Political Ideas in Modern Britain: In and after the Twentieth Century

By Rodney Barker | Go to book overview
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8

The death of conservatism and the dispersal of liberalism

THE DEATH OF CONSERVATISM

Some time in the last quarter of the chronological twentieth century, over a period of years rather than at one single date, but indubitably and irrevocably by the end of the 1980s, conservatism vanished as a significant presence in British political thinking. It did not disappear utterly and without trace. There were still hints and shreds of it to be found in pamphlets, speeches, and even the occasional academic textbook. But it was no longer a major part of political debate. It was killed, so it seemed, by its successor the New Right which like many patricides went to some lengths to try to convince people that nothing had changed, that the old order was still in place, and the old values still followed. This impression was given initial credibility by the circumstances of the transition. The ascendancy of the New Right was not only an intellectual ascendancy, but an ascendancy of parties and governments which had previously been the vehicles of traditional conservatisms: not only in Britain under Margaret Thatcher but in the United States under Ronald Reagan; in France under Maurice Chirac; and in what was still then West Germany under Helmut Kohl. Institutional continuity helped sustain the illusion of ideological continuity.

But the demise of conservatism was not a simple consequence of the rise of the New Right, and both were part of a series of changes whose circumstances were not simply domestic. Conservatism had developed in response to two revolutions on the mainland of Europe, and their repercussions—or feared and supposed repercussions—at home. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 raised up the two great challenges against which conservatism, as a defensive account of government and society, gave itself shape. The revolutions of 1989, in bringing to an end the division of Europe and of the world

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