To what extent are there tensions within conservatism over its support for the individual and its commitment to the community?

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Essay: To what extent are there tensions within conservatism over its support for the individual and its commitment to the community?


I wrote this document some time ago and it clearly needs some updating to include developments in Conservative Party ideology and policy during the leaderships respectively of David Cameron and Theresa May. I have now written a a new document on Conservatism Ideology, Economic Inequality and Poverty and it should be possible to adapt some of the information therein to the above essay title.  The new document is rather long but I hope that the links in the document will help you to navigate to specific information which may help you even if you do not actually choose to read the entire document! Click here a link to the new document entitled Conservatism, Ideology, Economic Inequality and Poverty.


Analysts of conservative ideology have suggested that it contains several variants including, for example, traditional conservatism, romantic conservatism, paternalistic one nation conservatism and New Right conservatism and that one can see some differences among these variants in the extent to which the various individual elements of conservative ideology are accepted. At the same time, however, it is recognised that the different variants of conservatism also overlap as is shown in the following comment from Andrew Vincent [Modern Political Ideologies 1992] that “to make sense of conservative thought, it is necessary to consider a fivefold classification: traditionalist, romantic, paternalist, liberal and New Right Conservatives. The latter is the most recent and problematic area. Yet none of these provides a totally airtight category. There is much overlap and much of the time it is a matter of emphasis.” In this essay I shall concentrate on the possible relevant tensions within traditionalist conservatism, paternalist One Nation conservatism and New Right conservatism

Traditional conservatives have adopted an essentially pessimistic view of human nature which is seen as in several respects flawed, imperfect and corruptible and they believe that individuals differ naturally in their talents and abilities. Traditional conservatives believe that individuals should have some individual freedom to develop their talents and abilities within a basically capitalist system based upon private enterprise and profit but they believe also that these individuals must be constrained to some extent by governments committed to the preservation of law and order [as classical liberals would agree] but also through respect for traditional institutions and values which act as another restriction on liberal individualism.

Nations consist of many local communities which themselves contain  families, churches, schools and other associations and  traditional conservatives argue that  individuals must learn to conform to the tried and trusted traditional norms and values of their society which are to be inculcated via the family, the church and the education system. Whereas classic liberals are all in favour of free individualistic decision making, conservatives suggest that this kind of individualism is a recipe for near anarchy and that individual freedom, albeit limited, can best be guaranteed via respect for traditional norms, values and institutions and by the activities of the state.

Some conservatives have often drawn on so-called organic analogies between the nature of the human body and the nature of societies as a whole to defend their support for the preservation of traditional institutions and values. In organic analogies just as the human body consists of inter-related limbs and organs whose development occurs in accordance with biological laws and whose functions are co-ordinated to enable the whole body to function effectively so too societies are seen as organic wholes in which individuals and existing social institutions are interconnected and each contribute to the stability of societies as a whole.

Long standing social institutions such as families, churches, schools and political systems must have continued to exist because they fulfil some useful functions and radical social changes to existing social institutions should be avoided since they may interfere in unexpected ways with the stability of society as a whole. For conservative supporters of the organic society social change should be gradual and involve only minor adaptation of existing social institutions in accordance with changes in social circumstances.

It is recognised that differences in talents and abilities will result inevitably in differences in power prestige and wealth but differences in wealth are economically beneficial for all members of society because they result in economic incentive, greater economic efficiency and higher living standards for all while political, social and economic elites are assumed to recognise that “noblesse oblige” and that great privilege also brings great responsibility and duty to care for the disadvantaged and to serve the community as a whole.

Therefore in the traditional conservative world view there are potential tensions between “support for the individual and respect for the community” but traditional conservatives argue that they can be resolved effectively because unbridled individualism is restricted by strong, if limited, government, by the necessity for individuals to operate within a social framework underpinned by traditional values and institutions and by the willingness of traditional elites to recognise their responsibilities for the well-being of the disadvantaged.

All conservatives are supporters of the capitalist system based upon private enterprise and private profit but paternalist or One Nation conservatives have not been supporters of the unregulated laissez faire which was supported by classic liberals believing instead the necessity for some state regulation of the economy in order to moderate some of the adverse consequences of excessive economic individualism for communities as a whole.

