Talks from the 2012 conference
The highly successful joint QR/Traditional Britain Group day-long conference was held in London on Saturday 20th October 2012. The talks delivered appear below (page being updated gradually).
IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE
In defence of English civilization
We know that England is under attack, and from its own ruling class. Before we can speak of defence, we need to understand the reasons for the attack.
This is not an attack on tradition in itself, but the unfolding of an alternative tradition.
Part of what defines a nation is the relationship between its ruling class and the people at large. Our historic self-perception as English is based on the relationship between rulers and ruled that existed before 1914, and, though to a fading degree, for a couple of generations thereafter.
The English people in 1914 were capable of fully democratic self-government. They had the necessary cultural and genetic cohesiveness for a democratic system not to descend into chaos or majoritarian tyranny.
Democracy, however, was not necessary, as the oligarchy of hereditary landlords who ruled England had absolutely identified itself with the nation. Every interest group had its place within the nation, and there was a place for all.
After 1914, the old ruling class was destroyed – the heavy casualties of both World Wars, high taxes on static wealth, demands for a fraudulent kind of democracy, and so forth. The old ruling class went down before all this, because it never tried to evade the duties that came with national identification.
The new ruling class is a coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, educators, lawyers, media people, and associated business interests that draws income and status from an enlarged and activist state. It does not own the means of production but is content merely to control them. Its general desire is to avoid the entanglements that destroyed the old ruling class. It wishes to avoid more than token identification with the English people at large.
The present – and so far the most successful – scheme of liberation is to make power opaque and unaccountable by shifting it upwards to various multinational treaty organizations – e.g., the EU, WTO, NATO, etc. – and to Balkanize England into groupings more suspicious of each other than willing to combine against the ruling class.
State-sponsored mass immigration has been the most obvious evidence of this desire. Filling the country with people of different colours and with different ways, which do not like each other, and do not like and are not liked by the natives, is ideal Balkanization. But one of the purposes of political correctness is also to divide the native population – women against men, homosexuals against Christians, and so forth.
The final desire is for the mass of ordinary people to be dispossessed and impoverished and unable to challenge structures of exploitation that channel fantastic wealth to a free-floating class of masters.
If we want to avoid this, we must destroy the ruling class now. Its weakness is its reliance on the state as source or enabler of its income. Conservatives, therefore, must seize control of the state and disestablish the ruling class.
If we want to win the battle for this country, we need to take advice from the Marxists. These are people whose ends were evil where not impossible. But they were experts in the means to their ends. They knew more than we have ever thought about the seizure and retention of power. If, therefore, we ever achieve a government of conservatives and seek to bring about the irreversible transfer of power to ordinary people, we should take to heart what Marx said in 1871 after the failure of the Paris Commune:
“The next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the precondition for every real people’s revolution”
The meaning of this is that we should not try to work with the ruling class. We should not try to jolly it along. We should not try fighting it on narrow fronts. We must regard it as the enemy, and we must smash it.
On the first day of our government of conservatives, we should close down the BBC. We should take it off the air. We should disclaim its copyrights. We should throw its staff into the street and cancel their pensions. We should not try to privatize the BBC. This would simply be to transfer the voice of our enemy from the public to the private sector, where it might be more effective in its opposition. We must shut it down – and shut it down at once.
We should do the same with much of the administration. The Foreign Office, much of the Home Office, the Commission for Racial Equality, or whatever it is now called, anything to do with health and safety and planning and child protection – I mean much of the public sector – these should be shut down.
If at the end of your first month in power, we have not shut down half of the state, we are failing. If we have shut down half the state, we have made a step in the right direction and are ready for still further cuts.
Let me emphasize that the purpose of these cuts would not be to save money for the taxpayers or lift an immense weight of bureaucracy from their backs – though they would do this. The purpose is to destroy the ruling class before it can destroy us. We must tear up the web of power and personal connections that make these people effective as an opposition to radical change. If we do this, we shall face no more clamor than if we moved slowly and halfheartedly.
One obvious sign of success will be when de-pensioned enemies like Neil Kinnock and Peter Mandelson are seen serving on the cheese counter in Sainsbury.
Turning, however, to formally private business, much of this currently supports the ruling-class project and is little more than the economic wing of the ruling class. We should respond to this by removing privileges like limited liability and forcing all business to internalize their transaction costs. Big business must be ruthlessly stripped of its privileges and made to sink or swim in fully liberated markets.
Following from this, however, we should leave large areas of the welfare state alone. It is regrettable, but most people in this country do like the idea of healthcare free at the point of use, and of free education, and of pensions and unemployment benefit. These must go in the long term. But they must be retained in the short term to maintain electoral support. Their cost and methods of provision should be examined. But cutting welfare provision would be politically unwise in the early days of our revolution….
I have not touched on the constitutional arrangements of a restored England. But I must tell you that these will often need to be different from those we have lost, and that organizations like Traditional Britain still celebrate. We shall need to create new structures of power and new safeguards against abuse of that power. The new order of things will restore the spirit of the old but cannot be a simple recreation.
Now, one final warning. What I recommend is a revolution – perhaps a counterrevolution, but still a radical break with the present order of things. The problem with all such recommendations is that the extent of present evils is greatly magnified, and the risks of change are minimized. It may be, however, that there is some hidden wisdom in the present order of things that we have overlooked. Or it may be that what we have is the least of available evils. I do not think this is the case. But I feel obliged to mention it. Conservatives, after all, should not wish to copy the mistakes of the French revolutionaries.
SEAN GABB is an author and the Chairman of the Libertarian Alliance
The role of the established Church in making and renewing the greatness of traditional Britain
I’d like to begin by thanking Louis and the committee for inviting Church Society to contribute to your conference today. For those of you who haven’t heard of us, Church Society is the direct descendent of over a dozen Protestant organisations set up to protect the Biblical faith of the Church of England.
Our earliest forebear, the Protestant Association, dates to 1835. In the 19th century we tackled the rise of Catholic theology in the CofE, and in the 20th century we tackled the rise of Liberal theology. Our journal, the Churchman, is over 100 years old and provides conservative theology which is both academic and pastoral. Through our Trust we have influence in the appointment of ministers in over 100 parishes throughout the country. We are involved in Westminster politics with campaigns such as Keep Marriage Special, and we are involved in Church of England politics both at synod and elsewhere. Our work takes place both at the national and local levels. We are classically Protestant, and socially conservative.
So as you can see, there are many points of connection between Church Society and the Traditional Britain Group. So I would commend membership of the Society to you and emphasize again how grateful we are for your invitation. Now, having introduced the Society, let me introduce my theme: The Church of England – should it remain established?
The Church Society was invited to address your conference because apparently some of you feel the Church of England should be disconnected from its privileged role in British government. It’s an opinion that I can understand and empathise with. Increasingly the Church of England appears liberal, socialist, “progressive” (or “regressive”), out of touch, unchristian and unbelieving. Rather than being a force for maintaining the traditional structures of our society the Church of England is contributing to the erosion of the traditional family unit by denying the equally valuable but distinct roles of men and women in its marriage vows in its introduction of female presbyters and in its likely introduction of female bishops
And it is this denial of the distinction between the sexes which is inevitably leading to the calls to redefine the institution of marriage itself. If men and women are seen as completely indistinct in their roles, and completely interchangeable, then it’s no surprise that many presbyters and even some bishops are seemingly in support of gay marriage, and willing to bless civil partnerships.
Now don’t get me wrong: women are valuable, and the ministry of women is valuable. A large conservative evangelical church in the City of London employs 13 women in non-administrative roles. That’s a higher percentage per head employee than in any of the surrounding banks and buildings. It employs more women than all the rest of the churches in the deanery put together. So women are valued, and their ministry is valued, but none of them take on the role of presbyter, because the roles they play in the church reflect the biblical pattern for the family and the sexes.
And of course: everyone is welcome in church, gay and straight alike. Let me clarify that the Bible never condemns people for being gay. What God says in the Bible is that the best and right place for a sexual relationship is heterosexual marriage. The Bible tells us that everyone, including me, gets that wrong. I struggle with lust, as I also struggle to obey the other 9 commandments. But I’m welcome in church because the Christian gospel offers me forgiveness, and Jesus gives me his Spirit to transform my life and make me like Christ. So everyone is welcome because we’re all sinners in need of forgiveness.
However, that is not a license to deny that my sin is wrong, nor to redefine the nature of marriage. And so rather than carefully articulating these biblical and pastoral positions the Church of England has increasingly bought into the spirit of the age.
