Although several had suggested that Edmund Burke should be regarded as the father of Conservatism, it would be wrong to claim that the ideas had developed along one particular route, adhering strictly to the original arguments outlined by him in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Instead, since Burke's initial contribution Conservatism has developed in various ways and today a range of different Conservative streams can be identified. Here are three of the most significant.

  • Authoritative Conservatism

    Emphasis on authority tends to be a prominent feature in Conservative work. Despite this, today Conservatives have generally come to terms with democracy and accept that legitimate political authority should derive from 'the consent of the people'. However, some Conservatives have taken a different position by arguing that the traditional emphasis on authority should be extended to include a belief in authoritarian governing arrangements. Authoritarianism can be defined as a belief in the importance of 'government from above'; that is, governance arrangements that are not dependent on consent and which, rather, place an emphasis on the wisdom, ability and integrity of whoever is leading. Faith in the authenticity of this method of governance stems from a belief in the importance of order and the assumption that order can only be maintained if people obey the government in an unquestionable manner.

    A stream of Conservatism developed which emphasized similar themes in the early years of the nineteenth century and was particularly influential across parts of the 'continent’ of Europe. One political thinker associated with this stream of Conservatism was the Frenchman Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821). Like Edmund Burke, de Maistre was a harsh critic of the events of the French Revolution. However, unlike Burke, de Maistre wanted to restore the all-powerful royal regime that existed before the Revolution, without any reforms in order to make that regime more acceptable to the mass of the population. De Maistre was completely unwilling to accept any change to the ancien régime which was demolished in 1789. These arguments reflect the emphasis of the Authoritarian Conservatives on the need to maintain order above all else. It was only by ensuring a well-organized and stable society that people could feel safe and achieving this, in the opinion of thinkers such as de Maistre, called for full obedience to the 'master'. A warning was given that revolutionary, or even, gradual and organic social reforms, similar to those favoured by Burke, would weaken the ties that held organized society together and open the door to anarchy. Indeed, according to de Maistre, even cruel leaders should be obeyed, as questioning the authority of these people would only lead to greater uncertainty and suffering.

    Many European Conservatives remained true to similar arguments for much of the nineteenth century, for example in Russia under the Tsar Nicholas 1st and also in Catholic countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy. This happened despite the wave of Liberal, Socialist and Nationalist ideas seen gaining ground during this period; ideas that recommended a range of far-reaching social changes. At the same time, in other cases Authoritarian Conservatives were seen to be successful in harnessing support among the new electorate. For example, in France between 1804 and 1815, Napoleon gained support by linking authoritarianism with the promise of growth and economic prosperity. Something similar was done in Argentina during the 1940s and 1950s when Juan Perón succeeded in taking power on a populist agenda. It must also be remembered that many of the early Nazi ideas reinforce the emphasis on authority, obedience and the promise of economic prosperity. Many of these ideas were highlighted in writings by the German philosopher Carl Schmitt. This highlights the fact that Authoritarian Conservatism has often overlapped with Fascist ideas.

    Traditional Conservatism

    While a number of nineteenth-century continental Conservatives adopted attitudes characterized by uncompromising opposition to political or social change of any kind, a more moderate Conservative tradition, and ultimately more successful electorally, has developed within Anglo-American circles. To a large extent, this tradition was more in keeping with the original ideas outlined by Edmund Burke.

    What had caused particular concern to Burke in following the developments of the Revolution in France was the speed with which the royal regime which had been in operation for centuries was overthrown and the way that attempts had been made to put a completely new regime in its place. This was a very dangerous step in his opinion, as he stated in the following famous quotation:

    • ‘It is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purpose of society’ (Burke, Reflections, 1790: 152).

    Burke believed that traditional organizations or practices that have survived over a long period of time - for example, in the case of France, the monarchy - should be respected and that people should strive to maintain them. He insisted that, through survival, such traditions had proved to have intrinsic value and that they had come to embody important historical knowledge and wisdom that should not be depreciated.

    However, while Burke strongly felt that traditional institutions or practices needed to be respected, he did not believe that political and social change should be resisted on every occasion. Instead, careful and orderly change - a change described by him as organic in nature - was acceptable. Indeed, he argued that a gradual change of this kind was necessary for the survival of society and its traditional practices and institutions:

    • ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’ (Burke, Reflections, 1790: 285).

