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Conservatism on Human Nature

Posted by Nicole Berry on April 16, 2010

Conservatism as an ideology is reactionary. It emerged in the 18th century to oppose the new ideas brought about by liberals. Thus, we can immediately deduce that conservatives have a pessimistic view of human nature. However, it is not quite that straightforward.

Early conservatives believed that human nature is ever-changing. To base one’s principles on this inconstant would lead to a flawed philosophy; hence the rejection of dogmatic principles and doctrines, and a preference for pragmatism, following the changing demands of society as they come. Therefore early conservatives denied that conservatism was an ideology at all.

However, Traditional Conservatives demonstrated a belief in original sin. People are blemished from birth, are subsequently irrational, and ultimately imperfectible. Consequently, conservatives believe it is necessary for the state to act as a paternal figure, watching over society and morally, economically and socially guiding people. The state needs to be strong to avoid life becoming ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (as described by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan.)

In the 20th Century ‘Thatcherism’ arrived. This developed new ideas about human nature, believing that humans were capable of rational thought in the economic sphere, yet not in the moral/social field. New Right thinkers, and Thatcher herself, called for a strong authoritarian state in terms of law and order, yet minimal state interference in the economy. Thatcher’s assured analysis of society and human nature allowed for this apparently contradictory role of the state (known as the ‘Paradox of the New Right’) to be put into practice, and opened up the doors for dogmatic principles to flood into conservatism.

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The Tories: ‘We are all in this together’

Posted by Nicole Berry on April 14, 2010

The Conservative Party have offered us all an ‘Invitation to join the government of Britain’ (the longest invitation known to man,) shunning the traditional manifesto in an attempt to portray themselves as ‘modern, progressive Conservatives.’ At the heart of this ‘invitation’ is the vision of the ‘big society’ not the ‘big state.’ What the Conservative’s are pledging is bottom up governance, with people having the power to take decisions into their own hands, transferring power from national to local level. A huge emphasis has been placed on social responsibility, which we all hold as a member of British society. The Conservatives believe promoting greater responsibility is the way to patch up our ‘broken society.’

As with the Labour Party, a concise summary of what the Conservatives hope to do to achieve a more cohesive society is outlined on the Conservative Party website. The broad outline consists of:

1. Acting now on debt to get the economy moving
2. Getting Britain working by boosting enterprise
3. Making Britain the most family friendly country in Europe
4. Backing the NHS
5. Raising standards in schools
6. Changing politics

Despite this one nation conservatism being all very High School Musical, the specific policies demonstrate the serious commitment the Conservatives have to regenerating Britain. The Conservative’s say they will:

• Cut the number of MP’s by 10%
• Cut ministerial pay by 5%
• 1 year public sector pay freeze (excluding the million lowest paid workers)
• Stop the paying of tax credits to earners of over £50,000
• Power for constituents to sack MP’s
• Linking GP’s pay to results they deliver
• An annual limit on non-EU migration
• Ability for parents to set up new schools
• Head teachers to have final say on discipline problems
• Raising stamp duty threshold to £250,000 for first time buyers
• Cutting National Insurance for first 10 employees of new businesses

The list goes on. But check out the details on the links below.

The Liberal Democrats have been quick to criticise the manifesto with the generic claim that they are the ‘same old Conservatives.’ Gordon Brown also condemned the manifesto saying it had a ‘hole’ in it. But have the Conservatives done enough to convince the electorate otherwise?

BBC: At a glance

The full manifesto

Video

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Four (million) weddings and a tax allowance

Posted by Matt Walker on April 11, 2010

The Conservative Party have continued to set the agenda during the early stages of this election campaign. This time it has been through their proposals on tax allowances for married couples. Their plan is to allow one married partner to transfer their unused tax allowance to their other half. It would be worth £150 a year to around 4 million married couples.

The Conservative justification for this policy is that the British tax system is unfair, penalising married couples by treating them as individuals rather than as couples. The Conservatives have said that they want to support commitment, rather than moralise about people’s life choices. This of course is a fine dividing line. Promotion of marriage and families is a strong theme which runs through conservatism. Conservatives argue that the two-parent family is an important source of nurturing and authority, and is therefore the basis of a strong and stable society.