In a misunderstanding of the nature of equality, the CofE has denied that men and women can have any distinction in their roles at all. But being equal does not mean being the same: and by assuming that men and women are identical it is not surprising that they are increasingly treated as completely interchangeable. If men and women are indistinct and identical, then why not replace the woman in a marriage with another man?
This is the kind of thinking which is increasing in prominence in the Church of England. The CofE is increasingly a liberal and liberalising institution, seeking to question traditional values and hence undermine traditional institutions. And this liberalising institution is sewn into the fabric of our society, and so I can understand why many of you may wish to see the back of it.
But I want to argue with you this morning that jettisoning the Church of England will do the country no favours, and I’m going to argue that with you by asking you to reflect for a moment on your understanding of change and tradition. In other words, I’m going to ask you to consider: what is the core and what is the husk of traditional Britain?
Everyone has a philosophy of tradition, which is itself a philosophy of change. Let me explain what I mean: if you are someone who wishes to maintain tradition, then that necessarily means that the world around you is changing, otherwise why would the tradition you care about need to be maintained? The maintenance of tradition implies the erosion of tradition
And what is ‘tradition’? Well, I’m not a sociologist, but if I may offer a layman’s definition just for the sake of our discussion: Tradition is the values, institutions, networks and rituals which constitute our socio-cultural identity. And it is for this reason that tradition is so central to the identity and function of any society. The values, institutions, networks and rituals which make up the tradition we wish to maintain are intimately connected to every aspect of our daily lives.
My youngest son is two, and already he has a clear understanding of the difference between boys and girls. He can play rough and tumble with his mates, but he must be more gentle and respectful with his female friends. He understands that he can mess around on my living room carpet, but when in church, or at nursery, he’s already learnt in that setting to sit quietly and listen. The values, institutions, networks and rituals that constitute our tradition and our culture directly impact every aspect of life, and hence form the framework and structures necessary for my two year old to learn how to behave and have fruitful relationships with other people.
The problem, however, is this: precisely because tradition is connected to every aspect of our daily lives, as the world around us changes the traditions we wish to maintain will unavoidably undergo change also. Take, for example, the British countryside: I’m sure that all of us here value our countryside and would wish to see it maintained. However, what does that mean for your attitude toward developments in farm technology?
While all of us want to see the countryside protected, we’re not Amish peasants are we? Advocating the complete rejection of machinery such as tractors, combine harvesters, or seeders. Yet at the same time, I consider it likely that many here would value the preservation of traditional skills such as horsemanship and some traditional forms of pest-control such as fox-hunting.
So tradition is connected to every aspect of daily lives, and daily lives are constantly changing, but can you see the problem this raises? If change is happening all the time, and all traditions are deeply connected to such change, then at some point you need to decide what it is about the tradition that you want to keep. Traditionalists are constantly faced with the challenge of deciding what is the core of the tradition we seek to protect and what is the husk that we’re happy to see fall away? Why are horsemanship and fox-hunting part of the core you may wish to protect, but hand and ox-drawn ploughs are something you’re prepared to let go?
Conservativism: a methodology in need of an ideology
Koyzis, a North American Christian social scientist, puts this in very straightforward terms when he describes the conservative dilemma. In a world of change, the big question facing all conservatives is this: What is it that we wish to conserve? (1)
Koyzis takes this observation a step further to argue that that question reveals something about the nature of conservatism, and the point he makes is this: conservatism is not itself an ideology. You see an ideology, such as mine – Evangelical, Protestant, and Anglican – is a fixed set of ideas, hence the term ideology. It is an ideology encapsulated by the 39 Articles very well:
Articles 1-5 give the substance of that ideology: there is one God in three persons. The second person, the Son of God became man, died for my sins and rose again.
Articles 6-8 give the rule of that ideology – the Bible is God’s Word and man’s ultimate authority, and contains everything needed for salvation.
Articles 9-18 give the personal implications of that ideology – I am a sinner, deserving of God’s anger. Jesus faced that anger for me on the cross. So when I start trusting in him I am forgiven, and as I keep trusting in him I am transformed.
Articles 19-39 give the corporate life of that ideology – the church, the ministry, the sacraments, the state are all there to point me to Christ and faith in him; not to replace him or usurp him.
That is an ideology, a fixed set of ideas, and wherever you go in the world “Evangelical, Protestant, and Anglican” means that fixed set of ideas (or at least it should do, which is why Cranmer wrote them down). In contrast, conservatism is not an ideology. Conservatism is the attitude that wishes to conserve something that already exists. And so, Koyzis argues, whether you’re a conservative or a liberal depends on the status quo where and when you are.
In the UK I am a conservative because: I value freedom of speech and thought, I value individual privacy and freedom, and I value a free market (2). In the UK, those are pre-existing values developed from our Christian heritage which I wish to conserve. But in Iran, or Saudi Arabia I might be labelled a liberal for holding those same views because their inherited tradition is different.
So conservatism is not itself an ideology, because unlike “Evangelical, Protestant and Anglican,” it’s not in and of itself connected to a fixed set of ideas, which means that, in a world of change, the conservative attitude doesn’t make any sense unless it is coupled with a consistent, underlying, ideology. When deciding what it is you wish to conserve, when deciding what the core and the husk of tradition is, you have to ask yourself: what is it that I really believe?
The CofE in its formularies as a conservative institution
Now, Archbishop Cranmer recognised the crucial importance of this question. So much so, that the English Prayer Book itself begins by discussing it. Cranmer writes:
“It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her Publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.”
In other words, at the English Reformation, Cranmer acknowledges right at the beginning of his project that you must maintain tradition but at the same time allow for ongoing change. He describes this as keeping the mean between two extremes, and Cranmer goes on to explain the conservative rationale for being suspicious of change:
“For, as on the one side common experience sheweth, that where a change hath been made of things advisedly established (no evident necessity so requiring) sundry inconveniences have thereupon ensued; and those many times more and greater than the evils, that were intended to be remedied by such change…”
In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If there’s no good reason to change something, then don’t! Because most of the time you generate worse problems by doing so. I believe a form of this argument shall be made by most of the speakers here today.
At the same time, Cranmer allows for the judicious and wise application of change:
“So on the other side, the particular Forms of Divine worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein, being things in their own nature indifferent, and alterable, and so acknowledged; it is but reasonable, that upon weighty and important considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein, as to those that are in place of Authority should from time to time seem either necessary or expedient.”
So Cranmer does allow for change, but notice the language he uses to describe such change. He wishes it to be “reasonable”, which means that the reasons to consider change must be “weighty and important”. He recognises that such reasons arise in a changing world on account of the “various exigency of times and occasions”. Change should not be an individual’s prerogative but should be a corporate decision made by those in “Authority”. And the bar for accepting change is set very high: is a suggested change “necessary” or “expedient”?
So, it seems to me on my reading of the Prayer Book that Cranmer adopts a philosophy of tradition and change and a methodological approach that is in the best sense conservative. But of course, since conservatism is not itself an ideology that leaves us with the question: how does Cranmer separate the core from the husk? As a conservative, how does he decide what to conserve?
Well, Cranmer goes on in the Preface to give his apology for the Book of Common Prayer:
“Alterations as were tendered to by us (by what persons, under what pretences, or to what purpose soever so tendered) as seemed to us in any degree requisite or expedient, we have willingly and of our own accord assented unto: not enforced so to do by any strength of Argument, convincing us of the necessity of making the said Alternations: For we are fully persuaded in our judgements (and we here profess it to the world) that the Book, as it stood before established by Law, doth not contain in it any thing contrary to the Word of God, or to sound Doctrine, or which a godly man may not with a good Conscience use and submit unto, or which is not fairly defensible against any that shall oppose the same; if it shall be allowed such just and favourable construction as in common Equity ought to be allowed to all human Writings, especially such as are set forth by Authority, and even to the very best translations of the holy Scripture itself.”
Now, let me unpack that for you! Cranmer stresses in the strongest possible terms that the ultimate source of ideology, the ultimate arbiter of what to conserve and what to change, is the Word of God. Listen to the emphasis that he puts on that point: all changes, “by what persons, under what pretences, to what purpose soever so tendered…”
It doesn’t matter who made the change or when they made the change or why they made the change. The decision for keeping it or not was made on the basis of God’s Word. Yes, Cranmer acknowledges that the Prayer Book is just a human piece of writing, but it has been given to the country by people in Authority and put together in light of the very best translations of the holy scripture itself, and Cranmer’s understanding of what that holy scripture says is laid out in the 39 Articles I summarised earlier.
