The lasting power of simple virtues

Edmund Fawcett’s book is an honest struggle of a thoughtful liberal to understand the enemy

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There is the riddle of the Sphinx, and still more mysterious, conservatism. Marxism, socialism, liberalism — and more — are relatively easy to navigate; they boast founding texts, clearly identifiable moments of inception, obvious principles and a canon of priestly philosophers and prolix politicians. Yet when it comes to conservatism, no one, to this day, can readily agree on any of the above.

This is all the more baffling because whereas its ideological rivals have risen and fallen over time, only conservatism has truly endured. The current incumbents of Downing Street and the White House both claim allegiance to the cause.

The Fight for a Tradition, by Edmund Fawcett
Princeton University Press, £30

But this hardly helps very much when it comes to matters of definition, suggesting either that in the Darwinian struggle for intellectual hegemony conservatism has indeed proved to be stronger and better adapted to human life than its rivals, or that conservatism is so abject and spineless it has survived only by pinching ideas and policies from everywhere else and passing them off as its own.

Edmund Fawcett is the latest writer to be, in his own word, “puzzled” by this mystery, and that’s after expending more than 500 pages on the subject in Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition. But at least his is an engaged, stimulating and erudite puzzlement.

Most writers on conservatism, naturally, are apologists or/and propagandists for the doctrine; they often lose themselves, and the reader, in reverential admiration for something that they can only conclude is altogether too spiritual, too elusive, yet essential, to really pin down in words. Fawcett, by contrast, writes as a self-declared “left-wing liberal”, and comes off the back of an equally big book on the history of liberalism.

Fawcett might have spent more time dwelling on the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott

Thus his main preoccupation is to give readers on the left “a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore”. If his friends in the liberal elite are so smart, he jabs provocatively, “how come we’re not in charge?” Good question.

Neither is Fawcett any kind of mystic. As a former editor and correspondent at the Economist, he is nothing if not an empiricist. The text is buttressed by several helpful appendices, on the lives of prominent conservative philosophers and politicians, conservative keywords, texts and more. He flits with ease between a consideration of German, British, French and American conservatism.

The honest struggle of a thoughtful liberal to understand the enemy gives the book its strength, vitality and structure. Fawcett prods and probes his quarry relentlessly, forced in the end to recognise “the right’s party-political and intellectual strengths”. Yet at the same time, by judging conservatism so exclusively against liberalism, Fawcett imposes his own mind-forg’d manacles.

In particular, conservatives can rightly object that whereas the author is very good at showing what conservatism has been against, he has much less to say about what conservatives might be for. Indeed, he ends his book with a chapter on contemporary conservatives’ attempts to reconcile themselves to a “hyper-liberal Status Quo”, as if conservatives still, after 250 years, can only define themselves against an “other”, devoid of any core values of beliefs of their own.

This is the mistake that liberals, even the most open-minded of them like Fawcett, seem destined to repeat. There is a lot on the higher reaches of moral philosophy here but surprisingly little on the simpler values and virtues of patriotism, nostalgia, tradition, royalty and hierarchy, embodied in institutions such as the army, church, monarchy and family, which really animate conservatives.

Fawcett is surely right, that conservatism was shaped in the early days to defend the late eighteenth century’s status quo

This is where liberals, out of what can only be wilful ignorance, fail to prod and probe. Neither is there much on conservatism as statecraft — the competent exercise of power — that has justified conservative claims to office in Britain, America and France, for decades. Indeed, this defined the conservative Republicans’ hostility to Bill Clinton and all his works: the conviction that this draft-dodging, weed-smoking, double-dealing sexual predator was singularly unqualified to lead any nation, let alone the shining city on a hill.

Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, won his first election largely on a promise to restore dignity to the office of the president; intellectual qualifications and accomplishments, prized by liberals, were much less important.

On his central theme, however, Fawcett is surely right, that conservatism was shaped in the early days largely to defend the late eighteenth century’s status quo against those that were threatening to turn the world upside down, from bloodthirsty revolutionaries in Paris to the rather more bookish advocates of the “enlightenment”, and even democracy, in Edinburgh, London, Washington and Prussia. Edmund Burke is treated fairly and generously here, as are Maistre and Friedrich von Gentz.

It was the genius of Disraeli to add numbers to the establishment by extending the franchise

But for all their opposition to the forces of change in society, summarised as liberalism, conservatism in practice evolved as a doctrine to merely contain and blunt change. Ironically, however, it emerged that the best way to do this was to use some of those very same weapons that liberals have used to claim power for themselves, such as democracy.

It was the genius of Disraeli to add numbers to the establishment by extending the franchise, realising, as did his more successful successors like Baldwin, Macmillan and Thatcher, that most people are emotionally, psychologically and culturally conservative, and can be easily persuaded to vote that way.

Fawcett might have spent more time dwelling on the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who barely gets a mention, and not at all in the index. This rare creature, a conservative academic, remains the best modern expositor of conservatism as a “disposition”, as a habit of mind, as a guide to successful government, and as an emotional reflex. Even after Fawcett’s compelling, lucid and learned work, liberals still have plenty of gaps to fill in.

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