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16 May 2023

Rescuing conservatism

A revival of civic institutions is needed to restore an alienated and divided country.

By Andrew O’Brien

John Gray once predicted that conservatism was doomed to become the philosophical equivalent of the Cheshire Cat. The form would be found in “conservative” parties but on closer examination no conservative content would be detected. 

More optimistic than Gray, I do not believe that conservatism is doomed. In a speech last Saturday Keir Starmer sought to steal the conservatism from the Conservatives. This week a National Conservatism conference is taking place which has garnered significant media attention. Why? Because there is recognition across the political spectrum of the limits of 80 years of liberalism. Conservative ideas are essential for Britain’s future.

Starmer’s speech (in which the Labour leader spoke of protecting “precious things” and said, “Somebody has got to stand up for the things that make this country great, and it isn’t going to be the Tories”) hints at an unspoken truth in British political history. The great conservative victory was not Thatcher’s in 1979 but Attlee’s in 1945. Attlee was a politician committed to conservative ends through socialist means. He undertook the “greatest restoration of the country since 1660”, as the former New Statesman editor Anthony Howard famously quipped. The expansion of social security, the creation of the NHS and building a “national economy”, as the historian David Edgerton has described, were an attempt to implement a conservative vision.

In 1948 Karl Polanyi wrote that this kind of socialism was “the continuation of that endeavour to make society a distinctively human relationship of persons”. In this vision, every citizen would be given the means to participate in a shared civic life while maintaining the historic continuity of the nation and preserving its unique institutions, such as the monarchy and parliament. In stealing conservatism for the Labour Party, Attlee left the Tories in danger of becoming irrelevant. His reconciliatory politics show how to really change an ancient state like Britain.

[See also: The dark heart of the Tory Party]

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The ultimate purpose of conservatism is harmony, to create a political community that can maintain its institutions, values and way of life. No political community can sustain itself if there is deep division and strife. This is what Attlee instinctively recognised. Conservatives such as Disraeli, Baldwin and Macmillan understood this too. They knew that only through a strong society can the worst excesses of human nature be tamed. And it is within society that we can make sense of our lives. Conservatives believe in the power of the state and markets, but also in the power of community built on strong overlapping institutions – families, charities, shared social spaces and political organisations. This is the deep, rich conservatism that must return.

Collective institutions are the bedrock of conservatism, but during the Cold War the right came to believe all collective institutions were the route to socialism. The welfare state, instead of being seen as a project to enable all citizens to participate in a shared civic life and an embodiment of our shared social responsibilities to each other, came to be seen as the beginnings of totalitarianism. Welfare today, communism tomorrow. The right still lives in fear of this phantom Marxism.

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The result is an alienated society, where people are alienated both from each other and from their own nature. At a social level the privileging of the individual as consumer has eroded our shared social institutions through removing any sense of the need for sacrifice for the community. It is no surprise that this has led to the erosion of the taxes, philanthropy and volunteering that are necessary to underpin society. This is how we can have a society where billions are raised and invested in digital currencies, in many cases no better than gambling, yet we struggle to keep open youth centres, local sports clubs and libraries. On an individual level people are alienated from their own nature. Both liberalism and Marxism put moral agency solely on the individual. Under liberalism it is our lack of self-improvement and moral education that leads to the wrong decisions. For Marxists it is our failure to overthrow our political and economic system. We are either bad students or bad revolutionaries. There is no acceptance of human error or the fact that wisdom often emerges over centuries, not years. This has led society to turn on itself, fuelling internecine culture wars as all sides look for immediate, instant change.

