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Because of the demise of traditional society, conservatism as a political ideology is irrelevant to contemporary politics. Discuss.

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“Because of the demise of traditional society, conservatism as a political ideology is irrelevant to contemporary politics.” Discuss.

The demise of traditional society has certain implications in relation to politics and conservatism as a political ideology. It implies that there has been a shift in traditional values, both in society and concerning the way in which politics is conducted in terms of what approach is taken based on ones political persuasion. Individualism has become prominent in our society and the promotion of one’s own advancement is paramount in a modern democratic state. This has proven to produce difficulties for the traditional conservatives in promoting core beliefs such as an emphasis on inevitable inequality and hierarchical preferences. It is therefore imperative to determine how society has changed; in order to establish levels of compatibility conservatism has with this contemporary society. It may be that conservatism has the ability to adapt and change to suit the more contemporary political environment. It could also be the case that conservatism is not the only ideology under threat due to the fragmentation of society and the increase in pressure politics. Therefore, the definition and implications of contemporary politics needs to be analysed to gain an insight into this matter. Another important point to consider when answering this question is the Conservative Party. The relation the political party has with its original ideological roots could give us an interesting insight to the fate of conservatism as an ideal. There is no question that society and politics change over time. The important points to consider are either if traditional society, as we know it, walks hand in hand with conservatism as an ideology or whether it has the core principles that can be applied to any contemporary situation.

This demise of traditional society can be attributed to a number of potential explanations. These include technological advances, changes in traditional social trends and the spread of individualism leading to a decline in the traditional societal makeup. Society has become more fragmented due the break down in traditional family values and gender roles. The internet has provided greater access to information, allowing people to identify and connect with a specific cause or belief, such as feminism or ecologism. It is possible to draw evidence in favour of the notion that all ideologies are under threat because total viewpoints that mobilise a collective group of similar minded individuals no longer have a place in contemporary politics. There are certain features of conservatism that have been left behind with the demise of traditional society, such as the need to establish an aristocracy and enable a social and psychological condition of inequality. It is very difficult for any electorally involved conservative to promote the idea of inevitable natural inequality within society. This tells us that in a modern context core beliefs have to be masked by other factors or clever presentation. This is not the case for ideologies such as socialism; where their core beliefs of equality are pinned for all to see. This implies that conservatism as a political ideology has become hindered by the more contemporary social context in demonstrating to the public what they are really about. It has been argued that traditional conservatism has been alienated and forced to create new secondary values, adapt or play down their more outdated principles in areas that include views on factors such as social inequality or a natural hierarchy. This implies that traditional conservatism is irrelevant as a political ideology.

There has been a rise in ‘New Right’ conservatism that has produced strands of conservatism such as Neo-Liberalism. This could imply that conservatism is adapting to suite the political context. The different strands of conservatism have been accused of creating a misunderstanding of the doctrine of conservatism[1]. This implies that the division within the conservative ideology is diluting or misrepresenting traditional conservatism. It also could potentially mean that unsuccessfully fused together strands of conservatism creates contradictions and highlights the incompatibility in terms of modernity. The free-market and neo-liberal economics, adopted by conservatives such as Thatcherites meant that they ‘set themselves apart from classical European conservative philosophy’.[2] This may have been because if such a course was not pursued then it could well have resulted in the demise of conservatism in a political context. This shows that conservatism has indeed been a victim of liberal economics and the shift in social focus from traditional family and hierarchical consensus to individualist and an equal opportunity for all society.

The key features to now consider are whether either conservatism can or has successfully adapted to a contemporary social context or if it is possible to apply conservative beliefs and approaches to a modern context. This could also either mean that conservatives will have to continue to play down their core beliefs; weakening their political doctrine or that conservatism will change to the extent that it no longer represents its traditional values. There is a difference between social conservative values and political conservatism. For example a conservative, in political terms, is usually in favour of caution and gradual progression as opposed to a more radical approach to politics, drawing on historical experience instead of rationality. This is an approach or outlook on how to deal with situations and therefore, can potentially be applied to any contemporary situation. The demise of traditional conservative views on the society could possibly fall by the wayside to accommodate for modern views and outlooks. However, it is hard to consider one aspect of conservatism without it having implications for the other. The conservative social views and models that have been left behind in favour of a more contemporary political method derived from the same principles on which the ideological approach was born. Conservatism could adapt to concern itself with more liberal agendas, but with a cautious and typically conservative approach.

