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Patriotism, the essential ingredient of conservatism


BRUCE Newsome and Will Jones have written timely pieces on TCW concerning the twin questions ‘What is conservatism?’ and ‘Are Johnson or Hunt conservative in any shape or form?’ Their assertion that modern conservatism ‘has its roots in classical liberalism’ raises the obvious question: ‘What is the difference between conservatism and liberalism?’

Modern conservatism may well have its roots in classical liberalism (the defence of free markets, personal liberty, private property, personal responsibility and so forth); indeed, save for a dash of patriotism, the two are indistinguishable. But traditional conservatism has quite different roots and priorities. The long tradition of English conservatism, espoused by Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton, is based not in some vision of Britain as a global business park, but in the traditions, attachments, loyalties and affections that evolve over time in a settled community rooted in time and place. It is rooted in the tried and tested ways of doing things that embody ‘the wisdom of the ages’, and in all the things that we love and treasure.

Of course, traditional conservatives also believe in a free society, and this they owe, in part, to the great tradition of liberalism – to the likes of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, whose magnificent defence of free speech in On Liberty is required reading for liberals and conservatives alike. But unless these liberties are grounded in a settled community, in inherited customs, norms and values, in a cultural inheritance, traditional conservatives know that they degenerate into the shallow, ultimately fruitless, search to satisfy our selfish desires.

Mill was acutely aware of this, which is why he wrote: ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ But as to how the higher pleasures and nobler virtues might be cultivated, he was silent. For the fundamental weakness of liberalism is that there is no shared vision of the good that might inform our tastes and values, and thereby hold society together. The paradox of Enlightenment liberal individualism is that it is parasitic on pre-liberal pre-Enlightenment traditions and institutions – on family life, patriotism, a strong work ethic and the moral codes of the great religions. Indeed, it actively undermines these things, and ends by destroying the very freedoms it was supposed to protect – the freedom to criticise, to utter heresies, to poke fun, to cause offence.

One of the most depressing features of our modern-day cult of diversity, multi-culture, open borders and mass immigration is that it destroys the sense of trust, reciprocity, mutual obligation that binds people together, the ‘unwritten contract’ that prompts us to pay our taxes, to fund public services and social care, to be good citizens. For if you no longer ‘feel at home’ in your own country, if your new neighbours are strangers with whom you have little in common and who you suspect have little reason to feel any loyalty to, or affection for, this country, then why put yourself out? Why make the charitable donation, or pay your taxes, or help the community group? As the American political scientist Robert Putnam found in his research into the effects of high immigration and ethnic diversity, people just ‘hunker down’. They look after themselves, their families and close friends. Or they move out to live with those of their own ethnicity or culture. 

Predictably, all five Tory candidates for the leadership in Tuesday’s debate renewed their commitment to our diverse multicultural society, and presumably (since no one even mentioned it as an issue) to open borders and mass immigration. Of course, one would expect nothing less of global liberals anxious to signal their virtue. But those who voted Brexit were not motivated by the desire for free trade and global markets, or to increase foreign investment (i.e. flog off even more of our national assets and line the pockets of private equity fund managers and corporate lawyers in the City). Like the steel workers of Scunthorpe, all they want is a fighting chance: to do an honest day’s work for a decent wage, in a community they can call their own, and in a country that values their loyalty.

Judging from their performance so far, it seems unlikely that Johnson or Hunt will answer their call. In which case, we must look to those who would espouse traditional conservative values.

Over to you, Nigel Farage.

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Alistair Miller
Alistair Miller
Alistair Miller writes for The Salisbury Review

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