Conservatism needn't be the opposite of progress—it only asks that we think things through

Simple arguments offered by radical and ideological voices on the left and right are seductive. The moderation of true conservatism is needed today more than ever

March 06, 2019
Conservatives delegates queue to enter the main hall at party conference. Photo: PA
Conservatives delegates queue to enter the main hall at party conference. Photo: PA

Conservatism is more of a mindset than an ideology. It encourages scepticism when hearing about grand plans, abstract ideas and simple solutions for problems, knowing that people are prone to overestimating their importance and knowledge on human affairs. Essentially, it teaches: don’t rush in. To judgement or action.

Sounds rather plodding, fogeyish. And it can often be confused with—and provide intellectual cover for—simple reactionism.

But conservatives should not be—indeed, historically have not been—resistant to reform. Rather, conservatism asks us to be careful, take one step at a time, think things through. Sleep on it.

We need this conscientious caution now more than ever. The internet and social media have been hugely helpful in spreading and democratising knowledge. But they have also facilitated a much greater variety of competing, even false, arguments. And they reward instantaneous, superficial commentary. What we often crave, and need, is more time. More time to amass and understand evidence before deciding on what to think or do.

Such patience has always been acutely essential for those with the privilege and responsibility of decision-making—in politics, law, medicine, business and more. The trajectory of people’s lives is breathtakingly dependent on their decisions. Anything but detailed and comprehensive care before reaching a conclusion will not do.

The progressive-minded, admirably fixated on fixing follies we still face to carve out a better future, are suddenly finding conservatism a helpful tool.

In recent years, the arc of progress does not seem so certain. More extreme arguments and actors, from the political left and right, have gained ground across the Western world. They are gradually and somewhat effectively dismantling the intellectual case for—and policy programme of—the liberal order that has, although of course not perfectly and sufficiently, vastly improved economies and societies.

Fearful of what the future holds, what might be lost, progressives have discovered the importance of seeking to conserve certain institutions and ideas. The radical road is not so right-on, anymore. Strangely, conservatism is finally in fashion.

The disruptors are no longer so delightful. It is the authoritarian right, with Trump at its helm, that seems to be offering the electorate the clearest and more compelling alternatives to the status quo. Worryingly, they are jeopardising the stabilising ecosystem of multilateral organisations such as NATO and the UN that emerged from the ruins of the Second World War. And Brexit, especially one involving “no-deal,” is now so mind-bogglingly close, pushed by a radical right, threatening to seriously destabilise the UK economy.

But a re-energised far-left is also taking things too far. The campaigning for equal rights and treatment of all individuals has been immensely necessary and right. Thankfully, substantial progress towards such equality has been made, although there’s still more to do.

Yet, radical leftist thinking—with its roots in Marxist, postmodern and intersectional theory—is highjacking the agenda, propagating group conflict over individual liberty. This ideology is increasingly winning the battle of ideas, leading to simplistic stereotyping, bias blindspots, and individual miscarriages of justice—all of which is conjuring a cultural backlash. This is ultimately threatening to undermine and undo the substantial progress that has been made on equal rights.

Simple arguments and prescriptions offered by radical and ideological voices on the left and right do successfully seduce. Conservatism is a temperament that offers a helpful counterweight, even for progressives—by stressing the value and effectiveness of a sceptical, gradual, scientific and responsible approach to decision-making and reform.