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Restoring our common life

National Conservatism and the civilisational choice

From a speech delivered at the National Conservatism Conference.

This conference represents something many of us have been asking ourselves: what does it mean to be a conservative in Britain today, when so little seems to have been conserved? 

More fundamentally, what is the role of government? A basic definition of the ends of government would be: securing the conditions for peace, abundance and justice for the commonweal. These are the foundational elements of a good society that allows people to build something together, to participate in the common life of their families, their local and national community. This enables a life of meaning and purpose. 

With this in mind, let’s lay out the main points under consideration: what the common life is, how and why it’s been undermined, and finally a look backwards into the British conservative tradition to see how we might move forwards in the world as it is. 

To begin, the common life is what Christopher Lasch saw as both the means and end of a successful democracy. We compete and cooperate within and between families, villages, communities, and on and on, all the way up to the nation. We gather in the realms of work, spontaneous conviviality, of worship and all the varied forms of collective endeavour you can imagine. This coming together forges a civic life that grows from the ground of dialogue and exchange. Through this we discover over time the shared questions that aid us, together, in finding possible answers about what the good life ultimately consists of. This nurtures a life of commitment. 

In such a moral landscape we develop our sense of identity. As Hannah Arendt argued, “In acting and speaking, men show who they really are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.” The public, as an arena of companionship, produces its own internal body of rules, common standards and competence. This grows from inculcation into cultural experience and tradition. The common life helps cultivate the agency and mettle that the individual requires for self-government. It checks one’s more animalistic drives in service to social harmony. Most importantly, it enables a life worth living. 

Britain is a world-leader in family breakdown, and birth-rates have plummeted

This is all another way of describing Edmund Burke’s view of the good society: as extending outwards from hearth and home to the nation, as well as up and down the socio-economic ladder. From this soil grows the extended sense of self that expands to constitute what Roger Scruton called the “first person plural”. With the sense of an “us” comes a national community, tied together by bonds of fellow feeling and loyalty, shared purpose and obligation. This depends on a ruling class that feels a sense of duty and responsibility to those they lead. Their position of authority is contingent on upholding the material and moral circumstances that constitute their place in a just society. 

How then is the common life threatened? To be blunt, our leaders have not governed in service to conserving the conditions that enable it. Successive governments have failed to fulfil their role to secure peace, abundance and justice. To fail to do so threatens the ties that bind us into the common life at the heart of the nation, to those across from us as well as above and below us. 

The Conservatives have been in power for thirteen years and have no-one but themselves to blame for our current malaise. They can bleat about externalities beyond their control all they like, to which I can only say: “events, dear boy, events.”

Where has this left us? 

Our armed forces are a shadow of their former self, in a time of rising geopolitical instability and great power conflict. The government celebrates recruiting 20,000 police … to replace those cut by a previous Conservative government. There is now a constant background hum of crime and low-level disorder. 

Meanwhile, we’ve seen sectarian riots on Leicester city streets. Immigration, the fuel for Brexit, reached 1.3million gross in 2022, possibly a million net. The OBR predicts around 245,000 annually going forward.

Political trust is down, and alienation is rising. Loneliness and atomisation, a crisis before Covid, have surged in the wake of the lockdowns, especially amongst the young. Falling home ownership and lack of housing is the running sore of British politics. Britain is a world-leader in family breakdown, and birth-rates have plummeted. 

On top of all of this, there are some on the left who move to redefine human nature, repudiate our history and erase our national memory, bury our national heroes, burn our artistic and literary heritage to the ground, and engage in the moral redistribution of identity politics. They then accuse those in positions of supposed authority who notice and object of perpetuating a culture war. 

Economically, inflation is still sky-high, whilst the Bank of England tells us to get used to being poorer. The young face the biggest fall in living standards on record, after 15 years of stagnant wages and houses costing an average of 9x our earnings. 

The middle is being proletarianised, the bottom pauperised

Our energy security and supply are a disaster. We build too little, too late. Our productivity is collapsing. Our investment in research and development is far below what is needed for the economic realities of today and tomorrow. 

Public investment in infrastructure, hammered by the choice to pursue austerity, is lower than the OECD average. Our built environment is crumbling. Our state capacity is woeful, with fragile supply chains risking a “never mind late, how about never” economy. We have a state bloated and weak, incompetent yet interfering.

The upshot is that people are growing poorer, in absolute terms and on a per capita basis. Five million people have dropped out of the workforce, significant numbers from rising levels of chronic ill health, and they now subsist on benefits. This is happening whilst the NHS is in freefall.

