Returned to power by their Liberal Democrat partners, the Conservatives have emerged as the overwhelmingly dominant force inside the coalition government – embarking yet again on what promise to be sweeping efforts to remodel Britain’s welfare state, but apparently bereft of any clear economic strategy. Ahead of the LSE Sociology Department’s upcoming conference on the “New Conservatism”, Andrew Gamble, Paul Kelly, Robin Archer, Sarah Childs, Tim Bale, Roger Scruton and Daniel Finkelstein offer their assessments of the contemporary state of Conservatism.
There is not one tradition of British conservatism but rather a number of different traditions, which often intermingle and overlap. In domestic policy these traditions have included high Tories, low Tories, one nation Conservatives, social imperialists and market liberals, and in foreign affairs – imperialists, Atlanticists, Europeans, and isolationists. Conservatives have differed in how they have interpreted Empire and how they have interpreted liberty. Different traditions have often been quite sharply opposed to one another, and their influence has waxed and waned. But the most important tradition of all has been its statecraft, winning power and governing.
This has been shaped by particular historical contexts and by the response of the party’s leaders to them. These contexts include revolution and reaction; free trade and protection; empire and democracy; socialism and appeasement; welfare and decline. Conservative statecraft has been defined less by particular ideas and doctrines than by the political practice of the party and its leaders, but ideas have always played an important part in shaping their responses.
The party’s modern statecraft was built around five pillars – union, empire, property, welfare and the Constitution – and for a long time they made the party extremely adaptable, helping it to recover extremely quickly from electoral defeats. The resilience of the party and its ability to renew itself, drawing on different traditions from its past and adapting to new conditions, have always been its greatest strength, but there have been times when these qualities were not so evident.
With the perpetual decline and fracturing of the Liberal Party throughout the twentieth century, liberal ideas and ideology have been in search of a new political vehicle. Much of the conventional focus is on the amalgamation of liberal ideas with the Labour party. Much of the history of the Labour Party since the Second World War has been one of awkward attempt to graft a liberal left ideological project onto a corporatist institutional structure and movement.
Yet of more current interest is the way in which Liberal thought and ideas have been absorbed into the heart of modern conservatism, at least as it is manifested in the British Conservative Party. Political conservatism from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron has been influenced by the thought of the two intellectual giants of British conservatism – Michael Oakeshott and Freidrich Hayek: both of whom are also liberals and both of whom are also concerned with the complex relation between conservative politics and policy and liberal ideas.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, illustrates this complex but sympathetic alignment between political conservatism and liberal ideas – one could almost characterize Cameron and Osborne’s (or should that be Clegg’s) conservatism as and Orange Book conservatism, after the now infamous Liberal text of 2004. Misunderstanding this relationship involves misunderstanding the bases of the coalition and its potential resilience.
I argue that the ideological terrain of British politics is liberalism and the question facing parties is where they position themselves on that terrain, this is especially true of Cameron’s Conservative party as he has sought to re-position conservatism as socially progressive, or at least not reactionary. Second, I examine the contribution of Oakeshott and Hayek in the development of that position and contrast their contribution with that of two other liberal giants Isaiah Berlin and Herbert Hart who have shaped Jenkinsite liberal democracy. Third, I suggest that attempts to challenge the liberal terrain on which conservative politics must be conducted, such as Philip Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’ are either doomed to failure or more likely will be assimilated and neutralized in the liberal project of New Conservatism. In short I argue that the New Conservatism is liberalism.
Conservatism and the Left – are there points of convergence?
In the lead up to the 2010 British general election there was much discussion about whether conservatism had begun to incorporate elements of left-wing thought. Some of David Cameron’s leading intellectual supporters even began to characterize themselves as Red Tories. I want to focus instead on some developments in leftwing thought itself, and in particular on the emergence of what we might call Tory Reds. Whatever else they disagreed about, leftists of all stripes have long believed in the capacity of human beings to act collectively to improve fundamental features of their societies. But, in the late twentieth century, there seems to have been a historic retreat from this Enlightenment-based commitment. Much of the left – including the green left – now appears to share views that were traditionally associated with conservatism. What are the sources of this leftwing conservatism, and which, if any, of its arguments should be accepted?
Recent developments in the gender and politics literature suggest that studying the substantive representation of women is much more complicated than counting the number of women present in a particular political institution and judging the actions of women representatives against a feminist shopping list of demands. The acknowledgement of the diversity and likely contested nature of claims to act for women coincides with an emerging appreciation that the claims for women made by conservative representatives need to be brought more explicitly into our analytic frameworks and empirical studies. Together, these points not only undermine any assumption that the substantive representation of women equals the feminist substantive representation of women but they also raise the possibility of non- and anti-feminist representative claims and actions for women. I will offer some reflections and suggestions about how to take conservatism seriously when studying the substantive representation of women both conceptually and empirically.
The need to protect and promote civil society goes back a long way in Conservative thought. But the idea that it could or should pick up a lot of what we’ve grown used to the government doing is of more recent vintage. It began in the 1980s when the ‘New Right’ began to hark back nostalgically to the solutions that pre-dated the state’s increasing involvement in welfare. But it really gathered momentum when the Tories, looking for lost inspiration and a way to show that they cared about ‘the vulnerable’, looked across the pond to George Bush’s so-called compassionate conservatism. That religiously-inspired vision, combined with a growing vogue for localism and corporate social involvement, as well a desire to reconcile continued enthusiasm for shrinking the state with the need to show voters the party had changed, turned civil society into the Big Society. Yet the public – and even some parts of the Party – don’t really seem to get it. And many of those who do are sceptical to say the least. So can the Big Society really be the red thread that runs through everything the coalition does, or is it really just a passing fad – something that may have been worth a try but that nobody, in the end, will really remember?
Are the new Conservatives conservative?
A closing debate between Roger Scruton and Daniel Finkelstein
Many of the newly reinvigorated conservatives who are close to the Cameron government describe themselves as liberal or progressive, or even as ‘red’. But ideas like these have long been anathema to conservative thinkers. Unlike liberals and socialists, conservatives have typically been sceptical of social and political theories and concerned about the negative unintended consequences of radicalism and social reform. Instead they have emphasised the wisdom embedded in tradition, precedent, and established practices. So what is conservatism? And are the new Conservatives really conservative?
Roger Scruton has long been a leading defender of a traditional version of conservative political philosophy. His works include A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006), and The Uses of Pessimism: And the Dangers of False Hope (2010). He is a resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute and Visiting Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University.
Daniel Finkelstein has championed an idea of liberal or progressive conservatism sometimes promoted by the current Prime Minister. He is executive editor and chief leader writer of The Times, where he also has a regular column. He has been active in the Tory party for twenty years, working in the Conservative Research Department and representing the Conservatives on BBC Newsnight’s regular political panel.
The New Conservatism Conference takes place on Friday 26th November 2010, and some places to attend free of charge are still available. For more details and how to book, please click here.
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