Importance of Conservatism – Conservative Politics Paper


two to three pages new times roman 10 point

Conservative Politics
Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson: Revolt in Cairo (1810)
The first cogent expression of conservative ideas was Edmund Burke’s essay Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he claimed that revolutions lead to destruction, mass murder and new
upheavals. This painting depicts the Revolt of Cairo of 1798 against the French conquerors, led by
Napoleon. It is said that after the Muslims saw that the rebellion would not succeed, they begged
God for mercy, but Napoleon replied: “For God is too late – you started this and I will finish it.” It is
exactly this tendency of revolutionaries to think of themselves as godlike that conservatives dislike.
Conservative Politics
Conservatism is a unique way of looking at the world. Unlike liberalism,
socialism, communism and even, to an extent, Christian democracy, conservatism does not spring from a philosophical foundation. It is, rather, a response
– a project of resistance – against the ideas of radical reform and of total revolution sweeping the continent of Europe from the end of the 18th century.
But it is not a philosophical response, because it does not present the public
with a coherent framework, based on explicit principles and constructed by the
exercise of reason. Conservatism is notoriously difficult to explain in terms of reason and principle, let alone in terms of human rights or even – elementary logic.
This is why conservatives, as a rule, avoid philosophical discussions; and
only feel the need to explain themselves philosophically when ways of life,
which they hold dear, are placed in immediate danger. The first conservative,
Edmund Burke, was provoked into writing about conservatism by the 1789
revolution in France. Friedrich Hayek stepped into the battle of ideas when,
in the 1940s, state intervention into the economy moved in the direction of
socialist control, threatening freedom and initiative. Roger Scruton felt the
need to clarify conservative ideas, when confronted with the 1968 revolution
in France and its impact on the intellectual world of England. And Margaret
Thatcher was provoked to explain her principles when, taking over as Prime
Minister in 1979, she confronted a virtually bankrupt, socialistically-minded,
dependent and frightened British society.
Conservatism is a feeling – a certain sensitivity to the world and people.
Unlike socialists and liberals, conservatives do not believe that human
beings can be perfect if they attain more freedom. Conservatives see people
as full of deficiencies, being the product of the Original Sin.
People, conservatives believe, are weak, avaricious, corruptible, cruel and
selfish. If, on top of this, people were to come to believe in the infallibility of
their thoughts – which is something socialists and liberals appeal to – then
more than likely people would shed all restraints and begin doing terrible
things to each other. This is why, conservatives believe, people must live in
limitations; going beyond their limits would lead to catastrophe.
Where liberals, socialists, anarchists and communists talk about achieving
complete freedom, absolute rights and total independence, conservatives talk
about authority, the need to be modest and to respect the society and institutions we have inherited – because they embody the wisdom and toil of our
ancestors. Since we are not gods, there is no way that we can produce a better
society, out of our heads, than has been produced by the collective wisdom of
countless past generations. Modesty, not pride, is the right way to behave.
Politics: A Reader
This is why conservatives use terms that are very different from what we
see in the reformist and revolutionary theories. Conservatives talk of gratitude
(to our ancestors), loyalty (to family, community and nation), obligation (to
our fellow-humans). Unlike radicals and revolutionaries, conservatives do
not see themselves as engineers, who must destroy the old structures they
find in place, in order to build new and better ones. Conservatives see themselves as gardeners, who feel grateful for the garden they have inherited and
who try to preserve and improve it, but without the element of destruction.
The logical construction behind Conservatism is at times hard to disentangle. We can certainly say that Conservatism appeals to that part of every
human being that is scared or uninterested in change, because either it likes
the current state of affairs or is generally unadaptable. As the authors included
in this Section show us, the practitioners of Conservatism and neo-conservatism turned out to be able politicians, who are still capable of winning elections without the promises of socialist equality or liberal freedom. These same
practitioners also turned out to be extremely good with dealing with changes
and accordingly, the philosophical wing of Conservatism provides useful
insights into topics of current importance.
Such practical and theoretical achievements signify that Conservatism
does in fact possess a core doctrine about societies and a basic view of the
human existence, a core as meaningful as that of the liberals, the socialists,
the Christian-democrats.
Conservatism sees society and the individuals in it as organically related.
In a certain sense, this organical relatedness also includes the existing institutions, morals and culture of the society, which shape the interactions between
individuals and has been shaped by the interactions of the past generations.
From here springs the general scepticism that Conservatives hold about the
abilities of social reformers to understand human nature better than human
nature (embodied in the institutions and culture of the previous generations)
understands itself.
For a long time, conservatives looked simply stupid, as compared to their
competitors on the political and philosophical scene. They seemed to stand
against “progress”, science and rational government for no apparent reason, out of sheer obstinacy. Today, as we try to make sense of the rubble left
behind by the grandiose social and political experiments of the believers in
revolution, science and the rational management of human affairs – today we
re-evaluate and appreciate conservative ideas.
The great projects of creating completely new societies have all failed,
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having brought truly primitive misery to the nations involved. This is why we
now appreciate the conservatives’ warnings that no revolution can achieve
more than it destroys, because no revolutionary can understand fully the
workings of society and of the human individual. The negative effects of centralization have made us appreciate the emphasis which conservatives place
on the small-scale – the family, the local community. The self-destruction of
whole societies, since the closing decades of the 20th century, have encouraged us to heed the conservative warning that only nations – and loyalty to
nations – can produce stable and affluent democracies. The manifest failure
of the project to create a new “European nation” on the basis of the European
Union has demonstrated the importance of the loyalty that people feel to
their nation – the same loyalty that the conservatives have always valued as
a fundamental social good.
