Conservatives

Neal Ascherson

  • The Meaning of Conservatism by Roger Scruton
    Macmillan, 205 pp, £12.00, ISBN 0 333 37635 8
  • Counting Our Blessings by Daniel Patrick Moynihan
    Secker, 348 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 436 29401 X
  • Peregrinations by Peregrine Worsthorne
    Weidenfeld, 277 pp, £9.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77807 2

It’s only a few years ago since Mr Callaghan started presenting Labour as the British National Party. Labour, we were given to understand, was the party of patriotic unity, of social cohesion, of organic harmony between interests and classes. The Tories, on the other hand, were supposed to be ‘divisive’. It was they who were setting bewildered sections of the loyal yeomanry against each other, inciting the banker against the worker tearing apart the seamless, woad-dyed robe of Ancient British tribal solidarity.

Shortly after the Tories were denounced for divisiveness, a hideous, screeching, grinding din arose as Labour itself divided. There was, of course, a connection. All parties and movements have a sort of physical, organic existence; they have a metabolism which has its limits, and they cannot indefinitely be stuffed with the wrong diet without in the end succumbing to nausea and convulsions. The attempt to feed the Labour Party with the idea that it was a Volkspartei of national reconciliation was a disastrous nutritional experiment of this kind. To be divisive, apologetically or aggressively, is what the party is all about. To make one section of society aware that its condition and institutions are not an immutable geological landscape but furniture constructed by another section of society for its own benefit – furniture which should be changed – is the raison d’être of any democratic socialist party, and ought to be its agenda.

Conservatism, it should not be necessary to say, is the creed of social unity and is entitled to say so. When the horse obeys the rider’s touch on the reins, that is – for a conservative – unity. When the horse proposes a trot back to the stable, at a moment when the rider proposes a canter to the battlefield that is divisiveness and in the ensuing contest of wills the rider may fall off. One cavalry unit has, for the moment, ceased to exist. It ought to follow, but apparently does not, that when a right-wing government contrives to heighten social divisions rather than to obscure them, its adversaries should be hugely entertained and encouraged.

The old Arch-Druid himself, Mr Harold Macmillan, appeared on television the other night and gave a few lessons on the maintenance of Ancient British solidarity. Tens of thousands of Polish workers on their knees were, he suggested, the right sort of example to follow. That was unity for you. Nothing was easier than setting people against one another, by starving industry of credit and permitting dangerous levels of unemployment. The conservative tradition was one of responsibility for all the nation, all the time: The Macmillan view is that the best preparation for a new epoch is to stick to old, tried policies. This must contrast with the Thatcher view, which is that a return to an old, tried epoch can only he achieved by applying quite new policies.

All one may conclude from this is that conservatism is an aim which justifies the most diverse means. It may be approached by doing nothing, by merely administering. At other times, it requires radical change to the existing system (as Mrs Thatcher might argue), so that the right becomes the subversive force and the left, or the social-democratic centre, becomes the immobile regime to be disrupted. ‘Conservative Revolution’ is a conception more familiar in German history than in ours, but the way in which Thatcherite iconoclasm and ideological commitment have succeeded the stolid, preservative Callaghan government has enriched the British political imagination.

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