Main ideas of Conservatism

Conservatism is defined by the desire to conserve, reflected in a resistance to, or at least a suspicion of, change. However, while the desire to resist change may be the recurrent theme within conservatism, what distinguishes conservatism from rival political creeds is the distinctive way in which this position is upheld, in particular through support for tradition, a belief in human imperfection, and the attempt to uphold the organic structure of society. Conservatism nevertheless encompasses a range of tendencies and inclinations. The chief distinction within conservatism is between what is called ‘traditional conservatism’ and the New Right. Traditional conservatism defends established institutions and values on the ground that they safeguard the fragile ‘fabric of society’, giving security-seeking human beings a sense of stability and rootedness. The New Right is characterised by a belief in a strong but minimal state, combining economic libertarianism with social authoritarianism, as represented by neoliberalism and neoconservatism. 


In some ways Conservatism is not an ideology at all since one of its key ideas: pragmatism rejects theory and ideology in favour of practical experience: the approach to society should be flexible, with decisions made on the basis of what works. This central point was neatly summarised by Oakeshott: 'To be a Conservative is to prefer the tried to the untried.'  Pragmatism also implies a flexible approach to politics which asks what will work best and what is acceptable to the public in order to maintain social stability and cohesion. This may seem like a belief in nothing.

Extension Activity Listen to In Our Time BBC Life of Edmund Burke

However  a preference for pragmatism is strongly linked to a belief in the limitations of human rationality. They believe that humans lack the intellectual ability and powers of reasoning to fully comprehend the complex realities of the world. Conservatives see human beings as both imperfect and unperfectible. Conservatism has been described as a philosophy of human imperfection (O’Sullivan, 1976).  So Conservatives reject abstract ideas, theories and ideologies that claim to 'explain' or 'improve' human life and development. Principles and ideas such as 'human rights, 'a classless society' and 'equality' are  naïve, impractical and  dangerous because they can promote violence in the attempt to remake of society (often through revolution) that leads to worse rather than better conditions. Conservatives prefer to act in a pragmatic way that emphasises caution, moderation and a sense of historical continuity.

Change to conserve 

For Traditional conservatives such as Edmund Burke, pragmatism was  essential  to allowing some form of slow incremental change which was natural  and inevitable . This type of change, he argued, is good because a society 'without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation' — peace and survival of society depend on some careful change and adaptation through evolution, whereas the unbending pursuit of revolution or  the unbending resistance to change would lead to conflict and chaos. Property, tradition and established institutions - can only be preserved through a pragmatic policy that takes into account shifting circumstances and recognises occasions when it is necessary to  Change to conserve   

One-nation conservatives hold similar attitudes to social reform. However, more recently they have also adopted a pragmatic 'middle way' approach to the economy that combines market competition with government regulation. These conservatives argue that this moderate economic course promotes growth and social harmony by encouraging wealth creation through private enterprise and generating the funding for state welfare programmes.

Another important core value of conservatism is its attachment to tradition: the institutions, customs and practices of a society that have developed over time. Originally, the conservative justification for tradition had religious roots. Conservatives who believed that the world was created by a divine being saw society's institutions and practices of society as 'God-given'. Humans who attempt to alter these longstanding social arrangements are challenging the will of God and consequently are likely to undermine society, rather than improve it.

'Society is partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born'. Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke and the writer G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), maintained that tradition constitutes the accumulated wisdom of the past. According to this view, the institutions, customs and practices of the past (such as the monarchy, the constitution, the nuclear family and heterosexual marriage) have demonstrated their value to earlier societies as they have proved 'fit for purpose' over time and survived. For this reason, they should be preserved so that current and future generations can also benefit from them. For example, the monarchy has promoted a sense of national unity and pride over the centuries, seen in royal weddings and Christmas messages from the Queen. 

Each generation has a solemn duty to safeguard and pass on the accumulated wisdom of tradition to the next generation.

