most important quality of any society is order.
- People have an obligation to obey the state if provides them with order.
- Affairs of the state should be conducted on basis of past experience, not on the basis of abstract theories and principles.
- Tradition is a key factor in the preservation of order and continuity.
- Change in society should only be undertaken when it's clear that existing order is untenable.

Benjamin Disraeli
Saw Britain was in danger of becoming ‘two nations’, divided into the rich and poor. As capitalism flourished, plight of the working classes etc worsened. Was for conservatives to take paternalistic view and intervene. If conservatives didn’t, socialists would. Conservatives could play neutral role in struggle between labour and capitalism. Traditional wealth and privilege that the ruling class enjoyed in society also carried with it responsibility – that of preserving the welfare of the people (noblesse oblige)

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Key thinkers in conservatism

George Santayana
Mainly known for scepticism, empiricism and pragmatism. Saw it as vital that political action should be based on knowledge of the past.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.

Insisted that society should be constructed in order to remove insecurity and greatest threat to individualism = disorder.

Michael Oakeshott
Politics shouldn't have any fixed goals or sense of specific direction.

State = a ship on a boundless sea with no origin or destination. Role of govt is to command the ship to keep it on even keel and protect passengers. State should be governed on pragmatic basis.

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Issues in conservatism

Is conservatism an ideology?
Ideology implies sense of progress towards specific social goals, fixed and coherent principles and assumptions about nature of humankind, and theories of nature of society

Traditional conservatism has no sense of progress. Oakeshott said true conservatism should not have a sense of direction. The New Right did envisage creation of society with free individuals with access to ownership of property and shares in industry and in which each individual was responsible for their own welfare. 

Such an adaptable movement can’t be described as having an ideological nature. Traditional conservatives avoid adopting fixed principles and opposed political movements based on fixed principles. Often been described as chameleon-like - adapts to correspond with the political environment. When opposing liberalism, conservatism adopted an organic vision of society. When socialism was prominent, conservatism emphasised the virtues of the free market and individualism.

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Issues in conservatism

Is conservatism an ideology? cont...
Once again New Right doesn't conform, adopting some fixed ideas. In particular, monetarism (the belief that the state should confine itself to controlling the currency and public finances rather than attempting to regulate the whole economy). Furthermore, these conservatives, also known as neo-liberals, were inflexible in their attitudes to taxation and welfare, believing both to be barriers to economic progress. There is a case for arguing anti-state position of New Right is an ideological position in that it suggests a fixed view that society will flourish only if free of govt regulation.

This is evidence appears to lead to the conclusion that, while traditional conservatism is very much a state of mind, and a broad and flexible philosophy, the more modern forms of the movements have become ideological in character. Conservative state of mind is to prefer order to liberty, to be suspicious of radical change and to prefer what is known from the past to what is unknown in the future. The New Right in contrast, has been a radical movement; its adherents have been prepared to reject the past in favour of the pursuit of New Right doctrines. 

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Issues in conservatism

The paradox of the New Right
NR has been characterised as synthesis between neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, which gives rise to a contradictory attitude towards role of the state. 

Neo-liberal aspect of movement proposes restoration of free markets without state interference - echoes the classical liberal era of 19th century. Taxation and welfare to be reduced in order to create more individual incentives. So-called ‘nanny state’ was blamed for sapping dynamism, reducing economic freedom necessary to create wealth and granting excessive amounts of power to organised labour.

These ideas would have been at home in the middle of 19th century, when free market capitalism was at its height and at its least regulated. Hayek and Friedman argued that lack of economic freedom would entail loss of political freedom. In other words, heavily regulated and partly government-controlled states run by socialists governments could never be described as ‘free’ because individuals weren’t free to pursue their own economic goals.

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Issues in conservatism

Paradox of the New Right cont...
Main criticism faced by neo-liberals = excessive amounts of freedom would threaten unity of society. Recognising order in society might be threatened by excess of economic freedom, NR responded by developing set of policies known as neo-conservatism. Emphasised personal morality and has been intolerant of lifestyles outside the norm, such as homosexuality. 2nd strand of neo-conservatism concerns law and order. More traditional methods have been supported, notably the use of prison sentences.

With European integration uppermost in their minds, members of NR have stressed national sovereignty and need to preserve unity of the UK. Have opposed political integration in Europe and devolution on grounds that they threaten to remove national sovereignty. NR sees nation-state as fundamental political community and will resist any threat to its independence.

Finally, neo-conservatives have been concerned with immigration and increasing cultural diversity (threat to unity of a community). Neo-conservative answer = limit immigration and all conform to British values.

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Conservatism and liberalism

Conservatives are for positive individualism and liberals are for negative individualism.

Conservatives want state interference to create conditions for individualism to flourish, and liberals want little to no state interference.

Conservatives accept that the state might curtail some freedoms, but liberals oppose this.

A conservative will accept that the state might be justified in curtailing some freedom in society if it can promote individualism by doing so.

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Conservatism and liberalism

Liberal freedom and conservatism individualism
Both liberals and conservatives desire virtues of a free society and are suspicious of role of the state. However, for a liberal, freedom means absence of restriction and the state not restricting our ability to engage in economic enterprise or have too many regulations on our activities.

Individualism is more closely associated with conservatism. Refers to the ability to pursue happiness and be presented with a range of opportunities. Implies that we will be secure enough to enjoy whatever wealth/property we possess. Individualism in this sense could only flourish in a society in which each person is free to pursue own goals and not forced to accept collective goals of society. Therefore is associated with free enterprise, encouragement of private sector, low taxation and minimal regulation of business activities.

The main conflict lies in contrast between liberal belief that individuals will flourish most successfully in a free society, whereas conservatives typically believe that the individual needs a secure society. Nevertheless, both agree that the state should be organised to promote interests of individuals and individual self-fulfilment; they disagree on the the means to get the ends.

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Conservatism and liberalism

Property and rights
Perhaps in their attitudes to private property, conservatives and liberals agree most. When considering more general field of rights, however, there are critical points of difference. Right to private property = one of original beliefs of liberalism, viewing possession and enjoyment of property as a fundamental right. Liberals aren’t collective by nature and see private property as an important aspect of an individual’s fulfilled life.

Conservatism, too, has always been committed to property rights but for different reasons -  property ownership promotes stability. Protection of property = a priority of the state.

The preservation of rights and guarantee of legal and political equality are fundamental liberal principles - very few circumstances where liberals will accept compromise in their defence of rights.

Conservatives too accept that rights are worthy of protection, especially in modern constitutional democracies but insist that community as a whole has rights, not just individuals, and there are times when the rights of individuals conflict with the rights of the community. They consider the community first.

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Old Sir


This is a very useful set of Revision Cards. They are well-organised and fairly comprehensive. Students at the start of their revision, looking for an exemplar will find these useful.

Sanjay Dayal



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