Conservatism as a Political Tradition

‘The last thing conservatives believe is that they have the monopoly of the truth. They do not even claim the monopoly of conservatism’.

So said Lord Hailsham (then Quentin Hogg) in his 1947 book, written in the years immediately following Atlee’s victory over Churchill. This is the point that anyone trying to deduce what conservatism is must start from.

In recent weeks two members, Marsh and McClellan, have had a stab at defining conservative political thought, and both have been in some ways right. But both have offered partial views which I think are rather misleading when taken in isolation.

Conservatism in Marsh’s reckoning is ‘a purely pragmatic assessment’ of the validity of existing and enduring institutions; it ‘derives from history and precedent’ and constitutes a ‘rejection of doctrinaire rigidity’. It is, as others have put it, the quintessential non-ideology. Marsh was writing in response to an article penned by McClellan about Benjamin Disraeli. McClellan had criticised the latter for his inconsistency and lack of settled conviction, but Marsh suggested that McClellan’s attempt to measure Disraeli ‘by some fictitious and ultimately modernist yardstick is not only futile, but a thinly veiled insult to the men and women of our movement’.

Mr Marsh invoked the finest traditions of conservative scepticism in making his case. He references Michael Oakeshott’s notion of conservatism as a disposition, arguing it to be fundamentally different to other political ‘isms’ because of its lack of a core set of ideological principles. Scepticism—suspicion of the power of human reasoning and the capacity of philosophy to redeem humans—is indeed central to the conservative outlook.

The problem, however, is that this does little to isolate anything unique about conservatism. As Richard Bourke has pointed out, if conservatism is simply a pragmatic approach to change, then there is little to distinguish this from those liberals or socialists who believe in an incremental, reformist path to their own ends. And moreover, what about those conservatives who have not had such a cautious approach to managed change? Are we really to believe that Thatcher or Reagan—who in their own ways had a transformative effect on their respective economies and indeed societies more broadly—are therefore not conservatives?

I am personally delighted that we all seem to be talking about Disraeli a lot more at the moment. Members will know that I have spent much time of late arguing that Disraeli and the tradition of conservatism with which he has come to be associated offers important lessons for the challenges of the present political moment. Disraeli of course was pragmatic. He adjusted his positions based on the question and the context at hand. He supported the protectionist Corn Laws in the 1840s yet was in practice committed to free trade henceforth. He opposed social reform early in his life on the basis of concerns about state intervention, before introducing a tranche of social reforms during his 1874-80 ministry. Disraeli entered parliament as a defender of the landed interest and left it championing the elevation of the condition of the people.

But Marsh forgets that Disraeli also believed that conservatives had to stand for something. In his 1844 novel Coningsby, Disraeli posed a simple but vitally important question to conservatives who ‘shout about what they call conservative principles’: namely, ‘what will you conserve?’. What, in other words, do you believe in?

Marsh argues that the primary evil of our politics today is the rejection of pragmatism in favour of ‘ideological purity’. But the problem with conservatism today is not intellectual arrogance. It is closer to an intellectual hollowness. The Government was elected on a huge mandate in 2019 to ‘level up’ the country, which has broadly been interpreted as a tilt to a one-nation brand of politics. But what this means in practice is equivocal. In a recent YouGov poll, 74% of respondents said they didn’t know what levelling up meant. Currently, it seems simply to mean higher taxation and higher spending. And what is then left to distinguish us from the Labour Party?

This is what McClellan gets right in her more recent response. But the problem is she too has fallen into the trap of essentialising conservatism. McClellan contends that there is a prescriptive ‘content’ of conservatism, and

For Britons, this means loving the monarchy and the Houses of Parliament, the courts and the common law, Oxbridge and Eton, good prose and choral music and tea and pub means remembering the Christian principles which underlie our traditions—valuing the traditional family structure, feeding the poor, caring for widows and orphans, upholding the rule of law.

But then, to be facetious for a moment, what about those individuals calling themselves conservatives who do not like tea? What, more significantly, about those conservatives who believed in reform to judicial review because of concerns about the courts interfering with politics? What about those with secular convictions who call themselves conservative today (they do indeed exist, even if I do not count myself as one of them)—are they confused? My broader point is just how difficult it is to offer a prescriptive account of conservative principles, for conservatism has always been a broad church.

Conservatism is a tradition of political thought. It has a history, it has practitioners, and it has a variety of convictions that bear a familial resemblance, but which have varied with temporal (and indeed geographical) circumstance. When individuals at different moments attempt to define conservatism, what they are doing is attempting to set the ideological agenda, and to utilise and deploy ideas for specific, context-depended political questions. And this, as Lord Willetts put it, is how conservatives should talk to one another: as engaging in a conversation about a shared and contested tradition to which we as conservatives belong, and which needs to be used and sometimes repurposed to address contemporary challenges.

What conservative means, then, at a given time, depends on the questions and dilemmas at hand. At the present political moment, we do not need more intellectual modesty, as Marsh calls for. We need more intellectual boldness. We need to know what conservatism means now: we need to know what the levelling up agenda means for addressing housing supply; what it means for social mobility; what it means for our country’s place in the world. Scepticism means recognising that ideas must address concrete challenges, that context matters, that institutions, conventions and customs contain more wisdom than men and women at a particular time and in a particular place. It does not mean a spurning of ideas themselves.