How to be a Conservative in 2017

When I first became conscious of my own political leanings, conservatism defined itself in terms of the worldwide confrontation between freedom and totalitarianism. Of course there were nuances, disputes and alliances. Traditional conservatives and free-market libertarians were often at loggerheads, and there was and remains a deep dispute on the conservative side as to whether the sphere of culture is or is not a concern of government. Still, it was undeniable to anyone who had experience of both sides that this worldwide conflict existed, and that conservatism ended with the defence of free societies against the totalitarian project, even if it did not begin there. Seeing things that way had the advantage of presenting conservatism as an international cause, something grander and more intimately connected with the future of mankind than the local attachments from which ordinary conservative sentiments tend to grow.

At the same time large sections of the political and intellectual elite in the West were, covertly or overtly, on the totalitarian side. Of course, they disguised the fact, certainly from others, and often also from themselves. But in any confrontation they could be guaranteed to speak against Western interests, to disparage the conduct of democratic states and to conceal or deny the truth about the West’s enemies. It was one proof of the freedom which people in the West enjoyed that the critics of government were at liberty to speak their mind, with whatever degree of exaggeration, and indeed rewarded for doing so, like Noam Chomksy and Edward Said, with all the privileges that the academy can bestow. It never seemed to trouble those gadflies that the political systems whose interests they advanced were in the habit of killing their home-grown critics.

This kind of existential hypocrisy belonged to a wider culture diagnosed and denounced by Orwell and others on the left, as much as by the refugees from totalitarianism. I describe it as a culture of repudiation, and in my view its roots lie deep in the condition of modern society. The leftist position, and the totalitarian governments that sprang from it, are both rooted in rejection of the existing order of things, not on behalf of some real and examined alternative, but on behalf of utopia – in other words, on behalf of nothing. The emotional impulse was not love for some real and preferred social order, for there was none; it was anger against the actual. I don’t say that the anger was always unjustified; but the important point is that it was always there, and the prime motive for political action.

We witness in the leftist mind-set the primal revolt of man against his own nature. This is something that we all experience at a certain stage; overcoming it, and learning to accept and where possible to love what we have and what we are, imperfections included, is in my view the distinctive mission of conservatism now and in every other time.

With the collapse of communism, the Western defenders of the great socialist experiment fell silent. They did not apologize. Nor did they show any enhanced awareness of the virtues of their own political inheritance. It became apparent that they had been on the Soviet side only so long as the Soviet Union was a threat to us: when it ceased to be a threat the fellow-travellers looked for some other cause that would fortify their rejection of the world into which they had been born. The result was a huge shift in the agenda following 1989. The culture of repudiation was now out in the open, a widely accepted orthodoxy, needing no foreign power or worldwide movement of emancipation to advance it. The conflict that was hidden behind the cold war became explicit, as a conflict between conservatives who affirm our way of life, and liberals who deny it. It is, in short, a conflict about identity – about who we are.

For conservatives all disputes over law, liberty and justice are addressed to a historic and existing community. The root of politics, they believe, is settlement – the motive in human beings that binds them to the place, the customs, the history and the people that are theirs. The language of politics is spoken in the first-person plural and for conservatives the duty of the politician is to maintain that first-person plural in being. Without it law becomes an alien imposition, not ours but theirs, like the laws imposed by a conquering power, or those, as we have experienced in Britain, imposed by a treaty made years ago in a vanished situation by people long since dead. Conservatives are not reactionaries. As Burke said, ‘we must reform in order to conserve’, or, in more modern idiom: we must adapt. But we adapt to change in the name of continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have.

Those who dismiss conservatism in the name of the universal ideals of the Enlightenment have a tendency to forget that governments are elected by a specific people in a specific place, and must meet the people’s needs, including the most important of their needs, which is the need to trust their neighbours. That is why, in all the post-war political debates, conservatives have emphasized the defence of the homeland, the maintenance of national borders, and the unity and integrity of the nation. This is also a point of tension in conservatism, since belief in a free economy and free trade inevitably clashes with local attachments and community protection. We are living now through the latest eruption of this tension.

