Statue of former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Photo by Chris Dorney)

Conservatism as tradition

Living in the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be

Artillery Row

This is part two of the “Content of Conservatism” series, which seeks to probe the philosophical foundations of conservative thought. Part one is here

I asked some weeks ago whether conservatism was ready to supply the ideas that will shape the future of this country. Much ink has been spilt in recent months on what those ideas might be. The think tank Onward has established a research project dedicated to the subject. Conservatives of all stripes have pontificated about the prospects of their creed in papers and magazines, including this one. MPs have begun to form different ginger groups committed to taking conservative thought — and the Conservative Party — in various directions to revitalise its electoral appeal. 

In the course of thinking about conservatism’s future, however, I have found myself reflecting more on conservatism’s relationship with the past. Conservatism is perhaps the most retrospective political doctrine in the value it places on posterity — on the things that are worthy of being “conserved”. That retrospection is not necessarily of a regressive or nostalgic character (although when mistakenly practised, it can be). Rather, conservatism’s approach to the past is unique and philosophically sophisticated. It orients where the conservative thinks society should go in the future.

For the conservative, the force and weight of ideas comes through experience

Benjamin Disraeli offered one of the clearest articulations on the relationship between conservatism and history. In 1867, he gave a speech in Edinburgh where he ruminated on the purpose of the Conservative Party. He also offered some thoughts on the relationship between change, history and the role of the politician. Change, Disraeli suggested, is an inevitable part of human existence, and the question is not whether change should be opposed, but “whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary general doctrines”. Disraeli suggested that the Conservative Party was a “national party” that embraced the former perspective, whilst other political persuasions adopted iterations of the latter perspective. 

Disraeli draws out something fundamental about conservatism as a body of thought in this passage. He himself calls these two perspectives on change the “national system” and the “philosophical system” respectively. An alternative way of stating the binary might be the “historical system” and “ahistorical system”. In the former, the answer to the question “what is to be done?” is determined historically, from the experiences of the past transmitted through to the present. In the latter, what is to be done is derived from abstract reasoning. Conservative political thought represents the former system; it is intensely preoccupied with history in a way that other ideologies are not, and this manifests itself in a number of ways.

For one, it makes conservatism contextualist. Conservatism suggests that we can only understand ideas when they are situated in contexts, geographical and temporal. “Circumstances,” Edmund Burke argued, “give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.” In contrast, ahistorical systems of thought like liberalism or socialism believe the ideas they advance to be valid universally across time and space, in that what ought to be done ought to be done everywhere and anywhere. For the conservative, the force and weight of ideas comes through their interaction with experience. For liberals or socialists, the force and weight of ideas is innate to them. This contextualism makes it difficult to tie conservatism down to the defence of a particular set of ideas or institutions, for conservatives have defended a variety of institutions and ideas in different moments. History — context, circumstance — has always shaped the content of conservatism.

Yet contextualism is not exclusive to conservatism, and it is not what makes conservative thought unique. Nor do conservatives simply settle for a relativism that says ideas only have relevance in contexts and not across time. Conservatives believe that we are given direction about what should be done in the present from consulting the past. It is this that makes conservatism’s relationship with history distinctive and profound: the things it values are a historical inheritance, rather than the product of rational deduction. 

A profitable, indeed a conservative way of thinking about conservatism is as a tradition of political thought. We might think of “conservatism” as what those self-identifying or consistently identified over time as conservative have said it is. Conservatism advances political principles and ideas, “but they have emerged from political practice” and from observation of the world over time, not from pure reasoning alone. It rails not against ideas themselves, but ideas that are derived simply from abstract theorising. 

Conservatism is a tradition. It has a history, it has practitioners, and it has a variety of convictions that bear a familial resemblance, but which have varied with temporal (and geographical) circumstance. “Contained within itself,” as David Seawright puts it, “perfectly preserved and visible like the contents of archaeological strata, [are] specimens from all its historical stages and all its acquisitions.” When conservatives of the present debate the contents of their belief, they are participating in a conversation about what those calling themselves conservatives have believed in the past, and what conservatism might mean in the temporal context that they themselves inhabit. 

The burden of proof rests on the critic of existing institutions

Conservatism’s preoccupation with history makes it starkly different from other political perspectives. Liberalism and socialism have end points towards which history is inevitably progressing — to a society of maximal freedom, or to a society of maximal equality — and to which political action in the present must therefore be orientated. This is why Marx could speak of a “deadweight” of history, or Paine could speak of the tyranny of the dead over the living. Allowing the past to shape what we do in the present can only work to slow down our progress towards the telos of history in this view. For those impatient of progress towards a predetermined historical destination, history cannot hold value in and of itself, save perhaps for lessons about how to get to that destination more quickly in the future. Yet history is innately and inherently valuable in conservative thought. 