Interestingly, Gordon Brown’s criticism of this policy was not that it rewarded marriage through the tax system, but that it was disingenuous given the Tories’ other policies which would take money away from families. Brown himself stated that marriage is the basis of society.This is not surprising given the prime minister’s Presbyterian and New Labour roots, a reminder that whilst political parties may tend to centre their values around a single ideology, they will also be influenced by opposing ideologies.

Arguably, Yvette Cooper offered a better critique of the proposal when she said that if a man left his wife to set up home with another woman, upon remarriage he could gain the tax benefit, whereas his wronged ex-wife would not. (Presumably, the gender of the wrongdoer could be reversed!)

It was left to the Liberal Democrats to offer an ideological criticism of the Conservative proposals. Nick Clegg, specifically referring to his own liberal values, stated that the policy was wrong, and that the government should not moralise about people’s life choices nor financially favour one group of people over another simply because of how they organise their private lives.

It is clear that ideological differences have and will continue to surface during this campaign, even though the parties will try to down play them. And as always, disagreements regarding the role of the state are at the centre of it all.

BBC article

BBC News report

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Does inequality matter?

Posted by Matt Walker on February 1, 2010

parenting or wealth Whether inequality matters or not is a big question and one that is central to modern politics. At AS level, students need to grasp the differences between Labour and Tory ideas, and this question is arguably central. At A2, the issue of equality features right across the study of ideology.

Last week, a government commissioned report stated that the rich-poor divide is wider than it was 40 years ago. The top 10% of the population have assets worth £853,000, whilst half the population earn less that £20,000 a year. The report also found that men on average earn more than women, Bangladeshi and Pakistani five year olds are developmentally  four months behind their white counterparts, whilst the bottom 1 per cent of the population are on average nearly £4,000 in debt.  The report stated that more needed to be done to achieve a level playing field or an equal starting point in life for everyone.

The report did state that all parties were agreed on this, but that is not entirely true. Various Labour ministers recently have pointed out that differences in wealth between families means that many children are automatically disadvantaged. A few weeks ago, however, David Cameron whilst acknowledging poverty as a factor, stated that it was  "not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting"  that mattered most.

As we would expect, the Labour Party emphasise class and inequalities in wealth as a barrier to equality, whilst the Conservatives stress the importance of the nuclear family.

Poverty or up-bringing? What do you think?

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Conservatism and the family

Posted by Matt Walker on January 20, 2010

An important aspect of conservative ideology is a strong belief in the nuclear family. It is believed that the presence of both mother and father is absolutely necessary to successfully bring up children.

If, for example, father is not present, then children will lack the necessary male role model in their life, will be ill-disciplined, and more likely to behave poorly, possibly right through to adulthood. From this point of view, crime is the result of family breakdown.

Today’s Conservative Party still holds to this view. If they win the next election the Tories plan to introduce a tax allowance for married couples, although they are a little unclear about the timing of such a tax reform. David Cameron has said about this policy, that "if you take responsibility you will be rewarded, if you don’t you won’t". In other words, the only responsible family unit is the nuclear family.

Labour’s Ed Balls has accused the Conservatives of ‘social engineering’. He means that the Tories are planning to change society – in this case the nature of the family – by offering tax cuts for certain types of behaviour.

But I think it is Nick Clegg’s response which catches the imagination. He said: “It is immensely unfair. What does it mean for the poor woman who has been left by some philandering husband who goes on to another marriage and gets the tax break and she doesn’t?"

Do you think governments should try to influence behaviour in this way? Is the nuclear family morally superior to say, the single parent family?

Tory plans for married couples tax breaks under fire

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Quick revision on Cameron

Posted by Matt Walker on November 14, 2009

Cameron the One Nation traditional conservative:

  • wants to reduce poverty – One Nation Tory
  • strongly supports the NHS and minimum wage
  • believes that communities and charity should help solve society’s problems
  • aspires to ‘reinvigorate’ local communities

Cameron the New Right conservative:

  • is critical of ‘big government’
  • rejects the notion that the state solves people’s problems
  • anti-European Union
  • favours private sector involvement in schools

But then again, where does Cameron’s concern for the environment place him? This is not something which conservatism (or socialism and liberalism) for that matter has ever really emphasised. Perhaps this makes a Cameron a new kind of conservative?

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Cameron on welfare

Posted by Matt Walker on November 12, 2009

Red Tory Ties David Cameron has spoken this week about welfare reform. As with his conference speech this year (linked below) it is no easy matter to pinpoint whether he is a traditional conservative or a Thatcherite. Perhaps we will only really have our answer after a few years of a Cameron government.

