The Conservative Tradition
John Ray on this site a few days ago postulated the interesting theory that Benjamin Disraeli christened Conservatism in order to confuse the opposition, by claiming it to be what it wasn’t. Apart from the questionable claim that the socially legislating Disraeli was ever a Conservative at all, this theory suffers from one problem: when Conservatism was christened, in January 1830, Disraeli was an unknown and heavily indebted 25 year old peddler of penny stocks, who if asked his politics would have claimed “Radical,” while trying to sell you shares in a South American gold mine.
The etymology of Conservatism is straightforward. The term was first used as a description of a political party in a 50 page article, probably by John Wilson Croker, in the January 1830 Quarterly Review, a publication that generally supported the great Tory governments of 1783-1830, then in their last months of power before losing definitively to the Whigs in November of that year. The “Conservative” party was indeed the party that sought to preserve what was already there; in this case the specific constitution and policies of those Tory governments, which were by that time embattled.
After the series of Tory disasters in 1830-32, the term “Conservative” was picked up by Sir Robert Peel, leader of the Tory remnants, and was used to do three things. First, it was used to reassure traditionalist voters that the party was opposed to further destructive change. Second, it was used to give the party a “new image” that might appeal to moderates. Third, by stigmatizing them as not “Conservatives” but “reactionaries” it was used to de-legitimize the remnants of the Tory right, such as the Duke of Wellington and more distantly the aged Lord Eldon, who were a threat to Peel’s dominance.
By the time Disraeli became leader of the Conservative Party in 1868, the term had been in use for nearly two generations. It had been set aside after the 1846 split over the Corn Laws, when the party divided into “Peelites” and “Protectionists” but had been brought back into full use by Disraeli’s predecessor as leader, the 14th Earl of Derby, after Peel died in 1850 and the party abandoned protectionism in 1852.
Since the original coiner of a term has a prescriptive right to define its meaning, Conservatism therefore means Conservatism as defined in the Quarterly Review article. It does not mean internationally belligerent Woodrow Wilsonian “neo-Conservatism” nor the mystical religiously oriented “social Conservatism” of the U.S. “red states” nor the isolationist nativist “paleo-Conservatism” of Patrick Buchanan, nor the leftist social democrat “Conservatism” of Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, nor even the “two nations” modified Whiggery of Disraeli. It means the preservation and where necessary restitution of the constitutional, economic and social policies of the Tory governments of 1783-1830, and in particular of the two great Tory prime ministers William Pitt and Robert, Lord Liverpool.
Margaret Thatcher, in her day, was fond of extolling “Victorian values” which in practice meant the values instilled in her in childhood by her father. As is little remembered today, her father was however not for most of his career a member of the Conservative party. Alderman Alfred Roberts stood for local office in the 1930s as a “Liberal Independent” in a tradition that was small-government but Gladstonian. Thus Thatcher’s Victorian values owed more to Gladstone and to John Stuart Mill than they did to Liverpool; they were in many respects not Conservative.
Conservatism is not libertarianism; individual liberty is an important facet of Conservatism, but it is set within an overall framework of a secure social and constitutional order. Unlike Gladstonian liberalism, Conservatism recognizes the imperfections of mankind, and recognizes also that the perfect nirvana of the libertarian social and political order, with minimal government, minimal economic interference and minimal social regulation would in practice be a perfect hell for all but the toughest and least scrupulous. Without government imposing a rule of law, crime would soar unchecked; without market “rules of the game” (preferably imposed by practitioners rather than by government) fraud and criminality would run rampant; without social order, decent family life would collapse. A society that features widespread gang warfare, has a corporate sector largely composed of Enrons and WorldComs and practices the sad, self-destructive immorality of the Bloomsbury group is not one in which a civilized person should wish to live.
Constitutionally, Conservatism has two principles: it values tradition and order and it abhors populism. As Lord Castlereagh, leader of the House of Commons put it in 1821 after an economic upturn had restored the government’s popularity “I am grown as popular now as I was unpopular formerly and, of the two, unpopularity is the more convenient and gentlemanlike.” A Conservative government recognizes that popular enthusiasms may be dangerous to economic stability, while popular hatreds are even more dangerous to civil liberties. The Pitt and Liverpool governments had two mechanisms for opposing populism: a hereditary House of Lords, fully entitled to veto legislation and a franchise system that, while it gave some weight to popular will, was balanced between the various interests in society and only marginally subject to the despotism of mere numbers. Both the House of Lords and the “unreformed” franchise gained additional legitimacy from having been in place for several centuries, and Conservatives were properly opposed to disrupting either, as was eventually to be done by the Whigs in 1832.
The Edwardian Conservative Lord Willoughby de Broke said in his memoirs “To be sent painlessly to sleep while your teeth are being pulled or your leg is being cut off is at least some consolation for the loss of the rotten boroughs.” Wonderful as is modern medicine, the tradeoff is by no means wholly one-sided!
