Why I am a Conservative.
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
I’m a Conservative. What does that mean to me? Identifying as a Conservative is a little different to voting Conservative, I’m not going to discuss transitory headlines about policies, taxes and expenditure. What I want to talk about is why I see issues from a Conservative perspective, irrespective of whether I like specific Conservative Party policies.
So why am I a Conservative?
The great libertarian Conservative (old Whig) Henry Sumner Maine wrote, “There is nothing rarer in the annals of history than a sustained improvement in the general conditions of man’s life”. Despite individual hardships, even in our great country, what we are living through is a miracle. At some point the very concept of human progress was etched into our conscience. Was humanity devoid of genius until now? Was there no Isambard Kingdom Brunel, or Henry Ford at the time of the ancient Egyptians, or Robert Stephenson or James Dyson at the time of Caesar? Of course, but their genius was confined in a life of servitude and violence. Think of the unbearable toil of the men who built the pyramids in the deserts of North Africa. Yet they are as unrecognised now as they were unrewarded at the time. Unless you ruled you were ruled over. To the creator, the spoils is more common today than the victor. But why? What happened?
We take it for granted now, but, as Maine says, at some point the fundamental driver of man’s condition moved from “status to contract”. The greatest gift mankind has ever received was the ability of man to sell his own services for his own reward under a contract protected by law. Today we can think, “how can I make my life better”? Often, the way I make my life better is by making someone else’s life better. It sounds like a perfect axiom, yet human progress isn’t a natural feature of our species – it is at least partly the result of a contract protected under law. I make my life better by offering products or services to another, all protected by a contract under law. There’s no central plan of what I must make, or how my services should be used. I make my own way in the world and enjoy the fruits of my own labour providing whatever service I can sell. What I can sell is what another person believes will improve their lot, and that other person can only afford to buy that improvement by improving the lot of someone else. And so on. Protect the ability for an individual to sell their services as they see fit and the lives of our descendants will be the stuff of science fiction, such is the extent of human ingenuity, set free by the simple power of contract.
No-one to my knowledge has been able to pinpoint exactly when or how this happened, but what is not in any doubt is the miracle that followed. If you were to quickly chart the progress of humanity over the last 10,000 years, the advancement, whether technological or in basic freedoms and living standards, in the last 200 years has dwarfed everything that happened in the previous 9,800. That you will likely wake up in a warm, comfortable house, with electricity and clean running water and, perhaps, go to work in a warm office or factory, where your welfare is given some kind of attention is a metaphorical lottery win. If you had been born in any other time you would most likely be cold, living in squalor, working a life of servitude without any hope of improvement. Your only saving grace in this miserable existence is that you don’t know any better. Finally, after thousands of years, the mass of humanity, and not just the emperors, kings, pharaohs and feudal lords, are winning. The purpose of Conservatism is to protect that win – to guard against revolutionary ideologies. If we consider the word “revolution” giving its ordinary, and historic, meaning, a derivation of “revolve”, we are not necessarily moving forward, but simply returning to an earlier time. This is the only period in the lifetime of humanity that we have seen such freedom and prosperity. Everything until now failed – so what would we be returning to? Conservatives are not trying to preserve the past for its own sake, but to preserve the political arrangements which have be tried and tested and experience has shown they lead to positive outcomes. If people think that Great Britain in 2020 is not a positive outcome, what period in the existence of our island are they comparing it to? It’s not that Conservatives are wedded to free markets as an ideology – it’s that experience has led to the belief that free markets deliver the best outcomes. Perhaps the value of experience, and the tendency to reflect into our past to guide us, leads to people becoming more Conservative as they get older? The emphasis on tried and tested cannot be overstated. If you’re trying something new, do it on a small scale first.
Of course, people will point to individual cases of impoverishment, or even entire nations or the large part of entire continents where the life chances of ordinary people have not advanced as they have in the West. The answer doesn’t lie in demonising the West for being relatively wealthy – the answer, surely, is to replicate the miracle in every corner of the globe. Just as the answer to individual impoverishment in the West isn’t to remove the system that created the wealth. We can make incremental changes to legislation or welfare to try to improve the life chances of ordinary people, to spread opportunity so everyone gets a fair chance. What we are always guarding against is that change to the system which removes the propensity to create wealth. People in productive employment create wealth. If it ever became more beneficial not to work, not to create wealth, then the system ceases to function. Conservatives are, for want of a better word, fearful of change. Conservatives recognise the miracle for what it is. Like a gambler who has been losing for 50 years but stumbles upon a profitable strategy for the first time, he guards the new strategy for all he is worth. If it’s working then as much as you can, leave it alone!