Cranmer is a conservative – he draws his ideology from the Bible and the ideology he finds there is the Evangelical, Protestant, Anglican faith as described in the 39 Articles. That is the core of the English Church. Friends: can I please commend Cranmer’s reasoning to you.
Re-establishing the centrality of the Bible in church and state
The Church of England has become a liberalising institution precisely because the church has forgotten its moorings in scripture and the Protestant faith that it teaches. The state is increasingly liberal, and our inherited tradition is decaying, precisely because the country has forgotten its moorings in scripture and the Protestant faith that it teaches. However, if you seek to solve this problem by disestablishing the Church of England you’ll only serve to accelerate this decline, not to remedy it.
The solution is for the church, the country, and the conservative party to put the Bible and the Protestant faith back at the centre of what they do. Only then will we rightly identify the core and the husk, and only then will we protect the substance of our inherited tradition.
Now, let me try and unpack some of this argument for you from a real world example. Take Boris Johnson’s argument in the Independent last week, when he described marriage as being a relic of the Stone Age. (3)
Johnson is well known for being a keen monarchist: well monarchy was the earliest form of government, and Neolithic tribes were either ruled by a tribal chief or had some system of collective decision making, so democracy and monarchy are also Stone Age relics! Yes they’ve undergone some changes over time – as has marriage. The point is, my question to Johnson would be: why do you want to conserve one Stone Age relic but change another?
Conservatism is not an ideology, so what is Johnson’s ideology? Why do I think that marriage is worth keeping? Very simple: it’s in our Keep Marriage Special campaign – because the Bible tells me so. Conservatism is not itself an ideology, it is a methodology that needs ideological underpinning. Both the church and the state need to reclaim their biblical, Protestant ideology. Currently that ideology is at least enshrined in our constitutional make-up, in the establishment of the English church, and her Protestant formularies.
But let me ask you: if you are calling for the disestablishment of the Church of England, what ideology do you expect to replace it? Islam? Atheism? Buddhism? Hinduism?
Now I’m not going to go into a detailed apologia for Christianity above those other worldviews here, but I would argue this: the Christian ideology has one thing over and above them, and that is that it has proven itself in the history of our country. It has proven itself to be valuable and worthy. I’ve argued that conservatism is a philosophy of tradition and change, not an ideology in and of itself. I’ve argued that the CofE in its formularies has such a conservative philosophy of change. But conservatism needs that ideological underpinning, and the best thing for it is the Christian heritage bequeathed to us by our ancestors. The underlying ideology of the English church and the English state has been the Protestant religion as taught in the Christian Scriptures, and so I’d encourage you to keep reading your Bibles, and to go your local Anglican church and get involved.
PETER MYERS is a member of the Council of the Church Society
1. David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2003), 72-96.
2. There was some discussion at conference regarding whether the valuing of a free market is a truly conservative value. Please note the use of the indefinite article here. I value a free market, not necessarily the free market.
3. Boris Johnson, “Boris Johnson: I’m in favour of gay marriage and I can’t see what all the fuss is about,” n.p. [cited 1 Nov 2012]. Online: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/boris-johnson-im-in-favour-o…. Notice that the subtitle of the piece read: “In so far as marriage is a legal and secular recognition, by the state, of a union between two people, then that institution needs to move with the times.” Johnson’s claim presupposes the assertion that marriage is essentially a secular institution, which illustrates the point made in this address that a consistently conservative protection of British tradition must be underpinned by Christian doctrine and ideology. See http://www.keepmarriagespecial.org.uk/main/why-kms.
What’s wrong with Britain’s Right?
Today, we are looking at traditions, and thinking of ways to ensure there will be some kind of future for some of the things of the past. As part of this, I will be making many negative observations about the British Right – so before I do so I need to make some explanatory remarks.
I should start by defining “Right”, because it’s a vague term, and one that is fought over – normally by people who are trying not be called Rightwing! I mean people – of any party, or no party – who believe that there is such a thing as inborn human nature which contains bad as well as good traits, that people and peoples are born different, that while their nature can be modified it can never be changed completely – and that these differences ought to be celebrated rather than condemned.
From this flows almost everything that defines the conservative mind – belief in the impossibility of ever achieving equality – a preference for local identities and traditions over abstract aspirations – a dislike of dishonest demagoguery and politically correct pantomime politics.
Most of the cleverest and pleasantest people I have ever met fall into this category – and even when they are not clever or pleasant, rightwingers are at least interesting! People on the Left often manage the quite remarkable feat of being at the same time highly passionate – and incredibly boring!
My qualifications – such as they are – for speaking on this subject are about 20 years of writing for and editing conservative publications of one kind or another. In that time, I have met and mixed with all kinds of “Rightwingers” – Conservative peers and MPs, academics and journalists, UKIP politicians, members of smaller parties, American and European New Right thinkers, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, pagans and atheists. I have no party political axe to grind, and try always to see the best in things and in people, even when I don’t agree with them. My comments are intended to be constructive. Finally, I do not exempt myself from my own criticisms – I have done and said foolish things, and may do so again.
It’s often thought – even by conservatives – that Britain is a conservative country – a place where relaxed commonsense prevails, a place protected from revolution not only by the English Channel, but by something in the national character itself.
The events of this summer seem to bear this out – the huge, happy crowds that turned out in the rain for the Diamond Jubilee, then avidly followed the achievements of Team GB at the Olympics. On all kinds of issues, British public opinion, across all classes and backgrounds, alternates between moderately conservative and strongly reactionary. This is reflected in decades of opinion polls, influential rightwing print media, and a century of election results which have returned the Conservative Party again and again to power, and in recent years given UKIP 12 MEPs. There was even a time – in the far off days before New Labour – when the Conservatives were said to be “the natural party of government”.
And yet – despite all this – the Britain of 2012 is almost completely unlike that of 1912, or 1952, or 1992, or even 2002. Change is inevitable, not all traditions can be saved, and some don’t deserve to be saved – but this allegedly conservative country is undergoing a kind of permanent revolution. Everything has become a cultural battleground, and there is less and less distinction between the public and private spheres of life. Views that were once considered “loony Left” have become the centre ground – and views that were once considered simply conservative have consequently become “far Right”.
The monarchy has survived somehow, but this merely obscures the fact that Britain is becoming in every other way a foreign land, almost literally “Another Country” – a place where the edifices of a great past are inhabited by an increasingly disunited population ruled by an increasingly intrusive government. On just about every indicator, the great party of state which promised to conserve Britain’s independence and identity has proved itself unequal to the task.
The basic reason is that although the Conservatives have often been in office, they have very rarely been in power. More often than not, Conservative governments – even when they have large majorities, and under strong-minded leaders – have wasted opportunities and even undercut their own causes. The Conservative Party is a formidable machine for winning elections, but having won them it usually doesn’t know what to do next.
The only time an incoming Conservative administration had a really clear idea of what it wanted to do was in 1979 – and the Thatcherite programme was only partly conservative. The free-market ideologues were right that economic radicalism was needed, but in some ways, and in some parts of the country, the programme went too far, and too fast. All that dismantling and asset-stripping should have been accompanied by new social building to unite the people in a post-imperial purpose. Unfortunately, some 1980s Conservatives were more interested in directorships than the national direction.
Then there were the things the Thatcher governments didn’t do. Except in the area of economics, they reversed few or none of the laws that had been introduced by Labour. The former Thatcher adviser Sir Alfred Sherman called this “the ratchet effect”, whereby policies generally only ever travel in one direction, no matter who happens to be occupying Downing Street.
In this respect, Mrs. Thatcher was less guilty than her predecessors. In 1951, when Churchill came back as Prime Minister, he told his son-in-law that his government’s programme would consist of “Houses and meat and not being scuppered”. Fast forward twenty years, and so similar were Ted Heath and Harold Wilson that Enoch Powell dismissed the 1970 election as a contest “between a man with a boat and a man with a pipe”.
Even more disastrously, the Thatcherites almost completely ignored the remorseless rise of political correctness, especially in education and the broadcast media. There was a lazy assumption that if you gave people economic opportunities, they would magically turn into social conservatives. As Lady Thatcher said when she was PM, “Economics is just the method. I want to change people’s souls”. As we know, this never happened – and there was never any prospect of it happening. Economics follows culture, not the other way around. Economics win elections, but culture wins wars.
