What is it that all these wage-earners, skilled artisans, soldiers, and tillers of the soil require, deserve, and may be led to demand? Is it not a fair chance to make a home, to reap the fruits of their toil, to cherish their wives, to bring up their children in a decent manner, and to dwell in peace and safety, without fear or bullying or monstrous burdens or exploitations, however, this may be imposed upon them?”
~Winston Churchill in a 1948 speech at the Congress of Europe in The Hague
There is no more misused word in the English language than ‘conservative’. Consequently, there is no concept more misunderstood than ‘conservatism’. When words lose their meaning, arguments lack direction, and people talk past each other, instead of with each other. And the worst offenders are often those who call themselves conservative.
This is far more serious than being simply a matter of confusion about political affiliations. The corruption of meanings through the misuse of words impairs our ability to make clear distinctions and to communicate with precision. In the case of the word “conservatism”, a valuable prism to properly illuminate the meaning of leadership has been muddied beyond recognition, and leadership itself has become obscured.
Leadership is meant to inspire people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all. It is about vision, virtue, and vigilance, and so is conservatism, properly understood. Vision is built on tradition and the cultural heritage that inspires creativity and commitment; virtue provides the strength of character and standards that establish justice as the very essence of the community; and vigilance is the untiring attention given to the health and vitality of the body politic.
So, what is the true meaning of ‘conservatism’? Well, let us first clarify what it is not, refuting in the process the claims of the either misinformed or mischievous minds that employ the term. Conservatism is not right-wing ideology, crony capitalism, laissez-faire liberalism, fascism, Nazism, libertarianism, religious fundamentalism, nor any kind of commitment to promote the privileges of the few against the many. In fact, there is no political party today worthy to be called conservative.
These socio-political aberrations all flow from the same philosophical swamp as their left-wing counterparts – progressivism, socialism, communism, anarchism, and the rest. All are committed to the defining idea of liberalism: the detached, autonomous individual, whose freedom and ‘rights’ are upheld by an all-powerful state, as science and reason allegedly guide us to utopia. When you get what it means to be human so badly wrong, all your thinking becomes distorted.
The concepts of Right and Left arose during the French Revolution to distinguish the two liberal divisions in the Convention of 1793, the Girondins, or moderates, on the Right, and the more radical Jacobins on the Left. Today, all centrist parties in the West, both Right and Left, are essentially liberal – Republicans and Democrats, Tories and Labour, Liberals and ‘Conservatives’, Republicans and Socialists, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats.
The modern concept of conservatism was articulated in the 18th century by the Whig politician, Edmund Burke, in “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. Opposed to both despotism and democracy, and a proponent of free trade and the merits of greed in generating prosperity, Burke ironically provided the Left with the opportunity to muddy the meaning of conservatism by associating it with Right-wing causes. For all his eloquent defence of tradition, and his denunciation of social engineering, Burke was a Modernist, a self-proclaimed self-made man, who believed in a natural aristocracy of talent. In short, he was a Liberal of the Right.
Conservatism, properly understood, eschews the Modernist belief in the detached, autonomous individual that animates both Left and Right in politics. It recognises that no individual is born without a family, community, history, or culture, and that the basic unit of society is the family and not the individual.
In contrast to Modernity’s mechanistic understanding of nature, which encourages manipulation and exploitation, conservatism sees an objective inner integrity in nature that demands respect for the environment, all living creatures, and human nature itself.
Human nature is essentially rational and relational, and it bears the responsibility for the stewardship of the natural world. Where the Right is committed to the materialistic exploitation of nature, and the Left increasingly impedes the use of natural resources, conservatism accepts responsibility for the integration of human nature, virtuous, scientific, technical, and aesthetic, with the rest of the natural world for the good of all creation.
So, in principle, technology, a natural product of rational human nature, is a good to be responsibly harnessed in the proper stewardship of the wider natural world, the integrity of which is fundamental to the good of humanity.
Conservatism is the expression of the classical understanding of government, which aims at the flourishing of all people and the environment, according to the principle of rational stewardship. And the principle of stewardship provides a framework, not a policy manifesto. The essence of stewardship is practical wisdom, the informed insight and discernment that enables, for example, a good teacher to adjust his approach to meet the particular needs of individual students, and to seek creative ways to address different topics, while always honouring the integrity of the curriculum and professional standards. A framework is open to varied expedients, while a manifesto becomes an ideological straight-jacket.
Conservatism requires a commitment to the flourishing of all things according to their nature, not the unhinged human will, and lays the foundation for a consistency that eludes both Left and Right. And consistency, based on the Natural Law understanding of justice, is the measure of integrity.
Justice, understood as giving to each person what is due to them, whether payment or punishment, necessarily presupposes that human beings have certain natural rights that precede the authority of the state. If such rights do not exist, then there would be no justice apart from man-made laws and state-sanctioned ‘rights’, and no way of judging the actions of any government. And it was man-made laws that gave us death camps, gulags, apartheid, slavery, and other legal perversions.
So, bearing in mind that compromise is possible in the case of policy, but not principle, what principles arise within the framework of stewardship? Since human flourishing has always and everywhere started from the natural family, the essential cell of authentic community, encouraging strong, healthy families lies at the heart of conservative politics.
This has not happened in any of the political experiments of Modernity, Left or Right, moderate or extreme, for the simple reason that for all of them, the detached autonomous individual has supplanted the family as the basic unit of society. Which is why all of them, from the extremes of communism to those of libertarianism, have played a part in the collapse of family life in the West.
Moreover, it explains why the outwardly different ideological regimes of communism, Nazism, and liberal democracy are all hostile to the other institutions of civil society that, like the family, protect the individual from the depredations of the all-intrusive state – institutions like churches, independent schools, trades guilds, professional associations, and cultural bodies, and all the civilisational fruits of history and tradition.
Truly has it been said that modern political regimes fear the family as a rival for the loyalty of people, religion as a rival authority in the lives of people, and private property as protection against economic dependence on the state. Of course, religion is the key, because that is what shapes one’s worldview, and the worldview of conservatism is inherently antithetical to all modern ideologies.
This is why Tories and Labour, Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and so-called Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Socialists, all serve the establishment, while 80 percent of the population is subjected to their will. Hence the endless wars, the financial farce of quantitative easing and incomprehensible debt, the gutting of the middle class, the nightmare of illegal immigration, the persistent failure of increased spending to improve healthcare and education outcomes, the loss of civil liberties, corrupt election practices, high-rates of unemployment, the unbridled evils of sex- and drug-trafficking, and the institutionalization of unscientific nonsense.
The flourishing of all implies the dignity of all, which has as its only philosophical grounding the Imago Dei, the understanding of the human person as created in the Image of God, which has obvious implications. On principle, conservatism is opposed to euthanasia, abortion, surrogacy, prostitution promiscuity, and pornography, for the simple reason that all these perversities treat human beings as disposable, commodified objects, nothing more than human resources.
The conservative principle of promoting the family logically extends to the principles of productive employment and just wages, robust health and safety regimes, and the legal protection of leisure and family time, all essential to a flourishing community. Maintaining the rule of law and responsible governance, and nurturing a public culture constantly enriched and inspired by history and tradition are logically conservative principles, as is a scientifically informed and ethically robust stewardship of the environment.
Education is essential if a general commitment to the flourishing of all people and the environment is to be passed on to successive generations. And education, by definition, must be conservative in nature, that is, maintaining the virtues necessary to hold any community together, and passing on the accumulated knowledge of past generations for succeeding ones to build on.