Finding our conservative mindfulness

Monday, February 29, 2016
Alvino-Mario Fantini


Alvino-Mario Fantini calls for a return to Anglo-American conservative tradition – as European conservatives are beginning to do

To the chagrin of ‘progressives’ everywhere, Europeans in recent years have been discovering the virtues and wisdom of the Anglo-American conservative tradition. In the Netherlands and Spain, foundations named after Edmund Burke teach students about the free market, limited government, and the principles of ordered liberty. In Denmark, Italy, and Portugal, academics and other writers have published paeans to thinkers like Michael Oakeshott, Kenneth Minogue, TS Eliot, and the American, Russell Kirk. It seems the only place where this conservative tradition continues to be ignored is within the UK’s own Tory Party.

Turning for inspiration to thinkers of the British and American Right is not to be dismissed as lunacy. At a time when the Conservative Party seems to have continued its slow slide into irrelevance - thanks to the steps taken by David Cameron and his top aides to ‘modernise’ the Party - rediscovering Anglo-American conservatism seems like very sound politics.

The loss of voters and the defection last year of Tory Party leaders like Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless to UKIP - which in many policy areas offer more traditional fare - speak volumes. So in looking to the future of the Party, leaders should ignore the hand-wringing of people like Ken Clarke, who has fretted about the dangers of being too conservative - for it is traditional Tory ideas, principles, and values that offer the Party the best way forward.

Britain’s challenges

There is no question that Britain today faces many complex challenges. From immigration and the defence of marriage to national security and the threat of supranational EU governance, traditional Britain has been under assault on many fronts for many years. The one area that has flourished has been the economy. Perhaps that is why calculating Tory modernisers have chosen to focus almost all of their recent campaign rhetoric on this area - to the neglect of nearly all others.

But a civilisation depends on more than just the economic sphere, as Lord Salisbury admonished. In the words of Russell Kirk, godfather of American conservatism and Anglophile, beyond the economic lies the political, and beyond the political lies the cultural - the roots of which are mainly spiritual. To conceive of public policy problems as primarily economic is to adopt a narrow, materialistic view of the world, which reduces all men and women to mere consumers.

Conservatives traditionally rejected such an impoverished view of human existence. In the old days, as Roger Scruton reminds us, conservatives placed “politics, culture, and morality before economic order and the distribution of power” for these are “the true foundations of political order and the driving forces of social community”. But to the brash, young operatives of today’s Tory Party, such ideas must seem hopelessly quaint.

The Party’s errors

Scrapping traditional ideas about culture and morality is one of the principal mistakes made by the Tory Party. Since the time of John Major’s government, Party leaders have enthusiastically sacrificed principles to politics. They have ignored Tory backbenchers and rural voters, and have replaced conservative theories with mere tactics.

But it really was under David Cameron that the Conservative Party underwent what some see as its greatest watering down. Beginning with the replacement of the Tories’ ‘flaming torch’ logo with the silly and meaningless blue-and-green ‘oak tree’ in 2006, the Party sought to re-brand itself as hip and modern. It seemed desperate to prove its relevance and demonstrate that it cared deeply about young people.

But increasingly, voters - who are not to be fooled so easily - have seen through such Tory artifice. It was no surprise then to witness the rise of Ukip over the past few years, which was perceived to have a more principled, if oftentimes simplistic, approach to many of the policy issues that are of greatest concern to John Bull.

Despite many Tory mistakes and missteps, the Party did well at this year’s general election in May, which was surprising, given the unprincipled and left-leaning manifesto that they offered. In 84 pages of intellectual pap, the Tories proposed all manner of government schemes, programmes, and initiatives to improve people’s lives, while increasing government expenditures. Its most chilling line, as other commentators have pointed out, was on page five: “We have a plan for every stage of your life”. Never mind that most Britons simply want the government to step the hell out of the way.

The 2015 manifesto clearly demonstrated that Conservative Party leaders continue to be tone deaf when it comes to connecting with traditional conservative voters. It encapsulated perfectly what ails the Tories: their neglect of their own conservative roots. And one doubts whether a conservative ‘conviction politician’ will ever emerge from the Party’s leadership - or whether it will ever find its way back to principled governance. Perhaps it will remain nothing more than a party of electable technocrats whose policy recommendations and legislative initiatives are based on nothing more than the economy, polls, and statistical inferences.

Anglo-American Europe

Meanwhile, other European countries have been re-discovering the Anglo-American conservative tradition. In Denmark, the publication in 2004 of Den konservative årstid (The Conservative Season) was one of the first signs of this emerging trend. That collection of essays introduced Danish voters to British and American political ideas. Similarly, the establishment in 2006 of the Fundación [Edmund] Burke in Spain - and that organisation’s subsequent translation and publication of works by G K Chesterton, Sir Edward Coke, and Richard M Weaver through its publishing associate, Ciudadela Libros - marked the beginning of that country’s turn towards the Anglosphere. And this year, translators and publishers in Croatia produced the first Croatian language edition of Russell Kirk’s 1993 work, The Politics of Prudence. And work is already underway on a translation of Roger Scruton’s 2007 work, A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism. It’s not just Anglo-American ideas that are being disseminated.

In Portugal, João Carlos Espada - an Oxonian who studied under Sir Ralf Dahrendorf - teaches his students not just about the political principles upheld by Churchill and Thatcher, inviting speakers like journalist John O’Sullivan and academic-turned consultant Michael Pinto-Duschinsky for seminars. He also seeks to transmit to them the English manners and morals which epitomise Western civilisation. Even in France, where no love for England has ever been lost, organisations like the Institut de Formation Politique have been training young French activists for nearly a decade with ideas and techniques developed and perfected by British and American conservatives.

These are not coincidences; nor are they the result of the machinations of a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ between Britons and Americans. They are simply the result of people in different European welfare states - from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds - seeking to identify the values, ideas, and habits of mind that constitute the Anglo-American tradition. After years of seeking to develop ‘home-grown’ approaches to their political, economic, and cultural challenges, continental Europeans have come around to the idea that perhaps there is something unique about the Anglosphere - something that has given the English-speaking nations an absolute advantage, and which has led to British and American primacy during the 19th and 20th centuries - which could also serve them well.

Much of this is expounded upon in Daniel Hannan’s 2014 best-seller, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. The ideas of individual responsibility, liberty, private property, representative government, and the rule of law are hallmarks of that Anglo-American tradition. The fact that it is now being discovered and celebrated by conservative thinkers across continental Europe is of great significance - especially given the surprising gains by less palatable and more extreme right-wing parties across Europe during recent EU elections.

Perhaps it is high time for the Conservative Party to re-discover this tradition as well. Tories need to ignore the nonsense that the Cameronians have been peddling and remember what it means to truly be a conservative. Otherwise, the Party, despite occasional electoral victories, may increasingly be seen, in the words of Maurice Cowling, as “simply no longer equipped to face the challenges of the modern world”.

Alvino-Mario Fantini is the Editor-in-Chief of The European Conservative.

This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 29/02/2016