The Conservative Reading List

To prospective university students: one, congratulations; two, you must be prepared to enter an environment in which conservative ideas are at best ignored, and at worst openly derided. In my experience, conservatism is seen as the worst of three mainstream ideologies, despite the fact that is has influenced British political practice, if not thought, the most, and consequently the political thought of the most successful British political party is often seen as impenetrable, and so political scientists and theorists approach it as if it were a motley patchwork of conflicting ideas.

Instead, I offer here a fragmentary list of reading material that, in my studies, has influenced the formation of conservative thought. Where possible, I have specified specific sections, chapters or essays, but by and large the entirety of the text is where the philosophy shines through.

Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan (1651)

  • Hobbes, described in his time as the Monster of Malmesbury, writes in such a way that, whereas much of political thought can be called utopian, you would be forgiven for calling him dystopian. His vision of the natural state of man is bleak, and ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Leviathan, however, is more complex than this simple observation, and provides a compelling and, for the time, uniquely sectarian reason for accepting political authority.
  • Supplementary Reading:
    • Gottlieb, A. (2016), A Dream of Enlightenment, Chapter Two.
    • Oakeshott, M. (1962), Introduction to Leviathan

John Locke

  • Two Discourses on Government (1660)
    • Locke’s second discourse of the two is the cornerstone of rights theory, beginning with a similar ‘state of nature’ to Hobbes, but proceeds in different stages to the end of government, and consequently rests on different reasons for, and depictions of, legitimate government, but offers what has come to be known as a two-stage theory of government. So, while Hobbes offers us reasons for accepting political authority, Locke offers us an explanation of where it came from.

A Letter Concerning Toleration

  • This is a particularly powerful endorsement of limited government, the role of which is to protect men’s property, but not make provisions for their opinions – at least, as Locke sees it. It is more of a liberal position than a conservative one, but speaks firmly to the British tradition of religious toleration.

The Second Baron de Montesquieu

  • Persian Letters (1721)
    • Montesquieu’s primary concern was with limiting despotism, and in this he contrasts the brute despotism of the Near and Middle East with the soft despotism of Western Europe, specifically the absolutism of Louis XIV, which eroded the established power of the regional parlements, the position of the nobility, and the liberties of French aristocrats. Montesquieu can be seen as progressive in many ways, but his defence of society was one of practical experience, and a return to the old ways from before Louis’ extension of monarchical power. It’s not the same but imagine Montesquieu as a monarchist in Weimar Germany protesting to the rise of the Nazis.
  • The Spirit of Laws (1748)
  • Following on, from this text Montesquieu can broadly be characterised as a French liberal, but an English conservative. Montesquieu wanted power to be unitary, but limited, and in the pursuit of this he proposed the separation of powers. The separation has long become conventional political wisdom, and is Montesquieu’s greatest contribution to political thought, but it was an idea derived largely from the English constitution. Similarly, he famously characterises liberty as the freedom to do all the laws do not prohibit; such a practical appeal to liberty, and not an abstract one, shows his more conservative leanings. As a result, though Montesquieu is often considered a liberal, I believe he offers British conservatives a great deal to learn from.

Edmund Burke

  • Vindication of Natural Society (1756)
    • An investigation into what ‘society’ means, its origins, and why a naturally occurring – what would become ‘organic’ in the conservative vernacular – vision of society is most sustainable. This is Burke’s first seriously political work, though it is tentative, and should be read as reactionary, not as a programmatic approach to government or politics at all.
  • A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757)
    • Though not political, the Enquiry no doubt offers an insight into Burke’s incredible powers of reasoning, as well as pre-empting (and in the process, refuting) Jeremy Bentham’s claim that pleasure and pain can be separable.
  • Speech to the Bristol Electors (1774)
    • What has come to be termed as the ‘trustee’ model of representation was first articulated most clearly by Burke in response to his being elected as the MP for Bristol. This approach to political representation has largely defined the Conservative Party’s approach to both political action and (refuting) constitutional change. Burke essentially argues that he has been elected for his own capacity for judgement and prudential reasoning; as a result, his constituents should trust him to act on their behalf in Parliament for the next term and, should they be upset with his conduct, can vote him out at the end of it – until then, accept his behaviour.
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France (1789)
    • Often taken as Burke’s magnum opus, this long-winded and often repetitive work began as a letter to a gentleman in Paris (though it’s doubtful this gentleman existed) following the Revolution, and becomes a spiralling defence of authority, liberties, the British political system, parliamentarism, chivalry and much more. I often read this text as the death cry of an era.

