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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Conservatism

An Invitation to the Great Tradition

Roger Scruton

All Points Books

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1

PRE-HISTORY


Modern conservatism is a product of the Enlightenment. But it calls upon aspects of the human condition that can be witnessed in every civilisation and at every period of history. Moreover, it is heir to a philosophical legacy at least as old as the Greeks. Aristotle, in the Politics, defended constitutional government in terms that are as influential among conservative thinkers today as they were in the ancient world. Indeed, most of the ideas purveyed by modern conservatives are foreshadowed in Aristotle’s great work. But they have been adapted to a situation that Aristotle himself could not have foreseen, which is the emergence of the nation state, the loss of a unifying religion, and the growth of the ‘great society’, composed of millions of cooperating strangers under a single rule of law.

It is a repeated error among intellectual historians to assume that ideas have a self-contained history of their own, and that one idea gives rise to another in something like the way one weather system gives rise to the next. Marxists, who regard ideas as by-products of economic forces, commit the opposite error, dismissing the intellectual life as entirely subservient to material causes. The vast and destructive influence of Marxist theory is a clear disproof of what it says. As the American conservative Richard Weaver put it, in the title of a famous and influential book, Ideas Have Consequences (1948), and this is as true of conservative ideas as it is of ideas propagated on the left. To understand the pre-history of conservatism, therefore, one should accept that ideas have a far-reaching influence over human affairs; but one should recognise also that they do not arise only from other ideas, and often have roots in biological, social and political conditions that lie deeper than rational argument.

We human beings live naturally in communities, bound together by mutual trust. We have a need for a shared home, a place of safety where our claim to occupancy is undisputed and where we can call on others to assist us in times of threat. We need peace with our neighbours and the procedures for securing it. And we need the love and protection afforded by family life. To revise the human condition in any of those respects is to violate imperatives rooted in biology and in the needs of social reproduction. But to conduct political argument as though these factors are too far from the realm of ideas to deserve a mention is to ignore all the limits that must be borne in mind, if our political philosophy is to be remotely believable. It is precisely the character of modern utopias to ignore these limits – to imagine societies without law (Marx and Engels), without families (Laing), without borders or defences (Sartre).1 And much conservative ink has been wasted (by me among others) in rebutting such views, which can be believed only by people who are unable to perceive realities, and who therefore will never be persuaded by argument.

Let us begin, therefore, by listing some of the features of the human condition that define the limits of political thinking and that, most conservatives will claim, are given due prominence in their philosophy. First among these features is social membership. Human beings live in communities, and depend on communities for their safety and happiness. In a tribal society people relate to each other through kinship (which may be partly mythical); in a religious society membership is determined by ritual and faith; in a political society relations are governed by law, and in the modern secular state law is made by the citizens, usually through their elected representatives, and imposed by a sovereign authority. All three forms of society – tribal, religious and political – can be witnessed in the world today, though it was the emergence of political order that was the original inspiration for modern conservatism. On one reading of events, indeed, conservatism arose as an attempt to hold on to the values of kinship and religion in communities that were being reorganised by a purely political law.

Social membership goes hand in hand with individual attachment. Human beings begin life in a state of attachment to the mother and to the household that shields and nurtures her. As they grow to adulthood the bond of attachment loosens and widens. The young adult needs the mother and the family less, but friends and cooperation more. In the course of a lifetime customs, places, networks, institutions, shared ways of being all amplify our attachments, and create the sense that we are at home in the world, among familiar and trustworthy things. That sense of the familiar and the trustworthy is precious to us, and its loss is an occasion of anxiety and mourning. The most important input into conservative thinking is the desire to sustain the networks of familiarity and trust on which a community depends for its longevity. Conservatism is what its name says it is: the attempt to conserve the community that we have – not in every particular since, as Edmund Burke put it, ‘we must reform in order to conserve’, but in all matters that ensure our community’s long-term survival.

