Main Elements of Conservatism

Russell Haggar

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Main Elements of Conservatism


Analysts of political ideologies have suggested that elements of conservative thought can be found in the work of Plato, Richard Hooker and Thomas Hobbes but it is generally agreed that the origins of modern conservatism derive from opposition to the Enlightenment and in particular to the French Revolution as demonstrated especially in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution.


The Term “Enlightenment” is used to refer to a chronological period between approximately 1740 and 1780 and has also been known as the “Age of Reason.” “It consisted, in essence, of the belief that the expansion of knowledge, the application of reason, and dedication to scientific method would result in the greater progress and happiness of humankind. The Enlightenment outlook was buoyant, reformist and humanitarian. The archetypal Enlightenment thinker was confident that the world is ultimately both rational and beneficent, that nature, including humanity, is essentially good or at least not innately depraved, and that people have the potential to improve themselves and their environment and to make the world a better place.” [Open University Course on The Enlightenment]


  1. Enlightenment thinkers drew especially on the scientific revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries to argue that traditional attitudes and values and , in some cases, the religious beliefs as expounded by the established church had  limited social progress and human happiness and that if humanity was to make further progress what was required was a greater emphasis on the use of the scientific method for the understanding of the natural world rather than reliance on irrational thinking of various kinds.
  2. Scientific inquiry and rational analysis could provide valid explanations of natural phenomena leading to scientific and technical developments which could improve living standards and hence human happiness
  3. Enlightenment social theorists began to argue similarly that the rational analysis of societies could lead also to social and political reform which could improve the human condition. These theorists helped to some extent to create the climate of opinion contributed to the American Revolutionary Wars of 1775-1783 and the French Revolution of 1789 although it must be emphasised that most Enlightenment thinkers espoused mildly liberal rather than radical views and few Enlightenment thinkers supported the later radical phase of the French Revolution.


It is clear therefore that The Enlightenment provided a major stimulus to the development of the ideology of liberalism with its critique of absolute monarchy sustained by the doctrine of the divine right of kings, established religion and traditional modes of behaviour and its support for individualism, rationalism and liberal democracy provided a major stimulus to the development of the ideology of liberalism and even to a lesser extent to the ideology of socialism.


This Enlightenment optimism was soon criticised by conservatives who claimed that the dangerous speculations of Enlightenment theorists had opened an intellectual can of worms which led ultimately to the Terror of the latter stages of the French Revolution. Also “romantic conservatives” claimed that the Enlightenment emphasis on science, rationality and calculation distracted attention from the importance of the emotional life which was, according to the romantics, even more central to human happiness. We shall pursue these conservative criticisms of the Enlightenment in more detail below.


By the late C18th British conservative ideas were represented in parliament by the so-called Tory Party and involved especially the defence of the Monarchy, landed aristocratic government and opposition to parliamentary reform. Following the 1832 Reform Act it became increasingly clear that if the Tory Party was to survive as a political force it would need to gain support also from the growing middle classes all of which resulted in a partial redefinition of conservative principles and the adoption of the new title “Conservative Party” in 1835.Further important revisions of conservative doctrine occurred under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli [xxdates], under the so-called Right Progressives [R. Butler, Q.Hogg, I. Maccleod, H.Macmillan and others] in the years following the Second World War, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher [1975-1990] and perhaps under the leadership of David Cameron.


Given its long history it should come as no surprise that there are considerable doctrinal variations within conservatism and different authors have proposed various classificatory schema to analyse these variations. For example Andrew Vincent [Modern Political Ideologies 1992] has stated 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.”


  • Conservatism and Human Nature


Many conservatives adopt an essentially pessimistic view of human nature which is seen as in several respects flawed, imperfect and corruptible. This overall view may derive in some cases [as nowadays among the religious Right in the USA] from a religious belief in original sin and in others from more secular beliefs in human frailty. In the conservative view human beings may be seen as driven not by reason but by basic emotions, impulses and self interest and their activities can be explained more in terms of their individual human frailty than in terms of the social disadvantages of poverty and inequality which are given greater emphasis by socialists as is seen by the differences in conservative and socialist approaches to the explanation of crime, poverty and educational achievement.


Conservatives argue that social reality is extremely complex and that human beings lack the intellectual capacity to understand fully the social forces affecting the development of human societies. For this reason they argue that grand programmes for social change such as those favoured by new liberals and socialists should be avoided and that social change should proceed only gradually in accordance with changing circumstances.


However given the limitations of human nature conservatives reject the individualism of classic liberals and follow Thomas Hobbes in arguing that some government of the individual is clearly necessary in order to promote social order. Conservatives emphasise also that individuals vary considerably in their talents and abilities and they are therefore supporters of elite government in which the responsibilities of government are allocated to those with the appropriate talents and abilities. In the C18th and C19th many conservatives continued to support government by a landed aristocratic elite but in the course of the C20th have come to accept that elite government will be acceptable to the people only if it is chosen on a relatively democratic and meritocratic basis. However modern conservatives are no great supporters of popular sovereignty believing that political decisions should be taken by government elites best able to take such decisions effectively. In actual practice socialist and liberal leader seem to share this view.


