I really, really liked this piece by Austin Bramwell defining conservatism thusly:
Conservatism is the defense of legitimacy wherever it happens to exist. “Legitimacy” here is defined in the empirical, Weberian sense: that is, an institution is legitimate if and only if the opinion has become widespread that it is right (for whatever reason or lack thereof) to obey it. The conservative, in short, cultivates obedience to existing institutions. This definition, I submit, has all the advantages of the conventional definitions, none of their defects, and some important advantages of its own.
Read the piece for the detail on the advantages of his definition. Done? Good.
The most interesting point Bramwell makes about his definition is here:
[This definition] explains why, in times of crisis, it is more difficult to identify the “true” conservatives. Everyone will allow that Burke was a conservative, since he warded off the threat of revolution. Almost everyone will also allow that Calvin Coolidge was a conservative, since he kept a placid situation placid. By contrast, controversies will always rage over whether men such as the American founders, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt were truly conservative. These men inherited situations where legitimacy was in doubt and left situations where it was ensured. Yet they did so by crushing apparently valid challenges to their authority.
Let’s dig into this a little. “Everyone” will allow that Burke was a conservative with respect to the French Revolution. But what about the American? What, for that matter, about his approach to the endlessly vexatious Irish question? Must we make do with more than one Burke?
With respect to the French Revolution, Burke was not, in fact, defending existing legitimacy, as the French monarchy had lost its legitimacy. Rather, he was, like a good reactionary, opposing the principles espoused by the revolutionaries. And, with respect to the American Revolution, he was, once again, not defending existing legitimacy as perceived from the metropole (the colonists themselves mostly sought the equivalent of home rule at the outset of hostilities, and not a formal severance from the crown), but recognizing that an existing legitimate order could not be defended and was therefore trying to best smooth the transition to the inevitable new order.
Compare Burke as well to another British leader whom “everyone” would agree was a conservative: Winston Churchill. Like Burke, Churchill was a “liberal conservative” or, more properly, a “conservative liberal;” like Burke, Churchill is an unquestioned conservative mostly because of his opposition to the preeminent revolutionary forces of his day – German Nazism and Soviet Communism – and because he embodied what were seen before and even more so after as quintessential national virtues. But note how differently Churchill approached the situation in India from how Burke approached the situation in Ireland and America. As it happens, Churchill was right about Hitler and wrong about India, and Burke was right about Robbespierre and right about Ben Franklin. Does that mean Burke was the “truer” conservative? Or that a conservative approach was “wrong” for India and America, and Burke was less of a “true” conservative?
Bramwell says that, in a crisis, it’s hard to know who is the “true” conservative – but what he really means is that in a crisis, it’s hard to know what the right answer is, and “true” conservatives might well disagree with one another about the prudential question at issue. Chamberlain was a conservative, and so was Churchill. But what is the question at issue? Is the issue the defense of legitimacy wherever it happens to exist? I would amend that a bit to say that the hallmark of conservatism is the view that legitimacy is the key question in politics, the key factor that must be comprehended rightly for it to be possible to make prudentially intelligent decisions about governance and statecraft, which would include whether to undertake a defense. Sometimes, prudentially, everything must change so that everything might stay the same; other times, everything must change even though afterwards nothing will stay the same, because the only order that can be achieve a sustainable legitimacy is one that is rather different from the one that obtains.
Finally, as an aside, we have got to stop saying things like “the Shakespeare who wrote Ulysses’ panegyric to hierarchy in Troilus and Cressida” – unless we are to posit a Shakespeare who created Falstaff and a different one who created Coriolanus, we should say, “Shakespeare’s character Ulysses, and his pangyric to hierarchy in Troilus and Cressida,” for while “everyone” would agree that Shakespeare’s Ulysses is a conservative, Shakespeare’s own political inclinations, if any, are obscure in the extreme.