Supplementary Reading:

Alexis de Tocqueville

On Democracy in America (1835-40)

  • Following on from Montesquieu in many ways, de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who travelled to America to examine the first fully democratic political system in the world at the time and was amazed by what he saw. For de Tocqueville, democracy was deeper than a political system; it was a state of mind, a form of collective action that the Europeans – including the English – hadn’t developed. The ‘deference to authority’ that the English were known for tended to mean that problems were solved by ‘someone else’ – historically God, or the state, or the Church – had floundered in America, where there was no-one else. In response, thought de Tocqueville, the established powers ought to respond and make themselves amenable to the democratic era that was dawning, by whatever means possible.

Benjamin Disraeli

Sybil: or, the Two Nations (1845)

  • Disraeli’s novel is widely considered the origin of the tradition within conservative thought known as ‘One Nation Philosophy’. The novel depicts the squalor experienced by the English working classes and was intended to instigate a debate around the terrible conditions. The novel appealed to the sentiment of nationalism that had pervaded since the French Revolution, and the unity it offered in place of division along class lines; a century later, it would offer many Conservatives a reason to accept the Social Democratic consensus.

Harold Macmillan

  • The Middle Way (1938)
    • Macmillan was a seasoned MP by this time, and was surrounded by phenomena completely unique to its time: a successful Labour party; successful Fascism on the continent and unsuccessful on the mainland; soaring levels of poverty; and a democratic age previously considered anathema to conservatism. To remedy these errors, and appeal to the new masses, Macmillan offered a ‘middle way’ between the two extremes of socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, and aristocracy and pure democracy. Much like Disraeli (above) and Hogg (below), Macmillan somewhat paved the way for the Conservative acceptance of the Social Democratic consensus.

Quintin Hogg

  • The Case for Conservatism (1947)
    • A brief book, Hogg wrote a time when conservatism was struggling to respond to a surge in support for the socialism of the Labour Party, and so appealed to the emotive sentiments that many Britons felt at the time: the unity of monarchy; the significance of church; the beauty of the countryside. It is an extremely helpful look into the conservatism of the mid-twentieth century.

Supplementary Reading:

  • Blackburn, D. (2015), For We Shall Prejudice Nothing: Middle Way Conservatism and the Defence of Inequality

Russel Kirk

The Conservative Mind (1953)

  • Kirk was one of many Americans who attempted to define conservatism in the post-war period, especially when small government and capitalism seemed to be on their way out of the Overton Window. The first chapter is an excellent summary of conservatism by that stage in history, so I would utilise this as a history book for British conservatism.

Friedrich Hayek

The Constitution of Liberty (1960), chapter five, ‘Responsibility and Freedom’.

  • Famously, in a 1975 meeting, Margaret Thatcher pulled Hayek’s book from her briefcase and slammed it on the table, declaring “this is what we believe!” Reading the highlighted chapter, I can see what she meant. Hayek’s other work is largely economic, but the Constitution of Liberty is by far his best political work: “responsibility has become an unpopular concept, a word that experienced speakers or writers avoid because of the obvious boredom or animosity with which it is received by a generation that dislikes all moralising”. Read Hayek’s other works, by all means, but that would be to understand neoliberalism: this text helps you to understand conservatism.

Barry Goldwater

  • The Conscience of a Conservative (1960)
    • Sarah Stook has written a fabulous article on this, so I won’t re-tread well-trodden grounds, but the material in this book is a wealth of wisdom on the conservative approach to politics.