    Therefore, Burke's preference was for a gradual change to maintain the traditional, and these are the kind of assumptions that emerge in the ideas of the Conservative group that followed him during the second half of the nineteenth century and then the first half of the twentieth century. This is a numerous group of people that are often described as the Traditional Conservatives. Another label used from time to time to describe this group is the Paternal Conservatives.

    In the case of the United Kingdom, an important figure which contributed to the further evolution of this Conservative tradition was Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881). Disraeli is known mainly as a politician - he was Prime Minister in 1868 and again between 1874 and 1880 - but he was also a notable novelist and many of his political ideas were originally expressed in novels such as Sybil (1845) and Conigsby (1844). These works were published at a time of considerable social and political tension. To begin with, the damaging social effects of industrialization, such as difficult working conditions, polarization of wealth and health problems, had become increasingly apparent in Britain and also on the continent. In addition, in parts of Europe such problems were used by political parties as a basis for pushing for radical social changes. 1830 and 1848 in particular are remembered as years of revolutions and political tension across the continent. Disraeli was concerned about such developments and his great political message was that Britain was in danger of becoming 'two nations': the rich and the poor. This would then result in severe instability. To avoid this, he argued that Britain needed to undertake a process of careful political and social reform.

    Of course, similar arguments were put forward by Liberals and Socialists during the same period. However, there was a clear Conservative tone to the way in which Disraeli framed his arguments. To begin with, he emphasized that it was careful and gradual reform that should be undertaken. But in addition, reflecting his Conservative world view, his arguments combined pragmatic and principled elements. On the one hand, Disraeli insisted that allowing the economic inequality of the period to intensify would ultimately lead to a British revolution, similar to that seen in parts of Europe. This would jeopardize the status of society's privileged members, and consequently he insisted that it would be sensible for these people to support gradual reform, before things went too far. Such reform could protect the interests of these people in the long term. That therefore is the pragmatic side of his argument. But on the other hand, his argument had a moral and principled aspect. He suggested that wealth and privilege lead to social responsibility, especially responsibility to assist those who are poor and less fortunate. In professing such arguments, Disraeli was not drawing near to socialists or social liberals. Unlike these people he did not place great emphasis on equality. Rather, he believed in the Conservative idea of natural inequality or hierarchy. However, he believed that this hierarchy gave rise to specific duties, namely that the privileged were expected to reach out to help the less fortunate.

    During his political career Disraeli succeeded in turning these arguments into practical action. He was responsible for the introduction of the 'Second Reform Act' in 1867, the bill which led to the extension of the right to vote to members of the working class for the first time. He was also responsible for a range of social reforms which contributed to improving housing and health conditions for the working class. In addition, the ideas and actions of Disraeli had a great influence on the world view of many later Conservatives. In Britain, this group is known as the 'One Nation Conservatives', a Conservative stream that has continued to hold Disraeli's belief in the need to balance a belief in order and tradition with a willingness to behave in a pragmatic manner and to introduce social reform in a gradual and careful way. Indeed, this is a Conservative stream that proved to be very influential in Britain during much of the twentieth century. It is thought to have been central to the programmes of the Conservative governments of Harold MacMillan (1957-1963) and, to a lesser extent, Edward Heath (1970-1974). For example, its influence is seen in the pragmatic way in which these governments have sought to guide the economy, combining a desire to promote private enterprise among individuals with a willingness to recognize that it is appropriate for the state to manage and regulate certain significant economic sectors, such as the steel and coal industries. More recently, it was suggested that John Major and David Cameron were also politicians who, in some ways, leaned towards this particular stream of pragmatic and gradual Conservatism.

    Traditional Conservatism was also seen gaining ground in parts of Europe during the years following the Second World War. For example, these were the ideas that underpinned the politics of the Christian Democratic parties formed in countries such as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland during this period and which experienced significant electoral success, particularly in Germany. As with the United Kingdom’s 'One Nation' Conservatives, the leaders of these parties, for example Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of Germany between 1983 and 1998, believed that the state should be allowed to intervene in social and economic areas as long as there was a pragmatic case for that and that it was possible for any amendments to be introduced in a gradual manner.