One of the chief Conservative failings is a chronic lack of interest in ideas and culture. Sometimes it is more than a lack of interest, but actually a kind of phobia. I have met a Tory activist who BOASTED that he knew nothing about modern art! I have met people who told me proudly they had never read Marx, and never would. I have encountered people who reach for the smelling salts at the sound of non-classical music, or when someone says “Hi” instead of “Hello”. I remember meeting Ted Heath’s former secretary in the early 1990s, who revealed she hadn’t been to the cinema since Gone With The Wind. I was once contacted by a gentleman who wanted help with his anti-television campaign group. I told him as kindly as I could that perhaps the world wasn’t ready for a group called “Down with the Devil’s Tabernacle”!
For too long the Conservative Party has simply trusted to the patriotic commonsense of crowds – and this is tolerable so long as the culture is healthy. But crowds are made up of individuals who look at the web, watch TV, listen to the radio, read publications and go to schools suffused with concepts inimical to conservatism and even civilization. It is unreasonable to expect people to remain dependable unless they are given intellectual ammunition and cultural renewal. Just the other day, it was announced that under the present Conservative-led government, five times more Labour supporters than Conservative supporters had been appointed to public bodies. The Conservatives always play the game – and they almost always lose.
The Thatcher governments had to deal with the grossly irresponsible trade unions, but they should have somehow also found the time to encourage conservative values in all areas of society. In between the dreary pamphlets on rent reform or who should run the telephone network, where were the discussions of ecology, equality, the historic crimes of Communism, the future for the Church of England, the nature of Western civilization, family life, folk traditions, the hereditary principle and the House of Lords, immigration, manners, multiculturalism, PC censorship…the list goes on? It was a disastrous failure of imagination. Business backers would give money to individual politicians or to election war-chests, but there was no systematic investment in ideas.
Even on the very rare occasions Conservatives do try to play hard-edged cultural politics, it is almost always in reaction to an enemy offensive. Conservatives almost never initiate campaigns – the attacking army therefore has the advantage of surprise and has built up morale and momentum before the defenders have even noticed war has begun. Attackers always have some hope of attaining their objective – whereas all defenders can ever hope for is to stave off defeat for a while.
With honourable exceptions, Conservative politicians do not seem to have the stomach for fighting. Perhaps they are distracted by constituency or party business, or maybe they are just too comfortably ensconced in the power structure. But it could be simply that they don’t believe they can win. It would be hardly surprising if they felt this, because conservatives haven’t won very much in the last sixty years.
By contrast, many on the Left are obsessively focused – once someone or something is in their sights, they simply will not stop until they have destroyed them. Being simplistic and sharply moralistic, their ecstatic worldview has an inbuilt manic energy. As W B Yeats said in his 1919 poem The Second Coming - “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
The worst are also shrewd. If they are not immediately successful, they will change their tactics. This is why the Fabian Society adopted as its logo an image of a wolf in sheep’s clothing – to signify the Left’s tactical flexibility. They are usually happy to take two steps forward and one back – whereas many conservatives would rather die than adapt. In some ways, they are the opposite of Fabians – they are sheep in wolves’ clothing.
Occasionally, some Tory MP will become outraged by some news story, and he will announce that he is to found a campaign group to fight whatever it is that has annoyed him. This group will have a high-profile initial meeting – and then it will never be heard of again. Sometimes they don’t even have a high-profile initial meeting! On the rare occasions a traditionalist group, like the old Monday Club, shows some sign of life, it is immediately disowned or even attacked by the Party leadership.
It is a devastating indictment of the Conservative Party that there is often fiercer opposition to the Left shown by the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph than all Conservative MPs combined. It would be fascinating to see what would happen if the Conservative Party were ever to launch a systematic and determined campaign against some leftwing institution, or personality, or even some PC article of faith. It is extraordinary that they have never once tried.
But maybe it is not so extraordinary – because conservatives have a backward-looking, melancholic imagination. There is often a presumption that the present is nowhere near as good as the past – and the future is likely to be incomprehensible as well as appalling. My favourite future-phobic quote comes from the 18th century Irish Tory MP Sir Boyle Roche – ”All along the untrodden footpaths of the future, I can see the footprints of an unseen hand.”
Conservatives are half in love with losing. They write books with titles like The Abolition of Britain – or England: An Elegy. It is what the novelist Rose Macaulay called The Pleasure of Ruins – a bittersweet satisfaction at being surrounded by decay, standing like the Last Man on Earth amidst the mounds of a fallen city.
Now it is a salutary and noble thing to imagine oneself into the past, to see oneself in historical context – to empathize with those who have come and gone before you. I spend an awful lot of my own life footling around in medieval churches and manor houses, or following forgotten roads through vanished villages! But I am realistic enough to know that this sort of activity can never form the basis of a practical programme.
Others are less practical – like the lady who wanted me to publish an article recommending that women should have the vote taken away from them. Then there was the man who wanted to launch a campaign to reinstate Istanbul’s old name of Constantinople – and then send in the tanks to recapture it for Christendom!
Some of you may recall New Labour’s election song of 1997 – “Things Can Only Get Better”. It was a cheesy track, and based on an obvious lie – but as a song it worked a lot better than the implicit Conservative anthem, Things Can Only Get Worse!
There are many Conservative faults to choose from! But Conservatives are at least pragmatic and practical. They know that politics is a messy business where compromises have to be made. They know that political parties are coalitions – and that sometimes you need to work with people you disagree with, or even dislike. They may not like what their leaders say sometimes, but they know that sometimes things have to be said, and motions gone through. Just because something is said that doesn’t mean anything is going to be done. Even now, in its decline, the Conservative Party still attracts people of intellect and integrity – there are many impressive young backbenchers – and for the foreseeable future it is likely to remain the default defender of conservative causes. And yet even now there is no effective social conservative caucus active within the party.
Beyond the Conservative Party is UKIP. UKIP has traditionally been a party of last resort for Conservatives who feel that something has gone badly wrong with everything, and that these problems stem largely, or even completely, from the UK’s membership of the EU. UKIP does attract former members of other parties, but it is still mostly a kind of Tory Party in exile.
Historically, it has been prone to unusually vicious infighting, but these problems have abated. Its chief tactical problem now is of course the Westminster voting system. For the foreseeable future it is likely to remain operating chiefly at European Parliament level. This means they will remain largely invisible to British voters, because British voters understandably have a very low opinion of what takes place in that building!
UKIP has some deeper problems. It has a narrow leadership base. The party has been trying hard to develop policies in all kinds of areas, but it is still effectively a single-issue party. There is no UKIP think-tank, and they have simply not thought deeply enough about the problems facing Britain. Many members appear to believe that simply exiting the EU would be a panacea – magically restoring Britain to an Ealing Comedy type utopia, where steam trains full of squires rush past palaces.
Some of its members do espouse a bilious anti-Europeanness – as if Britain were not itself a part of European civilization. A minority of UKIP members is also still fighting the Second World War. There are frequent references to the EU as some kind of Fourth Reich – a liberal front for Nazism that has survived in secret for 70 years, no doubt availing of the famous airbases in the Antarctic! They point to similarities of rhetoric between Nazi and EU politicians, and some continuity of bureaucrat, and they add these two things together to make three hundred. There is clearly an element of nostalgia in their constantly harking back to that period when the enemy was so obvious, and Britain was genuinely Great. They appear unable to distinguish between German individuals who benefit from the EU, and Germany as a whole, which does not. They are also apparently unable to distinguish between the EU’s shambolic managerialism and the unspeakable crimes of the Nazis.
A smaller subset of UKIP members sees the EU as a new USSR. This is a more plausible argument, and it has been made by considerable thinkers like Vladimir Bukovsky – but to me this seems overblown. There is a massive qualitative difference between Bolshevism, and the EU’s variant of liberalism. It is the difference between viciousness and well-meaning foolishness. The origins and nature of both simply cannot be compared. The aims and even some of the effects may be the same, but to date the EU has not even been able to develop a common foreign policy, let alone sent in armoured columns into countries to impose pliable regimes.
But UKIP is capably led, and seems to have developed a steady base of support. There have been times when the UKIP vote in a Westminster election has meant Conservatives losing seats. This is why there are growing calls for a Tory-UKIP electoral pact. Such a pact is unlikely, but if it happened it would be perilous for UKIP, much of whose support derives from its being a non-establishment party. Yet a party cannot always be simply a party of protest; at some stage, UKIP will need to stoop in an attempt to conquer. At that moment, it will suffer as Nick Clegg’s pointless party has suffered by its dalliance with the Tories – and it will need strong nerves to survive.
A survey of this kind would be incomplete without a brief look at the smaller parties that occasionally crop up on the fringes of the Right. They only merit a brief look, because in the scheme of things none have had much impact. Like UKIP, they also suffer from the first past the post electoral system – unlike UKIP, when they do get opportunities they waste them.
They arise as a reaction to Conservative ineptitude, and briefly attract some disgruntled Conservatives. Their fortunes therefore depend partly on how cleverly the Conservative Party manages its Right wing. The National Front famously collapsed when Margaret Thatcher made her famous comments about being “swamped” by immigration – a subject to which she apparently never gave a second thought. But these parties are also generally badly led, and many of the talented and respectable people they attract usually leave very soon afterwards – deterred by these parties’ paranoia, refusal to reward talent and patent lack of seriousness.
The Left and the media often misrepresent these parties, and I wish to avoid cheap jibes – but the truth is that these parties really do attract more than their fair share of cranks, dreamers, egomaniacs and fanatics. Awkward or socially gauche people who can’t find a political home elsewhere often drift into parties of this kind – attracted by the fact that these parties are so hated and persecuted. Their marginal personalities then reinforce the marginal nature of these parties. It is an un-virtuous circle of ever increasing irrelevance.
These parties have little or no practical streak, and they also tend to offer strange answers to simple questions. I once received a letter from someone belonging to one of these parties who told me that the Jews and the Rosicrucians ran the world – that I must know this – and that therefore I was being a coward by not telling everyone. His accusation of cowardice might have carried more weight if he hadn’t signed his letter “Nimrod”!
So what is the future for the traditionalist Right? Much will depend on external, unpredictable factors – what Macmillan called “Events, dear boy, events”! There are all kinds of possible scenarios, especially if the economic bad times continue. The economic, social and cultural hollowing-out of the last several decades has advanced to the extent that it may be incurable. The postwar political model of ever-widening-welfare plus ever-laxer-liberalism was funded by centuries of accumulated social capital and industrial might, which has now been largely squandered. It is very difficult to see how the postwar model can be salvaged – not that it should be! The likely radical restructuring of all Western societies will present opportunities for those ready to avail of them – and at any moment some hitherto unknown individual or party could appear and turn everything upside down.
But whether the future is one of revolutionary or only incremental change, traditionalists should be cooperating, sharpening their thinking, and improving their practices and presentation. The failures of the Western political system are the failures of the Left as much as mainstream conservatism, and the more intelligent among the young are now seeing this. The Left once had a purpose – sometimes a noble one – but now it is shorthand for boring bourgeois conformism, and its politically correct belief-system is nothing more than a neurotic religion. The Right now has an opportunity to seize the intellectual initiative, with an attractively-expressed, forward-looking philosophy that can capture intelligent people’s imaginations. It may be logically inconsistent with some understandings of conservatism, but we need to oppose inspiring ideas with inspiring ideas, and realistic programmes with realistic programmes.
Today, it is the Left that is obscurantist and establishmentarian – and the Old Right that is radical, that goes back to first principles. It is we who really believe in celebrating differences, and fighting for them in the face of the world. It is our side that believes in diversity over sameness – in celebrating distinctions – in quality over equality – in pride over shame – and freedom over group-think. This is a powerful and positive message, and if we can only find a way to promote it, we might even yet turn the tide, and carry something of the great past forward into a much better future.
DEREK TURNER is the editor of the Quarterly Review
Can Americans be conservative?
America has more in common with Britain, in general, and England, in particular, than with any other nation. And yet, when I travel here, I’m reminded of the power of national differences, particularly when it come to something I’ll be talking about today – mentality.
There’s an old story about an Arabian prince, who in an effort at Occidental outreach, brought over three Westerner thinkers and scholars to his home in the desert, inviting them to write a full, definitive account of…his camel.
He first brought a Frenchman over, who after spending a few days with the prince, returned to Paris, and one afternoon, after enjoying a meal of three-hours duration, wrote a brisk 800-word feuilleton, relating a humorous anecdote about the camel’s stubborn personality and the sumptuousness of Persian women he happened into along journey. Disappointed, the Prince then brought over an Englishman, who after completing exhaustive empirical studies of the camel’s bowl movements, eventually published a nine-volume study on the weights and measures of in- and out-takes. These volumes sat unread in the British Library. Still unsatisfied, the Prince then hired a German…who didn’t bother traveling to Arabia, but remained in Berlin where he wrote a tract entitled The Spirit of Camel-ness in its Dialectical Confrontation with World History.
Though my talk today is entitled “The conservative tradition in America”, Derek got my mind working by asking me a provocative question, “Can Americans be conservative?”
I hate to give the game away this early on, but I’ll mention that my answer to that question is a convinced and emphatic…NO!
What I’m saying might surprise many here. I’m aware that many Europeans and Britons look with a certain yearning on America, as a “Centre Right” nation, a land without official speech codes, and where national identity can still be enthusiastically asserted without a bad conscience. One might think it also strange for me to be taking this position, since there are so many self-styled “conservatives” who live in America. Indeed, according to numerous polls, Americans identify with “conservative” more than any other political ideology.
This is also a strange position for me to take, since, not only am I American, but I’ve always reacted instinctively against shrill left-wing anti-American tirades. And, of course, there are so many wonderful people in America; and its natural landscape remains, despite the strip malls and endless suburbs, a kind of undiscovered country of unparalleled beauty and ruggedness.
The fact remains, however, that the United States of America is based on a perverse meta-political ideal, encapsulated by, but not limited to, the “self-evident truths” laid down in its Independence Declaration: that “all men are created equal,” and that governments, or at least proper one, are brought into existence by the population in order to guarantee their so-called natural “rights.”
This constellation of notions has culminated in a kind of political short-hand, which you’ll hear at most every political inauguration; it was iterated most recently by the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate—and in a way with which Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan would concur: America is, in Paul Ryan’s word, “not a place” (!) “but an idea”.
One could say that this “all men are created equal” stuff is mere rhetoric, and point to things like the obvious defensive racial consciousness among American whites in so many instances, as well as major immigration acts, in the 1790s and 1920s, which defined newcomers explicitly as white, northern Europeans. One could even look at, for instance, the racialist views of Abraham Lincoln, who is known as the liberator of slaves but also desired to “recolonize” them back to Africa.
But I’ve always had a certain Hegelian turn of mind. I think we can understand something by its outcome – that there are certain impulses and implications and founding ideas that only become clear later on, ironically, when the entity has reached its end point. “The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk.”
The fact is, in 2012, the United States has achieved the most robust and most popular civic religion that explicitly denies its national identity as English and Northern European. This ideological and spiritual denial is equally – maybe even more – devastating than the actual destruction of the founding stock through mass immigration. Other countries might have negative national consciousnesses – Germans, for instance, may have internalized de-Nazification – but they are, nevertheless, still self-consciously Germans. Americans are, on the contrary, nothing…they’re always starting over…they like to think that they have an unbounded future, but only at the cost of never having a past.
Again, some might chalk up “Proposition Nationhood” to some rhetorical flourishes of Enlightened, deist Founders; but to the contrary, the 2Americanism” I’m describing goes back deeper than the Declaration and defines the “storybook” history of so many of the religious dissenters and zealots who chose to leave their homelands, cultures, and extended families in order to create what they hoped would be a “new Israel” on the North American continent. These are the kind of people who, in their foundational documents, expressed the desire to escape the cultures and social systems of their homelands. What we call “tradition,” they called “corruption.”
America, put simply, is not a country to be imitated; for radical traditionalists, it stands as a great challenge to be overcome, or maybe one could say a great temptation.
Most importantly, in asking the American Question – and answering it – we can get at a bigger question, “Who Are We?” (And I hope you’ll bear with me as I depart slightly from the topic at hand for a meta-political excursion.)
Now, we can reach a reasonable consensus on “Who We Are” when it comes to things like history and biology; we can talk about the historical formations of states and regional identities; we can talk about our membership in the extended family of Indo-European peoples. But in raising the American Question, what I hope to get at is something that is often covered by the terms “mentality,” “worldview,” or even “ideology.” Here, I don’t mean ideology in the sense of a closed, utopian philosophic system but as a mostly unconscious caste of mind – how one thinks, before one starts to think about something. One could say that you have an ideology whether you like or not; or, you might not want to think about ideology, but it’s thinking for you! There is always some kind of grounding to one’s thinking, whether these presuppositions are recognized and acknowledged or not depends on the person.