Michael Oakeshott (all items below are in his book ‘Rationalism in Politics’ (1962)

  • Rationalism in Politics
    • The gulf between Tocqueville and Oakeshott was defined by the rise of liberal, socialist and Marxist ideologies, all of which were united by one thing – an appeal to rationalism as the basis of political legitimacy. Oakeshott argued that rationalism was a scientific approach that made sense in the ‘natural sciences’ (physics, biology, chemistry) that possessed universal rules, but did not make sense in the ‘human sciences’ where universal rules did not exist, and to try and rationalise human behaviour made no sense. As a result, Oakeshott argued for a recognition of human practical experience, which may sometimes be irrational, as the source of political knowledge, legitimacy and action.

On Being Conservative

  • Oakeshott argues in this essay that being conservative is “the observation of our current manner of living combined with the belief… that governing is a specific and limited activity, namely the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood, not as plans for imposing substantive activities, but as instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration”. I believe here Oakeshott has summarised the British conservative experience in relation to politics neatly: it is less about a pursuit of the good life, and more about the rules of the game that allow those pursuits. It is Hobbesian in many ways, and Lockean in others, and with a dash of Burkeanism in for good measure.

Supplementary Reading:

  • Corey, D. (2014), Oakeshott’s Concept of Ideology

Margaret Thatcher

  • The Renewal of Britain (Speech) (1979)
    • Speaking shortly after the 1979 election, Thatcher made a compelling argument for the reduction of state power to encourage people to look after one another, re-discover their sense of responsibility, and strengthen social morality. Appealing to Christianity, economic theory and her predecessors in the party, many of Thatcher’s future trajectories could be seen in this speech.

Supplementary Reading:

Roger Scruton

  • The Meaning of Conservatism (1984)
    • Scruton moved on from this text in his lifetime, though it remains an extremely powerful vision of the conservative experience, stressing the received wisdom of generations and what British society looks like, and how to protect it. Oakeshott and Scruton are the two pre-eminent conservative philosophers of the twentieth century, but whereas Oakeshott offers rules of the game, Scruton gives us a game plan.
  • A Political Philosophy (2006)
    • A series of short, sharp and powerful essays collected as a single book, Scruton offers insights on the concepts of ‘animal rights’, religion, totalitarianism, and T. S. Eliot.
  • How to be a Conservative (2014)
    • This is Scruton’s best work. It examines liberalism, socialism, environmentalism, nationalism, capitalism and internationalism, to find the ‘truth’ in each, and concludes that what conservatism offers first and foremost is stability, and a resistance to systems that seek to ‘correct’ or (in a call-back to Oakeshott) ‘rationalise’ human beings.

Supplementary Reading:

Kevin Hickson

  • The Political Thought of the Conservative Party since 1945 (2005)
    • Hickson edited an excellent selection of essays written by current and former MPs of the Conservative Party, with each looking at the Party’s responses to changes and trends in conservatism since the end of the Second World War.

David Cameron

  • Social Responsibility: The Big Idea for Britain’s Future (2007)
    • Cameron’s pre-recession writings inherited a great deal from Thatcher but hoped always to balance the demands of social responsibility with individual freedom that Thatcherism had failed to synthesise. The austerity of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is widely known, but the social liberalism that Cameron historically favoured is less so – this collection of his speeches is a treasury for this.

Supplementary Reading:

David Davis

The Future of Conservatism: Values Revisited (2011)

  • Similar to Hickson above, Davis, along with Brian Binley and John Baron, edits a fantastic collection of exploratory essays that consider the trajectories of British conservatism, where the Party could go in future and why those directions might be justified. Some highlights are, in my opinion, Edward Leigh’s Flat Tax chapter; Geoffrey Cox’s constitution chapter; and David Parson’s housing chapter, all of which offer lessons for 2018.

I hope these texts offer an illumination on conservatism, the origins and development of the philosophy and, as a consequence, its future trajectories. I would also be remiss if I didn’t self-promote here: I have attempted a summary of most of the above research in my book, Continuity and Change: The Conservative Party since 1945.

Photo owned by the Mallard.

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