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This is one of a series of excerpts from older articles put online by John Ray as a public service. The articles concerned are in general otherwise available only by special request to a University or other major library.

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Contemporary Review, 1990, vol. 256, p. 299-301.

This article was written while Britain's Thatcher government was in power and argues that Thatcherism is too doctrinaire by historic conservative standards.

WHITHER CONSERVATISM?



By J. F. Standish

"The Conservative Party", declared Disraeli, "is either a national party or it is nothing." That statement is incontestably true, since political conservatism, as opposed to the philosophies of other political parties, has made an inherent claim to govern in the interests of the whole nation. That has been its claim and standpoint. But is that claim still true today? Has the Conservative party adhered to its original tenets, or has it moved in another direction?

It is useful to consider the origins. That of Toryism in the Restoration period was rooted in the twin principles of the defence of Crown and Church, and the retention of time-sanctioned principles and institutious; the benevolence of the rulers towards the ruled. Toryism represented the old estate. Opposed was Whiggism, which spelt the rejection of Tory principles and which, though lukewarm in its adherence to the monarchical concept, declared its support for William of Orange as king; its attitude towards the Church was negative, even agnostic. Coupled with the fact that they sought primarily to preserve their privileges as great landowners, the Whigs might well be considered as partisan rather than national. Under the early Georges, during which time the Whigs contrived to keep themselves in power, that partisanship became more evident. Thus the Tories, in principle, stood for the nation; the Whigs for self-advancement.

From the Tories in the early nineteenth century the Conservatives emerged; the Whigs gave birth to the Liberals. Both tended to converge upon the concept of rule by Queen-in-Parliament, though the former adhered to the power and dignity of the Crown whereas the latter used Parliament in order to manipulate and diminish the power of the Crown. Today, however, the issue is blurred, since there are hardly any of the old-style Tories or Whigs to be found. In other words, the Liberals in name and in fact have disappeared while the present-day Conservatives have distanced themselves from the old High Church monarchical Tories. Indeed, when the matter is examined more closely, it is difficult to take issue with Harold Macmillan when, as Earl of Stockton, he declared today's governing party to be the successors to the Manchester Liberals (Radicals) of the 1860s. How has this come about, and what are the characicristics of the new generation?

The demise of the former great Liberal party, that of Palmerston and Gladstone, from its earlier dominating position culminating with Lloyd George to a point after the last war when it was truly said that the parliamentary Liberals could travel to the Commons together in one taxi, and now appear to be extinct, left a political vacuum. The rise of the Labour party during that period of Liberal decline did not imply that the new socialist was simply the old radical writ large. The philosophies and policies of those two parties were antagonistic, not complementary. This vacuum, therefore, had the effect of gradually drawing the Conservatives away from their old power-base, rooted in the shires, the universities, and the Church, towards the middle ground of consensus. Today, it seems almost axiomatic that any political party strives to occupy the middle ground of politics while its opponents strive equally tenaciously to dislodge the incumbents. This abandonment of a traditional position, which might perhaps have had as its genesis Disraeli's later organization of the Conservative party (the consequences of present events can rarely be foreseen) implied that a new justification had to be sought. It was not readily found. Latterly, however, new trends are evident, for a major factor in the new thinking is a consequence of a decade of majority rule by a Government faced by a divided and impotent Opposition. "No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition. It reduces their supporters to that tractable number which can be influenced by the joint influences of fruition and hope." Thus Disraeli in 1844. Further, Acton's dictum about the corrupting effect of absolute power should not be forgotten.

