An ideology is a political thought that shares a set of beliefs. It is a body of concepts, values and symbols that embody conceptions of human nature and therefore emphasise values that people should adhere to. Andrew Vincent would say, " Ideologies thus claim both to describe and to prescribe for humans". Conservatism as an ideology with its long history has by some political authors been viewed as an ideology without a definite body of ideas and this notion undermines a key point in defining an ideology: an ideology being a political thought that shares a set of beliefs.
With that said this essay will explore to what extent Conservatism is considered an ideology. Generally Conservatives do agree on certain issues. For example Conservatives have viewed society as an organism, a living entity. Society thus has an existence outside the individual, and in a sense is prior to the individual. Unlike Liberal theory Conservatives believe that according to the social contract theory citizens in affect agree to be governed for their own benefit in the same way children are to be raised by their parents.
What can be said from this is that children do not know what is good for them, as does society. Society is to be held together by the bonds of tradition, authority and a common morality. On freedom they have traditionally endorsed a weak view of freedom. As their beliefs on society would put forward, the individual does not know what is good for him or her. This gives them the 'prescriptive' authority to put limits on their freedom. This can be known as negative freedom allowing the individual the right amount of freedom restricting things that may be prescribed by them as bad for example making drugs illegal.
On human nature Conservatives generally believe that human beings by nature are flawed and imperfect. They will argue against utopian ideas as being unrealistic taking religious point as well in to note like man being born with 'original sin'. Therefore, Conservatives believe in a hierarchic society and will not accept social equality. They believe people are born unequal as people are born with different skills and talent. With this said there must be leaders and there must be followers.
This moves society from being an aristocracy to meritocracy. Furthermore, Conservatives will argue that authority should be the epicentre for everything. In schools authority should be exercised by the teachers, at work the employer and in society at large by Government. Without authority and discipline society could be chaotic as there would be little direction and inspiration hence their traditional preference for a strong state. Authority is beneficial as well as necessary in that it fosters respect and loyalty and promotes social cohesion.
As some of the points put forward, Conservatives do as their name suggests: promote and implement policies that conserve certain aspects. They share beliefs on a large range of issues and this can to some degree recognise Conservatism as being an ideology. However, the meaning of conservatism is to conserve things. That said everyone trying to conserve could be seen as a Conservative. People who what to conserve the environment can been seen as conservatives. Communist governments can be seen as conservatives as they seek to conserve Communism in society.
Liberals can be seen as conservatives as they have conserved their way of thinking: their policies of continual change. Even Fascists and Racists can be seen as adopting conservatism as they conserve their policies of hatred. With all this said conservatism and its make up should be addressed. Unlike many ideologies, there are several factions in conservatism. In Britain this can be reflected upon looking at One Party Conservatism, Liberal Conservatism and the New Right with it own two factions Neo Liberalism and Social Authoritarianism.
One Party Conservatism emerged around 1870 under Benjamin Disraeli who were concerned about social division and how that could undermine existing order. Therefore they sought to overcome the social divisions by improving conditions and bringing about improvements. Furthermore, they believed in a Paternalistic Government acting in a collectivist way. They would have a limited role in the economy and would emphasise strong authority. This Conservatism emphasises a strong state that should as a paternalistic government provide society with benefits.
Liberal Conservatism, which emerged around the 1830's under Robert Peel, believed in free trade, limited authority and more individualism rather than social obligations. In addition they believed in very little role in the economy. Comparing Liberal Conservatism with One Party Conservatism it is clear that Conservatives do not believe in or share a fixed set of beliefs in many issues. This can be concluded further looking at the New Right. The New Right emerged in Post war years focusing on its aims of privatisation and the rolling back of the state.
Adding to this the New Right believes in defence of family values, defence of the nation's sovereignty wary and fearful over immigration. Having explored some of the factions of conservatism it is even more clear that the set of beliefs that distinguish conservatism are rather weak and to make a fair comment undermine Conservatism as being an ideology. Conservatives themselves would even argue that they don't share an ideology. Some would argue that Conservatism is more a disposition rather than a coherent set of beliefs.
It shares the notion of fear of change. Adding to this conservatism is situational: it is the defence of status quo. Some conservatives reject ideas that are canonized by others in their camp. The Conservative party in Britain adopts the motto "Si monumentum requires, circumspice" which, stands for 'the country at any given moment'. It can be said that conservatism is a temporary historical phenomenon, representing the views of a class that is or was in serious political and economic decline.
The Governments in the era of Liberal revolutions can be an example of this. As mentioned earlier this can also include ideologies that are not envisaged as traditional conservatives like the Communists in North Korea as they don't want change. As we know Conservative beliefs are on the other spectrum to Marxism or Communism. More so, it is an ideology of dominant social and political class. A doctrine with no principled content that absorbs prevailing political, cultural and economic ethos. Andrew Vincent puts forward that "…
with a grain of truth, that in the last two hundred years conservatism has taken policies from other ideologies and defended them all at one time or another". This concludes that if something was to work and was accepted, then the conservatives would back it. It can be said that they operate a 'statecraft' emphasising the point that rather than conservatives having certain straight beliefs they more known to be pragmatic. Having looked at the contradictions and flaws of conservatism other ideologies need to be addressed to illustrate the ideologies picture.
Liberalism may not have as many factions as conservatism but it can be seen in the same light. Liberalism can mean to look at or reflect upon things more broadly taking the more free approach. Liberalism is associated with change and the importance of it. That said some conservatives could be seen as Liberals as some conservatives are known to be dispositional: their policies will be those that are in consensus in society at any given moment. Furthermore, Liberal ideas are not as concrete as people may assume. Liberalism takes in freethinking and with that beliefs on many matters will be different.
For example some Liberals would argue that abortion should be allowed no matter what the situation whereas some would say only if it is a risk to the life of the mother. This scenario is present in both the USA and UK. In addition, some would argue that softer drugs like cannabis should be made legal whereas others would advocate that although people might want cannabis it is the government's job to stop them from having something that is not beneficial to them taking the paternalistic role. Communism too can be viewed in the same way. The communism that was in the USSR was not exactly the same as it was in China.
The fact is China accused the USSR during the 1960's as being reformist rather than Marxist. During the period Khrushchev the leader at the time was carrying out a policy of decentralisation something that most Marxists do not adhere to. At present China one of the few Communist countries left in the world has taken a less concrete approach on her beliefs. The government has opened up trade centres and the market is becoming less controlled with foreign companies opening up factories in China such as Sony to take advantage of the lower labour costs.
In addition China is now a member of the World Trade Organisation something that is not envisaged with Communism. With that said ideologies do not appear to be as fixed or hard as concrete in their beliefs. Conservatism may be less so but it does exist as an ideology. It can be confused with other ideologies but the conservatism we know is the conservatism that takes in free market thinking with paternalistic government. It does to an extent have a set of beliefs and that as the Conservative motto in the UK state: 'The Country at any given moment'.
Political Ideologies, by Andrew Heywood, Second Edition, Palgrave books 1998
Modern political ideologies, by Andrew Vincent Second Edition, Oxford : Blackwell, 1995