What is a Conservative?

This question has always been a notoriously difficult one to answer. If you pick up a book by any philosopher, they’ll all tell you something different. However, one thing they’ll all say, counter-intuitively, is that a conservative believes in freedom. I’m going to expand on this, among other things, to give my view on what makes a conservative.

There are lessons to be learned from many apparently opposing ideologies. I’d like to look at liberalism (in the original sense of the word); the idea of a small state, low taxes, minimal regulation, and the idea that a person may do whatever he wants so long as it does not impinge on the liberty of others. These are noble concepts, and ones that form the backbone of many Conservatives’ (including my own) beliefs. Consent and democracy build the system, with each person cooperating with his neighbour not because he is forced to, but for mutual benefit. However, the idea of freedom and rights have taken a strange turn in modern political thought. Human rights, as laid out in UDHR, can be split into two broad categories, as Scruton puts it. They are ‘freedom’ rights and ‘claims’ rights. ‘Freedom’ rights, such as the right to freedom of conscience, or the right to life, liberty, and security of person, don’t require any party to act, rather they require inaction from any potential oppressor. However, with ‘claims’ rights we slide into a more sinister path. These rights require positive action from the Government, such as the right to ‘social security and is entitled to the realization… of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and free development of his personality.’ These are not protections from encroachment from the state, but claims against it, requiring by some strange logic a larger state to fulfil these so-called freedoms. Conservatism is not there to give a man entitlement, it is there to protect him from the potential oppression of the state.

There is also something to be learned from our opponents across the chamber, the socialists. If we accept that a government, built by consent, is there to serve, rather than be served by the people, we must accept that it therefore has a duty to all its citizens, regardless of wealth, race, or religion. I mentioned the freedom of a man to do what he wants with his money, but is a man who has absolutely nothing truly free? He has limited options; he must work long hours for a low-paid job (if indeed he can find one) to support his family, has limited education, limited opportunity. In short, he does not have the freedom to live up to his human potential. The state has a duty to this man as a member of the society it serves. This is where the concept of equality of opportunity arises. Surely it is fair to take a small proportion of a rich man’s wealth to ensure that the poor man can at least have a meal with a roof over his head? Surely we can provide his children with a level of education that allows them to rise above their background and achieve a better life? The libertarian notion of low tax is flawed up to a point because it assumes that those with nothing can, through hard work, raise themselves up. A rich man has received the benefits of society, he must do his bit to ensure that others may do the same. This is where our lesson from socialism ends, however. The greatest lie in left-wing thought is the assumption that economics is a zero-sum game, i.e. a rich man has become rich to the detriment of the poor. This leads us to thinking that as retribution, he must give up his wealth to produce an equality of outcome, rather than of opportunity. This assumption is demonstrably not true; by cooperation in a free economy, both parties of an agreement can benefit. Ensuring equality is not the conservative way; we look at education. The easiest way to ensure equality of education is to remove any advantage the more gifted may have, and pull everyone down, rather than pushing the weakest up. Never has this been more clear than in Labour’s opposition to anything that isn’t a comprehensive system, for no reason other than ‘unfairness’. Socialists don’t care about individual success, only about this nebulous idea of equality.

The final point I shall make is one of tradition. Many people may scorn this idea, saying it’s an attempt to cling on to outdated concepts that we have simply moved past. However, a conservative must recognise the flaw in this statement. Traditions have been built up over hundreds of years, the idea of etiquette, the institutions of the state, the ceremonies and rituals that we all unconsciously participate in. These traditions serve one important purpose in society, and that is to give us the sense of the ‘we’. We participate in this, we appreciate the ceremony, we enjoy the strangeness of it that an outsider cannot hope to understand. It’s a form of social cohesion that cannot be valued monetarily. Here is another flaw in the libertarian viewpoint, the idea that we are all individuals only connected by agreements for mutual benefit. We are connected by something far greater than that, the tradition that links us to our ancestors and to our descendants yet to be born. Etiquette built by tradition is our Shibboleth; our society expects its members to act a certain way and confusion is created by those who do not. Tradition and the culture of society is the one greatest thing that links members of a nation. There is another value to tradition; it has been refined and modified by the wisdom of centuries; who are we to think we know better and tear it down? Revolutionaries think in this way; conservatives prefer to modify and improve rather than destroy and rebuild.

In this too too brief article I’ve espoused my views on some of the key things that make a conservative a conservative. I wish I had more space to expand, as there are many other aspects. I would encourage the interested reader to peruse Scruton’s ‘How to be a Conservative’, as it was for the most part the inspiration for this piece.