It was in the name of their social and political inheritance that conservatives fixed their banner to the mast of freedom. What they meant was this kind of freedom, the freedom enshrined in our legal and political inheritance, and in the free associations through which our societies renew their legacy of trust. So understood, freedom is the outcome of multiple agreements over time, under an over-arching rule of law. Freedom is not a set of axioms but an evolving consensus. This consensus cannot be easily described. Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between negative and positive liberty does not capture the crucial idea of a free community, in which constraints are real, socially engendered, but also tacitly accepted as a part of citizenship. What we in the anglosphere have valued and protected is the harmony between public customs and private choices. We have lived by a tacit agreement to abide by norms that constrain our choices without coercing them. And we have agreed to this because for us freedom is a way of belonging.

Liberals are beneficiaries of this belonging. But they believe in the right of individuals and communities to define their identity for themselves, regardless of existing norms and customs. They do not see liberty as a shared culture, based in tacit conventions. On the left, it is the negative that inspires. A whole language has developed with which to abuse those who cling, in however dispirited a fashion, to the existing social order, the inherited hierarchies, the old and tried conventions. The ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ are designed to describe our established forms of belonging as forms of ‘exclusion’, and so to undermine them. To ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘ageism’, ‘xenophobia’ and the rest we now must add ‘homophobia’, ‘transphobia’ and, of course, ‘Islamophobia’, a disease which unaccountably swept across the Western world on 11th September 2001. These words belong to a posture of relentless interrogation, directed towards all that we have by way of a shared experience of belonging.

The effect of this is not to amplify freedom but to curtail it in new and radical ways, as people are silenced, shamed or dismissed from employment for uttering thoughts that have been forbidden. What we are seeing now, as the culture of repudiation gathers strength, is the destruction of the first and most important freedom on which democracy is founded, namely the freedom of speech.

I well remember the birth of the Free Speech Movement at the Berkeley campus in the mid 1960s, when liberal students demonstrated in favour of speakers who had been banned by the university on account of their radical anarchist and Marxist views. Those students were surely right: for what is the purpose of a university if free discussion is forbidden there? Earlier this year, we witnessed students on this same campus not merely calling on the university authorities to prevent a particular person from speaking on account of his radical opinions (though radical right, this time, rather than radical left), but committing assault, criminal damage and arson by way of emphasizing the correctness of their views. Interestingly, students who wish to enforce conformity to their own opinions, also demand safe spaces on campus, where they can be protected from the mere hint that someone, somewhere, might not agree with them.

Freedom defended as part of repudiation therefore leads quickly to the loss of freedom and even to the condoning of crime. Nor are universities the only losers in this. Just as important has been the effect of the new identity politics on ordinary people. We have a recent case of this in the scandal at Rotherham in Yorkshire. As in so many of our cities today, Rotherham has been in the habit of taking children from dysfunctional families where they are at risk into the care of the City Council, usually as the result of a court order. The vulnerable children are in need of help and protection and are also often targeted by sexual predators. Girls in the care of Rotherham Council were regularly targeted in that way, by men from the local Muslim community, and essentially treated as sex slaves, even sold into prostitution abroad or in other parts of the kingdom. The police refused to investigate complaints made by the parents (admittedly, dysfunctional parents) for fear of being judged to be ‘racist’, and the Council likewise decided that it would be politically incorrect to do anything save turn a blind eye. Any other course of action would raise the feared question of identity: namely, the question whether we, as British citizens, are free to condemn a way of treating young women which certain immigrant communities see as normal, even as a rightful punishment for the crime of having no family.

My parents told me that I live in a free country, one whose freedom they had defended in the war against Hitler. In trouble, they told me, I could trust the forces of law and order to protect me, and passing strangers to offer help. I should never fear to tell the truth, since the truth would prevail in any case, and all around me were people accustomed to prefer truth to falsehood and to live by relations of trust.