This lack of a salutary check by an effective Opposition is coupled with another factor, equally deleterious: the development of a doctrinaire attitude. This was never before a characteristic of Conservatism which was on the contrary inclined towards ad hoc measures rather than the formulation of panaceas. It is aided by the emergence of 'new men' who might be compared with the rising capitalist equites of later Rome. This doctrinaire disposition tends, if unchecked, towards a form of authoritarianism productive of results unforeseen and undesired. The Commonwealth of Hobbes's Leviathan demonstrates the logical development of this trend all too well, and this consequence must not be disregarded. One observes with disquiet a steadily-increasing concentration of power in Whitehall, while a vital part of that concentration reposes in Downing Street; local government is one sufferer. With this goes a continuing impatience with fairminded criticism, and a perceptible alienation of the Church that was once the Tory bastion. Is the Church of England today the Conservative party at prayer? Probably not. Concurrently, Philistinism asserts itself: cost-effectiveness is the sole criterion; cultural and aesthetic values are largely disregarded. It is left to the palace, both Buckingham and Kensington, to issue warnings against the domination of things spiritual by things temporal. Insensitivity is rarely an engaging attribute, least of all when associated with bureaucratic power.

This doctrinaire disposition is fully manifested in the Government's obsession with the privatization of nationalized industries which must be pursued regardless of particular circumstances. The turning of national monopolies into private ones is indefensible per se; it would be difficult to argue that the conversion of Telecom, for instance, into a public company has been fully in the national interest. Will competition flourish in those industrial fields which the Government has plans to denationalize? A clear distinction should be made between activities that are fundamentally a national service -- railways, water, energy-- and those with an essentially mercantile basis -- mines, steel, ship-building -- in all these things heeding Pope's caution that "whate'er is best administered is best'.

A continued deference to the European Economic Community as it steadily encroaches upon the fields of national government, even to the extent of imposing its taxation regulations upon the Government of the United Kingdom, must be at variance with the Conservative claim to be a national party. How can that claim be upheld if national government is eroded, and power is gradually and inexorably transferred from Westminster to Brussels, so that the supremacy of Queen-in-Parliament becomes an archaic and outmoded concept? Such a party, from being national, becomes nothing, as Disraeli said.

Today, we live broadly speaking in an affluent society where poverty is to a great extent a relative term. There was never before in this country such access to purchasing power achieved largely by becoming engulfed in personal debt. Such prosperity contains the seeds of illusion; in a sense our time is analogous with that of Rome during its decline. Rome's statesmen at that period were not practical men of action, but lawyers and financiers. "The whole Roman world was being slowly strangled with good intentions", wrote Stobart the historian. "The bureaucracy had grown so highly organized and efficient. . . that everybody walked in leading-strings to the music of official proclamations. Paternalism regulated everything with its watchful and benignant eye." When one listens to ministerial pronouncements, the unfolding of formulas, the endless legislation to make us better citizens, we are reminded of the Roman "system of blear-eyed officialdom [which] had found a still more ingenious method of throttling the society which it was endeavouring to nurse back into infancy." For a while, this activity continues and increases; with well-meaning objectives on the part of our political masters society becomes unstable, prosperity based on borrowing proves to be illusory, and contempt for law and order gradually prevails. This state of affairs is unsatisfactory and undesirable.

What, therefore, should now be done? A change of heart as well as direction is clearly needed. First, doctrinairism should be eschewed as foreign to Conservative thought. Then a return to the idea of piecemeal legislation, a characteristic of earlier Toryism, rather than a policy of social engineering borrowed from authoritarian socialism. Next, the precedence of principle over expediency or doctrine, even if unpopular. Again, a loosening of the shackles being imposed upon this nation by Brussels, a necessary course if any British government, whatever its political complexion, is to be master in its own house.

It is fitting to recall the words of one of the last of the old Tories, Enoch Powell: "The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.. .", but, he adds, "the besetting temptation of all politics [is] to counteract evil wherever it may be found; the negative course of correction is infinitely to be preferred to the positive course of determining all the events of our daily lives." Thus, instead of the utopianism that prevails in the Government of today, the correction of abuses and the amelioration of conditions should be the principal preoccupation of all intelligent and understanding administration, free from alien constraints.




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