Can conservatism survive the 21st century?

Sunday 30 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Courtyard Gallery

An Etonian Conservative is prime minister, and a high profile Tory is mayor of London. The conservative Tea Party is making all the running in the US, while Canada’s Conservative government has recently been re-elected with more seats than before. Christian Democrat conservative Angela Merkel is the current Chancellor of Germany. But while self-styled conservatives enjoy power in much of the Western world, are they really conservative in any meaningful sense? David Cameron has sought to distance himself from the legacy of the past, preferring either metropolitan liberal values or something called ‘Red Toryism’, as he seeks to build the Big Society. Some Labour thinkers even hope to court the ‘naturally conservative’ working class voters supposedly abandoned by Cameron, under the banner of ‘Blue Labour’. So what is going on?

Conservatism can be defined as belief in traditional social values, the nation and a natural order of things. Typically, though, this has been qualified by an awareness of, as Edmund Burke put it, the occasional need ‘to change in order to conserve’. This pragmatic approach was a reaction to the French Revolution in 1789, strengthened further by the Russian Revolution in 1917. It has often led to tensions within conservative thought, however, such as an enduring ambivalence about the desirability of free markets. Nonetheless, the defence of the existing order and traditional institutions was the driving mission of conservatism in the West, and made the Britain’s Tories ‘the natural party of government’ for much of the 20th century. Today, however, many conservatives feel uneasy with both the market and traditional morals. A belief in the organic society, deference and authority has been replaced by the managerial society, inclusion and relativism. The old insistence on traditional family values has given way to support for civil partnerships and gay couples adopting. A Thatcherite championing of the free market, prosperity and growth has been replaced by green restraint, austerity and measuring ‘happiness’ rather than GDP.

For many liberals and radicals, the marginalisation of conservative values in mainstream politics is to be welcomed, as Britain finally becomes a progressive and inclusive society. But are they kidding themselves? If conservatism was so despised, why was it so successful for so long? Has something more fundamental to politics and society been lost with the demise of conservatism? And are today’s new establishment values really any more more progressive than old conservatism?

Dr Steve Davies
education director, Institute of Economic Affairs; author, The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought

Greg Lindsay
founder and executive director, Centre for Independent Studies

Tim Montgomerie
co-editor, ConservativeHome; co-founder,; member, advisory board, Centre for Social Justice

Dr Kieron O’Hara
senior research fellow, University of Southampton; author, Conservatism and After Blair

Dr James Panton
head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, Manifesto Club

Neil Davenport
sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist

Produced by
Neil Davenport sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist
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