Core ideas and principles


Conservatism, as the name suggests, is characterised by the desire to conserve- to prevent or minimise change. Traditional forms of conservatism certainly had this as its primary aim, however, this was challenged in the 1970s and 80s with the emergence of New Right thinking.

Core ideas and principles


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 the 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.

Human imperfection

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 antisocial behaviour if they are regulated and controlled away from their natural and selfish impulses. The only way to do this is effective and strong law and order that is enforced by strong deterrents. Law and order were at the heart of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative governments, for instance.
  3. 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.