Conservatism: A Destructive Instinct

Every Conservative government – from Trump’s administration to Boris Johnson, from Bolsonaro to Putin – has failed spectacularly during the COVID-19 crisis. Why?

To answer that we first need to ask ourselves: what is Conservatism?

Academic and historian Richard Bourke suggests that Conservatism is not a trans-historical political category that started with Edmund Burke and continues to this day, but more of a “variable” that has adapted and changed over time.

Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have seemingly agreed that Conservatism is an intuition more than it is a rational mode of thought. Haidt’s moral foundations theory suggests that wherever we fall on the political spectrum, we intuit our politics first, and then rationalize them second to justify them.


The foregrounding of instinct in politics is something Conservatives have taken great pride in. In fact, the great branding success for Conservatives has been in defining themselves not as a distinct Ideology per se but as a disposition. As US writer Michael Oakeshott famously put it:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate, and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise.

On Being A Conservative

Conservatism is – shock! horror! -concerned primarily with safeguarding tradition, order, and hierarchy. With striving to protect all that is familiar and thereby safe. This isn’t so much an ideology as it is an instinct, but we forgive it this primitiveness when in most other circumstances we are expected to interrogate and control our instincts.

But it is more than an aversion to change that fuels the average Conservative, it is rather more a fear of chaos. It draws quite heavily on Hobbes’s belief that human beings need to be restrained and controlled by a higher power so as to retain social order and stability, otherwise, they will descend into a sort of Lord of the Flies chaos and destruction. 

Andy Beckett said in his Guardian article about Margaret Thatcher, for example, that her government:

presented themselves as antidotes to a greater disorder. She won power in 1979 with a manifesto that pledged to protect “family life” and “the rule of law”, in a society supposedly “on the brink of disintegration” after Labour rule.


The problem, of course, is that it really does not take much scratching beneath the surface to realize that if the proof is in the pudding, then the pudding Conservatism serves up is not what was on the menu. Conservatives may talk the talk about preserving social cohesion and stability, but they absolutely do not walk the walk. 

If we were to return to Thatcher as an example, then it is worth noting that Thatcher’s notion of protecting society and order seemed to be to carve out the heart of the community. This is not hyperbole, Thatcher famously held that “there is no such thing as society”, believing instead that success was to be measured in money, and that the unprofitable was unimportant. Thatcher’s biographer Hugo Young, said in his own Guardian memorial about the time under the Iron Lady that:

Materialistic individualism was blessed as a virtue, the driver of national success. Everything was justified as long as it made money – and this, too, is still with us.

If the history of a movement can provide any insight into what the movement might promise for the future, then a Conservative future is a miserable one. The UK still carries the burden of Thatcher’s destructive policies today. To name a few: Thatcher’s idea of fiscal responsibility and taking the UK into a prosperous future was to sell-off national industries and utilities to the private market. She also gave credence to an economic model that had only ever lingered on the side-lines before – neoliberalism. She mobilized the populace against trade unions who, arguably, represented the working class with the government (effectively turning the people on themselves). And she opposed any family unit or expression of love that did not match her preferred notion of sexuality.

And even as Thatcher deepened the UK’s connection with the European Union on paper, publicly she talked up British hostility towards the supranational oversight that a union would provide. As she said in her speech at the College of Europe in 1988:

“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Of course many have argued that Thatcherism represented a departure from Traditional Conservativism, and have said that it is not representative of the true tenets of the Conservative movement. 


But Conservative history tells us otherwise. And, according to Corey Robin in his book The Reactionary Mind, there is a through-line, an underpinning logic, a continuity to every Conservative permutation (internationally and within the party itself) before and since Thatcherism. Oakeshott’s conservative disposition is as apparent in Thatcherism and its cousin Reaganomics across the Atlantic (because this is not purely a UK trait!) as it was in the Conservative party that Churchill railed against when he described it as:

“A party of great vested interests, banded together in a formidable confederation; corruption at home, aggression to cover it up abroad; the trickery of tariff juggles, the tyranny of a party machine; sentiment by the bucketful; patriotism by the imperial pint; the open hand at the public exchequer, the open door at the public-house; dear food for the million, cheap labour for the millionaire.” 

According to Robin, every shape of Conservatism has been and is a “meditation on – and the theoretical rendition of – the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back”. The conservative instinct started as a fearful reaction by Edmund Burke to the 1789 French revolution and the threat to the established status quo it posed. To return to Oakeshott’s reflections “the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise”. That fear then went on to validate itself and give itself credence by forming political movements to express itself.

In short, if Conservatism is an instinct (like some of its leading proponents have conceded it is) then what sort of instinct is it?