Conservatism - CORE IDEAS AND PRINCIPLES

Mickey Morris
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Mickey Morris
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Conservatism - CORE IDEAS AND PRINCIPLES
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Conservatism - CORE IDEAS AND PRINCIPLES
1 Introduction
1.1 Conservatism is partly a belief in pragmatism, which means not changing things unless there is a very good reason to do so.
1.2 Traditional Conservatives believe in reform where necessary.
1.2.1 They have a respect for law and order and a conviction that the government should not interfere too much in the way people run their lives.
1.2.2 They also believe in the importance of the protection of property and have a belief that individuals have the right to be successful.
1.2.3 They respect tradition, in particular institutions like the Church, the House of Lords and the family, which they believe have lasted because they must have some value.
1.2.4 All this has translated into general policy prescriptions involving low taxes, not too much public spending, and a belief that private companies (in pursuit of profit) are capable of performing many of the services that people need, and allowing these companies to compete will improve those services.
1.3 There are also Modern Conservatives, whose beliefs can be traced back to the writings of Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th Century.
1.3.1 ‘One-Nation’ Conservatives believed that the government has a duty to help the less fortunate, and in return those receiving that help would have responsibilities to try to contribute to lifting themselves out of poverty.
1.4 A good description of what ‘being Conservative’ means was provided by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who described it as being the captain of a large sailing ship on the open sea, not particularly heading anywhere (i.e. not bound by rigid ideology), but making sure that the ship didn’t crash into rocks or icebergs and kept going serenely on its’ way.
2 Hierarchy
2.1 Hierarchy can be defined as the means by which members of society are stratified or layered relative to others.
2.2 This may be based upon social class and occupation.
2.2.1 According to conservatives, we must recognise the obligations of our status in order for society to function effectively.
2.2.2 Without a sense of hierarchy, society itself could collapse.
2.2.3 In the words of the seminal conservative philosopher Edmund Burke – we should “love the little platoon in society to which we belong.”
2.3 Conservatives believe that hierarchy represents a functional prerequisite within society.
2.3.1 Moreover, all conservatives would agree that we can be divided on the basis of a natural hierarchy.
2.3.1.1 We are born unequal with different attributes and characteristics. Inevitably, this also relates to our ability to govern.
2.3.2 Edmund Burke offered a persuasive defence of the authority held by the ruling classes.
2.3.2.1 the ruling class possessed the accumulated wisdom of previous generations
2.3.2.1.1 The lessons of governance had been passed down from one generation to the next, and in his own words “no generation should ever be so rash as to consider itself superior to its predecessors.”
2.3.2.2 the ruling class were socially superior in the skills of governing than any other.
2.3.3 Whilst individuals can move up or down the social strata, the existence of a hierarchy remains.
2.3.3.1 conservatives believe that any attempt to reorder society on the basis of abstract concepts is doomed to fail.
2.3.3.1.1 Revealingly, the most famous illustration of conservative principles springs from Edmund Burke’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France.’
2.3.3.1.1.1 Burke warned against the consequences of seeking to impose abstract ideals and ignoring the importance of tradition within French society.
2.3.3.1.1.1.1 His argument was vindicated by the Reign of Terror imposed by the French revolutionaries.
2.3.3.2 Conservatives are also opposed to the anarchist belief that there is no need for hierarchy within society.
2.4 Throughout the ages, conservatives have believed that the existence of a hierarchy facilitates an organic society
2.4.1 which evolves naturally according to the needs of society
2.4.2 Whilst conservatives at least recognise that the basis of hierarchy is subject to change, there is an in-built tendency for society to reach a state of equilibrium.
2.4.2.1 Historically, the source of hierarchy within British society gradually shifted from feudalism to capitalism.
2.4.2.1.1 ‘evolution … not revolution.’
2.5 A view largely associated with the conservative perspective in which society evolves via a contract between the living, the dead and those yet to be born. We are all connected via common humanity within an organic whole, and we all have a part to play from those at the bottom to those at the top of the hierarchy.
3 Authority
3.1 According to conservatives, without a sense of hierarchy and respect for authority, society would descend into a state of anarchy.
3.1.1 conservatives who – by temperament and instinct – prize social order and harmony above all else.
3.1.2 also believe that authority enables us to lead a more fulfilling and purposeful life.
