What is the Conservative Party actually for?


The year is 1987. It is the morming of 11 June. I am a student at the University of Warwick, spending the morning in the Chaplaincy, along with various other Christian Union members. A general election is to be held today. Someone — sadly I can’t remember who — tells me, very sincerely “You can’t be a Christian and vote Conservative”. A little later, in a completely different conversation, someone else tells me with equal sincerity “You can’t be a Christian and vote Labour”.


So I voted Lib Dem.  *B’dum tish!*

No, seriously. As it happens, I did vote Lib Dem, but that’s not the point of this story. The point is that I learned a valuable lesson: you can’t take too seriously the things that people assert about politics based on their religion. (This observation has served me well as I’ve watched the Religious Right in America descend into self-parodying lunacy, science denialism and downright meanness.)

It’s no good just telling Christians “You have to vote for X because you’re a Christian” — for any X. Not even whatever X I happen to favour.

Actual logue

The year is 2015. It’s some time around March, and we know that a general election is coming up in May. I suggest to the pastor of my church that it would be good to do a preaching series on the positive foundational aspects of each of the major parties: one Sunday each. I’d find that fascinating, and encouraging, and I think it would help people to figure out who to vote for.

It would be easy to talk about Labour’s distinctive emphasis on favouring the poor (See Luke 1:52-53); and about the Liberals’ emphasis on the equality of all people (See Galatians 3:28). But if anything, I was even more excited about the prospect of doing the one on the Conservatives. In laying out the positive foundation of Conservatism I would have said something like this:

The name “Conservative” comes from the idea that we should be careful about changing things: that much of the time, things are the way they are for a good reason, even if it’s not immediately obvious; and so the burden of proof lies with those who want to make a change. Yes, institutions become outdated, and then should be updated or replaced entirely; but Conservatism warns us not to tear a thing down without first having an idea of what we’re trying to replace it with. It is a generalisation of the physician’s maxim “first, do no harm”, and it is perhaps best expressed in G. K. Chesteron’s parable of the lamp-post (though he himself aligned with neither Progressives nor Conservatives).

And I do believe this is an important principle. As Bruce Dawe’s poem Only the Beards are Different points out, revolution is a bloody business: before you start one, you’d better be darned sure that you’re going to land up in a better state than you started in.

I am not by nature a Conservative voter; but I do recognise the important principle that lies at the root of conservative ideology.


The year is 2016. After 52% of a population swallow a stream of outright lies told by privately educated politicians playing a “Let’s Leave Europe” game, the country is now governed by a Prime Minister who was not elected even as leader of her own party, let alone as Prime Minister. She herself campaigned to remain in Europe, but now leads the charge not only to leave, but to do so in the most damaging way possible: with a “Hard Brexit“. A Conservative government that was elected under a manifesto pledge to “Safeguard British interests in the Single Market” (page 72) now rushes, under its unelected leader, to do the exact opposite.

Whatever this is, it is not Conservatism. It is the exact opposite.

This government is now burning down the results of forty years’ partnership with Europe, tearing up forty years’ trade agreements, and doing it all in the most incompetent and alienating way. It’s the work of pre-school children tantruming, insisting they can have their own way in the face of all the evidence.

Where are the grown-up who are in charge? If the Conservative Party offers us anything, isn’t it stability, perspective, an emphasis on the economy? What has happened to all that? And how did it all happen so quickly?

8 responses to “What is the Conservative Party actually for?

  1. I was mostly with you until the conclusion about Europe: that’s something I remain ambivalent about as long as I feel the reasons so many people voted to leave remain assumed and unaddressed. But in saying that, it’s not a direction I’d really wanted to go in.

    For me, the main point of the argument is the central one you made, which is that something describing itself as conservative is something I would expect to proceed with caution and stability. Something I think has not been done with the continuing obsession with tearing down formerly stable institutions and throwing caution to the wind on the assumption that the Free Market and its magic invisible hand will make a divine intervention and everything will get better and cheaper and more awesome, lovely and handsome. Which keeps on not happening, and they say it is happening, and even if it isn’t, they’ll keep on doing it anyway because it should happen because that’s the way the world should work. Or something.

    Meh. I’ve never liked politics, and the older I get, the more I think they’re all prats.

  2. It’s interesting to note the differences between the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ on your side of the pond and on mine. It just goes to show that language is malleable.

