Yesterday evening, amongst the usual chatter and gossip, we had a few thoughts about what we mean by being a ‘conservative’. And, in some ways, with the loudness of the Tory “right” and the seeming success of UKIP this discussion is important. After all (and I know it’s not universally agreed) UKIP folk often lay claim to being “libertarian”.
The starting point was my observation that David Cameron is the most “High Tory” – the most ‘conservative’ – prime minister since Stanley Baldwin. I was asked to explain not least because, as readers here know, I get very angry at Cameron’s knee-jerk nannying fussbucketry. So how could I, as a conservative, describe Cameron as the “most Conservative leader”?
The answer to this lies in two central concepts of conservatism (or at least English conservatism) – the first is what we might call ‘noblesse oblige’ and the second is the idea of government as administration.
‘Noblesse oblige’ is the idea that a person laying claim to nobility is obliged to act nobly. We could describe it as a duty on the citizen to assist those less fortunate or even, to borrow from Hillaire Belloc:
Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.
Some recoil from this concept seeing in it the ossification of society, the triumph of aristocracy as an institution. But for Cameron – and we see this in his enthusiasm for “social action” – such an obligation to act nobly is essential to conservatism. We are defined by what we do rather than what we support. Passing laws to help the poor in Africa or to care for communities in England is not sufficient; we must act ourselves to help society. A central tenet of Cameron’s conservatism is the idea of “giving back” – we are fortunate so it behoves us to put some of that fortune back into society.
The second concept is the idea of administration. Some people see the purpose of securing political power as the way to effect change, to direct the forces of government so as to improve mankind. In Cameron’s conservatism this is not the case; the purpose of power is administration – the running of good government.
A Tory friend at university once described this as “soft loo paper conservatism” – the object of government is to deliver contentment, comfort, security and maybe happiness to the citizen. There is no place in conservatism for the idea that mankind can – or should – be bettered or that government, through planned action, can improve society. If society is to get better, it will do so because people act nobly not because government willed it so.
As importantly, Cameron’s “conservatism as effective administration” requires attachment to and confidence in institutions – the National Health Service, the Civil Service, Royal Colleges, Universities. Government should concern itself with ensuring these institutions are well administered rather than with the outcomes of the institutions work. Put the right leaderships in place and trust in their judgement is what government must do – and then act to implement and enforce the plans those leaders create.
This may not be my conservatism – mine is founded on the idea of place, the principle of responsibility and the imperative of freedom – but no-one can say that Cameron is not a conservative.