Conservatism: reaction to fragmentation

Conservatism became a recognised school of political thought in during the early part of the nineteenth century, and was largely seen to imply a pessimistic view of public affairs and an opposition to ideas and radical fervour of the 1789 French Revolution. Conservative ideas are principally ‘reactionary’, since they arose in protest of the revolutionary ideas and principles of equality advocated in France at the time. Edmund Burke, perhaps the father of conservatism, strongly opposed challenges to the social order and saw revolution as a threat to tradition and authority. This is an inherent theme of all Conservative traditions, and the principle of ‘change in order to conserve’ runs throughout the history of Conservative thought. However, as with all ideologies, history has altered the course of Conservative philosophy, creating various strands which have been developed over time. The principle ‘branches’ which have grown from the ‘tree’ of conservatism include: traditional conservatism, ‘one nation’ conservatism, libertarian conservatism and the New Right. Each of the strands holds different opinions on issues such as economy, the role of the state and the make up of society. Critics of the ideology have stated that these differing attitudes within the ideology have created a school of thought which is fragmented and lacking in the solidarity which other, more left-wing ideologies pride themselves on. This essay attempts to follow this theory and demonstrate how conservatism has developed from a reactionary philosophy with solid, pragmatic ideals, to a fragmented, conflicting ideology which is unable to move with modern times.

Traditional conservatism favours the ‘tried and tested’ over all else. Tradition is the accumulated wisdom of the past, and any attempt to question it should be thwarted. This illustrates the traditional conservative view of authority and the state: people must be governed, since they are unable to regulate themselves; the government has a duty to control the markets and economy, and tough sentences are the only way in which crime and disorder can be dealt with. Traditionalists have opposed social and political changes such as rights for women, racial integration, moves to allow abortion and other unorthodox ideas. Constitutional changes are also deemed suspicious. Traditional conservatives have opposed devolution to regional assemblies, electoral reform and the introduction of a Bill of Rights, seeing them as a disruption to the normal and traditional method of government. In essence, traditionalist ideas are derived from the values and attitudes of the aristocracy and land-owners and largely associated with the rich and upper class ‘bourgeoisie’.

‘One nation’ conservatism was developed by Benjamin Disraeli during the mid-nineteenth century, in an effort to broaden support for the Conservative party. Society was in the midst of an ‘ideological unravelling’, largely brought about by the industrial revolution which had created large disparities of wealth within Britain. Disraeli saw the best possible way to form a better and more united Britain in encouraging the wealthy upper classes to aid the lower classes financially and morally. This, Disraeli believed, would avoid any potential, lasting damage in the form of a social revolution, which seemed to be a serious concern of the upper, ruling classes. It also draws on the feudal principle of ‘noblesse oblige’ – the obligation of the ruling classes to be honourable and generous. This was, therefore, the morally right thing to do, and evokes the paternalistic sentiment at the heart of Conservative ideology. Disraeli advocated the need for social unification and was responsible for the Second Reform Act of 1867, which extended the right to vote to the working classes and other social reforms which improved housing conditions and hygiene. ‘One-nation’ conservatives are seen as ‘progressives’, since they are willing to reform in order to advance. In some ways, ‘One-nationism’ draws on some socialist traditions – in particular the Beveridge welfare state, the importance of a social safety net to deal with poverty and a limited amount of redistribution of income and wealth. It also draws upon Keynesian methods of economic management and government intervention to regulate markets.

Libertarian conservatism is influenced by both traditional conservative and classical liberal ideas. Libertarian (or liberal) conservatives have not simply adopted the liberal ideology, but have drawn many of its doctrines from the writings and theories of classical liberal economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Therefore, liberal conservatives believe that there should be as little government intervention in the economy as possible – seeing it as a self-regulating force which must be left to its own devices. However, this is as far as the ‘liberal’ part of the philosophy goes – for liberal conservatives do not believe that moral decisions should be left to the people, who need a strong government to regulate their behaviour and impose authority upon them. Liberal conservatives also oppose extensions to the welfare state, since their view upon human nature inclines them to believe that people will take advantage of the system and a culture of idleness will develop.

