Traditional Conservatism

Conservative ideas arose in reaction to the growing pace of political, social and economic change, which, in many ways, was symbolised by the French Revolution. The classic, statement of conservative principles is contained in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France ([1790] 1968), which deeply regretted the revolutionary challenge to the ancien régime that had occurred the previous year. During the nineteenth century, western states were transformed by the pressures unleashed by industrialisation and reflected in the growth of liberalism, socialism and nationalism. While these ideologies preached reform, and at times supported revolution, conservatism stood in defence of an increasingly embattled traditional social order.

Broadly speaking, traditional conservatism defends the established order in society based on a commitment to organicism, hierarchy and paternalism. Traditional conservatives regard society as a sort of living or organic entity with complex interconnections and relationships. Any changes to one part will affect all the other parts, possibly in unforeseen and negative ways. Radical or abrupt changes are to be avoided. When change is desirable to adapt to a new situation, an organic society must evolve naturally at its own speed through small, pragmatic reforms to minimise any harmful consequences.

Traditional conservatism was opposed to any of the new reformist ideas of the eighteenth century, such as democracy and individual rights, and is reactionary and backward looking. Its main focus is the protection of social order and it originally represented the interests of landowners and the gentry. Traditional conservatives uphold core values such as a belief in the importance of tradition and custom, highlighting the bonds that hold together past, present and future generations. Edmund Burke argued that by abandoning traditions and ‘the accumulated wisdom of the ages’ and advocating new and abstract ideas, post-revolutionary France would inevitably end up as more oppressive than it was before. Often taking a rather romantic view of the past and rejecting ‘new’ ideas such as industrialisation, traditional conservatives believe strongly in the idea of organic society. This leads to nationalism and can also lead to regionalism or even localism.

For traditional conservatives, an organic society is founded on tried and tested institutions (such as the family, the church and the monarchy) that in various ways confer privileges, authority, responsibilities and obligations. These social arrangements are held in place by custom and tradition — the accumulated wisdom and experience of the past — to maintain a society bound together by powerful bonds of loyalty, affection and duty. Any changes that are introduced must preserve the best features of society and reconcile them to new circumstances. Reform has to be pragmatic, drawing on the lessons of history and tradition to establish practical, effective solutions.

Traditional conservatives also argue that the implementation of ideological blueprints and abstract theory to bring about an ideal society can only lead to disaster, as the example of the Jacobins

Jacobin a member of a democratic club established in Paris in 1789. The Jacobins were the most radical and ruthless of the political groups formed in the wake of the French Revolution, and in association with Robespierre they instituted the Terror of 1793–4.

Such an approach is not based on previous human experience and introduces drastic and swift changes that lead to social breakdown and destruction. In order to sustain itself, say traditional conservatives, the organic society has to be organised as a hierarchy for two main reasons:

  • People do not have the same abilities, talents and energy, so it is 'natural' that society should reflect this and 'artificial' that all humans should be considered equal.

· A hierarchy is a functional necessity because different people have to do different jobs and are rewarded differently (in pay and status) depending on the contribution they make. Hierarchy ensures that everyone works together harmoniously for the overall health of the social body.

Another contemporary conservative justification put forward for aristocratic leadership was paternalism or noblesse oblige. The longstanding practice of elite rule ensured that those in positions of authority could draw on class and family traditions of leadership, duty and social responsibility, and this meant that they were best placed to make decisions on behalf of (and for the good of) society as a whole. Traditional conservatives would consider this to be a form of soft paternalism since, in their view, other social groups within an organic society accept (and thus give their consent) that the 'natural' leaders are uniquely equipped to act in the best interests of all.