Conservatism means different things to different people. The UK’s recent referendum and general election campaigns have laid this plain to see. The Leave coalition united the libertarian and social conservatives with many on the economic left. Conversely, Theresa May, in tone at least, focused on the need for economic reform for the “just about managing”. When she was not talking about ‘strong and stable government’, that is.
Thus, one cannot definitively say what conservatism “is”, other than the abstract idea of conserving. This website hosts writers much more knowledgeable than I on the history of conservative thought, and I will not try to emulate them. However, I will talk about what conservatism should be in the 21st century.
It is ironic that an ideology whose name derives from a wish to conserve should appear to be uncomfortable with modernity. Moreover, it is ironic that an ideology which focuses on independence in the economic sphere should be so willing to preach control in the social sphere. Yet, that is the impression that many voters have of conservatism and Conservative parties. Indeed, it is the impression conservative politicians often deliberately convey.
Donald Trump’s announcement via Twitter of his “ban” on trans soldiers serving in the US military underlines these inconsistencies. Not only is this a step change in policy, rather than conservation, it also seeks to tell people how to live their lives. It is also stupid – your gender identity has no effect on your ability to serve – and cruel.
Yet, in America at least, it has largely been the left that has criticised the decision. Many mainstream conservatives have been willing to turn a blind eye, if not demonstrate support. This is wrong. For conservatives to succeed in the 21st century, we needs to understand why this is wrong.
To me, being a conservative is about delivering people the freedom to choose how to live their lives. If I was merely speaking about economics then this would not be a controversial statement. The anti-state, anti-regulation side of conservatism is on display almost daily. I personally interpret this need to bring about choice as involving regulation. An individual cannot choose the best way forward if they do not have the requisite information available, or the ability to seek redress if they are misled.
Moreover, we cannot choose our futures if we are without a minimal standard of living. To place this point within the current US political debate, what choices can we really make if we do not even have healthcare? Yet, it is at least obvious how the economically libertarian strand fits within conservatism.
Where does announcing trans people cannot serve within the military fit within this idea of freedom? President Trump claims he is acting because of the medical bill associated with trans individuals, but I don’t believe this for a second. I believe this is a mask for his prejudice, but is also a bizarre justification. If you care about the cost of healthcare, why pick those who are sent into war zones? They, by implication, are those who are most likely to suffer physical and mental illness. Moreover, why exclude the most extraordinary brave individuals, who fight daily for who they are amid horrific stigma, from a job which requires only the extraordinary brave?
More importantly than Donal Trump’s justification, the policy is simply wrong. It shows a conservatism ill at ease with the nation it is supposedly seeking to conserve. It demonstrates an individual trying to discourage the choices of those they claim to represent. How can we respect an individual’s wish to remove the state’s blocks on individual’s economic activity when they seek to instate new blocks on other facets of their lives? Any sincere attempt to remove regulation appears suspect whilst seeking to block ordinary people living their own lives how they wish. We do not follow through with our convictions. We appear to be casting in the dark to find some intellectual basis for an attempt to enrich the chosen few. Never mind if a tax cut or removal of a regulatory burden actually helps make everyone better off. We cannot be doing it for freedom’s sake.
The left has always sought to fix outcomes in commerce, it is something we conservatives frequently rally against. The idea that it was the state’s role to dictate prices or other forms of economic activity is wrong to conservatives. We can justify it, both theoretically and practically. It is time conservatives did so in the social realm, and acknowledge the prejudice within some policy ideas. Otherwise, not only are we inconsistent, unkind and wrong. But in a society of increasing social liberalism, we will soon be unelectable.