Defining socialism is problematic. Its definition is naturally fluid because it must exclude the last time someone tried something they called “socialism” and the inevitable humanitarian disaster that followed. One common factor is the state owned means of production, and planned economic outcomes. You are provided with employment, but to achieve the goals set by the centre, not by you. Your own self-interest is largely prohibited. “How can I improve my life?” certainly in terms of material wealth, is no longer necessarily within your control. You still see wealth in socialist countries, but it reverts to status, over contract, which has been the prevailing feature of our existence, with the servitude and violence that has always been its necessary partner.
Socialism is an attractive ideology because it deals in the abstract. It derives a blueprint for society based on abstract principles of equality and social justice which seem like common sense principles. Conservatives tend to believe society is a complex organism and cannot be understood to the extent it can be planned. What would happen if humans were tasked with managing a rainforest? Has it got the right number of predators and prey? Is there a good balance of different trees to support diverse insects and birds? Noticing a slight fall in numbers, the rainforest manager thinks it would be nice to preserve the number of jaguars. Having successfully improved jaguar numbers, next year he notices that he has fewer kapok trees, so he protects the kapok trees, and the next year he notices he has lost half of his rubber tree plants. The problem, which our rainforest manager didn’t notice, was the jaguars had killed the aardvarks so he had too many termites who didn’t have enough dead trees and were attacking live trees. As the rainforest begins to die, the rainforest manager employs more and more desperate methods to keep it going, with each new method having further unintended consequences, literally forcing the trees to stay up with pulleys, giving the illusion of a forest, until the soil, which relies on dead trees, lacked the nutrients to support any life at all. In a report to his superiors about why the once lush rainforest is now a desert, the rainforest manager says, “it turns out the rainforest knew better than me how many jaguars it should have”.
I know very little about the workings of a rainforest, so the example may be nonsensical, but I’m trying to convey the socialist spiral we enter into when we try to plan a society with far too many interconnecting moving parts to ever understand. For example, well-meaning people may try to artificially reduce profits of IT contractors, who may seem overpaid, to improve the lot of warehouse operatives. But, the reason the IT contractors are overpaid is that there is a shortage and the “profit” is a signal to the marketplace that we need more IT contractors. Once we have enough IT contractors the price returns to “normal”. If we turn-off that signal we will not know how many IT contractors would be optimal. Applied to the entire economy, the whole performance becomes sub-optimal. Over time if we turn-off all profit-signals, we just end up managing failure. Without the profit-signal telling people to move into IT, you may need to “coerce” people some other way to make up for obvious shortfalls. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom describes how well-meaning policies lead first to unintended consequences and eventually to the worst atrocities in the history of mankind. Driving the Conservatives fear of change is the knowledge that we don’t always understand the consequences of our actions – so in normal times our actions tend to be incremental rather than radical. If there is something radically wrong, of course, we can make a radical change – often reverting back to the tried and tested policy we had before.
Are there not ethical or moral questions to answer for Conservatives? How do we justify the inevitable inequalities of a society left largely unchecked?
Imagine, for a moment, we lived in a society without consequence. You can neither be poor, nor can you make yourself more secure. The decisions you make, and the welfare of your family stops being a cause and effect relationship – more and more of your decisions are taken by the state. This is the socialist society described earlier. Ultimately, it fails. It always fails. Everyone is poorer. The Conservative aggressive opposition to Socialism is more pragmatic than ideological. The reason we don’t like it is because it doesn’t work. Whereas the Labour Party seem to be settled on Socialism, the Conservative Party do not permanently attach themselves to any single ideology, although we may borrow from many. We gravitate towards capitalism, because capitalism has a history of success – but pure individualism eats at the family, the local community and the idea of nationhood. Conservatism is not therefore the same as capitalism.
(It always amuses me when people say that Scandinavian countries are Socialist – they are most definitely not Socialist. It’s not public spending that defines a socialist or free society – it’s about individual freedom and responsibility. Nima Sanandaji has some interesting insights if anyone is actually interested.)
The society we build is the sum total of the decisions people make – Should I work? Should I spend, or save? Is now the right time to have children? What should I do to help others? The first responsibility for those decisions lies with you. As a result of the decisions we make, businesses must be allowed to make profits or fail and people must be allowed to have unequal wealth. There must be a consequence of making the right or wrong decision.