Those that are most interested in preserving the economic status quo have been forced to recognise that the conservative foundations which enabled their political and economic order to be sustained are rapidly eroding. Martin Wolf, in The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, is the latest liberal thinker to acknowledge this. He calls for a renewed sense of citizenship to rebuild the global economic order, as happened after 1945. Wolf thinks that this was a liberal order, but the Bretton Woods system was a conservative reaction to the domination of capital and the global free flow of wealth. Wolf defines citizenship as concern for the ability of citizens to have a fulfilled life; the desire to create an economy that allows citizens to flourish and loyalty to the democratic political and legal institutions and the values of “open debate and tolerance” that underpin them. Wolf would argue that this works for democratic capitalism at any time. But as Patrick Deneen has argued in Why Liberalism Failed this is the essential problem with liberalism. It is generic. We are asked to sacrifice, but for what? For whom? For our own self-interest it seems, to preserve the economic order. This is backwards. Our economy should serve our social values, not the other way around. It is the reaction against this hollow liberalism that has fuelled the rise of populism and will continue to do so until we are prepared to give concreteness to our citizenship.

[See also: Dangerous minds]

For conservatives, the emotional attachment to our families, social institutions, history and culture can provide that concreteness. It is recognition of the power of love, the longing for messiness over abstract ideas of perfection. This is the power of conservatism. Through a shared national life, what Hegel termed Sittlichkeit, we can find ourselves in a shared historical, cultural, social and political community. Conservatives see the contingency of existence not as a curse but as a blessing. We can be born anywhere at any time, but we are where we are. What appear to be alien and forced upon us from birth (our values, our language, our culture, our institutions) become our own when we recognise that we, as a human collective over time, have created them. The national community is a way of overcoming the sense of alienation that leaves us paralysed in constant struggle against our fellow citizens and ourselves.

The question is how to achieve a new spirit of reconciliation. We must, in the spirit of politicians such as Macmillan and Attlee, reconcile, restore and renew. The amazing power of human beings is our ability to take our ideas about the world around us and to build institutions, from states covering millions to voluntary associations that bring a handful of people together, that turn our wishes into reality through collaboration and co-operation. Although we will need to develop new institutions to cope with rapidly changing technology, particularly with the rise of digital and social media, conservatives must look to preserve and adapt our existing institutions. The widespread grief at the death of Queen Elizabeth II shows that there is an instinctive love for our shared institutions. It is our attachment to these, from parliament to the local sports club, that appeals to our hearts and our values of duty, sacrifice and the common good. They should give us hope, if only a fool’s hope. It is an insight that politicians such as Michael Gove and Lisa Nandy appear to have.

The greatest confrontation facing conservatives, however, is in the economic realm. Conservatives know that individuals are prone to put their own needs above others; that is why they are cynical about utopian visions of the future. The point is to build institutions to check against these instincts, not give in to them. Rebuilding our distressed social and economic infrastructure, developing new technologies, and raising productivity and wages will require long-term vision, patience and delayed gratification. Greater investment, intervention, regulation and oversight will be required. Traditional institutions such as family-owned businesses and new institutions such as social enterprises, employee-owned business, co-operative models, and purpose-led businesses such as B Corporations, offer a model for conservative economics that goes beyond the libertarian right and the statist left.

The state will need to channel greater investment into our social, civic and cultural institutions, preserving organisations like the BBC and experimenting with new ones, such as Community Wealth Funds. The next decades must be a period of institution building and renewal, the greatest since the Victorians.

Starmer’s speech should be an urgent warning for the Conservative Party. The Labour leader has shown that he understands the need for a conservative turn, particularly with respect to economic security, as well as his “national missions”. He must trust his instincts if wants to become the second “great restorer” after Attlee. There is still time for the Conservatives to embody the values their name suggests, but only if they are prepared to turn their backs on the lazy libertarianism that has driven the party close to destruction. Ultimately, this cannot be the project of one political party. To rebuild, we will need a new consensus. Proof of this will be manifest in what politicians and parties are prepared to sacrifice in the national interest. Promising their own base that they don’t need to change, only their opponents do, will not be sufficient. This will not build the trust required to rebuild our social foundations. The alternative is more of the same. Alienation and division. This must be a decade of reconciliation, respect and renewal. Conservatism must return to the mainstream.

[See also: Making democracy safe from capitalism]