Brexit: A Chance for Conservatism’s Intellectual Revival │ Jake Scott
This article was commissioned by the North of England Student Conservative Alliance for the Brexit Youth Conference 2018.
As it stands, the Conservative Party is divided on most things: laterally, there is a distinction between the modernisers and traditionalists, who – contrary to popular belief – do not fall neatly into the “liberal” and “illiberal” groups; and vertically, there is a distinction between the grassroots and the leadership. In this second division, there remain two persistent facts: one, grassroots activism is kept either on a tight leash by the Party structure, or dismissed entirely out of hand; two, the grassroots oscillates between traditionalism, with groups like the Britannia Alliance, and social liberalism, the more dominant of the two, whilst the Party pursues quasi-socialist policies that ape Corbynism in the hope of siphoning off some of the youth support – even Davidson and Gove from their new think tank ‘Onward’, backed by Hammond have suggested hiking tax rates and increasing spending. But if there is one thing the party membership is united behind, it is the free market.
Consequently, Brexit will only ever go in one direction, provided the Conservatives remain in power: a free market direction. There is disagreement over what this actually means, of course: do we pursue regulatory alignment with the European Union and go for “business as usual”, which is what the leadership seems content with? Or do we take a risk and open ourselves up to the world with the choppy seas of international trade, as the European Research Group quite keenly insists we must do? The answer, as most political questions show, remains to be seen.
But there is a danger here, and it is the one I wish to focus on first and foremost. We (being the Conservative Party) champion the significance of the free market and of capitalism as being the greatest force for good in the modern world, quoting (quite correctly) that it has lifted the vast majority of the world’s population out of poverty in an extremely brief period. The turn to the free market in the 1980s that has since defined conservatism placed it squarely at the heart of our philosophy, and we have since predicated our understanding of “freedom” in the economic sphere, arguing that “the freer the market, the freer the people”. At the surface level, this is appealing; however, it is important we recognise the significant nuance in this attitude.
We have two options: one, we continue with the aforementioned attitude that places the market as the basis of social relations; or two, we recognise that a free and uncontrolled society creates a free market. The difference is small, but significant; if we orient the market as the basis of society, we see one another as atomised individuals with whom we only interact when we need something, acting as rational consumers in a marketplace where everything is for sale – including one another.
If we do this, we risk ignoring the intangible relations that bind us together – the associations of civil society that give us a shared identity, found in the freely associating “little platoons” of sport clubs, religious groups, the Women’s Institute, the Scouts, our own friendships. Part of the importance of free association is exactly that – it is free, no one forces us to do it, or end it, or continue it. With a market attitude, however, we transform truly free association into a warped “free” transaction, whereby we can force others to associate with us in a contractual manner until we no longer need them, and cast them aside.
To see one another in this way is to reduce each other to means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. Consider your friendships – do you carry them on because of what you can get out of the other person? Or is it because you find a genuine connection with them, born out of shared interests that can only be discovered through the freedom to associate properly? This is why the second view of the market – as a naturally occurring phenomenon that results from free association – is the more correct one. When people freely associate, they can discover their demands, their desires, their interests and their needs, and can compete with one another for the satisfaction of these desires. However, it also shows us that, when the bonds of trust and friendship that are built through free association exist, this competition becomes friendly, and develops into cooperation of a bartering nature where neither party is forced to interact with the other, but does so for mutual benefit.
There is a more significant danger: if we orient the market as the basis of social relations, then we open up the possibility of Marx’s fabled “base-superstructure” fallacy becoming true. If we allow economic behaviour to influence and decide our morality, by virtue of it being the base of our society, then socialism can be foisted upon us.
This is not an anti-capitalism rant: capitalism is a phenomenon, and one that must be cherished, but it is an epiphenomenon, arising out of the culture that the West has developed in the last few centuries, predicated upon free association, charity, friendship and compassion. Once we recognise this truth, we can stop sacrificing everything on the altar of the economy, and protect those institutions that provide the stability and culture necessary for the market to thrive. This is where the title of this article becomes salient: Brexit is a chance for us to recognise that the market is not the be-all and end-all of conservatism, and allow us to renew ourselves intellectually.
