What ‘Conservatives’ Need to Understand About Conservativism



How many times have you heard an iteration of the phrase ‘that’s not very conservative’? The Right’s favourite new past time, it seems, is subjecting itself and its fellow travellers to odious litmus tests of ideological purity. One of the most pervasive myths of modern right-wing politics is that there is a distinctive ‘conservatism’ to promote or protect. It is a narrative that has been used to bar the doors of the broad-church Conservative Party, to discredit intelligent policy, and to promote the fetishisation of various self-appointed ‘conservative’ philosophers.

Let me be absolutely clear. To assert the existence of an immutable, objective British conservatism is to commit the greatest crime of anti-intellectualism and ahistoricism. There are but two fundamental truths of the conservatism the British Isles has produced: that at heart it is dispositional, and that it can only be defined by the self-identification of individuals with its nebulous label. To attempt to measure a figure like Benjamin Disraeli, as Miss McClellan does, by some fictitious and ultimately modernist yardstick is not only futile, but a thinly veiled insult to the men and women of our movement.


Dispositionally, conservatism can only be distinguished from any other ‘ideology’ in that conservatives, almost universally, place stock in the institutions of the present. This is not, as some have attempted to portray it, a resounding vote of confidence in tradition, heritage, or even the status quo. Rather it is a purely pragmatic assessment that any systems that have prevailed into the present are presumably sufficiently effective, or insufficiently egregious, to have warranted historic reform. British conservatism has been both reactionary and radical, but in either case it has believed that a standard of proof must be met to warrant reform. That standard of proof has been higher or lower for different people at different times, but it has always existed. Put simply, conservatives do not favour change for change’s sake. Such a simple statement is not a radical nor controversial proposition. It should not surprise us, then, that conservatism in our country has been such a diverse phenomenon.


Men and women of every sort of political instinct have felt a kinship with this barely distinctive philosophy. They have constructed institutions, crafted laws, and governed this nation for hundreds of years. British conservatism is not unlike our constitution. It derives from history and precedent and above all from ‘events, dear boy, events’. It is at heart, in a word, pragmatic; relevant and with answers to the problems of the present, taking inspiration from the past but rarely defined by it. Pragmatism, whilst all too often maligned and neglected, is in many ways British conservatism’s oldest tradition.


Why has this reality attracted such horror and degradation from the arm-chair pontificators of the academy? When did flexibility and relevance become dirty words? For some, I am sure, it is an understandable unease about putting such faith in a force with so little concrete meaning. Yet for others it is a symbol of their intolerance for the perspectives of others, or worse still a nostalgic belligerence.


It is clearer with every passing day that some so-called ‘conservatives’, who in reality are at best heirs to one tradition of our movement (and arguably a non-British one, but that’s another article) are determined to dictate a definition of conservatism on their terms. I have never considered it to be a coincidence that while moderate conservatives govern, hardliners prefer to write about how their counterparts are failing to govern conservatively. It is almost as though their narrow and inflexible conception cannot withstand the winds of time and change or offer practical solutions to the problems of ordinary people when their hands are so tightly bound by inaccurate conceptions of convention.


Too many in our generation have come to conservatism not through practical experience, but through the writings of self-appointed ‘conservative’ thinkers whose undoubtedly eloquent and interesting writings have sought to codify the undefinable. Those who misinterpret the writings of great men like Roger Scruton as prescriptive checklists risk pigeon-holing conservatism into irrelevance out of little more than a simple desire to bask smugly in their ideological purity.


I am proud to be a member of a party that has served our nation handsomely for hundreds of years. Its flexibility, its pursuit of relevance, its desire to appeal and to be appealing are not disdainful examples of pandering; they are its fundamental strength. Under MacMillan we built more houses than any modern government. Under Thatcher we reformed a fledgling economy and a bloated state. Whatever you think of our pandemic policy, Johnson’s government was there to support millions of families when they needed it most. There is a reason the British Conservative Party is the most successful in the world. Our rejection of doctrinaire rigidity and our embrace of pragmatism is not something to be maligned. We stand for the betterment of our nation and not the propagation of abstract, unworkable, and sometimes undesirable principles. For me, that will always be a good thing.


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