Conservative confusion

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Conservative confusion


A statue of Edmund Burke outside Trinity College Dublin. How can Conservatives today reconcile a Burkean commitment to tradition with enthusiasm for the free market? (photo: Diamonddavej)

Conservatism in 2013 faces an existential problem: how can it reconcile free markets with traditional values? As the Conservative party shuffles meekly towards electoral demolition, this intellectual imbalance can only become more damaging.

Case in point: a Prospect essay by the usually brilliant conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. In reviewing recent pamphlets on modern conservatism, he inadvertently exposes the failure of intellectual conservatism. It is remarkable to realise that this is notionally the best brain of the old guard examining the leading lights of the young.

One of the pamphlets—it seems over-indulgent to call it a book—is Britannia Unchained, published last year by five prominent Conservative MPs including Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab. According to the authors, Britain can only be great if it turns itself into a global economic powerhouse, and this requires radical structural reform of the economy to curtail state intervention and encourage hard work.

It is clear that this approach is deeply incompatible with a conservatism that protects traditional values and institutions. In common with many political works that purport to be patriotic, Britannia Unchained displays an amazing contempt for the average British citizen. They are stupid, selfish, indolent, lazy and ignorant. They drink, eat, sleep and die too much. Conservatism, in anything resembling its traditional form, embraces all Britons with its respect for the traditions of liberty that have benefited them. Kwarteng & co only seem to be interested in squeezing every atom of productivity from the beleaguered population so that we can “compete” with countries like India and China, which benefit from vastly greater resources of land and labour. “Too many people in Britain prefer a lie-in to hard work,” the MPs claim. Well, good. That shows they are human and able to enjoy life.

The creative destruction of life’s pleasures for the good of economic indicators is not a conservative position. It is the opposite: completely without regard for traditions that do not hasten the advance of capitalism. Kwarteng and his co-authors are apparently unable to grasp this. But it is impossible to understand why it has been so hungrily lapped up by Scruton—a man who has buried himself, perhaps six feet under, in the history of conservatism.

If Britain is to be a great economic power—rather than a “moral idea,” as Scruton wishes—then many of Scruton’s treasured institutions will be destroyed. The church, which he exalts in his recent book Our Church, has no clear role in an internationally competitive Britain. His philosophical ideas have no economic value—why does he continue to produce them, in the face of Britain’s national interest? The answer is that they contribute to British cultural and intellectual life, but this is often incompatible with making the country economically efficient. “How”, asks Scruton, “do you counter the emotional impact of arguments from the left—arguments about social justice, equality and compassion—if you don’t refer to the cost of putting them into practice?” One might ask a similar question about his own views. How can you hold emotional beliefs about traditional England and its moral values whilst ignoring their great economic inefficiency?

But it would not do to be completely dismissive. Conservatism in Britain has done rather a lot to redress the problem of economic efficiency versus conservative values. David Cameron’s “big society” project—now almost universally derided—was actually an intelligent and coherent attempt to protect traditional values within a free-market economy. But it came up against an insuperable problem: voluntary work is only possible when people have large amounts of spare time and energy. This also goes for the maintenance of civic culture and national traditions. If these are not to be merely things academics discuss but an actual part of British life, then conservatism must return to its roots as a protector of a “moral idea.” But as long as its leading intellectuals continue to ignore the incompatibility of this position with a drive for economic competition, the movement—and the intellectuals—will wither and die.

  1. February 23, 2013

    Sean Swan

    This is precisely the contradiction which not so much afflicts as defines modern conservatism. The socially destructive and atomizing tendencies created by neoliberalism’s bare cash nexus contra tradition, nationality, religion – let’s just say ‘Burke and all that’.
    Modern conservatives are not conservatives any more, they are simply classic liberals. And now we can all have a chuckle as ‘New’ Labour attempts to pluck up Disraeli’s fallen ‘One Nation’ banner.
    Come back Ted Heath, all is forgiven

  2. February 23, 2013


    Dear Mr. Robin McGhee,

    Your world view, it seems, comprises a huge blind spot: you completely disregard the good old Protestant work ethics, which always have been economically most effective.

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Robin McGhee

Robin McGhee is a Liberal Democrat activist and writer 

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