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29 March, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

British Conservatism: a Story of Success

British conservatism is a philosophy of moderation which means that while Conservatives broadly support the established laws, they recognise the continual need for evolution rather than revolution.

There was an ideological shift under Margaret Thatcher, however. By the 1970s Britain was in sharp economic decline, had a high record of strikes, had seen its industry wither and become less competitive. The country was gripped by self-doubt and low national esteem. Thatcher said the fault had been to allow the state to become too strong. She insisted taxes should be lowered, state industries privatised and laws passed to encourage individual enterprise and responsibility. Under her, the Tories moved sharply to the right: both in social policy, in cracking down on people seen as "anti-social" in their behavour and those exploiting social security benefits, and in economic policy by selling off all government-owned industries and utilities. 

She proved a strong leader, and Britain revived economically. But her social policies were deeply divisive. Conservatives were seen as harsh, uncaring and hypocrites, preaching "Victorian" moral and social values but failing to understand the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the decline of religion in Britain. But Thatcher left office 20 years ago, and Conservatism has changed again in the past ten years. It now accepts, for example, social trends and changes unthinkable a generation ago: David Cameron, the present party leader, has even proposed allowing gay marriage, a step that has brought him into conflict with the established church which was once seen as a pillar of the party's support. 

It is hard to find a consistent ideology in British Conservatism, apart from the overwhelming insistence on pragmatism, on accepting - even if slowly - the changing social patterns and ethnic make-up of the country, and on a firm insistence on the rule of law. This has meant that the Conservatives have never tolerated corruption in office, have always accepted the results of elections (even when defeated) and have a deep commitment to British traditions of fairness and constitutional balance - even if Britain, unlike almost any other country, has no written constitution. Of course, there have still been plenty of scandals, especially sexual scandals, during Conservative governments. But the Tories have never tried to suppress the press or curb the Opposition's right to investigate the government record. 

The Conservatives have also always championed the right of individuals to own property, and their liberty to do what they want with their money. This has meant that the party has usually favoured keeping taxes as low as possible, has supported the right of individuals to set up and run their own businesses with as little government interference as possible, and has been on the side of individual liberty. The big debates have usually been how much tax to levy and how much social services to provide. On the whole, Conservatives reject the state dictating to people how they should live. But this has sometimes led them to oppose necessary regulations on such issues as town planning or employers' behaviour. But it has appealed often to aspirational members of the working class who have made some money and do not want the state to restrict them in their new freedoms. 

Above all, British conservatism is a philosophy of moderation. That means that while Conservatives broadly support the established laws, they recognise the continual need for evolution rather than revolution. While they support constitutional monarchy, they do not support authoritarian governments. While they want closer economic ties with the European Union to benefit from freer trade, they are deeply suspicious of European political integration. And while they believe that individuals should be free to make their own decisions on work, careers and personal liberty, they accept the need for government help to improve education, offer training and expand opportunity, especially for those socially disadvantaged.

Many books have been written on British Conservatism. No writer has properly defined it, either as an ideology, a political vision or a consistent set of values. It appears uniquely British and amorphous, as it has arisen from the very long and slow development of democracy in Britain, which evolved over centuries rather than being born of revolution, as in France. Conservativism relies much on tradition, on consensus and on shared ideals of fairness and tolerance. It often steals ideas from political opponents - and has, for example, recently insisted it is the champion of "green" causes. Publicly, it preaches strong principles and values. But anyone who examines these closely will see that they have changed and evolved over the past century out of all recognition. The Conservatism of 1920 would be regarded today almost like fascism, whereas today's Conservatism would have been seen a century ago as the most extreme left-wing radicalism. 

The key approach is gradualism. Few changes are made suddenly (except in war or national emergency, such as the response to terrorism). And most Britons cannot usually tell nowadays whether the government is run by Labour, Conservatives or, as at present, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Most people in Britain today would prefer good and efficient government to one that is visionary and intrusive into their lives. That is how Conservatism has flourished and survived.


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