So what is Cameron’s own analysis? He claims that he supports many of the progressive aims of the Left, in other words its attempts to reduce poverty. For example,  he claims to support Labour’s commitment to abolish child poverty by 2020.

However, unlike  Labour Cameron opposes “big government”. For him, reducing poverty is not about  just relying on the state. State welfare merely breaks down the ‘natural bonds of duty’, making people reliant on the state. What the state should actually do, he argues, is to help charities and voluntary organisations to help people. This links in with traditional conservative values on the organic society, as well as the responsibility of individuals to society.

Elsewhere (article linked below) Cameron has talked about wanting a fairer and greener society, and how this can be achieved through “the family, local associations, local organisations” rather than central government. Crucially, he wouldn’t seek radical change, and would ‘adapt’ rather than ‘overturn’ what Labour had done over the past decade. This again sounds very much like Cameron is a traditional conservative.

So why do his critics say he is a Thatcherite? This is because he advocates a reduction in the role of central government, just like Thatcher, and since the credit crunch has supported large cuts in public spending, just like Thatcher. Maybe Cameron’s talk of fairness and poverty reduction is simply a mask to hide a Thatcherite agenda which he believes the public won’t support.

What do you think?

David Cameron the conservative

What is conservatism?

Tories can ‘fight poverty best’

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FAQ: What kind of a conservative is David Cameron

Posted by Matt Walker on November 11, 2009

David Cameron Just what kind of a conservative is David Cameron? Well, if we listen to how he describes himself, we should think of him as a One Nation traditional conservative.

However,  his Labour and Lib Dem critics like to characterise him and today’s Conservative Party as more New Right, in other words adherents of the policies of Margaret Thatcher. Cameron’s speech at the Conservative Party conference was interpreted differently, depending on which newspaper you read.

Cameron has attempted to add more flesh to the policy bone this week. I’ll explore this a little later and try to help you fit this into the scheme of things. But for now, click on my previous entries on this matter, and think: what kind of conservative do you think David Cameron is?

What is traditional conservatism?

What is One Nation conservatism?

What is New Right conservatism?

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How have Conservative Party policies changed?

Posted by Matt Walker on November 5, 2009

Like all political parties, the Conservatives  have had to adapt their ideas and policies in accordance with changes in public attitudes, priorities, and needs.

In the 1930s, for example, the Conservatives did not accept that it was the role of the state to try to deal with unemployment. That was the job of the free market.

However, after 1945 the Conservative Party adopted many of the policies established by the 1945-51 Labour Government, hence this period is known as the post-war consensus.  They adopted policies such as Keynesianism, the mixed economy, and support for the welfare state. It could be argued that this development, and a concern for the less well-off in society fitted the old One Nation Conservative tradition.

In the 1970s, the Conservative Party changed radically. Under Margaret Thatcher, the party adopted New Right ideas. They rejected the post-war consensus, and when in power privatised state owned businesses, discarded Keynesian economics in favour of a laissez-faire approach, and criticised the welfare state for creating welfare dependency. They were also strongly patriotic and stood in opposition to greater European integration, which divided the party in the 1990s with disastrous electoral consequences..

In opposition since 1997, leaders William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard continued to hold Thatcherite positions, in particular  focussing  on issues such as immigration and the EU, maintaining some would say (namely Theresa May) their image as the ‘nasty party’.

A later entry will focus on David Cameron’s Conservative Party.

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FAQ: What is traditional conservatism?

Posted by Matt Walker on November 3, 2009

Edmund Burke Before taking a look at Conservative Party policy, and in particular what it is that David Cameron believes in, it is worth outlining some of the ideas that conservatives (with a small ‘c’) have traditionally believed in.

  1. Tradition – history is essential for understanding society and an individual’s position within it.
  2. Human imperfection – people are by nature selfish and self-serving.
  3. Hierarchy and authority – society is naturally divided into a hierarchy of leaders and followers. Tough love is needed to maintain social order.
  4. Organic society – society is like a living organism, with all individuals connected to each other, each fulfilling a particular function.
  5. Property – the owning and protection of property is essential and helps to maintain social order.

Not all conservatives believe everything that is in this list, or interpret each element in exactly the same way. But this gives us a clear idea  of the collection of ideas which conservatives to some extent support.

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