Conservatism, as the name suggests, is characterised by the desire to conserve- to prevent or minimise change.
There has been some debate over the nature of conservatism, and whether it is accurately classified as an ideology at all. Ideologies offer an account of the existing order (a world view), advance a model of a desired future, and explain how political change can and should be brought about. It has been suggested that conservatism is better characterised by what it is against (change) rather than what it favours.
However, there is more to conservatism than simply resisting change. They way in which this position is argued makes conservatism what it is. Another debate is that conservatives themselves may actually dislike being referred to as an ‘ideology’, as ideologies have often been criticised within conservatism as being abstract systems of thought which have no practical purpose. However, conservatism has particular views on issues such as human nature, which informs and guides conservative action, so it can be accurately described as an ideology.
Associated with conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, pragmatism refers to an adaptable, practical response to political decision-making- decisions are made on the basis of what works in that particular situation. This will be based on, amongst other things, past experiences. This is in many ways the opposite to principle, or ideology, which is where decisions would be made based on convictions or particular beliefs. Conservatives are critical of the idea that humans can understand how the world works, so they favour a more practical response to situations rather than attempting to ‘shape’ society through unfounded ideological beliefs.
Traditional and One Nation conservatism are linked most strongly with pragmatism. Burke suggested that pragmatism is the appropriate response to natural change in society- cautious pragmatism will help manage changes without revolution or chaos. This leads to his view that it is necessary to ‘change in order to conserve’. One Nation conservatives responded to the effects of early industrialisation by supporting government measures to help the less well-off, and in the 1950s and 60s advocated some state intervention in the economy in order to generate funding for welfare programmes. The New Right, on the other hand, can be argued to have rejected pragmatism in favour of principle- namely, the strongly principled belief in the ability of the free market to deliver all goods and services.
Conservatives defend traditions, which can be defined as established customs and institutions, for various reasons. Many conservatives believe that traditional values and institutions are God-given and therefore beyond question. Burke suggested that society was shaped by the ‘law of our Creator’, so should not be tampered with. Although this idea has been difficult to maintain in modern times many people still believe this.
Most conservatives support tradition without the religious justification. Burke described society as a partnership between ‘those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born’. This means that the accumulated wisdom of the past should be respected and preserved, as if something has persisted over many years then it must have value. Conservatives in the UK, for example, see the monarchy as an institution of accumulated wisdom and a focus for national loyalty and respect.
Conservatives also believe that tradition gives a sense of belonging and identity. Anything from red phone boxes and buses, to the judiciary wearing a ‘costume’, creates a sense of surety and certainty amongst people, making them feel ‘part’ of society, so is valuable for this reason.
Conservatism can be seen as ‘the philosophy of human imperfection’ (O’Sullivan 1976). This is because, unlike other ideologies, conservatives do not see human nature as good. They see humans as imperfect and therefore they need control and organisation. They are imperfect in three main ways.
- Psychologically: conservatives see humans as creatures of habit who like safety, security and familiarity. They need order to create security in a scary and uncertain world. Conservatives see liberty as a problem because it gives choices and uncertainty. They agree with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who was willing to give up freedom for security saying that any government, even an authoritarian one, was better than the alternative of chaos.
- Morally: conservatives believe that criminal behaviour is not caused by society but by the imperfect individual. They hold a pessimistic view of human nature. Some conservatives believe this is due to the concept of ‘original sin’. All conservatives believe that people can be kept away from anti-social behaviour if they are regulated and controlled away from their natural and selfish impulses. They only way to do this is effective and strong law and order that is enforced by strong deterrents. Law and order was at the heart of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative governments, for instance.
- Intellectually: conservatives do not see humankind as intelligent or rational and think the world is too complicated for people to grasp. Oakeshott believed the world was ‘boundless and bottomless’, so beyond human understanding. They therefore base their ideas on a love of certainty, tradition and history, and want to be as pragmatic as possible. They do not like abstract ideas such ‘rights’ and ‘social justice’ as they would mean society would need to be reformed or remodelled.
Despite this, some aspect of New Right thinking can be argued to have a more positive view of human nature- for example, the belief in the free market must allow people a great deal of freedom in the economic sphere. However, this is allied with a strong emphasis on moral authority and law and order.
Conservatives see society as a natural thing that humans are part of and cannot be separated from. They think that people only exist as part of their social groupings and respond to all of them. Conservatives therefore see freedom differently from, for example, liberals. They think that a person is free when they willingly accept the rights and responsibilities that a society places on them. Negative freedom (the absence of constraints on an individual) does not exist for a conservative as a person can’t be ‘left alone’; they are always part of their society, which operates like a living being. This idea is called ‘organicism’. Leaving people alone leads to a feeling of rootlessness (anomie).
Organicism does not view society as a collection of separate individuals. The ‘whole’ is more than just the sum of its parts. These parts can’t just be removed or rearranged like machine parts, as, like a living organism, you would damage or destroy the whole. Conservatives compare the liberal view of society to a machine and their view as to that of a human body and its separate parts.
Conservatives also see society as having evolved and formed naturally out of necessity. They see the family for example, not as a choice of liberal design, but, as a necessity that people have to have to survive and prosper. The use of the ‘organic’ or ‘living’ metaphor is very conservative in its nature. If you are dealing with a machine, then you can attempt to modify and change it by human design and ingenuity. If you are dealing with a living organism, then it can’t be changed by humans and any attempt to do so is dangerous.