Conservative Theory

Origins and development:

  • Arose in reaction to the growing pace of political, social and economic change – symbolised by the French revolution.
  • Conservative thought varies – UK conservatism draws heavily from Edmund Burke – advocated not blind resistance to change, but a prudent willingness to “change in order to conserve”.
  • Conservatism is unwilling to be tied down to a fixed system of ideas.

Core values:

  • Conservatism’s suspicion of change is often seen as an ‘attitude of mind’  as opposed to an ‘ism’ or ideology. However, conservatism is neither simply pragmatism nor mere opportunism – founded on a particular set of political beliefs about human beings, the societies they live in, and the importance of a distinctive set of political values. Excessive belief in ideology tends to lead to totalitarianism as the leaders who follow them pursue their goals ruthlessly.
  • Human nature – humans are imperfect: “philosophy of human imperfection” (O’Sullivan). Cannot be changed. Hobbes – civil war – feels that if people are left to their own devices, it would turn into war – desire for “power after power” is the primary human urge. Thatcher – necessary for people to be selfish. Drives change and society: e.g. business. Ideas of paternalism – Burke – sees society as organic: “little platoons” view. Less pessimistic view of human nature – still an element of control, however. Disraeli – need to help the poor.
  • People need to seek the familiar and like the security of knowing their place – so much so that they need order and will sacrifice personal liberty – Hobbes.
  • Humans – morally imperfect. Crime is not a product of inequality but bad character. Logical conclusion is to use the law and prison as a deterrent. People fear instability. They are drawn psychologically to the safe and familiar, and seek the security of ‘knowing their place’. Conservatives thus stress emphasise social order. Hobbes – sacrificing liberty in the cause of social order – order ensures stable and predictable life, liberty presents individuals with choices and can generate change and uncertainty.
  • Evolution not revolution – don’t like change – “the cure is not worse than the disease” (Oakeshott) – to do nothing may be more preferable to doing something.
  • Conservatives ground their ideas in tradition, empiricism and history, adopting a cautious, moderate and pragmatic approach – avoid dogmatic beliefs.
  • Order and security – Hobbes – without order, we would have an unpleasantly short life. Burke – in favour of ultimately retaining order and institutions. Thatcher – prison WORKS. Control is crucial. Necessity for order is to maintain institutions. Wouldn’t have hierarchy and structure of government without order – would be revolution otherwise.
  • Hierarchy and authority – society naturally hierarchical characterised by fixed of established social gradations. Social equality is undesirable and unachievable – are unequally distributed. Burke – “natural aristocracy” – talent and leadership are innate qualities that cannot be acquired through self-advancement.
  • Authority – from above. Leadership and discipline are crucial. Various classes and groups that make up society have specific roles. Discipline is a willing and healthy respect for authority.  Authoritarian conservatives state authority is absolute and unquestionable. Most believe, however, believe authority should be exercised with limits.
  • Some people are born with greater ability than others – Burke believed that there was a huge social responsibility that the working class never had which the upper classes had to bear. Though the working class may not enjoy the same living standards, they do not have the livelihoods of other men resting on their shoulders. Hierarchy and organicism have thus invested in traditional conservatism a pronounced tendency towards paternalism.
  • Inequality – acceptance of its existence. Burke – no attempt to combat it. Disraeli – makes a political statement to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. One-nationism.
  • View that some people are better than others. Thatcher – meritocratic society. Inequality is good – pushes you to strive to achieve more.
  • Tradition – Burke – God created the earth – we should not tamper.  Tradition reflects the accumulated wisdom of the past, also creates social cohesion and a feeling of rootedness. Change is uncertain and to be feared. Most conservatives do not base this belief on divinity, however – Burke – society is a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born”. G.K. Chesterton – “tradition [gives] votes to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors. It is a democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around” – accumulated wisdom of the past.
  • Also venerate tradition because it generates a sense of identity – established customs are familiar and reassuring. Rootedness and belonging which is stronger because it is historically based. Generates social cohesion by linking people to the past and providing them with a collective sense of who they are. Change is a journey into the unknown. Tradition encompasses all customs and social practices that are familiar and generate security and belonging.
  • Pragmatism – goes against the idea that conservatism is fully opposed to change. Needs to be a working relationship between the governed and government.
  • Individualism – choice, opportunity and self-fulfilment. State has an opportunity to enhance and improve peoples’ lives. Also implies sense of privacy. Clear distinction between private and public spheres. Best environment for individualism is state of control – a nomocratic (ruled by law) society.
  • Organic society – humans are dependent and security-seeking creatures. Individual cannot be separated from society, but is part of the social groups that nurture him or her – negative freedom results in the individual suffering from anomie (weakening of values and normative rules – associated with feelings of isolation) Durkheim. Freedom involves “doing one’s duty”.
  • Rise of the New Right weakened support within conservatism – “There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families” – Thatcher.
  • Property – property provides security – ownership gives people a sense of confidence and assurance. Those who possess property are also more likely to respect other peoples’ proper – property owners have a ‘stake’ in society – maintaining law and order – promotes conservative values. Deeper reason – property can be an extension of an individual’s personality. Why burglary is so frowned upon – individuals feel personally violated – home is personal and intimate. Thatcher allowed council house owners to buy it outright – gets rid of class system.
  • Liberal New Right support a liberal view of property, but conservatives believe like all rights, property entails obligations. Much land is passed down from older generations, and the present generation is the custodian of the wealth of the nation and has a duty to preserve and protect it.

