My final reading recommendation for the waning days of summer, as well as to keep as a bedside bible over the autumn months, is Sir Roger Scruton’s reminder of How to be a Conservative.
It is not self-evident, especially in the present day and age when so many politicians who call themselves Conservative are patently not; when our cultural, religious and political inheritance is so routinely rejected; when Left liberalism is the dominant force across political and social life; when to be a conservative is, in effect, to be a counter-cultural presence – even a subversive – in private as well as public life (as the State intrudes ever more into the private sphere).
The idea that conservatism is as much about culture as about free markets is one that ‘the Party’ and most of the Right-leaning think tanks who seek to advise it have forgotten, or indeed have deliberately rejected. While George Osborne’s 2014 party conference speech, which celebrated a ‘modern’ brand of consumer-driven libertarianism, might have gone down well with the London metrosexual elite, it is less clear that it had much appeal with the electorate. As Tim Stanley commented – and the Brexit vote went on to prove – ‘a conservatism fixated with money isn’t nearly as popular as the campaign managers think’. Mrs Thatcher, contrary to the commonly held view, did believe in society. She saw the family as its bedrock, not the State. And she knew the meaning of ‘we’ – the necessary first person plural of our common identity. Cameron wanted to recreate such a society of mutual help and dependence, but he made the fundamental error of thinking this could be done by turning charities and voluntary organisations into new agencies of the State to effect it.
Mrs May, of all Conservative leaders to date, has the least understanding of what Scruton describes as ‘the motive in human beings that binds them to the place, the customs, the history and the people who are theirs’. Conservatism is indeed about the politics of attachment and Sir Roger, unlike contemporary Tories, has found the language to express it. It is not, he says, ‘a matter of defending global capitalism at all costs, or securing the privileges of the few against the many. It is a matter of defending civil society, maintaining autonomous institutions, and defending the citizen against the abuse of power. Its underlying motive is not greed or the lust for power but simply attachment to a way of life’.
Humanity may survive in the absence of old-fashioned decencies and values, but it won’t flourish, he says. Conservatism starts from ‘the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed but not easily created’. These are our collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property, love and family life – which today’s Conservative Party is failing to guard.
‘If we look at the big issues facing us today – the EU, mass immigration, the union, Islamic extremism, the environment – we will surely see that the Conservative view rightly identifies what is now at stake: namely the survival of our way of life. Conservatives are not very good at articulating the point, and left-liberal censorship intimidates those who attempt to do so. But it is a fault in the socialist and liberal ideas that they can be so easily articulated – a proof that they avoid the real, hard philosophical task, which is that of seeing civil society as it is, and recognising that it is easier to destroy good things in the name of an ideal than to maintain them as a reality.’
Over the next few days I’ll be focusing more specifically on what Scruton has to say about the various ‘isms’ – nationalism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism – their truths and appeal, their falsehoods and pieties, to arm us for the political debates to come.
But to get into the mood here is a Hoover Institute interview with Sir Roger on the book in which he talks, inter alia, about his motivation for writing it.
For anyone needing a shortcut through all this, here’s an article by the great man himself which should do the trick.