Given the nature of the contemporary arguments heard by members of the Conservative Party, it could be assumed that Conservatism is an ideology that has always been true to the qualities of the free market and the belief that state intervention should be kept to a minimum in the operation of the economy. However, it should be emphasized that the practice for Conservatives to insist that such beliefs should he held as a matter of principle has been a relatively recent development. Indeed, it was only with the development of the New Right during the 1970s that substantial numbers of Conservatives came to voice the neo-liberal view that economic prosperity was reliant on 'pushing back the state' and ensuring as much space as possible for private enterprise by self-sufficient individuals.

  • Looking back at the traditional Conservatism that was widely supported by large numbers up to the 1970s, we see a very different view of how the state should engage with the economy. As already explained, one of the most obvious features of this particular strand of Conservatism was a belief in the need to engage with a range of political questions in a pragmatic manner: to be prepared to deliver social and economic reforms in a careful manner, in whatever way that seemed appropriate in the circumstances. With this in mind, Traditional Conservatives, such as the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and also English politicians such as Harold MacMillan and R.A. Buttler, were sceptical of the Social Democrats' arguments that insisted that it was only by supporting 'state control' that an economy could be achieved that would operate in a fair and effective manner. But at the same time, they expressed great doubts when some on the right-wing of the political spectrum began to argue that a stance should be adopted which rejected any state intervention in the economy as a matter of principle. As Oakeshott argued, the two perspectives in the end had the same ideological weakness: ‘A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics’ (1962: 212).

  • Harold-MacMillan.jpg
    Harold MacMillan
  • Consequently, while Traditional Conservatives had been wary of embracing the Social Democrats’ faith in the state's ability to steer the economy, they did not consider either that such policies should be opposed in a completely dogmatic way. Instead, it was the view of this Conservative group that they should be prepared to support whichever economic programme that seemed to work at the time - to be pragmatic. In the United Kingdom, this is the reason why the Conservative Governments of the 1950s and 1960s did not seek to undo many of the far-reaching social and economic reforms introduced by the 1945-51 Labour Government - measures that included establishing the national health service, the introduction of a more comprehensive education system and the nationalization of important industrial sectors such as coal, steel, gas, electricity and the railways. In the following decades, these measures appeared to be bearing fruit and so the pragmatic Conservatives of the period were ready to accept and support them.

    However, today the economic view among Conservatives has changed. Due to the major international economic difficulties of the 1970s, the type of debates expressed by the New Right about the need to limit the economic role of the state gained greater credibility. This led to important changes in the type of policy programmes offered by Conservative political parties, particularly here in the United Kingdom and also in the US Republican Party. These policy programmes aimed in principle to cut public expenditure levels and to reduce the 'size' of the state, for example by privatising a range of industries and services that were previously part of the public sector. This was in stark contrast to the more pragmatic and gradual approach of the Conservatives of previous decades and to a large extent this has been the trend in Conservative circles ever since.