I wrote The Meaning of Conservatism in 1979, during the last year of a failing Labour Government, when the Conservatives were in the process of choosing a new leader (Margaret Thatcher), and also looking around for a new philosophy — or rather any philosophy, having subsisted to that point without one. I was teaching in the University of London, and had begun to take an interest in political thought. I was surprised to discover that the politics department of my college library contained largely Marxist or sub-Marxist books, that major conservative thinkers like Burke, de Maistre and Hayek were hardly to be found there, and that the journals were all uniformly leftist. Academic political science was in the style of the New Left Review, with a strong leaning towards the idiocies of 1968, a sneering contempt for England and its heritage, and a witch-hunting tone towards the opposition, which it dismissed as middle brow, middle class, and racist.
At the same time I was troubled to discover that the Conservative Party had no principle with which to oppose this kind of “resentment politics,” other than the Free Market. I wanted to remind people that there really is a tradition of conservative thinking in politics, that it is wiser and deeper than the left-liberal orthodoxies of the day, and that it is not reducible to free market principles, even if it contains them.
It should be added that I would not have written the book, had I not been commissioned by Ted Honderich, then politics editor at Penguin and also a University colleague, who was desperate to find someone, somewhere, however feeble, to defend the conservative position. Without The Meaning of Conservatism, the intellectual left — whose ideas, emotions and very existence depends upon a stance of opposition — would have had nothing to oppose. Hence the book