The Conservative Political Tradition in Britain and the United States

The Conservative Political Tradition in Britain and the United States

The Conservative Political Tradition in Britain and the United States

The Conservative Political Tradition in Britain and the United States


This book seeks to break new ground by providing an original framework within which to understand conservative politics and to compare what has always been thought to be opposite ideal types -- a British conservatism characterized by traditionalism and an American conservatism defined by its optimistic individualism.


This chapter examines the problems which attend a comparative study of British and American conservatism. Since much of the literature, especially that written after 1945, has often assumed two distinctive national paradigms — conservative Britain and liberal America — it is important first of all to establish the basis upon which comparison can properly be made.

The initial section of this chapter deals with those understandings of the problem which involve distinctive interpretations of the nature of conservatism. The focus of the first three is the character of American conservatism, for it appears to be the American case which demands a 'conservative' justification. The fourth interpretation attempts to overcome the limitations of the other three yet to embody their particular insights into a coherent definition of conservative politics, a definition which can serve as the ground for our study.

The second section of this chapter sketches out some of the prevailing concerns of conservative politics which sets the scene for, as well as providing a brief summary of, the subject matter of other chapters of this book.

Interpretations of British and American Conservatism

The debate about the relationship between British and American conservatism is one in which argument arranges itself around the notion of exceptionalism. The dispositions adopted by the contributors to this debate have been many and varied. Abstracting from that broad flow of intellectual engagement it is possible to detect at least three important interpretations.

The first, which has tended to dominate academic discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, is one which affirms the exceptionalism of the American experience and argues that British conservative thought has little or no relevance for American conditions.

Implied in some arguments, though explicit in others, is the corresponding exceptionalism of the British experience. Within this interpretation it is possible to specify a distinction of emphasis. On the one hand, there are those who advance the thesis that American exceptionalism means an exception from the ideological disputes of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. In particular, there can be no American conservatism precisely because the American Revolution created a universally liberal society. And there tends to . . .

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