The New Right

During the early post-1945 period, pragmatic and paternalistic ideas dominated conservatism through much of the western world. Just as conservatives had come to accept electoral reform and democracy during the nineteenth century, after 1945 they came to accept a form of social democracy. This tendency was confirmed by the long post- war economic boom, which appeared to bear out the success of ‘managed capitalism’.

During the 1970s, however, a set of more radical ideas developed within conservatism, challenging directly the Keynesian–welfare- post war consensus. These ‘New Right’ ideas had their greatest initial impact in the USA and the UK, greater censorship of television and films, and even campaigns against immigration or in favour of repatriation. In essence, the New Right is a marriage between two apparently contrasting ideological traditions:

  • The first of these is classical liberal economics, particularly the free-market theories of Adam Smith, which were revived in the second half of the twentieth century as a critique of ‘big’ government and economic and social intervention. This is called the ‘liberal New Right’, or neoliberalism’.

  • The second element in the New Right is traditional conservative – and notably pre-Disraelian – social theory, especially its defence of order, authority and discipline. This is called the ‘conservative New Right’, or ‘neoconservatism’

The New Right is therefore contradictory as it contains both radical, forward-looking and reactionary ideas and is linked to two contrasting political traditions. On the one hand, neo-liberals believe in rolling back the state to free individuals from constraints, while on the other hand neo-conservatives believe firmly in the importance of social order and hierarchy. At the heart, New Right conservatives believe that the individual must be free from state interference, but that human behaviour must be restricted by family, nation and morality. The two strands are also united by a desire to return to a past where the state did not interfere with the economy and where people followed strict moral codes that regulated social behaviour. Some also argue that as neo-liberal economics will result in higher unemployment and inequality, crime and social problems will inevitably be the consequence, therefore requiring a tougher stance on law and order. New Right thinking came to prominence in the UK and the USA in the 1980s as a response to what supporters saw as the failings of Keynesian mixed-economy post-war economic policies, the electoral failure of paternalistic conservative parties, and the belief in a radical change in social and moral values. It is profoundly different from other forms of conservatism for a range of reasons, one significant one being that it is clearly ideological rather than pragmatic, believing in human rationality and abstract theories such as the free market.