And, finally, the effects, which we now feel, of the destruction of the environment have made us rediscover the conservative warnings that the environment is the place we live in – and that in destroying it, we destroy ourselves.
All of this brings new meaning to loyalty, obligation, modesty, decency,
national belonging. We find it increasingly necessary to follow the conservative lead and: instead of social contract, think in terms of trusteeship; instead
of solidarity, think of friendship; instead of rights, think also of obligations;
and to combine the right to freedom with the duty of loyalty and gratitude.
None of this means that conservatives are incapable of truly new, revolutionary thoughts. The most revolutionary thought of the 21st century, for
example, may turn out to be something written by Edmund Burke in 1790:
that the social contract is not only between the now-living people. It is a pact
– a relation of trust – between the dead, the living and the yet unborn. Within
this pact, we do not have the right to destroy our environment in order to satisfy our current needs – firstly, because this is not what our ancestors toiled
for; and, secondly, because the unborn, our children’s children, have the right
to inherit from us a place worth living in.
Liberalism, anarchism and socialism were tornadoes of liberation, social
experiment, strife and conflict. Conservatives, conversely, offer the vision of
a softer, less turbulent, slower, less prideful and more human-sized world.
The time may have come for us to avail ourselves of this project; to become
modest rather than proud, loyal rather than independent, and protective of
the rights of future generations rather than demanding yet more money to buy
yet more things we do not really need.
Edmund Burke
Sir Joshua Reynolds: Portrait of Edmund Burk (1767 – 1769)
While still a teenager, Burke published an influential treatise on the philosophy of aesthetics. About
the time of this portrait, Reynolds asked Burke whether he would be willing to become further involved in publishing on aesthetics, but the by-then middle-aged politician refused. He replied that
he was no longer capable of dealing with abstract philosophy. As a consequence of this conversation, Reynolds painted Burke in the most unsaturated and earthly colours on the palette, in order to
bring out the down-to-earth attitude, for which conservative thought is notable.
Edmund Burke (12 January, 1729 – 9 July, 1797) was a British, statesman,
author, orator, political philosopher and active politician, who served for
many years in the House of Commons as a member of the Whig party.
He supported the cause of the American Revolutionaries, writing that they
were descendent from the English and, therefore, treasured liberty above all;
Edmund Burke
and could not be defeated by force. A decade and a half later, he initially
welcomed the French Revolution, seeing it as a struggle of freedom against
oppression. Within a few months, however, even before the Terror, Burke
came to the conclusion that instead of liberation, what was happening in
France was the disintegration of social life and the transformation of people
into “monsters”.
His opposition to the French Revolution turned him into the leading figure
within the conservative faction of the Whig party, which he called the “Old
Whigs”, in opposition to the pro-French-Revolution “New Whigs”, led by
Charles James Fox. By the end of 1790 Burke published his best-remembered
text, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he set out the classic
conservative objections to revolution (while still thinking of himself as predominantly a liberal).
Greatly respected throughout the 19th century, Burke’s reputation sank
during the opening decades of the 20th, as new revolutionary and totalitarian
ideas were sweeping through Europe. Since the demise of communism and
the Soviet Union, however, Burke has enjoyed rising fame and admiration,
as his thoughts help make sense of the collapse of the great socio-political
experiments of the 20th century.
The passages which follow are from Reflections, as found on: http://www.
On history
History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the
world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy,
ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake
the public with the same
“Troublous storms that toss
The private state, and render life unsweet.”
Revolutions do not cure human vices
These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You
would not secure men from tyranny and sedition by rooting out of the
mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did,
you would root out everything that is valuable in the human breast.
As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in
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Pierre Antoine de Machy: An Execution (1793)
De Machy specialised in painting the ruins of Paris during and after the French Revolution. In this
painting, he depicts a public execution, with a crowd cheering the proceedings. His way of hinting
that the people have lost their humanity and reason is the little white dog (at the near centre) which
is also “cheering” the execution. Violence has brought human beings down to the level of animals.
great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments,
national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil
by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of
state, nor of the Gospel,—no interpreters of law, no general officers, no
public councils. You might change the names: the things in some shape
must remain.
Political revolutions bring illusory gains
Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names,—to the causes
of evil, which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they
act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will
be wise historically, a fool in practice.
Edmund Burke
Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts, and the
same modes of mischief… Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life by the change of its
appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigor of a
juvenile activity. It walks abroad, it continues its ravages, whilst you are
gibbeting the carcass or demolishing the tomb. You are terrifying yourselves with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of
It is thus with all those who, attending only to the shell and husk of
history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty,
whilst, under color of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties,
they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse.
Human rights are not absolutes, but a practical compromise
The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically
The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but
not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are
their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of
good,—in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil.
Political reason is a computing principle: adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally, and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.
No theory of government can be superior to practical experience
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or
reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught
a priori.
Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate,
but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its
remoter operation, and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects
it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausi-
Conservative Politics
ble schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful
and lamentable conclusions.
… The science of government being, therefore, so practical in itself,
and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole
life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which
has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of
society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns
of approved utility before his eyes.
