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Study notes

Pragmatism (Conservatism)

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

Pragmatism can be defined as “a flexible approach to society with decisions made on the basis of what works.”

Key Points

Pragmatism is arguably the most distinct feature of conservatism. No other ideology could in any sense of the phrase depict itself as pragmatic. At its core, pragmatism entails a complete rejection of ideology

It is here that we can identify the strongest evidence of the argument presented by figures such as Lord Hailsham and Russell Kirk that conservatism represents the negation of ideology. The pragmatist seeks a workable consensus and is guided by the notion that ‘what counts is what works.’ Pragmatists also adopt a particular stance upon proposals for social and constitutional change. The guiding pragmatic principle is ‘if it ain’t broke … why fix it?’ In addition, pragmatism represents a flexibility of mind and a search for practical solutions rather than the inflexibility imposed by ideologies.

Pragmatism in More Depth

There is a deep-seated instinct amongst conservatives for the known certainties of the past rather than the unknowns of the future. As Winston Churchill so eloquently put it, “the further you look back at the past the clearer you see the future.” One might also consider Michael Oakeshott’s remark that politics should be “a conversation, not an argument.” Decisions should therefore be based upon consensus and with an understanding of the traditions within that society. Conservatives firmly believe in going with the grain of human nature. Frankly, any other route would be contrary to conservatism.

The notion of pragmatism does not apply to all conservatives. In the UK, pragmatism is closely associated with the one-nation school of thought. The overriding objective of Tories such as Edward Heath (Prime Minister 1970-1974) and Harold MacMillan (Prime Minister 1957-1963) was to ensure social harmony. In contrast, the New Right is much more ideological in their fervour and outlook. The New Right emerged during the 1970s as a reaction against the seemingly irreversible slide into socialism. Voices on the right of the party such as Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph expressed their dismay over the extent to which the party’s leadership had accepting state ownership and corporatism. By the mid-70s, the New Right had found their champion in the form of Margaret Thatcher.

After gaining a clear mandate from the people in the 1979 general election, Thatcher made a complete break from the post-war era of pragmatic conservatism. According to her more overt ideological stance, the pragmatism of the one-nation perspective had led to an expansion in the scope and scale of government interference. During her premiership, she gave rise to an ideological outlook that came to be known as Thatcherism. This non-pragmatic stance firmly believed in the benefits of rolling back the frontiers of the state. Thatcherism is characterised by privatisation, deregulation, marketisation of the welfare state, a flexible labour market, lower taxation and the creation of a property-owning democracy. Thatcherites are as passionate in their beliefs as any other comparable ideologue from the left of the political spectrum. Crucially, the language used by Thatcherites has a more ideological zeal than those of the one-nation school of thought.

Since Thatcher’s unceremonious demise from office in 1990, the Conservative Party has been led by figures who have at various times sought to adopt a more consensual and practical stance. John Major sought to create a nation “at ease with itself” whereas William Hague campaigned in favour of “common-sense conservatism.” From 2005 to 2016, David Cameron was a particularly clear illustration of this argument. Cameron’s non-ideological character enabled him to work effectively in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In doing so, he showed a deft degree of pragmatism and avoided being labelled an ideologue.

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