23 May 2023

The poetry of society and the devil of reform – National Conservatism and the Tory tradition


With the revival of faith, flag and family at the recent National Conservatism conference, the inevitable questions have gone up about whether the Tory party is becoming Americanised, whether they believe in anything other than power, and what happened to ‘one nation’ conservatives? Many answers run to the same conclusion: this is a populist takeover of the Conservative party. 

But what can we say about Toryism and its incarnations that makes sense of recent ideological shifts? Is this new trend towards what some see as Americanisation really so incompatible with British Tory traditions?

It is tempting to believe that conservatism is devoid of – or even hostile to – ideas. Certainly, Toryism has been more pragmatic than ideological: but the Tory party is capable of holding various ideological positions, quite strongly, as it has done for the last 13 years, and as the disagreements about NatCon demonstrate. 

These divergences flow from a common source. The essence of Toryism is that power is a prerogative, embodied in institutions, be they divine, royal, or sacred and, preferably, ancient. That is what links the Tories of the Exclusion Crisis to those who value sovereignty today. To call some versions of Toryism, like Thatcherism and its successors, anarcho-libertarian, or to think Tories want to destroy the state is simply wrong: preserving institutions is the core of Tory thinking. 

That is why, as well as being defenders of church and monarchy, the Tories were reformers of those institutions. This is conservatism as distinct from reaction: the aim is not to turn back the clock but to preserve the constitutional settlement, primarily the settlement of 1688, especially the ancient components.

Thus the Conservative Party can be the home of someone like Lord Salisbury, who was both a defender of the House of Lords, Irish union, and the Established Church, and an economic libertarian who said you may as well disagree with the laws of meteorology as with the law of economics. The second industrial revolution of the 1880s could not be undone or ignored, but Britain’s constitution could be preserved through the turbulence. 

The fact that Toryism is able to contain such a diverse ideology is why both sides of the party – wet and dry, liberal and conservative, modernising and traditional, Nimby and Yimby – episodically accuse each other of being outside the mainstream of the party’s beliefs and history. It is quite possible, possibly even necessary, to believe contradictory things in the name of preserving Britain and her traditions.

Hence the right used to cavil that David Cameron wasn’t ‘a real conservative’, and the Cameroons talked about ‘swivel-eyed loons’, while both sides believed themselves to be well within the best traditions of British conservatism – indeed, to be the ones sustaining those traditions. When Churchill took office in 1940, his Tory colleague Rab Butler thought it was an intolerable breach with the tradition of William Pitt. To many others, of course, blue-blooded Churchill was Toryism personified.

Similarly, it is wrong to think that the pseudo-American faith, family, flag ideals of NatCon are not themselves rooted in British traditions. Those were the principles that bound the party together from Salisbury to Baldwin. High Tories at rallies in the 1880s waved those banners and held those flags. Taking flag to mean the monarchy, the House of Lords, and a weariness of absolute democracy, these are the ideals that animated Edmund Burke and Viscount Bolingbroke. Under Disraeli it became an imperial cause with a strong foreign policy. 

That’s not to excuse some of the more fringe, disagreeable and eccentric parts of this debate, which are indeed incoherent and unpleasant. These are the ways in which Toryism meets populism, where reaction begins to be mistaken for conservatism. But there have been times when the Tory anvil was struck by the democratic hammer and powerful steel was made, such as when the High Toryism of Enoch Powell and the pink democracy of Michael Foot were in prescient agreement about Britain’s relationship to the European Union. Sometimes the party tries to revive this alliance, calling it One Nation Toryism. This is a ruse that started with Baldwin, and reached a high-point with Macmillan. It had its calmest and most nostalgic moment in John Major’s speech about nuns cycling through the morning mist to mass.

One Nation conservatism itself embodies the current Tory divide. Its supposed founder, Benjamin Disraeli, was indeed concerned about the poor – he made social reforms to improve their living standards and improved working conditions in factories. But he also opposed the Liberals on national issues, defending church, court and, especially, empire. He was clear that social reform went hand-in-hand with defence of the constitution and the colonies. Subsequent One Nation Tories became rather less staunch in their imperial views. But the habit of worrying about England’s institutions being under attack was never quite lost, on either side.

In 1943, the Tory historian William B Willcox, talking of the the similarities between Disraeli and his successors after the 1920s, explained the process of Tory ideological shifts:

In both periods a great war was succeeded by an era of materialism, which in turn bred a romantic reaction; comfort proved inadequate as a social ideal. Disraeli, like Hitler, was able to make political capital out of this reaction by appealing to the craving of ordinary men for extraordinary ideas. He did not find them, as Hitler does, in the mysteries of race and power, although he invoked the goddess Jingo when she suited his turn. He found them instead in Toryism, as contrasted with materialism – the poetry of society, in the phrase of a French critic, as contrasted with its prose.

How modern that sounds. How now. NatCon’s ideas might not amount to an election platform, and often seem less inspired than insidious, but there’s more to it than an importation of Trumpist culture wars.

The one thing Tories have agreed on throughout the centuries is that Britain is blessed with her constitutional settlement, her ancient culture, her nationhood – and they sniff the approach of ruin on every modern breeze. In response, they seek to invoke Toryism as contrasted with materialism, the poetry, rather than the prose of society. They may not do it very well, but that is at least part of what animates the new right.

The other thing Willcox said that will surely become more relevant to all sides of the Tory party in the coming years is that ‘a conservative out of power is often a conservative capable of enlightenment: his hunger for office leads him to accept even the devil of reform’.

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Henry Oliver is a writer. His work can be found at commonreader.substack.com.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.