Preservation and improvement is better than destruction
There is something else than the mere alternative of absolute destruction
or unreformed existence. Spartam nactus es; hanc exorna (Cicero: “You
inherit Sparta, rise up to it”). This is, in my opinion, a rule of profound
sense, and ought never to depart from the mind of an honest reformer.
I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that
pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte
blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases. A man full
of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always
considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his
A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together,
would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the
conception, perilous in the execution.
Those who attempt to level never equalize
Believe me, Sir, those who attempt to level never equalize. In all societies
consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be
uppermost. The levellers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things: they load the edifice of society by setting up in the
air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground. The
associations of tailors and carpenters, of which the republic (of Paris, for
instance) is composed, cannot be equal to the situation into which, by
the worst of usurpations, an usurpation on the prerogatives of Nature,
you attempt to force them.
Edmund Burke
The proper role of the state
It is one of the finest problems in legislation, and what has often engaged
my thoughts whilst I followed that profession, “What the State ought
to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to
leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual discretion.”
Nothing, certainly, can be laid down on the subject that will not
admit of exceptions, many permanent, some occasional. But the clearest
line of distinction which I could draw… was this: That the State ought
to confine itself to what regards the State, or the creatures of the State,
namely, the exterior establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their
existence to its fiat; in a word, to every thing that is truly and properly
public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to
the public prosperity… Statesmen who know themselves will… proceed only in this… steadily, vigilantly, severely, courageously: whatever
remains will, in a manner, provide for itself. But as they descend from
the state to a province, from a province to a parish, and from a parish
to a private house, they go on accelerated in their fall. They cannot do
the lower duty; and, in proportion as they try it, they will certainly fail
in the higher.
They ought to know the different departments of things; what belongs
to laws, and what manners alone can regulate. To these, great politicians
may give a leaning, but they cannot give a law.
Freedom is not a project for the future, but an inheritance of
the past
You will observe, that, from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it
has been the uniform policy of our Constitution to claim and assert our
liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers,
and to be transmitted to our posterity,—as an estate specially belonging
to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any
other more general or prior right. By this means our Constitution preserves an unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable
crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people
inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.
… A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper
and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never
Conservative Politics
look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well
know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a
principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free; but it secures what
it acquires.
Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these
maxims are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement, grasped as in a
kind of mortmain forever. By a constitutional policy working after the
pattern of Nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and
our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our
property and our lives. The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune,
the gifts of Providence, are handed down to us, and from us, in the same
course and order.
Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed
to a permanent body composed of transitory parts,—wherein… the
whole… is never old or middle-aged or young, but, in a condition of
unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression.
In politics it is best to imitate nature
Thus, by preserving the method of Nature in the conduct of the state,
in what we improve we are never wholly new, in what we retain we are
never wholly obsolete. By adhering in this manner and on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided, not by the superstition of antiquarians, but by the spirit of philosophic analogy.
In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the
image of a relation in blood: binding up the Constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into
the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing
with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities,
our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.
Friedrich Hayek
Friedrich August von Hayek (8 May, 1899 – 23 March, 1992), born in AustriaHungary, was an economist and philosopher, best known for his defence of
free-market capitalism against socialist and collectivist ideas. He is considered to be one of the most important economists and political philosophers
of the twentieth century, winning the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in
1974; and his account of how changing prices communicate signals which
enable individuals to formulate their plans is seen as a major contribution to
His most politically influential book was The Road to Serfdom (1944),
where he argued against the prevailing tendency of increasing government
control of the economy.
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As in the 1970s Western European economies slid into depression, caused
by high inflation and state control, Hayek became immensely fashionable.
He had lived to be proven right in a crucial historic debate. Before the Second World War, he had stood against Keynes’ ideas that the way out of the
economic crisis was for governments to print money (to stimulate demand)
and take over control of the economy (to mitigate crises). Hayek had argued
that disastrous inflation would be the end result in the long run. Keynes had
rejected this argument by saying that “in the long run we will all be dead”. By
the mid-1970s, the long run had come and Keynes was dead – but not Hayek,
who saw his forecasts fully vindicated.
For this reason Hayek became one of the gurus of the new, radical conservatism, embraced by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in
the USA as a way out of the economic and social crisis. This placed Hayek
definitively in the camp of the conservatives, although he continued (much
as Burke before him) to believe that he was primarily a liberal.
The passages which follow are from: Hayek. F. A. (1944) The Road to Serfdom. Routledge.
Political freedom is based on economic freedom
We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs
without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the
past. Although we had been warned by some of the greatest political
thinkers of the nineteenth century, by de Tocqueville and Lord Acton,
that socialism means slavery, we have steadily moved in the direction of
Socialism and individualism
How sharp a break not only with the recent past but with the whole
evolution of Western civilisation the modern trend towards socialism
means, becomes clear if we consider it not merely against the background of the nineteenth century, but in a longer historical perspective. We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely of Cobden and
Bright, of Adam Smith and Hume, or even of Locke and Milton, but
one of the salient characteristics of Western civilisation as it has grown
from the foundations laid by Christianity and the Greeks and Romans.
Not merely nineteenth- and eighteenth-century liberalism, but the basic
individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides is progressively relinquished.