This view of tradition clearly influences the conservative attitude to change. According to conservatives, reform or change can only be justified if it takes place organically by evolving naturally in a peaceful, gradual way in order to strengthen existing institutions, customs and practices. Conservatives argue that, by seeking to destroy all traditional political and social institutions, the French in 1789 and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 were cutting themselves off from their past and paving the way for regimes that were more tyrannical (such as the Terror of 1793-94, the Napoleonic Empire and the Stalinist dictatorship) than the ones they had toppled.

Secondly, conservatives champion tradition because, in their view, it provides society and the individual with a strong sense of identity. Long-established institutions, customs and practices are familiar and provide individuals with a historically based sense of belonging to a particular society.

Tradition fosters social cohesion and security because it offers humans a reassuring collective sense of who they are, and establishes powerful ties between people and specific societies. Conservatives claim that any attempt to implement radical, wide-ranging changes will cut people off from the `traditional' basis of society and inevitably lead to instability, anxiety and insecurity.

Such arguments were used by Conservative opponents of the New Labour government's constitutional changes in the late 19905. They asserted that innovations such as devolved assemblies and House of Lords reform would undermine the constitutional stability of the UK and create a mood of public uncertainty.

Human imperfection

Conservatives have a pessimistic view of human nature, arguing that people are flawed and incapable of reaching a state of perfection. Conservatism also asserts that human nature is immutable (remains constant). Human imperfection has to be kept in check due to the human capacity for evil. Human beings are  morally imperfect. Conservatives hold a pessimistic, even Hobbesian, view of human nature. 

HHHuman kind is innately selfish and greedy, anything but perfectible; as Hobbes put it, the desire for ‘power after power’ is the primary human urge. 

Crime is therefore not a product of inequality or social disadvantage, as socialists and modern liberals tend to believe; rather, it is a consequence of base human instincts and appetites. People can only be persuaded to behave in a civilised fashion if they are deterred from expressing their violent and anti-social impulses. And the only effective deterrent is law, backed up by the knowledge that it will be strictly enforced. This explains the conservative preference for strong government and for ‘tough’ criminal justice regimes, based, often, on long prison sentences and the use of corporal or even capital punishment. For conservatives, the role of law is not to uphold liberty, but to preserve order 

Security come from a realistic attitude to human imperfection

As human nature cannot be transformed, foreign policy has to be based on national security rather than 'liberal' notions of international co-operation and harmony. Conservative view of human imperfection.

Conservatives stress that:

·      a tough stance on law and order is required, to deter criminal behaviour

NRA President Wayne LaPierre  makes the case for guns in a world were there are inevitably bad people.

Conservatives have  typically rejected the ‘politics of principle’ and adopted instead a traditionalist political stance . However, conservative support for both traditionalism and pragmatism has weakened as a result of the rise of the New Right. In the first place, the New Right is radical, in that it has sought to advance free-market reforms by dismantling inherited welfarist and interventionist structures. Second, the New Right’s radicalism is based on rationalism  and a commitment to abstract theories and principles, notably those of economic liberalism. In this sense the new right takes a more positive view of intellectual theory.

Areas of commonality for conservatives on their view of human nature:

However, areas of disagreement amongst conservatives on their view of human nature concern:

Organic society or state

Conservatives  see humans as dependent and security-seeking, Society and social groups provide individuals with a sense of security and purpose, and prevent the development of anomie: defined by an uprooting or breakdown of any moral values, standards or guidance for individuals to follow. Anomie may evolve from a conflict of belief systems and cause the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community. 

Humans should therefore accept the duties and responsibilities that go with belonging to society or social groups, such as being a caring parent, a considerate neighbour, or a respectful son or daughter. For conservatives, this represents true freedom — the willing acceptance of the value of social obligations and ties. If people did not acknowledge and act on these responsibilities and bonds, human society would lack social cohesion and descend into  Atomism(the idea that society is made up of self-interested and self-sufficient individuals (also known as egotistical individualism). Can also describe increasing social breakdown and isolation.) When Tony Blair articulated a 'third-way' approach to New Labour he placed an emphasis on responsibilities as well as rights. This signalled a more conservative tone as did his most famous slogan 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'. Being tough on crime was seen  a conservative value.