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    Benjamin Disraeli
  • The New Right

    In the years following the end of the Second World War in 1945, it was the gradual, pragmatic and paternal world view associated with the Traditional group that held the upper hand within Conservative circles. The popularity of this particular stream of Conservatism was, to a large extent, the result of a constant willingness to compromise: initially with the wave of democratic ideas that consistently gained ground throughout the nineteenth century; and then later with the increasing emphasis given during the twentieth century on the need for the state to intervene in social and economic policy areas. Indeed, by the 1950s several political commentators argued that there was some kind of consensus emerging regarding the political middle ground - a consensus encompassing a range of Traditional Conservatives as well as a range of Social Liberals and also Democratic Socialists. This is often referred to as 'the Keynesian consensus', because those who belonged to it tended to accept some of the basic beliefs of the economist John Maynard Keynes, about the need for social and economic arrangements that recognized the key role of the state.

  • John-Maynard-Keynes.jpg
    John Maynard Keynes
  • However, during the 1970s this consensus was destroyed by a new political movement which is now known as the 'New Right'. As this is a movement seen developing on the right side of the political spectrum, the New Right tends to be treated as a stream of ideas belonging to Conservatism. On the whole, doing so is appropriate. Yet, it needs to be recognized that this is not a well-organized body of coherent ideas brought together under the New Right label. Rather it can be interpreted as a tradition that encompasses two branches that draw on ideas derived from two different sources:

    • • The neo-liberal branch is based on Classical Liberal ideas about the economy, and in particular the ideas of thinkers such as Adam Smith about the need to promote fully free markets by restricting state control on economic issues. Ideas such as this were given renewed attention during the second half of the twentieth century as the economic and social interference of the state became increasingly far-reaching. Indeed, by the 1970s it was assumed that this state intervention was largely responsible for the huge economic slowdown experienced across western countries and the considerable inflation that came in its wake. The answer, in the opinion of thinkers such as the economists Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992) and Milton Friedman (1912-2006), was to adopt a radical political programme that would lead to 'pushing back the state', leaving more space for private enterprise. In terms of practical action, this led to an emphasis on the privatisation of services and industries that were previously part of the public sector and thus under state control.
    • • The neo-conservative branch builds on Conservative ideas about the importance of order, authority and discipline - ideas that can be traced back to the Authoritarian Conservatives of the nineteenth century. These kinds of ideas were given renewed attention as a result of the assumption that some of the social reforms introduced across western countries during the 1960s, for example the legalisation of divorce and abortion, the abolition of the death penalty, the relaxation of censorship rules and also recognizing diversity through policies on multiculturalism, have undermined a sense of stability and social duty. Consequently, it was claimed that there has been a serious deterioration in law and order and also in public morality. As a result, the New Right is linked to arguments which emphasize the qualities of the traditional family and question the tendency to embrace new ways of organizing domestic life; arguments which question the willingness to adopt more tolerant and liberal social attitudes on issues such as sex and sexuality; arguments in favour of reintroducing stricter criminal penalties, including in relation to minor offences; and arguments against immigration and the development of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies in the belief that this is likely to lead to conflict and instability. Such arguments were often expressed with reference to a more orderly past where people lived more disciplined and virtuous lives. For example, in Britain the advocates of such arguments often mentioned the need to reinstate 'Victorian' values.

    As a result, the New Right is quite a diverse body of political ideas that seeks to combine a particular form of economic liberalism with a conservative and authoritarian approach to social issues. As such, it is a body of ideas that combine radical, reactionary and traditional elements together. These ideas have undoubtedly been particularly influential in the last decades of the twentieth century. They were expressed most clearly during the 1980s in the form of Thatcherism in the United Kingdom and Reaganism in the United States. However, the New Right was not just a phenomenon that has been influential in these countries alone. It also left his mark on politics in other parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, in the case of those ideas associated with the neo-liberal wing, their influence had spread across the world by the beginning of the twenty-first century as a result of the process of economic globalization.

    Despite this influence, it should be noted that the New Right is a tradition that, ultimately, is based on an important contrast between its neo-liberal and neo-conservative branches. While one emphasizes the need for the state to step back and allow individuals to manage their own (economic) affairs, the other calls on the state to do more to oversee and regulate our social behaviour, offering clear (moral) guidance. Some have argued that this is a fundamental tension that undermines the extent to which the New Right can be interpreted as one body of ideas. However, if the New Right has to be thought of as a single Conservative stream, then the best way to do this possibly is to think of those who hold these ideas as believers in a restricted state but a strong one, or as Andrew Gamble (1981) notes, people who believe ‘in the free economy and the strong state’.