Neil O’Brien: Fifty shades of conservatism
Neil O’Brien is MP for Market Harborough.
You might say socialism and liberalism are ideologies, while Conservatism is more like a character trait. But that’s not quite right. Socialism and liberalism are ideologies about maximising one thing, be it equality or freedom. In contrast, Conservatives believe in a wider variety of ideals.
So what kind of conservative are you?
Since the classic Liberal party gave way to Labour, we’ve been the party of the free market and sound money, even more so since the Thatcher/Reagan era. The free market is a such huge part of what we are about, it tends to dominate, but there’s much more to conservatism.
Perhaps you are a law and order Conservative: patron saint Thomas Hobbes, who, inspired by his experience of the civil war, observed that without strong authority and law and order, life tends to be “nasty, brutish and short.”
But in a nice example of how conservative ideas fit together, a strong law and order policy is also a One Nation policy: because who suffers when there is crime and disorder? Those who live in the most deprived fifth of neighbourhoods are 50 per cent more likely to be victims of crime than those in the richest fifth.
Or perhaps you are a constitutional conservative. Do you believe in keeping the Monarchy? A House of Lords that isn’t elected? Do you believe in keeping first past post elections, and an unwritten constitution? Do you believe in the common law and rule of law? Those ideas are more important now Labour believes in expropriation of your pension, your shares, your house, and anything else that isn’t screwed down.
Perhaps you’re a conservative because you believe in Liberty. Habeas Corpus. Limits on Government. Legal protection of personal and family life. Liberty always raises contentious issues like hunting or drugs. Or think of recent cases like the gay marriage cake. I thought the courts got it right: a business can’t refuse to serve gay people, but people can’t be made to promote political views they don’t hold, even if I disagree with those views.
What do we think about the growing deployment of live facial recognition technology in public places? Liberty lovers might want to ban it. Law and order fans might want to allow it.
Liberty-loving conservatism can also clash with another ideal – social conservatism. Are you worried about family breakdown? What do you think about transgender issues? What do you think about full facial veils? That question pits liberty against traditional pattern of our society. France banned them, we allow them.
Do you think what you get out of the welfare system should be linked to what you put in? And how should we make choices about immigration: do we just think about migrants’ skills and earnings, or how easily they will integrate into our culture? I incline to the latter view.
One big idea that I think fits under social conservatism is the idea of the nation state. National self-determination and the lack of a shared European demos powers the idea of Brexit, but it also explains why we are prepared to make compromises to try and keep the United Kingdom together.
Zooming down from the nation to the individual, conservatism is about individual self-reliance. That’s why we strongly support individual home ownership. Mrs Thatcher expressed this well. She said that people: “are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
Things like the doubling of the Income Tax Personal Allowance and the National Living Wage – and also welfare reforms – are about self reliance. George Osborne was onto something when he talked about a “higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare spending” society. Personally, I believe tax should be based on the ability to pay, and so we should bring back the higher tax allowances for children Labour abolished in the 1970s.
But conservatives don’t just believe in individualism. We are the society party. Civic conservatives know that many problems can’t be solved by either the free market or the state. David Cameron said: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” When we think about problems like loneliness in an ageing society, we can only solve them by catalysing and helping voluntary groups and family life. The Big Society may have been a good idea, badly timed. But the ideal of voluntary action remains very attractive, I find particularly to younger conservatives.
Conservatism is also about gradualism. Burke attacked the French revolution as a huge, risky, leap-in-the-dark.
Gradualism is behind all our biggest policy successes. Welfare reforms started under Peter Lilley, continued under New Labour, and then under another Conservative government – and now have the record employment. The academy schools programme also spanned governments: from Kenneth Baker to Gavin Williamson.
In contrast, Socialists believe in utopian leaps. In the USSR and under China’s Great Leap Forward millions died, yet John McDonell still says, “I am a Marxist”. In contrast we should be proud gradualists. What do we want? More use of evidence. When do we want it? After randomised control trials.
As well as gradualism, Conservatism is about pluralism and decentralisation. Environmentalists have shown us why it is dangerous to have a monoculture of anything, because if things then go wrong, they do so on a huge scale. Think about the Irish potato famine.
Take a more recent policy example: during the heyday of disastrous progressive teaching methods, they swept all before them. But independent schools and grammar schools were a bastion for traditional methods (like phonics), which could then make a comeback after trendy methods failed.
Devolution allows experimentation. In the US they say the states are “laboratories of democracy”. Ideas like welfare reform or zero tolerance policing were tried locally and taken up nationally when they worked. Conservatives also believe in pluralism in a deeper way. People have different ideas of the good life.
That’s one reason I think we should keep the honours system – to recognise those who are motivated by something other than money, whether they want to serve their country on the battlefield, or help their community by running a youth club. That should inform our thoughts on things like childcare. Do we just focus on maximising employment or education? Or let people choose if they want to be stay at home parents?
I’m sure readers will point out things I’ve missed. But those are some of the main elements of Conservatism.
Law and order. The Constitution. Liberty. Social Conservatism. Civic Conservatism. Individual-self reliance.
Gradualism. Pluralism. Ideas that are sometimes in tension, but which fit together.
Conservatism is a bit like the roof of parliament’s Westminster Hall: which is held up by a lot of huge, ancient beams all resting on each other. Likewise, the elements of conservatism fit together, and have also made something really strong and enduring.
This article is based on a contribution by the author to a Centre for Policy Studies event, “Free Exchange: The case for conservatism”, at last week’s Conservative Party Conference.
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