For Queen and commerce: the Tory Party owes much of its success to synthesising opposing values. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Conservatism: the longest view

Nationalists might appear to be routing Tory liberals. But it’s just the continuation of a centuries-long struggle between two tribes
February 28, 2021

Too many books on conservatism fall into one of two categories. First, those where true believers set out their faith. Tradition, national identity and the deep wisdom of unreflective instincts are celebrated. These works have an incantatory quality and rarely engage with critics. They are based on reverence for a particular country’s history and institutions, especially in the form they took before liberals (and worse) got at them. There is a strain of utopianism in this conservatism—with the past as the utopia. The lack of critical thought in such works makes them fair game for those who see conservatism as hocus pocus, bereft of principle beyond the ruthless pursuit of power to further the interests of the rich, all disguised behind a rhetoric of nostalgia and patriotism. Then, of course, there are the books by those who regard conservatives as their enemy, which make exactly this case more directly.

Hunger for office is indeed one of the animating beliefs of British Conservatives, who believe that when it comes to the game of politics it is far better to be batting than bowling. To achieve office, it is rather useful that conservatism can be hard to pin down. Shortly after the landslide Tory defeat of 1997, I found myself sitting next to Denis Thatcher at a dinner. I asked him what he thought the Tories needed to do to win back power. He replied: “We must get back to basic conservative principles—but don’t ask me what they are.” British conservatism is rather like a capacious Mary Poppins bag from which it is always possible to extract an argument that applies to the circumstances of the day.

There are surprisingly few analyses of conservatism that avoid the twin perils of reverence or debunking. Even serious accounts, certainly in Britain, tend to be histories of activity in parliament and government rather than of thinkers and ideology. This could be said to be authentically conservative—instead of an explanation of prior beliefs, which are then applied in practice, we have a host of examples of actual practice from which underlying principles may be distilled. But it does leave one asking if there is more to conservatism than an account of how conservatives have practised politics.

Edmund Fawcett now joins the small and distinguished group of authors who take conservatism seriously as a body of ideas without themselves being conservatives. (Fawcett, also the author of Liberalism: the Life of an Idea, describes himself as a “left-wing liberal.”) It is an ambitious book with lucid accounts of a wide range of thinkers and some practitioners. He covers not just Britain and the US, but France and Germany too. He tracks the changes in the character of conservatism over the last two centuries in four phases: resisting liberalism in the early 19th century; a tricky period in the late 19th and early 20th century, when it had to adapt to the rise of democracy; its post-war political success; and, finally, its current travails as it absorbs or confronts the “hard right.”

Overall, his account works very well because he gets the intellectual framework right. He identifies two principles that shape conservatism. On the one hand there is the celebration of the ties of belonging, community and tradition. On the other, there are the values gradually absorbed from the classical liberal tradition—freedom, individualism and dynamism—which began to rank as conservative ideals when progressive collectivism threatened to smother them.

“For conservatives, it is useful that conservatism is hard to pin down”

Changing the balance between these two sets of principles gives conservatives extraordinary freedom of manoeuvre in politics. This has been misinterpreted by those who claim conservatism has no intellectual core. The Tory politician Quintin Hogg (better known as Viscount Hailsham) delivered the classic reply: “Our Tory Party, which stressed the claims of authority… in the 19th century, and which champions the claims of liberty in the 20th century, has not changed its ground; it is occupying the same ground, the middle ground. It is only the direction of the attack which has altered.”

Continental politics often embodied these two different approaches in rival political parties—a rural, confessional, communitarian peasants’ party and an urban, anti-clerical, pro-business party. One of the reasons for the success of the British Conservative Party is that the Liberal split on Irish Home Rule united the two strands together into the Conservative and Unionist Party. Joseph Chamberlain brought in the big cities, Scotland and business—the groups that would much later vote Remain. The referendum split threatened to jeopardise the party’s historic winning coalition—until Boris Johnson remade it with Labour voters from towns in the Midlands and the North.

These twin principles of community and market work so effectively as the core of a political party because they capture two conflicting instincts that we wrestle with every day in our own lives. We are balancing stability and mobility, loyalty and freedom, deciding whether to perhaps stay with a partner/employer/place or to move out and move on. To understand how conservatives have balanced these two things, one has to look beyond the practice of politics to the ideas expressed by writers, pamphleteers and essayists. It is another strength of Fawcett’s book that he draws on a wide range of writing, going way beyond the classics to try to find out what conservatives really thought and how that changed with the circumstances.

Until recently, a book like Fawcett’s would have concluded that the freedom-loving wing of the tradition had won at the expense of stability. Conservative parties had become vehicles for a surprisingly bold shift towards mobility and openness, embracing disruptive insurgents rather than the comforts of being settled in one place. There might have been a nod towards cultural conservatives who try to protect certain areas of life—the family and the nation state—from these forces, but they looked to be the junior strand. That is not the narrative now. Fawcett sees today’s conservatives as fighting anew for the traditions that liberal modernity undermines. He argues that the liberal strand of conservatism is weakening in the face of atavistic, cultural conservatism. He calls it the “hard right” and argues it is in many ways the old right resurgent. Brexit and Trumpism are two vivid examples of his theory.

