What is conservatism?

Michael Shaw examines the current state of conservatism as an ideology.

The very name ‘conservative’ would suggest that the person or group who hold and practice this ideology are hostile to political change. Indeed, most think of conservatives and conservatism to be centred on tradition, nostalgia and maintenance of the status quo. However, within conservatism you will find radical differences amongst those who describe themselves as conservatives and because of this there are continuously problems in defining conservatism.

If taken literally, conservatism would be an ideology centred around conserving what conservatives view as important values, institutions and aspects of society that have stood the test of history. It is true that many conservatives fit this bill and are hostile to political change (or at least sceptical of it). However, there are continuous examples to prove that it is possible for someone to self-style themselves as conservative even if they have tendencies to advocate even radical reforms and change. A stark example of divisions within conservatism would be to compare Benjamin Disraeli, who fits what the conservative ideology would encapsulate if taken literally, and Margaret Thatcher and the rise of the New Right. Disraeli was almost intensely conservative and he infamously rejected sanctions against the Ottoman Empire in the face of international pressure, preferring to maintain the relationship rather than risk uncertainty. Margaret Thatcher on the other hand brought sweeping change to the Conservative Party and indeed the country.

Thatcher believed in what was known as the New-Right. The right had reinvented itself – inspired by F.A. Hayek and Milton Freidman’s view of the economy and society, the right was no longer a home to just romantic conservatives but also to Classical Liberalism reinvented – Neo-Liberalism. The social and economic revolution that swept through Britain under the Neo-Liberal Thatcher was the very thing that conservatives would traditionally be horrified by. Indeed, “it is possible to argue that those who wish to unsettle established institutions are not genuine conservatives, no matter how they designate themselves.  This is why it is so difficult to conceptualise what the conservative movement is like today in order to ascertain the ideology’s attitude to political change. The New-Right created divisions within conservatism and some of these divisions were not unfounded. The old-fashioned Tories within the British Conservative Party confidently portrayed the New Right as a reinvention of the old Manchester School of liberalism from the nineteenth century. This portrayal perpetuated divisions between those who followed conservatism to the book and the New Right. Traditional conservatives see the Manchester School of liberalism as an evil which ideologically mislead the Conservative Party and did great damage to the party in the process. Indeed, these views would be echoed by academics: keen to point out that the New Right were radical and more easily comparable to classical liberals than Conservatives.

It is possible for someone to self-style themselves as conservative even if they have tendencies to advocate even radical reforms and change.

To entrench the conservative movement in the most basic of definitions would not be considerate of the vast and overwhelming changes history has enacted upon society. Whether these changes have been a result of natural changes in society or enacted politically by the antithesis of conservatism, it’s now important to recognise within the conservative family, many do not fit the conservative stereotype. Indeed, some of the most avowed conservatives today are radicals. For example, the current Education Secretary is an avowed conservative but is undertaking the biggest reforms to education in recent memory. For all the differences and rifts that opposing ideologies would be keen to point out consensus among most conservatives today is to accept and recognise that conservatives can be either traditional or radical. Indeed, the reinvention of conservatism in much of the West this century shows a move to characterise the ideology in a manner that accommodates both types. To continue to perpetuate divisions would be ignorant of the vast historical variances in the ideology.

Conceptual problems do begin to resurface again if you were to be too sensitive to historical differences within the ideology. Harking back to the point about self-declared conservatives, it would be fair to reinforce that two radically different views of social change are at best ‘distant cousins’ and are like ‘members of an extended family with nothing in common besides a surname’. It is possible to suggest that in desperately seeking to accommodate the radical and the traditional, the conservative ideology has lost sight of its unique characteristics: leaving little if any barriers between itself and the other main ideologies of liberalism and socialism. Indeed, we see this exemplified throughout the West with traditional conservative movements struggling to define themselves against their opponents with the phrase ‘merely a cigarette paper between them’ often applied to political parties that are supposedly poles apart.

It is possible to suggest that in desperately seeking to accommodate the radical and the traditional, the conservative ideology has lost sight of its unique characteristics.

Despite all the variances within the conservative ideology and movement, there is reason to believe that there are enough similarities between the radial and the traditional to see them come together as a conservative family and ultimately reshape the ideology for the twenty-first century. What binds the two together is the commonly held view both the radical and the traditionalist have of inequality. It is this shared view of inequality that ultimately distinguishes the conservative ideology from its rivals. It is the shared scepticism of the ability of state-directed political change to bring about beneficial reforms to society that binds conservatives together today.


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