The history of Conservatism

A history of modern Conservatism might start with Thomas Hobbes, who,  in  Leviathan (1651), defended absolutist government as the only alternative to anarchy and disorder. Reacting to  wars and in Europe and the English civil war, he portrayed life in a stateless society, the state of nature, as a ‘war of all against all’, based on the belief that human beings are essentially power-seeking and self-interested creatures. In Hobbes’ view, citizens have an unqualified obligation towards the state, because to limit the power of government is to risk a descent into the state of nature. Any system of political rule, however tyrannical, is preferable to no rule at all. Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature and his emphasis on the vital importance of authority have had a considerable impact on conservative thought. However, Hobbes’ writings also resembled early liberalism in some respects. This can be seen most clearly in the fact that he reached his absolutist conclusions through the use of a rationalist device, social contract theory, rather than through a belief in the divine right of kings. His concept of transferring individual rights to a governing body for collective security resonates strongly with traditional conservative ideals, prioritizing stability and protection from threats.

However, most textbooks find the origins of modern conservatism in the transition from agrarian to industrial societies. Industrialization brought about urbanization, leading to the emergence of major cities like Liverpool, Leeds, and Manchester. This shift also coincided with a decline in religious influence, as secularism gained prominence during the Enlightenment in the 18th century.

These changes represented a challenge to the old order and Conservatives became concerned about the threat of revolution and the rise of liberalism as significant political movements in the 19th century. The old order existed in the form of autocratic monarchies that were prevalent across Europe, with the state relying on the military to suppress dissent. The monarchy in the UK, which was seen as legitimate due to hereditary rule, underwent successful reforms to maintain popular support by presenting themselves as symbols of the nation. The aristocracy held power and wealth, influencing society, while the peasantry, predominantly rural, remained conservative due to their resistance to change. Churches, particularly the Catholic Church and Orthodox churches, wielded significant influence through propaganda to uphold conservative values and combat liberalism and democracy. These powerful institutions aimed to minimize change and preserve traditional beliefs well into the 20th century.

So the concept of conservatism stems from a desire to protect the hierarchical autocratic paternalist society, with concerns around industrialization and the fear of revolution. The French Revolution of 1789 is regarded as the birth of conservatism, as it devolved into chaos with the Reign of Terror led by figures like Robespierre. This revolution aimed to overhaul society entirely, from clothing to language to religion, resulting in widespread violence and upheaval. Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" is considered a foundational text of conservatism, critiquing the revolution's attempt to rebuild society from scratch based on abstract principles. Burke argued against revolutions and rationalist policies, advocating for a reliance on established institutions, communal ties, and traditional values like the spirit of a gentleman and religion. He emphasized the importance of viewing society as a contract between past, present, and future generations, promoting stability and continuity over radical change. Burke predicted that the French Revolution might not lead to the liberty its supporters expected due to his belief in the imperfection of human nature. The French Revolution would end, disastrously, he predicted because of its abstract foundations, purportedly rational, but which ignored the complexities of human nature and society.


 According to Burke, society functions as an organic entity with a natural hierarchy, contrasting the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution. Burke favored tradition over experimentation in political decisions, emphasizing pragmatism and careful evaluation for good and effective governance. Change that is extreme, abrupt, or deviates significantly from the current practices is likely to result in serious negative consequences.

Burke believed that “society is but a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born.” We must, therefore, construct civilisation by giving weight to our ancestors, ourselves and those still to be born.

Conservatism is often referred to as the politics of imperfection. Essentially, conservative doctrine is rooted in the belief that achieving a perfect society is unattainable due to the inherent imperfections of human beings. Human nature is characterized by a mix of good and bad qualities, making perfection impossible. As a result, any ideology promising a flawless future is considered deceitful. Conservatism rejects the notion of certainty and emphasizes caution in approaching the unknown future. It places value on history and tradition as key components of societal structure. Abstract reasoning and grand reform schemes are viewed as risky endeavors. A fundamental aspect of conservatism is its pessimistic view of human nature, viewing humans as inherently flawed due to original sin. This skepticism extends to the unrestricted freedom of individuals, as it is believed that unchecked liberty can lead to negative consequences. Conservatives prioritize the preservation of order, authority, and civilized values, recognizing the fragility of these elements in society. Individual liberty is favored over equality, with conservatives asserting that true equality is unattainable and potentially harmful due to its tendency towards uniformity. Moreover, conservatives express concerns about democracy and popular sovereignty, fearing the power of the masses to disrupt established social order. The defense of private property, particularly landed property, is central to conservative values, as it is seen as a foundation for individual freedom and stability in contrast to the volatility of money. Traditional moral principles such as marriage and family are championed by conservatives, who advocate for a shared moral framework in society. This emphasis on a common morality, often rooted in religious beliefs, reflects conservatism's stance against moral relativism and diversity in moral values.