3.1.2.1 prepared to surrender a little freedom in order to enjoy security, which may also explain the existence of the social contract
3.1.2.1.1 the agreement – formal or informal – of members of society to cooperate for the benefit of wider society, usually by sacrificing some personal or individual freedoms in return for state protection
3.2 Thomas Hobbes
3.2.1 He argued that without order we would revert to a state of nature
3.2.1.1 in which life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
3.2.1.2 It would also be characterised by “a war of all against all.”
3.2.2 Hobbes argued in favour of a “Leviathan” whose authority would develop from the people themselves.
3.2.2.1 Hobbes claimed that a Leviathan would be prevented from becoming a tyrant
3.2.2.1.1 because he – like everyone else – wished to preserve a state of affairs most favourable to himself.
3.2.3 although some have argued that Hobbes adopts a degree of liberalism within his construction of a social contract.
4 Atomism
4.1 Atomism refers to the view that the main component of society is the individual (i.e. the ‘atom’), and that these individuals are self-interested, equal and rational.
4.2 The action of individuals combines into a cohesive whole.
4.2.1 conservatives emphasise the need for a high level of cultural homogeneity, balanced by the idea that we must face our responsibilities towards others.
4.2.2 conservatives are not overly concerned with the despotism of custom or the tyranny of the majority.
4.2.2.1 The mindset of conservatism claims that the individual can only flourish when we are all part of a cohesive and orderly society.
4.3 Society is only held together by a shared consensus over how to lead one’s life
4.3.1 which is why conservatives seek to emphasise traditional values rather than those associated with subcultures based around religion and culture.
4.3.1.1 This point of view leads towards the conservative argument that immigrant groups should assimilate into British society.
4.3.1.2 conservatives are critical of how liberals prize cultural diversity and aggressive individualism over the goal of social cohesion.
4.4 According to conservatives, a society can only be truly successful when it meets the needs of its members.
4.4.1 In order to achieve this level of stability, it is vital that we protect and defend those institutions that have proved their worth from one generation to the next.
4.4.1.1 In the case of the nuclear family, conservatives are (by instinct and temperament) highly supportive because the nuclear family has shown itself to be the best way to socialise children into the norms and values of wider society.
4.4.1.2 The Conservative Party has long sought to present itself as ‘the party of the family’
4.4.1.2.1 via the creation of the Child Support Agency under John Major
4.4.1.2.2 tax breaks for married couples from David Cameron.
4.5 Conservatives are also critical of those families that seek to abandon their childcare responsibilities to ‘society’ in the form of the welfare state.
4.5.1 This is part of a broader critique of the welfare state by New Right
4.5.1.1 Margaret Thatcher encapsulated this viewpoint with her memorable quote that “there is no such thing as society, merely individuals and families.”
5 Change to Conserve
5.1 Conservatives pride themselves on their ability to adopt to changing social circumstances.
5.1.1 This in part reflects their non-ideological approach and their preference for pragmatism.
5.1.1.1 Change is necessary in order that society may function.
5.1.1.2 the core aim of conservativism is social order and harmony.
5.1.1.2.1 To achieve this, conservatives favour those institutions and values that encourage a degree of cohesion between the various elements of society.
5.2 Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli sought to bring people from all walks of life closer together and thereby forge one cohesive nation.
5.2.1 No section within society should be excluded provided they support a consensual approach to decision-making.
5.3 The conservative mindset has long been associated with those values and characteristics that might bring the various members of a nation together such as patriotism, neighbourliness, the monarchy, customs and traditions.
6 Paternalism
6.1 Paternalism has be defined as “benign power exerted from above by the state, which governs in the interests of the people.”
6.2 Paternalism is an approach to running the country in which members of the elite seek to govern in the best interests of the people.
6.2.1 Paternalism is therefore closely associated with the concept of noblesse oblige
6.2.1.1 (i.e. people with status have a responsibility to others, or, with privilege comes responsibility)
6.3 Paternalism in more depth
6.3.1 During the post-war consensus (1945-79), paternalism matched the cross-party Keynesian approach to economic management
6.3.1.1 The economic policies adopted by both the Labour and Conservative Party were so similar that the term Butskellism was used
6.3.1.1.1 (Butler was a prominent one-nation Tory whereas Gaitskell was a social democrat).
6.3.2 However, the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 marked an abrupt end to the paternalist approach.