Friedrich Hayek
Individualism and Western civilization
Individualism has a bad name to-day and the term has come to be connected with egotism and selfishness. But the individualism of which we
speak in contrast to socialism and all other forms of collectivism has no
necessary connection with these… The essential features of that individualism which… has grown and spread into what we know as Western European civilisation (are) the respect for the individual man… the
recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere…
and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own
individual gifts and bents…
As is so often true, the nature of our civilisation has been seen more
clearly by its enemies than by most of its friends: “the perennial Western malady, the revolt of the individual against the species”, as that
nineteenth-century totalitarian, Auguste Comte, has described it, was
indeed the force which built our civilisation. What the nineteenth century added to the individualism of the preceding period was merely to
make all classes conscious of freedom, to develop systematically and
continuously what had grown in a haphazard and patchy manner and
to spread it from England and Holland over most of the European Continent.
Freedom leads to well-being
Liberty on the back of a
US gold coin
Political and economic
liberty bring both peace
and prosperity.
The result of this growth surpassed all expectations.
Wherever the barriers to the free exercise of human
ingenuity were removed, man became rapidly able
to satisfy ever-widening ranges of desire. And while
the rising standard soon led to the discovery of
very dark spots in society, spots which men were
no longer willing to tolerate, there was probably
no class that did not substantially benefit from the
general advance… by the beginning of the twentieth century the working man in the Western world
had reached a degree of material comfort, security,
and personal independence which a hundred years
before had seemed scarcely possible.
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Well-being leads to empowerment and then – confusion
What in the future will probably appear the most significant and farreaching effect of this success is the new sense of power over their own
fate, the belief in the unbounded possibilities of improving their own
lot, which the success already achieved created among men… What
had been an inspiring promise seemed no longer enough, the rate of
progress far too slow; and the principles which had made this progress
possible in the past came to be regarded more as obstacles to speedier
progress, impatiently to be brushed away, than as the conditions for the
preservation and development of what had already been achieved.
On competition
The successful use of competition as the principle of social organisation
precludes certain types of coercive interference with economic life, but
it admits of others which sometimes may very considerably assist its
work and even requires certain kinds of government action. But there is
good reason why the negative requirements, the points where coercion
must not be used, have been particularly stressed.
It is necessary in the first instance that the parties in the market
should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction, and that anybody should be free to produce, sell,
and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all. And it is essential
that the entry into the different trades should be open to all on equal
terms, and that the law should not tolerate any attempts by individuals
or groups to restrict this entry by open or concealed force.
Any attempt to control prices or quantities of particular commodities deprives competition of its power of bringing about an effective
co-ordination of individual efforts, because price changes then cease to
register all the relevant changes in circumstances and no longer provide
a reliable guide for the individual’s actions.
The limits of competition
This is not necessarily true, however, of measures merely restricting the
allowed methods of production, so long as these restrictions affect all
potential producers equally and are not used as an indirect way of controlling prices and quantities… To prohibit the use of certain poisonous
substances, or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible
Friedrich Hayek
with the preservation of competition. The only question here is whether
in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the
social costs which they impose. Nor is the preservation of competition
incompatible with an extensive system of social services, so long as the
organisation of these services is not designed in such a way as to make
competition ineffective over wide fields.
Competition and institutions
The functioning of competition not only requires adequate organisation
of certain institutions like money, markets, and channels of information, some of which can never be adequately provided by private enterprise, but it depends above all on the existence of an appropriate legal
system, a legal system designed both to preserve competition and to
make it operate as beneficially as possible.
It is by no means sufficient that the law should recognise the principle of private property and freedom of contract; much depends on the
precise definition of the right of property as applied to different things.
The systematic study of the forms of legal institutions which will make
the competitive system work efficiently has been sadly neglected; and
strong arguments can be advanced that serious shortcomings here, particularly with regard to the law of corporations and of patents, have not
only made competition work much more badly than it might have done,
but have even led to the destruction of competition in many spheres.
Competition and the common good
There are, finally, undoubted fields where no legal arrangements can
(ensure) that the owner benefits from all the useful services rendered
by his property and suffers for all the damages caused to others by its
use… Thus neither the provision of signposts on the roads, nor, in most
circumstances, that of the roads themselves, can be paid for by every
individual user. Nor can certain harmful effects of deforestation, or of
some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories, be
confined to the owner of the property in question…
In such instances we must find some substitute for the regulation
by the price mechanism. But the fact that we have to resort to the substitution of direct regulation by authority where the conditions for the
proper working of competition cannot be created, does not prove that
we should suppress competition where it can be made to function.
Roger Scruton
Roger Vernon Scruton (born 27 February, 1944) is an English philosopher
and writer. Since the early 1980s he has been the most eloquent defender of
conservative ideas, re-formulating them so as to answer the challenges facing
modern civilization. Scruton is the author of more than 30 books, including
Art and Imagination (1974), The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Sexual
Desire (1986), The Aesthetics of Music (1997), and A Political Philosophy:
Arguments For Conservatism (2006). He has written several novels and two
operas and is a prolific writer on wine.
Scruton was a lecturer and professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College,
London, from 1971 to 1992. In 1982 he helped found The Salisbury Review,
a conservative political journal, which he edited for 18 years. Outspoken and
Roger Scruton
controversial, Scruton found England’s left-leaning academic world increasingly hostile and gradually abandoned his academic career to concentrate on
writing, lecturing and working for conservative causes. During the opening
decade of the 21st century, he has been a relentless and effective critic of
post-modernism and multiculturalism. He is also a celebrated opponent of
the idea of turning all Europeans into members of one pan-European nation,
arguing that democracy can survive only if rooted in nation states.