Conservatism's ability to adapt to changing circumstances has been a key factor in the success of the British Conservative Party throughout history. By expanding their appeal beyond the traditional elite electorate and embracing democracy, conservatives have been able to reinvent themselves and remain competitive in elections. One significant development within conservatism was the emergence of one-nation conservatism under Disraeli, which emphasized the responsibility of elites to care for the less fortunate and engage with the working class. This shift towards inclusivity and recognition of the evolving society has been crucial for the party's success, in elections. The broad appeal of One Nation Conservatism was successful- arguably the most successful electoral formation in British politics and only significantly challenged by Blair’s New Labour ‘third-way’ politics in the 1990s 

 Another important evolution within conservatism is the rise of Christian democracy, particularly in Germany post-World War II, reflecting changing attitudes towards democracy and society. Conservatives also recognized the declining influence of the aristocracy and began appealing to the emerging industrial and capitalist elites, broadening their support base and modernizing their approach. Furthermore, embracing the concept of empire and patriotism became a popular message for conservative parties, distinguishing them from their liberal counterparts. 

However, not all changes within conservatism have been positive, with the emergence of racist doctrines and anti-Semitic movements towards the end of the 19th century raising concerns and leading to troubling ideologies gaining traction within certain conservative circles. These developments, including nationalist sentiments and growing anti-Semitic sentiments, foreshadowed the rise of fascism in the 20th century. While some conservative movements embraced these ideas, it underscored the complex and often problematic shifts within conservatism during this period.


Parliamentary governments and political parties quickly became associated with corruption and inefficiency, particularly in countries like Italy and France. This led to the rise of anti-parliamentary conservatism, which emphasized the need for a strong leader. This ideology, which emerged before the First World War, laid the foundation for early forms of nationalist socialism. As the 20th century progressed, these conservative movements evolved significantly, giving rise to various strands of conservatism, ranging from moderate British conservatism to radical, anti-parliamentary, and anti-Semitic movements in continental Europe. The appeal of populist nationalism remains a feature of politics in the USA with Trump and in Europe with the rise of far-right parties in Italy, France, and Hungary. 


In a sense, the far right and fascism were a crisis of modernism and a faltering of the optimism which existed at the end of the 19th Century. It was the First World War that had a profound effect on public opinion, resulting in the death of millions of people and fueling distrust towards established political elites. It also played a significant role in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In Western Europe, the aftermath of the war saw the emergence of extreme right-wing conservative forces, exemplified by the rise of leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. This era marked a shift towards a unique form of conservative radicalism, characterized by a desire to reshape society and create a new type of individual while still relying on traditional conservative institutions. The tension within these movements between their radical and conservative elements was palpable. 

Sir Oswald Mosley being saluted by his followers, London, October 1936 

Many conservatives were indeed drawn to radical nationalist movements during this period. For instance, in Britain during the 1930s, there were numerous individuals, not only overt fascists but also those intrigued by the events unfolding in Germany under Hitler's regime.

But not all conservatives reacted to the trauma of the First War by turning to radicalism there was also a desire for security in traditional social bonds and obligations often referred to as the spirit of the trenches. The experience of war was very much an experience of bringing people together, where people served together in situations of extreme hardship. And out of that, came the desire to build a better society and a fairer society.  Twentieth Century conservation has adapted to this desire. The assertion of One Nationism was also influenced by the the Great Depression and very high unemployment inflation, and economic stagnation. 

An expression of this stand of British Conservatism can be found in a book by Harold Macmillan. Harold Macmillan was the conservative prime minister in Great Britain at the end of the 1950s into 1963. And he had experienced, the First World War. He'd been in office in the First World War. And he was the MP for Stockton in County Durham, where he saw mass unemployment..He wrote a book called "The Middle Way," which he published in 1938, and its theme is a concern to improve the conditions of the British working class. To that end, Harold Macmillan was prepared to contemplate things like, for example, the nationalization of the mines, the nationalization of the energy suppliers, the reform of the Stock Exchange, and the introduction of a minimum wage.  These ideas and aspirations were intensified by the experience of the Second World War.



