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The meaning of conservatism

Disraeli followed Burke’s “politics of imperfection”, while
Thatcher favoured Hayek’s free-market

Over the past couple of years, David Cameron's Tories have sailed under a flag of convenience marked "progressive conservatism". For most commentators, the important question has been just how "progressive" this new ideological confection is. Many on the left have taken it for granted that talk of Cameronian "progress" is just that - talk - and that the Conservatives' commitment to, in their leader's own words, the "progressive end of making British poverty history" is entirely rhetorical. On the right, the intellectual outriders of Cameronism have laboured strenuously to establish its "progressive" bona fides.

Few, however, have thought to ask how conservative progressive conservatism is. Yet it is a question worth asking. For example, do Cameron's plans for "radical" welfare reform and for "decentralising responsibility and power" reflect a traditionally Tory preference for what Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of civil society over the institutions of the central state? Or are they, as most Labour politicians would like us to believe, just Thatcherism with the edges smoothed off?

The political historian and former Labour MP David Marquand thinks that the left is getting it dangerously wrong in charging Cameron with "crypto-Thatcherism". He sees the Conservative leader as a "Whig imperialist", a descendant of Burke who offers "inclusion, social harmony and evolutionary adaptation to the cultural and socio-economic changes of his age". Supposing that Marquand is right, where does this leave Cameron in relation to the recent history of his own party? To answer that question, one needs to look back more than 30 years.

In October 1976, the philosopher Anthony Quinton was invited to deliver the T S Eliot memorial lectures at the University of Kent. He took as his topic the history of conservative thought in England, tracing a lineage that stretched from the Tudor thinker Richard Hooker, via Bolingbroke, Burke and Disraeli, to the 20th-century political theorist Michael Oakeshott. The conservatism espoused by these thinkers was, Quinton argued, a "politics of imperfection" - that is, their views about the nature and proper extent of government were rooted in a vision of human weakness. For Burke and the others, men are morally and intellectually imperfect creatures, and political authority - specifically, the authority that inheres in customs and institutions - is to be understood as a remedy or palliative for that imperfection.

The principles of this venerable tradition guided Tory politicians from Disraeli and Lord Salisbury to Stanley Baldwin and Rab Butler. But by the time Quinton came to give his lectures, the Conservative Party was preparing to abandon them. Two years earlier, Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph had founded the Centre for Policy Studies, one of a number of "New Right" think tanks that would make the intellectual running in British politics in the late 1970s, and would transform the Tories from the party of Burke and Hume into the party of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek - turning it from a conservative party, in the Quinton sense, into a classical or neoliberal one that would begin a long and ultimately destructive march through many of Britain's most established institutions.

According to an apocryphal story, shortly after acceding to the Conservative leadership in 1975, Thatcher interrupted a colleague who was in the middle of making the case for a continuation of the kind of pragmatic accommodation with the postwar settlement that had served the Tories so well throughout the 1950s. Brandishing a copy of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, she is supposed to have thundered that "this is what we believe". (Around the same time, Joseph announced that it was "only in April 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism. I had thought I was a Conservative but I now see that I was not really one at all". What he meant was that he was a belated convert to the virtues of laissez-faire.)

The postscript to The Constitution of Liberty was entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative". And in it, Hayek aligned himself with the classical liberals of the 19th century, the "party that favours free growth and spontaneous evolution". A society, for Hayek, was not, as it was for conservatives such as Burke, an organic, living whole in which essentially social beings are bound by ties of custom and tradition, but merely an aggregate of self-interested economic actors. "The only ties which hold together the whole of a Great Society," he wrote, "are economic."

There was nothing especially conservative about Hayek's free-market ideas. One of the modern masterpieces of authentically conservative thought, Oakeshott's Rationalism in Politics, contains a single, solitary reference to the Austrian thinker - and a critical one at that. The "main significance" of Hayek, Oakeshott maintained, was not the "cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics." It belonged, in other words, to a "rationalist" style in thrall to the "illusion of the evanescence of imperfection".

Disposition, not a creed

Conservatism for Oakeshott, by contrast (and this places him squarely in the tradition explored by Quinton), was not a creed, but a “disposition". Such beliefs as the Oakeshottian conservative holds are acquired piecemeal, over the long haul; they are inductions from
experience, not deductions from logical or metaphysical premises. The conservative is certainly disposed towards limited government, say, but not on the basis of general, abstract ideas about choice or autonomy, or some "natural right" theory of private property.

The same held true for Burke, whose conservatism was based on a distrust of all ideologies. The reason he denounced the French Revolution was that he saw in it an attempt to remake a society in the image of abstract ideals. But politics, in his view, was not a rational science; it couldn't be, because it was limited by what human beings, imperfect creatures that they are, are capable of knowing.

