Is Conservatism Fundamentally Opposed To Change?
Thomas Ash


Look up the word 'conservatism' in any dictionary and you will see that it means preferring the old and traditional way of doing things and distrusting the new and untried. A chef could be considered conservative if all he ever made was the same old combination of breadcrumbed fish and soggy chips, wrapped up in yesterday's newspaper, explaining: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Using this definition of conservative politically can produce some odd results, labelling hardline communists in the glasnost era 'conservatives.' That, and the fact that this is not an intellectually respectable position, has led many conservatives to argue that there is much more to Conservatism (of the capital-C, political ideology variety) than this. Yes, a healthy respect for tradition is part of the picture, they claim, but it is far from the most important part, and there are many other considerations.


I would argue that this is wrong. It is patently obvious that 'opposition to change' is too simple a definition (after all, it is not clear what counts as change and what as tradition) - and also that Conservative parties have, over the centuries, made a number of changes. But that doesn't mean that we should discount the dictionary definition altogether. In fact, I would argue that it forms the fundamental foundation of Conservatism, and the emotional bedrock of its appeal to many people today. (I'm aware that 'fundamental foundation and bedrock' is a pleonastic description - that's what I'm emphasising.)

The famous eighteenth century conservative thinker Edmund Burke said as much: he emphasised the supreme importance of traditional arrangements, while adding the proviso that "a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation." This was a general principle, but Burke was thinking first and foremost of constitutional change - and in particular the French revolution which was just taking place1 . He saw this as a wholly negative event, believing instead that societies should evolve over time and build on the core of the wisdom of the ages. The constitutional status quo was inherently valuable as it was not "a tumultuous and giddy choice [but] a deliberate election of ages and of generations."

The maintenance of the constitution is still an area where Conservatives consistently unite around tradition's flag (as witness the continued support for the British monarchy and the current electoral system in the UK, and the continued opposition to devolving power down to the regions on the one hand and 'surrendering' up to an EU - or UN - superstate on the other.) There are many other good examples, though: the social and economic order, for one. Nowadays, Conservatives are unanimous in their commitment to capitalist society made up of hard-working, enterprising, talented individuals who are more affluent than people who are not like this, while socialists and liberals often see this as unjust. Now, this could me seen as more to do with an ideological commitment to the rights of the individual and a natural 'inequality' of outcome than mere opposition to change. But this would be inconsistent with Conservatism's traditionalist approach to the moral order, which does not exhibit any belief in individualism as first principle, and also with it's beliefs over previous centuries, which have tended to feudalism and aristocracy.

Ah, you may say, but that example shows that conservatism has embraced real change: the change from a feudal-aristocratic society to a modern capitalist one! True, but that is only because feudalism is utterly unacceptable today, and unfettered capitalism (which maintains the element of a wealthy group at the top of society) is now seen as the 'traditional approach.'

The same has happened with areas like morality and crime. For example, premarital sex is now considered acceptable, and capital punishment, which - at least outside the most right-wing fringes (and the US!) - is no longer defended, but Conservatives still believe in a basically traditional approach. They disapprove of homosexuality and single mothers, and are always keen to be seen as 'tough on crime.' Even moderate 'One Nation' Conservatism has its roots in the tradition of paternalism, Christian generosity and noblesse obligée. Moderate Conservatives have never done anything truly radical - as their name suggests they have simply been moderate, not applying the Conservative agenda with as much vigour as those further on the right.

Admittedly, this is painting an overly-simplistic sketch of Conservatism. Recently, it has begun to have a much more complex ideological basis, and this is especially true of the New Right. The New Right was the 1970s/1980s movement personified by Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Its key threads are the free market economics of Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek, a commitment to individualism and personal responsibility, and a staunchly authoritarian stance on crime and other moral issues.

The New Right was, as its name suggests, a significant, distinct break with the conservative thinking that had gone before. It was a radical break with the post-war Keynesian 'social democratic' consensus on the economy, and this can be seen as challenging the old definition of Conservatism. The word 'radical' only applies if you consider a very limited timeframe, however. If a left-wing government came into power, made sweeping changes, and then a successor right-wing government rolled back those changes, could they both be called radical? Of course not. If you consider the smaller state and stricter 'morality' laws of 100 years ago, the same principle can be applied to the New Right.

It is possible to explain most New Right ideology in terms of small-c conservatism through this approach. The commitment to economic individualism likely came from the fact that, until recently, richer classes had to contribute very little tax. This neo-Conservative principle led to significant change: it has been applied more or less egalitarianly, reducing the tax burden of the poor too (that said, it helps the rich far more than the poor, who now have to pay an increased share of indirect taxes.) The same can be said of many other core beliefs - not only Margaret Thatcher's "Victorian values" and the Reagan-Thatcher cutting of public spending, but the crackdown on trade unions and the new approach to economics developed by Friedman and Hayek. Critics of Conservatism have pointed out that they invariably follow the traditional Conservative agenda, and have claimed that they are just an attempt to give Conservatism a new intellectual foundation.


It is possible to overstate the extent to which capital-C Conservatism is just conservative with a small c. One exception are the true libertarians who fall under the New Right label - libertarians are in some ways the most clearly 'ideological' people around. They put forward a separate ideological position based on the elevation of individual freedom to an absolute imperative, and this is an argument which has to be dealt with separately. Also, as I showed earlier, there is more than one tradition to conserve as you go back through history. But I would still maintain that, unlike Socialism and Liberalism, Conservatism has its most important emotional - and ideological - basis in tradition. You just don't hear socialists or liberals appealing to history nearly as much as British conservatives do. This goes for so many different strands and tenets (small and large) of conservatism that it is worthwhile to consider whether conservatives would put forth the same positions as they currently do had we had a different legacy of tradition. As a final word, it is worth saying that in practice most people's ideological thinking is a mixture of more than one capital lettered ideology. Many modern conservatives have some beliefs that are clearly liberal, and small-c conservatism is a powerful influence on just about everyone, whatever their avowed ideological position.

© 2001

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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