But what institutions does the conservative defend? And which of those institutions remains relevant in the 21st century? Jordan Peterson gave a very good speech on this topic a few years ago, but he identified a philosophical conservatism, oriented towards questions of knowledge and situated-rationality; this is a question of British conservatism, of lived experience. We must be tentative here, because not all institutions are worth preserving; certain broadcasting corporations spring to mind. But there are three institutions that we must strengthen, modernise and defend, that not only appeal to the British public but are inherently true to them: marriage and the family; the sovereignty of Westminster; and the British countryside.
The family is the building block of all society: it is where we start our lives and learn our values, but also learn the importance of limits to our behaviour, of respect for authority and how to put the needs of the group ahead of ourselves. The question of limits to behaviour is intimately bound up with the idea of freedom and liberty, but we must remember that limits to our behaviour when we are young are there to provide safety, and are protections, not restraints. We know this because we know our parents have lived longer and experienced more than we have, and so we bow to the wisdom of age. And the bedrock of any family are the parents, so we cannot ignore the importance of marriage. Some may see marriage as intrinsically religious, for better or for worse, but it is perhaps a virtue of our British culture that marriage has been lifted out of its religious past, and made available to everyone – a recent success, but a success nonetheless. But while its religious tones have been dampened in favour of a secular role, the truth of marriage – of lifelong commitment, defined by love and friendship, and freely undertaken – must not be forgotten. That is why the Conservative Party must do more to champion not only marriage, but the right kind of marriage – not arranged, not forced, and not faked. When the bedrock of marriage is there, the family’s stability can be ensured, and children can grow up in the right environment to learn everything mentioned above.
“Take back control!” Shouted so much throughout the referendum, this phrase holds a deeper meaning behind it; it is not accidental that British political theorists have developed the “hollowed-out” thesis, in which sovereignty has been siphoned away from Westminster in every direction: upwards to the European Union; downwards to the devolved parliaments; and outwards to the realm of private enterprise. Brexit means we have a chance to arrest this decline, at least in one direction; and, if we’re bold, in another direction also. Westminster is the seat of government in this country, and it is an institution that has provided stability and continuity through centuries of British history. Conservatives have never been ashamed of this, and nor should we be. But the stability that Westminster has provided has been unique, and evidently so; Stormont is in turmoil, and the Holyrood is stuffed with nationalists who have no interest in working as part of a wider union. This devolution programme has resulted in fracture, in a wide disparity of law between the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, to the extent where the bonds between us feel looser than ever. Can we say it is reasonable that Scotland can discriminate against English students on the grounds of nationality while the same cannot be said in reverse? Does the disparity in abortion laws make it fair on those women who travel across the Irish Sea? Can the collapse of the NHS in Wales be a failure that England can turn away from on the grounds of legislative subsidiarity? I do not think these should be the case, and the Conservative Party can take steps to restore the harmony of these isles once again, if only we are bold enough.
And finally, as all good conservatives know, the land is our home; this spot of earth, in the corner of Europe and surrounded by beautiful ocean, needs caring for. It exists in a delicate balance, and no-one knows how to look after Britain like the British. Take the Common Agricultural Policy; it has wrecked the British landscape because, as well as the foreign imposition of unreasonable and irrational laws, it has led to what Roger Scruton termed “absentee agribusiness”, in which large landowners have no need to be present in their farming ventures because they get the subsidies regardless. Sheep farming, heavily subsidised by the European Union, has led to the deforestation of large areas of land that have then been wrecked by floodwaters because the natural defences, reinforced by British farming practices, have been abandoned in pursuit of more and more land – and more and more subsidies. But that is not the only thing; the panic over housing and the fears of “Generation Rent” have led to wild and bewildered cries to remove the Green Belt in the UK, to expand our already sprawling and oversized cities. We, as conservatives, should never pursue this; land is an asset enjoyed by many, least of all because it is impossible to prevent others from enjoying the sight of the countryside. And, in loving the countryside, we must remember the importance of loving those who dwell there; Michael Gove has made great strides in this area, in introducing the strongest animal welfare provisions in Europe, much to the chagrin of Remainers who strangely imagine the British to be a barbaric people, incapable of looking after animals without some benevolent guidance from Europe. But we must do more; we must reward those who care for the land and its inhabitants properly, and we must protect those people also. We are conservatives; let us conserve.
At the moment, the Conservative Party is suffering an identity crisis, and the reason is simple; it is no longer conservative. But it can be, if it rallies behind those institutions that have provided stability and security, and the British identity, for generations. Brexit is a chance for this, and I hope the Conservative Party will seize it.