The Roots of Conservatism

The Conservative Party’s almost total loss of its historical tradition is the principal reason for its current plight


This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

20 October 2022 is a date I shall not forget. It’s the day when Liz Truss stood outside Downing Street to announce her resignation — the fourth Conservative prime minister to be hounded from office by their own party in six years. It was also the day when I was to lecture at the Danube Institute in Budapest on “British Conservatism post-Boris Johnson”.

If I had stuck to my original title, my lecture — on the future of a Party which seems to have decided that it doesn’t want one — would have been almost as short as Liz Truss’s statement. Instead, I decided to take refuge in its past. 

Invoking Hegel’s dictum that “the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk”, I declared that the current death spiral of the Party was the perfect opportunity to retrieve its history. And indeed that the crisis demands it, since the Party’s almost total loss of its historical tradition is the principal reason for its present plight.

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But how do you “lose” a political tradition? In the case of conservatism, you do so when you identify a tradition with “great thinkers”. Because conservatives, almost by definition, tend not to be “great thinkers“. Being pretty much satisfied with things as they are, conservatives see political activity as a matter of buggering-on mitigated by occasional tinkering. And neither buggering-on nor tinkering are fertile soil for “great thoughts”.

This means that developed statements of conservatism tend to be reactive and come only at moments of radical or revolutionary challenge. Such moments, in a successful conservative polity like England/Great Britain, will be rare and widely spaced out. But this does not mean that conservatism has disappeared or gone underground in the intervals undocumented by the literature. Instead it expresses itself in the continuity of political action. 

We can go further. Not only do conservatives tend not to be “great thinkers”. Thinking itself, as a moment of honest reflection shows, is not a very conservative activity. Whereas doing is. 

The natural expression of a conservative tradition is political action

So the natural expression of a conservative tradition is political action and not political thought; its natural exponents are practising politicians, not posturing philosophers and it incarnates itself in institutions and not books.

In other words, to rediscover the English conservative political tradition we must ground it in the history of practical politics and rely on conservative thinkers — such as they are and rarely though they come along — only for occasional illumination.

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Above all, we must begin at the beginning. Which is not Burke’s Reflections on the Late Revolution in France (sublime though its handful of great passages are) but the works of the Lancastrian jurist and politician, Sir John Fortescue. 

Fortescue’s works were written in the second half of the fifteenth century, when the reborn English language first became capable of analytical prose. But — just as three centuries later — their trigger was France and her diametrically divergent development from England.

So, like Burke, Fortescue’s work is an extended compare and contrast between England and France, to the huge advantage of England, of course. Burke compared febrile revolutionary France to placid and contented unrevolutionary England. Fortescue, the English “dominium politicum et regale” (a political and royal dominion) to the French “dominium regale” (a royal dominion). 

In the former, the king can only make law and impose taxation by the consent of the realm in Parliament; in the latter, the laws lie in the king’s mouth and his subjects’ property (or at least the property of the vast majority below noble rank) is in his hands.

Fortescue judges by results (“these be the fruits”). The English political system is superior because its protection of property leaves the common people of England prosperous, whereas the French peasantry — mulcted by unlimited taxation and arbitrary confiscation — are wretchedly poor. And the law of England is better too, since (among many other things) proof of guilt is by the verdict of a jury and not by confession extorted by unspeakable tortures.

Fortescue is clearly proud of his analysis of the distinction between England and France and claims for it the then unimpeachable authority of (among others) St Thomas Aquinas. But though “dominium regale” and “dominium politicum” do appear in his sources; the crucial middle term, “dominium politicum et regale” does not. 

Instead, it seems clear that Fortescue, like the good conservative that he was, derived his analysis from the observation of current political realties (or, as he put it, “experience and histories of the ancients”) and then dignified it with the “shreds and patches” of the scholastic learning he had picked up in his youth at Oxford.

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But of course Fortescue’s obstinate, bullish advocacy of England flew in the face of reality. France had triumphed in the Hundred Years War while defeated England had dissolved into the civil Wars of the Roses. France even offered refuge to the remnants of the dethroned House of Lancaster and its followers, including Fortescue himself. Which meant — paradoxically — that it was in France that Fortescue wrote his paean to England.

In short, to an informed, open-minded contemporary, like the Burgundian chronicler, Philippe de Commynes, French absolutist government represented the future and the English parliamentary system a failed and shrinking past. Nevertheless, Fortescue’s confidence proved justified. 

Not least because of those very conservative things, attachment to place and force of habit. The Common Law had been taught in the Inns of Court, those quasi-university colleges, for centuries, with each generation handing down its lore to the next. And parliaments, likewise, had met more and more frequently in the same chambers of the Abbey-Palace complex of Westminster.

The result was that the only late-medieval English king seriously to try French methods was Henry VII, who, thanks to the accident of exile, had learned his statecraft in Brittany and France. And his death was followed by a swift and vigorous conservative reaction which reasserted the supremacy of Magna Carta and parliamentary finance.

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Henry VIII had shamelessly lent his name to the repudiation of his father’s policies. But ironically it was the unprecedented vagaries of his own eventual marital and religious methods which proved decisive. The substance of these was outré. But they were carried out with an impeccable and very conservative regard to constitutional proprieties, on the one hand, and property rights (for everyone but the Church), on the other. The effect was to extend parliament’s authority — we should now probably talk of its sovereignty — even to the determination of religion and the succession.

Finally and most importantly, all this coincided with a sharp change of political language. Because Fortescue’s vestigial scholasticism was already old-fashioned when he wrote. 

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Almost a hundred years earlier in about 1380, Geoffrey Chaucer, the founder-poet of English, had read the “Dream of Scipio”. This was the ecstatic conclusion of the otherwise then lost treatise, De Republica (“On the State“) by the Roman republican orator and politician, Marcus Tullius Cicero.

“The Dream” offers a vision of a sort of celestial House of Lords, in which those who have served the state well will enjoy eternal bliss amid the music of the spheres. Chaucer, who was a businessman, diplomat and MP, as well as a poet, knows very well that the contemporary equivalent of Cicero’s concerns was the English parliament in which he had sat so many times.

But, having the mentality of a modern parliamentary diarist, he promptly dreams another dream of his own in which he imagines not the real parliament of Westminster, but a “parliament of fowls” (that is birds) mock-debating true love.

What Chaucer, however, took in jest, the men of the sixteenth century took in deadly earnest. Fortescue’s self-coined “dominium politicum et regale” was re-worked into the sophisticated categories of Greco-Roman political analysis deployed by Cicero and his peers. And, thus draped in classical fancy dress, the English parliamentary polity was carried by the tides of empire from Westminster to America and beyond. 

But, whatever the novelty of language, the substance remained faithful to Fortescue. It was thus wholly empirical and conservative. Tell it not to the modern Conservative party, rooted in the defence of property 

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