Lead book review

Will we soon see the end of conservatism as we know it?

The future of conservatism depends crucially on its ability to withstand the new hard right, says William Hague

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition Edmund Fawcett

Princeton, pp.514, 30

For some years I chaired the international alliance of centre right and conservative parties, the International Democrat Union. It is an organisation that illustrates the difficulty of defining and categorising right-wing political movements: it is called ‘democrat’, but includes the American Republicans, boasts the Australian Liberals among its avowedly conservative members and includes Christian Democrats, Independence parties, National parties, People’s parties and even one United Workers Party.

This variety is more than a matter of nomenclature. What these parties have in common is that they are the main rivals in each of their countries to a party of the left. They are defined more by a shared enemy than having similar programmes of their own. Conservative politicians generally shun abstract principles and universal ideologies. Each of their parties is rooted in the soil of a particular country, attached to the habits, institutions and history of that place. A Gaullist is a conservative but is particular to France in his or her views; the Christian Social Union is unique to Bavaria.

While socialist and liberal ideas prosper or wither in a global climate of ideas, the adaptability of conservatives to each nation’s circumstances is the explanation of their longevity and power — always changing, frequently compromising, often dealing with opposition by amalgamating with it. But that makes the global development of conservatism difficult to codify and define. Edmund Fawcett recognises this from the outset: ‘Conservatism as understood here is a tradition or practice of politics. Neither who conservatives are nor what they think can be put into a phrase or formula.’

To make the study of conservative thought a manageable exercise, Fawcett confines himself to the history of four great nations — the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Germany — and four momentous periods, beginning with ‘Resisting Liberalism’ in the 19th century. It is a sensible framework and a good starting point: reaction to the French Revolution, liberal ideas and expanding international commerce brought into being the conservative coalitions we can still recognise today. The attachment of Edmund Burke, a prominent Whig, to ‘shared customs and a common faith in a unified country’ led him and many others to join with Pitt’s Tories in the effort to preserve those attributes of Britain. Within a few decades the assortment of ‘Pitt’s friends’ had become the Conservative party.

Fawcett presents a clear description of the evolution of conservative thought: ‘It spoke for the powers of wealth and property, first, land against industry and finance, then for all three, and soon for small property as well as large.’ He has absolutely understood the trick of conservative adaptability. The defence of established customs is merited in the eyes of conservatives, not because those customs are always right or of value in themselves, but because they are key to maintaining social order and national unity. Once certain customs, such as noble privileges, limited suffrage or established churches no longer serve those purposes, they can be exchanged for new ones. Hence successful conservatives have always been able to move with the times, adopting liberal ideas and embracing gradual change, as in Disraeli’s ‘pitch-perfect’ combination of embracing social reform and mass democracy alongside a fervent defence of nation, crown and empire.

This book is a stimulating read, benefiting from the author’s clarity of style, breadth of historical knowledge and decision to place conservative thinkers from each period of history alongside political practitioners. We are reminded of the power of ideas, from those of Burke and Joseph de Maistre to Pat Buchanan and Roger Scruton, the latter singled out for praise for aiming to ground conservative politics in a philosophical outlook — ‘almost unique in the present-day English-speaking intellectual world’.

And we are presented with a core historical judgment: that the ability of conservative parties to change in each era and assimilate the ideas of their liberal rivals was decisive in allowing modern democracy to become established. Fawcett argues convincingly that where conservatism compromised with liberalism in the early 20th century it not only survived as a political force but lent ballast and stability to constitutional democracy. Where it rejected liberalism instead it fell in with fascism — ‘Weimar’s collapse owed much to the weakness of liberal democratic conservatism’.

To those of us who count ourselves as liberal conservatives in the 21st century it is an appealing message. Tribute is paid to the ability of Salisbury and Baldwin to ‘sound obdurate but concede, rather than battle in vain’ and to maintain a broad, mass governing party permitting social, economic and political change at a manageable pace. And Konrad Adenauer is saluted for establishing in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a similarly all-embracing party of the right for postwar Germany.

But then we come to the far less comfortable ground of recent decades. For many people in the age of globalisation, rising immigration, untrammelled market forces and the overturning of many social norms, change has become too rapid and the compromises with liberalism too much to bear. As Fawcett puts it: ‘Cultural conservatives found themselves in the awkward position of not feeling at home in a world that political conservatism had done much to create.’

What follows is more disputed ground, perhaps inevitably so when reaching the intense divisions among conservatives in the present day. Fawcett charts the rise in recent decades of a new hard right, with Enoch Powell as its harbinger in Britain. While Thatcher and Reagan could still hold together the diverging strands of conservatism, those strands have come apart after the departure of such giants. Dissent began growing on the right just as liberal conservatives believed they had won a permanent victory. The failure of democratic liberalism to meet the expectations of a mass electorate has led to the growth of a populist form of conservatism that has brought Trump, Brexit and the advance of Le Pen in France and the AfD in Germany.

The author’s grouping of all of these developments as the rise of the hard right brings him into some difficulty. He admits that labelling Boris Johnson’s radicalism in supporting Brexit as the ‘hard right’ might be too much. Indeed it is. The platform of British Tories at the most recent election certainly included final departure from the European Union; but it also embraced much of conservatism’s adoption of liberalism — internationalist on a global scale, generous to poorer nations, and highly progressive on social issues at home. Johnson is not Trump or Le Pen: he should be seen more as someone attempting to keep diverging trends in conservative thinking from drifting apart.

Fawcett argues that riding the two horses of liberal and populist conservatism will not be possible. His central case is that the security from rapid change that Trump and others have tried to offer cannot be squared with liberal beliefs in protection from power and respect for all:

For the hard right, security in turbulent, bewildering times is offered as a value that overrides others. Conservatives face a stark choice between two different versions of their tradition. They cannot have both.

I am not so sure. Certainly, this is a choice that seems difficult to evade at the moment. Republicans may well have to choose between more of Trump and his family or a more traditional, mainstream platform. French conservatives may be driven into becoming Macron-style centrists or joining Le Pen. The current dominance of British and German conservative parties can easily be threatened again from the right. Any of these parties could develop in a form that steadily pushes away their more pragmatic wing.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that what conservative leaders have so often done before — combine the instinct for security with the careful embrace of modernity — cannot be done again. Many factors, from a revitalised left to a powerful China, could again bring conservatives to gather around a broad and common purpose. As a global pandemic exposes the failings of the sprawling but ineffective state seen in many western societies, it could be a renewed conservatism that makes the state more limited but more successful.

Fawcett’s assessment of conservatism is not a sympathetic or optimistic one. That, however, is no reason to avoid it, as he has provided a coherent framework for understanding the history of conservative habits of mind and discussing them anew. He has also laid down a challenge — that the unity of conservatism cannot withstand the pressures of the revival of cultural identity. Conservatives will hope that he is wrong. If so, it is becoming urgent to prove it.

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