Conservativism and Ideology

 In our founding manifesto, we at Provocateur declared that Conservatism is in crisis. Putting that right does not only mean winning elections. We have to confront intellectual and moral questions. In that spirit, we are publishing Dermot Gleeson's article, long for an e-paper, but lucid and challenging. We hope that readers will enjoy it, and that other writers will reply.

In the summer of 1975, the new leader of the Conservative party, Mrs Thatcher, presided over a seminar held in the Conservative Research Department. In his book ‘Thatcher’s People’, John Ranelagh, who worked in the Department at the time, recounts how one of his colleagues attempted to present a paper that argued that  the “Middle Way” was the pragmatic path for the Conservative party to take, avoiding the extremes of Left and Right’. However, “before he had finished speaking… the new Party leader reached into her briefcase and took out a book. It was Friedrich von Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. Interrupting our pragmatist, she held the book up for us all to see. ‘This’ she said sternly ‘is what we believe’ and banged Hayek down on the table.”

The hapless ‘pragmatist’ was my 25-year-old self. And I still remember the next thing that happened with painful clarity. Mrs Thatcher glared at me wrathfully and said: “Dermot, I don’t know if you believe in Freedom, but I do.” It sounded like a career death sentence.          

The main contention of my paper, which Ranelagh’s account doesn’t quite capture, was that the astonishing success of the Conservative Party since its emergence under the leadership of William Pitt the younger in the late 18th century, was, to a large extent, attributable to the fact that it had never been a party of ideology; and that it was essential, not only for the party’s sake but also for the country’s, that it did not become one. 

I knew of course that some of Mrs Thatcher’s closest advisers, for example Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman, were greatly attracted by neo-liberal thinkers such  as von Hayek, von Mises and Milton Friedman - political and economic theorists whom I, and many others in the Research Department, regarded as ideological fanatics. However, my hope was that it was not too late to persuade Mrs Thatcher (whom I knew quite well because I used to brief her twice a week for Prime Minister’s Questions) of the compelling force of the traditional Tory arguments, first articulated by David Hume and Edmund Burke, for treating all forms of political ideology, or what Hume and Burke called ‘speculative’ or ‘visionary’ political theories, with considerable scepticism.

Her irascible response strongly suggested that the cause was already lost - a fact which appeared to be confirmed a few weeks later when I read a report of a meeting of the newly formed Conservative Philosophy Group, in which Mrs Thatcher was quoted as saying: “Labour have an ideology and we must have one too.”

Many of the claims that I made in my 1975 paper are, it seems to me now, very contestable. For example, was I right to insist that prior to 1975 the Conservative party had never been an ideological party? And is it really true, as my paper clearly implied, that it is always a mistake for a political party to adopt an ideologically inspired programme?

I also recognise that although Mrs Thatcher claimed to an ideologue, many have plausibly insisted that her behaviour in office was far too pragmatic for that claim to be credible. These are all subjects I hope to address in later articles. On this occasion, I want to confine myself to setting out once again the basic elements of the Conservative case for a non-ideological approach to politics, but to do so in a manner which corrects what I now consider to have been a fundamental error in my first attempt.

What exactly do Conservatives who disavow ideology (whom henceforth I will refer to as Conservative pragmatists) mean by the concept and why are they hostile to it?

As far as I can establish,’ ideology’ was first introduced into the Conservative lexicon as a pejorative term by Stanley Baldwin in 1939. But despite its extensive subsequent use, it remains the case to this day that, to the best of my knowledge, no prominent Conservative pragmatist has ever taken the trouble to provide a very precise account of what he takes it to mean.

In my 1975 paper I tried in part at least to rectify this omission by maintaining that the pragmatists use the term ‘ideology’ when referring to any political creed which has one or (usually) both of two features of which they disapprove.

The first is an overriding commitment to the pursuit of one or more abstract political values such as, for example, Equality, Freedom, Justice or Sovereignty. The second is the belief that human beings possess a faculty of pure reason which, when properly employed, enables them to have a priori insights into how the world works, and therefore how to achieve their political goals, without the need for supporting evidence supplied by observation and experience.

