I recently listened to an engrossing discussion on BBC radio, featuring Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens, about modern day conservatism as distinct from classical liberalism or libertarianism, and in contemporary Britain, Toryism.
It’s usually very difficult to systematise conservatism as it generally eschews such rigidity, and true to its name seems more content to “conserve” or “preserve” certain traditions and institutions such as the monarchy, the church or the family. It’s perhaps best described, as having faith in the “wisdom of history”, is anti-Utopian and anti-ideology – the road well trodden rather than the one less-travelled.
For this reason, interestingly enough, it is often at odds with its libertarian companions on the right. Peter Hitchens, for instance, is a vocal critic of the late Margaret Thatcher and her emphasis on the market and market processes. In the aforementioned discussion, he argues that this confusion about what conservatism is has led to the debasement of society and its communitarian values, where people have become more selfishly individualistic and focussed solely on the self and the self’s needs and desires. He is joined in this sentiment by fellow conservative and Harvard professor Michael Sandel, who recently wrote a much discussed book: “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.” In it, Sandel argued that passive subservience to the market undermines democracy, which requires active debate and discussion about what it values most to survive and thrive.
Unsurprisingly, this is reminiscent of those with more socialist leanings on the left. And it is fascinating to note how much in common these two seemingly diametrically opposed political positions often have — certainly in regards to the environment and technology. It is those with more conservative (with a small c) tendencies who tend to resist genetic modification, for example, as we saw in the past with GM crops, in which environmentalist groups, conservative and traditional religious groups were largely in alignment.
In fact, most people display these sorts of conservative tendencies. As Mark Shuttleworth recently argued in a debate at the Oxford Union, those who take enormous risks and challenge the status quo are usually on the margins, the majority prefers to minimise risk and maintain stability. And it has always been thus.
Certainly it is Liberalism (classical or otherwise), which is an entirely separate political philosophy. I think this is perfectly demonstrated by free-speech activists Julian Assange and Edward Snowden; libertarians and the Liberal left, who usually wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room as each other and who are largely supportive of the actions of these two men and WikiLeaks. The same reaction was not forthcoming from conservatives, who, true to form, view WikiLeaks as a destabilising force — and not in a good way.
Mulling over this has provoked a reordering of the political spectrum, on my part. Instead of thinking of it as strictly left to right with conservative, liberal, libertarian, moderate and socialist distributed at various points upon it, I’ve now begun to think of it as divided between conservative and Liberal, each with its own left to right predilection. This is definitely as a result of modern-day language conventions: the term “liberal” is often associated with those on the left, for example. I’ve found this to be a more useful way of understanding (in quite a crude way, I suppose) contemporary political allegiances.
*Excuse me if you already do think of it in this way and do let me know in the comments how you envisage the definition and ordering of the political spectrum.