John Stuart Mill did not describe the Conservatives as the stupid party. He merely said that although not all Tories were stupid, most stupid people voted for them (cf. Brexit). But at any level above automatic loyalty at the polling box — not to be deprecated — Conservatism is no creed for the intellectually limited. It requires hard thinking. The socialists have an easier life. First, they have a secular teleology: socialism. Second, assuming that history is on their side, many lefties feel entitled to lapse into a complacent assumption of moral superiority. That helps to explain why there has been no serious left-wing thinking in the UK since Tony Crosland in the 1950s.
Though Tories may envy the complacency, they are condemned to stress. Without a political teleology, they have no way to simplify history. Their challenge is as complex as the human condition. There are a few useful maxims. Falkland: ‘When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.’ Berlin: ‘The great goods cannot always live together.’ Oakeshott: ‘Civilisation is only a collective dream.’ Wisdom, certainly, but what should Tories actually do? How should they decide when it is necessary to change, or which great good should take priority? As for civilisation, dreams and nightmares, the task of preventing our era from turning into the Dark Ages plus weapons of mass destruction is best entrusted to Tory tough-mindedness, and there is no guarantee of success.
No teleology: it is even hard for Tories to come up with a penny catechism. What must you believe to qualify as a Tory? I think the answer is not much, but that passionately. Tories should love their country, regarding themselves as the true British national party. While reluctantly conceding that there might seem to be patriots in other parties, Tories assume that such persons are suffering from mental confusion and are really Tories. Tories are devout monarchists. Over the decades I have met two who were not: bizarre. A Tory who eschews monarchism is like a man who rejects first-growth claret in favour of Diet Coke. Beyond that, Tories should argue that when it is needed, government should be strong. When not needed, it should be absent. They should also have a Burkean reverence for prejudices and institutions.
Conservative, Tory: which are we? That at least is an easy question: both. Conservative: those clipped syllables are redolent of realism and the wisdom of the counting-house. Both are necessary; neither is sufficient. There is always a danger that the Conservative party will turn into the political wing of the Treasury: that its spokesmen will never sound happier than when lecturing hungry sheep about the price of grass. But Toryism has hints of the Oxford Court and Prince Rupert’s cavalry. This should remind Conservatives that there is more to life than the counting-house. We are almost back with 1066 and All That. A sensible Conservative/Tory should seek a Hegelian synthesis of Wrong but Wromantic and Right but Repulsive.
Earlier this week, a few shrewd Tories were also seeking a new outlet, and a drink. Even aside from the current little local difficulties, the conservative movement on both sides of the Atlantic could do with some intellectual renewal; perhaps, indeed, some new syntheses. So an online journal has been launched. Called Reaction, it is edited by Iain Martin, well known to Spectator readers. It will not be exclusively reactionary: not too much of Joseph de Maistre, thou shoulds’t be living at this hour. But there will be provocation and fun.
There was at our party. We argued a lot, while drinking quantities of-Dönnhoff Riesling Kabinet: a perfect summer quaff. Dönnhoff’s wines have been praised in this column before. The best grower in the Nahe, his wines are cheaper than Rheingau bottles of similar quality. They enabled us to christen Reaction and end the evening in a fine old Tory mood: eupeptic-pessimism.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.