Since the mid-1990s the Conservative Party itself in Britain has faced something of a demise facilitated by a combination of out of touch policies, weak leaders, and as highlighted again recently, an association with sleaze and scandal. However it cannot be denied that for much of the (20th, British politics was remarkably dominated by the Conservative Party and especially throughout the late 1970s and until the early 1990s.
Indeed it can be argued that the so-called Labour government of today is in fact no more left wing than many Conservative governments before it down the years. The argument goes that the ‘Third Way’ is simply popular conservatism, a pragmatic and more youthful form of politics that has stolen the Conservative’s clothes and pushed them to the sidelines of the political pitch.
However although the Conservative Party itself may be on the wrong side of an increasingly slippery slope, the point remains that broadly speaking it is still conservative ideas that prevail and are popular in modern Britain. In many ways the success of conservatism stems from the fact that it is not an ideology that is trying to enforce upon the general public a specific and rigid template of social ideas and rules (indeed, many conservatives would argue that it is not an ideology at all).
Moreover, its pragmatism lends itself to more adaptable politics, which is more inclined to adjust to public demand. Time and again we have seen the results of trying to impose upon people one particular belief system. And time and again we have seen this snowball into dictatorial and totalitarian regimes such as fascism (Nazi Germany, 1930s and 1940s) and socialism (Russia, 1920s, 1930s etc. ) However this is not the complete story.
Although the fact that conservatism is very much an ideology for those who want to be left alone, its popularity throughout modern history must have something to do with more specific policies. True Conservative ideas can be traced back (as much as there is a true Conservative philosophy) to Edmund Burke, who in the light of the French Revolution across the Channel, proclaimed that revolutionary change was far from the ideal situation, where ‘change in order to conserve’1 was the far more practical and desirable option.
It was this opposition to radical change gives us the modern definition of small ‘c’ conservatism. In Britain, it is this attitude, more so than elsewhere, that has led to the success of the Conservative Party in modern times. British people at large see little benefit in radical change and tend to prefer things the way they are. This is not to say that the British are a backward-looking nation, rather that the maxim ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ applies. Nonetheless, even the Conservative Party could not retain office forever.
In the late 1990s, the apparent omnipotence of the Tories in British politics was upset by (at first glance, at least) a surprising shift to the left. The emergence of Tony Blair in the mid 1990s as the new leader of the Labour Party meant that with the Tories descending into their twilight years a new era of politics was dawning. However, was this new ‘regime’ of New Labour really any different in essence to the Conservative government(s), which preceded it?
The 1997 Labour election manifesto is incredibly vague but appealing to a wide spectrum of people. It’s policies are no longer socialist or even truly left-wing, rather they are a wholesome blend of pragmatism, which sees the government tough on crime, whilst bringing in more liberal reforms to the House of Lords and again concerning the European Union. Blair’s relationship with President Bush is evidence of the Party’s switch from left-wing tendencies to a more middle-ground political position, something which ten years ago would have seemed unthinkable.
So if the Labour Party under Blair is now more of a middle ground party, then some of their policies are necessarily broadly conservative as some ideology, more traditionally seen as conservative, falls beneath the New Labour umbrella. Perhaps one of the most convincing arguments, emanating mostly from the left-wing of politics, suggests that the real attraction of Conservatism is in it’s appeal to self-interest, a principle that, unsurprisingly, plenty of people will still vote for.
Since various attempts at socialism have highlighted the fact that human beings are innately selfish, the romantic vision of cooperation and equality holds little weight as it becomes clearer that what people really want is actually what benefits them the most. Whilst this may not be universally true, the general principle is, and this leaves us with the realisation that ingrained in almost everyone, is one of the core Conservative cornerstones: the promotion of the individual. This fails to account, however, for the demise of the Conservative Party of late.
What does, perhaps, is the fact that New Labour has been more successful in persuading greater numbers of the public that they can have their cakes and eat them. If this is the case, conservative ideas have not merely survived but are the stated policy of the major parties. So even though the party itself may not have survived through the 1990s, essentially, conservatism, or at least some conservative thinking, remains the benchmark of the reasons for voting of the majority of the general public.
The counter to this, on the other hand, is the argument that suggests that the dominant ideas about economics and society are in fact liberal ones, which would suggest that genuine conservatism is a thing of the past. However liberal economics, in its classic sense is all about a laissez-faire attitude, which sees a free market, liberated from any government intervention or control, regulating itself and driven by the desire to make a profit.
However the control comes from ‘what Adam Smith referred to as ‘an invisible hand”2 that makes sure that the interests of consumers, workers and employers are all essentially harmonised. This liberal economic policy is also coupled with the desire for free trade, again a situation that is ultimately free from any state interference. So here is where the counter-argument falls short. The very liberal economic policies that supposedly differentiate it from the Conservatives are in actual fact the very same policies that were in place throughout much of the (19th and were re-established during the Thatcher and Major years.
Whether this is an example of the Tories borrowing from the Liberals or the other way round is immaterial. Essentially the point is that far from being a thing of the past, support for conservatism does continue even in the light of the downfall of the party itself. So the continued support for conservative ideas in modern Britain is neither surprising nor unexpected. Conservatism being such a pragmatic entity, their ideas are bound to appeal to the majority of people at some point in their lifetime.
The fact that, of late, the Tories have done less well does not reflect the fact that essentially, in one way or another, the British public are conservative, albeit small ‘c’ conservative. Therefore accounting for their success is really to say that they have a very rational and realistic ideology that is flexible enough to accommodate as many people as possible. The fact that New Labour has stolen the show lately, is actually to pay homage to the late Conservatives, in the sense that the Party itself may well be dying out, but essentially conservatism lives on in so many ways.