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„Conservatism lost – Conservatism regained“. Political Languages of Conservatism in the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1960s and 1970s

Martina Steber

„Conservatism Lost? Conservatism Regained!“ was the title of a Monday Club pamphlet in 1963: in contrast to a “lost Conservatism” it claimed to present the “regained” fundamentals of Conservative thought. With this demonstrative gesture the Conservative Party’s right wing underlined its demand of intellectual leadership. This open challenge of the dominating “One Nation” Conservatives around Harold Macmillan originated in a very profound insecurity, which could be observed in the entire party, long before the loss of political power to Labour under Harold Wilson in 1964. The Conservatives were troubled by the ambiguous feeling that on the one hand they seemed to be washed away by the rapid social and political change, and that on the other hand they were not able to adequately answer the burning questions of the time and were therefore loosing the power to direct the change. This perception of crisis extended to language, which seemed to have gone astray in a similar way: Even “conservative” did not seem to denote any longer, what it was supposed to denote. Conservative programmatic debates and policy reviews, ideological struggles and a determined work on ideas in think tanks were hence part and parcel of the British political culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Similar developments could be observed in the Federal Republic of Germany: intellectual journals hunted for a contemporary Conservatism; in uncounted committee meetings, party conference debates, and study circles, CDU and CSU came to an understanding about their programmatic objectives; and increasingly groups of intellectuals constituted and propagated their individual version of a Conservatism fit for the Federal Republic. However, in West Germany the term “Conservatism” itself stood at the centre of this reasoning and debate; particularly the union parties were prepared to identify with this term only with great reservations, that due to its association with the National Socialist past sounded rather problematic to West German ears. Yet, here and there, these debates formed an integral part of the “war of words”, as put by Margaret Thatcher”, or the “Kampf um die Begriffe”, as Kurt Biedenkopf famously stated, as which the contemporaries perceived the linguistic changes of the 1960s and 1970s.

Based on an analytical understanding of Conservatism the project focuses on the formation of political languages of Conservatism in the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany. Methodologically informed by the history of concepts, the intellectual and party political discourse is scrutinized in four areas, in which political languages of Conservatism developed paradigmatically: in reasoning about a Conservative self-understanding and in programmatic debates; in discussions about the “technological age” and the conservation of the “environment”; in debates about “industrial relations” and “co-determination” respectively; and in those on citizenship and nation. The project works with the leading intellectual journals, Conservative newspapers, party publications, the minutes of party conferences, speeches and publications of important politicians, as well as with books and articles by intellectuals.