But human beings do not only cooperate. They also compete, and it is a primary need, therefore, to ensure that competition is peaceful, and that conflicts can be resolved. Almost all the utopias that have been devised by modern writers are based on the assumption that human beings can exist in arrangements where cooperation alone binds people to their neighbours, and from which the element of competition has been refined away. And this is why utopias are unbelievable – being either purely abstract arrangements of noumenal beings, like the ‘full communism’ foretold by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology (1845), or sentimental fairylands, like the neo-Gothic England of William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890). Competition is fundamental to our nature, being both our way of solving problems, and the most important human cause of them. Kinship moderates competition, replacing ‘I’ by ‘we’ in all disputes that might spill over into violence. But it also creates rivalry between families, like the Montagues and Capulets, and between tribes, like those brought to order by Muhammad, with the discovery of a religion that demanded ‘submission’, and therefore ‘peace’. That religious ‘peace’ in turn meant war against the heretics and infidels.

In the modern world of the Enlightenment the old forms of social membership had run their course in a series of religious wars. People were searching for new ways of implanting reconciliation in the heart of the social order, and secular government under a rule of law seemed to be the best hope for the future, since it promised to put reason rather than passion in charge. The Enlightenment inspired the collect-ive recognition that human beings had been fighting over fictions, and that it was time to agree about realities instead.

In the pre-history of conservative thinking, when Aristotle was the supreme master, it was usual to follow him in emphasising reason as distinctive of the human condition. By exercising our reason we have a unique means of resolving conflict and overcoming obstacles. But it was already apparent to Aristotle, and has been made explicit by modern studies in collective decision-making, that when a group of people all apply their reason to a shared problem, a reasonable solution may nevertheless not emerge – in other words, that the rational and the reasonable may diverge. This is shown clearly by the Prisoners’ Dilemma, in which two prisoners, each choosing rationally, will act in a way that is counter to the best interests of both.2 And it was a crucial observation of Burke’s, in his polemic against the French Revolution, that rational plans in the brains of ardent believers may lead of their own accord to disaster.

Conservatives tend to share Aristotle’s conception of human rationality and, like him, recognise that one aim of political life is to refine the use of reason, and to implant in the citizen the virtues that are necessary for its collective exercise. But the point has been made differently at different times that we rational beings need customs and institutions that are founded in something other than reason, if we are to use our reason to good effect. This insight, indeed, is probably the principal contribution that conservatism has made to the self-understanding of the human species. In the following chapters I will spell it out in more detail.

That said, however, we should recognise the countervailing tendency in conservative thought. As well as emphasising the need for custom and community, conservative philosophy has advocated the freedom of the individual, conceiving community not as an organic network bound by habit and submission, but as a free association of rational beings, all of whom have, and cherish, an identity of their own. Conservatism as we know it today is a distinctively modern outlook, shaped by the Enlightenment and by the emergence of societies in which the ‘we’ of social membership is balanced at every point against the ‘I’ of individual ambition.

The idea of society as a collection of individuals, each with a sphere of autonomous choice and all pursuing personal fulfilment along a path of their own, is not a recent one. In a famous study, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt attributed the emergence of the individual to the intellectual and political awakening of the Renaissance, while in a recent book, Sir Larry Siedentop has traced the idea further back, to the religion of Jesus and St Paul, which places the salvation of the individual soul at the heart of God’s concern for us.3 Whatever the truth of those views, it is surely evident that individualism took on a new character at the Enlightenment, with the emphasis on the connection between legitimacy and consent. The modern conception of political society, as an assembly of citizens who cooperate in establishing the laws under which they live, is to be distinguished from older ideas of monarchical sovereignty, qualified, in whatever way, by the need for the monarch to consult and conciliate the powerful groups within the kingdom.

But it should not be thought that the transition from that older idea to modern forms of parliamentary democracy is clear-cut and absolute. On the contrary, in the British case it has been established at least since the reign of Edward III (r. 1327–77) that the king cannot tax his subjects without consent of the House of Commons, and the subsequent history of the English Crown has revolved around the increasingly successful attempts of Parliament to gain control over important decisions. By the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, with the deposition of James II, the last Stuart king, in favour of William of Orange, and with the adoption by Parliament in 1689 of a Bill of Rights, it was clear that England had become a constitutional monarchy, in which the power of the monarch was limited by customs and conventions that transferred the main business of government to the two houses of Parliament.

