What is the point of studying the history of ideas? One reason, argued Quentin Skinner in Liberty before Liberalism, is to inoculate us against “becoming too readily bewitched” under the “spell of our own intellectual heritage”. We live in a world intellectually sculpted by history’s victors, and we might find attractive ideas in the rubble of the past, ideas which for some reason or other never got to have their moment in the sun. Then, having raised good ideas from the grave, like Dr Frankenstein we may try to stitch them together and bring them to life.
Skinner sought to do this for what he called “neo-roman” republican liberty — a school of thought which, in his view, was beaten out by Thomas Hobbes (and later liberals) so comprehensively that, by the time Sir Isaiah Berlin got round to conceptualising liberty, it barely figured at all. Likewise, F.A. Hayek saw the germ of his own liberalism — local knowledge and spontaneous order — in the Scottish Enlightenment: for him, the great tragedy of history, perhaps even setting the world on course for the totalitarian calamities of the 20th century, was that sound whigs like David Hume and Adam Smith were eventually eclipsed amongst the liberals by the ghost of Descartes, and by the rationalism and pretension of Jeremy Bentham. On the left, British Marxists like Christopher Hill liked to play this game with the Levellers and Diggers, yearning for the 17th century revolution that “never happened” but might, in another world, have established “communal property” and “a far wider democracy”. “Upside down”, wrote Hill at the end of his most famous book, is a “relative concept … We may be too conditioned by the way up the world has been for the last three hundred years to be fair to those in the seventeenth century who saw other possibilities”.
The Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony, whose “National Conservative” movement caused such a stir in the press last week at its annual conference, doesn’t have all that much in common with Skinner, Hayek or Hill. He does share with them, and indeed with many thinkers and ideologues, an unshakable conviction that he is in some sense the heir to an ancient, venerable, but forgotten intellectual tradition — and that the point of history is not only to see, but also to bring back, those “other possibilities” left on the wayside. He sees his mission, the mission of National Conservatism, as being the resuscitation of an “Anglo-American tradition” which — like Skinner’s neo-roman liberty, Hayek’s “true liberalism” or Hill’s Digger communism — happened ultimately, and unfortunately, to lose. Its loss is, for Hazony, the source of many of today’s ills.
The basic fact is that Locke did, after all, influence the Founding Fathers
Skinner took Hobbes as the lamentable point of departure; for Hayek this was Bentham, and for Hill it was probably Cromwell the moment he quashed the Levellers at Burford in 1649. For Hazony, this role is played by John Locke. In brief, Hazony’s version of the history of political thought looks something like this. There is a deep “Anglo-American” political tradition, an “Anglo-American conservatism”, built upon the principles of “historical empiricism”, “nationalism”, “religion”, “limited executive power” and “individual freedoms”. Rooted ultimately in scripture, it was given voice in the later Middle Ages by John Fortescue, and it persisted into modernity in great minds ranging from John Selden to Edmund Burke (after whom Hazony named his Foundation), down to some of America’s Founding Fathers like Washington, Adams and Hamilton. This tradition, wrote Hazony in a long article with his compatriot Ofir Haivry, was eventually beaten by the rationalism of John Locke and his disciples. In America a revolution that apparently could have wriggled out of Locke’s shadow was ultimately betrayed by the Lockean Thomas Jefferson.
Lockean liberalism, the victor in this ideological struggle, is on Hazony’s account a seductive, pernicious ideology, based on universal principles and arrogant about the capacity of human reason. Perhaps because it has hoodwinked us into believing that it lay behind the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776, it has its stalwart adherents in the West. Many intellectuals call themselves conservatives when, more properly in Hazony’s eyes, they are Lockean liberals. Thus you find many “conservatives” who really want only to conserve what they abstractly call “liberal democracy”, rather than things like family, community and religion. This confusion was not so significant for much of the 20th century, when liberals and conservatives were united against the common enemies of fascism and communism. Now, in the 21st century, it is the responsibility of real conservatives — National Conservatives — to escape from this morass: to revive their long-lost battle against the Lockean liberals and, this time, to win it.
Academics should always take caution before ascribing world-historical significance to whatever it is they happen to study. It is natural that a scholar of Jeremiah and Esther should see Biblical resonances everywhere he looks, and that a scholar of John Selden will find the 17th century polymath lurking behind every corner and beneath every stone. Hazony sets liberalism in opposition to the wisdom of Hebrew scripture, obviously favouring the latter: “Whereas Hebrew scripture depicts human reason as weak, capable only of local knowledge, and generally unreliable, liberalism depicts human reason as exceedingly powerful, capable of universal knowledge, and accessible to anyone who will but consult it”. This account of liberalism runs entirely counter to the thought of, say, Adam Smith, and it is unrecognisable to those of us who take the Hayekian line in matters of intellectual history — that liberalism is, if anything, founded on scepticism about the scope of reason and knowledge.