The origins of One Nation Conservatism are  associated originally with the political strategy of  Benjamin Disraeli [Conservative Prime Minister 1868 and 1874-1880 who argued in the middle to late C19th that laissez faire capitalism left to its own devices would generate excessive economic inequalities which in Disraeli’s terms would divide the UK into “Two Nations” of rich and poor and that it was therefore desirable that the scope of government activity should be extended to encompass legislation to improve working conditions, housing and public health so as to create a more harmonious “One Nation” society.

Clearly Disraeli was describing the nation as a community which must be protected from the adverse consequences of liberal economic individualism but it has been widely argued that the scope of his reforms in practice resulted in only moderate improvement of working class living standards suggesting continuing support for laissez faire Disraeli’s thinking.  Disraeli hoped that the workers, persuaded by his rhetoric of One Nation unity and imperial expansion rather than by the radical rhetoric of class division, would happily take their place in the One Nation Community that Disraeli was offering. However it could also be argued that Disraeli was trying to resolve ideological tensions within conservatism but that the extent to which a national community could be said to exist in the Disraelian era was questionable.

From the late C19th conservative nationalism  became a very important element of Conservative ideology as the Conservative party sought to persuade working class people that they were valued members of the national community and that they could safely dissociate themselves from radical politics because the Conservative party could be relied upon to safeguard their interests. Conservative nationalism would later lead to tensions in the Conservative Party, particularly over Europe and immigration. [These issues are discussed in an appendix to this essay.]

By the mid C20th in the aftermath of the Labour general election victory of 1945 so-called Right Progressive Conservative party politicians such as Butler, Macleod, Macmillan and Hogg harked back to the Disraeli tradition of One Nation in their pragmatic acceptance of the expansion of state activity ushered in via by the 1945-51 Labour government programmes involving selective nationalisation, expansion of the welfare state, Keynesian economic policies and tripartite decision making

Supporters of One nation Conservatism claimed that they maintained a careful balance between support for the individual and commitment to the community. They ensured that the most profitable sectors of the economy would remain in private control and they supported the continuation of economic inequality believing that private property was a pre-requisite for liberty and that capitalist economic inequality could best promote economic growth and rising living standards. However they also recognised that full employment and the expansion of the welfare state were necessary to improve health, housing, education and to reduce poverty if the UK was to be a cohesive One Nation community It may be argued also that they signalled their respect for traditional institutions such as the family, the school and the church which were also to inhibit unbridled individualism and to maintain the stability of the community as a whole.

However critics have argued both in relation to Benjamin Disraeli and the more recent One Nation Conservatives that their strategies were devoted more to the maintenance of individualistic capitalism than to the creation of a One Nation Community and that while this apparent commitment to the community was necessary to secure electoral success its practical effects on social class inequality were limited: even though the strategy  did involve some reduction in economic inequality, social class differences in income , wealth, power and opportunity remained substantial.  More radical socialist critics would indeed argue that true commitment to the community cannot possibly exist within a capitalist system which in their view is inevitably based upon competition, exploitation and class conflict.

Once again conservatives expressed an ideology supporting policies  which would defend the national community against the adverse consequences of unregulated laissez faire based upon unregulated private individualism but once again it could be noted that acceptance of this greater role for the state was partly an electoral necessity and that it in no way challenged the existence of the capitalist system based on private property ownership and even though it did involve some reduction in economic inequality, social class differences in income , wealth, power and opportunity remained substantial.

The 1970s saw the growing significance of New Right conservative thinking and  Mrs Thatcher’s version of New Right ideology has involved a combination of neo-liberal and neo-Conservative ideology in that as well as accepting the importance of the market mechanism she and her supporters have believed that a strong state would be necessary to re-establish law and order, to maintain law and order in the face of significant industrial disputes such as the miners’ strike of 1984 -85, to increase expenditure on defence in order to counter the perceived USSR threat and strengthen the role of central government in the provision of state education which was believed to be failing to meet the needs of the capitalist economy. Consequently Andrew Gamble has argued, very importantly, that Mrs Thatcher’s beliefs may be summarised as involving a belief in the free economy and the strong state.

Mrs Thatcher and her supporters were very critical of the Right Progressive tendency which dominated the Conservative Party during the period of the so-called post war consensus prior to Mrs. Thatcher's ascendancy. The Thatcherites claim that successive Conservative governments of 1951-1964 more or less accepted the policies and institutional frameworks developed by the Labour governments of 1945-1951 which resulted in the so-called post-war "Butskellite consensus between Labour and Conservative governments from 1945 until perhaps 1970.

