Conservatism: The English Ideology? │ Jake Scott
The Conservative Party is one of the most successful political parties in the Western world, having been in government, either as a majority or part of a coalition, for the majority of the 20th Century, and despite changes between iterations in its own ideology, has largely been seen as the torch-bearer for conservatism in Britain, and the wider world, for much of this time. However, does this success render conservatism a uniquely English ideology? Does the absence of “Conservative Parties” mean there is a lack of conservatism abroad?
A fantastic book was recently published in paperback for the first time: Histories of Nations, edited by Peter Furtado, offers brief, 8-10 page summaries of national histories that provide neat packages of major events, groups and individuals for the curious reader. However, while they are only introductions, the underlying theme throughout the collection is of political culture and its significance; Homa Katouzian, for example, discusses the Iranian cycle from strict, autocratic rule to chaotic meltdown and back again, and how as a result no conception of civil society ever emerged in Iran.
In particular, the chapter on Russian history offered a philosophical question, as does Russian history in general; Dina Khapaeva mentions briefly the emergence of a strict, conservative reactionary movement in 19th century Russia known as “Slavophilism”, which was a messianic belief in the uniqueness of Russian history that would set it on a path distinct from the European Enlightenment. In many ways, they were correct; Russian folk economics was drastically different from European economies, embodied in the peasant commune that held land in common, which was redistributed regularly in accordance with family size (i.e., that family’s needs). This Marxist wet dream was referred to by English and German sociologists as an “embryonic socialism”, and was used as a factor to explain the emergence of socialism in Russia – an economically backward, autocratic and massive nation – before it emerged in the advanced economies of England or Germany. But this idea is complicated by the fact that many socialist revolutionaries attempted to excite the peasants into revolt, only to be assaulted, reported to the regional police and thrown out by the peasants themselves.
But the differences between Russian and European conservative thinking is deeper than mere economics; while the rule of law as a method of political stability was fully enshrined in England by the end of the 19th century, no truly liberal constitution had even emerged in Russia by the October Revolution of 1917. While the conservatives of England defended limited government, a tradition begun by the Magna Carta and cemented in the Glorious Revolution, yet trusted authority a great deal more than most other societies, Russia possessed an autocratic regime that was arbitrary in its powers, justifying the excesses of its rule to no-one, and therefore finding no limits to the exercise of power.
All of this raises a deeply significant question: how could a Slavophile, defending a substantially different conception of society to an Englishman, reasonably be called a conservative?
In England, and in conservatism especially, we have inherited and defend a distinctly organic view of society, as one that arises from below, embodied in the civil associations of sports clubs, voluntary hospitals, private education institutions and so on, and the English common law that is described as being the discovery of justice between individuals as opposed to the edictal imposition from distant authorities who know nothing of the day-to-day life of the average citizen. We also see this spontaneous and organic association embodied in the market economy, relies on voluntary association between individuals to work, which produces knowledge about social values and goods in the process, allowing us in turn to understand the needs of ourselves and others. Consequently, we see legitimate institutions as those that have been generated organically, and see no need, for example, to codify these traditions in a single constitutional document, as opposed to the American experiment.
Compare this to the European continent; ever since the rule of Napoleon, the imposition of the Code Napoleon and the erasure of national legal identities, most Western European nations have relied on a distinctly authoritarian conception of society, that sees the government as the font of legal order and the protector of society. Carl Schmitt, the German legalist, conservative and philosopher, saw the State in the traditionally German fashion, as standing “above and distinct from” society in an absolutist capacity, which was largely an inheritance from all German idealists, from Kant through Hegel, who saw State and society as distinct.
The by-product of this thinking is the European Union, as I have argued elsewhere, which sees the only legitimate source of order as the State, and consequently does not trust society to run itself. But all of this makes us wonder: is conservatism an English ideology? Does the stress on organic association, bottom-up legitimacy, the fundamental association between state and society, and the liberty that arises from order first, mean that any society which seeks to protect and enshrine a different conception of society must be denied that label?
The answer must be no; as much as conservatism may mean a substantially unique thing in England, conservatism is as equally a valid term for those societies that defend even the exact opposite substantial definitions elsewhere. Scuton’s definition of conservatism as the ‘love of the real’ means that for us to tell the Russian peasant who loves his centrally-controlled village he is mistaken would be deeply chauvinist – and ironically enough, liberal.
While there must be differences between nations – they are expressions of their local cultures, after all – conservatives must seek to recognise the similarities between themselves across national boundaries, even if they are difficult to define. Perhaps we can begin by defining that which we are united against: the erasure of our national cultures through the stifling hand of the European Union and European Court of Justice; the dismantling of local economies in the face of uncontrolled globalism, as is happening in Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European nations; the threat of terrorism that seeks to cow us in the face of adversity; and ambitious rogue states that would see our way of life ended.
If there is one point around which we must coalesce, it is the recognition and respect of difference. What works for one nation, does not work for others; Russia’s peasant commune, though it may now have been driven out by Stalin’s collectivisation and the legacy of Soviet socialism, is just as valid a method of economic management as free-market capitalism, because it reflects the character of the society which built it. The challenge is understanding how these local economies – at home, and abroad – can be protected whilst being enriched through the proven technique of opening up national economies to freer trade, less regulation and lower barriers. And the same can be said of culture; how can local cultures be protected and enriched from the greater interaction between cultures in a globalised world? Regardless of the answers, we must be aware that conservatism is not an English phenomenon alone, and that conservatives must cooperate across nations, if only to preserve their own nations.