It was at this time that the principal ideas behind the modern conservative movement began to emerge in both Britain and France, and some of these ideas were shared at first with the liberal individualists who were to provide the intellectual fuel for the French Revolution. The first and most far-reaching idea was that the legitimacy of a government depends on the consent of those who are subject to it. Authority is conferred on the government by the people, who are the ultimate source of sovereign power. This – to us obvious – idea involves a reversal of the medieval view of government, according to which the monarch, appointed by historical (which usually meant divine) right, is the source of all authority in the state. In the medieval view, the freedom of the individual is a privilege, conferred by the monarch in return for military or courtly services. Even if individualism was on the rise throughout the medieval period, it had yet to find expression in a philosophy, and theories of government saw legitimacy as flowing down to individuals from their sovereigns, and not, as was later accepted, flowing up to the sovereigns from those who consented to their rule.

At the same time, medieval discussions contain fruitful explorations of two issues that were to emerge as pivotal at the Enlightenment: the relation between ecclesiastical and secular government, and the limits to government contained in the law of nature. The Greek Stoics had argued that laws are of two kinds, man-made and ‘natural’. The natural law owes its authority to our innate reasoning powers, and the existence of such a law was defended by the great scholastic philosopher St Thomas Aquinas (1226–1274), who saw it as providing a standard against which the justice of all merely human arrangements could be measured. Discussions of this went hand in hand with attempts both to circumscribe and to define the power of the church, and to reconcile the competing needs for an inclusive secular order and for sacred institutions devoted to the spiritual well-being of the community. The growing conflict between church and state at the Reformation, and the increasing emphasis on natural law as setting limits to the sovereign power, were powerful factors in displacing the medieval idea, that legitimacy flows downwards from the sovereign to the subject, and replacing it with the liberal view, that legitimacy flows upwards from the people to the sovereign power.

In one of the first works of political philosophy to be marked by the recognisable tone of voice of British conservatism, Richard Hooker (1554–1600), in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (from 1594), attempted to justify a compromise between church and state. Each, Hooker believed, should limit the scope of the other, in the interests of the natural law that would guarantee the liberties of the individual and ensure peace between the spiritual and temporal powers.

That work, esteemed though it is by many conservatives today, belongs to the pre-modern period of political debate. The modern vision of legitimacy was first fully expressed in the English-speaking world by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), whose celebrated Leviathan (1651) attempts to derive an account of good government from the assumption that the ‘commonwealth’ is composed of freely choosing individuals, motivated by their beliefs and desires. In a state of nature, Hobbes argued, these appetite-driven individuals will be in competition for the resources needed to survive and prosper, and the result will be the war of all against all. In that condition, life will be, in his famous words, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. But individuals have the means to rise above the state of nature, since they make rational choices and agree with each other to act for their mutual benefit. Hence they will contract among themselves to establish a government, which will have sovereignty over them all and provide protection to each. The sovereign created by the social contract will not be party to the contract, but will enjoy the absolute power to enforce the contract against those who strive to bypass or renege on it.

The detail of Hobbes’s theory need not concern us. What is important is the concept of sovereignty that he justified. It might be thought that a philosopher who sees the source of political authority as lying in the consent of the individual subject would end with a mild, flexible and negotiable idea of legitimate order. But not so. Hobbes had lived through the civil war and witnessed (from the safe distance of Paris) the profound disorder and cruelty that followed from the collapse of government. Anything was better than the chaos that he had observed, and if the absolute power of a sovereign is the only thing that can prevent it, then that is how things must be. Moreover, rational beings, understanding this, would sign up to the contract whereby the absolute sovereign is brought into being.