When Quinton gave his lectures, the capture of the Conservative Party by the neoliberal "New Right" was not yet complete, but he knew which way the wind was blowing. Looking across the Atlantic, Quinton noted that in the United States, in "colloquial speech . . . a conservative is a defender of legislatively untrammelled free enterprise, of the absolute rights of property ownership, with an eccentric fringe of adherents who drive around in vans with placards on them, proclaiming the un­constitutional character of the federal income tax". Conservatism, in other words, had congealed into an ideology, a set of inflexible principles. To be a "conservative" was simply to hold a particular bundle of beliefs - about socialised medicine, taxation, the minimal state and so on.

By the mid-1980s, this was true of British conservatism, too. And in remaking itself in the image of the American Republican right, the Conservative Party forgot not only Burke's warnings about the dangers of a priori theorising in politics (like other experimental sciences, he wrote, the "science of building a commonwealth" cannot be taught as if it were logic), but also Disraeli's concern with the ravaging effects of an unchecked free market.
During his second stint as prime minister, between 1874 and 1880, Disraeli had overseen wide-ranging legislation designed to mitigate the depredations of industrial capitalist expansion. The Employers and Workmen Act and the Public Health Act, both passed in 1875, were part of an attempt to impose on the owners of industrial property the kinds of obligations to the propertyless that had in the past been assumed by rural squires. It could be argued, moreover, that Disraeli was the first British politician to accept that it was one of the responsibilities of the state to provide essential public services; and that, in doing so, he took the first steps, however tentative, towards the establishment of the welfare state. That is certainly the revisionist view of Marquand, who sees the Beveridge report as being as much a victory for the "Whig imperialist" tradition, in which he counts Burke and Disraeli, as it was a triumph for Keynesianism.

So, rather than railing against the spread of big cities and the growing influence of the commercial spirit, Disraeli recognised that these changes were largely irreversible. The task of a conservative politics, therefore, was not to take refuge in a kind of reactionary immobilism or nostalgia, but rather to work to attenuate the most serious consequences of a new set of social conditions.

No going back

In this, as in other respects, Disraeli was a Burkean. He understood that, in Burke, the "disposition to preserve" had combined with an "ability to improve". His most substantial work of political theory, the Vindication of the English Constitution (1835), is, among other things, a paean to what he calls the "spirit of conservation and optimism". (The Vindication is also a thoroughgoing attack on Benthamite utilitarianism, which Disraeli regarded as the attempt to measure or judge political institutions according to a formal principle - the principle of utility, according to which an action or policy is desirable to the extent that it promotes the "greatest happiness of the greatest number". He thought that rule hopelessly abstract: it may well be the task of government to increase happiness, but it is always the happiness of some particular group or other, not the sum of "human happiness", whatever that might be.)

Disraeli saw that Burke's traditionalism, the view that political knowledge was a matter not of logic, but of accumulated collective wisdom, did not entail a belief in the restoration of an earlier, putatively ideal state of affairs. "A state without the means of some change," Burke had written, "is without the means of its conservation." Conservatism, in other words, is not the same as counter-revolution.

This distinction between conservatism, on the one hand, and counter-revolutionary or reactionary revanchisme, on the other, is one that contemporary conservatives (and Conservatives) of various stripes would do well to remember. When, for example, a cultural fundamentalist such as Peter Hitchens complains that there is no room for "conservatives" in the modern Conservative Party, what he really means is that those who, like him, yearn to overturn the post-1960s settlement in personal mores no longer have a place, or at least a voice, in a party which, under Cameron's leadership, has finally reached an accommodation with the "cultural, sexual and moral revolutions". Whatever horrors one might have to fear from a Cameron government, the restoration of Section 28 will surely not be among them.

Cameron grasped very quickly that making the Tories electable would demand, among other things, undoing their reputation as the "nasty party", a rebarbative, reactionary rump ill at ease with the cultural and social transfor­mations of the past 40 years. What is much less clear, however, is whether he understands exactly why the Conservatives found themselves imprisoned in that revanchist dead end in the first place.

The clearest assessment from within the party of the Conservatives' predicament in the years immediately before and after their cataclysmic defeat in the 1997 election has come from Cameron's own front bench. In May this year, David Willetts, shadow secretary of state for universities and skills, argued in an article for Prospect magazine that the "core of the crisis" lay in the fact that the Conservatives had allowed it to appear as if their "understanding of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations" was not accompanied by an "underlying account of our moral sentiments"; as if they did not know, as Disraeli had known, that the father of the free market was also acutely aware of the "disadvantages of a commercial spirit".

The Tories, rather than acknowledge that the free-market reforms of the 1980s had unleashed forces that were highly corrosive of the "shared understandings" and institutions on which the party's "historic success" had rested, retreated into a cultural atavism that blamed the decomposition of family and community life on, in no particular order, the 1960s, comprehensive education and the malign influence of a libertarian metropolitan elite. Progressive or "civic" conservatism of the sort espoused by Willetts and Cameron does not entail the repudiation of the free market. But it does require a recognition that human beings are not motivated solely by, as Disraeli once put it, a "desire of power and a desire of property".

Jonathan Derbyshire is the New Statesman's culture editor.

Click here for a rundown of classic conservative books.

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush