Chris Dillow – On being conservative

Neoliberal capitalism has done much more damage to the traditional English way of life than “cultural Marxism” or “wokesters” ever have

Chris Dillow is an economics writer at Investors Chronicle. He blogs at Stumbling and Mumbling, and is the author of New Labour and the End of Politics.

Cross-posted from Chris’s website Stumbling and Mumbling


Katherine Birbalsingh recently tweeted something insightful:

“Having small c conservative values” is not political. Many lefties have them.

True. I think of myself as one of these.

The conservative disposition, wrote (pdf) Michael Oakeshott, “is averse from change, which appears always, in the first place, as deprivation.” And there have been many changes in my lifetime which are indeed deprivations: the dumbing down of the public sphere and disappearance of the public intellectual; the loss of music teaching in state schools; the closure of thousands of pubs; the insertion into football of billionaire owners backed by repressive states; the loss of cleanish bathing water in our seas and rivers; the declining quality of popular music. And don’t get me started on cricket.

But here’s the thing. Many of these losses have been inflicted upon us by neoliberal capitalism: the privatization of water; the view that schooling (or at least state schooling) must merely prepare youngsters for labour; the opening up of English institutions to predators of all nations; and a university management which valorizes unreplicable “research outputs” over genuine intellectual work.

Not least of these impositions have been the forces that have diminished the traditional “middle-class”. Financialization has led to thousands of people in professional jobs being unable to buy a house – a development which would have appalled Thatcher with her advocacy of property-owning democracy. And the professions themselves have been degraded by managerialism – hence gruelling hours and the loss of autonomy.

Neoliberal capitalism has done much more damage to the traditional English way of life than “cultural Marxism” or “wokesters” ever have. Quote-to-be-conservative-then-is-to-prefer-the-familiar-to-the-unknown-to-prefer-the-tried-michael-joseph-oakeshott-38-48-66

In fact, the very use of those terms by the right is a sign of a temperament antithetical to small-c conservatism. Whereas small-c conservatism – as expressed by Burke or Oakeshott – advocates cool-headed scepticism and attention to empirical fact, talk of “wokesters” or “cultural Marxists” is that of fanatics who live in their own head or (what is just as bad) get their ideas of the world not from the evidence of their own eyes but from the scribblings of billionaires’ gimps.

Not that their fanaticism stops there. Liz Truss was propelled into government by a small cult. And her belief that a tax-cutting Budget could boost growth even when the economy was close to full capacity was a denial not only of conventional macroeconomic thinking but also of Burke’s conservative dictum:

Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.

Her ill-fated premiership was at one with Brexit in this regard. The conservative, wrote Oakeshott, is “cool and critical in respect of change an innovation”, preferring the tried to the untried. Brexiters, however, were the opposite of this – fanatics for change who, in most unBurkean fashion, over-estimated the capacity of government to achieve a satisfactory post-Brexit settlement.

“We tolerate monomaniacs, it is our habit to do so; but why should we be ruled by them?” asked Oakeshott, adding that goverment should “protect its subjects against the nuisance of those who spend their energy and their wealth in the service of some pet indignation.”

In all these respects, therefore, the small-c conservative should be antipathetic to today’s Tory party and to the neoliberal capitalism it (partially) represents.

Which leads to a puzzle. Ms Birbalsingh went on to commend National Conservatism as a grouping of small-c conservatives. Its defining features, however, seem to me to be not hostility to Brexit, Truss and neoliberalism but to migrants, “gender ideology” and “wokesters”. Yes, there are complaints that policy-makers have put “the abstract goal of global free trade ahead of the economic welfare of all citizens.” But the new right is defined more by culture war issues than by an antipathy to actually-existing capitalism.

Part of the reason for this is that conservatives love what they have come to know, which leads to Scruton’s point*:

The disquiet over immigration [is] the result, it seems to me, not of racism, but of the disruption of an old experience of home, and a loss of the enchantment which made home a place of safety and consolation. (England: An Elegy, p7-8)

This, however, runs into two problems. One is that migration isn’t the only thing that’s disrupting our old experience of home. So too (for example) is the environmental change caused by water companies and climate change. We would therefore expect anti-migration sentiments to be correlated with support for green policies. Whilst this is true in some cases, such as some nimbys or Zac Goldsmith, the opposite is more often the case: Ukip, for example, is campaigning against decarbonization policies and wants to reopen coal mines.

The second problem is that those areas that have actually experienced more immigration – and therefore one supposes more disruption of home – are more accepting of it; it was areas with low migration who were more likely to vote for Brexit, for example.

This might be because fear is worse than reality. Or it might be because of something else.

That something is that the idea of home is, for some, not merely an empirical matter of one’s local area and the people and places we see every day but is instead a reified and ideologized notion. “Britain” is a bundle of symbols and myths, such as of a benign Empire or wholly heroic Churchill. And this “Britain” is identified with rich, white (and southern) people so that Russian agents are more “British” than Muslims or trades unionists. Which is a legacy of an old attitude described by C.B. Macpherson in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: “the poor were not full members of a moral community…They were in but not of civil society.”

Such patriotism is thus a love of a cleansed and mythologized nation.

Which is paradoxical. For me, one of the attractions of small-c conservatism is its empiricism and distrust of abstractions and dreams. And yet small-c conservatives on the right too often invoke just such an abstraction – that of what Benedict Anderson called an imaginary community. This is not to say they are flat wrong: we all need myths and legends. It’s just to say that we can and should separate small-c conservatism from anti-migrant sentiments. To fail to do so is to miss the many strengths of conservatism.

* Scruton went on to add that “the right of asylum is an untouchable provision of the English law”, putting him to the left of today’s Tories.

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1 Comment

  1. The best book I have read about this is Craig Calhoun: Roots of radicalism. Studying radical movements he found that they were manned by conservatives – people whose life was dependent of tradition and found themselves in the clutch of annihilation when the old ways disappeared. So there we had the phenomenon of conservatives advocating complete revolution, so that nothing would change.

    He also has a chapter about what this tradition is that they defended – the old ways of doing things where one could be in full control of things, instead of losing autonomy and being shuttled to and fro by e.g. despotic foremen.

    This kind of conservatism gave rise to the Labour Movement, and to every peasant revolution of the 20th century. He didn’t study environmental movements, but do look at the family farmer international of today, Vía Campesina, which is the strongest proponent today of biological food and a strategic partner of Friends of the Earth. They are true conservatives wanting to continue their traditional lifestyle. And at the same time political radicals.

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