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Study Notes

Different Tensions Within Conservatism

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 19 Jun 2020

Fundamentally, conservatism is a mindset of opposition. In stark contrast to the progressive character of liberalism and the rationalist direction of socialist thought, conservatism is borne out of a reactionary state of mind.

The character of conservatism depends to a significant degree upon the ideology it is reacting against. Historically, conservatism came into existence as a critique of the French Revolution and by the nineteenth century conservatism was opposed to liberal individualism. More recently, modern conservatives have stood firm against the process of European integration. Taken together, it is clearly in the nature of conservatism to curb what they identify as the excesses of ideologues from all corners of the political spectrum.

Conservatives are often labelled by their critics as reactionary. However, most conservatives are proud of their scepticism towards utopian ideals. Ideology contains with it words of mass destruction and the seeds of social unrest, whereas tradition and custom offers us the pathway to social harmony. By tradition, conservatives are referring to both institutions (such as the constitution and the church) and values (such as established social mores). Tradition also helps to ensure that the people retain a sense of comforting security and continuity with the past. Each generation thereby holds onto a lasting set of values in an ever-changing world. In contrast, ideologies in search of heaven on Earth invariably unleash a hellish nightmare. In one of the most perceptive insights into the conservative mind, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1991) points out that “to be a Conservative is to prefer the tried to the untried.” One might also consider Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted comment that “hell is paved with good intentions.”

Opposition amongst conservatives towards ideology is firmly grounded in their negative view of human nature. In the words of the philosopher Roger Scruton, this most reactionary of mindsets begins from “the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” The argument that an ideology offers a scientific method to improve mankind (particularly Marxism) or create a better society is completely alien to a conservative - we must be very cautious about what human beings are capable of. History shows us that revolutionary action can no more change human nature than a mythical magic wand. All conservatives would concur with the German theorist Immanuel Kant’s sage remark that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” The conservative mindset is also captured by the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathon Swift who believed that the life of reason is not suited to humankind. The expectation that the world will ever be inhabited by anything other than lesser mortals is nothing more than a delusion.

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