    For instance, though my politics are idiosyncratic, if I had to choose a label (in the US) I guess I would call myself a ‘classical liberal (with some caveats.)’ Also note that US punctuation is different from British punctuation, and that the above “.)'” is actually correct in the US (I think,) believe it or not.

    We often think of liberalism and conservatism as two ends of an axis, but I don’t think of them that way. I see liberalism as a mainly normative view, and conservatism as a mainly positive view. I am both fairly liberal and increasingly conservative- my ideals are liberal, but I am very conservative in my hopes that they can be achieved by force majeure.

    My conservatism has very little in common with either American or British conservatives though. It is simply a recognition that we are hemmed in by hedges that we may not be able to cut our way through. Trying to solve problems you can’t solve is sometimes (much) worse than accepting that they are insoluble.

    I would say that it is indeed radicalism that lies at the other end of conservatism’s axis, and that while my basic instincts are radical (or were when I was a young man,) experience has made me a bit of a conservative. Btw, thinking they are all prats is a sign of incipient (philosophical) conservatism.

  3. Of course, in Australia we’ve taken a different route. Our conservatives go by the name of the Liberal Party. We’ve had a small scale version occur here, with Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts elected to the Senate. The latter wants us to leave the United Nations.
    It seems to be there are common themes in all these instances. There seems to be an absolute inability to compromise, only the extreme ends of the political sphere are getting influence, and worst of all, fundamental distrust of any kind of expertise.
    Really hope this gets sorted out in a more positive and progressive manner.

  4. George Orwell, in his essay on Kipling, argued that there were no conservatives anymore. Kipling he regarded an anachronism, a conservative. He said, “Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists.” In my lifetime I have been inclined to agree with him.

    I don’t think any political party, or even any philosopher, has managed a coherent take on modernity. It came crashing in with the machine age and the first world war. The colonial empires were gone. Automobiles replaced horses. The price of food plummeted with the Haber process. Respectable women showed their legs in public for the first time in over 1500 years. I think it crushed conservatism and left only fascism of one flavor or another.

    It also made anyone with a conservative impulse a bit crazy. The things they wish to preserve are inevitably coupled with things like hunger, disease, repressive hierarchy, overwork and a host of other nasty things. In the US, Donald Trump has his popularity because he provides a safe space for misogynists, racists and anti-semites.

    I may be weird, but I read Hunger Games as a parable about conservatism. Why were there hard rock coal miners when they had nuclear powered hovercraft? Why were wheat harvesters working such long hours that they needed night vision goggles? Surely, any society that could mass produce night vision goggles could build a mid-19th century harvester or better. In a way the Hunger Games society was a reaction to that society’s success, one that imposed hunger, overwork, disease, and repressive hierarchy for no other reason than as part of their political repression. Panem was not run by conservatives, though their goals were conservative. It was run by their modern replacements.

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  6. Kieran Martin

    I broadly agree with this, but if you look at May’s policies you can think of them as a form of conservatism which has always boiled away in the party, which is regressivism. That is, their goal is not to conserve the current status quo, but instead an idealised status quo from the past. You can see this in the move to bring back grammar schools and leave Europe: both harp back to a hazy past when Britain was great, so if we restore it back to that point, then everything will be fine.

    I mean, that’s insane, but there’s an argument that this is consistent behaviour.

  7. Well, it makes sense if you consider that a lot of people see the EU itself as the source of a lot of change (both in the past, and likely in the future as it tries to deal with the ongoing Eurozone and migrant crises, plus whatever other crises pop up), and therefore getting out of it as being a way of (a) being able to undo some of the changes that the EU already made to our society and (b) not getting dragged into any future changes.

    So in that sense, getting out of the EU is a profoundly conservative (ie, anti-change) thing to do.

    And given that then the farther out we are the better: if we were to remain ‘half-in’, eg, a ‘Norway option’ then we would still be subject to some of the rules and therefore might still have to change when they change the rules.

    Not saying I particularly agree with the exit strategy May seems to be outlining (inasmuch as she has given any details at all) but it doesn’t seem fair to criticise it for being fundamentally un-conservative when it’s based on the idea of getting as far away form the EU, and therefore as far away from any possibility of having to change as the EU changes, as possible.

  8. As an aside on ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, have you seen the ‘Moral Foundations’ people on how the two see ethics?


    I don’t like their ‘just-so’ stories about how the moral principles came to be, but descriptively, they seem about right.

    What I find most fascinating is that it’s liberals who are the least capable of empathising with other moral points of view, for example in the extract quoted here:


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