When modern people take up this issue of “mindedness” in politics, they usually have an image in their minds that looks something like a horizontal axis, stretching from Socialism to Freedom. I call this “slide-rule” ideology. Conservatism is, as Goldilocks might say, “just right”: avoiding impossible anarchy, it nonetheless, values human liberty.
Some have created slightly more complicated little charts, such as one I’ve seen with an X and Y axis: the first goes from socialism to freedom; the second, from social freedom to social control. Conservatism want economic freedom but social control (they don’t want everyone running around with same-sex partners and getting tattoos and such); Communists desire social and economic control; leftists want economic but no social control; libertarians are pure anti-control freaks, etc.
I find charts like these entirely unsatisfactory. Indeed, they are expressions, in themselves, of liberal ideology, in which meta-politics is understood in terms of policy abstractions. Slide-rules don’t explain why people become rightist, nor do they offer a adequate basis for conservatism.
More important, for our purposes here, saying that one supports “limited government,” “free markets,” or “the Constitution” (i.e., legality) doesn’t actually express an ideal at all; doing this only expresses the preconditions for an ideal. One could easily imagine a society – one which had minimal government that followed the Constitution to the letter – whose entire economy was based on people selling one another scatological pornography. (Perhaps this describes our current economy!?) Whatever the case, there has to be a There there; conservatism must have something to conserve.
A similar “slide rule” problem comes into effect when conservatism essentially means that one wants to return to…insert where appropriate…the 1980s…the 1950s…before the World Wars…the Victorian period…the Middle Ages…Classical Greece…or, I guess, eventually the Stone Age!
In this kind of thinking, conservatism becomes an ideology of a stop along the way. If it were even possible to rewind the video player to an earlier stage of history— whether the ‘80s, the ‘50s, or even the Stone Age—there no reason to believe that we wouldn’t end up at exactly the same place, that the narrative wouldn’t follow the script. Conservatives are, as Mark Twain quipped, always defending someone else’s revolution; the Soviet leader Brezhnev is a kind of conservative, as is Barack Obama, in his way.
Our task as traditionalist, in the proper sense, is to be “radicals” – to search for and uncover the ultimate source and root of the current crisis.
Before we even talk about America, we should look at the very basis of the Right – those things that are so primal and essential to our nature that we can barely articulate them. (Here I should point out that though I recognize some have experienced mid-life conversions, generally one’s worldview is set in place very early, indeed, before one is even born.)
I don’t think that both Left and Right are merely residues from the seating arrangements in the French revolutionary parliament (and thus products of the Enlightenment and liberalism.) I find that both, as it were, are eternal impulses, which can mutate over the centuries but seem to spring from a constant source.
The essence of the Right is inequality. This derives from the tension at its heart. On the one hand, the Right is defined by what we could call peculiar attachment: the Rightist doesn’t love “the world” or “all mankind”; he loves his people, his family, his people, his country, his friends. The power of this attachment could lead Confucius or Confederate General Robert E. Lee to surmise that “duty” and “loyalty” are two of the most sublime words in the language. In a certain sense, the Rightist is a collectivist (I’m sure this will dismay our libertarian friends); we recognize that something doesn’t come from nothing, that the part doesn’t make sense outside of the whole.
The other side of the Rightist dialectic is an urging for something dominant, something higher, something beyond one’s self that can’t be rationalized or assimilated: Beauty, the Gods (the Big Others), and the birthing of Heroes. The tension in both of these aspects of the Right is what Nietzsche called the pathos of distance, the incommensurable natures of High and Low or Us and Them.
The Left, on the other hand, is, at its essence, about equality. Its own eternal dialectic is between, on the one hand, “oneness,” most powerfully expressed by the Left’s quintessential thinker, Baruch Spinoza and his one substance doctrine, equating body and spirit, world and God. Whether through democracy, social and economic leveling, mass culture – eventually, global culture – the dream is that one day The All shall be The One.
The other side of the Left’s dialectic is something I actually find quite admirable – that is, the impulse that everything – the entire Chain of Being, from the sparrow to the king – is worthy of protection and care.
These meta-political cores, as I’ve tried to articulate them, are eternal. They remain while various ideologies can undergo baffling mutations and reversals – in the case of the Left, from backing the working class to the non-Western Third World and the “Rising Tide of Color” and finally towards seemingly contradictory, non-Leftist policies of global capitalism and environmental conservation.
In describing Right and Left as such, I am no Manichean; I don’t believe that one day there will be one Final Victory of one over the other. Indeed, I think the continued existence of Left and Right serves a vital role group evolution, at least in the West: the Right stood for the right of the strong to dominate; the Left, stood for the cohesion of the community. Aryan peoples needed both of those impulses to flourish, whether it be when our ancestors survived the Ice Age or created complex societies.
Keeping with the evolutionary theme, Left and Right could even be thought of not simply as ideas and ideals, but as eternally recurring human types. There’s a certain wisdom to the idea that one knows a Leftist when one sees him – or smells him, in some cases…
Perhaps at this point, many of you are asking what all this has to do with America! Well, what I’m trying to lead us to think about is how America and “Americanism” function in the meta-political structure I’ve sketched out.
To begin, we should bring the discussion to an even more basic level, or, one might say, a dumber level, of discourse. We should ask, “What does the Right look like in Europe and America? What are the Right’s symbols and clichés, its watchwords and memes?”
To get at this, I would invite you to do a kind of Google image search in your mind on the key words, “traditional Britain.” The not-too-surprising results of an actual Google image I did recently yielded the Queen at #1, followed closely by plates heaped with bacon, egg, and beans (the English breakfast). Further down were red telephone booths, double-decker buses, and Buckingham Palace. (A similar search for “traditional Germany” yielded lederhosen and blonde women serving beer.)
Tradition – the Right – in its most basic manifestations are about home and attachment, authority and honor. In these images of sovereignty – vestiges of the medieval order and absolutist regimes that arose in the 17th century – one can even glimpse the traditional status of the leader as a bridge to the divine.
Now, if we turn our sights to America, there are certainly some analogues to British peculiarity, such as the western cowboy and the now-iconic apple pie. However, in its basic meta-political imagery, the United States comes from a different planet.
The Right in America is – in this deliberately cliched manner we’re looking at it – all about “Faith and Freedom”. It is defined, firstly, by Biblical Christianity. And it is vital to point out, Christianity that is fundamentally alienated from European history, European aesthetics, and, frankly, the vestiges of the pagan heritage that coexisted, convivially, with Christian religious practice for centuries.
On the other side of the coin, in lieu of sovereignty, the Right manifests itself through a kind of fetish of legality—the Constitution, “limited government”, the Supreme Court. In America, the “Founding Fathers” are revered, but not so much as authority figures as the wise designers of the world’s greatest legal mechanism. There seems to be no parallel in other Occidental cultures to the reverence of the Supreme Court, as a set of nine Talmudic Judges who, depending on your political position, will either divine the One True legal meaning or else view it as living legal will.
On one level, “Americanism” is caught in the trap of the Enlightenment idealist or naive humanitarian, who mistakes an “ought” for an “is”. (It’s easy to talk about “human rights,” it’s harder to talk about the implications of the necessity of guaranteeing them around the world.) But I don’t think you can blame this on the Enlightened deists who wrote the Constitution; it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has without a deep basis of support.
There are also strong historical and environmental factors that led Americans to be both libertarian and anti-statist. Americans immigrated to the continent as individuals or as families; they survived the undiscovered country and the the frontier, taming nature and the savages, as such. Feudalism and absolutism were absent. (In this way, movies like John Ford’s The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance constitute true American myths.)
Europeans had a vastly different collective experience in mature societies and in a mature geopolitical order, in which states confronted other states. Surrounded by enemies on all fronts, the Prussian people recognized that the nation could not survive without the state.
Religion, too, developed along different lines. In Europe, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity were spiritual manifestations of the race and civilization. Moreover, the Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches preserved Europe’s classical heritage (in many ways, in spite of the wishes of the early Christians). The Reformation was, in turn, not merely a return to the Bible but a series of national awakenings, perhaps one could say Northern liberations.
For all of this, it was necessary for Leftist revolutionary movement to be iconoclastic— to tear down Christianity. One could say that the Left has much to admire in Jesus’ teachings, as well as the general universalist, “one-ness” thrust of monotheism; but it had to attack Christianity as a European, traditionalist spiritual manifestation.