For conservatives, history is something from which we can derive meaningful knowledge. It provides us with a sense of what makes for content, happy societies which ought to guide our decisions for the future. Conservatives do not take a dialectical view of history, and there is no necessity about the direction of history’s progress. We can make contingent assessments about it through our engagement with the past, but Conservatives do not then presume to make the logical leap from these contingent assessments to presuming a determined historical trajectory.

It is in the peculiar defence of institutions that conservatism’s distinctive approach to history — and the knowledge that it contains — is most evident. As Samuel Huntington put it, conservatism is in essence the “intellectual rationale of the permanent institutional prerequisites of human existence … the conservative ideology reminds men of the necessity of some institutions and the desirability of the existing ones”. Why do conservatives defend institutions? It is not because institutions conform to some timeless, “transcendent moral order” (though a conservative may believe this to be the case, this is not the conservative argument for their preservation). As the historical record shows, conservatives have defended a variety of institutions, even those that they have previously scorned. It is because institutions are vestibules of a powerful form of sedimented wisdom that is not susceptible to easy codification or rational analysis. 

For those who embrace what Disraeli called the philosophical approach, this language of conservative institutionalism simply does not make sense. For them, the legitimacy of an institution or a type of community or state of affairs more broadly is a consequence of whether, when subjected to human reason, it conforms to the particular ideal or ideals held by those examining it. Design for them is critical — what was the institution or custom in question designed for, and does this conform to an abstract set of normative values? Those institutions that do not conform to some rational design are precisely that — “irrational”. 

By contrast, conservatives believe that things that have existed for extended durations may well take on an inner logic of their own independent of design. Indeed, customs or institutions that have emerged over time might lack conscious design entirely. Things that have existed for extended durations might play a role in society that is not best judged by abstract reasoning, and their removal may have unintended and potentially hazardous upshots. 

Of course, some things may not have existed for a long time as a consequence of a benign or useful inner wisdom; they might be the consequence of something more sinister, or the product of the interests of the powerful. That is a separate question, and an institution’s lack of correspondence with some abstract ideal does not therefore render it illegitimate. The fact that an existing institution has endured creates a presumption in its own favour that it has served some useful function in society — and the burden of proof rests on the critic to establish that the ills of such an institution outweigh its value.

Finally, history infuses the conservatives’ very sense of purpose. Whilst other political creeds find their underlying principle of action in a value that is timeless and universal, conservatism’s purpose is derived historically: it is the “transmission” or passing on of forms of social and political order that facilitate human flourishing. As I wrote in part one of this series, in the conservative account, these socio-political orders constitute the sine qua non of politics which makes the pursuit of any other human value possible. They are formed and developed historically, not philosophically and ex nihilo through the design and reasoning of one particular group of individuals at a particular time and place. Conservatives reject this latter account of political order, not simply because it is false — as Hume argued, order has always been established by iterated “habits of obedience”, not contracts — but because it is also pernicious: it encourages a deep complacency about the preciousness of political order and a hubris about the capacity of humans to remake society from first principles.

Durable political orders are remarkably easy to tear down

This was the case set out by Burke some two centuries ago. Durable political orders that support human flourishing were immensely hard to establish in his eyes, but remarkably easy to tear down. The setting up of government, he argued, was easy: “settle the seat of power; teach obedience; and the work is done”. Giving freedom was still more easy, he continued; “it only required to let go the rein”. “But to form a free government; that is to temper together those opposite elements of liberty and restraint” was inestimably more challenging. This is why conservatives set such stock by repair and reform. Socio-political orders that have stood the test of time create a presumption in their own favour — their durability suggests a “collective wisdom incarnate in them”. 

Again, this is not to say that they are perfect. It does place the burden of evidence upon those that would seek fundamental or revolutionary change, however. At core, this view comes from a scepticism about the rational capacities of humans, an awareness of the limits to the intelligence of individual men and women. It recommends that the best evidence for how to organise society is derived historically, that political orders which promote flourishing are hard to build but easy to destroy, and that conserving existing orders is a vital responsibility for each generation.

Here is the vital distinction between a conservatism laden with meaning and value, and a contentless conservatism that simply seeks to slow down progress towards the kind of society advocated by non-conservatives. A genuine conservatism requires the conserving of those things that make the particular society we live in, well, particular. It requires this not because such things correspond to some abstract ideal, but because they constitute the defining characteristics of a community in which people historically have lived good lives. Those who are content with a society defined by the values of socialists or liberals, but merely wish to reach such a state of affairs gradually, are not conservatives at all.

Where does this leave conservatism today? What is its future? To return to the passage from Disraeli with which we started, change is an inevitable part of human existence. Yet what makes the conservative approach to change distinctive is its commitment to managing change in such a way that it preserves and maintains those things of great value. 

Conservatives of the present should not feel like history weighs us down or narrows our field of vision, and it certainly should not make us anxious about change. Rather, history guides us and provides us with the intellectual means to confront what lies ahead. In thinking about the future, the responsibility of today’s conservatives is to adapt and repackage the solid principles of a shared tradition for new challenges. 

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