What is Conservatism? | Jake Scott

As the Conservative Party gears up to release its manifesto today (Sunday, 24th November), and Simple Politics released a (rather simple) delineation of the principles of conservatism (see below), I thought it prudent to share a brief article written on the topic of conservatism.

The title of this article is so enormously huge that it could not be answered in the short space I have afforded myself here. Indeed, whole books have been written that have failed to answer conclusively, even if they have authoritatively answered for a generation: Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty; Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics; Gilmour’s Dancing with Dogma; Blond’s Red Tory; O’Hara’s Conservatism; even Sir Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism. Similarly, just as difficult is the counter to the question; what is conservatism not? Instead, rather than vainly attempt to offer an expansive, satisfactory answer, I have opted to expound my observations after a number of years immersed in the philosophy, and indicate where the interested reader can find better, fuller answers.

Firstly, I do not believe a substantive answer can be given. After all, the English conservative might find himself at odds with the German or Turkish conservative, and quite rightly. This is because life is filled with a lattice-work of loyalties, some overlapping, some competing, but all as real as the next: family; nation; religion; friends; class. These loyalties may be chosen, or they may not be, but the important thing to remember is they shape us continuously throughout our lives, the extent to which is usually dependent on our own involvement in these loyalties.

So, when conservatives in the United Kingdom talk of the value of, and need to defend, the free market, it must be remembered that they are defending a form of loyalty and association that has arisen naturally throughout the history of their settled way of life. One example I always counterpose to this is the nascent Slavophilism in early 19th-century Russia, where the defence of the peasant commune (referred to by a German sociologist as “embryonic socialism”) was a truly conservative cause.

A substantive answer clearly cannot be given that will universally satisfy those of us who describe ourselves as conservatives. Indeed, even in the United Kingdom, a fundamental tension within the conservative tradition is how much the free market ought to be defended; when capitalism begins to erode the social order, to which do we owe allegiance? I have my own thoughts; but they are not the reader’s, and I hope the reader will think for himself. The reason I believe this can be summarised thus: conservatism is described in the modern language of political science as an ideology, and all ideologies are attempts at a universal doctrine; but conservatives are attached to a particular way of life, discovered, not made. It is the reversal of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus, Unbound: men, not man.

Secondly, conservatism does find its meaning in the concrete and tangible expressions of these loyalties that can be experienced and lived through. These are what we come to know as institutions, and are derived not from an abstract reasoning (as is the case in liberalism and socialism), but from (as I have mentioned) a settled way of life, stretching down through generations to enrich the lives of those who are here, now. In the vein of the first point above, these institutions become ossified in the way of life experienced by those who live together, in a particular time and place. In the United Kingdom, for instance, we might refer to the family, the crown, and the Church, as much as we might refer to the local football team, the parish council, the farmer’s market, or the local pub.

Just as these things are passed down to us, so too do we seek to pass them down to those who come after us. Conservatives recognise the value of what has come before by virtue of its longevity, its durability, and what it enriches our lives with. Edmund Burke described society as a contract between the dead, the living, and the unborn, and in doing so succinctly described the natural connection we feel between those who have come before, and those who will come after. As well, this summary speaks to the natural truth that generations cannot be neatly separated, despite sociologists’ attempts to categorise us in ‘Generation X’ and ‘Millennials’ and so forth; children are born every minute, and people die just as fast, so to pretend that an historical moment can be separated into ‘before’ and ‘after’ is ludicrous.

Third, and following on from this, is the conservative attitude to change. It is very often remarked that conservatives are resistant to change, that we wish to take the world as we find out now and turn it into a museum for all time, so that we can point to it and say “that is the perfect society”. This is wrong, and deeply so; conservatives tend to begin from the same sentiment that is described in the Biblical story of the Fall. Man is imperfect, and therefore not perfectible by human, or political means. After all, does anyone pretend that the world we live in is perfect? Of course not; but society is gradually improved over time, and because of the collective endeavours of those who live in and engage with it.

Besides, how does such a proclamation explain the reactionary nature of many conservatives, who seek to not defend the status quo but restore the status quo ante, an idealised past when the problems of the modern age did not exist and life was simpler? Not that many conservatives take this attitude itself seriously; time flows in one direction, even if society does not, and therefore the past cannot be brought back. It can only be used as a guide, in the style of Burke, to address and improve the present, so that the future may be a continuation of the settled way of life that has produced stability for those fortunate enough to live in it.

The best summary of conservatism has come, importantly enough, not from a conservative. Michael Freeden summarises, as I have attempted to here, the conservative disposition in three principles: an attachment to the social order; a cautious attitude to change; and a belief in organic society.

Finally then, if I must, I believe I can (tentatively) answer the question. Conservatism is, as Sir Roger Scruton describes it, a love of the real, and an attachment to the institutions that make the real, stable. 


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