Religion in America was, to the contrary, revolutionary. One could imagine an alternative reality in which American institutions opposed the 1776 Revolution, or at least had been highly skeptical of it, urging loyalty to the mother country and mother church. Instead, the 18th century pulpit was places of revolutionary fervor. Jefferson’s Independence Declaration had resonated with—and was, indeed, continuous with— a whole series of “compact” beginnings for religious Americans, who viewed the old world as inherently corrupt and, with a spirit of Hebraic separatism, desired to “start over” in the new world.
In a nutshell, Europeans were Germans . . . Gauls . . . Russians . . . Lombards. . .Britons before they were Christians; in their national consciousness, they could remember a conversion experience. Americans, on the contrary, were Christians before they were Americans – and Christians who defined themselves by a radical break with their ancestors.
As I bring my talk to a close, perhaps it is incumbent on me to offer some hope. It is worth discussing some “alternative Americas,” paths not taken, from which we might want to learn something.
These include the rugged America of the West. I think we should also admire the WASP revolt in the 1920s, characterized by Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, who embraced natural conservationism, achieved immigration restriction, and advanced the study of human differences. At the National Policy Institute conference that was held a little over a year in Washington, DC, Tomislav Sunic made the provocative suggestion that Europe could learn something from Americans in terms of racial consciousness. Sunic views European ethnic identity as wonderful and beautiful in its way, but also as a source of unnecessary tension. There’s a price to seeing oneself as an Irishman – and anti-English—or as a Frenchman—and anti-German. I tend to agree with Sunic; however, a white lumpen mass, whose values are egalitarian and “American”, is really no better, or different, than a deracinated multi racial one.
If we are to move forward as radical traditionalists, we must confront and overcome Americanism at its very roots. In this extent, I’m inspired by the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. In 1861, he faced the prospect of victory or annihilation of his nation and fledgling state in what is now referred to as the American Civil War. In his greatest address, “The Cornerstone of the Confederacy,” he did not speak (mendaciously) about states’ rights or any kind of Constitutional right to secession. He instead cut to the heart of the social order he was opposing. He stressed that the Confederacy itself was based on the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson was dead wrong; the “cornerstone” of the new state was to be the “physical, philosophical, and moral truth” of human inequality. We, too, should compose a new Declaration— “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created unequal.”
RICHARD SPENCER is a former editor at the American Conservative, Taki’s Magazine and Alternativeright.com, and is now Executive Director at the National Policy Institute and Washington Summit Publishing (Montana, USA)
In praise of Reaction
I spent a great deal of 2010 and 2011 writing a book on reaction and seeking to understand what it meant to be a reactionary. But despite my best efforts I struggled to come across anyone who actually positively referred to themselves as a reactionary. It is much more common to be labelled a reactionary by others. People and institutions so named included the Pope and many in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church; the Prince of Wales; those who write for journals like The Quarterly Review and their readers; as well as large parts of the Conservative party. But I have also come across the label being attached to trade unionists in both the US and Britain who have taken a stand against government spending reductions and job cuts; English students protesting against increases in university tuition fees; street protestors in France arguing against changes to the retirement age; as well as senior Islamic clerics in Iran and ostensibly socialist dictators in North Africa. It seems that ‘reaction’ can be used to demonise anyone regardless of their beliefs or whether they might have anything in common with anyone else so labelled.
This recent usage is interesting because it has been more common for reactionaries to be taken as figures of fun. They are people who ignore the direction of history and insist on holding onto a bygone age. They refuse to accept things as they are. If we look at a thesaurus for cognates of reactionary, we find words such as blimpish and obscurantist. Reaction is seen almost entirely as negative. It perhaps conjures up images of old men in tweeds fulminating against the world. For those brought up on popular culture they might be reminded of the ridiculous racist bigot Alf Garnett, or more recently Al Murray’s creation of the ‘Pub Landlord’, who refuses to countenance the possibility of women drinking pints. Reactionaries are bores and bigots and there is the tendency to assume that all they do is to indulge in splenetic, spittle-flecked diatribes against the world as it is, their fists bunched and blood pressure rising as they stand by ineffectively watching the modern world carrying on regardless.
They may be something in these images: there is undoubtedly some who act just like this over their gin at the 19th hole or in their local after a pint or two. However, these are caricatures and this is not how the word is more frequently used now. Instead it applies to anyone who is opposed to change and progress. Importantly it need not matter what the changes proposed are. They might involve cuts in public services leading to job losses. But to oppose these is to be accused of reaction. It is where one places one’s own interests and worldview above all else and tries to hold onto them tenaciously and without compromise.
But I would suggest it is not the case that trade unionists or Iranian clerics are becoming more intransigent, but rather it seems that everyone now wants to be considered a progressive. So when the UK Coalition government announced its long term spending plans in October 2010, which consisted of £80 billion in cuts, the key argument that they wished to put across to the public was not that the spending plans were sensible or even workable, but that they were progressive. Indeed nearly a third of the accompanying document was taken up with an impact assessment crammed with statistics purporting to show that the wealthy would pay disproportionately more than the poor. Needless to say, the Labour opposition put much of their effort into trying to prove that the opposite was the case. The belief was that if the plans were shown not to be progressive they would somehow be seriously impaired, if not totally invalidated.
Progress is the word that everyone seems to want to own, and accordingly the insult de jour is reactionary. This instantly damns one’s opponent: they are accused of rejecting progress; instead of wanting the bright shiny optimism of the future they cling to the soiled past. How could anyone be so blinkered as to oppose change?
This generalisation of progress means that anyone can be a reactionary, whether it is ostensibly left wing trade unionists who oppose their members losing their jobs and Christians not prepared to accept changing attitudes to marriage and sexuality. Both these groups might argue that they have merely stood still and would like to continue doing what they have always done. But the situation is even more complicated than this. There are those who have stood up for what they see as enduring Western liberal values, in the face of what they see as reactionary threats, who find themselves condemned as reactionaries: one can be a reactionary because one opposes reactionary ideas, or rather, one does so in the ‘wrong’ way.
This is evident in the response to what might be termed (with a due nod to the irony of the term) ‘liberal reaction’. This is the view that Western societies, with their liberal democratic traditions based on human rights and tolerance, should not accept those elements within their society that would seek to overturn these traditions. The most significant examples of liberal reaction are the Dutch politicians Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders, who have argued against Muslim immigration on the grounds of Islam’s supposed intolerance to Europe’s post-Enlightenment values. These politicians have argued that the Dutch should not accept migrants who reject sexual and gender equality. Yet, so-called progressives on the left have taken the view that Fortuyn, an openly gay former sociology professor, was a fascist, and that Wilders was a right-wing extremist. Wilders was accordingly banned from entering the UK in 2009 on the grounds that he was a ‘threat to one of the fundamental interests of society’, namely ‘community harmony’, and that his presence might post a threat to public safety. Both these politicians have been seen as reactionary because of the manner in which they have sought to protect western liberal values by opposing multiculturalism. Indeed Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002 as a result of his public statements. Wilders, who has to have 24-hour security because of threats against him, was described in a BBC documentary in 2011 as the “most dangerous man in Europe”.
What this suggests is that there is no stereotypical reactionary. Some might indeed prefer tweeds, as well as the odd glass of something, and others might be angry at the world and fulminate against it. But there need be no commonality between reactionaries, and different commentators and thinkers will emphasise certain issues rather than others. There may be considerable disagreement between people who appear to be reactionary, and there may be little obviously in common with intellectual and populist reaction. We might suggest that fundamentalist Islam is reactionary, in terms of its attitudes towards modernity, but this does not mean that it is supported by British and European reactionaries who wish to protect what they see as a threatened Christian tradition, and nor is fundamentalism likely to be highly regarded down the pub.
But if this is so, just what does reaction consist of, and is there anything that ties these different views together? We might suggest that they simply oppose, and this would be true: reactionaries, almost by definition are against things. But this will not do as a definition. Many individuals and groups are against things – nuclear power, the death penalty, eating meat, global warming – and are as a result taken to be progressives. So we cannot just assume that simply one who opposes is a reactionary. We need to look elsewhere.
But in doing so we are faced with an immediate problem. One cannot, properly speaking, be a reactionary on principle, in the way one can be a liberal or a socialist. There is no set of readily identifiable principles marked ‘reactionary’. Reaction is not an ideology or set of beliefs (and it is this quality that allows the label to be used against so diverse a range of people and ideas). This does not mean, however, that reaction is unprincipled, opportunist or an unthinking response. We most certainly can say that it is possible to be a principled reactionary, in that we react because of the principles we have. Clearly if these particular principles were dominant then we would not be a reactionary, in that we would be in agreement with, rather than seeking to oppose, the status quo. One is a reactionary, therefore, because one is in a minority. But one is also reactionary by experience and through circumstance: we are turned into it because of what faces us, not because we are a priori reactionary. Of course, we might point to people who we know to have reacted in the past and who might well, conditions willing, do so again. But even here, this is because of a reason, not because they are reactionary per se.
