Conservatism: Ideas in Profile - review
In Roger Scruton’s view, “conservatism is what its name says it is: the attempt to conserve the community that we have…. in all matters that ensure our community’s long-term survival”. In a new book about the topic, the philosopher explores how modern conservative ideas have developed and describes a rich tradition that should help Tories examine the current state of their party critically, as well as inspiring unionists who wish to preserve Northern Ireland’s place within the United KIngdom.
Sir Roger Scruton is one of the Right’s leading contemporary thinkers and he has a rare gift for explaining complicated concepts in clear, elegant language. That talent is particularly useful in Conservatism, which is part of the ‘Ideas in Profile’ series that aims to provide ‘small introductions to big topics’.
From the ‘pre-history’ of conservative thought and its origins in the philosophy of Aristotle, the author traces a modern way of thinking that develops and qualifies theories outlined by Hobbes, Locke and Hume, which underpin the modern, democratic state. Modern conservatism emerged as a means of checking the individualism that characterised classical liberal ideas and identified a vital extra component - ‘responsibility’ - that binds together functioning societies.
Scruton says that liberals believe the state should protect personal freedoms, socialists think it ought to command the economy and redistribute wealth, while conservatives add that it should enforce responsibilities that allow communities to flourish and enable people to enjoy their liberties. Conservatism sees intrinsic virtue in institutions and traditions, which accrue over time a store of combined wisdom that would be impossible for governments or individuals to replicate by other methods.
And rather than focus exclusively on political and economic themes, Scruton examines cultural and literary ideas, because they are what “unite human beings in mutual attachment”. He describes the impact that writers like Coleridge, Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot had on the development of conservative thought, as well as movements that sought to preserve important traditions, like the Gothic Revival and the National Trust.
In his closing chapter, Scruton looks at the state of conservative thought now. In the United Kingdom, he maintains that conservatives are a beleaguered and maligned group, particularly in academia. He detects hostility to conservatism in, “a world where free speech and free opinion are comprehensively threatened, where laughter is dangerous and where the fundamental assumptions of secular government are no longer shared by all those who enjoy its benefits”.
Yet, for that reason, conservative thought can make a vital contribution to modern politics. "In the battle with socialism", Scruton says, and he implies that the struggle is also now with a virulent form of Islam that is hostile to democratic values, "the classical liberal and the conservative stand side by side".
In contrast to socialism and liberalism, it can be difficult to define the core tenets of conservatism precisely because conservatives are often suspicious of ideologies and dogma. Scruton’s service to conservatism is that he takes it seriously as a tradition of thought and a philosophy. His book will be helpful to anyone who wants to form clearer ideas about conserving the worthwhile things we enjoy as a society.
In Northern Ireland unionist parties value the benefits that flow from maintaining the UK - stability, prosperity and democratic liberties - more highly than the theoretical assets of a united Ireland. Irrespective of the different views on economics it encompasses, the core priorities of unionism are conservative in nature.
To clarify their aims, and pursue them more coherently, unionists, like conservatives everywhere, would do well to start with Scruton’s new book and then read everything else that he has written.
A version of this article was printed first in the News Letter, 15 September 2017.