Why and to what extent have British Conservatives been committed to tradition and continuity?
Conservatism, as the term implies, refers generally to a political philosophy or a frame of mind that favors tradition, continuity and the status quo. However, Conservatism does not have a single uniform doctrine or thesis, and a Conservative party in one country may follow policies or have objectives that are vastly different from those of another country. For example, the Conservative movement in the United States has historically emphasized the principles of economic individualism and social Darwinism, which is closer to the concept of liberalism than the Burkean Conservative doctrine followed in the UK. In Britain, too, Conservatism has not remained a static doctrine but has incorporated aspects of progressivism and individualism, which were previously part of classical liberalism. This essay focuses mainly on the British Conservatives and explores the question as to why and to what extent have they been committed to tradition and continuity.
Origins of the Conservative Ideology and the British Conservatives
The Conservative philosophy evolved mainly as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment that emphasized reason, free enquiry, equality and individualism. Its leading proponent was Edmund Burke, an Anglo-Irish statesman who rejected the guiding principles of the French Revolution such as equality, majority rule and popular sovereignty in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and instead advocated order, balance, and cooperation in society; restraints on government; and the supremacy of natural and divine law. Burke also emphasized the continuity of inherited customs and traditions, which he considered essential for promoting a stable society, and believed that a natural elite by virtue of its superior birth, greater wealth and education, was best suited to provide leadership in such a society.
Burke argued in Reflections that tradition provided a much sounder foundation than “metaphysical abstractions” such as ‘reason’ for the development of a stable society. In his view, tradition that draws on the wisdom of many generations and has undergone the tests of time, was of far greater value than an abstraction such as ‘reason’ that may reflect the untested ideas (or bias) of an individual or a group of people. For Burke, implementation of any new idea for changing a society carries the very real risk of “unintended consequences” that may spell disaster; hence even if change was to be introduced in a society, it has to be done gradually and with extreme caution rather than suddenly through a revolution (Harries, 2003, p. 30).
Burke’s political philosophy, however, was not the only source of the Conservative ideology. The first ‘Tory’ Party which came into prominence when it opposed the Exclusion Bill (1678-81) during the reign of King Charles II purported to adhere to a similar ideology of support for tradition and the British Conservative Party, in fact, traces its origins to this Tory Party (Ball, 2008, Conservative Party Website).
When the Reform Act of 1832 lessened voting restrictions and increased the parliamentary seats, Sir Robert Peel, the then leader of the Tory Party adopted the name “Conservative” in order to attract new voters and to broaden the appeal of the Party. Later on, under the statesman Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Party shook off its tag of being just the defender of the landed and aristocratic elite alone, and expanded into a major national party by adopting ‘liberal conservatism’ which appealed to the urban lower and middle classes and even the trade unionists (Ibid.)
The Extent of Commitment to Tradition and Continuity by the British Conservatives
Over the years, the British Conservative Party has shown a degree of flexibility in adhering to the basic Conservative ideology of tradition and continuity. This has been progressively evident throughout its history, beginning with (a) acceptance of the basic tenets of liberal democracy including universal suffrage and the right of people to elect their own leaders as opposed to the ‘tradition’ of inherited monarchy; (b) the post World War II era when the Conservative party reconciled with and even extended Britain’s evolution as a welfare state; and – a dramatic shift in the direction of British conservatism towards free market economic policies during the Thatcher era under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Such accommodation has been explained by some Conservative intellectuals as falling within an expansive reading of the Conservative doctrine that is further divided into three broad sub-categories of traditionalism, individualism, and progressivism. These divisions have largely grown out of the experiences of the Conservative party both in government and opposition since its growth into a mass party in the latter half of the nineteenth century (Whiteley, Seyd & Richardson, 1994, p. 130)
Hence, while retaining the basic Conservative ideology of tradition and continuity stressed by Edmund Burke, the British Conservative Party has incorporated the liberal traditions of individualism and progressivism in its fold. For example, ‘Progressive’ Conservatism was first introduced by Disraeli in his “One Nation” Toryism, by forging a closer bond between the landed elites and common laborers and introducing a Reform Bill that extended voting rights to a broader swath of the working class. The concept was reinforced by Lord Randolph Churchill who proposed that the Conservatives must adopt, rather than oppose, popular reforms to challenge the claims of the Liberals that only they were champions of the masses; the policy became known as “Tory democracy.” ‘Progressive’ Conservatism was again revived by the Conservative Party several decades later to counter its crushing post-World War II election defeat against the Labor Party. This came from a realization that the party needed to modernize and reconcile itself to the popular concept of a welfare state and the Keynesian methods of macro-economic management.
Similarly, individualism, which is one of the basic tenets of classic liberalism (along with rationalism and linear progress), permeated into the Conservative Party after the Liberal Party split over Irish home rule in 1885 (Ibid., p. 131). Advocates of Individualism support a laissez-faire economy and believe in minimal government intervention in business. They support low taxes, a de-regulated business environment and are opposed to the concept of welfare state, since they are of the view that it (a welfare state) undermines self-reliance and enterprise and promotes idleness. Individualism is not overly sympathetic towards the poor and the unemployed as it opines that such misfortune is the result of an individual’s own laziness or incompetence. Margaret Thatcher was the chief proponent of this type of Conservatism whose long-running government in the 1980s carried out widespread privatization, promoted a free-market economy and dismantled much of the welfare state reforms that had been instituted in a post-World War II Britain (Davies, 1993).
Such apparent ‘deviations’ from the core Conservative philosophy by the British Conservative Party does not mean that ‘traditionalism’ has been abandoned altogether. ‘Adherence to tradition and continuity’ is still the defining ideological tendency of a majority of Conservatives and manifests itself in the Party’s opposition to social and political changes such as the emancipation of women, racial integration, the legalization of abortion, and easier divorce. ‘Traditional’ Conservatives in Britain tend to oppose the country’s closer ties with European Union, resist immigration and have been accused of showing covert, if not overt racism at times. Other typical traits of the traditional Conservatives include their strong support for the idea of social discipline, law and order and in an enduring moral order; they generally favor capital punishment and emphasize the importance of punishment as a means of dealing with crime. Another feature of Conservative traditionalism is its desire for continuity, particularly of the existing institutions such as the monarchy and the House of Lords, and its opposition to radical or ‘liberal’ constitutional changes such as the introduction of a Bill of Rights (Kirk, 2004).
The British Conservative Party has been one of the two largest national parties in UK ever since the introduction of broad-based, universal suffrage in the country over the past century or more. It represents the forces of tradition, continuity and status quo and has been the party of choice for voters who abhor left-leaning, ‘bleeding-heart’ liberals and state interference in private business. At the same time, the Party has not been averse to subtle changes in its ideology over the years as it has adopted several key liberal doctrines such as ‘progressivism’ and ‘individualism’ at various stages of its history. After the long stint of Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, the Conservative Party in Britain seems to have lost favor with the voters as it has fared poorly in the last few elections. Given the fact, however, that a large number of people who subscribe to the basic Conservative philosophy of tradition and continuity are its natural vote-bank, it may not be long before the Party bounces back into contention.
Ball, S, a Brief History of the Conservative Party, Conservative Party Website, Available from http://www.conservatives.com/tile.do?def=party.history.page[April7, 2008]
Davies, S, 1993, Margaret Thatcher and the Rebirth of Conservatism, John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, Ashland University, Available from http://www.ashbrook.org/publicat/onprin/v1n2/davies.html[April7, 2008]
Harries, O, 2003, “What it Means to Be Conservative, Policy,” Policy, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp 28-37, Available from http://www.cis.org.au/policy/winter03/polwin03-5.pdf[April7, 2008]
Kirk, R, 2004, Ten Conservative Principles, the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, Available from http://www.kirkcenter.org/kirk/ten-principles.html[April7,2008]
Whiteley, P, Seyd, P & Richardson, J, 1994, True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
The word is derived from the Latin conservare which means to protect, preserve, save
Burkean” doctrine refers to the writings and philosophy of Edmund Burke, an 18th century British statesman who is considered to be the father of Conservatism in much of the Western world
For Burke even “very plausible schemes with very pleasing commencements have often shameful and lamentable consequences” (Quoted by Harries, 2003, p.31)
The Exclusion Bill sought to ‘exclude’ King Charles’ brother from the throne as he had converted to Catholicism the Tories, being strong supporters the king’s right of succession and the Anglican Church, opposed the Bill while the Whig Party supported it.
The Conservative Party is still an enthusiastic supporter of the institution of British monarchy which is of a symbolic and ceremonial nature only without any political powers
The perception of the British Conservative Party as anti-European Union is believed to be one of the major reasons behind its poor showing at the polls in recent years.
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