What is Conservatism?

Difficult to give an accurate definition and must be careful to associate it too much with the Conservatives of today, but there are a number of personal traits that a conservative is likely to have:

  1. Conservatives tend to want less control over the individual, doesn’t like fixed political doctrines.
  2. Like the status quo to be maintained rather than any radical change.
  3. Although the nature of conservative thinking may change dependent on the time they usually want to maintain tradition, the present and they look to the past as a guide rather than fixed principles for the future.
  4. Want the individual to flourish in terms of pursuing goals and achieving fulfillment.
  5. Conservative also want good social order and security even if that is at the expense of freedom, rights and equality

As Conservatism is reactionary a lot depends upon what is happening at the time in a certain place.

For example in the second half of the 20th century Conservatism looked at society as a whole in contrast to Liberalism and then in contrast to Socialism Thatcher then took conservatism to mean the individual.

There are some constants throughout these reactions:

  • Nationalism
  • Opposition to rigid ideology
  • Respect for traditions
  • Paternalistic view of Democracy

The core values of conservatism include:

  • Individualism – where people take personal responsibility for their actions
  • Organic society – where people have positions in society and that everyone integrates and has obligations to the community
  • Human nature - They believe that humans are imperfect and cannot be changed
  • Order & Hierarchy – Essential to the continuation of society for there to be structure and leadership
  • Tradition – This refers to the beliefs, institutions, customs, and practices handed down from one generation to the next
  • Inequality – There is an acceptance that while this has negative connotations it is a necessity for society to progress
  • Private property – They stress the importance of property as a way for people to be part of society and as a way to contradict socialism
  • Pragmatism - Goes against the idea that Conservatism is fully opposed to change. Realisation that there needs to be a working relationship between governed and government

Conservatism can be used describe somebody’s personality traits as being conservative, but you can have conservative elements of political ideologies or parties. For example Stalin has been called a conservative communist, Tony Blair was seen as conservative in the Labour Party.

However we need to look at it as a political tradition.

Origins of Conservatism

As conservatism is seen as a reactive ideology then the dates of its origin come from the origin of ideology itself, in the latter half of the 18th century.

In the period  known as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment there was a huge change in the way that people thought not just about politics but also religion science etc

There were different types of conservatism early on, for example in Europe due perhaps to the French Revolution there developed an authoritarian and reactionary form of conservatism that rejected any reform at all.

In Britain and the US a more cautious, flexible and ultimately more successful form of conservatism appeared enabling conservatives in the late 19th century to embrace the cause of social reform under the banner of paternalism and social duty.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace there developed a new social class and their power grew presenting a threat to the landed classes.

Conservatives found themselves conserving a particular class, as this cynical approach became clear conservatives had to expand their ideas and justification for their supporters.

Benjamin Disraeli realised that the ruling classes needed further justification rather than just tradition. He developed a new theory called neo-feudalism, attempting to put the class system into the old feudal way of running the country.

Working class were producers and they could not be expected to exercise power directly.

Middle/Capitalist class was the money makers and could not rule due to self interest.

Upper class now had to justify its role.

This theory was supported by traditional conservatives right up to the 1960s.

Edward Burke the father of English conservatism argued that the ruling classes should have a large role to play in politics for a number of reasons:

  1. Don’t work therefore they have time and have money meaning there is no element of self interest.
  2. As their ancestors had ruled there was an accumulation of knowledge.
  3. Ruling class seen as superior and the best people to rule dispassionately for the common good. Notion became known as “paternalism” by their opponents.

By the end of the 19th century Conservative party was identified with business interests, yet it also retained great support from the working class due to Peel’s idea of “one nation”, with the ruling class being more paternalistic.

In Britain in the 20th century the middle class has been seen as conservative because they are owners of private enterprise and they require the maintenance in the status quo. Socialism would cause the middle class problems.

This usually manifests itself in the economy, where conservatives want free market capitalism, whereas socialists want greater state intervention. Conservatives also want low taxation.

1970s saw the breakdown of the class system and therefore a new type of conservatism was required. This was known as New Right Conservatism, with Thatcher representing the individual ending the relationship between class and conservatism.

New Right

This encompasses 2 distinct and in some people’s opinions conflicting traditions, those of economic liberalism and social conservatism.