6.3.2.1 Thatcher was determined to overhaul the view that the ruling class knew best.
6.3.2.1.1 Paternalism was inconsistent with her deep sense of mission, and her deliberately-created persona as a conviction politician.
6.3.3 Paternalism remains a key element of the Conservative Party.
6.3.3.1 Under recent leaders, the Tories have sought to present themselves as a party that looks after everyone.
6.3.3.2 However, those further to the right were critical of the moderate stance taken by Cameron for adopting a liberal and metropolitan agenda contrary to the concerns of ordinary people.
6.3.3.2.1 For instance, his personal support for gay marriage angered those of a more traditional view – many of whom consider themselves natural Tories.
7 Tradition
7.1 Tradition recognises and emphasises the “the accumulated wisdom of past societies and a connection across the generations.”
7.2 Key Points
7.2.1 Conservatives believe strongly in the virtues of tradition and hold in high esteem the accumulated wisdom of the past.
7.2.1.1 Institutions that bring together the wisdom of previous generations tend to provide a degree of reassurance at the pace of social change.
7.2.1.1.1 Reference to traditional practices ensures that change occurs on an evolutionary basis rather than hot-headed revolutionary fervour.
7.2.2 The conservative perspective upon tradition is closely linked to paternalism
7.2.2.1 i.e. those who have traditionally exercised rule know what is in the best interests of the people
7.2.2.2 During the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth, the Conservative Party was led by patrician figures who consciously fitted this mould.
7.2.2.2.1 In short, rule by a benevolent social elite was in the best interests of the country.
7.2.2.2.2 However, under Thatcher there was a discernible shift away from such thinking.
7.2.2.2.2.1 The ‘Man in Whitehall’ was seen as an obstacle towards the more desirable goal of rolling back the frontiers of the state.
7.3 Exploring Tradition in More Depth
7.3.1 In developing this argument further, the clear reference point is that of Edmund Burke.
7.3.1.1 Burke’s commentary on the French Revolution remains the most important contribution to conservative thought
7.3.1.1.1 Burke opposed the abstract notion that a social contract between the people and the state should be recast upon what Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) called the “general will.”
7.3.1.1.2 Burke warned against the wholesale rejection of the past and, as with all conservatives; sought to acknowledge the significance of human imperfection.
7.3.1.1.3 Ultimately, Burke was vindicated in his prediction that the idealism behind the revolution would lead towards disaster.
7.3.1.2 Burke also rejected the Enlightenment-era view that the science of ideas could create a better society.
7.3.1.2.1 For example, he opposed the liberal argument that education would lead to the perfectibility of man.
7.3.1.2.1.1 According to Burke’s reactionary mindset, ideas can easily influence the hearts and minds of the impressionable and are extremely dangerous amongst the “swinish multitude.”
7.3.1.2.1.1.1 Instead of abstract ideas, we must rely upon tradition and custom to provide us with moral bearings.
8 Pragmatism
8.1 Pragmatism can be defined as “a flexible approach to society with decisions made on the basis of what works.”
8.2 Key Points
8.2.1 Pragmatism is arguably the most distinct feature of conservatism.
8.2.1.1 No other ideology could in any sense of the phrase depict itself as pragmatic.
8.2.1.1.1 The pragmatist seeks a workable consensus and is guided by the notion that ‘what counts is what works.’
8.2.1.1.1.1 The guiding pragmatic principle is ‘if it ain’t broke … why fix it?’
8.2.1.1.1.2 pragmatism represents a flexibility of mind and a search for practical solutions rather than the inflexibility imposed by ideologies.
8.2.1.2 At its core, pragmatism entails a complete rejection of ideology.
8.3 Pragmatism in More Depth
8.3.1 As Winston Churchill so eloquently put it, “the further you look back at the past the clearer you see the future.”
8.3.2 One might also consider Michael Oakeshott’s remark that politics should be “a conversation, not an argument.”
8.3.2.1 Decisions should therefore be based upon consensus and with an understanding of the traditions within that society.
8.3.3 Conservatives firmly believe in going with the grain of human nature.
8.3.4 The notion of pragmatism does not apply to all conservatives.
8.3.4.1 In the UK, pragmatism is closely associated with the one-nation school of thought.
8.3.4.1.1 The overriding objective of Tories such as Edward Heath (Prime Minister 1970-1974) and Harold MacMillan (Prime Minister 1957-1963) was to ensure social harmony.
