Opinions on Conservatism in the United Kingdom

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Conservatism in the United Kingdom is related to its counterparts in other Western nations, but has a distinct tradition. Edmund Burke is often considered the father of modern English conservatism in the Anglosphere. Burke was a member of a conservative faction of the Whig party; the modern Conservative Party however has been described as "the heir, and in some measure the continuation, of the old Tory Party" by Lord Norton of Louth, and the Conservatives are often still referred to as Tories. One Australian scholar (Glen Worthington) says: "For Edmund Burke and Australians of a like mind, the essence of conservatism lies not in a body of theory, but in the disposition to maintain those institutions seen as central to the beliefs and practices of society."

The old established form of English and, after the Act of Union, British conservatism, was the Tory Party. It reflected the attitudes of a rural land owning class, and championed the institutions of the monarchy, the Anglican Church, the family, property as the best defence of the social order. In the early stages of the industrial revolution, it seemed to be totally opposed to a process that seemed to undermine some of these bulwarks, and the new industrial elite were seen by many as enemies to the social order. Robert Peel was able to reconcile the new industrial class to the Tory landed class by persuading the latter to accept the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and adopted laissez-faire economic policies from 1918 onwards. The new coalition of traditional landowners and sympathetic industrialists constituted the new Conservative Party.

Benjamin Disraeli gave the new party a political ideology. The Conservative Central Office, established in 1870, and the newly-formed National Union (which drew together local voluntary associations), gave the party "additional unity and strength", and Disraeli's views on social reform and the wealth disparity between the richest and poorest in society allegedly "helped the party to break down class barriers", according to Conservative peer Lord Norton. As a young man, Disraeli was influenced by the romantic movement and medievalism, and developed a devastating critique of industrialism. In his novels, he outlined an England divided into two nations, each living in perfect ignorance of each other. He foresaw, like Karl Marx, the phenomenon of an alienated industrial proletariat. His solution involved a return to an idealised view of a corporate or organic society, in which everyone had duties and responsibilities towards other people or groups. This "one nation" conservatism is still a significant tradition in British politics, in both the Conservative Party and Labour, especially with the rise of the Scottish National Party during the 2015 General Election.

Although nominally a Conservative, Disraeli was sympathetic to some of the demands of the Chartists and argued for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and the working class against the increasing power of the middle class, helping to found the Young England group in 1842 to promote the view that the rich should use their power to protect the poor from exploitation by the middle class. The conversion of the Conservative Party into a modern mass organisation was accelerated by the concept of Tory Democracy attributed to Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

A Liberal-Conservative coalition during World War I, coupled with the ascent of the Labour Party, hastened the collapse of the Liberals in the 1920s. After World War II, the Conservative Party made concessions to the socialist policies of the left. This compromise was a pragmatic measure to regain power, but also the result of the early successes of central planning and state ownership forming a cross-party consensus. This was known as Butskellism, after the almost identical Keynesian policies of Rab Butler on behalf of the Conservatives, and Hugh Gaitskell for Labour.

However, in the 1980s, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, and the influence of Keith Joseph, there was a dramatic shift in the ideological direction of British conservatism, with a movement towards free-market economic policies and neoliberalism (known as Thatcherism). As one commentator explains, "The privatization of state owned industries, unthinkable before, became commonplace [during Thatcher's government] and has now been imitated all over the world." Thatcher was described as "a radical in a conservative party", and her ideology has been seen as confronting "established institutions" and the "accepted beliefs of the elite", both concepts incompatible with the traditional conception of conservatism as signifying support for the established order and existing social convention (status quo).



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