What is Conservatism? As part of the A Level Politics course, students are required to know about three core political ideologies: conservative, liberal and socialist. In this article, we will go through what conservatism is, the different types, and some of the important names attached to the ideology.
The word ‘conservative’ means to hold traditional values strongly and be averse to change. The ideology stems from the enlightenment and British philosopher Edmund Burke, who wrote extensively about the role of the government, as part of what is now known as traditional conservatism.
The Legacy of Traditional Conservatism: Edmund Burke
Traditional conservatism, as conceptualised by the influential philosopher Edmund Burke, is rooted in a belief in the importance of preserving established institutions and traditions, such as the monarchy and nuclear family. Burke argued that society is a complex organism (organic society) that evolves gradually over time and that sudden radical changes can disrupt its delicate equilibrium.
Burke’s conservatism emphasizes the value of custom, prejudice, and tradition as vital forces that help maintain social order and stability. He advocated for cautious and incremental change rather than revolutionary upheaval. Human nature is one of fragility and imperfection, and any radical changes to society may lead to some losing their way and social fragility collapsing.
This approach seeks to conserve the existing social, political, and economic structures to ensure continuity and prevent unintended consequences. In addition to Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes was a traditional conservative, writing in his book Leviathan about the need to maintain order to avoid the ‘state of nature’ in which humans are at their natural worst.
One Nation Conservatism: Benjamin Disraeli’s Vision
One Nation Conservatism, championed by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, emerged during the 19th century in response to the social inequalities created by the Industrial Revolution. Disraeli believed that governments should prioritize social cohesion and a sense of national unity.
Disraeli’s vision aimed to bridge the divide between the privileged elite and the working class. As we are ‘one nation’, we should rule for all. He advocated for social reforms and policies that aimed to reduce poverty and improve public health. While still valuing tradition, Disraeli recognized the need for an active government role in addressing social issues and creating a fairer society.
Part of this included an increased role of the welfare state to bring people up to be able to reach their potential. The welfare state emerges in many forms, including increased taxation on the wealthiest to assist the poorest.
New Right Conservatism: Margaret Thatcher’s Era
Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is often associated with the rise of New Right Conservatism in the UK. The key thinkers of the New Right are Ayn Rand, a champion of the neoliberal branch of the New Right, and Robert Nozick, part of the neoconservative branch of the New Right.
Thatcher’s ideology was centred around principles of individualism, free markets, and limited government intervention. She championed a neoliberal economic agenda that emphasised privatisation, deregulation, and reduced welfare state. This meant a reduction in income tax and removing people’s reliance on the state, as this led to a ‘dependency culture’.
Thatcher’s New Right Conservatism sought to unleash market forces and promote entrepreneurship and competition. She believed in the transformative power of economic freedom and the importance of individual responsibility. Thatcher’s policies significantly impacted British society, reshaping the country’s economy and political landscape.
As you have seen throughout this article, the different types of conservatism differ in their views on human nature, the state, society and the economy. We dive further into conservative thought and ideology as part of our Core Political Ideas course. We dive into the similarities and differences between the different types, and explain the core concepts of the ideology.