Those that can, must – it isn’t a choice. You were not born entitled. There is no “right to a health service, free at the point of delivery”. You were not born with the right to the service of other people. Civilised society must always help those most vulnerable and help in abundance. If you are unable to provide anything, then everything you need should be provided. If you do not have the strength to stand alone, the nation stands with you. But, if you can provide more than you need, then help those who cannot.
One of the inevitable consequences of a welfare state is it removes ethics. The state becomes ethical – at the expense of the individual. Some of my income goes towards providing public services and helping others. A perfectly ethical result, of course, but I did nothing ethical. My actions cannot be ethical if they were not conscious. A welfare system is inevitable – you can’t practically administer wealth distribution any other way in a large economy – but we must be careful not to remove ethics from the conscience by the welfare state providing for every eventuality. Humanity is a wonderful thing – we sometimes see a tendency to consider voluntary acts of kindness as a failure of the state to provide. What would happen to our humanity if the state’s administrative machinery was always there to provide no matter what the situation?
Imagine a world where should a child falls down an official will always be on hand to pick them up and attend to their grazes. There is no space in such a world for a good-Samaritan – a stranger who refused to walk on by. In the end, the child will be fine – but is such a society richer simply because it guarantees the welfare of the fallen child?
Welfare should be seen as state administered dignity – but, like public health, it’s a privilege, not a right. Because we are a plentiful nation, we can ensure everyone lives in dignity, rather than leave it to the chance of charity. Welfare causes an unease in Conservatism. Not because we don’t believe in human dignity, but because we want to protect humanity – the innate goodness that makes us reach to that fallen child. “You MUST pay, I am ENTITLED to receive” is a fatal attack on the human conscience. The unease is reconciled as we replicate, not replace, the human conscience both in action and language. It sounds nuanced, but it’s fundamental. It’s never going to be perfect – central administration lacks the humanitarian understanding, so wherever possible decisions about welfare distribution should be delegated as close to the situation as possible.
But humanity is not, nor should it be, indifferent to the idle and the unlucky. If a person has worked hard and made the right choices but through no fault of their own falls on hard times, the natural human response is to help you get back on your feet. The state should replicate that. The state does everything it can to restore your fortunes and the future you deserve. If a person will not help themselves, and wants to live their life at the expense of others, then dignity is all that person can expect. The natural human response is still to provide a roof, food and clothes and to encourage you to build a better life for yourself – but you cannot expect the same pleasures as those prepared to contribute until you are prepared to do the same.
Sustaining basic human dignity doesn’t necessarily index itself to the welfare of the general population. There will be inequality. What, in our conscience, should we do? It isn’t helpful, or caring, to provide means to encourage a way of life which denies the person of their potential and society of their contribution. The way to reduce the inequality is to encourage contribution, to discourage dependency and provide opportunity. The fact that some people are poorer, that inequality exists, is not evidence of injustice – there would be more likely to be an injustice if there was not inequality.
We should always encourage aspiration. Use the opportunities at your disposal to be who you want to be and who you can be. Encourage and celebrate success. It’s not a zero sum game – your success was not at the expense of someone else’s failure. There is no shame in wealth. The ultimate Conservative aspiration is the ability to say, “I don’t need you to help me and I don’t want you to look after me, let’s all look after the other guy”.
This is what I believe to be the core of Conservative values.
This is not selfish. There is nothing selfish about a philosophy that states that the responsibility for your own welfare lies in the first instance with you. There is something selfish about expecting others to provide. Others will provide for you, but this is a privilege of where you were born – you have no right to simply expect.
This idea that you were born “entitled” rather than “responsible” is at the centre of everything the Momentum/Labour Party stands for. That sense of entitlement causes us to think, “I don’t really care about your life, but I expect you to care about my life”. It is part of human nature that we have compassion as an intrinsic value – it is blunted by resentment when it is taken for granted. If you can, you must. If you cannot, you must not fear. If you won’t, then you have no moral right to claim an injustice.
As I say, this isn’t just about free markets. We aren’t just a collection of random individuals, who happen to live on the same damp patch of grass. We are a nation. I think there is something wonderful about the idea of the NHS, and a dignified welfare system. When something goes wrong, the first place you should look is yourself, but when you can no longer stand by yourself, the entire nation will ensure that you stand nonetheless.
Conservatives should be more enthusiastic about the NHS – there isn’t a contradiction in values. The state can and does have a role as the collective action of the nation. However, the state should be all-powerful when it is needed, invisible when it is not.
The nation state, as described by Edmund Burke, is more than just a landmass occupied by individuals connected by law. Consider this description, “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” There is a consideration not just of people who are around today, but of sacrifices made by people who went before. Structures that seem to have passed their usefulness will often be preserved. Heritage is a recognition that those that went before are still part of who we are today. It’s not that you must never redevelop or even demolish, just spare a thought.