Freedom involves ‘doing one’s duty’. When, for example, parents instruct children how to behave, they are not constraining their liberty, but providing guidance for their children’s benefit. To act as a dutiful son or daughter and conform to parental wishes is to act freely, out of a recognition of one’s obligations. Conservatives believe that a society in which individuals knew only their rights, and did not acknowledge their duties, would be rootless and atomistic. Indeed, it is the bonds of duty and obligation that hold society together. 

Conservatives have traditionally thought of society as a living thing, an organism, whose parts work together just as the brain, heart, lungs and liver do within a human organism. Organisms differ from artefacts or machines in two important respects. First, unlike machines, organisms are not simply a collection of individual parts that can be arranged or rearranged at will. Within an organism, the whole is more than a collection of its individual parts; the whole is sustained by a fragile set of relationships between and among its parts, which, once damaged, can result in the organism’s death. Thus, a human body cannot be stripped down and reassembled in the same way as, say, a bicycle. Second, organisms are shaped by ‘natural’ factors rather than human ingenuity. An organic society is fashioned, ultimately, by natural necessity. For example, the family has not been ‘invented’ by any social thinker or political theorist, but is a product of natural social impulses such as love, caring and responsibility. In no sense do children in a family agree to a ‘contract’ on joining the family – they simply grow up within it and are nurtured and guided by it. 

An organic society is based on natural needs and instincts such as affection, security and concern, rather than an ideological blueprint devised by political theorists.  In other words on a realistic view of human beings. Such a view of society — where its component parts have been moulded by natural forces beyond human control — suggests that its members should sustain this careful balance of interacting elements. In particular, long-standing institutions have played a key role in preserving the `health' of society and should not be changed or removed. So the importance of family values and traditional ideas in a theme in Conservative politics in 1992 John Major called for a return to simple trusted values is his slogan 'back to basics'

The organic society places a great emphasis on belief in hierarchy and authority. Traditionally, conservatism has argued that society is naturally hierarchical — it is based on fixed social ranks and inequalities.  For Conservatives inequality is natural. This is because individuals vary in terms of their talents, intellect, skills and work rate. However, conservatism maintains that an organic society must rest on inequality, not just because of individual differences but also because different classes and groups (like different limbs and organs) have to perform specific roles. For example, some have to provide political leadership or manage commercial enterprises, while others have to perform routine manual or non-manual work, or raise children at home. ‘Paternalism’ literally means to act in a fatherly fashion. As a political principle, it refers to power or authority being exercised over others with the intention of conferring benefit or preventing harm. Social welfare and laws such as the compulsory wearing of seat belts in cars are examples of paternalism. ‘Soft’ paternalism is characterised by broad consent on the part of those subject to paternalism. ‘Hard’ paternalism operates regardless of consent, and thus overlaps with authoritarianism. The basis for paternalism is that wisdom and experience are unequally distributed in society, and that those in authority ‘know best’. 

Inequality can be justified because the most advantaged also bear the heaviest social responsibilities. Managers and employers enjoy higher living standards than their workers, but they carry the burden of protecting the jobs and economic well-being of their workforces. 

For conservatives, the hierarchical structure of organic society is reinforced by authority. Conservatism contends that authority develops naturally or organically in much the same way as society. This form of authority operates in a top-down manner, in all social institutions. Authority therefore resides with political leaders, employers, managers, teachers, parents, and so on.

Conservatives argue that authority performs a vital and positive function by providing humans with security, direction and support. Authority also promotes social cohesion by giving people a clear sense of how they 'fit in' and what they are expected to do. The leadership exercised by those in authority not only offers discipline, but also an example to be admired, respected and accepted.

