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The moral case for conservatism


Why do we need to make the moral case for conservatism? This question motivated Sam Burgess, author of Edmund Burke’s Battle with Liberalism, our last year’s review of which we are republishing today, to write his new book which was published last week. At its launch he gave a speech, which we are publishing in three parts this week, setting out his reasons. In the first section he examines conservatism in juxtaposition to its rivals, the competing ideologies of liberalism and socialism, the two great threats to our national life.

I ASKED an intelligent Conservative-voting friend of mine what he thought conservatism was about and he mumbled something about lower taxes and shooting pheasants; which brings me to the first reason I wrote this book. Over the last few years I believe serious questions have been raised about whether many conservatives really know what they believe any more. I worry that a philosophical understanding of conservatism has been replaced by buzzwords such as equality, liberty and rights. In themselves these are not bad things, but without understanding their history they can become meaningless, or even destructive.

This has left many conservatives unable to paint a compelling vision of what they believe and why they believe it. So trying to present the historical and logical roots of the tradition is a central aim of this book.

In the book I present conservatism in juxtaposition to its great historical rivals, liberalism and socialism. This has been done quite consciously, because I believe that these ideologies remain the two great threats to our shared national life.

The General Election of 2017 should cause real concern for conservatives. Two in three first-time voters chose to support a hard Left socialist candidate, while fewer than one in five young voters supported the Conservative Party. It is only over the age of 47 that a voter is now more likely to vote Conservative than Labour.

Which brings me to the second reason I wrote this book – the alternatives to conservatism.

Waiting in the wings, we see a potential prime minister who claimed that Hugo Chavez had ‘shown us that there is a . . . better way of doing things. It’s called socialism’. We can now see that he was talking about policies that have plunged Venezuela into abject misery. We are not talking about a slight dip in the standard of living, or the hardships endured during the British winter of discontent. The socialism of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro has led to Venezuela’s total economic collapse. The country now has the third-highest murder rate in the world, while its per capita GDP has dropped from $7,000 to $2,000 in the space of a year. There have been widespread reports of children eating from bins and malaria ravaging the country. Unsurprisingly, refugees have poured out into Colombia and Brazil.

As in most socialist nations, Nicolas Maduro has held on to power through intimidation, violence, arbitrary detentions and the repression of free speech. And yet, astoundingly a number of senior Labour MPs including Richard Burgon, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn all refuse to condemn his government.

When Corbyn talks about a kinder, gentler politics, we should be quite clear that there is not a single genuinely socialist nation in history that has resulted in a kinder, gentler or indeed fairer politics. On the other side of the ledger, there are dozens of former socialist nations, from Ethiopia to Cambodia, the Congo to Vietnam, Yugoslavia to Russia, that have led to penury, repression and worse.

As I once heard someone put it, socialism looks like a pretty good idea on paper, unless that paper happens to be in a history book.

I will not rehearse the economic or political case against socialism here, because I suspect I am largely preaching to the converted. But I believe the moral case against Marxist socialism is conclusive and it cannot be made often enough.

Ever since Marx penned his communist manifesto in 1848, his economic vision has held an allure, especially to the young, because it presents equality as the capstone social good. As I say in the book, equality, perhaps more than any other social value, has the ability to corrupt good intentions and beguile them into committing great evils. Because it taps into a deep instinct in us and holds out before us the promise of the final consummation of justice, but the price of that consummation is a Faustian pact with the state, which assumes the role of the great equaliser. In short, socialism makes the state God.

The second ideological threat of our age is equally enticing and that is the cultural threat of liberalism. The central belief of contemporary liberalism is that radical human autonomy is the highest moral ideal.

Such an ideology makes human desire the measure of all things. Rather than receiving a world that precedes us, it seeks to reshape the world in the image of the individual. In doing so, liberalism eschews any substantial idea of moral order for the human person. I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that the language of virtue in our public discourse has become almost entirely detached from the Aristotelian account of the development of human character. If something is legal and pleasurable then culturally it is not only permitted, but marketed and encouraged.

Such hyper-individualism provides an incredibly poor cohesive for society, as societies necessarily require cooperation, toleration, empathy and a shared set of values. Values that once predominated, such as duty, community-mindedness and altruistic commitment are increasingly seen as outmoded.

These cultural trends are driven by powerful market forces such as social media, advertising and the music industry. It is precisely for this reason that I called the book ‘the moral case for conservatism’, with a small c. Conservatism is not solely a political philosophy. In my view, it is not primarily the job of politicians to counter such cultural trends.

Much in this book is aimed at everyday citizens, entrepreneurs, cultural influencers, parents and other role models who we need to champion the values which define conservatism. I am not talking about a moralistic society, but a society in which morality is not a dirty word. A society in which communities are strong, families come first and talk of duty is as common as talk of rights. If we are indeed engaged in a culture war, then individuals making a stand in their communities is just as important as the grand strategy played out in Westminster.

So, that is why I wrote the book, but what is the moral case for conservatism?

Sam Burgess’s explanation follows tomorrow.

The Moral Case for Conservatism can be purchased here. 

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Sam Burgess
Sam Burgess
Sam Burgess, has a DPhil form the University of Oxford, is author Edmund’s Burke’s Battle with Liberalism and is married with a young daughter

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