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Andrew Lilico: What is Conservatism?

Andrew Lilico square Andrew Lilico is a Director of Europe Economics and until January the Chief Economist of Policy Exchange.  He has written a number of pamphlets for various think-tanks (particularly the Bow Group) on the topic of what Conservatism is.  He writes here in a personal capacity.

For some months, it has been common currency on the blogs to contend that the faction much of the press refers to as the “Right Wing” of the Conservative Party is in fact the Party’s “mainstream”, constituting its overwhelming majority.

Tim recently contrasted between this “mainstream Conservative” faction (79%), that wants to continue the Conservative Party as a political force that attempts to win outright and govern alone, and a “Liberal Conservative” faction that seeks either to fuse the Coalition Parties permanently or at least to continue the Coalition after 2015.

Tim attempted to set out some of the beliefs of mainstream Conservatives.  In contrast, certain commentators have suggested that Conservatism isn’t something that has any definition as such (though there are Conservative values) and that attempts to distinguish between different ideologies within the party are unnecessary dividing lines.

In fact it’s not terribly difficult to define Conservatism.  It’s just that some of those trying to do so recently may not have liked what they came up with.

Four Concepts of Conservatism
I shall explore four concepts of British Conservatism.  (There are, of course, other international philosophies that are sometimes described as “Conservative”, often revolving around nationalism, authoritarianism or ethnicity.  We shall stick to the British variety.)  These are:

  • Constitutional Conservatism
  • Burkean Conservatism
  • The “anti” coalition
  • The political theorists’ coalition

The first two concepts are “pure” in the sense that the contend that there is one class of view that is truly “Conservative”, whilst the latter two see Conservatism in more political organisation terms as a coalition.

Constitutional Conservatism
The most fundamental concept of British Conservatism arises from the Party’s foundation as a constitutional Party.  It came into existence to oppose the Great Reform Bills, and persisted even after reform as per the constitutional principles set out in Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto – namely that if, following “careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical”, there was a case for change (potentially including church reform that promoted the “true interests of the Established religion”), then the Conservative Party would itself institute reform but would not bring about unnecessary change, lest there be a “perpetual vortex of agitation”.  (Thus, constitutional Conservatism is the anti-thesis of “progressivism”.)

The constitutional essence of the Party is even clearer in its Unionist tradition, where the Irish Question was central.  Indeed, even the 1980s can be interpreted in constitutional terms, with Thatcher’s party resisting the overthrow of Parliament by the Unions in the 1970s or local government militancy in the 1980s, the constitutional radicalism of the Labour Party in the early 1980s, and the threat of Communism throughout.  “Statecraft” is classically identified as the unifying theme of Thatcherism, and the great constitutional question of Europe was her downfall.

The Conservative Party grew out of the Pittite Faction of the eighteenth Century Whig Party, and its defining mission from the outset was to preserve and promote the “mixed constitution” that was the Whiggish inheritance.

Philosophically, Conservatism has normally been seen as drawing heavily upon the ideas of the Whiggish philosopher Edmund Burke.  Burke held that Members of Parliament are elected as representatives, not delegates – it is thus essential to his philosophy that the business of elections is to choose those that then rule; it is not that the People rule themselves.  He was sceptical about the concept of democracy as rule by the People, holding:

  • that rule requires specialist knowledge that the common people will always lack;
  • that the opinions of the common people are often unstable and unpleasant, in particular including authoritarian impulses, and could easily be manipulated by demagogues to undermine cherished traditions and established religion, with the results being violence and the confiscation or destructions of property;
  • that unpopular minorities require the protection of the upper classes from the tyranny of the Mob.

Burke did not oppose all popular revolution, holding that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was justified — but as issuing naturally from English traditional and evolved liberties (“The Revolution was made to preserve our antient indisputable laws and liberties, and that antient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty... We wished at the period of the Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers”), not from some abstract metaphysical doctrine of the Rights of Man.  He held that reverence for authority is a natural sentiment, to be encouraged, and that what he terms “prejudice” (we might prefer the terms “instinct” or “intuition”) is to be defended against individual reason, as issuing from a tradition that we cannot straightforwardly unpack analytically but only reflect in habit.

For Burke, the central goal of a constitutional arrangement (understood as an evolving interplay between institutions and organic elements (particularly class, tradition, Establishment, and Established religion)) is the promotion of ordered liberty (a point emphasized much later by Mrs. Thatcher) – the promotion of ordered liberty being best understood as the seeking of the maximum liberty (understood in the classical English sense as the privilege to enjoy one’s property, to practice one’s religion, to engage in discourse and debate, to move about and associate, and so on, peacefully and without interference) consistent with order.

Burke contrasted his classical Whig doctrines with what he called “French principles” – even today we would contrast the French revolutionary concept of “liberty” (which has subsequently become widely reflected in much Human Rights legislation and much of the orthodox commentary on issues such as democracy) with the classical English concept.

