Does oblivion beckon? This is the kind of question which, though sometimes favoured by authors in search of a snappy headline - 'Is … ism dead?', 'Does … ism have a future?', and so forth - is probably best avoided, particularly in a chapter which casts a centennial eye on an ideology whose adherents have often been fastidious in their reluctance to predict the future. I raise the question because the argument of much recent writing is that conservatism, particularly in Britain, is in a terminal condition. In doing so my intention is neither to sketch the likely nuances of conservative thinking nor to consider whether this century, like the last, will be a 'conservative' one in which centre-right governments are in power for much of the period. It is the more modest one of suggesting that much recent prognosis of conservatism rests on a shaky analysis of how the ideology operated in the past, and that it perhaps underestimates the capacity of conservatives for self-renewal.
John Gray attributes 'the undoing of conservatism' to the New Right's crusade of bourgeois modernization which swept through much of Western Europe in the final decades of the last century. The consequences of a project of radical individualism have been particularly damaging to British conservatism on this account, because its adherents customarily claimed to be custodians of an ancien régime. In relentlessly pursuing a neo-liberal programme of minimal government, Thatcherites cast themselves adrift 'from the larger tradition of European conservative philosophy of which British conservative thought has always been a part', 1 and instead aligned themselves with the American right by embracing an alien form of Enlightenment rationalism. In doing so they 'hollowed out' the culture in which a coherent mode of conservative discourse and political practice had flourished. Traditional institutions were dissolved by market forces, and with them went those attitudes of deference which had sustained the claim of Tory patrician statecraft to govern by evolutionary adaptation rather than by schooling in the techniques of permanent revolution towards a free-market brutopia.
Gray, a lapsed convert from the New Right project, is inclined to make an intellectual splash, and his apocalyptic pronouncements about the obsolescence of conservatism ought to be treated with caution. Yet other commentators,