What is conservatism? This question, prompted by Bruce Newsome on The Conservative Woman, should be central to debate in the final round of the Conservative Party leadership contest. To date, the candidates’ answers have been anodyne, and have revealed their penchant for state Leftism (do they think it’s the Labour membership who will elect them?) when making their policy promises. Boris Johnson managed the best potted (theoretical) summary, which is ironic given that he is much more a liberal globalist than a conservative. Perhaps he knows best of them how to tell an audience what it wants to hear.
Bruce Newsome summarised modern conservatism as being rooted in classical liberalism and committed to freedom, merit, personal responsibility, limited and accountable government, patriotism and free trade. Family and marriage – the key bulwark against state power – per se didn’t make his cut, though we can assume they fall under personal responsibility.
What all sensible definitions of conservatism have in common is an understanding of the best of human nature as opposed to dogmas of equality which assume that man is not to be trusted to control his brutish self, and only Big Brother State can determine and manage human outcomes fairly. Mutuality, the core of conservatism, is the one most ignored by the Left.
Progressives (or socialists, or liberals if you’re an American) today believe in equality of outcome, hence their love of imposing diversity quotas, equality targets, positive discrimination, identity politics, feminism and so forth. They’re obsessed with working out how to make everyone end up in the same place, either on some absolute measure or according to some proportion they supposedly occupy in society.
Conservatives (and classical liberals) simply disagree with this as a goal. While accepting that it is not ideal if society becomes too unequal economically, conservatives champion merit and hard work. The true conservative knows that equality of opportunity, while something to be striven for in the provision of decent schooling across the board, is inherently a logical, practical and ethical impossibility (are all babies are to be ripped from their mothers at birth to give them an equal start?) while equality or parity of outcome is not just unrealistic and tokenistic but worse, unfair, in that it contradicts those other conservative values of competition, merit and enterprise.
Conservatives recognise that people are different and unequal in a number of important ways. They respect the notion of free will: that people have their own minds and make their own choices. They respect that some are more determined than others to get on and improve their lot. That to do this, people need to take responsibility for themselves and their families. They respect and value that humans also want to help each other, want to depend on each other within their families and communities, and are charitable. Little wonder that conservatives have such a close affinity with Christianity. They are concerned, too, that government needs to be accountable if it is not to become corrupt and oppressive. That means the size of government must be limited.
Above all, conservatives understand the need to conserve what is good, how long it takes to create and how quick and easy it is destroy what has been built up over years.
Morality for conservatives starts with these facts. However, there is always a progressive temptation for conservatives. It arises because of the link between morality and equality. Conservatives think of this in terms of equality before the law, equal opportunity, equal dignity and so on. But the danger is that other forms of socialised equality can creep in to conservative thinking and corrupt it.
Take opportunity, a solid free enterprise as well as classical liberal principle. Apply it with too much zeal and people start to ask about whether a person’s background or sex or other characteristic disadvantages or advantages them, and they try to address that or make up for it. In their determination to create equality of outcome, they become discriminatory, dismissive and oppressive.
All this the Conservative Party of recent years has lost touch with. Under David Cameron and then Theresa May, the progressive commitment to equality of outcomes has featured more and more in its thinking and policy positions. It is telling that the most conservative of the leadership contenders (Esther McVey, Dominic Raab and Andrea Leadsom) were among the first to go. Even they made broad Leftist commitments to increased public spending, in McVey’s case to all public sector workers.
The party’s capitulation to the Left – the feminist lobby, the diversity grievance industry, the LGBT lobby, the green lobby – has been swift and thorough, alienating large numbers of its natural supporters. Though it is crying out for a leader who can see this and would have the fortitude to call it out and face down the left in his own party as well as in the institutions, neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Hunt seems remotely likely to do that.
Boris is unlikely to be much more conservative than his immediate predecessors. His instincts are for high immigration (of which he describes himself a ‘passionate’ supporter) and he is a natural liberal forced into a conservative mould only by democratic calculation.
Jeremy Hunt may be more conservative in nature and in personal habit and lifestyle, but he seems fully signed up to the progressive state.
They both need challenging in the coming hustings. The party itself needs to take a long hard look at itself and what it stands for before, with its aping of the Left, it disappears into electoral irrelevance.
(Image: Conservative Party poster from 1909)