9 July 2024

What is Conservatism?


Although books on socialism and its variants would fill many libraries, surprisingly little has been written about the philosophy of conservatism. In part this is because many of those who have written books on conservatism do not believe it has an underlying philosophy. They present it as a series of attributes, even prejudices, a collection of views that bear no unifying relationship to each other.

Conservatives, we are told, can be identified by their support for strong defence, private property rights, a firm stance on law and order, home ownership, support for the monarchy and a sense of civic duty. People who identify as conservatives might indeed exhibit most or all of these convictions, but it is important to ask if there is a common thread underlying them, one from which they emerge.

The word itself is used in two ways. With a small ‘c’, it denotes a character trait, the desire to keep things the same or, as Lord Hugh Cecil put it, ‘a disposition averse from change’. People of this temperament feel comfortable in a familiar world with familiar practices. What those familiar practices might be is not the important thing. It is about keeping them as they are. A die-hard, old-style trade unionist might want things to stay as they are, or perhaps revert to being what they were, just as a Lord from the shires might do the same.

When it is spelled with a capital ‘C,’ the term refers to a political tradition rather than to a temperament. That tradition recognizes that change is a fact of life, and does not seek to stop it, but to make sure that it comes about spontaneously and organically. It wants change to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, to come about as people change their thinking and their practices. It wants change to be bottom-up rather than top-down.

Although the Renaissance and the Reformation may have played a role in the emergence of modern Conservatism in this sense, its roots really lie in the Industrial Revolution. When people could expect to live as their grandparents did, the change which occurred was modest and slow. The Industrial Revolution and its new technologies changed that. Change became rapid, and Conservatism emerged as a way of dealing with it.

What Conservatives want is to conserve not any particular status quo, but the process by which change happens. They want it to be spontaneous rather than imposed. Conservative Prime Ministers from Sir Robert Peel onwards have not sought to prevent change, but to ameliorate some of its consequences. Some changes have their losers. The motor car was bad news for stable boys and coach builders. What Conservatives have done is to make life easier, where they could, for people whose lives were adversely affected by change. They passed factory acts, mines acts and shops acts, among others. This was not to impose change but to use what Karl Popper called ‘piecemeal social engineering’ to smooth the edges of change rather than to prevent or direct it.

Some have sought to define Conservatism by what it has opposed, pointing to ideologies such as utilitarianism, 19th-century liberalism or socialism. There is a grain of truth in this, but Conservative opponents of these ideologies were not resisting change, but rather the imposition of change. All of these programmes were thought up in the mind, and their adherents sought to bring them about in reality. Conservatives wanted reality to emerge naturally from the choices people make about how they choose to live. They do not want people forced to live in particular ways. Those attributes which some have declared to be prejudices all emerge from that desire for change to be spontaneous. Obviously, a strong defence will protect foreign tyrannies from limiting those choices. Likewise a respect for the rule of law, and similarly a respect for the constitution and private property rights.

At a time when the Conservative Party in the UK is beginning to look inwards and examine what it believes in and what it should believe in, it is a good time for it to rediscover its fundamental philosophy and come up with a programme to express that. It has been arguably the most successful political party in history because people have valued the freedom to make their own choices and to let change result from them, and to support a party that will allow that change, but will soften it for those adversely affected.

My own modest contribution to this ongoing debate has been to publish this week ‘The Philosophy of Conservatism’, in the hope that Conservatives will draw inspiration from the ideas that have motivated their predecessors.

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Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.