This change in the intellectual direction of conservatism can be tracked in the fate of the American neo-conservatives. The network of intellectuals around the Public Interest journal—including Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—produced some of the most interesting conservative thinking in the post-war period. Neo-conservatism is a powerful combination of free-market economics and a belief in the nation state as a moral community, together with a confidence in the power of public policy to do good if it goes with the grain of human nature. But many of its leading figures were also advocates of the wars in the Middle East (defined as the Fourth World War by Norman Podhoretz in Commentary; the Cold War was the third). That proved to be a strategic disaster for the US and for their brand of conservatism. Add to this the failure to raise the living standards of the American middle class, and one sees why the US has seen the capture of the Republican Party by angry Trump supporters opposed to both globalisation and foreign entanglements. 

Fawcett fears that the more freedom-loving strand of conservatism was the result of a transient alliance with liberals to defeat socialism. He argues that the rise of the “hard right” is taking conservative parties in a different direction. But this understates the depth of the liberal element in conservatism. The institutions and traditions which conservatives wish to sustain, certainly in the UK and US, have always had common law protections for individuals at their core. That has been the English model, deeply rooted in a legal and constitutional settlement that long predates the Conservative Party.

How does the rise of the “hard right” fit into the history of conservatism? Again a clue is hidden in the pre-history not covered in Fawcett’s account. It is Court vs Country. For much of the 18th century the Tories were the outsiders, the local squires who lost out in national politics to the grand and progressive designs of the Whig nobles. The Whigs practised what Disraeli in his novel Sybil called “Venetian politics, Dutch finance and French Wars.” Whiggery survived into the middle of the 19th century after the conservative split on the Corn Laws. The modern-day Brexiteers can be seen as heirs to the Tory anti-Whig tradition. That is how a party which has been in office for over a decade manages to see itself as an outsider battling against the establishment—the kind of manoeuvre which, in this country, only the Tories could pull off.

Similarly, conservatives are today adjusting to the rise of identity politics. It might have been unleashed by modern progressives, but the conservative tradition includes the celebration of national identity. So progressives should not be surprised if conservatives engage in identity politics too, only emphasising different groups—notably the white working class.

Each of the four countries Fawcett analyses illuminates the different ways in which an established centre-right party can respond to the rise of a new “hard right.” Incorporation, as in the case of the UK and US, or outright rejection as in France and Germany. British Conservatives have discharged a historic responsibility to temper and absorb into democratic politics ideas from out on the right wing. One reason the rise of Ukip was such a source of anxiety to David Cameron, and led him to call the EU referendum, was because it challenged this long-established element of Tory strategy. In the end, it has led to the takeover of the party by the Brexiteers.

The issue is even more acute for American Republicans. The party embraced Trump and his claims of a stolen election together with climate change denial, and increasingly indulges anti-vax campaigners and the bizarre conspiracy theories of QAnon (see p9). Meanwhile, in Germany and in a different way in France, the centre-right parties have moved into a centrist coalition to keep out the “hard right.” This brings its risks too. In Germany, Angela Merkel remains a formidable figure, but the centre ground of German politics is shrinking with the rise of the extreme right AfD. And in France, Emmanuel Macron’s domination of the centre has led to the collapse of the conventional politics of left versus right, with Marine Le Pen now the main alternative (see p25). It is very dangerous if one centrist party becomes the protector of a society’s liberal values. What are voters to do if they want to change the government? It is better if the core beliefs of a liberal democracy are shared by parties of the left and right, with each incorporating certain anti-liberal groups on its fringes.

Conservatism should not be blood and soil nationalism; instead it should foster a patriotic love of the institutions that have emerged from a nation’s history. This respect for them is enhanced with the Burkean insight that they may function in ways none of us can fully understand. That is why, for me, the most chilling concept of the populist right was Steve Bannon’s idea of a “deep state,” which needed to be swept away by the presumed will of the people. What Bannon contemptuously called the deep state is actually the network of institutions and practices developed over centuries that sustain a polity.

Conservatives understand that the best protections for individual rights come from civic institutions standing between the individual and the state. Every country has its own distinct mix, but for Britain it is the constitutional monarchy and the politically neutral civil service; it also includes the autonomy of universities and the BBC. There have been moments when one has feared that the Cummings plan for the Tory Party was to emulate Bannon and go for an all-out assault on our national institutions. But that does not look like the direction in which British politics is going now. Instead, the combined effect of Brexit and the virus is going to put the challenge of boosting economic growth at the top of the political agenda. It might even be that economic liberalism proves to be an important part of the answer to that challenge. The kaleidoscope of conservatism continues to turn. 

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett (Princeton UP, £30) Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett (Princeton UP, £30)

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett (Princeton UP, £30)