Immediately in the wake of Hobbes came The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) by James Harrington (1611–77), which presented the picture of an ideal secular state. Harrington was an admirer of Machiavelli, whose cynical advice to secular rulers, The Prince (1532), had shocked the world with its realistic portrayal of political power. Harrington attempted to show that republican government in an essentially capitalist society – a ‘commonwealth for increase’ – would be the most stable political system. In the course of this he argued for a written constitution, bicameral government, secret ballots, the indirect election of a president and many other features of the ideal state, which was to be, in his famous words, ‘an empire of laws, not of men’. Harrington’s work, which was to exert a powerful influence upon many of the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution, followed Hobbes in decisively rejecting any suggestion that religious obedience, rather than popular consent, has a part to play in conferring legitimacy on a government.

The Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690) of John Locke (1632–1704) took the argument for popular sovereignty one step further. Locke, strongly influenced by Hooker, returned to the idea of a natural law. We understand this law, Locke suggested, not as an abstract imperative, but as an inner sense of our rights. There are natural rights, which are acknowledged by all reasoning beings. It is given to reason to perceive these rights, which exist independently of any social order. Principal among them are the rights to life, limb and freedom of action: no one can deprive me of these without doing me wrong, unless I myself have done something to give him just cause (perhaps not even then, if these rights are truly ‘inalienable’). There is also a natural right to private property: any object which is appropriated or produced by ‘mixing my labour’ with it is, given certain conditions, mine, as much as the limbs that worked on it are mine.

Rational beings recognise those natural rights even in a state of nature, and do not require the absolute protection and control of Hobbes’s sovereign to claim them against each other. They are specific individual rights and cannot be removed or limited except by the consent of those possessing them, a process which probably extends only to freedom of action and property, and not to life and limb, the rights to which are, in Locke’s view, inalienable. All government, since it involves the limitation of the freedom of the subjects and their subjection to a higher power, must be the result of consent if it is to be legitimate, and no government is made legitimate in any other way. The model for legitimate government is therefore to be found in contract. The transition from the state of nature to the state of civil society would be legitimate were it to result from a social ‘compact’, by which free beings contract among each other to accept the curtailment of their rights in exchange for the benefits and security of society. This compact is not a historical event, but, as it were, a structure concealed within society, which is revealed by ‘tacit consent’.

Civil society forms itself into particular institutions of government, which enshrine and protect the contractual relation among its members. Locke suggested that liberties could be better protected and the social compact better upheld by an effective separation of powers – thereby emphasising a notion, already introduced by Harrington, that was to have a radical influence on both liberal and conservative thinking, partly through the more careful and systematic theory of it given by Montesquieu.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), admired Locke and the English constitution (or what he took to be the English constitution), praising it as ‘the mirror of liberty’. His Spirit of the Laws (1734) contains the most influential version of the theory that the powers of government are exercised in three separate spheres – the executive, the legislative and the judicial – and that the spheres should be separated as far as possible in order to guarantee the liberties of the subject. Montesquieu argued that only an aristocratic government on the English model could create an effective balance of these powers within the state, avoiding the despotic tendencies inherent both in absolute monarchy and in government by the common people. He defended liberty, but his desire was more to restore old liberties that the absolutism of Louis XIV had eroded than to advocate the new liberties of the Enlightenment.

Harrington, Locke and Montesquieu all influenced the American Founders, who framed their constitution along the lines those thinkers suggested – with executive power vested in the president, legislative power in Congress and judicial power in the Supreme Court. And Montesquieu was admired by both liberals and conservatives in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, not least by the great conservative Edmund Burke, who praised him for what he took to be a thoroughgoing attempt to articulate the idea of liberty in terms of a conservative vision of social order. Although Locke and Montesquieu took the theory of liberal individualism forward in ways that gave support both to the American revolutionaries and to the far more radical French revolutionaries who followed them, their fundamental conceptions appear as much in the writings of conservatives as in those of liberals, and this point must be grasped if we are to understand exactly how modern conservatism arose and what, ultimately, it has stood for.