The girls in Rotherham did not belong to such a country. It so happened that two of them were courageous enough to force the authorities to take note of their predicament, though not before their lives had been irreparably damaged. Their case shows the way in which political correctness can be an assault on freedom, by repudiating the public culture on which freedom ultimately depends. The Council Officers and the police force in Rotherham feared to act according to their duties as public servants. Instead they protected criminal organisations that could beleaguer them with a rival identity which no one dared to criticize. They were not afraid of the criminal gangs. They were afraid of the liberal censors, who could ruin their careers should they be caught saying the truth. And the censorship continues: the Labour MP for Rotherham was recently dismissed from her front-bench position by Jeremy Corbyn, for saying what everybody, Corbyn included, knows to be true.

There is another reason for the importance of the case, which is that the two identities that came to the fore in Rotherham are in conflict in the wider world. On the one hand there is the sense of belonging to a place governed by law, where people live side by side as strangers and trust to the rules that protect them. On the other hand there is a certain kind of Muslim identity in which family, not nation, is the source of obligation and in which women are divided into the pure, who are hidden, and the impure, who are publicly exposed, and exposed to predation. I hope and believe that it is now a minority view among Muslims that the world must be organised in such a way. But radical Islam of the reactionary Sunni kind is able to claim the privilege of a rival identity, a challenge to our rooted ways of belonging. And the response of Western liberals is therefore to insist that nothing should be said, nothing can be said, against this way of life. It is a way of life that challenges our way of belonging, but that merely proves that the problem is our way of belonging. Moreover, if the customs of certain Muslim communities seem to violate every precept defended by feminists, this is an illusion born of ‘Islamophobia’. As every feminist knows, the culture of male domination is the preserve of comfortable white men in Western democracies. A Sunni Arab, who forbids his four wives to appear in public without a face-veil, thwarts all their attempts to gain an education and forbids their female offspring, on pain of death, from intercourse with men, is not dominating his women, but merely exercising a legitimate right to a valid cultural heritage.

All this reminds us of a remarkable truth, which is that the ordinary people in Europe are less afraid of Islamists than they are of liberals, who police their language and their thoughts, and ensure that all attempts to affirm our way of life in the face of increasingly hostile immigration are nipped in the bud. In the face of this, the task of conservatives is surely to defy the censors, to be vigorous in affirming what we are and in shoring up the foundations of our inherited way of belonging.

We should be in the business of instructing the public, and young people in particular, in the virtues of our civilisation. We should be teaching pride, not shame: gratitude, not resentment. And we should do this without denying the faults of our ancestors or the need where necessary to mend our ways. Indeed, it is one of the virtues of Western civilisation, owed largely to its Judaeo-Christian inheritance, that we confess our faults and try as best we can to atone for them. In our time Popes have apologized for the crusades, Archbishops, for the Atlantic slave trade, and Churches everywhere have hosted self-accusatory sermons on the oppressions exercised by previous generations of Christians. Has anyone apologized in the name of Islam for its religious genocides, for the East African slave trade, or for the cruel destruction of Byzantium? I hope so, but I doubt it.

I have never thought, that conservative thinking can be devoted to freedom alone. Nor is the agenda about economic freedom. It is about our whole way of being, as heirs to a great civilisation and a many-layered bequest of laws, institutions and high culture. To defend that way of being must be our first priority, and this defence cannot be properly conducted through politics alone. Our law-governed society is made possible because we know who we are, and define our identity not by our religion, our tribe or our race but by our country, the sovereign territory in which we have built the free form of life that we share. The Anglosphere is the destination of choice for most of the world’s migrants today, and many, perhaps most of them are fleeing from Muslim-majority countries. Why is this? Why is English-speaking liberty coveted by everyone, and attacked only by those – the indigenous liberals – who have the immense good fortune to have inherited it? We should develop our beliefs in answer to that question, and open the way for young people to see the point of them.

Our liberty is the gift of common-law jurisdiction and the secular civil society, and it is integral to the ‘first person plural’, the ‘we’ of the nation state. It is time for us to wake up to the blessing of a national identity and a shared homeland, within whose borders we are freely governed. The most important task of the intellectual conservative today is to persuade people, including those on the left, that our future lies with the nation state and the customs which make it viable. This means confronting the threat of mass immigration, and insisting that those who come to settle among us must adapt to our customs and obey our laws. They too will then be able to enjoy the liberty which we all ought to cherish.

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