I take issue with other features of Hazony’s idiosyncratic account of the history of political thought. I cannot understand why anyone who sets out to defend both the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution — Hazony follows his hero, Burke, in attempting both — would denigrate Locke, much of whose thought underpinned the first and inspired the second. Hazony struggles to escape the basic fact that Locke did, after all, influence the Founding Fathers. “Was the American Revolution an upheaval based on Lockean universal reason and universal rights?” he asks — and of course the thrust of his answer is “no”, or at least “no, with the sizable caveat of Thomas Jefferson”. In reality the more traditional point of view is that, whilst there were some opponents of Jefferson who “admired the English constitution that they had inherited and studied”, they all, even those members of Hazony’s conservative pantheon, bought into Lockean ideas about “universal reason and universal rights”. “The sacred rights of mankind,” wrote Hamilton in The Farmer Refuted, “are not to be rummaged for amongst old parchments or musty records”, as perhaps Hazony and Haivry would have us do. “They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” Earlier in that text, Hamilton explicitly recommends to his interlocutor that he read Locke — along with another thinker disparaged by Hazony, Hugo Grotius.
Hazony’s defence of the American Revolution and the “Founding Fathers” may be expedient before American audiences, but it falls flat with British ones. Ultimately it leads to the kind of intellectual confusion that National Conservatism attempts to break from. This elision between the Revolutions of 1688 and 1776, which Hazony (like Burke) sees effectively as one and the same, points to a serious problem with what we might call the foundation myth of National Conservatism. Hazony talks of an “Anglo-American political tradition” — variations on that wording occur a dozen times in one of his articles, and it is the thing being rediscovered in his book Conservatism: A Rediscovery. The phrase flattens distinctions that, to liberals and conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, are real and profound, however.
American thinkers sought ultimately to write their own constitution anew
Hazony and Haivry overstate the constitutional similarities between Britain and America. To say that the Founding Fathers of America merely “adapted” the “traditional English constitution” is quite an understatement: in fact, the Americans rejected every significant aspect of the English constitution, preferring to construct their own from scratch. The Glorious Revolution established in law principles of political government that were widely believed to have already been the case. In the years after 1776, American thinkers, though doubtless drawing upon a range of influences, sought ultimately to write their own constitution anew — guided, as they did so, by a lofty belief in rationality of the sort that Hazony likes to criticise. We can say that the American constitution was written and invented in a way that the British constitution simply was not.
This elision weakens the cohesiveness of the National Conservative ideology. “For some decades,” complains Haivry, “the Anglo-American tradition has been subjected to an attempt at ‘retro-fitting’ into liberal Enlightenment principles.” In fact no “retro-fitting” is necessary for the American political tradition, which really was a product of the Enlightenment. “Some are claiming,” he continues, “that the American and British constitutions were essentially born out of liberal Enlightenment principles” — but the key philosophical divide is that the American constitution was born out of those principles, and that its British counterpart, cobbled together organically over the centuries, was not. We might more justly say that there exist two traditions, one British and the other American. One consists of a hereditary crown subject to a sovereign parliament; the other makes supposedly “universal” and “rational” 18th century words the highest law in the land. It thus lodges the highest power in those who divine their meaning.
How does “God Save the King” — the kind of sentiment one might expect to hear a lot of at a conference of British conservatives, especially in the glow of the first coronation in seventy years — fit into an “Anglo-American tradition”? The answer is that it doesn’t, because no such tradition exists. It doesn’t because really, in the end, the political society envisioned by the American revolutionaries, whilst praised by Hazony, was the product of the sort of Lockean Enlightenment rationalism that he wants to consign to the intellectual dustbin of history.
All this means that Britain, relatively unique amongst the nations in not having any major rupture with its past, offers the National Conservatives, just as it offers Hayekian liberals, a much better model for their political ideals than America ever could. Yet the insistence of the National Conservatives on speaking of an “Anglo-American political tradition” betrays a point widely made, though little articulated, in the varied and at times hysterical media reaction to NatCon 2023: that something alien to what we might call the British tradition is afoot. Whatever points of common ground we share with our American cousins, the constitutional differences are fundamental. It is a strange rescue mission that seeks to salvage from the rubble something that never really existed. Let it rather be the British tradition and the British constitution, not this “Anglo-American” fantasy, which British conservatives and British liberals alike should, if perhaps for different reasons, strive to defend.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe