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There is no such thing as liberal conservatism
Conservatism is always and everywhere a national phenomenon
British politics is undergoing a realignment which, like bankruptcy, had been happening gradually but is now showing signs of becoming very sudden. The Tory Party is in an open civil war. And it seems to be a winner-takes-all confrontation between two competing visions of the party’s future, which I will follow Steve Davies in calling ‘national’ and ‘liberal’ conservatism. I will do this advisedly, for reasons which I will come to, but whatever terms you use, there is a clear division opening up on the right in the UK between national populists (embodied by Suella Braverman, the recently defenestrated Home Secretary, who wrote an excoriating public letter to the Prime Minister after her dismissal) and an amorphous ‘adults in the room’-style centrist-dadism that it is appropriate, as we shall see, to refer to as liberal.
There are four things to say about this - so bear with me. The first is straightforward, short, and is being talked about a lot. The second is also straightforward and short, but is not really being talked about at all. The third is less straightforward, but still short, and is being talked about even less. And the fourth is very long and complicated, but I think important. Buckle in for the ride as we deal with them one by one.
First: the split is real and obvious, and the most likely outcome is that the Conservative Party will lose the next election, will be captured entirely by the national populists, and will then become the sole party for social conservatives in the UK. I say this purely because I think that is the path of least resistance. There are already two major political parties in the country, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have the liberal centrist-dadism game sewn up (three such parties if you count the SNP), and the only way for the Tories to develop a USP is to do something different. There may be an attempt to form a new party - Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Brexit campaign and also the 2019 general election win, is already openly talking about this, and Matt Goodwin has also made noises in that direction. It may well occur. But since a revolution within the Tory Party is the easiest path to ultimate electoral victory, I think that is what will end up happening, and this revamped version of the party is what will crystallise as the main governing pretender on the right in the UK after an inevitable period of chaos.
Second: the Tories are not the only party undergoing a realignment. It is happening to Labour as well, although not a lot of people are noticing this. As the Tories shift towards national populism, an opportunity will open up for somebody else to be the ‘party of big business’, and I think it likely that Labour will pick up that mantle. This has already started happening over the pond to the Democrats (who now get the lion’s share of political donations from the big tech firms); it will happen here too, and we can already see the first signs of this. In short, what we once knew of as ‘left wing’ politics is dead, and what is emerging is a kind of technocratic elitism which relies for electoral support on a coalition between the professional, managerial class and the underclass who service them and are reliant on the State for benefits. The Labour Party will embody this coalition. There are important philosophical reasons for this development, but I will leave them for another time.
Third: some people are painting the Tory split as being between those who are in favour of low immigration, traditional values, popular sovereignty and so on, versus those who are in favour of ‘free markets’ and ‘fiscal responsibility’ (the article I linked to earlier, by Steve Davies, trots out this thesis). But the idea that the ‘liberal’ wing of the party believe in free markets and fiscal responsibility is for the birds. Liz Truss believed in free markets; we saw what happened to her. ‘Liberal’ conservatives sometimes pay lip service to capitalist values. But it would be more accurate to say that their liberalism is basically cultural and progressive. Economically, they are technocrats: managerial tinkerers. They have nothing in common with a Friedrich Hayek or a Milton Friedman or, for that matter, a Margaret Thatcher. (Charles Moore, in one of the truly great political putdowns, once said that ‘Margaret Thatcher liked capitalism. Tony Blair just likes rich people.’ This applies by and large to the ‘liberal’ Tory wing across the board.) The split, in other words, is not about economics, but is really about the locus of power and the mode of government which follows. The national conservatives want the people to be in charge. The liberals want it to be ‘the experts’. There will be more to say about this.
Fourth: we have to think very hard about political philosophy and particularly the meaning of ‘liberalism’. This term, as is often the case in politics, is difficult to pin down. But it is important to make clear that modern liberalism is most decidedly not the kind of small-state, free market, capitalist variety of classical liberalism that people associate with the likes of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill. It is something very different to that, and is best embodied in the character of the most important political liberal of the 20th century anywhere in the world, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In 1941, Roosevelt gave a famous State of the Union address, in which he set out the future of the new world order that was going to be put into effect after Allied victory (though the USA was not yet a belligerent in the war). The speech is most famous for the so-called ‘Four Freedoms’. But it is most significant for what it says about the meaning of ‘freedom’ itself. Freedom, for FDR, did not mean a small state. It meant a big one: a state capable of achieving the six goals of what we can think of as modern liberalism - equality of opportunity for all, jobs for those who want them, security for all, the end of special privileges, civil liberties for all, and a constantly rising standard of living. Freedom in other words was not a matter of being left alone, but a matter of being given all of the substantive and material preconditions to act freely, and a level playing field in which to do so.