Economic Liberalism or neo-liberalism is seen as the dominant area of the New Right, where they push back state intervention in the economy in order for private enterprise to flourish. This has been pushed by the new right in response to the Liberal Socialist and Conservative governments of the 20th century and their attempts to bring about social change through greater governmental intervention.

Social Conservative highlight the breakdown in modern society of law and order through the spread of liberal and permissive values. They look back upon traditional values and argue for the restoration of authority and social discipline.

Critics of conservatism will say that the difference between traditional conservatism and the New Right made the split irreconcilable and that conservatism is now incoherent.

Conservatives will argue that they are advancing certain unpalatable truths about people and that they require strong government and security, without being weighed down by principles such as liberty equality and justice. They prefer to look back on history to provide the basis for their political theory.

Conservatism in the inter-war years

Conservatism again had to react to the changes that occurred after 1918, for example changes in the voting criteria, the Russian revolution and the rise of the Labour party.

This lead to a change in policy as the Conservatives had to be seen as one of the people and resulted in emphasis on social policy, without any threat to the established order of things.

1930s saw the threat of fascism and Nazism leading the conservatives to return their emphasis to traditional institutions e.g. monarchy and to adopt moderate politics.

Conservatism after 1945

Defeat in 1945 election by the labour party lead to a change in conservative outlook. Some were still upset with the appeasement policy towards Hitler and the last thing they wanted was to appease the working classes but change was necessary.

They had to look at the welfare state full employment both of which required state involvement. As did the international situation at the time with the Cold War and the end of the empire.

Politicians at the time said that it was a return to the ideas such as one nation and conservative paternalism.

1970s saw Labour domination and their movement to the left and Thatcher was the beneficiary of a new policy change.

However we saw a decrease in state intervention in the economy but and increase in law and order by the state.

Trade Unions were reduced in their power e.g. miners’ strike

Result was a widening of the social groups in terms of the haves and have nots, this caused great resentment from the one nation conservatives, with many claiming that Thatcher was not a real conservative but a neo-Liberal.

John Major had to try and reinvent the party after Thatcher and tried to develop a more human face but this was not entirely successful as many conservatives continued to fall out over issues such as Europe.

More worryingly for the party was the fact that they had very little to go against as they had historically, such as communism, socialism etc.

Now the political spectrum had moved and the former left had moved much more to the middle.

Wiliam Hague tried to make the party more socially acceptable and attract parts of society that had traditionally not been associated with the party, such as ethnic minorities.

However this caused uproar amongst the existing membership as they still believed in marriage heterosexuality and the church. And this libertarian strand of conservatism was left behind but the result was humiliating defeat in the election in 2001.

Success since then has come as a result of an unpopular Labour party or PM, for example the local election results, rather than an appealing Conservative party.

IDS did little to change the party and there was a little improvement in the election of 2005 under Michael Howard.

David Cameron has tried to change the party image and show its caring side in terms of social policies and has continued to be as inclusive as possible in terms of Tory MPs. He has been quoted as a “one nation conservative” and is no longer focusing on the middle class, perhaps this is why there is no discussion on lower taxation and the opposition he has expressed to a return to the grammar school system, instead supporting Labour’s idea of city academies.

The change in the Tory insignia to a green tree has seen the environment raised in prominence.

David Cameron as Prime Minister has had to balance his conservative leanings with the opinions of his coalition partners. However there have been some clear examples of his one nationist agenda, for example his support for gay marriage, his pushing of big society and his continued support for green issues and international aid. There have also been some clearly traditional conservative policies such as opposing house of lords and electoral reform, reduction of the top rate of income tax, public sector cuts and pushing for free schools. There were also plenty of traditional ideas in his manifestos which have yet to be made into policy such as the marriage tax allowance and his proposal for a referendum over changes to European treaties.


Although we must not just comment on conservatism in terms of a party it is interesting to see the different strands of conservatism that can be seen in the previous three leaders and their approach.

Conservatism can be identified by certain attitudes or values and can be traced back to the age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

Conservatism had not really changed but the circumstances around it have and therefore this ideology has had to react and alter itself in order to survive.

Although at the moment the party is struggling due to this ability to change it would be foolhardy to write them off as a political force.

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