The final stem of conservatism is the New Right, which developed from Thatcher’s Conservative government of the 1980s. The New Right can be further split into two camps: Liberals and Conservatives. The Liberals, wish to bring back liberal, laissez-faire economics and the free market; the Conservatives hark back to the ‘golden age’ of the nineteenth century, with its moral resilience and hypothetical financial opulence. However, as a collective power, the New Right subscribes to policies such as greater tax cuts, censorship in the media, a curb to immigration and repatriation. It also strongly opposes welfarism – seeing it as a means to destroy man’s will, autonomy and initiative, and advocates the need for ‘Victorian values’ (Thatcher). New Right thinkers have condemned a permissive society – stating that the potential for misdemeanour is two fold: primarily, a liberal attitude towards morals and life-style could lead to the ‘wrong’ choice and a life of immorality; secondly the ability to choose for oneself could lead to diversity, which, in the eyes of the New Right, could lead to less cohesion in society and an uncontrollable nation. This leads to an important idea within the New Right: that multiculturalism is a threat, which weakens the bonds of nationalism and incites racial and ethnic conflict. This has lead to calls to halt, or at least limit, immigration to the UK, along with insurance that any foreigners will adopt the British way of life.

After discussing the various strands present within conservatism, it appears that there are some serious conflicts of interest between the differing political camps. Each of the main strands has its own conflicting opinions and views upon the various issues present in a modern society: whilst the liberal conservatives advocate a free market, based upon classical liberal economists, the ‘one nation’ conservatives call for a Keynesian, macro economic, interventionist and government regulated market; while the New Right pushes for the idea of the Darwinian ‘rugged individual’, the ‘one nationists’ advocate a welfare state with help for the poor and limited redistribution of wealth and while the liberal New Right demands equality of opportunity within the economy, the conservative New Right draws upon the idea of a natural hierarchy. In essence, conservatism as an ideology is being pulled in all directions: the traditionalists want to stay as they are; the New Right wants to move towards a more nationalist, right-wing approach; liberal conservatives want to push for a centralist position in politics and the ‘one nation’ conservatives wish to adopt more socially minded, paternalistic policies which would place them further left on the political spectrum. This conflict of interests within the ideology is reflected in the current state of the Conservative party. Once a political giant, it fell drastically in 1997 due to ideological conflicts between ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘consolidators’ within the party. The damage seems to be long lasting, and political commentator John Gray states that the Conservative party “no longer has a programme with the coherence of that elaborated by Thatcher”. This explains the current split between ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ in the party ranks, especially over issues such as Europe, electoral reform, House of Lords reform and immigration policy, its inability to create a role as a respectable and realistic ‘opposition’ for itself and the fact that the Conservatives have seen a vast amount of leaders come and go in recent years.

The Conservative party’s internal disputes are a clear reflection of the conflicting interests present within their ideology. How can a philosophy which states that society does not exist, and that the world is merely a collection of atomised, self-seeking and egotistical individuals, expect to formulate a coherent, forward thinking government with a positive and constructive outlook upon the future? Conservatives seem to be harking back to a supposed ‘golden age’: reminiscing on how life and society was once of a superior quality. The simple fact of the matter is that times have changed, and society continues to develop. By looking backwards, by conserving, we are living in denial. Any modern ideology must be willing to address current, relevant, real-life issues and look forwards to a brighter future, rather than stew in their own self pity and construct a philosophy based upon archaic systems of morality. In order to reconstruct itself ideologically, the modern Conservative party must collaborate its currently atomised forces and unite to create a collective force. Only when this has been done will conservatism be able to recollect its ideological prowess and become the truly great philosophy Edmund Burke intended it to be.