However, authority does not grant unlimited power. Employers, parents or governments for example, have authority over their workers, children and citizens but this does not give them the right to abuse employees.



Traditional conservatives, such as Burke, argued that the 'natural aristocracy' presided over society much like a father did over his family: the social elite provides leadership because of its innate or hereditary abilities, just as a father exercises authority, ensures protection and provides guidance. Its skills and talents cannot be obtained by hard work or self-improvement. Those at the top of society have a duty to care for the lower social ranks. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, some conservative aristocrats acted in a paternalistic fashion by improving material conditions for their tenants and employees, and by involving themselves in charitable and philanthropic works.

The wisdom and experience of paternalistic leaders confer natural authority because they 'know what is best' for the rest of society. Traditionally, these leaders were drawn from the aristocratic elite that had been educated in the values of social obligation and public service and had provided the senior political decision-makers for generations. The Cecil family (Marquesses of Salisbury) and the Stanley family (Earls of Derby) are good examples of high-born paternalistic Conservative political leaders. More recently, one-nation paternalistic conservatism has relied on government regulation of the economy and social welfare measures to improve conditions for the poorest in society. David Cameron, the UK Conservative Prime Minister (2010-16), also drew on paternalism when he called for 'compassionate conservatism'.

Saltaire, West Yorkshire, is a complete and well-preserved industrial village of the second half of the 19th century. Its textile mills, public buildings and workers' housing are built in a harmonious style of high architectural standards and the urban plan survives intact, giving a vivid impression of Victorian philanthropic paternalism.  Built a a model town by Titus Salt for his workers.

One-nation paternalistic conservatism can be  traced back to the works of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), who served as Conservative Prime Minister from 1874 to 1880. In his novels Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845), Disraeli warned that Britain was dividing into two nations — the rich and the poor — and that this increased the likelihood of social revolution. For Disraeli, such a situation could be averted only by the privileged in society recognising their social obligation and duty to look after the less fortunate. The better-off would preserve their advantages, but they would also alleviate the hardships faced by the lower orders and strengthen the social cohesion and stability of the nation. In this way, Disraeli's one-nation paternalism blended self-interest with principle. 

By the mid-20th century, 'one-nation' conservatism had added a 'middle way' economic approach to social reform in its pursuit of paternalistic policies. The moderate UK Conservative governments of the 1950s and 1960s steered a central course between free-market economics and state planning, on the grounds that the former led to social fragmentation and failed to protect the poorest, while the latter stifled individual initiative and entrepreneurial flair. Economic policy combined government regulation and market completion to produce, in the words of Harold Macmillan — Conservative prime minister in the UK between 1957 and 1963 — 'private enterprise without selfishness'. 

Paternalism aimed at improving conditions for poorer groups in order to strengthen the hierarchical nature of society by removing threats to the social order.


This is one of the most important divides in Conservatism :-  the neoliberal wing of the New Right completely rejects the idea of paternalism. Paternalism results in the active interference of the state in the economy and in social policy.  neoliberalism aims to reduce the size of the state so that the unregulated market can generate a more dynamic and efficient economy leading to increased growth and prosperity. From this perspective, government intervention in the economy (a key element of the one-nation conservative paternalistic approach) or state control undermines human initiative and enterprise, resulting in economic stagnation. Similarly, the neoliberal faith in individualism also challenges conservative notions of paternalism. By stressing the importance of self-help, individual responsibility and personal initiative, neoliberals view welfare programmes and social reforms negatively. In their view, they promote a dependency culture among poorer people and undermine the free market.


Libertarianism is a political philosophy that emphasises the rights of individuals to liberty, (freedom) advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens. The primary role of the state is to protect individual rights. Libertarianism, with its emphasis on maximum economic freedom and minimal government regulation in social affairs, provides a rival conservative core value to paternalism.

