Edmund Burke (Image credit: The Print Collector via Getty Images)

The content of conservatism

It is not just the absence of ideology

Artillery Row

Across the right, there is a growing anxiety that conservative politics is now intellectually barren. As crisis follows crisis, it appears that government has become merely reactive, that the agenda is being set elsewhere, and that decision-making is no longer being guided by convictions and values, but by expediency. Conservatives are — and always have been — the party of sound finance, and getting a grip of inflation has provided some temporary sense of mission. Sound finance is only a means to other ends, however; it is not a political end in itself. 

Since 2019, the Conservative Party has ostensibly been committed to “levelling up” the United Kingdom. Yet three quarters of the British public do not know what that even means. That might be partly because conservatives have been unsuccessful at articulating the ideas behind levelling up. Cynics would go further, however: they’d argue that conservatives do not really have a coherent set of political ideas, that they merely employ the language of values as a rhetorical device to justify pragmatic positions, and that conservatism’s apparent listlessness at present simply reflects a more fundamental hollowness.

In conservatism, it is order that makes freedom itself possible

There is in fact a pervasive and long-standing misconception that conservatism does not offer a compelling political philosophy. Of course, this is a convenient account for critics to advance. Conservatism for them is the irrational perspective of those who make a futile stand against the inevitable march of historical progress. It is synonymous with reactionism — the defence of the status quo simply because it is the status quo. From this perspective, even a conservatism that admits of the necessity or desirability of some change remains intellectually contentless: other political perspectives offer substantive ideas for altering and improving society, whilst conservatives merely hitch on to such ideas parasitically, slowing down change but not fundamentally altering its direction. Conservatism can be an “echo”, but it is never a “voice”. For John Stuart Mill, this made the Conservative Party — the institutional manifestation of conservatism — the “stupid party”.

The reason why this misconception is so entrenched, though, is because it has also often been advanced by well-intentioned friends seeking to distinguish conservatism from doctrinaire political philosophies. The scholar Russell Kirk, so influential in the establishment of post-war American conservatism, argued, “the conservative mind and the ideological mind stand at opposite poles.” In Stuart Hughes’s words, conservatism is the very “negation” of ideology. Rather than a creed of fixed values, it is sometimes argued that conservatism is a “disposition” that lacks an intellectual core and is defined instead by a scepticism about intellectualism itself.

Such an attitude is also to be found in some approaches to the person regarded as the intellectual father of modern conservatism. There is a scholarly view that there is no system or order to Edmund Burke’s political thought; indeed, some have suggested that this should be emphasised, “for only through understanding the flexibility of his thought can we appreciate its richness, its variety and its humanity”. Burke’s chastising of the abstract theories of “metaphysicians” lends weight to this understanding.

The result is that conservatives are often treated as being essentially “incapable of thinking about politics in a way that can be analysed or understood by even the rawest of observers or scholars”. This can lead to a particularly condescending understanding of conservatism. Whilst those espousing liberalism or socialism have their arguments and values recognised at face value, efforts are made to explain away conservatism in individuals as the product of psychological factors like a fear of change or the result of a particular upbringing. 

This is a faulty assessment. Conservatism is certainly undogmatic and sceptical. Its adherents question the notion of timeless answers to political quandaries, and they are uncertain about the power of human reason to transcend certain elemental facts about our individual and collective existence. They know too that the nature of conservatism itself will change with context, both temporal and geographical. As Lord Hailsham wrote in 1947, “the last thing conservatives believe is that they have the monopoly of the truth. They do not even claim the monopoly of conservatism”. 

Scepticism — about the wisdom of men and women in a particular time and place, of the capacity of human reason to fundamentally alter human nature — does not mean the spurning of ideas themselves, however. Conservatism is not devoid of political philosophy; nor is it frightened of defending principles or values robustly. Conservatism is and must be more than an antipathy to change. It is distinct from mere “orthodoxy” — it defends certain customs, institutions or arrangements for a reason, not simply because they exist. 

Nor can it be understood simply as political gradualism. A view of conservatism as the policy of incremental change would leave little to distinguish it from Fabianism or reformist liberalism. Conservatives have to stand for something; they must be able to provide an answer to the question, “what will you conserve?”.

