Trace the evolution of Conservatism. What are the core principles of Conservatism?


The Conservative manifesto for the coming election is conservative in its philosophy. This is surprisingly rare. In the David Cameron era, for example, the word ‘modern’ was constantly employed in Tory rhetoric as a talisman to ward off critics. Not so much of that in the age of Theresa May.

Behind the manifesto is Nick Timothy, the only man – apart from her husband – in whom Mrs May seems to repose absolute trust. Behind Mr Timothy is Edmund Burke (1729-97) who, though he was actually a Whig in politics, is arguably the greatest philosopher of conservatism. Burke is not mentioned in the manifesto, but his thought informs it.

Moore is referring, here, to an adapted phrase of Burke’s taken from his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was published in 1790 when the Revolution was still in its moderate phase. It is in this work that Burke offers the reader his version of the social contract: ‘Society is a contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who have yet to be born.’

Various commentary on this inclusion of Burke has prompted interesting interpretations. The essence of Moore’s reading, for example, distils his thought to an emphasis on the importance of ‘community’. Since the election, other writers have championed the Reflections as a text cautioning against hasty social change. It is a classic example of the way in which past thinkers are decontextualized in the defence and promotion of modern principles and ideals. But it is also another illustration of the way in which the flexible and protean nature of ‘C/conservatism’ has evolved over time.

The looseness of the terms we use to describe conservatism, as a body of thought, is fascinating: a belief in the importance of the past, of the organic nature of society, a hatred of radical revolution, and a belief in private property, religion and the complexity of life. Surely, in the 18th century, Burke cannot have been exceptional in believing in the importance of tradition, property or religion?

British politics in the 18th century was unlike that of today. There were loose groupings around aristocratic factions: the Whigs, who supported party and parliamentary government as established by the Glorious Revolution in 1688-9; and the Tories, who preferred royal prerogative and labelled themselves the ‘King’s Friends’. Before 1790, Burke made a name for himself as a critic of royal prerogative, as well as of the upholding of abstract rights of taxation on the American colonies. As an Irishman without independent means, an Anglican married to a Catholic, he was supportive of generous trade policies with Ireland as well as granting Catholics similar political privileges to Anglicans. His central goal was the maintenance of the Whig settlement of 1688. This is the key theme of Reflections: the British Constitution was, to Burke, an unparalleled achievement which had established both ‘liberty’ and ‘order’. The French Revolution, in contrast, destroyed all the bases Burke believed necessary for a free and stable society.

The biggest developments, for Burke, came with generational changes. As time passed, those who remembered his long speeches, described as ‘dinner bells’, or the caricatures of him as a suspicious Jesuit, passed away. It became easier to read Burke through his texts and to reinterpret his moral character. As the power associated with royal prerogative declined, so too did the potency of Burke’s earlier attacks.

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