8.3.4.2 In contrast, the New Right is much more ideological in their fervour and outlook.
8.3.4.2.1 The New Right emerged during the 1970s as a reaction against the seemingly irreversible slide into socialism.
8.3.4.2.2 Voices on the right of the party such as Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph expressed their dismay over the extent to which the party’s leadership had accepting state ownership and corporatism.
8.3.4.2.2.1 By the mid-70s, the New Right had found their champion in the form of Margaret Thatcher.
8.3.5 Thatcher made a complete break from the post-war era of pragmatic conservatism.
8.3.5.1 According to her more overt ideological stance, the pragmatism of the one-nation perspective had led to an expansion in the scope and scale of government interference
8.3.5.2 During her premiership, she gave rise to an ideological outlook that came to be known as Thatcherism.
8.3.5.2.1 This non-pragmatic stance firmly believed in the benefits of rolling back the frontiers of the state.
8.3.5.2.2 Thatcherism is characterised by privatisation, deregulation, marketisation of the welfare state, a flexible labour market, lower taxation and the creation of a property-owning democracy.
8.3.5.2.3 the language used by Thatcherites has a more ideological zeal than those of the one-nation school of thought.
8.3.6 Since Thatcher’s unceremonious demise from office in 1990, the Conservative Party has been led by figures who have at various times sought to adopt a more consensual and practical stance.
8.3.6.1 John Major sought to create a nation “at ease with itself” whereas William Hague campaigned in favour of “common-sense conservatism.”
8.3.6.1.1 From 2005 to 2016, David Cameron was a particularly clear illustration of this argument.
8.3.6.1.1.1 Cameron’s non-ideological character enabled him to work effectively in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
8.3.6.1.1.1.1 In doing so, he showed a deft degree of pragmatism and avoided being labelled an ideologue.
9 Human Imperfection
9.1 The concept of human imperfection holds that “humans are flawed, which makes them incapable of making good decisions for themselves.”
9.2 There are three key elements that form the conservative attitude towards human nature.
9.2.1 First and foremost, conservatives adopt a pessimistic view of human nature.
9.2.1.1 According to conservatives, we are all psychologically flawed and imperfect.
9.2.1.1.1 Indeed, during the Enlightenment conservative theorists rejected the rationalist assumption that we should be optimistic about humanity and seek to improve it.
9.2.1.2 The conservative view of human nature is largely grounded upon the Catholic notion of original sin and Biblical warnings over human wickedness.
9.2.2 Secondly, Conservatives also believe that we are driven by baser instincts rather than higher reasoning
9.2.2.1 this is a fundamental difference with liberalism
9.2.2.2 For instance, conservatives believe that we seek protection for ourselves, our homes and our families.
9.2.2.2.1 As such, we are by instinct suspicious of outsiders and prefer to live in a society based upon cultural homogeneity.
9.2.2.2.2 Human beings are also drawn towards competition over the acquisition of money, status and property
9.2.2.2.2.1 At times, this can lead to behaviour that needs to be regulated by the forces of law and order.
9.2.3 Thirdly, those ideologies which adopt a fixed view of human nature are inherently wrong.
9.2.3.1 Moreover, we cannot predict the future and should simply recognise the limits of our understanding.
9.2.3.1.1 Those ideologies that promise a utopian system must be open to criticism in order to expose such thinking as a doomed exercise in self-deception.
9.2.3.1.1.1 Ultimately, all humans are intellectually flawed.
10 Libertarianism & Neo-liberalism
10.1 Libertarianism has been defined as “the upholding of liberty, seeking to maximise autonomy and free choice, mainly in the economy”.
10.2 Key points
10.2.1 The two main strands of conservatism are divided over economic policy.
10.2.1.1 The one-nation school of thought favours a degree of state intervention broadly along the lines of a mixed economy, whereas those further to the right of the political spectrum believe firmly in the virtues of the free-market.
10.2.1.1.1 The New Right position on the economy is relatively straightforward.
10.2.1.1.1.1 In essence, they believe that the economy should be left alone and freed from state interference.
10.2.1.1.1.1.1 he market is self-correcting and will tend to ensure the most efficient allocation of scarce resources.
10.2.1.1.1.1.1.1 In addition, it will enable the individual to make their own decisions free from bureaucratic meddling
10.2.1.1.1.1.1.1.1 Those who supply goods and services must respond to the needs of the consumer if they want to survive.
