The Content of Conservatism



Conservatism isn’t pragmatic. At least, not in any special sense. All politics involves pragmatism, of course, with leaders on both sides haggling and strategising to achieve defined ends. But conservatism isn’t more pragmatic than left-wing philosophy. If anything, it’s less pragmatic—more instinctive than rational, stubbornly committed to particular traditions.


I say all this because, in a recent Torch article, one of my colleagues has articulated a specifically pragmatic version of conservatism. He argues that we can make only two claims about British conservatism: that it’s dispositional, and that it requires no specific tenets—just a flexible and relevant handling of tradition. This second claim strikes me as obviously wrong. And while conservatism is dispositional, I’d argue that this disposition implies my own vision of conservatism: one deeply tied to specific traditions and specific ways of doing things, and thus, in the case of American or British conservatism, deeply tied to Christianity.

Mr. Marsh rightly diagnoses the conservative disposition as a tendency to ‘place stock in the institutions of the present’ and to insist ‘that a standard of proof must be met to warrant reform.’ But he misinterprets the reasoning behind this disposition. In favouring tradition, conservatives aren’t pragmatists. They don’t simply calculate that any system which has persisted through millennia probably works best. They think their own particular system works best at achieving certain ends, ends historically defined and upheld by their culture. And these ends are the content of conservatism. Thus, while conservatism varies across cultures, within cultures its basic tenets are fixed.

Conservatism means loving your own nation’s way of life, along with the institutions which make that way of life possible. 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 lunches. For Americans, it means loving the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Electoral College and the separation of powers, hotdogs and Philly steaks and apple pie, firecrackers and camping trips, the flag. For both nations, it 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.

In other words, conservatism isn’t a philosophy without content, concerned only to discover what works best in the modern world. Conservatism is all about content. That’s why Mr. Scruton—whom Mr. Marsh ill-advisedly cites—describes conservatism as ‘the maintenance of the social ecology’. Not any social ecology, but the social ecology, with all its penchants and peculiarities. For Mr. Scruton, conservatism is anything but pragmatic. He calls it ‘the politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain in being, for us long as possible, the life and health of a social organism.’ It’s about preserving what we have: the Americanness and Britishness derived from historic institutions and traditions.


This doesn’t mean that conservatives are inflexibly stuck in the past. Sometimes historic institutions don’t embody our historic ideals and must change. American slavery, for instance, flatly contradicted the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. Americans couldn’t conserve the Declaration without abolishing slavery—and, in that sense, abolition was a conservative rather than a progressive policy. Legal abortion, by contrast, isn’t a conservative policy because it opposes an historic commitment to preserving life, rooted in Christianity and underlying American and British culture. Conservatism isn’t inflexible, but it isn’t gelatinous, either. It adapts not to chase after relevance but to realise its own ideals more fully. It adapts precisely because it has definite content and definite tenets.


A final note on relevance. I’ve argued that conservatives are flexible precisely because they’re conservative, that conservatives pursue ‘progressive’ policies when those policies further conservative principles, that conservatism itself offers reasons for change. But I’m not sure where Mr. Marsh’s conservatives derive their reasons for change. If conservatism doesn’t have fixed principles, then it doesn’t tell people when to assent to liberal policies and when to fight back. It doesn’t tell them when to be ‘relevant’.


And this, in my view, is the central weakness of Mr. Marsh’s piece. He claims that conservatives use a ‘standard of proof’ to determine whether institutions are ‘sufficiently effective’ or ‘insufficiently egregious’ to avoid change. I’d like to know where this standard comes from, and what it means to be ‘effective’ or ‘egregious’. Effective at what? Egregious according to whom? Tradition? The liberal culture? Or our own heads? A pragmatic conservatism must answer these questions. I can’t be sure, of course, but I suspect that I’m the traditional conservative, and that Mr. Marsh is the one proffering a ‘fictitious and ultimately modernist yardstick’. Pragmatism, after all, bases its judgments on values. And if those values don’t spring from conservatism, then pragmatism isn’t conservative—it’s something else, probably liberal and certainly modern.


Perhaps I’m misreading Mr. Marsh. If so, I apologise. I think we can both agree to ‘stand for the betterment of our nation’ and not for ‘abstract, unworkable, and sometimes undesirable principles.’

It’s merely a question of how.


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