This libertarian idea has been evident in conservative thinking since the late 18th century, influenced by Adam Smith's arguments for economic liberalism. For example, Burke advocated free trade and a market economy on the grounds that such arrangements were efficient, just and `natural' (due to the human desire for wealth). For conservatives, the operation of the capitalist free market represented a natural law that could not be altered without damaging prosperity and working conditions.

In its modern form, libertarian conservatism is more commonly known as the liberal new right or neoliberalism. Associated with the policies of UK Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) and US Republican President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), neoliberalism rejects state intervention and champions the free-market economy. It fundamentally opposes Keynesian-style demand management and welfare programmes .Libertarian conservatives have not simply converted to liberalism, but believe that liberal economics is compatible with a more traditional, conservative social philosophy, based on values such as authority and duty. This is evident in the work of Edmund Burke, in many ways the founder of traditional conservatism, but also a keen supporter of the economic liberalism of Adam Smith. 

According to neoliberal economists, the free market is the only mechanism that can efficiently supply goods and services based on consumer demand. Only the market, not government intervention, can ultimately determine the 'natural' level of unemployment.

Burke expressed a strong preference for free trade in commercial affairs and a competitive, self-regulating market economy in domestic affairs. The free market is efficient and fair, but it is also, Burke believed, natural and necessary. It is ‘natural’ in that it reflects a desire for wealth, a ‘love of lucre’, that is part of human nature. The laws of the market are therefore ‘natural laws’. He accepted that working conditions dictated by the market are, for many, ‘degrading, unseemly, unmanly and often most unwholesome’, but insisted that they would suffer further if the ‘natural course of things’ were to be disturbed. The capitalist free market could thus be defended on the grounds of tradition, just like the monarchy and the church. 

Neoliberals consider inflation to be the biggest threat to the market economy. By undermining financial confidence, inflation inhibits all forms of economic and business activity. To combat inflation, neoliberal thinkers call for government spending cuts to control the money supply. Both Thatcher and Reagan adopted this approach during the 1980s

Neoliberals also dismiss the mixed economy and public ownership on the grounds of expense and inefficiency, while endorsing 'supply side' economics as the path to growth and general prosperity. Government should focus on the 'supply side' to create the conditions to facilitate the highest possible levels of production. In practice, this means that producers' access to key economic resources (including capital, labour, and land) has to be unrestricted — so obstacles such as government regulation, high taxation and trade union influence over the labour market must be removed. Underlying this is the assumption that the innovative and dynamic qualities of entrepreneurs and wealth creators can only flourish when freed from these restraints.

Neoliberalism also justifies its opposition to state intervention by calling for individual liberty. Personal freedom can only be guaranteed by 'rolling back' the state, particularly social welfare programmes. The neoliberal objection to state welfare is partly economic (public services are inefficient and increasingly expensive, placing greater burdens on taxpayers) and partly moral.

Libertarian conservatives are not, however, consistent liberals. They believe in economic individualism and ‘getting government off the back of business’, but are less prepared to extend this principle of individual liberty to other aspects of social life. Conservatives, even libertarian conservatives, have a more pessimistic view of human nature. A strong state is required to maintain public order and ensure that authority is respected. Indeed, in some respects libertarian conservatives are attracted to free-market theories precisely because they promise to secure social order. Whereas liberals have believed that the market economy preserves individual liberty and freedom of choice, conservatives have at times been attracted to the market as an instrument of social discipline. Market forces regulate and control economic and social activity. For example, they may deter workers from pushing for wage increases by threatening them with unemployment. As such, the market can be seen as an instrument that maintains social stability and works alongside the more evident forces of coercion: the police and the courts. While some conservatives have feared that market capitalism will lead to endless innovation and restless competition, upsetting social cohesion, others have been attracted to it in the belief that it can establish a ‘market order’, sustained by impersonal ‘natural laws’ rather than the guiding hand of political authority.