Conservatism Has Content -- But Pragmatism Is Essential to Protect It



Miss McClellan’s own sense of conservatism, based on her recent article, is impassioned, cohesive and methodical. It derives from a coherent world view that she appears to utterly believe in, and one I believe to be deeply flawed. Doubtless she feels the same about my own sense of conservatism. The fundamental and all-important difference, however, is this; that whilst I can recognise and, through sometimes gritted teeth, celebrate the diversity of conservatism, Miss McClellan is determined to decapitate it into a shadow of itself.


Whilst engaging eloquently with a wide array of arguments I made, Miss McClellan failed to address the central tenet of my case – that those who seek to shove their own subjective definitions of conservatism down our throats, that insist that an objective, typically ‘pure’ conservatism exists, are fools. She has unfairly conflated pragmatism with a slavish and unprincipled dedication to power. Yet I advocated for pragmatism not simply as a blueprint for government, but as a philosophy for coexistence.


By appreciating the incontestable truth that our party has, throughout its history, looked to very different ideas and ideologies for inspiration and solutions, one learns that we are not simply a movement of practical flexibility, but one for which internal diversity has been our greatest strength. Is it really a coincidence that against the fractured left of British politics stands a single, still fundamentally united, Conservative Party? That power is only possible so long as peaceful coexistence is tolerated. Those like Miss McClellan, who would rather start a civil war to firm up the boundaries of conservatism, would shatter that peace.


There are few things I find more objectionable than those who seek to co-opt the universal to their label for their own ends. Miss McClellan asserts that conservativism means ‘loving your own nation’s way of life’. Since when did that become a political statement? Are we really so partisan, so blinkered, to think that liberals and socialists, perhaps in different ways and for different reasons, generally love their countries? Are the Constitution, apple pie, or camping really the preserves of the Republican Party? Is my local and the high street tea room frequented only by card-carrying conservatives? Put this way, Miss McClellan’s assertions are laughable. It is dangerous, divisive and repugnant to make patriotism a question of partisan loyalty. Furthermore, if Miss McClellan’s ideology is rooted merely in ‘good prose and choral music’ it is considerably more superficial than my supposedly mercenary pragmatism. Nostalgia legitimised with a thin coat of ideology cannot be all conservatism has to offer.


Miss McClellan’s disagreement with my support for ideological pluralism foils her Scrutonian ‘gotcha’ moment. Roger Scruton was never a man without firm ideals – ideals which I have passionately shared and vociferously opposed in equal measure. My problem was with the teenage conservative convert who reads Scruton and decides that that is all conservatism is. The traditional conservative academic, writing from their ivory tower as more pragmatic conservatives grapple with reality below, is but one in a melting pot of voices that shape our movement. Conservatives of every creed should have the maturity and historical awareness to appreciate that ours is a pluralist house, discerning the right solution for the times from a repertoire of schools of thought based on – you guessed it – pragmatism.


The value of pragmatism is that it enables those schools of thought to adapt, or perhaps more accurately necessitates that they do so. Britain’s conservative movement has time for many different points of view, but only so long as they are interested in being relevant to the conversations our nation is embroiled in. There is a reason why certain forms of conservatism found around the world – reactionism, Christian democracy, libertarianism – have never caught on in our country. They have never been willing, as Miss McClellan so neatly puts it, to be pragmatic enough to sit within the basic tenets of our culture.


Schools of thought prepared to show that flexibility have ‘definite content and definite tenets’. Yet they have been remarkably and determined agile to keep those relevant in a fundamentally pragmatic way. David Cameron’s insistence that conservative support for the family unit must include gay couples and families in the 21st century was a radical, progressive proposition, not the reluctant creep of restrained change.


The value of pragmatism is that it makes conservative ideas work. Miss McClellan’s failure to understand this is no clearer than in her incredulous confusion that ‘effectiveness’ could be more than a statement of subjective ideological judgement. Miss McClellan is so wedded to her conception of conservatism that policies can only be effective when in the service of her ideals. Yet that is dogmatism, not conservatism. Good government is not stubbornly pursuing bad policy simply because it is ideologically appealing. It is about the intricate and flexible process of interlocking good policy with conservative ideals.


It might surprise Miss McClellan to learn that an objective test of policy does exist, one utterly divorced from values systems: what works. Pragmatic conservatism dictates that unworkable ideas are discarded and that sometimes a little creative ingenuity must be employed to reimagine a useful form of conservatism that can accommodate proven solutions. That is not selling out. Pragmatism ensures our ideas work because we are open to a pluralist cacophony of conservative voices that can move, in their own ways, with the times. Arbitrary, exclusionary definitions of conservatism would rob us of that rich and exciting process, demolishing British conservatism and our nation in the process.


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