G.K. Chesterton put it like this: “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
So Conservatives will have similar attitudes towards the constitution as they do economics. It’s not that the constitution should not be altered – it isn’t sacrosanct. This was Robert Peel in the Tamworth Manifesto, as the old Tory Party became the Conservative Party, “…if, by adopting the spirit of the Reform Bill, it be meant that we are to live in a perpetual vortex of agitation; that public men can only support themselves in public estimation by adopting every popular impression of the day, - by promising the instant redress of anything which anybody may call an abuse - by abandoning altogether that great aid of government - more powerful than either law or reason - the respect for ancient rights, and the deference to prescriptive authority; if this be the spirit of the Reform Bill, I will not undertake to adopt it. But if the spirit of the Reform Bill implies merely a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances, - in that case, I can for myself and colleagues undertake to act in such a spirit and with such intentions.”
One of the reasons we preserve our structures, our rights, our constitution is to pass our nation state on intact to future generations. This is our country, but it’s not just our country. It also belongs to our forefathers and to our descendants. They do not have a voice, so we must be mindful. Should we abolish the monarchy should it have a period of unpopularity? It is almost unthinkable for a Conservative to be in favour of such a thing. Our current monarch can trace her ancestry back further than Alfred the Great. When we decide that the monarchy is to be abolished, we consider everyone that has gone before – what would they want us to do? We consider that, once it’s gone it may be difficult to re-introduce – might our descendants not regret our decision in the decades and centuries to come? Does current apathy (or worse) toward the current Royal incumbents outweigh the consideration of our dead and unborn partners? The decision is ours, but Conservatives will see a responsibility to people beyond those alive today. The monarchy has woven a thread of continuity through our history for 1500 years – even if its future isn’t eternal it certainly isn’t predicated on the discretion of current Royal members. What would England be without an institution that has been part of our nation such that it predates England itself?
It’s a very similar reason why many Conservatives, fearing that the EU was eroding the nation state, voted to leave. The idea that we should destroy the nation state is an anathema to many Conservatives – it simply isn’t ours to destroy. If we go back and ask our ancestors what they thought of being members of the EU my perception would be that the vast majority would be horrified. If it's even a factor in how you voted then it could be you're a Conservative!
It’s not difficult to understand why people tend to become more Conservative as they become older. It’s the same reason young people pay more for car insurance. It’s not a change of opinion per se, it’s a change of attitude, value and perception. You see lives changes immeasurably by accidents, and you see the value of life. Once you’ve been in an accident yourself, even if you came away unscathed, the bureaucratic hardship itself is enough to make one more cautious in the future. Experience may well cause more caution in the future – caution is a byword for Conservatism. One may even go as far as pessimism too – perhaps this is where Conservatism falls down. If ever a radical change is proposed Conservatives will always warn against everything that might go wrong – especially if it’s been tried before. Public ownership of utilities and railways might seem like it’s a great idea – but it’s been tried before and in many ways it was a shambles. The minimum wage, however, was one area where the Conservatives were too cautious and became out of step with public opinion.
What is more difficult to understand is why saying you are Conservative in public can often seem almost taboo. Sensible, cautious management as a principle of Government may seem undynamic, and boring even. It shouldn’t drive hatred of Conservatives in general, surely? There is misplaced antagonism towards Conservatives, and the challenge over the coming years is to remove that antagonism, by explaining what Conservatism actually is, what we actually believe in.
Conservatism should appeal to the most compassionate of people. People that work, people that save, people who take responsibility for their own decisions and expect others who are able to do the same, will all find themselves at home as Conservatives.
Having found a common purpose with Brexit, people are much more likely to declare themselves voting Conservative in a pub in Burnley than they, perhaps, have ever been before. Ordinary working people, though, have a sense of “nation” – they are patriots. Ordinary working people have a sense of social justice which extends beyond entitlement.
As the left flounders, struggling to connect with ordinary working people, there is a generational opportunity for Conservatism. Of course, there is a need to retain the new voters, and to regain, post-Brexit, some traditional voters. But the real glass door for Conservatism is to convert reluctant Conservative voters into people who identify as Conservatives. It must be possible for a student to identify as a Conservative and to stimulate no more than a debate because of it. First, we must not be afraid to identify as Conservatives, and not to be afraid to explain what that means. If we don’t Conservativism becomes what the left depicts it as rather than what it actually is.