Ideology as Commonsense

The Case of British Conservatism

RP 025 () / Commentary

British conservatism has been a spectacularly successful ideology. The Tory party has  established itself as a particularly resilient vehicle by conveying the ideas and interests of the British ruling class for three hundred years. In doing so, it has provided ideological shelter to different forms of property ownership by withstanding the strains of gradual transition from a largely agrarian to an advanced industrial economy. In addition, British conservatism has managed to be  a strong competitor in the political marketplace by offering a package of ideas sufficiently attractive to seduce many who are not  part of the ruling class alliance. Since the granting of adult male suffrage in 1885 the Conservative party has had to rely on the electoral support of those whose natural allegiances might  be expected to lie elsewhere. Since the emergence at the turn of the century of a party claiming to stand for labour against capital, and organizationally dependent upon the trade union movement, manual workers have been in possession of what appears their own political instrument. Yet the Conservative party has been so adept in severing sections of the working class from the Labour party that it has been returned to office for approximately two-thirds of the period since 1885.

And  even now,  in  a  period of deepening  economic recession and high unemployment, a  Conservative government has been elected in the expectation that it will perform a rescue operation. British conservatism’s  success is due largely to its possession of a rich and varied ideological repertoire. It may employ the aristocratic rhetoric of benevolent paternalism, and also the bourgeois language of individual initiative, in a concerted attempt to consecrate the authority of propertied elites. This rich ideological inheritance is a consequence of the peculiarities of English cultural development.