History, for FDR, like Barack Obama or Martin Luther King Jr., therefore had an arc. And the arc bent towards something like a totalitarian regime. It envisaged a State that would concern itself with literally every aspect of the population’s lives, and would accept no principled limits on its interventions in society. Equality of opportunity for all, security for all, the ending of special privileges, and a constantly rising standard of living, are goals without end: they envisage not a small state, but the biggest state that there can possibly be, constantly tinkering with, and modulating, the lives of each and every individual in society so as to maximalise their ‘freedom’ in the terms which I earlier described. Modern liberalism does not refrain from acting. It acts everywhere it can see inequality, everywhere it can see material want, and everywhere it can see a lack of progress. And since it can see those things everywhere, it everywhere acts.
This is the water in which we swim, and it is the underlying philosophy of all of our current political leaders. In principle, they see no limit on the scope of the State’s purview, and such arguments as exist between them mainly consist of bickering over where the specific contours of freedom should lie (for instance, whether the freedom of trans athletes to compete in whatever sport they like should trump the freedom of women to compete fairly against one another; or whether the freedom to smoke cigarettes should trump the right to be healthy, and so on). And the result is what we witness all around us: a State that grows endlessly bigger, takes on endlessly more responsibilities, and which eternally presents itself as endeavouring to free us from the material wants, anxieties, inequalities and barriers which purportedly plague us.
This means that liberalism is not philosophically different from the other totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, fascism and communism, as a number of 20th century observers noticed. It is important to be clear what is meant by this. Of course, the ‘lived experience’ of a liberal regime is very different to that of a fascist or communist one. But the essence of all three of these ideologies was a conception of History being driven towards an ultimate end, with the State itself in the driving seat. In the case of fascism, that ultimate end was the final and total union between race and State; in the case of communism, it was what Alexandre Kojeve called the ‘universal and homogenous’ state of mutual recognition; and in the case of liberalism, it is the complete atomisation of each and every individual from any bond or duty owed to another, save what is voluntarily undertaken - and hence (always unspoken, but inevitably) a relationship of total reliance of every individual on the State to secure that status.
This is why purported ‘liberal conservatives’ always find themselves floundering. It is because they are living out an oxymoron. Liberalism is, so to speak, on rails; it can’t simply be paused at a point in time at which everybody can declare that there is just enough freedom now, thankyouverymuch, and we don’t need any more. (Much less can it, on its own terms, be reversed.) Wherever there is a claim that there is some inequality of opportunity, some substantive difference between starting points, some privilege or injustice, the liberal State must display an interest, and liberalism has of itself no internal critique to justify a failure to do so. Typically the only things that constrain it are external: technological incapability, economic impracticality, or the political efforts of conservatives (which we will come to in a moment). And all of those constraints can be gradually circumvented.
I earlier mentioned FDR and called him the most important political liberal of the 20th century. The most important political liberal of the 21st century, playing slightly fast and loose with dates, is Tony Blair, and New Labour can be seen as the absolute quintessence of what I am describing. In 1999, when at the height of his pomp, Blair gave a speech which made all of this entirely explicit, and in such terms that it is worth reproducing at some length. This is how the speech began:
Today at the frontier of the new Millennium I set out for you how, as a nation, we renew British strength and confidence for the 21st century; and how, as a Party reborn, we make it a century of progressive politics after one dominated by Conservatives.
A New Britain where the extraordinary talent of the British people is liberated from the forces of conservatism that so long have held them back, to create a model 21st century nation, based not on privilege, class or background, but on the equal worth of all.
And New Labour, confident at having modernised itself, now the new progressive force in British politics which can modernise the nation, sweep away those forces of conservatism to set the people free.
He then rattled off a list of achievements - maternity pay doubled, the biggest rise in child benefits ever, extra money for pensioners, 650,000 more jobs, a national minimum wage, and so on. And then he set out his plans for the future. Again, this is worth quoting from at length:
The future is people…The liberation of human potential not just as workers but as citizens. Not power to the people but power to each person to make the most of what is within them….
The cause we have fought for, these 100 years, is no longer simply our cause of social justice. It is the nation's only hope of salvation. For how do you develop the talent of all, unless in a society that treats us all equally, where the closed doors of snobbery and prejudice, ignorance and poverty, fear and injustice no longer bar our way to fulfillment.
Not equal incomes. Not uniform lifestyles or taste or culture. But true equality: equal worth, an equal chance of fulfillment, equal access to knowledge and opportunity. Equal rights. Equal responsibilities…
The class war is over. But the struggle for true equality has only just begun.
And he gave a forceful summary of the New Labour project as he saw it:
[I]t is us, the new radicals, the Labour Party modernised, that must undertake this historic mission. To liberate Britain from the old class divisions, old structures, old prejudices, old ways of working and of doing things, that will not do in this world of change.
