Monday, 5 May 2014

Defining Conservatism, by Arthur Gwylim

Political language has become detached from objective meaning. Conservatism is now synonymous with liberalism.

Yet the two are radically different.

If we are to retain a conservative tradition, then we must re-establish a coherent and accurate definition.

This is surprisingly difficult. What is its foundation? The answer suggested here is both radical and simple.

Conservatives place great importance on conserving the best from past generations.

They mourn the passing of the shopkeeper, the farmer and bus conductor. They distrust their replacements: the supermarket, more supermarkets, and the train manager.

They seek law and order; they are patriotic, but not nationalistic.  They defend the family.

They are sceptical of the state, but also of the market: they don’t want their lives run by politicians or by big business.

They believe in fairness, but do not like discrimination in the name of that fairness.  They respect others, but hate the demand for rights at every opportunity.

These may be mere instincts, in no way amounting to a coherent strand of political thought.

There are of course those who are merely sentimental. But to dismiss all such views as being little more than a regretful sigh over the rising of a lesser sun would be intellectual cowardice. Beneath these views is a coherent foundation.

Liberalism’s foundation is the individual: his freedom; his desires; his rights.

Much of modern socialism in Britain has its foundation in equality through state intervention.

By focusing on what he can demand from the state or from other individuals, people are encouraged to look inwards, replacing a man’s relationships with his peers with the state.

The liberal’s campaign for individual choice destroys his community.

By putting himself first, he will act to the detriment of others: the relationship between him and his neighbour weakens.

This creates a vacuum for state intervention: to do what the community used to do. Individualists end up with bigger government.

The UK government now spends the same proportion of GDP as it did just before the Thatcher experiment, despite each of her predecessors promoting her economic legacy.

Since 1945, it is only in this economically liberal climate that it is acceptable to nationalise a bank.

Whether one follows liberalism or socialism, the experiment ends up with a bureaucracy doing for people what they can do for themselves.

They need not rely on each other and so have no need for loyalty, self-sacrifice or charitable love.

Such attributes are outward looking, while the relationship with the state or relationships within a market economy are inward looking.

The man bred on feeding from the big state will ask what that state can give him. The man bred on feeding from the market will ask what the market can give him.

If selfishness is not conservatism’s basis, then we must look to its opposite.

The foundation of true conservatism then has to be this: love.

Love is meant in a broad sense: outward looking; selfless; charitable, familial and brotherly as well as romantic. Ultimately, this means putting others first.

This may confuse the left winger who sees himself as the ideologue of love.

But there is no love in putting all dependency in the state.  There is no love in giving bureaucrats and politicians god-like power.

It will inevitably prompt sniggering to think of a starch-collared; tweed clad Colonel Blimp basing his politics on love.

However, love is neither soft-nosed nor inherently left wing. Conservatism’s foundation in love is best illustrated by its fundamental principles.

The most obvious element of conservatism is that it is intergenerational. Why do conservatives so often look backwards?

Conservatives respect those who have gone before: they do not always know better than their predecessors; they are not inherently more enlightened.

Their social contract is one with other generations: those passed and those to come. So the question could just as easily be put: why do conservatives look so far forwards?

Conservatives are trustees: they inherit a society from their forefathers; they preserve it and improve it for their children.

This is a form of love. It is a refusal to ‘live for today’ and an avoidance of the temptation for each generation to return to ‘year zero’.

It is an act of collective love when a generation sacrifices its own comfort for the good of its successors.

Today, it is never experienced. If it was, our attitudes to our natural surroundings would be radically different.

This trusteeship demands conservatives protect institutions.

Be they state organs, constitutional concepts, or other bodies, they are greater than any one man or government.

They are the anchors at the bow and the stern: keeping us fixed to the wisdom of our fathers and the wellbeing of our children.

An institution is not bound to market interests or profit and should be quite distinct from the state.

There is always a danger of traditionalism, but progressivism passes without criticism.  In the last thirty years, we have despised our constitutional heritage, tearing down idols such as parliamentary sovereignty, the unitary state and the absence of enshrined human rights.

Yet we find our constitution breaking apart: devolution is uncertain and unstable; the EU has more power than most understand; accountability seeps away like spilled water through the floorboards.

Our politicians have squandered our inheritance and have shattered the delicate balance. This balance, it turns out, carried more wisdom than we realised.

The greatest of these institutions is our country itself. Conservatives are patriotic.

The country is inherited, its history, its legends and its shame.  It unites and causes people to look to their common interest.

The conservative is more apt to see themselves in the context of a hundred generations before and the generations yet to come.

It also makes people more aware of their culture.

Liberalism and statelessness threaten us with a ‘cultural free market’ of sorts, sacrificing cultural beauty and its quirks on the altar of the most dominant cultural forces.

Love for a country and its culture can defend its people against this. The French for instance, do this better than most.

Another element of conservatism is community.

With an ideological scepticism of excessive state and market, it follows that the conservative prefers community.

Conservatism sees the best society as the one which stands by itself: without being engineered by either the state or by ‘market forces’. Such a society is not composed of self seeking individuals or automatons.

Community encourages and embodies a form of love. Very simply: “love your neighbour as yourself”.

It is when you have this love, or respect, that people see wrongs in their true light: harm against themselves.

When you do not love a person, it is easy to put them in the hands of the state.

It is easy to be kind and nod with approval when they are given subsidies rather than a job, or allowed to follow some dubious moral choice: it does not affect you.

But when you love someone, you see the enforced idleness that will kill them ten years early; the horror of addiction and the desolation of emotional damage.

Only when this love exists are we moved to act, we personally look after our weak.

This is why conservatives believe in a strong approach to law and order: the community must be protected.

Crime is not viewed as something which merely does harm to individuals.

It is a refusal to show respect; the criminal deems himself more important than the community: he is content to harm others to get what he wants.

It is both an exalting of his self and a refusal to give to others, which are ultimately the same thing: a lack of love.

“The law” can be seen by the conservative as having an almost spiritual significance. He is deterred by the very prospect of breaking the law.

It can be explained by the everyday remark: “well if we all did that, where would we end up?

But beneath this lies the very wise realisation that community can only survive where restraint is exercised out of respect for others.

It is also why conservatives believe in the family.

Family is the first instance of love that the fortunate will experience.

It teaches us not to think of ourselves; to love and to be loved. It is the first community. It is also our first trust: we inherit from our parents; we maintain and improve; we pass on. We live out these ideas in the family, and then in our community.

The family is not simply something to which conservatives have a sentimental attachment; it embodies precisely the values that are fundamental to conservatism: love; respect; selflessness; trusteeship and community.

The big state, small state dichotomy has failed because it arrives at the same liberal consensus. True conservatism has the power to break this orthodoxy.

It may be surprising to speak of conservatism as based on love, but it is consistent with its principles and is radical enough to realign left and right wing conservatives against the liberalism dominating British politics.

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