The apparent demise of traditional society in social terms has political implications as there are certain factors that no longer bear the importance they once did, especially when considering voting behaviour. These include factors such as party identification and a class structured society and even though these factors are social trends they are closely linked with ideologies. The Labour and Conservative parties in the UK were founded on class structured principles and trends. They have now adapted considerably, but still maintain their ideological stances which they apply in contemporary politics, in theory. However, political parties are continuously adapting and going against their ideological beliefs and de-polarising their politics in order to cater for a larger portion of the electorate. This may either be due to a society that has become more equal and generally prosperous, leaving less need for extremities or because politicians are doing anything to gain voters because of such high levels of voter apathy – they can no longer set up a banner and wait for like-minded individuals to come their way. This alludes to the fact that there has been a demise of traditional society, which has lead to certain values, both liberal and conservative, been left behind. Examples that show this include New Labour’s move away from the support of the Unions with Clause 4 and the Conservatives now support social ventures like the NHS. This tells us that it is expected for change in ideologies to occur and it does not necessarily mean that conservatism as an ideology is irrelevant in a modern context because even though new positions may have been adopted by conservatives on contemporary issues; the way in which those positions were conceived and approached was in conservative manner. This implies that conservatism is still relevant as an ideological approach, even though there has been a demise in values traditional associated with conservatism.

Conservatism and the Conservative Party are very closely related – but it is important to remember that they are not the same thing. They have a complicated relationship but their fates are not necessarily entwined. When considering this argument critics point out that “Failing consistently to distinguish the party from the ideology” [3] will inevitably leave the argument lacking clarity unless the distinction is made. If the Conservative Party collapsed – it would be a massive blow to conservatism as an ideology because there wouldn’t be a mainstream party with what would be considered more conservative views.  But it would not be the end of the ideology because there is always going an opposition to liberalism; at least as long as it remains the other prominent ideology. This shows that there could always potentially be a place for conservatism; as long as liberalism is around. However, the fact that conservatism is increasingly incorporating liberal agendas, as mentioned before, implies that traditional conservatism is dying out in favour of a more centralised and liberalised focus. Even so, traditional conservatism no matter how small the support base would still have a place in contemporary politics because there are always going to be those who are willing to support it. However, this could potentially point to the fact that it would have a far greater influence on the Political.

One could take the view that if the political environment changed enough, towards using pressure groups and rational choice models instead of broad collective ideological groupings. Possibly then one could imagine the demise of all collective ideologies in favour of identity politics. This has implications for all ideologies and it is possible to see a situation where all political ideologies become so similar in the need to keep support that it would be far more favourable to give your support elsewhere more specific. So as it stands, it is plausible to come to the conclusion that a political ideology may derive from a certain social class or social consensus of thought. But if it has overall philosophies and critiques on how society should be organised, which in theory, could be applied to any society. Then surely it could survive in a contemporary environment. Even if many conservative or traditional values have become less significant in social terms the foundations paved the way long ago to create a fairly solid support base, which has adapted to contemporary politics leaving behind or playing down their unfashionable aspects. This is what conservatism as an ideology has had to do in order to survive – but any ideology that has to succeed in contradicting conditions to the extent that conservatism has in a society based on free choice in a democratic process must change, or at least play down, their old fashioned views of society, to suit the needs of the electorate. However, adapting and changing to satisfy a contemporary electorate is not in keeping with your traditional ideological views. So the question of whether conservatism has changed into something completely different, but with the same name presents itself.

Robert Eccleshall made the observation that Margaret Thatcher’s free-market policies have “the cultural landscape, perhaps irreversibly, by eroding those traditional attitudes of deference and respect which had conserved Patrician Toryism”.  Thatcherism, according to Eccleshall allegedly damaged:

“...The comfortable image of an intricate, beneficent and secure social hierarchy …. The two rudiments that had supported Conservative doctrine since Peel—meritocratic individualism and benevolent paternalism— were both damaged, perhaps irreparably, by the Thatcherite programme, leaving the party to seek fresh ideological foundations”.[4]