10.2.1.1.1.1.1.1.2 If they don’t, the government should let them fail. The consumer should ultimately decide which firms survive and which go under.
10.3 Libertarianism & Neo-liberalism in more depth
10.3.1 Self-confessed Thatcherites within the Conservative Party believe passionately in a dynamic economy free from state intervention
10.3.1.1 They claim that the free market is both economically efficient and morally superior to any statist alternative.
10.3.1.1.1 “creative destruction” of capitalism provides sufficient incentive and reward to enable individuals to fulfil their potential.
10.3.1.1.2 In contrast, state control of the economy undermines our entrepreneurial spirit. Running an economy along socialist lines creates a “client state” that serves vested interests.
10.3.2 During the coalition government, the Tories were firmly committed to austerity in order to reduce the scope and scale of government intervention.
10.3.2.1 Economic libertarians claim that cuts to government expenditure are beneficial in the long-term.
10.3.2.2 This is based upon the assumption that individuals work harder when they retain more of their hard-earned income and wealth.
10.3.2.2.1 Balancing the books should enable the government to reduce taxation.
10.3.2.3 Moreover, a flexible labour market is essential in order that firms can best meet changes in consumer demand.
10.3.2.3.1 To ensure this, the coalition government made it easier to hire and fire workers.
11 Organic Society / State
11.1 The concept of organic society / state holds that “society/the state is more important than any individual parts.”
11.2 Key points
11.2.1 The conservative perspective upon society stems from their support of evolutionary change.
11.2.2 They view society as an organism that emerges and evolves gradually over time in order to meet the needs of its members.
11.2.2.1 For instance, society must develop institutions and mechanisms that protect us from harm (such as the armed forces)
11.2.2.2 A cohesive society also requires a degree of hierarchy, and a sense of deference towards authority figures.
11.2.2.3 Moreover, a successful society is one characterised by a strong emotional attachment to our fellow people.
11.2.3 Conservatives also believe that society is in a constant process of evolution
11.2.3.1 As a consequence, adopting a revolutionary stance is both foolish and contrary to the lessons of the past
11.3 Organic Society / State in more detail
11.3.1 “society is indeed a contract … not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
11.3.1.1 In essence, he claimed that society needs to reflect the past, consider the present and meet the needs of future generations.
11.3.1.2 According to Burke, one of the fundamental flaws with the French revolution is that it completely ignored the past.
11.3.1.3 Like many revolutions since, it sought to impose a Year Zero upon society.
11.3.1.3.1 In its revolutionary zeal, even the calendar was altered to remove all royalist and religious influence.
11.3.2 The Burkean view of society can also be placed in the context of the environment.
11.3.2.1 In the modern era, this has in part helped modernisers to rebrand the Tories on the slogan ‘vote blue, go green.’
11.3.2.2 In addition, Burke’s conception of society bears relevance towards the generation gap that exists within society.
11.3.2.2.1 Many young people feel disenchanted and disengaged from a discredited political system
11.3.2.2.1.1 It seems grossly unfair that the next generation will have to pick up the tab for the national debt
11.3.2.2.1.2 Moreover, politicians from all the main parties have continually ignored the demands of younger people in favour of an older demographic.
11.3.2.2.1.2.1 ‘Generation Rent’ may therefore feel marginalised and overlooked by a political process tilted in favour of older people and other vested interests.
11.3.2.2.1.3 In Burkean language, we are failing to meet the contractual obligations to many of those who are living and those who are yet to be born.
11.3.3 Finally, Burke argued that “a state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation.”
11.3.3.1 This quote reminds us that a true conservative is not opposed to social change in itself.
11.3.3.2 Indeed, society can only evolve via meeting the ever-changing needs of its population.
11.3.3.3 However, unlike other ideologies, conservatives would never endorse social change based upon abstract notions.
11.3.3.3.1 This is one reason why the Conservative Party is broadly Eurosceptic.
11.3.3.3.1.1 Whilst some of those on the Remain side of the Brexit argument believe there are practical benefits to membership, a project with such an abstract goal is clearly inconsistent with an evolutionary attitude towards change
11.3.3.3.1.2 Moreover, the notion that a European identity can be constructed around an anthem, a flag and other symbols of nationhood is anathema to the conservative mindset.
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