From 1979 to 1989 Scruton was an active supporter of dissidents in communist Eastern Europe, forging links between Czechoslovakia’s dissident academics and Western universities. Working through his Jan Hus Educational
Foundation, he supported an underground education network, helping to
smuggle in books, organize lectures and send dissident intellectuals to Cambridge. He was deported from Czechoslovakia in 1985 and banned from visiting the country. As the communist system collapsed, Scruton was awarded
the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit (First Class) in 1998.
The passages which follow are from: Scruton R. (1991) Conservative Texts.
Conservatism means choosing custom over philosophy
(Burke) gave a philosophical defence of the English settlement, against
the unsettling effects of philosophy. He saw no greater danger in the
French Revolution than the presumption that reasonable politics must
be generated by rational thought. And by a tour de force of rational
thought he justified the kind of politics that rational thought (he
believed) puts in jeopardy.
There is, therefore, a kind of paradox at the heart of Burke’s conservatism, and it is one that endures to this day. Conservatives in the British
tradition are heirs to an island cultured in which custom prevails over
reason as the final court of appeal. Their political process is governed by
an unwritten constitution, whose principles are themselves a matter of
custom rather than explicit rules.
When interrogated as to the justice or reasonableness of any particular part of their inheritance – be it the common law, the monarchy, the
nature and workings of parliament, the Anglican Church and its nonconformist offshoots – they tend either to shrug their shoulders, asserting that this is how things are because this is how they were, or else they
take refuge in irony and selfmockery, confessing to the absurdity of a
system whose principal merit is that nobody knows why it exists, and
hence nobody knows quite why it shouldn’t.
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Conservatism under attack
At the same time British conservatives are aware of the constant pressure of questions raised about their inheritance. The policy of accepting inherited customs and institutions as bedrock seemed reasonable
enough in Burke’s day, when the mass of citizens was not in a position
to question them. But in a media-dominated democracy, in which affluence breeds choice and choice breeds doubt, the questions proliferate,
and conservatives must contrive either to avoid them, or to address
them in the language of mass communication.
But the language of mass communication falls far short of the target.
How can you justify the common law, for example – that intricate institution whereby law emerges from the conflicts that it resolves, rather
than from the decisions of a sovereign power – in the language of the
TV sitcom? How can you persuade the ordinary democratic man of the
merits of the hereditary principle (as Burke called it), which seems to
confer privileges on people who have never earned them, and to deny
rewards to others who give of their best?
It is scarcely surprising, in the light of that, if British conservatives
have on the whole preferred to avoid discussion of their doctrines and
to get on with the business of conserving things, even while pretending,
like Margaret Thatcher, that they are following a progressive and ‘modernizing’ agenda in which freedom is the goal and the State the enemy.
Conservatism is about more than freedom
Conservatism as I understand it, means the maintance of the social ecology. Individual freedom is certainly a part of that ecology, since without
it social organisms cannot adapt. But freedom is not the sole or the true
goal of politics. Conservatism involves the conservation of our shared.
resources – social, material, economic and spiritual – and resistance to
social entropy in all its forms.
Conservatism is the politics of delay
Conservatism is the politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain
in being, for as long as possible, the life and health of a social organism.
Conservatism in the eyes of its critics, will therefore seem to be
doomed to failure, being no more than an attempt to escape the second
law of thermodynamics. Entropy is always increasing, and every system,
every organism, every spontaneous order will, in the long-term, be ran-
Roger Scruton
domized. However even if true, that does not make conservatism futile
as a political practice, any more than medicine is futile, simply because
‘in the long run we are all dead’, as Keynes famously put it. Rather we
should recognize the wisdom of Lord Salisbury’s terse summary of his
philosophy and accept that ‘delay is life’.
Conservatism is local, socialism and liberalism – global
Moreover, as thermodynamics also teaches us, entropy can be countered indefinitely at the local level, by injecting energy and exporting
Conservatism emphasizes historical loyalties, local identities and
the kind of long-term commitment that among people by virtue of
their localized and limited affections. While socialism and liberalism
are inherently global in their aims, conservatism is inherently local: a
defense of some pocket of social capital against the forces of anarchic
Conservatism is ecological
… environmentalists have been habituated to see conservatism as the
ideology of free enterprise… as an assault on the Earth’s resources, with
no motive beyond the short-term gains that animate the market.
Those who have called themselves conservatives in the political context are in part responsible for this misconception. For they have tended
to see modern politics in terms of a simple dichotomy between individual freedom on the one hand, and state control on the other. Individual
freedom means economic freedom and this, in turn, means the freedom
to exploit natural resources for financial gain… And because in a market economy the biggest actors do the most damage, environmentalists
turn their hostility on big businesses, and on the free economies that
produce them.
… It is a plausible conservative response, therefore not to advocate
economic freedom at all costs, but to recognize the costs of economic
freedom and to take all steps to reduce them. We need free enterprise,
but we also need the rule of law that limits it. When enterprise is the
prerogative of the State, the entity that controls the law is identical with
the entity that has the most powerful motive to evade it – a sufficient
explanation, it seems to me, of the ecological catastrophe of socialist
Conservative Politics
The philosopher and his pigsty
Conservatism is also about preserving nature and treating animals humanely. Nature should be
preserved, because it belongs to all generations of people – the dead, the living and the unborn;
and animals should be treated humanely, not because they have rights, but because people have
Conservatives, it seems, are not afraid to get mud on their boots.
