Jeremy Corbyn’s train debacle transformed two suppositions of mine into convictions. The first is that Jeremy Corbyn is utterly useless. The second, perhaps more salient, is that the student Conservative body is increasingly becoming the student neo-conservative body.
Keyboard activists immediately set about the task of condemning Jezz for becoming a caricature of something he considers himself the antithesis of; the dishonest politician. And rightly so – blatantly lying to deface a hugely successful private company should be condemned. Especially since he did it solely to promote one of his proposed policies, nationalizing railways.
However, it was a particular aspect of the condemnation that caused me concern; and so it should be for all sincere conservatives. Jeremy was not only condemned for lying, but also ridiculed for doing it in favor of such a “silly” policy. This charge came from keyboard activists and actual politicians alike.
“Nationalization! What a Trot!” was a commonly expressed sentiment on the twittersphere.
The event exposed how quickly the modern conservative mind now responds to the word “nationalization” with the word “stupid”.
Perhaps my surprise at how “Neo” the student conservative body has become is naïve. The Republican Party has, since around a decade ago, been dominated by neo-conservatives. More recently, there has been the rise of the alt-right, which is totally enamoured by “taxation is theft”-like strands of libertarianism. Both of these things prove that the free market-centric neo-conservative worldview is increasingly sexy. No doubt the cause of the rise in neo-con popularity is the implementation of modern liberal intuition in national social policy (particularly in America, the obvious example being Obamacare). There has been a seismic shift from the right to be free from, to the right to be. The neo-conservative movement has thus taken the ideas of Milton Friedman, Thatcher, and Thomas Sowell, and applied them in an anti-modern liberal context. No matter the cause, classical liberalism is becoming an established component of the modern conservative mind. It is deeply worrying.
My contention is absolutely not that nationalized railways are better than private ones. Rather, it is that there is nothing un-conservative about nationalizing railways, and there is nothing inherently conservative about free markets. True conservatives believe in the free market, but only reluctantly. They do so because they know that free markets are the only way to ensure a serious economy, and because they have a bias for liberty.
Further more, as conservatives we are not chained to ideology but guided by disposition. The advantage of disposition is that it is not prescriptive; meaning it does not provide a recipe for how to achieve our aims. Instead, we are disposed to fulfilling our inalienable duties; what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things”. The most important of these inalienable duties are to fear God, care about the poor and protect freedom. I do not doubt that the mention of these ‘archaic’ inalienable duties shall make some readers cringe, but I would wager the words “protect our moral intuitions, tackle inequality, and ensure civil liberties” do not have the same effect, despite both sentences meaning the same things.
Therefore, unlike political ideologies, our tradition is concerned solely with the ends – not the means. The socialist wants redistribution, and must seek it through nationalization. The libertarian wants maximum freedom, and must seek it through shrinking government. The fascist wants optimum social order, and must seek it through enforcing one party rule. Even if it was proved that the ends of each were best achieved through a practice totally opposed to the means prescribed, the ideologue cannot accommodate any adjustment to the means. If social order were proven to be best established through pluralism, the Fascist can no longer name himself as such if he discards his belief in one party rule, even if he maintains his desire for optimum social order. For the ideologue, the means are as important, if not more so, as the ends. The conservative, on the other hand, is concerned with the ends – the rejuvenation of the soul and the liberation of humankind – alone. We may choose the means as we see fit; they are often ugly and unpleasant, but wholly necessary.
Are student conservatives, and the Conservative Party in general, now so opposed to state control that if nationalization of railways were proven to make trains both cheaper and more efficient, they would still reject the idea of it? If the answer to that is yes, then our tradition is lost. There is nothing conservative about overcharging people to use a train.
Indeed, as I have said before, my point is not that railways should be nationalized. My point is that a tradition unable to challenge its own orthodoxies is a tradition doomed. Therefore, the automated response of the modern conservative to “nationalization” should not be a negative one. In fact, the response should not be automated at all. Instead, we should respond with an innocent curiosity; and if that curiosity leads to the discovery that nationalizing railways would enrich our fellow countrymen, then, as conservatives, we have no choice but to be in favor of it.
With the Labour Party somewhere considerably worse off than up the creek without a paddle, we Conservatives have an excellent opportunity to enact social reform. May’s recent comments about Britain becoming the “meritocracy centre of the world” are encouraging.
But we also have an opportunity to define the very conservatism that it is we believe in. Please, let us go beyond instantaneous scoffing at anyone who suggests the nationalization of anything. Let us truly consider want we want, why we want it, and how best to achieve it. Let us transcend the restrictive, dogmatic thinking of left and right in British politics, and add something meaningful to this great tradition of ours. Besides, the further we let our minds wander in terms of policy considerations, the less opportunity there is for Jeremy and the Corbyinistas to do the same.
Alasdair Johnston is a second-year student of Politics at Durham University.