Conservatism is a disposition, not a political doctrine. It is difficult to avoid this implication in statements such as that of Robert Michels (in 1930, as quoted by Richard Bourke) “The Bolsheviks of today are as conservative as the Tsarists of yesterday”. As Bourke points out, “one conserves relative to opposing positions that seem to bring about unwelcome change”1
But if this is the case, why and when did Edmund Burke come to be associated with conservative thought in general, and the British Conservative Party in particular? This happened, as Emily Jones has shown, much later than many would think.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Burke was admired more by liberals than by conservatives. Whigs knew him as the man who provided the party manual, the Thoughts on the cause of the present discontents (1770), but also as the man who split the party. The Tories approved of his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) but were deeply aware of his Whig status. “His political legacy was thus divided between Whig exaltation of earlier texts, and Tory adulation of Reflections.” 2
At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world. In each of these stages a standard is formed, different from that of the preceding stage, but in each case the same tendency is recognised as virtue.
W. E. H. Lecky (1869) A History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne 2nd edition, Vol. 1, London: Longmans, p. 103).
Lecky on the development of morality (with echoes of Edmund Burke).