Types of conservatism include:

  • Authoritarian
  • Paternalism
  • One Nationism
  • Libertarian
  • New Right – Neo-liberalism & Neo-conservatism

Authoritarian conservatism

  • Thomas Hobbes – Writing at the time of the English Civil War, he was a fierce critic of change. His views on social contract were that the people needed protection in order that life was not to be “brutish and short”. In return for this they must accept restrictions on their freedoms.
  • Joseph de Maistre – fierce critic of French Revolution but in contrast to Burke he wished to restore absolute power to the hereditary monarch. He was a reactionary and unprepared to accept any reform of the ancient regime. Political philosophy based on willing and complete subordination to ‘the master’. Even argued that a supreme spiritual power should rule in the person of the Pope. Central concern: preservation of order – provides people with safety and security. Revolution and reform weakens the chains that bind people and lead to a descent into chaos and oppression.
  • Other cases of authoritarian-conservatives look to newly enfranchised masses for political support – Napoleon appealed to smallholding peasantry – promise of economic prosperity and social reform. Juan Peron of Argentina appealed to the “shirtless ones”. Peronist regime was populist in that it moulded its policies according to the instincts and wishes of the common people – most associated with fascism than conservatism.

Traditional/Paternalistic conservatism

  • Traced back to Burke. Change can be natural or inevitable (drawn from French rev.) and should not be resisted: “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”.
  • Cautious, modest and pragmatic – reflects a suspicion of fixed principles whether revolutionary or reactionary.
  • Ian Gilmour – “the wise conservative travels light” – the values that conservatives hold most dear (tradition, order, authority, property) will only be safe if policy is developed in the light of practical circumstances and experiences. Not held down by dogmas. “Change in order to conserve”.
  • Oakeshott and his dislike of rigid ideologies; conservatism is “a conversation not an argument”
  • Pragmatic conservatives support neither the state nor individual, but are prepared to support either, or both...depending on ‘what works’.


  • Benjamin Disraeli – emphasis of the principle of social obligation in stark contrast to extreme individualism then dominant within the political establishment.
  • Drew attention to the danger of Britain being divided into “two nations: the Rich and the Poor”. Combination of prudence and principle.
  • Growing social inequality contains the seeds of revolution – poor and oppressed working class would not simply accept its misery. Reform = sensible – stemming the tide of the revolution, it would ultimately be in the interests of the rich, particularly with changes in the voting franchise.
  • Moral values – wealth and privilege brings social obligations, in particular a responsibility for the poor. Drew on the organic conservative belief that society is held together by an acceptance of duty and obligations. Society is naturally hierarchical, but also that inequalities of wealth and social privilege give rise to an inequality of responsibilities. Wealthy and powerful must shoulder the burden of social responsibility – price of the privilege. Based on the feudal principle of noblesse oblige, obligation of the aristocracy to be honourable and generous. This idea should be expressed in an increasingly industrialised world in social reform.
  • Second Reform Act of 1867 – right to vote for the working class and reforms that improved housing conditions and hygiene.
  • Randolph Churchill – ‘Tory democracy’ (‘Tory’ denoting a commitment to pre-industrial, hierarchic and paternal values) – need for traditional institutions to enjoy a wider base of social support – achieved by winning working-class votes. One-nation conservatism is a form of Tory welfarism.
  • 1950s and 60s – Keynesian social democracy – managing economy in line with the goal of full employment and supporting enlarged welfare provision. Based on the need for non-ideological ‘middle way’ between laissez-faire liberalism and socialist state planning. Therefore the way of moderation – balance between rampant individualism and overbearing collectivism. Macmillan – “planned capitalism” – mixed system which combines state ownership, regulation or control of certain aspects of economic activity with the drive and initiative of private enterprise.
  • Resurfaced later as ‘compassionate conservatism’ – however, paternalistic conservatism only provides a basis for social and economic intervention. Purpose of one-nationism is simply to consolidate hierarchy, and its wish to improve the conditions of the less well-off is limited to the desire to ensure that the poor no longer pose a threat to the established order.

