The Character of Conservatism: A Challenge and a Mission | Sir John Hayes MP


More than any other thinker of his generation Roger Scruton understood that culture, in essence, defines a people.

The depth of literary canon, poetic prowess, orchestral brilliance and artistic wonder elevates and embodies the sentiments of our nation, our people and, indeed, our civilisation itself.

For culture and, in turn, identity to retain meaning, it must liberate itself from the monopolising clutches of a small-minded liberal bourgeoisie. As Roger, drawing on Hegel, said, it is a magnifying force, “manifest in all the customs, beliefs and practices of a people.”

Roger, in his life and in his writing, embodied this idea.

His writing covered everything from the aesthetics of art, architecture, and music to moral and political thought.

It is the character of conservatism that it embraces our common culture, the bond between the living, those who came before and those yet to come is secured. 

How instructive it is to contrast Roger’s rich view of humanity with that of the liberal thinker John Rawls, whose celebrated work A Theory of Justice was published half a century ago.

In place of Roger’s restless desire to understand us as we are, Rawls wants us to see ourselves in a form of limbo, where individuals make rational choices about the nature of a perfect society through a ‘veil of ignorance’.

Underpinning Rawls’ abstraction is a contempt from traditions and the institutions that embody our identity and our culture.

 Rawls shared a rationalism that has been a key feature of liberalism since the days of John Stuart Mill.

For liberals, tradition and social mores represent restrictions on a self-defining individual.

Even authors writing from a conservative perspective often feel obliged to take the liberal view of the world as their starting point; to explain the importance of the communal in terms of advancing individual liberty.

But, as Aristotle explained, over two thousand years ago, ‘Society is something that precedes the individual, Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.’

Therefore, the principles of liberal social contract theorist – from John Locke to John Rawls – are built on a false premise. Man cannot be better understood as an individual, independent of his social conditions. Man, as Aristotle put it, is ‘a social animal’, and can only be understood as such.  

The pervasiveness of liberal thought explains why many conservatives start from a liberal position.

The American scholar Irving Kristol wrote that ‘A neo-conservative is a liberal whose been mugged’ and the appeal of conservative thought in recent years has often stemmed from disillusionment or dissatisfaction with liberalism.

But conservative thought is a tradition that predates the triumph of liberalism.  A true conservative understands that the notion of the primacy of the individual corresponds to a particular time in history, and not to some fundamental truth about the nature of man.

Since Edmund Burke wrote ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, true conservative thinkers have understood that community and the associations on which it is based is fundamental to human nature, that community has intrinsic value, unrelated to any abstract notion of progress.

Burke wrote eloquently of the role of what he termed the ‘little platoons’ – the associations, the clubs and volunteer groups to which people belong – as building blocks of our society. These groups are ‘the first link’, he wrote, in a chain that ‘proceeds towards a love of country, and to mankind.’

Many of the tensions and problems in modern Britain stem from the way that the institutions of civil society have been weakened or destroyed in the name of the empty goal of progress.

Michael Oakeshott saw clearly how the conflation of civil association with enterprise association was at the root of the hollowing out of community life.

For Oakeshott civil associations – from Bridge Clubs to Churches – exist for their own sake, whereas enterprise associations have specific objectives, in the same way that a firm exists to make a profit.

The acceptance of a specific goal is the basis of the imposition of ridged rules and hierarchy. The army is classic example of an enterprise association – the individual is subsumed into a collective with the sole purpose of defeating the enemy.

Oakeshott gave the most comprehensive account of his theory of political order based on a contrast between civil association and enterprise association in ‘On Human Conduct’, published in 1975.

What Oakeshott foresaw in the radical leftism of his time was that the growing acceptance of the pursuit of abstract ideals such as egalitarianism and universal rights would transform civil associations to enterprise ones, enabling the imposition of rules and regulations from above on institutions that had previously existed for their own sake. 

The impact of this change has been to weaken and often destroy those institutions.

Education provide a clear example of an institution that has been transformed from a civil to an enterprise association.

As Roger Scruton writes in ‘how to be a conservative’, in the 1960s ‘it became government policy to view schools not as associations for the transmission of knowledge… but as instruments of social engineering. Curriculum, examinations, admissions and discipline were all to be revised in the light of their contribution to the ruling purpose, which was the elimination of distinctions and unfair advantage.’

This transformation in the purpose of education was the objective of the comprehensive school movement and the abolition of most selective schools in the 1970s.

The result was both a decline in education standards and a measurable decline in social mobility.

The reason for this is that the reforms conflated the welcome incidental effects of a good education with its actual purpose – the transference of knowledge.

While social mobility and individual advancement are welcome incidental effects of a good education, they cannot replace the pursuit of knowledge as its fundamental purpose.

The irony, as Scruton writes, is that to undermining the intrinsic function of education also undermines the good effects of social mobility and economic opportunity that are its by-product. ‘If knowledge is seen merely as a means to confer social advantages, and not pursued for its own sake, then both knowledge and the advantages conferred by it will be lost.’