However, there is another and better reason for thinking that Conservatism and environmentalism are natural bedfellows. Conservatism is
an exercise in social ecology. Individual freedom is a part of that ecology,
since without it social organisms cannot adapt. But freedom is not the
sole or even the central goal of politics, even if it is the attribute that, at a
deep level, makes politics both necessary and possible. These resources
include the social capital embodied in laws, customs and institutions;
they also include the material capital contained in the environment, and
the economic capital contained in a free, but law-governed economy.
The purpose of politics, on this view, is not to rearrange society in
the interest of some overarching vision or ideal, such as equality, liberty
or fraternity. It is to maintain a vigilant resistance to the entropic forces
that erode our social and ecological inheritance. The goal is to pass on
to future generations – and if possible to enhance – the order and equilibrium of which we are temporary trustees.
Roger Scruton
The politics of friendship
The conservative understanding of political action is therefore formulated, as a rule, in terms of trusteeship rather than enterprise, of conversation rather than command, of friendship rather than solidarity.
Those ideas lend themselves readily to the environmental project,
and it always surprises me that so few environmentalists seem to see
this. It is obvious to a conservative that our reckless pursuit of individual gratification jeopardizes the social order just as it jeopardizes the
planet. And it is obvious too that the wisest policies are those that strive
to protect and keep in place the institutions that place a brake on our
appetites, and which renew the sources of social contentment.
The conservative social contract

…The conservative response… is to recognize that environmental equilibrium is a part of any durable social order. The conception put before
us by Burke is in fact one that ought to appeal to environmentalists.
Burke’s response to Rousseau’s theory of the social contract was to
acknowledge that political order is a contract, but to add that it is not a contract between the living only, but between the living, the unborn and the dead.
In other words, to speak plainly, not a contract at all, but a relation
of trusteeship, in which inherited benefits are conserved and passed on.
The living may have an interest in consuming the Earth’s resources, but
it was not for this that the dead laboured. And the unborn depend upon
our restraint. … Long-term social equilibrium, therefore, must include
ecological equilibrium.
Autonomy and obligation
At the heart of the liberal view of society is the conception of the autonomous individual, dependent on solely for his benefits, but with an
identity, and a destiny, that are entirely his own. For such an individual,
the chief political benefit is freedom – freedom from the constraint and
coercion exercised by others.
The metaphysical picture of the individual who flourishes in liberty
through self-aggrandisement and self-release.. leads (liberals) to reject
the concept which, for the conservative, takes precedence over all others: the concept of authority.
The conservative defence of authority derives not merely from a
rooted antipathy to unbridled freedom, but also from a rival conception
Conservative Politics
of human nature… According to this conception, human freedom and
human personality are social artifacts, and the human person emerges
already encumbered by obligations to those who have gone before. He
has a duty to a history, and to a culture which he did not choose…
These obligations are not undertaken but incurred; they are founded
neither in consent nor in contract, but in the accumulated burden
of piety and gratitude… Take away the sense of duty, and autonomy
becomes a husk, with neither intrinsic purpose nor justifying ground. If
we adopt autonomy as our social goal, and bend all politics to the task
of achieving it, then we deprive ourselves of true community. If we are
to value freedom as it should be valued, therefore, we must also value
something else, which is not the effect of freedom but its precondition,
namely, the social order from which duties and values spring, and upon
which the human personality depends for its identity.
Conservatism and chaos
Conservatism arose in reaction not to absolute power, but to the anarchy
which invites it. The longed-for release of the self from all restraint, from
customary usage and authoritative guidance, may seem to be the fullest
flowering of human freedom. For the conservative, however, this selfrelease is a self-dissipation: it is not the gain of freedom, but the loss of it.
Conservative politics does not aim to generate ever wider and more
comprehensive liberties, but to ‘care for institutions’ – to maintain and
invigorate what has been established for the common good… it is institutions therefore, and not individuals, which have always been the prime
object of conservative concern.
Institutions and authority
It is from institutions and customs that authority is born, and congenial
authority is one of the goals of conservative politics. Even if, at some
high philosophical level, the liberal and the conservative may live in
harmony, at the level of everyday politics they are seriously opposed.
The liberal seeks to emancipate the individual from authority, the conservative seeks to protect authority from individual rebellion. Without
authority, the conservative argues, there is not will but appetite, not individuality but a herd-like conformity, not freedom but an aimless pursuit
of ‘alternatives’, none of which has value to the person whose energy is
squandered in obtaining it.
Roger Scruton
Society as a system of obligations
‘Society’ denotes a composite arrangement, held together by interlocking obligations which are of separate provenance.
The individual is bound by obligations to the family and to the state,
and also by obligations which arise during the course of free and spontaneous dealings with his neighbours: the obligations of ‘civil society’.
Civil society is the sphere of contract, but not founded on a contract.
It depends for its reality upon the family, which nurtures it and the state,
which protects it; and neither the obligations to the family nor those to
the state can be understood in contractual terms.
The state is justice
Civil society is the totality of free associations. It depends for its continuation upon institutions which, by defining the obligations of their
members, have an inherent tendency to transcend any contractual legitimacy. The principal instance of such an institution is the state, without
which there could be no law, and therefore no guarantee of the justice
upon which civil society depends for its survival.
Our obligation to the state, like our obligation to the family and its
members, does not arise through a free undertaking, but rather through
a slow process of development, during which we acquire obligations
long before we can freely answer to their claim on us.
