The Broad Church of Conservatism


Dan Pitt lays out the ideas of some of the most important schools of modern conservatism

When attending and participating in events such as ‘Politics and a Pint’ or any of the permutations of this concept, I hear other participants say, as a rebuttal: “How can you believe that? We are Conservatives, aren’t we?” Or “Conservatives are merely practical, we don’t have a philosophy as such”. These types of statements have inspired my own amateur journey into the political arguments, philosophy and the body of thought that conservatism sits upon and draws from. I desired to find out want conservatism is all about. Consequently, I found out that it is about Love, as I have previously written for this website. I also asked myself: Is there one conservatism? If there is, why are there dissensions among the conservative family?  I set about finding the answers. Well, the short answer, to the first question is no. As simple as that. There are many permutations of conservatism with conflicting beliefs and areas of agreement, which is why there can be and is the odd lover’s tiff. Therefore, with your permission, I would be truly honoured to take you through a couple of them (not the tiffs, but the branches of conservatism) that are prominent in British and American conservatism.

One can quite easily argue that conservatism is not an ideology. It is rather more of a mind-set. Sir Roger Scruton argues that conservatism is a genuine philosophy and it warrants articulation, even though it may not systematic. I would certainly agree with Sir Roger.

Older Schools of Conservatism

I shall start with One Nation Conservatism, as it is rather prominent at the present time. This branch has often sought to identify its ideas with those of Benjamin Disraeli, (Lord Beaconsfield) the Conservative Prime Minster in 1868 and in 1874–80, and his concern for the “two nations‟ identified in his novel Sybil. He believed in a paternalistic noblesse oblige (the rich have a duty towards the poor or upper to lower classes), shared national values, and a strong emphasis on social concerns. Nevertheless, it was Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s who coined the term “One Nation”, not Disraeli. In this form, one-nation and traditional conservatism can seem quite similar. Moreover, Andrew Tyrie in 2006 argued that this branch also emphasises the significance of institutions to restrain the power of the State, and that it has “has no home for minimalist laissez-faire (p.2). Moreover, this branch of conservatism has similarities with paleo-conservatism, which I shall come to later.  Nevertheless, One Nation Conservatism has transformed in recent times and is now advocates government intervention in the economy, is pro-EU and is socially liberal. Quite a transformation from Disraeli’s views (!)

I would like to succinctly touch upon a most interesting branch that I call RomCon (I know, forgive me). This Romantic Conservatism is close to my heart, and to my knowledge under researched. Katey Castellano argues in The Ecology of British Romantic Conservatism, 1790-1837, that this branch goes hand in hand with environmental conservation and espouses these values. It advocates inheritance of material and non-material institutions, social hierarchy, a strong emphasis on place or home and an intergenerational responsibility in land use. This intergenerational land use, which could also be extended to the sea, draws its inspiration from Edmund Burke’s view of the social contract or partnership, and his view that people who own land are “life-renters” and “temporary possessors” and ought to pass on that land to the next generation conserved in all its beauty and in good health. Moreover, Romantics are minded to conserve indigenous traditions and draw on poetry of conservative authors such as Wordsworth for stimulus. Romantic conservatism is critical of modernity and the overly liberal individualist way of life.

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Paleo and Neo-conservatism

These next two conservatisms were born on the other side of the pond and are the two most dominant focuses and divisions within American conservatism. First, Paleo-Conservatism, ‘paleo’ is a Greek prefix meaning ‘old’. There are debates about how old this type of conservatism is. Some argue that it emerged as a reaction against what was taking place in the American culture (as well as other reasons) in the 1980s and ’90s; however, this branch was taken root in the USA after WW2, for example in the work of Russel Kirk.  This was, as paleos saw it, a shallow and artificial culture dominated by secularism, hedonism, and carnal and material self-indulgence. I say, Matron! Paleo concerns are localism, anti-interventionism in terms of foreign policy, constitutionalism, independent social and political institutions from government and antipathy to mass immigration. This strand focuses upon concrete traditions rather than abstract ideals, and in culture rooted in a historical experience, such as religion and loyalty towards home. This branch has many elements similar to British Toryism; however, conflicts with two core tenets; aristocracy and monarchy. Paleo or at least the espousers of it are critics of the neo-conservative branch, which my attention shall now turn to.

Neo-conservatism, ‘neo’ being a Greek prefix meaning ‘new’, (interestingly Disraeli has been hailed as the inventor of neo-conservatism by the Weekly Standard magazine, an American conservative magazine) promotes free-market liberalism or laissez-faire, immigration, interventionism foreign policy, and the individual. (You may be able to see the irony there regarding Disraeli!). It is argued that this ‘new’ conservative politics is distinctly American in favour, hence its classical-liberal tendencies, consequently paleo-conservatives are highly sceptical of its legitimacy of being conservative at all. One could argue that there is a large lump of Whiggism in this branch.

As one can deduct from this rather crude and simplistic discussion of differing branches of this wonderful philosophy coined conservatism, there is a variety of beliefs, and I for one find it fascinating. I have not been able to cover, in this article, some other branches such as traditional conservatism, agrarian, red Tory, libertarian, “Cold War conservatism” in the USA, Old and New Right, big government conservatism, high Tory, imaginative conservatism, Latin conservatism and the list could go on. These variant branches as an intellectual tool could be utilised to refine our thinking, some disagreement and debate within the conservative family can take some of those rough edges off to leave a beautiful romantic diamond.