According to the Thatcherites the Right Progressive Conservatives had encouraged the growth of an excessively bureaucratic state; they supported economically inefficient nationalised industries at the expense of the private sector and they relied on flawed Keynesian techniques of macroeconomic management. Their  reliance on tripartite or corporatist bargaining processes undermined the ability of government itself to manage the political process; they had helped to destroy individual initiative because of their acceptance of high rates of income taxation which reduce incentives to work, save and invest; and they had permitted the growth of an  expensive, inefficient Welfare States which create exactly the kind of dependency culture which prevents individuals from helping themselves possibly leading to the development of a so-called Underclass.  In effect, because Conservative governments between 1951-64 and 1970-74 had made no serious attempts to reverse the Labour policies of 1945-51, subsequent Labour administrations of 1964-1970 and 1974-1979 were able to push the UK even further along the road toward what the New Right regarded as the eventual socialist nightmare

Supporters of the neo-liberal elements of New Right ideology argued that a greater emphasis on individualism especially in economic affairs was necessary to secure greater economic efficiency which ultimately would generate rising living standards for all. Therefore nationalised industries were to be privatised as a means of securing greater reliance on the market mechanism; rates of income taxation [especially the higher marginal rates of income tax paid by higher income earners] were to be reduced in order to increase incentives; rates of unemployment benefit were to be reduced in order to increase self –reliance and restrict the growth of the so-called welfare-dependent underclass; trade union power was to be reduced and Keynesian policies were to be discarded and the goal of full employment abandoned as Mrs Thatcher concentrated on the reduction of the rate of inflation for which Keynesian policies were held partly responsible.

One Nation or Right Progressive Conservatives, [some of whom were still in Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet until she dismissed them] were extremely critical of these neo-liberal economic policies. Thus they pointed out that in the course of the 1980s unemployment rose rapidly to well over three million and they claimed that economic inequality and poverty were increasing as a direct result of Thatcherite economic and social policies. The growth of industrial strikes and urban unrest including urban riots suggested to the Right Progressives and to millions of non-Conservatives that the tensions between individualism and community were at their greatest during the premiership of Mrs Thatcher.  For the Right Progressives a return to their variant of conservatism was essential.

However Mrs Thatcher and her supporters famously argued that “there is no alternative” and that increased unemployment was a cost which had to be accepted in order to restore the competitiveness of the UK economy on which a healthy community life ultimately depended. She therefore denied that neo-liberal economic policies would undermine community stability: they were the only way of guaranteeing community stability in the long term. Not all of the millions made unemployed in the 1980s agreed with her

It was argued also mostly by more traditionalist conservatives that neo-liberal ideology could also undermine the support for traditional institutions and values on which community cohesion depended. In neo-liberal ideology the increased employment of married women was desirable because it would lead to greater meritocracy and individuals should also have the freedom to engage in pre-marital sexual relationships and same sex relationships and to make use of pornography and to use class A drugs if they so wished. However Mrs Thatcher while she supported increased employment opportunities for women to some extent did not accept other elements of neo-liberal ideology because she was influenced also by the neo-Conservatives aspects of New Right thinking.

Neo-conservative supporters of the New Right supported the traditional conservative beliefs in strong government to secure law and order and in traditional institutions  to inculcate traditional attitudes and values which would to some extent inhibit what they saw as excessive individualism .Thus neo –conservatives defend traditional approaches to law and order involving "appropriate" punishment rather than leniency; support for the traditional nuclear family involving support for traditional gender roles and opposition to divorce, abortion, single parenthood and same sex relationships; support for traditional religious beliefs and for respect for teacher authority within schools; opposition to "excessive " portrayal of sex and violence in the mass media. Much of the neo-conservative support for traditional values in general may be linked to their opposition to the liberal permissiveness of attitudes which they believe have become widespread in UK society especially since the 1960s

It has been argued that neo-liberal and neo-conservative policies are to some extent complementary and to some extent contradictory. Thus neo-liberal policies resulted in the short term in increasing unemployment, poverty and economic inequality leading to militant industrial disputes and urban unrest but these were to some extent constrained by the neo-Conservative policy of strengthening the police force. However it could also be argued that the neo-liberal policies which led to a decline in working class communities in inner city areas and mining communities have resulted in the declining quality of family life, declining support for traditional social disorder all of which are abhorred by neo-Conservatives.