Consent and allegiance
The conservative rejection of the contractual theory of the state does
not involve a repudiation of the liberal idea that government must be
founded on consent. But ‘consent’ means many things… The consent of
a man to remain in the house that he has inherited is not the same thing
as his consent to sell his apples at £100 a ton. Rather than depend upon
so vast and vague an idea, therefore, we should re-express the consensual basis of social and political obligations in terms of their distinctive
The consent that informs legitimate government is the consent which
stems from allegiance. The individual is bound by allegiance to society,
to institutions, to customs and associations, and also to the state. In no
case is this allegiance a matter of choice freely undertaken, and in no
case is it separable from the history through which it is acquired, and
from which it derives its specific content and motivating power.
Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher (born 13 October, 1925), known
as “The Iron Lady” of politics, is a former Conservative Prime Minister of the
United Kingdom, who served from 1979 to 1990.
Thatcher studied chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford before qualifying as a barrister. In the 1959 general election she was elected MP for Finchley, becoming Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1970. In 1975
she was elected Leader of the Conservative Party, the first woman to head
a major UK political party; in 1979 she became the UK’s first female Prime
Thatcher was determined to reverse what she perceived as a precipitous
national decline, caused by state control of the economy, government deficit and a general climate of state regulation, which made the British people
helpless and dependent. She believed in a minimal but strong state, free markets, private initiative and self-help. Her government stopped state subsidies
Margaret Thatcher
to industry, embarked on the biggest privatization campaign seen in Europe,
challenged the power of the trade unions (and won) and implemented policies
to help the British become house owners in a “property-owning democracy”.
In foreign policy, Thatcher set about returning Great Britain to the centre
stage of world affairs. She stood up to the global advance of Soviet influence
and, together with her friend and partner, US President Ronald Reagan, was
instrumental to the collapse of the communist system in Europe. Under her
leadership, in 1982 Britain went to war for the first time since 1945 – against
Argentina, whose military dictatorship had occupied British-owned islands
near the Argentinian coast. Against all expectations, the British armed forces
easily won the war, gaining Britain a new international respect (not least – in
the eyes of the then enemy, the Soviet Union) and leading to Thatcher’s reelection as Prime Minister in 1982.
Thatcher survived an assassination attempt in 1984. Her hard line against
trade unions and tough opposition to the Soviet Union earned her the nickname of the “Iron Lady”. She was re-elected for a third term in 1987, but
resigned as Prime Minister and party leader in November 1990, after a series
of challenges to her leadership of the Conservative Party.
Margaret Thatcher began her office in a world dominated by the Cold
War and sliding, inexorably it seemed, into some kind of state socialism.
She left behind her a world liberated from communism and aspiring to freedom, democracy and peace (although she did warn that new challenged to
democracy would inevitably appear). Almost single-handedly, she revived
conservatism as one of the great political philosophies – and demonstrated
its effectiveness in war and peace.
Undoubtedly one of the greatest politicians of the 20th century, Margaret
Thatcher has also written profusely on politics and conservative ideas. Her
writings, based as they are on her practical experience as Prime Minister
during a historic time of momentous changes, form a valuable part of the
conservative legacy.
The passages which follow are from: Thatcher M. (2003) Statecraft. Harper
Collins and Thatcher’s interviews for the BBC.
States in a globalizing world
lf you were to heed some commentators you would believe that globalization spells the end of the state as we have known it over the centuries.
But they are wrong: it does not. What it actually does is to prevent – in
some degree – the state from doing things which it should never have
Conservative Politics
been doing in the first place. And that is something rather different.
A world of mobile capital, of international integration of markets, of
instant communication, of information available to all at the click of a
mouse, and of (fairly) open borders, is certainly a long way from that
world favoured by statists, of whatever political colour, in the past. It is
nowadays, as a result, more difficult for governments to misrule their
peoples and mismanage their resources without quickly running into
Unfortunately, though, it is still not impossible. Many African governments get away with kleptocracy. Several Asian governments get
away with disrespect for fundamental human rights. Most European
governments get away with high taxation and overregulation… bad
government is still eminently possible.
Why we need states
That somewhat gloomy reflection should be balanced, though, by three
much more positive ones. States retain their fundamental importance,
first, because they alone set legal frameworks, and having the right legal
framework is enormously important – probably more important than
ever – for both society and the economy. Second, states are important
because they help provide a sense of identity – particularly when their
borders coincide with those of a nation – and the more ‘globalised’ the
world becomes the more people want to hang on to such identity. Third,
states alone retain a monopoly of legitimate coercive power – the power
required to suppress crime at home and to maintain security against
threats abroad.
This final coercive function of the state, although it may in practice
involve a degree of contracting out to private enterprise, can and must
never be yielded up. The state is something different from society; it is
ultimately the servant, not the master of individual human beings; its
potential for inflicting horrors remains as great is ever. All these things
are true. But we need states and we always will.
Principles of modern statecraft
For my part, I favour an approach to statecraft that embraces principles,
as long as it is not stifled by them; and I prefer such principles to be
accompanied by steel along with good intentions. I accordingly suggest
three axioms which the statesman would do well to bear in mind today.
Margaret Thatcher
Thomas Thornycroft: Boadicea and Her Daughters (19th century)
“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the
‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not
for turning”, said Margaret Thatcher in her solemn hour during 1980 when her
reforms seemed not to be working, unemployment was on its way to a record
high of 3 million and her approval was below that of any other PM in the history
of the United Kingdom.