Locke’s first Treatise of Civil Government was directed against a kind of conservatism – the pre-modern conservatism of Sir Robert Filmer (1588–1653), who had published a tract justifying the belief in a divine right of kings. Filmer’s was a rearguard attempt to defend a rapidly deflating conception of civil government, one that had been fatally punctured by the civil war. Henceforth, the dispute between liberals and conservatives would emerge in its modern form, as a dispute within the broad ideas of popular sovereignty, the liberty of the individual, and constitutional rights. Although later, in the wake of the French Revolution, doubt was cast on those ideas, and a version of ‘divine right’ was reinstated by the great French polemicist Joseph de Maistre, this would now be regarded as a reactionary rather than a conservative development – that is, an invocation of an old order of things, rather than an invitation to adapt to changing circumstances in a spirit of conservation and renewal.

In the wake of Locke, the frontier between the liberal and the conservative position became a frontier within the domain of popular sovereignty, and we will understand modern conservatism as a political movement only if we see that some elements of liberal individualism have been programmed into it from the outset. In particular, conservatives and liberals agree on the need for limited government, representative institutions, the separation of powers, and the basic rights of the citizen, all of which must be defended, they both believe, against the top-down administration of the modern collectivist state.

This point is obscured by the fact that the term ‘liberal’ is now used in two conflicting ways, on the one hand to denote the politics and philosophy of individual liberty, as advocated by Locke and his followers, on the other hand to denote the ‘progressive’ ideas and policies that have emerged in the wake of modern socialism. In effect, the two ideas belong to two contrasting narratives of emancipation. Classical liberalism tells of the growth of individual liberty against the power of the sovereign. Socialism tells of the steadily increasing equality brought about by the state at the expense of the entrenched hierarchies of social power. The French revolutionaries went into battle with a slogan that promised liberty and equality together. Subsequent history might be taken to suggest that the goals are, in practice, incompatible, or at least in radical tension with each other. When considering the pre-history of conservatism it is important to note that it was initially a response to ‘classical’ liberalism, and one that incorporated many of Locke’s core ideas, including the emphasis on natural rights, and the right of property.

Modern conservatism, therefore, began life in Britain and also in France as a qualification of liberal individualism. The conservative argument accepted the bottom-up view of legitimacy, as conferred on government, at least in part, by the consent of the people. It accepted some version of natural law and natural rights, as defining the limits of political power and the freedoms of the sovereign individual. And it was by and large in favour of constitutional government and of what Jefferson was later to describe as ‘checks and balances’ (Notes on the State of Virginia, query XII), through which the various powers and offices of government could hold each other to account.

In all those ways modern conservatism arose as a defence of the individual against potential oppressors, and an endorsement of popular sovereignty. However, it opposed the view that political order is founded on a contract, as well as the parallel suggestion that the individual enjoys freedom, sovereignty and rights in a state of nature, and can throw off the burden of social and political membership, and start again from a condition of absolute freedom. For the conservative, human beings come into this world burdened by obligations, and subject to institutions and traditions that contain within them a precious inheritance of wisdom, without which the exercise of freedom is as likely to destroy human rights and entitlements as to enhance them.

The first great modern defender of that kind of conservatism in Britain was the judge Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780), whose Commentaries on the Laws of England (4 vols, 1765–69) set out to defend the English common law and unwritten constitution as concrete applications of the natural law. Blackstone represented the English constitution and common-law jurisdiction as solutions, tested by time and custom, to the problems of social conflict and the needs of orderly government. It is the persistence of these institutions over time and their inscription in the hearts of the English people that have created the love of liberty and the instinctive rejection of tyrannical government that are the true marks of English patriotism. This love of liberty is more the creation of custom and tradition than the expression of some spontaneous choice; and it is the long-term perspective of the common law that is the true fount of political order, rather than any contract between the citizens.

Blackstone’s ideas have been influential throughout the subsequent centuries, and his defence of the common law has been taken up and amplified in our time by Friedrich von Hayek (see Chapter 5, below). He set the tone of Anglophone conservatism as it emerged through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: sceptical, empiric-al, focused on the concrete inheritance of a people and its institutions rather than on abstract ideas of political legitimacy designed to apply to all people everywhere. At the same time, he gave historical and empirical content to the theory of natural law by bringing it down from the theological stratosphere into the common-law courts of England, of which he was Lord Chief Justice.

