Always outnumbered, always outgunned
Conservative thought is a maligned and minority position in New Zealand. Should we try to redeem it?
Conservatism has a bad rap in New Zealand. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising; from the rolling omnishambles that was the Conservative Party, to the roiling controversies of the culture war and the culture warriors, conservatives here and overseas haven’t exactly distinguished themselves lately. There are, of course, honourable exceptions. Bill English spoke convincingly about “collective as well as individual traditions,” though that was as long ago as 2006. These days, conservatism looks like a maligned and minority position in our politics, and no-one of English’s stature has emerged to carry the conservative torch since he largely retired from public life. More to the point, should they? Is conservative thought still relevant, and is the term itself so tarnished that it’s beyond retrieval?
Before attempting to answer those questions, it’s important to note that the term “conservative” contains multitudes—there are many kinds of conservative, and many kinds of conservative thought. So it’s probably a good idea to try and define what conservativism is, and a good place to start is by asking how to be a conservative.
Or more accurately, a good place to start is with How to be a Conservative, the 2014 book by Sir Roger Scruton. Scruton, who died just over a year ago, is the most recent person to give a significant articulation of the conservative tradition. In his lifetime, he wrote over 50 books and innumerable articles and papers, and if he needed that voluminous output to express what conservatism is then it would be foolish of me to attempt to capture this entire school of thought in one post. As I aspire not to be foolish, I’m going to work my way through How to be a Conservative in a series of posts over the coming months, summarising and commenting on each chapter as we go.
The book is a helpful jumping-off point for this sort of exercise, both because it’s relatively short and accessible, and because it’s written in a spirit of intellectual charity—Scruton devotes chapters to the positives of several competitor schools of thought, like “The Truth in Socialism,” “The Truth in Capitalism,” and “The Truth in Liberalism,” and so on. In the rest of this post, I’m going to start with the first chapter, “My Journey,” Scruton’s account of how his life experience shaped his thought.
Scruton begins by saying that modern conservatives find themselves “under pressure to hide what we are, for fear of being excluded. I have resisted that pressure, and as a result my life has been far more interesting than I ever intended it to be.” Born late in the Second World War, he grew up with a father who was a committed socialist, a card-carrying Labour Party member and unionist. But Scruton senior was also deeply and passionately attached to England and particularly to his corner of it, fighting to conserve his town and the countryside against the depredations of developers and the encroachment of motorways. This early experience impressed on his son that, “it is always right to conserve things, when worse things are proposed in their place.”
Scruton went on to attend Cambridge University, and after graduating he became an academic. He soon found himself firmly in a minority, surrounded by colleagues who subscribed to the “Marxist humanism” of the 1970s. This was a deeply discouraging time for conservatives until, he says, “in the midst of our discouragement, Margaret Thatcher appeared as though by a miracle, at the head of the Conservative Party. I well remember the joy that spread through the University of London. At last there was someone to hate!” Scruton was never a Thatcherite; he “never swallowed in its entirety the free-market rhetoric.” But he “deeply sympathized with Thatcher’s motives,” thanks to his experiences in Eastern Europe.
From the late 1970s, Scruton had begun to visit Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other communist countries, where he met with dissidents who were barely tolerated by the Soviet regime of the time. Among this “battered remnant,” Scruton found kindred spirits, and he saw in UK Labour’s desire to direct and regulate British society the same “contempt for human freedom that I encountered in Eastern Europe.” Airing these views in Britain, Scruton experienced increasing levels of hostility in response. Catalysed by “a particularly frightening episode in which I was chased from a public lecture in the University of York,” he decided in 1989 “to leave the academic world and live by my wits.” It was in the character of freelance public intellectual that he wrote many of his books, leaving his lasting impression on conservative thought.
Having sketched his journey, Scruton ends by describing his destination. He sums up conservative philosophy in his belief that:
“we are the collective inheritors of things both excellent and rare, and political life, for us, ought to have one overriding goal, which is to hold fast to those things, in order to pass them on to our children.”
I opened by asking whether conservatism is relevant and capable of redemption as a term. On the first question, I think the kind of conservative thought described in the above quote is just as important as ever. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it can point us to beautiful and life-giving truths that provide purpose and meaning in an unstable world. I recognise that’s a big claim, and it’s one I’ll try to substantiate in subsequent posts. On the second question, I think “conservative” is an enduring term, meaning conservatives have no alternative but to try and redeem it.
That redemption won’t be easy. To borrow a title from The Hasselhoff Experiment, conservatives in New Zealand today find themselves always outnumbered, always outgunned. Scruton argues that, “one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion [is that their] position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.” So what is the solution? He says, “we must be modern in defence of the past, and creative in defence of tradition.” This sounds good in theory, but will be hard in practice. But if Scruton is right that our children’s future depends on us recognising and handing on those things “excellent and rare”—and I believe that he is—then we must try.