Conserving Conservatism: Defining Our Beliefs

Alex Illingworth argues that conservatives need to agree on the principles which define their philosophy

studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, (1767-1769)

Conservatism is notoriously difficult to define. Some, such as Roger Scruton, have defined it as an attitude rather than an ideology. If you look up “conservatism” on the internet, you will likely find a plethora of websites and online dictionaries defining it as an ideology, whilst some prefer to term it a “philosophy.” Indeed, conservatism tends to manifest itself philosophically within each nation that it takes arises in. For instance, in Britain, the philosophical branch of traditional conservatism has come to be known as “Toryism”, whereas say in France, conservatism has become defined by a split between the stubbornly traditionalist and minority “Legitimism” and the more mainstream, republican “Gaullism.” It is probably wrong to reject the ideological potential of conservatism altogether, as Scruton does, but in order to harness conservatism as a political force in competition with other ideologies, it pays to understand the definition of what the “conservative” believes in.

Conservatism is anti-ideological

At its heart, the philosophical position called “conservatism” is anti-ideological. The reason for this is simply because conservatism founds its principles upon a set of fixed ideas, which do not change whatever the circumstances of the age. An ideology is what is known as a “normative” phenomenon in philosophy, that is to say, it judges the world by a set of criteria based on how a political society should be rather than how it is. Marx famously criticised ideology for distracting the working classes from becoming conscious of their present situation, and was embodied by social forces such as religion, the infamous “opium of the masses.” A conservative would not necessarily disagree with Marx that ideology can be a distraction from what matters, but he would defend religion on the grounds that religious doctrine represents timeless truth – precisely what the conservative considers to be overlooked by mere ideology. It is for this same reason that, when a conservative voices opposition to something such as abortion, he does not do so out of prejudice towards the mother, or hatred of the rights of women, but rather because he considers it a universal truth that wherever life is created, it should be preserved. Despite the pretentions of many on the political left, the pro-life case is not a new idea designed to further the oppression of the female sex – it is instead a timeless truth, a virtue in its valuation of the life of the child, and its opposition to the perceived selfishness of forgetting that there is indeed a child growing in the womb of the mother.

There is of course a problem here, which is that conservatives do not always behave like this in politics. We all know the stereotype of the Old Tory curmudgeon, the stubbornly reactionary conservative who apparently only expresses discontent at the policies of social liberalism out of some kind of innate contempt for human progress. Such people no-doubt exist, as the unduly prejudiced exist on both the political left and right. Also, when society turns against the values that the conservative seeks to conserve, the conservative seems obliged to become active in order to support the kind of societal organisation that he thinks ought to be used. In short, the conservative becomes ideological. We often talk about political “movements”, with perhaps the most important grassroots movement of contemporary British politics being the Labour Party’s Momentum. Whatever your opinion on Momentum, what cannot be denied is its success in effecting the mass-mobilisation of people. What underlies its appeal? Ideology. Specifically, a moralising ideology which pins its own value upon the supposed valuation of others: specifically, the working classes, the unfairly judged, and the generally downtrodden. There are some conservative grassroots movements, but none on the same scale or success as Momentum. Perhaps this stems from the natural conservative suspicion of mass-movements, but when push comes to shove, it makes effecting political change difficult. Is a conservative truly defined by his own self-reservation?

We might consider it odd that conservatism has become a political forced detached from effecting change, or as it is termed here, “movement”. It was a German counterrevolutionary economist and essayist, Adam Müller, who became one of the principal theorists of “movement in politics” as detailed in his massive 1809 work Elemente der Staatskunst (Elements of Statecraft, see esp. Preface and Chapter 1, currently unavailable in English, but available to those who can read German here). Müller considered himself to be working in the same tradition as conservatives such as Burke, viewing society organically, timelessly, and transcendentally. He even presented his ideas to the some of the chief organisers of the Congress of Vienna – one of the largest projects of conservative restructuring in European history. Müller’s term Bewegung, which is translated politically as “movement”, derives from the verb bewegen, in German: “to persuade, induce, stir up”. Political movement is about persuasion, or the effecting of movement in the preferred direction. Conservatives needn’t worry about ideological accusations if their aims are set on effecting movement towards respect for timeless principles and virtues.

Threats to Conservatism

There are nevertheless numerous threats to traditional conservative attempts to effect this kind of movement. The biggest threats are arguably within modern conservative politics itself, rather than outside it in the forms of socialist and liberal parties. The two biggest elephants in the room would appear to be neoconservatism and ‘liberal’ or ‘compassionate conservatism’ – neither of these terms are necessarily mutually exclusive. Neoconservatism is a strange phenomenon indeed, with its roots in American politics, which combines perceived conservative ideas such as pro-military budgets and jingoistic attitudes towards war (which are by no means exclusive conservative attitudes) and combining them with a slavish devotion to terms such as ‘liberal democracy’. Hence, neoconservatism can be combined with almost any ideology of left or right: we see both right-neocons such as Douglas Murray and left-wing flirters with neoconservatism such as Tony Blair. Neoconservatism is ideological in the worst possible way. It not only assumes, as the left does, that present order of social liberalism is the natural end of progressive history, but it also assumes that it is right to enforce this ideology upon other nations by means of military intervention if necessary. That is in fact highly morally questionable, and distinctly un-conservative. Compassionate conservatism on the other hand not only smears traditional conservatism by its existence, implying that older forms of conservatism lack compassion altogether, but presents a false image of conservatism – conflating liberal social policy and hackneyed economic platitudes about “responsibility” with conservatism whilst neglecting the timeless principles that matter: family, religion, the social organism, in favour of equality, tolerance, and other vague abstractions. In short: there has been a conceited attempt in our own age to redefine conservatism, and shove traditional values to the extremes of politics.

When we think seriously about conserving what it means to be conservative, therefore, it is important to first define conservatism’s nature and positions. Conservatism is highly dynamic in terms of how it expresses itself, even if its philosophy is more dogmatic than it is subservient to fad. The most important thing for conservatives to do, especially those who feel disillusioned with conservatism as it stands in contemporary “conservative” parties is to ground themselves in the traditional values of conservatism – to remember that their aims do not require a purely ideological obsession with policy and change. If conservatism wants to remain a political force as well as an intellectual one, it is crucial that conservatives remain as concerned about conserving the meaning within their own movement as they are concerned with the state of the societies they live in.

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