New Right

  • Directly challenged Keynesian-welfarist orthodoxy. Marriage between two apparently contrasting ideological traditions – first of these is classic liberal economics – Adam Smith – revived as a critique of ‘big’ government and economic and social intervention: called liberal new right/neoliberalism. Second element is traditional and pre-Disraelian social theory – defence of order, authority and disciple: called conservative new right/neoconservatism.
  • New Right attempts to fused economic libertarianism with state and social authoritarianism.
  • Radicalism is evident in its robust efforts to ‘roll back’ interventionist government – liberal new right – dismissal of tradition. Nevertheless, it is reactionary in that both the liberal and conservative new right hark back to a ‘golden age’ of supposed economic propriety and moral fortitude. Also makes an appeal to tradition – neoconservative ‘traditional values’.

Liberal New Right

  • Reawakened interest in earlier, free-market thinking. Liberal aspects mostly drawn from classical.  Amounts to a restatement of the case for a minimal state. Summed up as ‘private, good; public, bad’.
  • Anti-statist – regarded as a realm of coercion and restriction: collectivism restricts individual initiative and saps self-respect. Faith is placed on individual and market – individuals should be self-reliant and make rational choices in their own interests. The market is a mechanism through which the sum of individual choices will lead to progress.
  • Resurrected classical economics of Smith, Ricardo, Hayek, Nozick and Milton Friedman. The latter two challenged the very idea of ‘planned’ economy – allocating resources in a complex, industrialised economy was too difficult for and state bureaucrats to achieve successfully. However, the market acts as the central nervous system of the economy, reconciling the supply of goods and services with the demand for them. In the light of unemployment and inflation in 70s, they argued that the government was the cause of economic problems, not the cure.
  • Friedman argued, in contrast to Keynesianism, that there was a “natural rate of unemployment” which the government can’t combat, and that employing Keynesian theory to combat it damages it more – notably inflation.
  • Inflation threatens entire basis of a market economy because in reducing the faith in money, people are discouraged from economic activity. Solution to inflation is to control supply of money by cutting public spending – practised by Reagan and Thatcher.
  • Opposed to mixed economy and public ownership. Transferral of industries from public to private. Nationalisation is inherently inefficient as they are not disciplined by profit motive.
  • ‘Supple-side’ of economy – governments should foster growth by providing conditions that encourage producers to produce: main block is high taxes – discourage enterprise and infringe property rights.
  • Commitment to individual liberty: defending freedom against ‘creeping collectivism’. Negative freedom – removal of external restraints on individual: ‘rolling back’ the state and social welfare. Welfare state creates ‘culture of dependency’ – saps initiative and enterprise and robs people of dignity. Cause of disadvantage, not cure. Thatcher – “no such thing as society”. Nozick condemned all policies of welfare and redistribution as a violation of property rights. Transferring justly acquired property without consent amounts to “legalised theft”.

Conservative New Right

  • Defined by a fear of social fragmentation which was seen as a product of liberal reform and spread of ‘permissiveness’. Seek to strengthen leadership and authority in society.
  • Emphasis on authority allied to heightened sensitivity to the fragility of society demonstrates that neoconservatism has its roots in traditional/organic conservatism. Differs to paternalistic – neocons look to strengthen community by restoring authority and social discipline. 
  • Two principal domestic concerns: law and order and public morality. People want and need security – provided by authority. Permissiveness undermines established structures of society by questioning authority, this was particularly prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. Subscribe to a form of social authoritarianism – strengthening of the family. Matched by state authoritarianism – tough stance on law and order.
  • Desire to reassert moral foundations of politics. Thatcher – ‘Victorian values’. Freedom to choose one’s own morals leads to the choice of immoral views. Choice of morals undermines cohesion of society.
  • Link between domestic and foreign policy – concern about nation and the desire to strengthen national identity in the fact of threats from within and without. Nation binds society giving civic identity which is all the stronger from being rooted in history. Growth of multiculturalism weakens the bonds of nationhood – often been therefore in the forefront for stronger controls on immigrations.
  • Main features of neocon foreign policy is in terms of an ongoing struggle between good and evil. Leo Strauss linked the ‘crisis of the West’ to the loss of wisdom of ancient philosophers. During its earliest phase foreign policy was defined by robust anti-communism.
  • Influenced by Samuel Huntington’s theory about ‘clash of civilisation’ – US hegemony should be preserved through a ‘new’ imperialism: build up of military strength, spread of US-style democracy throughout the world (Wilsonian internationalism), assertive, interventionist foreign policy that promotes liberal-democracy.

Liberal New Right

Conservative New Right






Natural hierarchy

Minimal state intervention

Strong state on law & order


Traditional values



Classical Liberalism

Traditional Conservatism


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