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29 September 2021

The battle for the soul of conservatism

Edmund Fawcett’s book traces the evolution of an often-contested ideology.

By Emily Jones

In 1955, TS Eliot posed a question to the London Conservative Union: “what is the literature of conservatism?” Eliot was asking which writings established “what conservatism is”. He recognised that the task at hand was one of construction. Eliot argued that while some political traditions are built around a central text or canon, others find themselves in the reverse situation – of having had a history before their tenets were fully clarified. So it was with conservatism. Eliot tasked each generation with the job of identifying and promoting – and where necessary modifying, even adulterating – conservative principles.

Eliot developed his own curriculum. He lifted his principal figures from those cited in the “admirable little book”, Conservatism, published in 1912 by Lord Hugh Cecil, the youngest son of the former prime minister Lord Salisbury. These were Henry, Viscount Bolingbroke; Edmund Burke; Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Benjamin Disraeli – three Tories and a Whig (Burke). The survival of conservatism, Eliot insisted, depended on its contemporary interpreters.

Edmund Fawcett’s Conservatism: The Fight for Tradition is similarly ­concerned with the question of what conservatism was and is, and assembles its own cast. An Economist journalist and self-described “left wing liberal” – and uncle to Boris Johnson – ­Fawcett is also interested in tracing how conservatism has developed alongside democracy and liberalism (the subject of Fawcett’s 2014 history, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea).

In Fawcett’s analysis, the French Revolution in 1789 was both a founding moment and a false start. Fawcett rightly observes that conservatism was not “founded” with the publication of Burke’s critique of the ­Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): it wasn’t until the 1830s that the term gained currency as a political label. The principles of the Burkean tradition – a belief in the organic nature of society and politics (hence a dislike of abstract theory); reverence for history and tradition; respect for religion, ­property and order – were collated at the turn of the 20th century.

Fawcett covers the last two centuries, spanning four countries. In Britain we encounter Conservative premiers from Robert Peel to Boris Johnson, as well as intellectual misfits, such as Coleridge and Roger Scruton. In France, we meet royalists, revanchists and anti-Dreyfusards; in Germany, the early translator of Burke, Friedrich Gentz, and members of Alternative für Deutschland. In the US, the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s join Goldwater Republicans and anti-intellectual paleoconservatives.

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For Fawcett, liberalism stands for progress, individualism, democracy, while conservatives, viewing society as an organism, express concerns for its moral and cultural decay. They adapt well to democracy, but they don’t really like it. The book concludes with a discussion of the rise of the radical right; Fawcett eschews the term “far right” in favour of “hard right”,  given that these views no longer occupy the fringes.

For Fawcett, liberals move first and conservatives respond. The notion of progress and reaction is appealingly simple. But it’s not entirely clear how this helps us to understand British Toryism, for instance, whose roots lie in the 17th century, nor the relationship between conservatism and socialism. The push-pull dynamic also omits contradictions within traditions: “progressive” 19th-century liberals advocating reform in their own countries were much less democratically minded when it came to colonial subjects.

The focus on high politics and a certain type of intellectual also produces a very male canon – save for figures such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally in France, and Margaret Thatcher. In Britain, until relatively recently, it was widely assumed that most women were predisposed to conservatism – more homely, devout, and attached to the status quo than worldly, rational liberal men. Female writers circulated conservative ideas, as with the popular religious writer Hannah More’s anti revolutionary Village Politics (1792), and women were often the target of 20th-century Conservative political literature.

Conservatism, like most political ideologies, often acquired coherence only in retrospect. Burke, who died in 1797, was not anointed as the “founder of conservatism” until the end of the 19th century. The terms “left” and “right” gained currency, in an anglophone context, in the years that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. They were attractive not only for their flexibility and reach – their ability to link Tories with Republicans against socialists and communists – but for the glut of visual metaphors and wordplay they provided for mass audiences who enjoyed a pun. The left, the Conservative politician Quintin Hogg informed his readers in 1945, was never right. It was Stanley Baldwin, the interwar Conservative prime minister, who invented the phrase “One Nation”, not Disraeli, with whom the term is widely associated.

The trajectory of One Nation conservatism demonstrates how political traditions create myths that can be useful to both adherents and opponents. The legacy of Disraeli, whose paternalistic Toryism was rooted in national institutions such as the monarchy and the Anglican church, was transformed in the decades following his death in 1881 by conservatives seeking an alternative tradition to an anti revolutionary Burkean conservatism. One Nation conservatism was, and remains, attractive for its capacity to show concern for the welfare of ordinary people, seek to alleviate social problems and defuse social tensions in order to preserve existing institutions and systems of power. But “One Nation” also served as a useful foil for dissident voices within the party, such as Thatcher, who defined her beliefs – in private enterprise, monetarism and her own “Victorian values” of self-help and hard work – against the policies of the “wets”, who compromised with the unions.

Every decade or so conservatism enters into crisis. Since the end of the Cold War and, in Britain, the collapse of Thatcherism, conservatives have been seeking a new lodestar. Anti-Europeanism has helped to plug the gap in recent years, though disputes over trade deals, tariffs and food prices have a long history of disrupting British conservatism, as in Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846 and the formation of the protectionist Tariff Reform League in 1903.

In the run-up to the Conservative leadership contest in July 2019, ConservativeHome asked each candidate to complete the following sentence: “Conservatism is…”. For the majority of respondents – which included Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Johnson, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock – equality of opportunity and individual choice were the runaway winners. Only Rory Stewart produced something recognisable as a six-point philosophy of conservatism in the mould of Cecil: “limited constitutional government, individual rights, trust in tradition, love of country, prudence in foreign policy, and restraint at home”. Yet, Stewart concluded, this could now be summed up in just one word: “love”.

Like Eliot, Fawcett’s aim is to stress the importance of thought and action by successive generations to ensure the survival of political traditions. The tradition which most concerns Fawcett is liberal democracy, and the threat to it posed by the hard right. Liberal democracy, he argues, can’t be taken for granted and will only endure through eternal vigilance. It is essential, Fawcett insists, to provoke “moderate conservatives” into a more energetic attitude to their inheritance. The “fight for a tradition” is, Fawcett believes, two-sided: conservatives must protect values and institutions from their opponents, but there is also an internal struggle for “ownership of their own political tradition”.

Fawcett accuses both Johnson and Theresa May of behaving “like populists” in favouring cronies, bullying critics and attacking judges whose rulings they dislike. Indeed, Johnson claims to be a One Nation Conservative. But in the context of a decade of slashed funding for public services, revelations surrounding PPE contracts, and legislation, such as the Health and Social Care Levy, that still leaves social care in crisis, what has Johnson’s rhetoric amounted to? Long-standing inequalities and the social devastation caused by the pandemic are unlikely to be addressed through “levelling up” – even with a task force devoted to it – or the artificial fashioning of a “culture war”.

Fawcett maintains that there is “nothing eternal” about liberal democracy. I would add that there is nothing eternal about conservatism either. The dearth of serious ideas to match the challenges of the present is reflected in the personalised singularity of modern “isms” common in political writing: “Johnsonism’”, “Starmerism”, “Trumpism”.

The task at hand remains one of reconstruction and invention. This means asking, 30 years on from the end of the Cold War and with the anti-European itch apparently relieved, what conservatism – as both a body of thought and a working political tradition – offers to our national politics and ­intellectual life today.

Emily Jones is a historian of modern Britain and the author of “Edmund Burke and the Invention of
Modern Conservatism” (Oxford University Press)

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition
Edmund Fawcett
Princeton University Press, 544pp, £30

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This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age