The tragedy of liberalism is that it cannot see beyond rationalism.

Family, community and the institutions of civil society can only be understood in their own terms.

It may be a statement of the obvious, though one lost on rationalists, that someone joins a bowls club in order to play bowls, to become a better and more successful player. While playing bowls may have incidental benefits for physical health and wider community engagement, these are not the reason why a bowls club exists, nor why it endures.

Conservatism is not about the atomistic, egotistic conception of freedom that lies at the heart of liberalism. We are not defined – as many liberals would seem to believe – by our ability to do what we like but, rather, by the things that we choose not to do, by the bonds of family and community.

It is through compliance with the lessons of history, the expectations of our peers and our hopes for those who come after us that we find the ordered perspective that gives us our sense of worth and purpose.

Freedom without purpose is the seed corn of social decay.  In it only in the context of morality and reflection that true freedom can be found.

Sadly, there are still those who believe that it is better to follow Blair than Burke. That it is better to adopt the assumptions of the liberal elite rather than to espouse the innate virtues of conservatism.

We must match economic liberalism not with social liberalism but with social conservatism. Conservatives should instinctively understand this, for our creed has a moral object as much as an economic one.

There is, too, an aesthetic conservatism, resistant to the ubiquitous banality and crude selfishness of modern life.

Roger understood this. In many ways he was a profit of our times.

For the events of the last few years have demonstrated, once and for all, that a ‘progressive majority’ simply does not exist.

This tired notion, forged back in the days of Tony Blair and the hollow triumph of New Labour has been discredited.

Back then, it was the height of fashion to believe in a ‘progressive’ liberal majority, keen to embrace the continental principles of abstract rights and written constitutions.

Though this narrative ran counter to the unique character of British history since the Reformation, anyone who questioned the smartness of ideas like incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights into our law, or, for that matter, joining the European single currency, was dismissed as out-of-date and insular. 

Brexit is the final indication that what could be called the ‘Blair paradigm’ is at an end.

But conservatives as yet to grasp the meaning of this and to take advantage of the opportunity that now presents itself.

There is, of course, a natural Conservative resistance to the idea of talking about values; against using the levers of the state to help mold a better society.

Our doubts about the power of the state do not stem primarily from its potentially detrimental effect on individual freedom but rather from an appreciation of its limited capacity to deliver efficacy.

Conservatives know that, because of man’s imperfections, often the best that government can do is to mitigate the inevitable sorrows of human existence.

The primary function of leaders is, as Michael Oakeshott wrote, to keep the ship of state afloat and on an even keel. Conservative scepticism is forged in the knowledge that man is fallen.

But Conservatives also recognise that when the ship of state is about the hit the rocks – the captain must take evasive action.

By leaving the EU we have taken back control of the tiller. 

We are at last free from the unrelenting ratchet of integration. Britain has freed itself from the remote bureaucracy of Brussels, thus giving us the scope to build something better.

But leaving the EU is just the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end of this process.

What is required is nothing less than a complete reconfiguration the relationship between the individual, society, the economy and the state.

This, by necessity, must be both a philosophical and practical project. Philosophical, because ideas matter; until more politicians ground themselves in the philosophical traditions of the past, they cannot hope to muster the intellectual gravitas to make a meaningful contribution to our future.

Practical, because delivering Brexit, vitally important as that is, is not enough in itself to arrest the startling decline in engagement with and belief in modern politics.

Those elected to serve must shoulder their responsibilities by rejecting timidity. Reclaiming power from experts in the ‘dull science’ of economics, politics must be ambitious, elegiac and significant once more.

The gapping chasm between the rhetoric and reality of politics must be filled by policies of genuine substance if we are to restore trust in politics and the efficacy of the state.

Our politics must rise to the challenge presented to us by the British people, who instinctively understand that change is necessary.

To fail would let down those who hope for more, whether or they voted to leave the European Union or not. The Conservative party must look to its past, to the tory tradition and Disraelian ideal of ‘one nation’ – of a single unifying identity and culture, if it is to develop a policy platform that can inspire the electorate.

Wining the current culture war is vital to such a national rebirth. Some of my colleagues may be reluctant to engage in debates about identity and culture. They regard these issues as matters of individual choice and hanker for the days when the greatest threat we faced was the march of socialism and the creation of an overbearing state.

But since the fall of communism the world has altered profoundly. Radical Islam, Black Lives Matter and the Extinction Rebellion are cultural not economic movements; they want to transform our very way of life. Politics now is palpably about values not dull, mechanistic economic minutiae.

A country divided into rigid identity groups which refuse to accept the validity of differing points of view would soon become ungovernable.  As such the culture warriors are not merely a disruptive nuisance, they represent a profound threat to the values which underpin our civilised social order.

We must fight back and proclaim the primacy of our shared values, before it is too late.


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1 Response

  1. Amanda Moore says:

    Dear Sir John
    Thank you for such an excellent article. I am working along similar lines.
    I would greatly appreciate discussing this with you if you have a spare moment?
    Kind regards
    Amanda Moore

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