Sunday 13 November 2022

Conservatism, if it means anything, is a resistance to ideology and the world of ideas ideology represents, whether that ideology is a function of the left or the right

So wrote American conservative writer, Andrew Sullivan. I quoted this in one of the first articles I wrote about conservatism and have returned frequently to the theme that being a conservative isn't really an ideological position but rather a sort of fructified anti-ideology, doubt as an action plan.

Conservatism is ill-defined - it's felt rather than analysed, emotional rather than intellectual. Unlike the left there is no ur-text, no 'Capital' that provides a bedrock of religious certainty to ideological discussion. We have a set of populist aphorisms - 'hand up not a hand out', 'people who do the right things', 'choice and opportunity' - but these don't help except as a set of clues to what we believe. 

Every place has people who are, actively and passively, conservative. These are the people who look out of their front window and see a world where they can make a little difference but, somewhat contrarily, also want nothing to change about that view out front. It is this clash that sits at the heart of conservatism's confusion - we want a better place out there but we also want it to stay unchanged and unchanging.

Benjamin Disraeli, more than any other person the father of British conservatism (and Conservatism but we will get to that later), set out that the purpose of his party was to see the betterment of conditions for the working man. By conditions Disraeli didn't just mean those workers' rights the socialists always speak of but a broader sense of betterment. And, in seeking to improve the health, wealth and happiness of working men, Disraeli realised that Britain being healthier, wealthier and happier as a nation would serve to make, if done right, the lives of those working men better. So we got Empire, a wider franchise, a safer workplace and parks.

From the 1850s up to the 1960s, British conservatism steered its path between the preservation of society's institutions and the betterment of people's lives. Mostly these two missions didn't conflict since preserving institutions like marriage, parish and professions sat well along side the dynamism and creativity of industry. By the 1960s, however, conservatism was struggling to provide an economic rationale for preserving either the great industries or the carefully regulated City of London that had financed Empire but failed to finance the rejuventation of commerce and industry. Worse the social revolution brought about by the pill and the growing up of the post-war baby boomers seemed to place conservatism as the enemy of betterment not as its champion - we entered a liberal age.

Conservatives gave the post-war working man better housing, low crime, high employment and a route to personal betterment via grammar schools and technical colleges. But the party of institution and tradition crashed into gay love, abortion, mini skirts and middle class women who wanted a good job. And, after a brief moment of panic, the Conservative Party gave the good job - its leader - to a middle class woman. The problem was that, in economic terms, Margaret Thatcher wasn't a conservative and the party had let a liberal imp into the house.

It may be an apocryphal story but the tale of Margaret Thatcher slamming a copy of Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" on the cabinet table and saying "this is what we believe" represented a huge change in the outlook of British conservatism. The change is often presented as a move away from  noblesse oblige where the Conservative Party switched from a dirigiste, managerialist outlook to embrace classical liberalism with all 
its creative destruction. The truth is that Thatcher's enthusiasm for Hayek was less about economics than it was about the need to confront socialism and communism.

“The choice facing the nation is between two totally different ways of life. And what a prize we have to fight for: no less than the chance to banish from our land the dark, divisive clouds of Marxist socialism and bring together men and women from all walks of life who share a belief in freedom.”

By placing opposition to socialism are the centre of the party's mission Thatcher probably did the right thing - socialism was, and still is, an existential threat to Britain's most important institutions - monarchy, church, marriage, property rights. This is what Thatcher meant by sharing a belief in freedom and is why her policies and actions sit within the conservative tradition. Our problem is that the secular canonisation (and demonisation) of Thatcher largely ignored her traditionalist conservatism choosing to focus on the idea that she championed unfettered free markets - something that is hard to square with the actual Thatcher legacy.

Since Thatcher's removal (something that would become a painful trend in British conservatism) the Conservative Party has struggled to find a comfortable place. A generation of enthusiastic free marketers clashed with careerists and latterly people who see the mission as one about society rather than economy. And against this background sits the debate about Europe. Indeed, whereas Thatcher's generation saw the enemy as socialism, conservatism in 21st century Britain increasingly sees itself as defined by being outside the European Union, by Brexit.

The Brexit referendum came about, at least in part, because of a divide within the right of British politics between those who wanted closer engagement with European countries and those who saw the European project as a threat (just as Thatcher saw socialism as a threat) to important British institutions. The importance of sovereignty (that our institutions (parliament and the courts) cannot be overruled by non-British institutions) pushed aside the main part of Disraeli's original mission, making the lives of ordinary families better. The economic impact of Brexit is a matter for debate (and an increasingly Laputian debate it is too) but the 2019 general election where what some called a 'new coalition' emerged based on an electorate that was 'economically left and socially conservative' - "fund the NHS, hang the paedos" as one wag put it.

1 comment:

Chris Hughes said...

Really interesting, since I was thinking about writing a blog piece of my own about small "c" conservativism, and who are the small "c" conservatives in modern Britain. It was intended as a follow-on to a blog I wrote last week about the battle for the soul of liberalism, between two notions of liberalism. Conventionally, conservatism was a notion of "society" of being a cog in a big society. This is starkly at odds with Thatcher's liberalism - "there is no such thing as society; there only individuals and their families"