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.

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    Daniel O'Neill's book Edmund Burke and the Conservative Logic of Empire is worth reading in this context. In brief, O'Neill suggests that the foundations for the resolution of the contradiction you describe were laid out in the theories proposed by Burke himself. May 23, 2017 at 2:06
  • 1
    Money has strange effects on people.
    – Hefewe1zen
    May 23, 2017 at 14:51

2 Answers 2


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.

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