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James Vitali: What is conservatism without ideas?
We need to articulate our enduring principles in changed circumstances
Why is there such a dearth of conservative philosophy in our political discourse? The need for intellectual nourishment on the right is obvious, yet many attempts to define a coherent program read as if they’ve been generated through ChatGPT: displaying a superficial awareness of the important concepts, but with a palpable sense of unfamiliarity about how and why they fit together.
There is a widely held notion that British conservatism is distinct in being pragmatic, non-ideological and averse to setting down a creed. It is a view advanced both by well-intentioned conservatives seeking to distinguish themselves from more absolute ideological persuasions, as well as the opponents of conservatism. Some in the latter camp would argue that conservatives are, first and foremost, unthinking defenders of the status-quo, and that they simply deploy the slogans and buzzwords that are most likely to help them hang on to power. One worries that there is little coming out of conservative circles presently that would belie this impression.
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The truth is that the right in this country has lacked an intellectual heavyweight, probably since the passing of Sir Roger Scruton. The latest attempt to (re)define what we as conservatives believe was facilitated by outside actors: the contentious National Conservatism conference, spearheaded by an Israeli-American scholar with an American audience very much in mind. Unfortunately, even this meeting of minds could not escape our modern malaise. Excessive introspection acts as a potent substitute for politics – understandable, perhaps, if you’re out of power, but baffling if you are.
The terms of our political debate are not just imported from different geographical contexts, but often different temporal contexts too. It’s why we find ourselves constantly borne back to Margaret Thatcher. Though no public intellectual, here was a woman with profound convictions about what her conservatism meant, and a remarkable ability to communicate her beliefs to the British electorate in word and on paper. There is the apocryphal tale about her slamming a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on a table and saying “this, gentlemen, is what we believe”.
Thatcher’s beliefs were imbued by a deep sense of conviction around the necessity of moral renewal. Self-sufficiency, responsibility, ownership: the “vigorous virtues” she argued for were not merely necessary to get the economy moving again but were prerequisites for the regeneration of both local communities and the national community itself. And hers was a conservatism influenced much more by her experiences as the daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist greengrocer than any Austrian school treatises.
More than anything else, Thatcher’s value to future generations of conservatives was that she offered a language which gave voice to widely held, conservative values. And since we have yet to find a new vernacular which performs this task as effectively as Thatcherism, we find that debates about conservatism today are constantly couched in the language of the latter. The most recent leadership contest – which was to all intents and purposes a contest in which contemporary conservative would most closely resembled Thatcher in government – is a case in point.
Thatcher knew better than anyone that for the conservative, the eternal question of ‘what is to be done’ in politics is always a function of context, temporal or geographical. “Every generation” she, wrote:
Requires a fundamental understanding of human nature, of people’s desires and aspirations. Only be appreciating this can we protect our heritage of law and liberty, and promote the virtues of enterprise, responsibility and duty. The task of the politician is to apply these enduring principles to changing circumstances.
Our generation needs to find its own way to articulate our enduring principles in changed circumstances. Part of that will require us to cease conducting our political debates in languages devised for different contexts with different challenges.
There are many thoughtful conservatives in Parliament, but thirteen years of governing have taken their toll on our party’s ability to think about the wider question of what sort of society conservatives wish to build in Britain. Many, like Michael Gove, can engage deeply with ideas and history but they are not going to be the individuals generating fresh thinking about conservatism’s relevance to the political challenges of today. Governing parties are required to subdue the disagreements that such an appraisal would inevitably foment.
That is why this newsletter, which was explicitly intended to create the conditions for such fresh thinking, is so important. We must find ways to straddle both the intellectual and political sphere, to be united in our convictions, and bold enough to tackle the problems of the Britain that exists in the now rather than the one we might prefer in our minds. We cannot neatly overlay the ideas and policy proscriptions of the past, and nor should we try to. A unifying philosophy is not something that is passed down, but rather must be fought for. A democracy is a marketplace of ideas, and if conservatives do not get better at selling our ideas and values, the public will simply go to vendors pitching a better product.
James Vitali is a research fellow at Policy Exchange.