Conservatism is being hijacked. Sean Walsh asks what, specifically, the hijackers of the movement wish to ‘conserve’, aside from their embedded system of mutually agreed privileges?
If anybody is interested in getting a grip on what “conservatism” is then they could do worse than look at the recent debate on The Conservative Woman. You certainly would be getting more of a sense of it than by looking at the recent contortions of the Conservative Party, whose leadership contenders have validated their cognitive Stockholm Syndrome. The craven supplication at the altar of liberal orthodoxy has been, well let’s be kind, disappointing.
I find it really hard to be kind.
In a few days we will have a Prime Minister -it hardly matters which- who views the reclamation of national sovereignty as something to “get over the line” – the Tooth Extraction Brexit.
A Tory Prime Minister to whom has been gifted the opportunity to reinstate the national idea should be eager to make that happen NOW and not to treat the parole board deadline as the final opportunity to see the dentist. That, at least, should be the instinct. And it should be amplified by the urgency to repair the covenant of trust that exists between governed and governors before Dominic Grieve, the Foggy Dewhurst of Continuity Remain, drops the vase just as he’s explaining how precious it is.
The conservative instinct ought to be in the direction of conserving things. What, specifically, do the hijackers of the conservative movement wish to conserve, aside from their embedded system of mutually agreed privileges?
And conservatism is an instinct. Or an attitude. It is a sense that the correct way forwards is to stand still because here is as good a place as any. Those who criticise conservatism on the grounds that is not a “philosophy” don’t get that you can still philosophise about it.
How can you philosophise about an attitude? Easily: Aristotle did it. At some length. Aristotle pointed out that we are not free-ranging operators of “reason”, but embodied creatures animated by a spiritual principle. Morality is not about the acceptance and application of rules but the cultivation of appropriate responses to what is happening around us. We can educate the way we feel. And once we accept a detachment from an obsession with rules it follows there follows, eventually, a recognition that obligations not founded in “contract” are just as demanding as those which are.
The obligations might be these: to family, country, territory and to way of life. To systems of spontaneous allegiance that cannot be justified by an appeal to the liberal “free range reason” because they are binding on all of us and appreciated by all of us. Not just those who have read Mill or Kant.
And what is the attitude? The conservative attitude surely includes love, acceptance and humility. She looks at what surrounds her, accepts the things worth loving and is humble in realising that she lacks the point of view above the historical process – the view from nowhere- that would bend society in the direction she prefers.
Which is why an exegesis of conservatism cannot be exhausted by an essay describing what a conservative view of the market is, or of the nation, or of the law. That exegesis would require that an account can be given of these things when possibly only a “through the glass darkly” affection, inchoate but very real, is available.
So much, so familiar. But there is one assault on conservatism which, it seems to me, has been overlooked.
The conservative attitude must include a certain hesitancy in respect of language – especially the English language. We should acknowledge that we have been gifted certain ways of shaping the world, via our language, that respect the truth that Truth is best approached humbly and is not to be some artifice in the Postmodernist agenda. Our language breaks down when it approaches the deepest things. Rather than respect the deepest things we are encouraging a culture that would do away with the preciousness of language.
The toxicity of our culture is a consequence of a failure of proper hesitation in the face of a type of linguistic vandalism. Our cultural tradition must involve a preservation of what words mean. If that ceases to matter, then every ridiculousness becomes available and those who have never read a book cover to cover in their life will make themselves available for duty.
Therefore, the frankly stupid voluntarism of the LGBT activism has been allowed to happen: the obnoxious idea that speech can be compelled. The metaphysics behind the activism is that language is up for grabs and that therefore so are pronouns.
Well it isn’t. And they aren’t.