For pragmatic Conservatives the canonical account, quoted in almost every anthology of Conservative thought, of why it is wrong to give to almost any abstract principle the status of universal and inviolable moral requirement, is Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolutionaries’ “Declaration of the Rights of Man”: 

“I cannot” he wrote “give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions and concerns on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. 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.”

For Burke and his intellectual heirs, the moral authority of most abstract principles can never be absolute. The legitimacy of their claims on us will always vary according the concrete details of the context in which they are being considered. No truly pragmatic Conservative can ever, for example, subscribe to the principle Fiat Justicia ruat coelum – “Let Justice be done even if the roof falls in.” For all its attractions, a commitment to the principle of Justice can only be justified, as Hume in particular stressed, for as long as it keeps the roof up.

The pragmatists dismiss what they see as the other defining feature of ideology – the conviction that it is possible to acquire practical knowledge by pure reason - as a form of magical thinking for which there is not the remotest justification. In this respect they are not, of course, alone. The longstanding British tradition of contempt for continental rationalism and a preference for an empirical approach to politics based on experience has had an influence on virtually all of the UK’s major political parties from the eighteenth century onwards. However, the Conservative pragmatists can reasonably claim that they have upheld this much lauded national tradition more robustly and more consistently than any other British political group. For example, all strands of Conservative opinion condemn Marx’s historical materialism and his related advocacy of totalitarian state controls as a particularly telling example of the dangers of rationalism and the dire consequences that can flow from ignoring well established facts about human nature. Unlike many in the modern Conservative party, the pragmatists also condemn, on the same grounds,  the more dogmatic of the classical economists and of their neo-liberal successors, including Hayek. As Michael Oakeshott, unquestionably the greatest Conservative philosopher of the twentieth century, famously said of Hayek’s book, The Road to Serfdom: “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite but it belongs to the same kind of politics.”  From the perspective of a Conservative pragmatist both positions are equally ideological because both are based on empirically unverifiable a priori assumptions.

Thus far, the account I have given of Conservative pragmatism has followed broadly the same lines as my 1975 paper. However, I have come to believe that a fundamental flaw of that paper was its largely negative nature and its failure to draw sufficient attention to the broader and more positive moral framework within which the pragmatists’ criticisms of ideology should always be seen and judged.

Mrs Thatcher’s strongly Methodist background - her first public speaking engagements were not as a Conservative activist but as a Methodist preacher - ensured that throughout her political career she needed to believe that her conduct had an unassailable moral basis. It now seems to me that my failure to offer her such a basis for the approach I was recommending almost certainly reduced my credibility even more than my criticism of Hayek’s economic theories, in the details of which she rarely showed much interest.

The main reason that I did not put more emphasis on the moral dimension of Conservative pragmatism was that I failed to recognise in 1975 that, despite their scepticism about abstract political values in general, most of the pragmatists have nonetheless always been very strongly committed to one such value themselves.  

In fairness to my younger self, this commitment has often been remarkably well concealed. Thus, for example, the numerous works about Conservatism written since the War by pragmatic Conservatives such as Quintin Hailsham, Rab Butler, Ian Gilmour, Norman St John Stevas, William Waldegrave and Chris Patten are all replete with unqualified disavowals of ‘overriding commitments’, ‘overarching purposes’ ‘grand goals’ and ‘universal principles’. It is undoubtedly true, as Chris Patten admitted in his own contribution to this genre, The Tory Case, that the attempt to demonstrate that Conservatism is not an ideology has often come perilously close to suggesting that ”it is nothing much at all.”

However, what has become clear to me in more recent years is that when Conservatives thinkers such as those I have just mentioned transfer their attention from defining their general political philosophy to the narrower task of justifying their stance with respect to specific policy issues, they almost invariably invoke, explicitly or implicitly, a particular and familiar abstract principle, namely the utilitarian proposition that the overriding purpose of government is to secure the well-being of the people.

