To what extent have conservatives supported tradition and continuity? Traditional conservatives place an emphasis on tradition as they believe, according to Edmund Burke that traditional customs and practices in society is ‘God given’. Burke thus believed that society should was shaped by the ‘law of the Creator’, or what he called the ‘natural law’. If human beings tamper the world they are challenging the will of God. Burke further described tradition as a partnership between ‘those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’.
Tradition is also revered as it could be argued to proven to work as it has been ‘tested by time’, and therefore be preserved for the benefit of the living and for generations to come. Tradition reflects a Darwinian belief that those institutions and customs that have survived have only done so because they have worked and been found to be of value. They have been endorsed by a process of ‘natural selection’ and demonstrated their fitness to survive. Conservatives also respect tradition because it generates, for both society and the individual, a sense of identity.
Similar article: Conservatives and Pragmatism
Established customs and practices are ones that individuals can recognize; they are familiar and reassuring. Tradition also generates social cohesion by linking people from the past and providing them with a collective sense of who they are. Change, is unknown and therefore it creates uncertainty and insecurity, and so endangers our happiness. Tradition, therefore, consists of rather more than political institutions that have stood the test of time. Some modern Conservatives have also valued tradition, these include, the ‘one nation’ conservatives and the Christian Democrats. One nation’ conservatism began in the 19th century when Disraeli coined the term. Disraeli wrote against the background of growing industrialization, economic inequality and, in continental Europe at least, revolutionary upheaval. He tried to draw attention to the danger of Britain being divided into ‘two nations: the Rich and the Poor’. In the best conservative tradition, Disraeli’s argument was based on a combination of prudence and principle. Alternatively, growing social inequality starts revolutions. People would not accept their misery and they would revolt, as Disraeli feared.
Revolutions broke out in Europe in 1830 and 1848 seemed to prove this belief. Reform was therefore needed for Britain to prevent the tide of the revolution arriving in Britain and it would protect the interests of the rich. In office, Disraeli was responsible for the Second Reform Act of 1867, which for the first time extended the right to vote to the working class, and for the social reforms that improved housing and hygiene. Disraeli’s idea’s had a considerable impact on conservatism and contributed to a radical and reforming tradition that appeals to both the pragmatic instincts of conservatives and their social duty.
Disraeli’s ideas formed the basis of ‘one-nation conservatism’. Randolph Churchill took up Disraeli’s ideas in the late 19th century and he stressed the need for traditional institutions, e. g. the monarchy, the House of Lords and the church-to enjoy a wider base of social support. One-nation tradition was revived and reached high points in the 1950-60’s, when conservative governments in the UK and elsewhere came to practice a version of Keynesian social democracy, working for full employment and enlarging welfare provision.
Harold Macmillan explained it in ‘The Middle Way’ and he promoted ‘planned capitalism’, which he described as ‘a mixed system which combines state ownership, regulation or control of certain aspects of economic activity with the drive and initiative of private enterprise’. The purpose of one-nationism is to consolidate hierarchy rather than to remove it, and its wish to improve conditions of the less well-off is limited to the desire to ensure that the poor no longer pose a threat to established order-tradition. The Christian Democrats are also examples of conservatives supporting tradition.
Christian democracy is a political ideology that seeks to apply Christian principles to public policy. It emerged in 19th century Europe under the influence of conservatism and Catholic social teaching. The new form of conservatism was committed to political democracy and was influenced by the paternalistic social traditions of Catholicism. There are Conservatives who have challenged tradition, namely, the New Right Recently, it has begun to have a much more complex ideological basis. The New Right was in the 1970s/1980s a 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.
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. Libertarian Conservatism also counteracts the traditional conservative view on tradition. Liberal ideas have influenced conservatism, especially classical liberal ideas. The New Right has been seen to have usurped traditional conservative ideas in the interests of classical liberalism.
Economic liberalism whereby there is a belief in the free market as a self-regulating mechanism that tends naturally to deliver general prosperity and opportunities for all. Liberal conservatives believe that economic liberalism is compatible with traditional, conservative social philosophy based on ideas and values such as authority and duty. Edmund Burke, seen as the founder of traditional conservatism was also a keen supporter of the economic liberalism of Adam Smith. Burke believed the free market is efficient and fair, but it is also, as Burke believed, natural and necessary. The laws of the market are ‘natural laws’.
Burke further accepted that working conditions dictated by the market are, for many, ‘degrading, unseemly, unmanly and often most unwholesome’, but insisted that they would suffer further if the ‘natural course of things’ were disturbed. The capitalist free market could thus be defended on the grounds on tradition, just like the monarchy and the church. However, libertarian conservatives are not consistent liberals and they have a more pessimistic view of human nature, and hence, they support the traditional conservative view on tradition here. A strong state is required to maintain public order and ensure that authority is respected.
Some libertarian conservatives are attracted to free-market theories because they promise to maintain and secure social order. In conclusion, one could argue that overall conservatives do support tradition. Different strands of conservatives may find opportunities to disagree with aspects of traditional conservative ideology, however, it must be said that in every strand of conservatism, from traditional conservatives to the New Right to libertarian conservatives tradition is supported in some form, whilst it may not be wholly supported, it is still supported.