What Are Conservative Political Parties For?
The saving grace of conservatives is that they do not like to think very hard, particularly when it comes to abstract theory. But this is also an affliction. On the one hand, conservatives’ distaste for thought seems crucial to their vital role as the ones who prevent society from floating away on flights of utopian fancy. But on the other hand, this leaves them bereft of coherent political philosophy - and this can weaken them at crucial moments.
We see this problem in the current predicament of the UK’s Conservative Party. The Tory conference is currently in full swing at the time of writing, and the talk is very much of division. On the one hand, the Thatcherite wing, embodied in Liz Truss (her tenure as Prime Minister was so short it hardly seems appropriate to refer to her as an ‘ex-PM’, though of course she is one), think that conservatism is about a small state and a free market. On the other, the ‘natcon’ wing, embodied in Suella Braverman, think that conservatism is about national identity. In the middle, figures such as Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove try to triangulate. Another wild card is what one might call the ‘anti-woke’ brigade, whose avatar is Kemi Badenoch, and who sit uneasily to one side; instinctively small-statist, but keen to use the state's power to push back on culture war issues.
Nothing quite seems to tie all of these strands together except a mutual distrust of the Labour Party. As somebody who grew up on Merseyside in the 1980s in a Labour-voting household, I share this distrust. But ‘keeping Labour out of power’ is in itself not usually a proposition attractive enough to win over the electorate. Conservatives are going to have to do something which they hate: they are going to have to think. Why should there be a Conservative Party in 2023, and, if so, what should it be for?
Readers who like to play News from Uncibal bingo will not be surprised to hear me argue that the answer has to take us back to the dawn of modern politics, and therefore the figure of Machiavelli. As Leo Strauss convincingly argues in his Thoughts on Machiavelli, the modern era is defined above all by the subject of political power divorced from a doctrine of divine or natural right. And Machiavelli, as the figure who first deliberately and specifically sets out a theory of government without reference to God or theology, is therefore the first truly modern political philosopher. In understanding modern politics, we must begin with Machiavelli, because he is the one who stated the case for modernity most strongly, at its very inception, when pre-modernity was at its zenith.
Machiavelli lays out the case clearly. If political power is not to rely on a theological justification (and the Conservative Party would obviously be wise to avoid such a justification!) then it has two options. Either it must present itself as a republic, or a principality.1 A republic's claim to rule is based on the fact that it represents the people: not necessarily in the sense that it is a democracy, but in the sense that it puts in place a system of law which reflects the norms, or nomos, of the populace, so as to maintain the stability of society across time. A republic, in other words, is concerned with keeping the ship on an even keel: making sure that society, in which each member of the population has a stake, continues to exist indefinitely in the manner in which its population is accustomed. A principality's claim to rule, on the other hand, is based on the fact that it makes material and/or moral improvements in the lives of the population, and thus retains their loyalty. It does nice things for people, and they therefore like it.
An awful lot follows from the distinction between these two different justifications for government, but the main emphasis that Machiavelli himself lays on the subject is what he calls virtù, which is properly understood as the capacity for self-rule. Where the population are thought to possess this quality, then obviously the state they live in should look like a republic. Where the population are thought to lack it, then they need the rulership of a prince. What Machiavelli doesn't say, but which naturally follows from this connection between virtù and the form government takes, is that there is therefore an incentive for a ruler who wishes to govern like a prince to construct the population as lacking in virtù - in modern parlance, to conceptualise them as 'vulnerable', so he can justify his own position by then doing things on their behalf. (This is the subject of a previous post on Machiavelli, here.)
This alone, as I hope you can see for yourself, explains an awful lot with regard to modern politics. But it also tells us where conservative parties in general and the Conservative Party in particular are going wrong: they can't make up their mind what they actually think the job of government is. Do they think it is supposed to instantiate the model of a republic, or a principality? And, lacking a coherent understanding, they get sidetracked into blind alleys.