As we shall see below the conservative emphasis on natural inequality encourages them also to support economic inequality.


  • Conservatives and the Organic Society: Gradual Change, Pragmatism and Respect for Tradition.


Some conservatives often draw on so-called organic analogies between the nature of the human body and the nature of societies as a whole and these analogies contain important linkages to conservative analyses of human nature, individualism, traditionalism, rationalism, social order and social change. 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. Therefore given the belief of some conservatives in the limits of human rationality and their inability to devise effective blueprints for wide ranging social change 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.


The organic analogy may be linked to the analysis of the individual within society. Whereas classic liberals believe strongly in individual rationality and argue therefore in favour of the maximum degree of individual freedom which is compatible with the freedom of others, the conservative’s more pessimistic view of human nature suggests 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.


We must note, however, that although the organic analogy has played an important part in conservative doctrine its limitations have also been widely recognised including by many conservatives. For example critics of the organic analogy point out that the various institutions of society may not operate in the interests of society as a whole but in the interests, say, of white upper class males against black, working class females and that some social institutions are opposed to other social institutions—for example trade unions may sometimes be opposed to employers’ associations. For both of these reasons we cannot easily analyse social conflict using the analogy of the human body.


It has been argued that while traditional conservatives have accepted many aspects of the organic analogy, Thatcherite conservatives who are said to be influenced more by an ideology of neo-liberalism are less likely to do so. Mrs Thatcher and her supporters have sometimes bexxxx


  • Conservatives and the State


There have been important divisions among conservatives as to the desirable extent and direction of state activity.  Some Conservatives from Disraeli onwards have argued 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.


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, Mccleod, 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.


However, 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.


Other some conservatives have accepted liberal-based beliefs in laissez faire and the market mechanism as well as a strong belief in the inevitability and desirability of economic inequality and the sanctity of private property.  This set of beliefs combined with criticisms of excessively wasteful state bureaucracy and the evils of socialism have encouraged them to support limited government.


Insofar as Mrs Thatcher and her supporters have accepted this set of beliefs they have been described as neo-liberals rather than conservatives. 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, 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.



  • Conservatism and Economic Inequality


The conservative perspective on human nature leads them also to be supporters of economic inequality as measured by statistics on the distribution of income and wealth. They argue in this respect that individual genetic differences in talent and ability must inevitably result in some economic inequality unless governments restrict the freedom of the more talented individuals to turn these talents to their own economic advantage. Economic equality, therefore, is inconsistent with individual freedom. Conservatives argue further that economic inequality is essential to generate the financial incentives for individuals to remain in further and higher education, to work hard and to invest their savings in productive enterprises all of which will result in faster economic growth and rising average living standards and that even the poorest will benefit indirectly from economic inequality as some of the benefits of faster economic growth “trickle down” to them.


According to conservatives economic inequality works with the grain of self-interested human nature to produce rising living standards for all whereas the socialist argument that individuals need only limited financial incentives because they can be encouraged to work for the good of the community operates against the grain of human nature and is therefore unrealistic and counterproductive.


Although conservatives oppose economic equality modern conservatives at least support equality of opportunity or meritocracy.  Meritocracy implies that individuals can gain well paid, high status occupations only on the basis of their own merits and not on the basis of social class advantage and/or nepotism and meritocracy is clearly essential if  to secure the economic efficiency necessary to generate rising living standards for all.


Once again there are disputes between conservatives and socialists as to the relationships between economic inequality and equality of opportunity. Whereas conservatives argue that the imposition by governments of economic equality denies equality of opportunity to the talented and that equality of opportunity is possible in an economically unequal society, socialists argue that only government intervention to increase economic equality can secure equality of opportunity for the poorest members of society.


  • Conservatism and Private Property.


Conservatives argue that possession of private property is an important defence against excessive state power in that without private property individuals can work only for the state and live, be educated and treated only in state houses, schools and hospitals respectively. In societies with large private sectors one can seek private provision if one is dissatisfied with state provision and competition within the private sector is assumed to keep up private sector standards. ]Socialists ,of course, argue that private provision may result only in wasteful competition and that only the relatively rich can afford it.]


Insofar as conservatives believe in economic inequality this implies also that individuals should have the right to accumulate private property which in turn means that conservatives are supporters of capitalist private enterprise although as we have seen they may also support a not insignificant economic role for the state. Conservatives support economic theories which suggest that the private market mechanism can allocate resources more flexibly and efficiently than can systems of state economic planning and they emphasise also that whereas the market allocates resources in accordance with consumer preferences, in state planning systems it is the planners who determine what shall be produced so that production does not necessarily meet the needs and wants of consumers. This, the conservatives argue, results in all the inefficiencies associated with growing state bureaucracies as indicated in the economic inefficiency of UK nationalised industries and, on a grander scale, in the inability of former “Communist” countries such as the former USSR to generate good living standards for their citizens.