To avoid misunderstanding, I should immediately emphasise that although it was Jeremy Bentham who first coined the word utilitarianism, Conservative utilitarianism has very little in common with the Benthamites’ proposed science of legislation, based as it was on a narrowly hedonistic view of human psychology and a belief that is both possible and desirable to compute numerically the pleasures and pains of all human experiences. 

The Conservative attachment to the welfare of the people derives instead from a much older, less scientifically ambitious, Natural Law tradition that can be convincingly traced back to antiquity. In his great work on natural and positive law, De Legibus, Cicero passionately endorsed the maxim that had been, he claimed, the basis of Roman law from the earliest days of the Republic : 

”Salus Populi Suprema Lex ” – “the well-being of the people should be the supreme law.” 

Following the rediscovery of Cicero’s writings during the Renaissance, this understanding of the obligations of government became surprisingly quickly, as Otto von Gierke, the great German constitutional historian has demonstrated, an uncontroversial premise underpinning the whole of western European political discourse.

Britain lagged behind some of its continental neighbours in this respect. But in 1603 the Lord Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon, felt able to declare that the protection of the Salus Populi had become the fundamental principle of the English common law. By the late eighteenth century, the period in which the Conservative party begins to emerge as a distinct entity, the assertion that the Salus Populi was, or ought to be, the fundamental rationale of all governmental acts was a view to which virtually every member of the British political classes subscribed, including Charles James Fox at his most progressive and Edmund Burke at his most reactionary.

It is true that the phrase Salus Populi is much less used in British politics today than in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the principle it encapsulates is still one to which, I believe, most Conservative pragmatists adhere. Ask a pragmatist, as I often have, whether he or she  would describe themselves as a utilitarian and they sometimes say no (usually for fear, I suspect, of being associated with Benthamism). When asked whether they accept the moral primacy of the Salus Populi, they have, with just one exception, always replied yes.

Yet if I am right and the pragmatists really are wholeheartedly committed to the abstract principle that the wellbeing of the people overrides everything else, why on earth have they not declared the fact more often and more passionately? 

There are I think a number of reasons. Some pragmatists, it has to be said, do not appear to realise that a sense of obligation to the well-being of the people does imply a commitment to an abstract principle, apparently believing that it is such a self-evident requirement of common decency and common sense that it would be an absurdity to elevate it to the ontological status of an abstraction which needs to be justified. 

Others, particularly among those whom the tabloids label ‘Tory Toffs,’ have, I have become convinced, a temperamental aversion to what they see as the vulgarity of what we now call ‘virtue signalling’.Some may feel that, if they parade their enthusiastic support for what they accept is an abstract principle too enthusiastically, they may compromise the credibility of their critique of the ‘ideological’ abstractions of others.

But the most important factor is almost certainly that the pragmatists have always believed that the Salus Populi is a subject on which the vast majority of their political opponents are in agreement with them. The 1955 Conservative Manifesto, which was written at a time when the pragmatists had the party firmly under control, illustrates the point. ”We do not question the sincerity of our political opponents”, it declared, “All parties pray for peace. All parties desire no less the prosperity and welfare of the people. These ends are not at issue between the parties.” If the pragmatists do not believe that the ends, as distinct from the means, are a political issue, it is by no means surprising that many of them have also concluded that the ends do not require discussion. 

That is surely a mistake. It is true that voters do not, on the whole, need to be persuaded that their welfare should be the primary concern of elected politicians. But they certainly do need to be persuaded that politicians, about whose motives they have become extremely cynical, take the same view. At a time when British politics is once again becoming highly ideological in tone and content, the pragmatists, if they are not to be marginalised as the ‘Wets’ were in the early nineteen eighties, are going to have find a much stronger and more convincing moral voice, in order to convince the public that pragmatism comprises anything more than self-serving expediency. 

It is never easy to justify a sceptical and empirical approach to politics in a manner that makes it as morally and imaginatively appealing as the alternatives proposed by utopian ideologues. But it is possible. Burke achieved it in the eighteenth century, Disraeli in the nineteenth, and Baldwin in the twentieth. It is worrying that it is difficult today to identify any contemporary figure who is equipped to take up the challenge once again.


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