Two such blind alleys are as follows. The first of them is obvious. There is already, in any jurisdiction, one political party which has the selling point of governing like a prince sewn-up. A hint: in the UK, this party begins with the letter ‘L’ and ends with the letters ‘abour Party’. The stock-in-trade of the centre-left is identifying groups of the population that it can label as being vulnerable and therefore in need of the state’s assistance, and purporting to provide that assistance accordingly. ‘Give me your loyalty and I will give you nice things’ is the manifesto of every centre-left political party that ever was; all that changes is the nice thing being offered. (Sometimes the nice thing is the avoidance of a nasty thing, as in ‘vote for us and we will prevent climate change’.) Conservatives are foolish to play that game, just as I would be foolish to try to take on Pete Sampras on Centre Court at tennis.
The second blind alley is thinking there is an important division between national ‘populist’ conservatism and free market, small-state conservatism in the first place. And this is where we really see the failure to properly think bear its distasteful fruit. To govern in the republican mode means, as we saw, to administer a system of law deriving from the nomos of the populace, who are perceived in general to have the capacity to govern themselves (since they possess virtù), and to as a consequence maintain the stability of society across time. This is almost the definition of conservatism, and you will see in it no dispute between anyone who has a feeling of patriotism and anyone who believes there should be a small state. In the republican model the point of the state is to be small: its job is not to do nice things for the population, but to do what is necessary to ensure that society remains stable - i.e. making and enforcing rules. And in this we see the distinctions between figures like Liz Truss and Suella Braverman evaporate (or, at least, we should do); the virtues of a free market are obvious, and they are consonant with the virtues of keeping the state's nose out of society insofar as it is possible to do so, and in reflecting the stable norms of the society in question. Where the job of the state is merely to reflect in law the settled customs and habits, and moral sensibilities, of the population, then it will be small with respect to most things - there simply is no conflict.
Seeing the matter in these terms, of course, helps us deal in particular with the thorny subject of immigration. While a free market is basically a good thing, and strictly speaking free movement of labour supports a free market, open borders are undesirable because of the destabilising effects on society - and immigration should therefore be limited to what is manageable. There is no reason why sensible conservatives, beginning from first principles, should really argue about this, and it is here that we see the real difference emerge, indeed, between centre-right and centre-left. To a party like the Labour Party, open borders are a fabulous idea, because thereby the pool of vulnerable people, who are reliant on the state’s largesse, will increase. To a conservative political party, borders are (or should be) vital, because they are one of the central legal mechanisms by which social stability is maintained. Nobody should be against immigration on racial grounds, and nobody should be against immigration per se; the point is only that immigration must take place in accordance with legal rules which reflect what the members of the society in question consider to be appropriate.
The standard centre-left argument against reflecting the will of the people with respect to immigration is always, straightforwardly, ‘Yes, but what if the members of the society in question are racists?’ And hence, of course, princely rule makes its appearance: the population cannot be relied upon to exercise virtù, and hence we must do it on their behalf. Conservatives need to be clear in their own minds why this is not the only sensible answer, and they will find that this clarity, one again, demonstrates no need for fundamental conflict within their midst.
The prospect of defeat has a way of focusing minds, and the UK Tory Party, facing a trouncing at the next general election, is showing signs of beginning to go through such a process. But this cannot be cast in terms of a fundamental dispute between free marketeers and national populists, because there is no such fundamental dispute. Obviously, it is totally unrealistic to imagine that we can ever return to AJP Taylor’s prelapsarian world of July 1914, in which ‘a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman’. But the conservative vision of the state must nonetheless be a republican one: that its primary function is to administer and enforce a system of law which reflects the settled norms of the population, with a view to maintaining a stable social order which survives intact from one generation to the next. And nothing about this suggests that the state must be particularly big, or that it must interfere extensively in the market. This would be a useful starting point for the intellectual project which the Tory Party in particular and conservative political parties in general have ahead of them: divisions between free marketeers and ‘national conservatives’ are relatively minor and can be reconciled. But you have to think about things first.
Here I feel compelled to make absolutely clear that whether a state is a republic or a principality for Machiavelli had nothing to do with whether it had a monarch. A king could rule one or the other.