The monarchy was not particularly central to Conservatism; it had limited powers, with no veto of legislation after 1708. A wise monarch such as George III could be very helpful to Conservatism; as 1832 and 1911 were to show, foolish monarchs such as William IV and George V could do it great damage. More important was local government, primarily the Tory-appointed Lords Lieutenant and Justices of the Peace, vital to the maintenance of local order.
Economically, Thatcher believed that by returning to the policies of Gladstone and Mill she was restoring the free market (insofar as that was possible by the 1980s) but in fact mid-Victorian Liberalism differed significantly from a true free market policy. On trade, it pursued a policy of unilateral disarmament, repealing the Corn Laws in 1846 and repealing the last protective tariffs in the 1850s, both entirely without reference to the increasingly protectionist policies pursued by the rest of the world.
Pitt and Liverpool, economically more sophisticated than any of their 19th Century successors other than Palmerston (and better advised, by Adam Smith and David Ricardo respectively) realized that free trade was only viable to the extent it was multilateral. Both British farming (an essential defense in time of war, as 1914-18 and 1939-45 were to prove) and Britain’s colonial possessions required at least a measure of protection in order to flourish as, in the long run did British industry if other nations were protectionist. The optimal trade policy was that pursued by Liverpool and his trade minister William Huskisson in the 1820s. Tariffs were both reduced and simplified, but they remained a major source of government revenue. Agriculture, by the abortive Liverpool/Huskisson Corn Laws of 1827, would have been protected by a sliding scale of charges, with duties applied only when a world glut of corn and consequent low world corn prices threatened the livelihoods of British farmers.
Pitt and Liverpool’s fiscal management, in very difficult circumstances indeed, was distinctly superior to that of the Whigs who followed. While Pitt introduced the Income Tax in 1798 and Liverpool objected to its abolition in 1815, it was always regarded as strictly an emergency measure, on both libertarian and economic grounds. Much better to spread the tax base as broadly as possible, including tariffs and taxes on luxuries, in order to run a budget surplus and bring down the appalling level of government debt (over 250% of GDP) that Britain had incurred by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The Whigs, when they took over, maintained the Conservative principle of keeping public spending below 10% of GDP, but dangerously narrowed the tax base and omitted to run peacetime budget surpluses, so that even the medium sized Boer War of 1899-1902 proved remarkably difficult to finance, and Britain’s public debt in 1914 was less than 20% below its 1815 level.
The unbalanced nature of British public finances after 1830 was demonstrated by the country’s difficulties in 1918-31 (solved only by Neville Chamberlain’s abandonment of Whiggery and institution of a modest Imperial Preference tariff in 1932) and the unforgivable levels of higher rate Income Tax imposed after 1939. Thatcher herself was lamentably slow to reduce tax rates, condemning the country to continued recession and high unemployment by not reducing the top rate of tax below 75% until 1984, nor below 60% until 1988, nine full years after her arrival and less than three before her departure.
Socially, the Tories of Pitt and Liverpool were the party of Jane Austen, and of business, far less socially exclusive than the great Whig landowners, with an admixture of genuinely working class talent such as John Scott, Earl of Eldon, son of a Newcastle coal merchant and Lord Chancellor for 27 years. The unreformed franchise produced this mixture naturally, and Conservative social attitudes, predating the anti-commercialism of Thomas Arnold, Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli, produced both rapid economic growth and great social stability, with disruptive Radical influences thoroughly marginalized.
The Church played an important role in all this. Both Pitt and Liverpool were no more than conventionally church-going, with a strong admixture of the rationalism of David Hume. Nevertheless the Church hierarchy played an important social role. By encouraging an Established Church, for example embarking in 1818 on a substantial church building program in factory towns, Pitt and Liverpool ensured that conventional morality and respect for the constitutional order would be well propagated among the entire community and that sectarian or milleniarist religious radicalism would be discouraged. By discouraging vice and encouraging loyalty, Tory bishops and clergy were doing society’s work as well as God’s. Outside moral questions, the Church had a major voice in political, economic and scientific matters through the Bishops’ membership of the House of Lords, but it did not dominate them.
Finally, in foreign policy, Conservatism was exemplified by the Quadruple/Holy Alliance that emerged in 1815 from the Congress of Vienna. This had two purposes: to prevent further war in Europe and to quell radical insurrections. It succeeded for almost a century in the first of these objectives, and for a decade in the second, failing only when Britain herself abandoned its fully Conservative foreign policy under George Canning.