Hobbes and Harrington wrote during a century of civil conflict, in which opinion was radically divided between the Parliamentary and Royalist factions. It was during the course of this conflict that the term ‘Tory’ was invented, to denote the traditionalist and loyalist sentiments that animated the Royalist factions in government. (The term comes from Irish tóraighe, a pursuer, used at the time to denote the dispossessed Irish who were attacking and molesting the English settlers.) Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the term entered general use to denote politicians and thinkers who were attached to the established customs and institutions of England – the monarchy and the Anglican Church especially – and who saw legit-imacy as given by inheritance rather than created by choice.

Toryism was not so much a philosophy as a political practice, which pitted tradition and loyalty to the crown against the advocacy of liberal reforms. These reforms were calculated to capture power from the monarchy and distribute it to the modernising aristocracy – the ‘Whig’ faction in Parliament. (The term comes from Scots ‘whiggamor’ meaning a cattle driver, and used derisively by the Whigs’ opponents, as the term ‘Tory’ had been used derisively by the Whigs.) The Glorious Revolution led to a century-long Whig ascendancy, though it was only with the formation of political parties in the nineteenth century – with the Tories becoming the Conservative Party and the Whigs the Liberals – that there was a hard and fast ideological division between the Parliamentary factions. (Thus the greatest of British conservative thinkers, Edmund Burke, was a Parliamentary Whig.)

Exactly why British politics settled, during the eighteenth century, around the Whig–Tory divide, and how that divide was connected to the religious and social conflicts that gave rise to it in the previous century, is a large historical question that is beyond the scope of this book. Suffice it to say that the term ‘Tory’, at first used to denounce those of Catholic and Stuart sympathies, was, during the course of the eighteenth century, domesticated, so as to apply to anyone for whom loyalty to the crown was more import-ant than protests that might disturb the civil order. In this sense the term was used also at the time of the American Revolution, to describe those colonists who advocated loyalty to the king against the ‘rebels’ who supported American independence.

The beginnings of British intellectual conservatism are to be found in the works of educated writers who belonged, explicitly or implicitly, to the Tory camp. The two most interesting from our point of view were the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76) and the English critic and poet Samuel Johnson (1709–84), and it is fitting to close this preliminary chapter with a brief summary of their views. Neither thinker dissented from the emerging individualist philosophy, and both regarded liberty as the foundation and the goal of civilised order. But neither believed in the liberal idea of the social contract or in the extravagant claims made by the followers of their contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau on behalf of the state of nature and the ‘noble savage’ who supposedly inhabited it.

Hume described himself as a Tory, not meaning to imply, however, that he subscribed either to the doctrine of the Anglican Church or to the divine right of the English kings, who by then were not English at all. He was almost certainly an atheist and believed in the established church and the established monarchy precisely because they were established, embodying in their structure and history the solutions to social conflicts and the tacit instructions for carrying on.

Hume’s political philosophy is contained in his posthumously collected essays and in his six-volume History of England (1744) and is more fragmentary than the empiricist theory of knowledge for which he is nowadays more famous. He attacked the theory of the social contract, arguing that Locke’s idea that we ‘tacitly consent’ to the government by voluntarily staying within its jurisdiction is a myth, most people being inevitably constrained by cultural, linguistic and habitual ties to stay where they are, whatever the government that legislates for them. Although he recognised the importance of popular consent in securing political order, he believed that consent is a response to the belief in legitimacy, rather than the foundation of it. The only true basis for any conception of legitimacy or political obligation, he argued, is utility, there being no other justification for obligations than the benefits that come from accepting them.