The Macmillan type of one-nation conservatism became the dominant form of conservatism in the UK. Conservatives were willing to engage in the process of building the welfare state, by building public housing, where Macmillan, for example, was proud of the fact that in one year, the conservative government built 300,000 council houses. The Keynesian post-war economic consensus, which was accepted by  Social Democratic  Labour is sometimes called ‘Butskellism.' Both Labour and Conservatives followed similar programmes of welfare, social medicine, and a mixed economy.


This placed the Conservative Party very, very much on the center ground and the middle way where the  Conservative Party identified itself as the party of all the people, not just the rich, but the poor, the middle classes. This had great electoral appeal since it managed to sell itself as the party of traditional values and one-nation conservatism. This became the dominant form of conservatism until the 1970s.


In Europe, conservatism reacted to the defeat of fascism and the dominant political force of Western Europe in particular is Christian democracy. This is a form of conservatism and is essentially inspired by Catholic doctrine which was a mix of social conservatism and a willingness to use the state for welfare policies. Christian Conservatism also led the way to the creation of the European Union. These were the people who came out of the Second World War and were convinced that a new way had to be found for Europe in the post-war era. And they committed themselves very early to creating a European Union. 

In Britain, conservatism during the mid-20th century was a moderate centrist approach that utilized state intervention for social and economic policies. This period was marked by low unemployment and steady economic growth. 

Michael Oakeshott presents a perspective on conservatism that contrasts with Hobbes' bleak outlook. Oakeshott, an English writer and academic of the 20th century, offers a more apolitical interpretation of conservatism, focusing on cherishing life's pleasures and minimizing political entanglements. His views signify a shift towards modern conservatism, reflecting a departure from traditional notions towards a more individual-centred approach.

In his essay "On Being Conservative" (1956) Oakeshott explained what he regarded as the conservative disposition: "To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."

“in political activity men sail a boundless and bottomless sea.” In other words, it has neither a starting point nor an appointed destination. The realm of political ideas is therefore beyond our limited understanding.



According to Oakeshott attempts to enforce a specific vision on its populace politicians are committing what he deems the most significant offense in politics, which he labels rationalism. Rationalism in politics involves attempting to shape society according to a specific plan.


In this regard, Oakeshott appears quite similar to Burke, but unlike Burke, Oakeshott harbors deep suspicions towards the state. Living during the Cold War, a period when British and American political methods were praised for upholding liberty while the Soviet Union was demonized as an adversary of freedom, Oakeshott can best be understood in that context. He argues that a conservative government should refrain from excessive intervention. Instead, the conservative approach should focus on ensuring that the nation's citizens have the freedom to pursue their own definition of a fulfilling life. Therefore, Oakeshott serves as a link between the one-nation conservative tradition and the new right, earning admiration from supporters in both camps.

Oakeshott rejected a knighthood offered by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1981. This may seem surprising. However, Oakeshott was not only disinterested in the practical application of political ideas, he was also profoundly against the rationalistic projects and schemes of politicians across the political spectrum. He certainly did not like the neo-liberalism of Thatcher, nor the idea that a politician’s job was to try and improve people’s lives by achieving certain goals.

However, a shift began in the 1960s and became more pronounced in the 1970s with the emergence of stagflation, characterized by stagnant economic growth, high inflation rates, and increased unemployment. Intellectual figures like Friedrich von Hayek and authors such as Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand started articulating alternative ideologies that advocated for a limited state and minimal government intervention. Their ideas gained traction, leading to a shift towards a more ideologically driven form of conservatism. This ideological shift culminated in the rise of leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who implemented policies focused on reducing the size of the state, promoting market-driven solutions, and advocating for low taxation and privatization. This transformation is often labeled as neoliberalism, signifying a departure from traditional centrist conservatism towards a more principled and ideological stance.

