I've started reading about British Victorian politics, and I have a question about an apparent tension in Victorian conservatism. I'd like to get a better understanding of it so I can have a framework in place as I read more.

In short, conservatives value tradition. Edmund Burke expressed this in Reflections on the Revolution in France, when he asserted that even arbitrary social traditions and hierarchies can be valuable, because they have a stabilizing or even ennobling influence on society as a whole. At the same time, conservatives also value religion, and nationalism. The logic seems to follow, if British traditions are important, then that includes the English church, crown, and national destiny. But as the British Empire expanded they came into ever closer contact with very different cultural and political traditions in China, India, Africa, and elsewhere.

This appears to invite a contradiction. If British traditions are best, they should be exported, and if the Christian religion is true, then it should be proselytized. But if all tradition is important for its own sake, and national or ethnic character is thought to be resistant to change, then it follows that local customs ought to be respected. In fact, Burke himself condemned the East India Company for their disruptive influence in British India, which he said "began in commerce, and ended in empire."

And yet by the late Victorian era the conservative party appears to have been the one most closely identified with British nationalism and imperial expansion. So I'm very curious how, along they way, they resolved this (apparent) tension between valuing tradition and exporting British culture and religion, how that resolution translated into their theory and policy, and whether it was ever the source of debate or disagreement in conservative ranks.

Thanks for your time.


3 Answers 3


The British empire was primarily about trade. Imperial expansion was really about securing new markets and and sources of raw materials. Kipling's poem The White Man's Burden (quoted by Tom in his answer above) was an attempt to justify imperialism as a "noble enterprise" which brought civilisation to

"the brutish and barbarous parts of the world"

In many ways, the poem perfectly captures the "paternalistic" view the British had of their empire in the late 19th century; a view that was largely based on the philosophies developed by Edmund Burke a century before.

As I mentioned in my earlier comment, in his book Edmund Burke and the Conservative Logic of Empire, Daniel O'Neill, suggests that the foundations for the resolution of the tensions you describe were laid out in the theories proposed by Burke himself. O'Neill makes a convincing case that Burke was actually a supporter and defender of the eighteenth century British Empire, and that this was ideologically entirely consistent with his conservative opposition to the French Revolution expressed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Burke's justification of empire relied on two opposing but complementary theoretical strategies. The first, "Ornamentalism", focused on cultural similarities between "civilised" societies (as he understood them). The second, "Orientalism", stressed the putative cultural differences that distinguished so-called "savage" societies from their "civilised" counterparts.

Edmund Burke's influence on later conservatism in British politics is well documented. Indeed, he has been called the

"intellectual founding father of modern British conservatism".

His views on empire also had lasting implications, and can be seen as the basis for the intellectual defences of British imperialism by British conservatives (and others) in the nineteenth century. Those defences, in large part, resolved the tensions that you describe.


Although it was (technically) addressed to Americans, Rudyard Kipling published perhaps the best reconciliation of these two impulses with this poem, "Take up the white man's burden". Key lines include the following:

"Come now to search your manhood, through all the thankless years.
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom, the judgment of your peers."

Put another way, it was the formula for the education of Britain's best and brightest young men, and referred to a combination of noblesse oblige and self-serving. This formulation enabled Britain to both "stabilize" itself, and (presumably) benefit others through colonialism.


There is no contradiction. The other two answers already address the attitude towards Africa - the conservatives did not strictly consider Africans as having a culture - but I would even challenge the idea that the British tried to export British culture to China, India, or the Middle East. Quoth David Graeber:

Orientalism allowed colonial powers to make a distinction between rival civilizations, which were seen as hopelessly decadent and corrupt, and “savages,” who insofar as they were not seen as hopelessly racially inferior, could be considered possible objects of a “civilizing mission.”

Giovanni Arrighi, Iftikhar Ahmad, and Miin-wen Shih do such an analysis in “Beyond Western Hegemonies" (summarized again by Graeber). The British waged war for economic benefit, and supported the absolute monarchs (who signed those treaties) against liberalizing forces (who would be closer to British society's norms of a constitutional monarchy with something of a democracy attached):

Britain first found some excuse to launch a military attack on one of the great Asian ancien regimes, defeated it militarily, imposed a commercially advantageous treaty, and then, almost immediately upon doing so, swung around to prop that same regime up against political rebels who clearly were closer to their own supposed “Western” values than the regime itself: in the first case a rebellion aiming to turn Egypt into something more like a modern nation-state, in the second, an egalitarian Christian movement calling for universal brotherhood. After the Great Rebellion of 1857 in India, Britain began employing the same strategy in her own colonies, self-consciously propping up “landed magnates and the petty rulers of ‘native states’ within its own Indian empire” (1997: 34).

This was rooted quite firmly in a very conservative belief:

All of this was buttressed on the intellectual level by the development around the same time of Orientalist theories that argued that, in Asia, such authoritarian regimes were inevitable, and democratizing movements were unnatural or did not exist

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