Continuity and Change: The Conservative Party since 1945 (excerpt)

The below post is an excerpt from Continuity and Change: The Conservative Party since 1945, the book published by our editor Jake Scott. You can buy a copy here.

The social order of British conservatism is composed of three concepts: State; civil society; and individual. For analysts of ideology the first two concepts seem obvious, yet there has been disagreement over the location of ‘individual’ in the morphology. Freeden argues, for conservatism, “individualism is an adjacent concept, extracted as a reaction both to the perceived failure of welfare-state collectivism and the difficulties of Keynesian-dominated aggregative economic theory as a guide to prosperity”, suggesting it is ballast for the social order upon which conservatives rely (1998: 388). Disagreement comes from Green who, in his discussion of Thatcherism, states that comments made regarding individualism “were not made by a politician who saw individualism as an ‘adjacent concept’. Rather they imply a philosophy that emphasised a polity that was an aggregate of individual citizens, and in which individual rights and duties were the fulcrum of social and political life” (2010: 48).

Where the difference arises is the term the two are analysing; Freeden is correct in arguing that “individualism” as a concept does not belong in the core, though his placement of it in the adjacency permanently is debatable. Similarly, Green is correct in saying that Thatcher saw the individual as central in conservatism, yet is wrong to term it as “individualism” because, for conservatism, individualism is a belief in “individuals as potentially complete in themselves”, while “the conservative view begins from a conflicting premise, which is that the abstract ideal of autonomy… is radically incomplete” (Scruton, 2002: 65). Furthermore, as Quinton argued above, individuals are not complete beings outside of a social order. Instead, the more accurate term for the concept is ‘individual’, but as a sub-concept of social order as part of a relationship with civil society and the State.

But what is this relationship? To say that social order is composed of State, civil society and individuals may be correct, but it does not describe their relationship nor why it is these three specifically that compose the social order.

First, Scruton shows the social order is “held together by the civil bond which generates and supports institutions of government” and argues that civil society and State “are not two entities… but rather one entity seen under separate aspects” (2002: 17, 40). Moreover, though State and civil society are analysed separately, they “permeate each other; in their sundering lies the death of both” (Ibid: 60).  However, this ontological distinction between State and society allows conservatives to object to attempts to change society that originate only from the State for two reasons. First, it adheres to the rejected rationalist, top-down approach to social order that Oakeshott argued against, as well as conforming to the Change Principle identified by O’Hara. This principle argues that (O’Hara, 2011: 88):

“societies should be risk-averse with respect to social change and the burden of proof placed on the innovator, not his or her opponents. It also follows that change, when it does come, should ideally be (a) incremental, (b) reversible where possible and (c) rigorously evaluated before the next incremental step”.

This summarises the conservative preference for evolutionary change. Second, in accordance with the first objection and O’Hara’s Knowledge Principle – which is the recognition that knowledge is diffuse across society and must be aggregated from the majority, rather than imposed from the deductions of the elite (Ibid: 49-51) – it allows the conservative to prioritise civil society as the origin of true organic change.

It is important also to note that conservatives are not opposed to change from the State; O’Hara argues that “institutions need to be fostered and sometimes sponsored government programmes are required to facilitate the exchanges that produce demand-driven change,” provided the sponsored programmes are not imposed on an unwilling or opposed population (Ibid: 74). Properly understood from a conservative disposition, however, legitimate institutions of government are the products of society, arising from the need to protect the fragile organism of civil society (Scruton, 2002: 17, 45). Should these legitimate institutions advocate social change, it follows that they do so in response to already-changing social attitudes. We can deduce that change is agreeable to a conservative if the consensus of agreement in society underpins the change, and empowers the government to formalise this change in law.

By placing the State as ontologically separable, and subservient to civil society’s moral attitudes, State-originated change not underpinned by social consensus is ipso facto “external” to the element of society conservatives are most concerned with. Consequently, the external origin of this change provides the conservative both practical, and philosophical grounds to reject it.

Having established civil society as the primary component of social order, and identified the three component parts, this dissertation will now establish adjacent concepts associated with social order that exist to define the social order’s internal relationship. As mentioned above, Freeden sees the role of the swivel-mirror concept as defining the adjacent concepts of conservatism. However, this is not an exhaustive origin of the adjacent concepts; instead, the following concepts are products of the interaction between the component parts of social order. This means they arise as independent concepts with a traceable lineage to the core.

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