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.

All the same, conservatism still eludes satisfactory definition even as an aim. If it were just a style, as some writers seem to assume, the Soviet regime would qualify without difficulty, but all states which endeavour to avoid political change will not be allowed by the nouveaux philosophes of the right, wherever in the world, to be conservative. ‘Rightism’ will not do either: the Nazi programme of destroying an entire social order and its institutions, though supported initially by many German conservatives, drove some of them in the end to conspiratorial resistance. A more difficult problem is the existence of a strong liberal element within modern conservatism. Tory cars at the last election buzzed around with stickers reading ‘We are the Freedom Fighters.’ Can a programme for less authority, less of the state, less supervision, be reconciled with the conservative idea?

Roger Scruton is certain that it cannot. In his sombre, clerkly little book, he claims that freedom ‘cannot occupy a central place in conservative thinking ... for the conservative, the value of individual liberty is not absolute, but stands subject to another and higher value, the authority of established government.’ His concern is to hunt down and expose the liberalism which hides itself in conservative colours, and – though he does not explicitly say so – the present British government stands outside his definition of conservatism. Mr Scruton’s is a rare, unfashionable voice in British political writing today: the voice of real authoritarianism. He could be a 20th-century inquisitor from Kingsley Amis’s fantasy The Alteration, to whom traditional power is its own end and the very questioning of power a sin. Even the Catholic Church is enfeebled by tolerance, in his opinion. Afflicted by the fad for reform, it has ‘partially forgotten the tradition of custom, ceremony and judicious manoeuvre ... calling to every man with the voice of immutable authority.’

As a neo-Hegelian and a collectivist, Mr Scruton has a great respect for Marx. At least Marx was not a liberal, and understood that society creates the human individual, not the other way around. Mr Scruton, who is a lawyer as well as a philosopher, has nothing but contempt for the politics of human rights. There are no individual human rights, in any absolute sense, but only the positive rights which go with specified duties. These will obviously vary from state to state. ‘There can be no international charter for dissidents,’ observes Mr Scruton, not without a trace of relish, ‘and there is only one respectable reason for one state to lend support to seditious utterance in another, which is the pursuit of power.’ Bismarck, contemplating partitioned Poland, could not have put it better.

The ‘contagion of democracy’ must be resisted. Quite possibly, the ‘populace’ would not miss the right to vote if it were taken from them, and Britain’s ‘constitutional essence’ would probably be little affected if the vote were restricted to those with a ‘self-conscious interest’ in the fortunes of the nation: people of position, education, wealth or power. The principle of charity should replace the welfare state. The law should strictly control morality, for the family and its natural authority must be the model for the relationship of the people to their state. Punishment should drop the flabby liberal doctrines of reforming the deviant and become once more retributive: ‘the healthiest form of punishment will be immediate, intelligible, even violent, conceived by the citizen as a natural retaliation ...’

Here Mr Scruton’s nerve fails him a little. He has quoted with approval from Joseph de Maistre, the French arch-reactionary, but hesitates to follow him to the conclusion that the public hangman is the key figure of the social order. And this illuminates an emptiness at the core of this amazing book. It is, as he says at the outset, a work of pure dogmatic. De Maistre thought that God wanted the sort of autocracy he described. Mr Scruton offers no sanction for his fearsome, static hierarchy. Religion may be encouraged, if it tightens the social bond, but is ultimately dispensable. Neither does he provide an anthropology suggesting that authoritarianism is the natural condition of the human race. His destructive criticism of liberal society has a black brilliance: his vision of the Leviathan which should replace it simply floats in the air. He asserts it is ‘natural’; he does not tell us why.

One of the most authentic and interesting aspects of Mr Scruton’s conservatism is that anti-communism, the defence of the West, plays only a minor part. His low priority for the value of freedom marks him off sharply from a politician like Senator Pat Moynihan, who is precisely the sort of right-wing liberal – attached to human rights, to Enlightenment notions of social contract, to restriction of state power – whom Mr Scruton wants to evict from the conservative definition. This is a collection of essays addressed to what Senator Moynihan sees as his country’s historic loss of nerve, following the Vietnam war, and its retreat from the leadership of what he considers to be the cause of liberty. He looks back with nostalgia to the crusading ideals of President Wilson, the pinnacle of American prestige in the world, and to their reassertion in John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural speech.

