The consensus among the majority of scholars is that Conservatism is a political ideology that developed in the early years of the nineteenth century. It is claimed that this happened as a response to the wide-ranging political, social and economic changes that swept across western Europe at the time. One major event that historians tend to refer to as an obvious symbol of this change - the move to what is described as the modern era - is the French Revolution of 1789. This was a particularly significant political event. During the Revolution the old absolute royal regime was demolished, and a new republic established on the basis of progressive principles, such as freedom, equality and fraternity (liberté, égalité, fraternité). And the assumption is that the political and social changes arising from this revolution were the main catalyst for the development of Conservative ideas. In other words, Conservatism is effectively an ideology that originally developed as a response to the French Revolution of 1789.

  • Some scholars have argued that the above story over-simplifies things a little and that Conservative trends are to be seen when considering political ideas from earlier periods. For example, some have argued for looking back as far as the early Greek period claiming that there are clear Conservative themes in the work of leading thinkers such as Plato (427-347 BC). Others refer to the work of different Medieval thinkers and argue that the ideas of more recent Conservatives of the nineteenth century echo themes that originally developed during this period. Another period referred to is the last decades of the seventeenth century, and in particular, the events in England which led to the 'Restoration' of the 1660s and the formalization of the regime of an exclusive monarchy which has, in effect, continued to this day. This is the period when the term 'Tory' was first used as a label to denote a particular political perspective. It was used to sum up the view of the group who were in favour of supporting the power of the monarchy, in contrast to the Whigs, who wished to reform it.

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    Edmund Burke
  • Each of the above interpretations no doubt has its merits. However, despite the existence of a number of Conservative themes before 1789, it was only following the great revolution in France that Conservatism developed to become a body of coherent and self-aware political ideas. A key figure in this process was the philosopher and politician Edmund Burke (1729-97). In 1790 Burke published his famous book, Reflections on the Revolution in France - a piece of work which is now considered to be one of the earliest statements of Conservative principles.

    As the title suggests, Burke published his volume in response to the events in France a year earlier and in it Burke outlined why he was not supportive of the changes that arose from the Revolution. The sudden fall of the monarchy and the attempt to establish a new republic based on a belief in the freedom and equality of each individual was a matter of concern to him. Burke's fear was that there would be a sudden social change similar to that seen in France, but which would lead to an anarchic, chaotic condition and his intention in publishing Reflections was to warn the Westminster government in London against allowing such a situation to develop in Britain. Nowadays, some of Burke's ideas would probably seem totally unfounded. However, it is important to remember that the French Revolution was not an organized and peaceful event. There was bloody conflict and the collapse of the monarchy led to further conflict between different groups. Consequently, one can understand how some would have assumed at the time that the changes had led to a state of social anarchy. In any event, as noted, the publication of Reflections was a key event in the development of Conservatism and on account of the ideas outlined in the book, Burke came to be considered the father of the ideas expressed in it.