Hume believed that politics, as a ‘moral’ science, could be deduced from the study of human nature, and that controversies would dissolve if the true structure of our sentiments could be discerned. The principal sentiments involved in creating political order he identified as sympathy and benevolence, and he regarded the idea of justice as ultimately derived from them. Already we see in Hume a reaction to the Enlightenment project, of founding our political obligations in the exercise of reason. In all things that matter, and in particular all things on which our social being depends, it is custom not reason that provides the decisive motive.

Justice, Hume thought, required the establishment and defence of private rights, principal among which is the right of private property, for which he gave a classic utilitarian justification. He defended staunchly the liberties that he associated with the British constitution as this had emerged from the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and its aftermath, although he was extremely doubtful that those liberties could be easily guaranteed or that a formula could be found wherein to summarise them. His own preference was for a form of mixed republican and monarchical government, such as he argued was exhibited in Great Britain, where the two kinds of power oppose and limit each other.

The unsystematic nature of Hume’s political ideas reflects his empiricist philosophy. Sceptical of abstract argument, and persuaded of the limitations of human knowledge, he pointed always to the utility of custom in guiding us along the path of peaceful coexistence. Grand liberal conceptions, in which the freedom of the individual is exalted into an absolute value to which all long-standing compromises must be sacrificed, were, he believed, to be distrusted. Such abstract conceptions were merely the latest of the enthusiasms that sweep from time to time across human societies, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The lesson of history for Hume is that established order, founded on customs that are followed and accepted, is always to be preferred to the ideas, however exultant and inspiring, of those who would liberate us from our inherited sense of obligation. This thought – the essence of Toryism throughout the modern era – is one to which Hume gave no further backing. But it was to become pivotal in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when Burke set out to provide it with a philosophy.

Meanwhile, the reality of Toryism, as an attitude rather than a philosophy, was exemplified for all time by Hume’s contemporary, Samuel Johnson. Dr Johnson, as he is known on account of the honorary doctorate conferred on him by the University of Oxford (in recognition of his great Dictionary of the English Language, 1755), was not a political philosopher, and did not engage in the kinds of argument about liberty and institutions that we find in Harrington and Locke. Yet he was and remains a towering intellectual presence in British national culture, an example of the rooted loyalty to ‘things by law established’ that has been, among so many Anglophone conservatives, their substitute for abstract argument. What Johnson believed he also exemplified, which was a firm moral sense combined with a robust eccentricity of manner and a deep respect for aesthetic values. For Johnson, the established church, which brought people together in a shared recognition of God’s presence in their daily lives, was the heart of political order. Tolerance should be extended to dissenters and unbelievers, but not at the expense of orthodoxy. Poetry too was essential to political life as Johnson understood it, and here again the goal, for Johnson, was orthodoxy – the exact expression of moral truths, and the shaping of the language so that these truths could be understood and acted upon by all who share the literary culture.

Johnson’s eccentric habits, amplified by what was probably Tourette’s syndrome, and engagingly described by James Boswell in the Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), made his defence of orthodoxy all the more impressive. The search for the right opinion, the correct response, the sensible emotion was also, in Johnson’s world, an expression of the highest freedom. He could be haughty and compassionate, indignant and remorseful by turns, but in everything he responded to the world with an exalted sense of responsibility for his own existence. Freedom, for Johnson, was not an escape from obligations, but a call to obey them, whether or not they have been consciously chosen. That was the Tory attitude, valuing eccentricity and independence as a sign of a deeper obedience than any sheepish conformity, and it has remained at the heart of English conservatism to this day.

The thinkers whose work I have touched on in this chapter belong to the pre-history of modern conservatism, to that moment when liberals and conservatives began to divide between them the new territory of post-religious politics. As I have argued, liberals and conservatives were united in their acceptance of individual liberty as an ultimate political value, but differed in their view of traditional institutions. Liberals saw political order as issuing from individual liberty; conservatives saw individual liberty as issuing from political order. What makes a political order legitimate, in the conservative view, is not the free choices that create it, but the free choices that it creates. The question of which comes first, liberty or order, was to divide liberals from conservatives for the next two hundred years. But in due course new threats came to unite them, not the least of them being the growth of the modern state.


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