The Senator for New York, as he now is, has served four Presidents, and acted as American Ambassador to India and the United Nations. He is engaging, witty and learned; his prose has the facile deliciousness of Bourbon whiskey. The hangover is correspondingly depressing. Pat Moynihan is an enthusiastic Cold Warrior, who would like his country once again to throw its weight about the world. The racial diversity of New York suggests to him that a vigorous policy of international intervention would make good domestic politics as well as an impact abroad; if America is to become ‘a multi-ethnic nation the like of which even we have never imagined’, it follows that any struggle for liberty anywhere in the world will soon be an internal issue in the United States. So the only safe course is ‘for the United States deliberately and consistently to bring its influence to bear on behalf of those regimes which promise the largest degree of personal and national liberty’. This means leverage. America must stop cringing in guilt before the rulers of the Third World, most of whom have forsaken Wilsonian liberalism for ugly variants of Soviet or British socialism. ‘The political élites of most of the world are poisonously anti-American and will remain so while the spell of Marxism and the British universities ... persists.’ As Ambassador to India, he was forced to watch his country tamely allowing the Indians to support anti-Israel resolutions at the UN at the very moment when America, owed the equivalent of three-quarters of the Indian currency, was negotiating a generous debt settlement with New Delhi. His blood still boils at the memory. ‘The new nations must be made to understand that our commitment to them depends on their ceasing to be agents of the totalitarian attack on democracy.’ This sounds categorical. But it turns out that totalitarianism, after all, is relative. Some right-wing regimes ‘commit abominations in practice; the Communist countries commit abominations on principle.’

Pat Moynihan is a great sceptic about détente. In a closely-argued essay against the SALT negotiations, which might even find some supporters in the British anti-nuclear movement, he reasons that the treaties have merely had the effect of licensing and accelerating the arms race. And, although he appears not to realise it, his analysis of the effects of détente on East-West relations is exactly the same as that put forward some ten years ago by Mr Brezhnev. It was Brezhnev who predicted that closer relations between states of different social systems would be accompanied – a sort of dialectic – by a corresponding intensification of the ideological struggle between them. Now, a decade later, here comes the Senator to tell us that détente can ‘at most lead to a redistribution of tension from the technological sector to the ideological one, such that there will be a pronounced increase in the latter.’ America should proclaim this discovery, he says, because the Communists never will. The Senator seems not to have noticed that this ‘dialectical process’ has been the most loudly publicised ideological theme in Eastern Europe throughout the Seventies.

Senator Moynihan’s ‘liberalism’ is so blatant, as far as his own country is concerned, that Mr Scruton would have no fun in putting him to the question. A far more rewarding victim for the Scrutonian inquisition is Mr Peregrine Worsthorne, columnist of the Sunday Telegraph. Here is one who claims to be a true conservative, a believer in hierarchy, rank and heredity, a man of order. Under the cold eye, poor Peregrine quails. A few minutes on the rack, and the confessions begin to flow: Worsthorne admits to a belief in kindness, to a scepticism about the sanctity of the state and its minions, even to a dangerous sense of absurdity – his own included.

There are many conservative dogmas which Peregrine Worsthorne would like to believe in. He would like to find an aristocracy whose manners still makyth man, but finds instead a class of cunning entrepreneurs who eat with their fingers, live with girls they are not married to and affect a Cockney twang. He would like to confirm that socialism has shattered the ancient social fabric of his nation, but is fascinated to conclude that Labour has preserved inequality far more effectively than the Tories could have done by blinding the masses with a smokescreen of rhetoric about levelling. He might have hoped to find in China an organic, obedient society in which all estates knew their place, but although his first impression was encouraging – ‘nothing Blackpoolish about it, nothing vulgar or coarse’ – he came to see more clearly than many honoured Western guests at the time that China under the Gang of Four was being turned into a cultural and intellectual desert.

In this collection of travel notes and columns, he ventures to many uncouth, unpolished places. He risks his life among the hairy ogres of Glasgow, his health in motorway restaurants, his sanity with Australian politicians. In what he brings back, there is a good deal of frightful nonsense about rulingclass civilisation, the vices of mass education, the true happiness of those who know their place and so on. He is at his silliest when essaying gravity, pronouncing, for example, on South Africa that ‘at every point one is aware that the white man is the link which holds all together, gives shape and pattern to everything, is the core and kernel of a civilisation which works in spite of difficulties which stagger the imagination. Dear God, I pray, let the outside world not interfere ...’

But he has his moments. In his very funny introduction about the job of columnising, Peregrine Worsthorne confesses that the desperate search for new themes has tempted him often into alien socialist territory. He can even show an eccentric sort of para-Marxism, proclaiming the existence of class struggle (but of course hoping that his own side will win). The book includes his most brilliant column, ‘A Kitchen Cabinet Fit for the Ritz’, written as Mrs Thatcher took over power, which pointed out how ‘quite marvellously well-heeled’ the new government’s members were, and warned them not to destroy the welfare state and mixed economy which, improbably enough, had preserved and even increased their privileges. ‘Almost all’ of the Cabinet’s members

have done remarkably well under socialism. So, by and large, has the old ruling order. Let them think twice before talking about cleansing the Augean stables. For, if ordure there be, they waxed fat upon it ... If this Tory government preserves the traditional social hierarchy half as effectively in the future as Labour governments have in the past, it will have proved miraculously successful. After all, this splendidly Trollopian Cabinet was nurtured in the soil of social democracy.