To be the progressive force that defeats the forces of conservatism.
For the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism.
The message of this is clear enough: liberation from inequality, from material want, from class divisions, ‘old ways of working’, and so on - and achieved not through a small state, but the biggest that there can possibly be, because it knows no limits on the project of liberation.
Tony Blair is a political virtuoso, whatever one thinks of his policies or ideas, and he stated the position very clearly. The 21st century is not a battle between capitalism and socialism. It is one between progress - that is, liberal progress - and conservatism. It follows that anybody who describes themselves as a ‘liberal conservative’ is sleeping with the enemy - or very badly confused. So, in closing, let us make plain why exactly this is the fundamental division in politics, and what the role for conservatives has necessarily to be. Here, we need to turn to another political virtuoso, who I have written about before, and who I will no doubt write about again: Niccolo Machiavelli.
Machiavelli stood at the dawn of modernity. And, looking forwards, he put the central problem of modernity in simple terms. Premodernity was satisfied with the idea that the king ruled because of divine right - i.e., not because God had literally put him there, but because he governed his realm in the same manner as God governed the earth: through enforcing law. Modernity, however, would not be satisfied with this. Modernity needed a temporal, secular reason why the State should exist. And Machiavelli saw that this would result in one of two answers. The State could justify itself on the basis of it representing a people and enforcing their norms and customs as law - which meant it would be a republic. Or it could justify itself on the basis of its identifying and solving the people’s problems expediently - which meant it would be a principality. And at the heart of this distinction is the locus of virtù, or the capacity to rule. In a republic, it is the people who possess this quality, and that is why it is right for the State to be representative of their norms. In a principality, it is the prince who possesses it, and that is why it is for the prince to act on the population’s behalf at all times and in every circumstance.
Everything in modern politics flows from this dichotomy, and sharp-eyed readers will have already foreseen the point that I wish to make. Liberalism, fascism, and communism are all in essence justifications for a mode of rule which is fundamentally ‘princely’: all are predicated on the idea that the population is in some way benighted or corrupted and incapable of simply being left to its own devices, and therefore that government’s task is to reform it from the ground up (and indeed, that this is the basic narrative of History).
Against this stands conservatism, which alone among political philosophies holds that it is not that the people are benighted or corrupted when left to their own devices, but in fact that it is they who are the true repository of virtue. Goodness inheres not in the State, but in the familial, social, communal and religious institutions which people naturally create, and naturally congregate towards, and it is through embedding oneself within these institutions that one is made truly free - in the sense not of being free from ties, but in the sense of being free to realise one’s true potential. This does not exactly mean that there is no need for the State to exist at all, because man is fallen and there is a requirement for laws to be enforced and the people to be protected. But it means that the justification for the existence of the State derives from its reflecting, and preserving, the social norms of society, and its capacity to preserve that society’s way of life in a stable and secure way across time.
Another way of saying this, of course, is that what Machiavelli understood to be the republican justification for the existence of the State is the conception of the relationship between State and society from which conservatism derives. It is a project of trying to ensure that the State maintains and enforces laws which the people consider to be legitimate, and that the State acts to preserve and secure the conditions which they legitimately expect to endure. This is what conservatism really means, as a political project, and this means that conservatism is naturally, and inevitably, associated with a concept of the nation and sets its face against liberalism on the same basis that it opposes fascism, communism, or any other ideology which sees the role of the State as to reform society from above.
If the Conservative Party (or indeed some other party) can rediscover this fundamental feature of political thought, then it may very well be like discovering dynamite, because it will mean not just a ‘realignment’ but a return to the very roots of modern politics and therefore a reopening of the central question of our age: why the State, and indeed government, should exist at all. That will be exciting to witness, but the consequences will I think be explosive.
Three final codas. The first is that the conservative vision of the state is necessarily, based on what I have said, small. A conservative society, ideally, largely runs itself through other institutions such as the family, the church, mosque, synagogue or temple, the community group, the local charity, and so forth. Those Tories who genuinely like capitalism may compare this carefully with modern liberalism’s tendency to operationalise businesses to achieve the State’s ends. The second coda is that national conservatism not only has no constituency among our society’s elite, but that they despise and fear it, because they identify in it their true political enemy. This will make any genuinely conservative political project for the UK in the 21st century extremely difficult to achieve. And the third coda is that conservatives need to think very carefully about the way in which they formulate policy, the rhetoric they use, and the manner in which they govern if and when they regain political power. Holding a national community together means recognising that the Britain of 2023 is not that of 1953, and that the fate of that community therefore rests on reconciling the needs of a vastly more diverse population than what once was. This is not a task to be underestimated, because the fate of the national community rests upon it - and preserving the national community is what conservatism must, as I have tried to show, necessarily be all about.