In the United States, Conservatism has generally been a significant but not dominant factor. The Hamilton wing of the Founding Fathers was Conservative, the Jefferson wing wasn’t. On the other hand, Conservatism survived as a vibrant force much longer than in Britain; William McKinley, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge were all primarily Conservative Presidents and U.S. public spending was still below 10% of GDP as late as 1929. Ronald Reagan was at least partially Conservative, particularly in foreign policy, where he avoided the globaloney and interventionism of his successors, yet by his firmness towards the Soviet Union caused the collapse of the Evil Empire. The biggest defeat for Conservatism was the U.S. Civil War. The last peacetime President, James Buchanan, was an admirably Conservative figure, who had originally been elected to Congress as a Federalist and believed in small government, balanced fiscal policy and the avoidance of moral crusades. Needless to say, his successor Abraham Lincoln failed the test of Conservatism on all those counts.
A full-blooded Conservative elected today in Britain or the United States would have a clear agenda, most of it neither neo nor paleo. His first priority would be constitutional change, to erect barriers against populist policies, the expansion of government and economic redistributionism. In Britain, this could most easily be done by restoring the House of Lords, with a full veto, for hereditary peers only and with a constitutional prohibition against mass peerage creations. A hereditary second chamber is the only political form known to man that has a predisposition to taking the long term view, on such matters as global warming and the avoidance of actuarially unsound social security and medical insurance schemes.
In both Britain and the United States, a further Conservative reform would be the creation of a Financial Chamber, through which all tax and spending bills must pass, elected on the basis of votes proportionate to taxes paid (software now exists to collect the necessary data for this.) The Founding Fathers denounced taxation without representation. The reverse position, where voters who pay little or no tax determine how other people’s money is spent, is equally pernicious.
A third Conservative constitutional policy would be devolution, reducing the power of supranational bodies and para-statal combinations such as the European Union and empowering local administrations and local law enforcement. It would also close down international public sector monopolies such as the World Bank and the IMF, which are no more than seedbeds of socialism. As Latin American history before 1914 and East Asian history since 1945 has demonstrated, the private sector is much better at economic development if left to its own devices.
A Conservative fiscal policy would seek to reduce government spending once more below 10% of GDP. Health and education are both necessary expenditures in the modern world, but there is no need for the state to provide them, and the element of state subsidy involved must be directed narrowly towards the very poor and the very unlucky. State infrastructure investment is also privatizable; the objective should be to minimize the portion of the economy over which a third party determines spending decisions, thus reducing the area of political decision making and increasing the area of market decision making.
Economically, the key Conservative objective would be to raise the standard of business ethics, which has fallen drastically in the last 25 years. The theoretical libertarian economic ideal of the most aggressive possible competition in all sectors doesn’t work; it turns the market into a jungle and allows the ethically challenged to flourish. As the financial services business has shown since 1980, removing all constraints and rewarding everyone with short term profit-linked bonuses and stock options does not make the service more efficient, it makes it more expensive, as practitioners seek every avenue, ethical and unethical, by which they can expand the business’s share of GDP. In many areas of business, particularly financial services, the oligarchic gentlemen’s club, with clearly defined rules of conduct, is a much more efficient economic entity than the free market jungle. Oligarchy also leads to lower employment instability and hence to greater social stability, both key Conservative objectives. From the same principle of avoiding excessive competition, in this case at the lower socio-economic end of the workforce, a Conservative government would favor tight controls on immigration.
A Conservative government’s first priority in international development would be population control; its second would be the promotion of middle class saving.
Runaway population increase has endangered the planetary environment with no significant benefit to the planet’s inhabitants. A Conservative government would promote the objective in the Third World of attaining the Italian/Japanese fertility rate of around 1.3 children per couple as quickly as possible, in order to reduce world population over time to the manageable level of around 1 billion that it had reached in 1800. As well as being too large, a Conservative believes that the world’s population is of inadequate and in rich countries worsening average quality, in terms of intelligence and education, and welcomes advances in genetics as a means towards changing this.
Middle class savings are not only the principal source of capital for small business, they are also an extremely important bastion of social stability. A Conservative government would accordingly promote middle class saving domestically, and would impose severe economic sanctions on countries such as Argentina that expropriate middle class savings either directly, or indirectly through encouraging inflation, through manipulating domestic interest rates or through exchange controls.
A Conservative foreign policy would not be globalist. Indeed a Conservative government would immediately leave leftist supranational bureaucracies such as the United Nations and the European Union. Instead it would pursue a course of national self-interest, working with like-minded states to preserve peace, promote Conservatism and quell international radicalism, socialism, fascism or militant theocracy, primarily by peaceful means. It would take a pragmatic approach to foreign forms of government, seeking to promote governments that are stable, economically literate and at least moderately friendly. It would not be isolationist, but would avoid unnecessary meddling in foreign countries, and large foreign commitments of money or military force.
Liberals and Socialists will proclaim that a full-blooded Conservatism such as is outlined here is hopelessly impracticable in today’s world. How would they know? – it hasn’t been tried.
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