Why it’s So Much Harder to Think Like a Conservative

Published September 10, 2014

The Guardian (UK)

Politics is a matter of day-to-day improvisation, and it often seems as though the major parties are guided only by the desire to stay in office and not by any philosophy that might justify their doing so. Whatever the truth in that observation, however, we know that the Labour party grew from a distinct outlook on society, and that it can still lean on ideas of equality and social justice in order to justify what it is trying to do. Can the Tory party do the same? Is there a political philosophy that encapsulates the aims and aspirations of those we call “Conservative”, and does the party still conform to it?

My own view is that there is such a philosophy, and that the party would conform to it, were it in the habit of thinking things through. However, thinking is an unusual and precarious exercise for Conservatives.

This is not because they are more stupid than their socialist or liberal rivals, although John Stuart Mill famously declared them to be so. It is because they believe that good government is not grounded in abstract ideas but in concrete situations, and that concrete situations are hard to grasp. Abstract ideas like equality and liberty have a spurious transparency, and can be used to derive pleasing theorems in the manner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or John Rawls. But applying them raises the question: to what or to whom? Which group of people is to be made more equal, and who is to be made more free?

Those are not questions to be answered in the abstract. They are questions of identity: who we are, and why we are entitled to use that very pronoun – “we” – to describe us.

For Conservatives, all disputes over law, liberty and justice are addressed to a historic and existing community. The root of politics, they believe, is attachment – the motive in human beings that binds them to the place, the customs, the history and the people who are theirs. When socialists promise a more equal society they are talking about us; when liberals offer to expand the list of human rights, they mean the rights that we enjoy.

The language of politics is spoken in the first-person plural, and for Conservatives, the duty of the politician is to maintain that first-person plural in being. Without it, law becomes an alien imposition, not ours but theirs, like the laws imposed by a conquering power. Conservatives are not reactionaries. As Edmund Burke said, “we must reform in order to conserve” – or, in more modern idiom: we must adapt. But adaptation means survival, and survival means a maintained identity.

It is very easy to dismiss Conservatism in the name of the universal ideals of the Enlightenment. But governments are elected by a specific people in a specific place, and must meet the people’s needs – including the most important of their needs, which is the need to be bound to their neighbours in a relation of trust. If we cease to maintain a “specific people in a specific place”, then all political principles will be pointless, since there will be no community with an interest in obeying them. That is why, in all the post-war political debates in our country, Conservatives have emphasised the defence of the realm, the maintenance of national borders, and the unity of the nation. It is why they are now entering a period of self-doubt, as the nation disintegrates into its historically established segments, while European regulations dissolve our boundaries.

Conservatism does not fit easily with abstract ideals. And for many of its defenders that is all that Conservatism amounts to – the suspicion of ideals. After all, the socialist ideal of equality has led to the belief that patriotism is racism, and that the attachment to an established way of life is merely unjust discrimination against those who do not share it. The result has been a cantonisation of society in the name of “multiculturalism”. And the liberal ideal of universal human rights has likewise led to a downgrading of attachment, since attachment is a form of discrimination and therefore a way of giving preference to those who already belong.

Abstract ideals, Conservatives argue, are inevitably disruptive, since they undermine the slow, steady work of real politics, which is a work of negotiation and compromise between people whose interests will never coincide.

Seeing politics in that way, however, Conservatives are exposed to the complaint that they have no positive vision, and nothing to offer us, save the status quo – with all its injustices and inequalities, and all its entrenched corruption. It is precisely in facing this charge that the real thinking must be done. In How to Be a Conservative, I offer a response to this ongoing complaint, and in doing so distance Conservatism from what its leftist critics call “neoliberalism”. Conservatism, I argue, is not a matter of defending global capitalism at all costs, or securing the privileges of the few against the many. It is a matter of defending civil society, maintaining autonomous institutions, and defending the citizen against the abuse of power. Its underlying motive is not greed or the lust for power but simply attachment to a way of life.

If we look at the big issues facing us today – the EU, mass immigration, the union, Islamic extremism, the environment – we will surely see that the Conservative view rightly identifies what is now at stake: namely the survival of our way of life. Conservatives are not very good at articulating the point, and left-liberal censorship intimidates those who attempt to do so. But it is a fault in the socialist and liberal ideas that they can be so easily articulated – a proof that they avoid the real, hard philosophical task, which is that of seeing civil society as it is, and recognising that it is easier to destroy good things in the name of an ideal than to maintain them as a reality.

Roger Scruton is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today