The lady, though, did not turn, continued with her reforms, won the Falklands
War, won the Cold War, got the economy out of the recession, served as PM for
more than 11 years and never lost elections.
Conservative Politics
First, the extension of democracy through every country and continent remains a legitimate and indeed fundamental aspect of sound foreign policy. There are many practical reasons for this; democratic states
do not generally make war on each other; democracy generally promotes good government; democracy generally accompanies prosperity.
But I do mean true democracy – that is a law-based state with a limited
government, in which the tyranny of the majority no less than that of a
minority is banished.
Furthermore… I entertain deep reservations about some initiatives
taken in the name of human rights and democracy, on grounds of both
practicality and of legitimacy. And I would also caution against making
the best (perfect democracy) the enemy of the good (imperfect democracy). Common sense must always tempter moral zeal.
Second, a sound and stable international order can only be founded
upon respect for nations and for nation states. Whatever the flaws of particular nationalists, national pride and national institutions constitute
the best groundling for a functioning democracy. Attempts to suppress
national differences or to amalgamate different nations with distinct traditions into artificial states are very likely to fail, perhaps bloodily. The
wise statesman will celebrate nationhood – and use it.
Third, whatever stratagems of international diplomacy are deployed
to keep the peace, the ultimate test of statesmanship is what to do in the
face of war. Deterring wars, and being in a position to win wars that are
forced upon one, are two sides of the same coin: both require continuous investment in defence and a constant and unbending resolution to
resist aggression.
Communism and the West
The Soviet communist system was, in a sense, simple. Its central purpose
was to achieve domination over the world in its entirety by an ideology,
Marxism-Leninism, and by the Communist Party, which was that ideology’s supreme custodian and unique beneficiary. That purpose was,
in the eyes of its proponents, subject to no moral constraints – the very
notion of which appeared absurd.
Communism recognized no limits except those posed by the power
of its enemies. Within such a system, individuals were only of value in
so far as they served the role allotted them. Similarly, the expression of
ideas, artistic endeavour, all kinds of ‘private’ activity, were judged and
Margaret Thatcher
permitted according to whether they advanced ‘the Revolution’, which
in practice increasingly meant the interests of the old men of the Kremlin.
The pursuit of world revolution was at times largely suspended. At
other times, notably in Soviet relations with China, disagreements broke
out between the proponents of the great socialist idea about its pace,
conduct and immediate goals. But the objective of creating worldwide a
fully socialist society, consisting of radically socialist citizens, remained.
Against this stood America and its allies. What we call in shorthand
‘the West’ was a reality as complex as ‘the East’… was simple.
First of all it consisted not of one power but of many… America led;
but America had to persuade its friends to follow. This reality reflected
a fundamental philosophical difference. The very essence of Western
culture… was recognition of the unique value of the individual human
Socialism as the enemy of liberty
… Still more important… is the fact that the struggle between two quite
different approaches to the political, social and economic organization
of human beings has not ended and will never end.
Neither the fall of the Berlin Wall, nor victory in the Gulf War, nor
the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor the establishment of free markets
and a measure of democracy in South-East Asia – none of these has
resolved the tension between liberty and socialism in all its numerous
Believers in the Western model of strictly limited government and
maximum freedom for individuals within a just rule of law often say,
and rightly, that ‘we know what works’. Indeed, we do. But equally there
will always be political leaders and, increasingly, pressure groups who
are bent on persuading people that they cannot really run their own
lives and that the state must do it for them. And, sadly but inevitably,
there will always be people who prefer idleness to effort, dependency to
independence, and modest rewards just as long as nobody does better.
On religion and faith
I think there are times when it would be difficult to carry on unless one
had a faith, and I have, and I am very grateful I was brought up that way
and that, I think, enables you to see what matters and what does not,
Conservative Politics
because in the last resort, you either have the choice to act with courage
or without it, and I think the fact that you have a faith enables you to
have that much more courage in face of any situation.
On the death penalty
I personally have always voted for the death penalty because I believe
that people who go out prepared to take the lives of other people forfeit
their own right to live. I believe that that death penalty should be used
only very rarely, but I believe that no-one should go out certain that no
matter how cruel, how vicious, how hideous their murder, they themselves will not suffer the death penalty. But I say that as a personal view.
There has never been a party political view on the death penalty. It has
always been held that we vote individually. I have consistently voted to
retain the death penalty for the reasons which I have given.
Rules of foreign policy
• Don’t believe that military interventions, no matter how morally
justified, can succeed without clear military goals;
• Don’t fall into the trap of imagining that the West can remake societies;
• Don’t take public opinion for granted – but don’t either underrate
the degree to which good people will endure sacrifices for a worthwile
• Don’t allow tyrants and aggressors to get away with it;
• And when you fight – fight to win.
The defects of communism
I never had any doubt that the communist system was doomed to
fail, if the West kept its nerve and remained strong… I believed this
simply because communism ran against the grain of human nature and
was therefore ultimately unsustainable.
Because it was committed to suppressing individual differences, it
could not mobilise individual talents, which is vital to the process of
wealth creation. It thus impoverished not just souls but society. Faced
with a free system, which engages rather than coerces people, and so
brings out the best in them, communism must ultimately founder.
Further Reading
Burke E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Web link: http://www.
Hayek. F. A. (1944) The Road to Serfdom. Routledge.
Scruton R. (1991) Conservative Texts. Eds. Macmillan.
Thatcher M. (2003) Statecraft. Harper Collins.

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