This view argues that it is the individuals within the Conservative Party that shape the basis for a Conservative ideology. This observation on conservatism groups the Conservative ideology with the political party. This implies that conservatism is not irrelevant to contemporary society because it will always have the capacity to evolve for survival through the individuals that are in a position of power at the time. This has led to claim that the conservatives “will only trade under the old label because of their appreciation of the residual brand loyalty.”[5] However, this does not shed light on the fate of all ideologies because it is unclear whether it rests purely on the success of their political party. For example, society has changed considerably since the creation of the Labour Party. Some more left wing critics claim that “it is a much more middle class society and the working class communities which once underpinned the Labour vote are either much weaker than they were, or non-existent.”[6]This article was written by a more radical democratic socialist magazine and therefore will most likely be more critical of a mainstream version of socialism. However, it does outline a view point that society may have changed to leave behind traditional conservative views in relation to contemporary politics; but there have been shifts in the other direction too. There are more middle-class citizens than ever, who may once have been thought of as Labour voters may now be inclined to vote in a more conservative manner. These implications point to the fact that political parties are separate in some way to their ideologies because society is changing constantly, providing the need for adaptation. It could also mean that if the fates of ideologies and political parties were, in fact, entwined; they would both change or adapt if need be.

It is plausible to then argue that conservatism, as an ideology, could only really become truly irrelevant when society and politics are made up from something different than a system of political parties founded on ideologies. This is because even if the Conservative Party collapsed – it wouldn’t be impossible for another party to be created in its place to uphold conservative values. A political party may move away from its traditional ideological views, but they will still have been the starting point and will be the general point of reference in the future – making it still relevant in contemporary politics.

The different conclusions that are drawn from the evidence provided in this essay allude to the one general view. This is that conservatism has had to hide various core beliefs and adapt particular unavoidable liberal agendas; implying that it has left behind its traditional values. This is particularly due to a result in the rise of individualism and the demise of traditional family arrangements and values. But this is only expected and the same can potentially be applied to other ideologies. It is possible that there could be an exhaustion of ideologies[7] too. However, this would not be due to a possible demise in traditional values and would affect the way in which politics is conducted fairly radically. The way society was made up traditionally was based on conservative virtues and even though these virtues are not as prominent in contemporary politics – the outlook and approach of conservatism is still prevalent and relevant in a modern context. There will always be a cautious, historically experienced driven train of thought vigilant of human imperfection that opposes someone’s new idea for rational immediate agendas. Some claim that critics have underestimated the ability of conservatives for self–renewal[8]. This tells us that due to conservatism being akin to something like a ‘positional ideology’[9] it cannot die out even if the foundations, the traditional society, fade away because it is something that can adapt with a particular viewpoint and a fixed source of basic ideas that ‘is recited when anyone produces some fresh formula for eliminating the imperfections of existing arrangements’[10].


J. Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age (1995).

Denham, A and Garnett, M. ‘Sir Keith Joseph and the Undoing of British Conservatism, Journal of Political Ideologies’, (2002).

Eccleshall, R. ‘The doing of conservatism’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 5/3, (2000).

Eccleshall, R. ‘Margaret Hilda Thatcher’, in R. Eccleshall and G. Walker: Biographical Dictionary of British Prime Ministers, (1998).

Smith, P. ‘Third Way or Road to Nowhere?’ The Chartist, Chartist Publications, 2002.

Eagleton, E. ‘Ideology: An Introduction’, London: Verso, (1991).

Goodwin, B. ‘Using Political Ideas, 4th edition’, New York: Wiley, (1997).

Heywood, A. ‘Politics, 2nd edition’, New York: Palgrave, (2002).

Huntington, S.P. ‘Conservatism as an Ideology’, American Political Science Review 51, (1957).

Oakeshott, M. ‘Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays’, USA: Liberty Fund, (1991).

Riff, M.A. ‘Dictionary of Modern Political Ideologies’, Manchester University Press, (1987).

Mannheim, K. ‘Conservative Thought – Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology’, London: Routeledge, (1953).

Gray, J. ‘End Games: Questions in Late Modern Political Thought’, Cambridge: Polity Press, (1997).

[1] Eccleshall

[2] Eccleshall

[3]Sir Keith Joseph and the undoing of British conservatism, Andrew Denham and Mark Garnett, Journal of Political Ideologies (2002).

[4] R. Eccleshall, ‘Margaret Hilda Thatcher’, in R. Eccleshall and G. Walker: Biographical Dictionary of British Prime Ministers (1998).

[5] Andrew Denham and Mark Garnett, Sir Keith Joseph and the undoing of British conservatism, Journal of Political Ideologies (2002).

[6]P. Smith, ‘Third way or road to nowhere?’ The Chartist, Chartist Publications, 2002-8.

[7] Andrew gamble ‘the crisis of conservatism’

[8] Eccleshall

[9] P. Huntington ‘conservatism as an ideology’

[10] P. Huntington

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