It is of course no simple matter to reconcile increased individualism with commitment to the community in an era of very high unemployment such as occurred in the 1980s. However especially since 1992 the UK economy has been far more stable but the Conservatives have been out of office since 1997. Their electoral prospects have improved considerably especially since the autumn of 2007 and David Cameron has developed a range of ideas which might in principle help to resolve the tensions between individualism and commitment to the community. We shall see.

The Conservatives and Nationalism

[Nationalism is an extremely important component of conservative ideology but I have not integrated all of these ideas into the above essay]

From the late C19th onwards Conservative ideology and policy has been linked closely with nationalist ideology. In the case of the UK Benjamin Disraeli based his political strategy around the concept of “One Nation Conservatism” and argued that social reforms were necessary in order to reduce the poverty and inequality associated with what he saw as the 2 nations: the rich and the poor. In this respect he may have been guided to some extent by altruistic principle but he believed also that if the working classes could be encouraged to respect existing national institutions and values and to see themselves as valued citizens of the UK nation rather than as disadvantaged members of a poverty-stricken working class within that nation, the prospects for social stability would be much improved and the dangers of social revolution minimised. To this effect he also aimed to expand the scope of the British Empire as a symbol of British greatness designed to strengthen nationalist sentiments.

Andrew Heywood comments: “The conservative character of nationalism is maintained by an appeal to tradition and history: nationalism becomes thereby a defence for traditional institutions and a traditional way of life. Conservative nationalism is essentially nostalgic and backward looking, reflecting on a past age of national glory or triumph.”

UK Conservatives for many years were strong supporters of maintaining the constitutional links between Great Britain and Ireland and subsequently after the partition of Ireland between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. By the 1990s however they showed their pragmatism in their readiness to make concessions to Irish nationalist opinion in the early stages of the Irish Peace Process which led ultimately to the Good Friday Agreement negotiated by the Labour government. Many Conservatives have also opposed Scottish and Welsh devolution on the grounds that it would undermine the unity of the UK but they have also increasingly come to recognise that support for devolution might be a way of preventing the outright Scottish and Welsh independence desired by the Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

Nationalist ideology has also influenced Conservative Party attitudes to Europe. The Conservatives tried unsuccessfully to join the then EEC [now the EU]  in the early 1960s but did eventually join in 1973 under the Conservative premiership of Edward Heath but since then there have been ongoing disputes within the Conservative Party surrounding the appropriate relationships with Europe

Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher the UK did sign up to the Single European Act which provided for greater trade liberalisation throughout the European Union but Mrs Thatcher was also extremely wary that the growing powers of the European Union would undermine the national sovereignty of the UK and the British way of life and in this she was supported by the neo-Conservative tendency within the New Right. Pro-Europeans, including pro-Europeans within the Conservative party such as Kenneth Clarke believe that the pooling of sovereignty within the EU is in the national interest, Divisions over Europe continue within the Conservative Party.

Nationalism and Conservatism intersect also around the issue of immigration. Andrew Heywood comments “Conservative reservations about immigration stem from the belief that multiculturalism leads to instability and conflict. As stable and successful societies must be based on shared values and a common culture, immigration especially from societies with different religious and other traditions should either be firmly restricted or minority ethnic groups should be encouraged to assimilate into the culture of the host nation. ” In the more extreme versions of conservative nationalism associated with the BNP or the French national front there may be calls for voluntary or forced migration of minority groups.

Others argue that immigration can actually strengthen the UK economy and that multicultural diversity and pluralism contribute to a much more diverse and interesting cultural mix within the UK.

However it has been argued also that Mrs Thatcher’s version of New Right ideology has involved a combination of neo-liberal and neo-Conservative ideology in that as well as accepting the importance of the market mechanism she and her supporters have believed that a strong state would be necessary to re-establish law and order, to maintain law and order in the face of significant industrial disputes such as the miners’ strike of 1984 -85, to increase expenditure on defence in order to counter the perceived USSR threat and strengthen the role of central government in the provision of state education which was believed to be failing to meet the needs of the capitalist economy. Consequently Andrew Gamble has argued, very importantly, that Mrs Thatcher’s beliefs may be summarised as involving a belief in the free economy and the strong state.