For Burke, property is essential to human society and development, creating necessary social structure and hierarchy.  (And because of that, class is seen by Burke as a good thing.)  Connected with this is his attachment to the “little platoons” (approximately, civic institutions and organisations such as church, family, sports clubs, charities, gentlemen’s clubs, etc.):  “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

Burkeanism is, of course, in the first instance constitutionally Conservative.  And this constitutional Conservatism is essential to his wider socio-political vision.

The “anti” coalition
Though constitutional Conservatism of a more or less Burkean nature has always been central to British Conservatism, it has not always been the source of the Conservative Party’s electoral success.  In various periods the Conservative Party has relied for its votes upon an “anti” coalition.

At times in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, the point wasn’t so much what Conservatives were for, but, rather, what they were against.  There were those alleged to be arguing for pacifism, for confiscatory taxation, for dumbing down of standards in education, for the undermining of the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament.  The Conservative Party was the credible opponent of these changes – if you didn’t want these things you voted Conservative to stop them (not particularly because of anything specific the Conservatives would do instead).

“Anti” coalitions can be very broad – for example, including authoritarians, libertarians, petit-nationalists, imperialists, free traders, protectionists, traditionalists, iconoclasts, and many other contradictory opinions.  But they are liable to fracture quickly if the threats that they unite to oppose disappear.

The political theorists’ coalition
As I have written about a number of times before, one popular political theory interpretation of the Conservative Party is as an evolving coalition of four key elements:

  • Traditional Tories (believers in a strong, hierarchical state, order, morality, duty, and patriotism – a “security Conservative” in the Hobbesian tradition would fall under this bracket);
  • Classical Whigs (believers in a sovereign elected legislature, free markets, toleration, and ordered liberty); 
  • Paternalists (Tories for whom the duty to help the poor was particularly important - the able should help the less able); and 
  • Corporatists (believers in the role of the State as arbitrating between big business and Labour, so as to agree on wages and working conditions that would promote sufficient social justice to maintain order and permit the enjoyment of private property).

Normally a coalition of two of these elements is the focus of the overall Party, with the two other elements dragged along for the ride.  The Conservative coalition from the end of World War II until the 1970s is seen as being dominated by Paternalist and Corporatist elements (initially Paternalism dominant, later Corporatism).  Thatcherism is seen as a Whig-Tory coalition (with the Whig element dominant).  From the late 1990s I argued that the Thatcherite coalition was obsolete and that the next electorally successful coalition would be one between the Paternalist and Whig elements.  I urged that the Whig element would have to be dominant, since the membership and thinkers were overwhelmingly Whiggish, but that we would need to reach out to Paternalists.

In the event, the preferred coalition was Paternalist-dominated with some initial appeal to Whigs (though that appeal has declined with time – e.g. with the abandonments of EU power repatriation (a central Whiggish interest since 1679); of Human Rights Act repeal and other constitutional measures of interest to Whigs).  The Coalition offers some residual succour to Whigs (e.g. removal of ID cards, some of the public sector reforms) but in a number of other ways is more appealing to traditional Tories (e.g. the “realist” approach to military interventions).  And of course many of the appeals of the Coalition are outside the Conservative Party altogether, to the much more “French” concepts of the Liberal Democrats.

British Conservatism is, at its core, a constitutional doctrine closely connected with a social vision.  Constitutionally, its central ideas are the antithesis of Democrat, Progressive and French Liberty doctrines.  One simply cannot simultaneously be a Burkean and believe in abstract Human Rights.  Its socio-economic doctrines place private property at the centre of the social order, as one of the things that makes human society possible.  Its concept of the social good is not liberalism in the post-Millian sense (something to do with preventing anybody from interfering with anyone else) but, rather, ordered liberty in the classical Whig sense (which is much more about toleration, peaceful enjoyment and non-interference by the state).

Conservatives are not Democrats; they are not Progressives; they do not believe in Human Rights; they are not collectivist in their understanding of property; they are not ethical liberals.  They are thus not Liberal Democrats or Socialists (though a small number might be Catholic Collectivists – i.e. Blairites).

Now of course none of the above means that the Conservative Party cannot form coalitions with other parties – it has often done so.  Neither does it mean that the Conservative Party will always exist.  To state a doctrine is not to support it.  The Conservative Party has been a constitutional party, committed to the defence and development of the Whiggish Constitution.  But perhaps that isn’t worth defending any more, and the Conservative Party should move on?  Perhaps the French concepts of liberty, which dominate most thinking about Democracy and Human Rights in liberal states, are actually correct and Burke and the traditional Conservatives wrong?  Even if the Conservative concepts are better, perhaps constitutional Conservatism is a failed project that should now be given up upon?  That would be a topic for another essay.

But for now we can observe that there is a fairly well-defined set of traditional mainstream Conservative doctrines.  And with Whiggish ideas having come to dominate Conservative thinking in the 1990s and 2000s, it is unsurprising that most Party members, most right-leaning think-tankers, and most new MPs are Whiggish in outlook.  That doesn’t mean that the liberal Conservatives are wrong.  But it does mean that the mainstream Conservative alternative clearly represents a set of well-formulated traditional ideas of the Party.


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