Conservatism- tensions within the ideology

  • Created by: Eeh16
  • Created on: 25-04-22 14:29

The State

  • Authority 
  • Organic 
  • Ruling Elite
  • Nation-State
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  • Hobbes wrote of the need for 'formal equality' and the chaos that happens without it. He believed in the need for an autocratic state but he also talked about the need for consent.
  • Whilst this goes further than most conservatives would want it does establish the key notion that order is needed before liberty can be established- state precedes society. Before the state, there's chaos. With a state that has formal authority and that can maintain law and order then you start tp gain a semblance of society and in this society, you can start to establish liberty.
  • Law and order are therefore a key cornerstone of any conservative state. Conservative beliefs about human nature and its imperfection ensure their belief in the need for a strong firm state that will maintain the discipline of the people. 
  • Therefore if you have conservative politicians they are likely to stand for strong actions in terms of judges, strong powers for police and military in terms of security.
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  • A lot of this comes from the writings of Burke.
  • According to conservatives, a state develops over time 'organically' rather than being created at a given moment through a 'rational discussion'. This makes a lot of sense in terms of looking at cons in the UK. It makes less sense when you look at cons in the US, where there was rational discussion- a constitution formed.
  • Conservatives dislike a state being created on ideas rather than emerging slowly based on wanted is needed (empirical)- based on evidence, what's needed by people at a given moment in time. In the Uk, Conservatives will resist liberals' demands for a codified constitution where one does not exist. They prefer the state to be free to adapt as required (organic).- Codified constitution in the US- defended strongly by the constitution.
  • Commitment to tradition will make conservatives more likely to support whatever system is in place. (US conservatives will stand by their constitution.) This isn't actually so conflicting- both us and uk resist change to the state. Interestingly, Burke backed the American revolution before writing a book attacking the French one. 
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Ruling Elite

  • Traditionally Conservatism supports the rights of the elites of a country to rule.
  • They embrace hierarchy in the state and have supported aristocratic rule and hereditary powers over democracy. (Conservatives traditionally support the monarchy and the House of Lords- resisted the calls for greater and greater democracy- prefer to conform to conserve)
  • The ruling elite is seen as being born to rule (In February 2020, it was noted that 65% of Bojo's cabinet were privately educated, 9/12 of last con Pm went to private schools) and acts paternalistically ensuring the state when needed helped social cohesion and prevented demands for radical change or revolution (Con government will talk about helping the less fortunate to keep them in line)
  • However, they would also aim to maintain traditional positions in society in terms of wealth and power. 
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  • Nation and state are strongly connected in conservative ideology (since the 19th Century). And the identity of the nation is often linked to the state. (in the USA and UK: monarchy, presidents, and constitution)- symbols of being British or American.
  • In Europe nations often predate states (Germany and Italy became big formal states around 1870, whilst as nations, they existed well before political union) and so nationalism is less tied to political institutions. Possibly explaining the difference in the attitude of people in the Uk compared with places like Germany toward a closer political union because the german and Italian nationality isn't linked up in the same way to the political institutions.
  • New Right: strengthen nation-state whilst making it smaller? Yes, according to Rand it becomes leaner and can concentrate on order and security as you aren't worrying so much about the economy and the welfare state. Nozick however was hostile to the state (e.g taxation). It becomes difficult to reconcile all the different elements of con together due to the New Right.
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Human Nature

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  • Hobbes argues that people are imperfect, in fact they are ruthlessly selfish, calculating, and competitive. Without the state restraining them, humans would regard each other with 'envy and hatred' and would exist in a perpetual war meaning life was 'nasty, brutish and short'.
  • Hobbes' vision of humanity in Leviathan (1651) he described a world of chaos before there was a formal state- this is one of the reasons why his ideal form of state is an authoritarian one as he feels humanity really needs restraining. He did however credit humanity with some rationality in that it created states.
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Sceptical: Burke- not as bad as Hobbes suggests

  • Burke dismissed human rationality and provided a sceptical view of humanity that never achieves what it desires and completely dismissed the idea that a utopia could be created (wrote this in reaction to the French Revolution)- he rejects this new form of enlightened thinking.
  • For Burke, humanity was flawed.
  • Burke did not however see people as quite the monsters described by Hobbes. He didn't see the same ruthlessness and thought of humans as more communal than individualistic. He saw the church as having a central role and also community (little platoons) giving individuals the support and comfort they need. 
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One Nation

  • Humans fear the unknown and dislike change, instead preferring routine and familiarity. (conservatism is more psychology than ideology)
  • Oakeshott argued that people are 'fragile and fallible' however he was more in line with Burke than Hobbes arguing that without laws to guide them human life would be 'noise, foolish and flawed' and stressed the importance of religion.
  • He did however argue that humanity was capable of being 'benign and benevolent' linking to one nation's views of paternalism.
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New Right- rational thought

  • Humans naturally desire individual freedom and have the ability to innovate and be enterprising.
  • Ayn Rand wrote 'The Virtue of Selfishness' which argued that 'objectivism'- self-interest and self-fulfillment drove human behaviour.
  • Nozick also saw people as egotistical, seeing this as the way for people to reach their full potential and the state should leave them alone to do so. His view on humanity is not fully positive and he sees the need for some formal authority.
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  • want traditional values and agree on the importance of order in society. Against permissiveness (although not all explicitly) Paternalism. change to conserve.
  • society emerged organically and is fragile. Organicism.


  • Traditional conservatives believe society is more important than the individual:- More natural hierachy/inequality., People in society have duties, Collective one nation.
  • New Right believe in more individualism than collectivism: - More meriocratic, Liberal individualistic view 'no such thing as society'.
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Localism or individualism

  • Burke argued society was made up of local communities that he described as 'little platoons'. These would give people security, and status and lead to a sense of community. Such ideas continue through one-nation conservatism and thinkers such as Oakeshott.
  • The New Right however champions individualism, even questioning society as a concept. In this view of this aspect of society, they are closer to liberalism than conservatism.
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Organic society

The belief that society cannot be artificially created.

Instead, it emerges slowly overtime and is subject to forces that cannot be controlled or possibly understood, making the future of society uncertain and also leading to responses to the question 'why do we do things like this?' to be things like 'we just do' or 'it is tradition.

Society is a plan to be kept alive rather than a vehicle that can be driven towards a given destination or a machine that can be made to follow instructions. Seeing society as a living organic thing means conservatives believe its fundamentals cannot be changed. 

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  • The customs and habits of society are really important to conservatives.
  • Turning away from them risks the future of the organic society they believe in.
  • All change should be gradual and we should always be mindful of the past. This can lead to a conservative defense of things that you might think would suit them to change e.g union and devolution.
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  • Conservatives accept that society is unequal in that some have more resources and opportunities than others and see no reason to adjust this.
  • They see those at the top as being there for good reason and accept that they will have power and privilege.
  • But Conservatives (one-nation) believe that those at the top of the hierarchy are obliged through paternalism to look after those lower.
  • The new right are happy with the inequality but far less keen on paternalism.
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Judaeo- Christian morality

  • Conservatism has a long and continuing connection to religion (especially in America- Trump even clearing protestors so he can visit a church.)
  • Link to their belief in humanity being flawed and in need of instruction.
  • Strong support for marriage, family values (including positions on abortion in US).
  • Belief holding people to account for their actions and mistakes rather than blaming society.
  • Religion and morality seen as a way of binding society together.
  • Traditionally in the Uk support for the conservatives was linked to attending the Anglican Church.
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  • Private property is important:- it gives a stake in society, Ensures order (Hobbes)
  • Agree with the concept of some sort of capitalism-


  • Traditional conservatives have a more flexible view of the economy. Accept state involvement where it works. 
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Inequality and hierarchy

  • There is no thought in conservatism that inequality is bad or should be removed.
  • Property is central to conservatism and therefore it naturally looks to protect land and property ownership, traditionally the basis of the wealth of the elite.
  • One Nation supports social reform to help those at the bottom of society against the vagaries of market forces. This is however motivated by the desire to maintain hierarchy and prevent support to overthrow them.
  • New right championed inequality by championing the wealth of yuppies in the 1980s.
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Laissez-faire economics

  • Burke supported the ideas of Adam Smith.
  • The new right is closely linked to Neoliberal economic thinking from von Hayek and Friedman.
  • New right support free-market economics as sen with Reaganomics in the US and Thatcherism in the Uk.
  • New right: remove the state from the economy, and the economy will generate money that can be spent on security.
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Reluctant supporters of capitalism

  • Markets are not best left alone, don't share liberal optimism.
  • State intervention: protectionism promoted by traditional conservatives, notably in the 19th century. Through import duties, national industries and producers were protected against foreign imports. Meant higher prices are often most keenly felt by the less well-off but protected jobs.
  • State intervention: Keynesian Economics- updated paternalism of One Nation looking for after all members of society.
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