 Both individuals strongly advocate libertarianism, with Nozick especially believing that any state action beyond the bare essentials, such as providing security, infringes upon people's freedoms. This overreach, in his view, hinders individual development. Like the New Right in Britain, Nozik argues that state interference in the economy leads to reduced prosperity, suggesting that the state should avoid wealth redistribution and limit its efforts in providing welfare, leaving such matters primarily to the citizens themselves. The only type of state that can be morally justified is a minimal or 'night watchman' state with powers Limited to those necessary to protect people against violence and theft. Nozick also used the concept of self-ownership to support this right-wing libertarian position. Dating back at least to the liberal political philosopher John Locke (163Z-1704), self-ownership is based on the idea that individuals own themselves - their bodies, talents, abilities and labour, and the rewards or products created by their talents, abilities, and labour. Nozick maintained that self-ownership gives the individual the right to determine what can be done with the 'possession'. Self-ownership gives a person rights to the various elements that make up one's self.

For these reasons, Nozick asserted, self-ownership also opposes taxation to fund welfare programmes and supports the minimal state. Viewed from this perspective such taxation is a form of slavery- in effect the state gives others and entitlement ( in the form of welfare benefits) to part of the rewards of an individual's labour. Citizens who are entitled to benefits become part owners of the individual since they own part of the product of their labour. The state should not regulate how people eat, drink or smoke since this violates the principle of self-ownership.



This sentiment aligns with Ayn Rand's perspective, where she espouses a more spiritually inclined libertarianism that emphasizes self-growth. The Russian-born American philosopher, novelist and conservative, Ayn Rand (1905-82) She asserts that being obstructed or dictated to by others impedes one's ability to develop as a human being. Rand's response was objectivism, a libertarian philosophical system that advocates the virtues of rational self-interest and maintains that individual freedom supports a pure, laissez-faire capitalist economy. These ideas were publicised chiefly through Rand's novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Objectivism was Rand's most important contribution to political thought. She claimed that it offered a set of principles covering all aspects of human life, including politics, economics, culture and human relationships. In her view, reason provided the fundamental basis of human life and this led her to endorse a form of ethical individualism that claimed that the rational pursuit of self-interest was morally right. Rand's justification for this position,  she called 'the virtue of selfishness’.



Both these thinkers represent a significant departure from Edmund Burke, who believed that without constraints, individuals would evolve in detrimental ways for society. Hobbes, on the other hand, held a more pessimistic view of human nature.


This type of conservatism places a strong emphasis on ideas, which differs from traditional conservatism that tends to downplay the importance of ideas. This ideologically-driven conservatism has proven to be successful in elections. Additionally, anti-communism played a significant role in shaping the beliefs of these conservatives, particularly exemplified by figures like Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who were instrumental in the downfall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Central and Eastern European countries. This new form of conservatism is more committed to advancing conservative arguments and ideologies.  This shift from traditional conservatism to the New Right marked a transition towards a more individualistic variant of conservatism, prompting questions about whether these principles aligned more with liberalism. 

 Today, we see a coexistence of two forms of conservatism: the hardcore ideological conservatives who champion Brexit and free markets, and those who believe conservatism should be practical and willing to use government intervention when necessary. 

The differences within Conservatism have still been apparent in the direction taken by the British Conservative Party. In 2005 the election of David Cameron as the Conservative Party leader. Cameron sought to broaden the scope of liberty advocated by Thatcherite conservatism beyond economic aspects to encompass personal freedoms. This evolution included support for same-sex marriage, challenging traditional social moralities favored by previous Conservative leaders. Cameron's efforts to modernize the Conservative Party by aligning economic and social freedoms sparked internal discord, with some questioning his conservative credentials. His tenure, marked by coalition governance with the Liberal Democrats, further fueled skepticism among critics. Ultimately, Cameron's resignation following the 2016 referendum highlighted the ongoing evolution and internal divisions within the Conservative Party, reflecting a struggle between Thatcherite economics and potential shifts towards a more compassionate capitalism without reverting to pre-Thatcher state intervention. The current key point of contention lies in defining Britain's national role and the corresponding expression of patriotism.


Nothing illustrates the internal divisions in Conservatism more clearly than the difficulty the Conservative Party has had with the issue of the UKs membership of the EU. While the Conservative Party has always prioritized patriotism as a key element of its platform. The party remains divided, with some advocating for Britain to remain in the European Union for the best interests of the country, while others firmly believe that Britain should reclaim its independence by exiting the EU

Finally in 2024 the Popular conservatives- a small group Popular Conservatism or PopCon, is a right-wing faction within the British Conservative Party. The director of the group is Mark Littlewood, who is an ally of the former prime minister Liz Truss The Trussites and new right neo-liberals have now been outflanked  by the Reform Party which a programme of free markets, low taxes, and social conservatism.