Conservatism is a “genuine, if unsystematic, philosophy”. Recognising this is critical in a liberal democracy like ours, in which those who govern must seek permission from the public and compete with proponents of other political doctrines to secure it. Whilst socialists and liberals can be nourished by a repeated appeal to the force of their political ideal — be it equality or liberty — conservatives in their scepticism about dogmatic ideology are inherently liable to becoming ambivalent about the values that they embrace. In their concern for the world as it is and in their preference for empiricism over abstraction, conservatives are prone to becoming preoccupied with instrumental thinking — what Mathew Arnold called “machinery” — at the expense of considering more profoundly what ends they should pursue.

Conservatism is not a comprehensive philosophy of reality, but “certain beliefs about the activity of governing and the instruments of government”. It is the rationale of the fundamental necessity of stable and cohesive political order for human flourishing. Whilst some on the left view order as inherently oppressive and exploitative, and certain types of liberalism consider order merely as a necessary evil, conservatives recognise order as a vitally important good in itself which also makes the pursuit of all other human values possible. Order and freedom are not juxtaposed in conservatism; it is order that makes freedom itself possible.

Order in the conservative view is sui generis, infinitely complex and organic — it is not the rational creation of a particular set of men and women at a particular time, but the sedimented wisdom of history. That complexity means conservatives have a unique reverence for the past and a corresponding scepticism, substantiated by experience, of the rational capacity of individuals to devise better forms of polity from first principles. This creates a presumption in favour of those institutions, customs and arrangements that exist and have existed for a long time. That is not to say that all things that have endured are good; such is clearly not the case. It does place the burden of proof upon the person that would seek fundamental or revolutionary change, however. 

Institutions contain an inner logic that many political creeds do not understand

The object of the conservative, then, is passing on inherited forms of political order that are productive of human flourishing to the next generation. This gives conservatism a particular disposition on change. It is not hostile to change; conservatives often see change as positively desirable. The purpose of change in conservatism is to improve, to reform in order to conserve — not to bend that which exists to some abstract ideal. Conservatives worry about change that might compromise whatever makes a particular political order distinctive, which is why they generally attach such importance to repair and reform, rather than transformation. 

It is through the lens of preserving political orders which have been conducive to human flourishing that conservatives consider all other political questions. Conservatives recognise that humans are both individuals who desire self-expression, and deeply social beings too who achieve meaning and value through their relationships with others. They seek to guard against the social individuation of the political community through liberal excess, but also against the domination of the individual by the political community through an overbearing state. Solidarity and common identity are required for political orders to endure, but the whole point of political orders is to create the space and freedom in which humans might flourish. Order, then, requires the conservative to balance these two aspects of human existence; when taken to extremes, either can be deleterious. 

Conservatism values liberty as one of the things that political order is intended to facilitate, but it also recognises that complete liberty constitutes the problem which political associations are designed to overcome: namely, how do we get a collection of individuals to act together to address collective problems? Conservatives, unlike liberals, contend that liberty is one value amongst many, and they distinguish strongly between liberty and licence. 

Conservatives defend institutions, but not because they conform to some metaphysical or objective truth (although they might believe they do, their scepticism cautions them against founding a political society on such a basis). They defend them because of the role they play in sustaining political orders. They contain an inner logic that many other political creeds do not understand or attach weight to — a historical rationality and purpose that is independent of human design, but which helps to preserve the cohesiveness of a political community by channelling change and providing markers of common identity.

Markets are a particular institution that conservatives defend robustly. They create prosperity, abundance and jobs to support society. Despite the pronouncements of certain economists, their workings are spontaneous, not necessarily consciously designed; their wisdom transcends that of individuals, which is why conservatives are habitually sceptical of the economic planner. However, conservatives also recognise that free market liberalism is only “half true, and whilst markets are effective at establishing prices, they are often ineffective at helping us determine value. Markets can work to undermine order and society when they foster unsustainable inequalities or erode the things that we value in common.

Is conservatism ready to supply the ideas that will shape the future of the country? It can and should. To do this, conservatives need, as RJ White put it, to return to the “wells of doctrine” for refreshment. There is much more to be said beyond what I have set out here, and the question of how these principles translate in the present context ought to be a subject of debate for conservatism’s advocates and practitioners. We all need to engage once again with both history and philosophy; to think more determinedly about what political ends should be sought by conservatives in government, and what principles and values we should be defending more broadly in the public square and in our institutions. The notion that such things are divorced from the everyday concerns of voters is false: it is in the marketplace of ideas that the solutions to even our most intractable policy problems are to be found.

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