The middle is being proletarianised, the bottom pauperised. We are seeing a secession of the successful. Our anaemic recovery from 2008 means we are facing what Adam Tooze calls a “deconvergance” from the G7. 

None of this was inevitable; it was chosen.

Our Conservative political class, rather than adopting a nationally conservative vision to help reknit our social fabric, is still in hoc to what Michael Lind calls “technocratic neoliberalism”, a synthesis of economic and social liberalism. This ideology has no qualms about throwing into the ditch on the roadside of progress those in what Gray Connolly calls the dawn, shadows or twilight of life. 

This worldview’s adherents maintain their blinkered belief in the post-Cold War dispensation of deregulation, deindustrialisation, depoliticization via the surrender of sovereignty to transnational managerial structures, atomising individualism and mass immigration. They still see a global future, of constant churn and change that requires people to “get on their bikes” and cycle wherever the market takes them, pedalling ever faster to reach ever more distant success. 

Such economic and political developments have long been sold to us with the rhetoric of historical inevitability, against which it is useless to protest, much less do anything. In reality, such claims of inevitability are a convenient excuse, justifying the abdication of the responsibility to govern with prudence for the common good. Such excuses were made by those who either actively affirmed such tales, or, more usually, meekly acceded to them in return for lifting away the burden of the duty of state. 

These outcomes were not preordained: we do have agency and choice, but we need to have the will. Zombified technocratic neoliberalism is no longer equal to the task. We have already seen increasing turmoil abroad and instability at home. We face a domestic situation increasingly similar to that Benjamin Disraeli confronted in the 19th century. We also face comparable circumstances, foreign and domestic, as did the Edwardian social reform conservatives in the 20th century. 

The proper role of government was to ameliorate social and economic cleavages

We are again two nations, “between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy”. We once more face a world where great imperial and civilisational blocs are moving against each other, through military confrontation, economic protection and industrial policy. 

As the Edwardian historical economists argued in their day, economics in the national interest is now paramount. These trends between competing powers, then and now, show the natural role of groups, institutions and organisations, in political and economic life. This holistic view of political economy was applied equally to the domestic sphere, where it was seen as the proper role of government to ameliorate the social and economic cleavages between classes and interests. 

This proactive but reserved attitude to inequality led Lord Hailsham, as Chairman of the Conservative Party, to say in a Commons debate in 1947, “If you do not give the people social reform, they shall give you social revolution.” This Edwardian attitude did not seek to alter the inequality inherent to life, but to soften the inevitable inequality of society.

It was viewed as the “moral conception” of the state by influential Edwardian conservatives to create the ground for the individual to extend his potential to the utmost, thereby achieving the end of life as an ethical being. National citizenship enabled our “freedom for duty”, towards the common good of our families and communities. 

Disraeli saw the role of government in a similar light, proclaiming the need to achieve “the elevation of the condition of the people”, for “no important step can be gained unless you can … humanise their toil”. For Disraeli, “the health of the people is the most important question for a statesman”, not just in physical terms, but in economic and moral terms as well.

The conviction and commitment of Disraeli and the Edwardian conservatives produced a large body of legislation that improved the lives of the common man and woman. Under Disraeli’s Conservatives, as David Skelton notes, this included slum clearance, the improvement of working-class housing, Public Health Acts, two Factory Acts, as well as the legalisation of picketing, and laws that gave workers bargaining power with unscrupulous employers. 

In 1911, the Unionist Social Reform Committee of Edwardian conservative luminary Arthur Steel-Maitland proposed extending the old-age pension. He supported minimum wages in some trades, sponsored schemes for better homes for workers and came close to submitting the outline of a national health service. 

The condition of Britain is bleak. Hopelessness about the future is far from warranted, however. The British conservative tradition has achieved great things in service to buttressing and furthering the good life, lived in common. It can do so again. Like Disraeli, we must be “conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, [and] Radical to remove all that is bad”.

We can work to reconcile the divided generations by homebuilding for the future. We can secure social cohesion by lowering immigration, then integrating newcomers and old-inhabitants into a well-ordered country built on a rightly remembered past, strengthening national solidarity and mutual loyalty. We can reignite growth, inventiveness and productivity that recalls Britain in its glory as we move into the next industrial revolution.

It is worth remembering that one day, we’ll be gone. How do we wish to be remembered? Recovering what has been lost and building anew will be hard, but as Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Hope is the longing of the will towards some Good that is possible, but arduous.” If we strive towards a restoration of the common life of our national home, then those who come after us may look back with gratitude rather than contempt. The choice is ours.

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