One means of understanding reaction further is to appreciate what it is opposed to, namely the idea of progress. As I have intimated progress is now all around us, and even the Conservative party espouse it as one of the guiding principles. The argument in British politics is not been progressives and reactionaries, or even left and right, but over who is the most progressive.
We can portray progress as the belief that we can – and therefore should – create a better world for ourselves and those who follow us. A better future is always possible and it would cruel of us not to seek to attain it. The present is flawed, and its problems are all too manifest, and so we have a duty to remedy the faults and make something better. This might mean sacrifices now: we may have to forego some things for more and better in the future. But this, we are told, will be worth it.
Such a vision has an obvious appeal: the flaws of the present are already known, the everyday is dull and boring, but the future can be painted as exciting and full of promise: the sky is cloudless and blue and the barns are always full. Hypothetical futures have no flaws unlike the all too real present. This means that progress will always have a ready appeal and progressives can parade the more alluring arguments. Those wishing to argue for the status quo are left with the prose of the present rather than the poetry of an imagine future: like President Obama, progressives can call on hope and change, while their opponents only have the reality of daily life.
But the cult of progress does have a history. It is a key element of what we might call modernity. This I define as the idea that we can strive to attain human perfectibility. Human societies are improvable and that a utopian vision of the future is not only attainable but also necessary. Human beings, as they are currently, are just not good enough, but we can see what they might possibly be if only they could be changed in the right way. This idea of modernity, of course, dates back to the Enlightenment and was seen first in its full glory with the French Revolution. Likewise we can date the birth of what we might call reaction from this period.
The first great reactionaries – Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre – arose out of this milieu as critics of revolutionary change. Burke, in his great argument against the French Revolution and in defence of the English Constitution, stated that we should only change to correct, and that we should use those efficient parts of the Constitution to mend those that are defective. We should not seek changes from outside of our traditions, and nor should we think we can improve our lot. Burke argued that, human nature being what it is, we should not expect any improvement in morality, and that it is hubristic of us to believe we can do better than our ancestors. De Maistre argued that the Enlightenment was based on an ill-founded optimistic view of human nature. Like Burke, he saw human beings as flawed and fallen creatures who, if left to themselves, would create disorder and anarchy. Human societies depended on natural hierarchies and a strong sense of order.
Both these great thinkers argued that revolution would lead to terror and the breakdown of order and, of course, they were right. Accordingly, in place of revolution and the promise of a utopian future we should look backwards in order to understand what made us into what we are, and then to preserve those institutions. Political action should therefore be contemplative and reactive and not based on abstract possibilities. As Burke stated, a society is made up not just of the living, but the dead and yet unborn. We who are here in the present merely hold the institutions of our ancestors in trust for the next generation.
Both Burke and de Maistre were overt elitists and sought to defend hierarchy and the established order. But there is another form of reaction I wish to look at that instead of being intellectual relies on common sense. This is often inchoate and hard to discern and takes the form of a disaffection or distrust of elites and the belief that there is a disjuncture between our interests and those of our rulers.
Common sense reaction tends to be piecemeal, where individuals react not because they see a general malaise or some pattern to which they object, but rather because of something specific. It might be a particular policy of government, or a single event that causes a reaction and a sense of disaffection. This feeling might be temporary and quickly dissipate or if might grow just as the tea-party movement in the USA has grown.
But common sense reaction can equally take the form of a refusal to engage in active politics. It is quiet in the sense of an acceptance of the situation around us even as we complain of it. We know that there is not much that we can do to make any difference, and so along with our complaints goes a sense of impotence. We complain but without the readiness to challenge the way things currently are.
The views that are expressed as part of this form of reaction are entirely conventional. It is to adhere to the common sense critique of politics and the ruling establishment. There is no originality here: indeed it is the very lack of originality – the fact that we all seem to agree – that is the strength of this position. We are not seeking to be unique, but the very opposite. We feel we are part of a majority who are excluded, not listened to and not appreciated by those who dictate the political and economic direction of the country.
This view can be articulated, and will be when the circumstances allow, as shown by the tea party movement in the US or the reaction to the Parliamentary expenses scandal in the UK in 2009. But more frequently this sense of reaction does not coalesce around anything so specific. It is a common sense reaction to a world that cannot be understood or controlled. There is no sense here of organised resistance, or of any movement to force change or to replace the establishment. Even with the Parliamentary expenses scandal there was no mass movement, no uprising to replace those legislators who filled us with disgust. Instead most of the disaffected could be seen merely standing in the wings and shaking their heads in disbelief that things have turned out as they have. All they could find to do was to chunter and complain amongst themselves.
So we can point to two forms of reaction: one based on an opposition to political events and forming a direct challenge to progress and modernity; and another more inchoate form that is based on a more generalised sense of elites being out of kilter with the popular view of the world. However, there are some common elements between these two forms. Indeed I would point to four propositions that unite these two forms of reactions. First, there is a general sense of disaffection and disquiet with aspects of the modern world, which will be more or less manifest depending on particular circumstances. Second, many people feel that they are not being listened to and that their views are of no account. If they are heard then their views will tend to be discounted as bigoted or ignorant. Third, many feel that their traditions and accepted ways of life are being threatened and changed without their direct consent and without seeking any agreement from them. Fourth, what might be seen as the ‘establishment’ – which, by definition, is always distinct from them – does not seem to have the same interests as they do. These four propositions, I would suggest, can apply to Burke and de Maistre’s critique of modernity and to the populist disaffection with elites that characterises common sense reaction.
Many readers of The Quarterly Review will naturally find the intellectual form of reaction more amenable to them. They will be avid readers of Burke and de Maistre as well as many of the other great reactionary and conservative thinkers of the past and present. However, within the current conditions we find ourselves I would suggest that it is common sense reaction that presents the most immediate prospect of achieving any success. Whether we like it or not we live in the era of mass democracy, and so we might argue that a populist version of reaction might have more traction that its more elitist versions. Accordingly, in the final part of this essay I want to suggest a way in which common sense reaction might be bought to bear against the progressive elite.
We all have a sense of fairness and as a result politicians tend to resort to the concept as a means of garnering and maintaining political support. However, what is meant by fairness is not consistent across the political spectrum. The left has tended to see fairness in terms of inequality and the difference between rich and poor. Accordingly, the former Labour government, particularly under the influence of Gordon Brown, sought to create a ‘fairer’ society through redistribution. New Labour appeared to see fairness as a matter of how much government spent on certain groups and on the measurement of certain outcomes for these groups compared to others higher up the income scale. Getting more equality between groups in terms of spending and income was therefore seen as achieving fairness.
However, this took no regard of a more common sense view of fairness, which was concerned with what was reasonable and proper for people to receive in terms of the contributions that they had made. Accordingly, households receiving over a £1000 per week in Housing Benefit, without having to do anything to earn this other than prove their ‘need’, was seen as being grossly unfair by those having to pay for this benefit through their taxes but who could not afford similar quality housing granted to those apparently in ‘need’. This form of provision was consequently very unpopular and became hard to justify in a period of fiscal retrenchment. Accordingly, in 2010 when the Cameron government proposed to cap Housing Benefit to £400 per week this was widely supported by the public, even as it was seen as controversial by opposition politicians and some parts of the media. Indeed, there remains a common view that the reforms have not yet gone far enough in that, even after the Coalitions reforms, households would still be able to claim a total of £21,000 a year in Housing Benefit and so live in a manner beyond the means of many working people. It has been calculated that a household would need a salary of around £70,000 to comfortably afford to fund annual mortgage payments of £21,000 per annum.
This form of welfare provision seems to breach a common sense notion of fairness based on proportionality and reciprocity. Of course, the situation has been made worse by the effects of the recession, which has hardened attitudes and made the general public less tolerant of what are now seen as excesses. They may have been tolerated before, although the scale of payment was perhaps not then so widely known. It was the recession, and the decision to cut spending as a result, that sparked the resentment and created the support for reform. But importantly it needed a government prepared to consider reform: the situation of excessive payments existed before 2010, but was ignored by politicians and the public. It took politicians to raise and develop the issue, and only then did the public sense of resentment at this unfairness became manifest. This, in turn bolstered the policy.
This suggests two issues pertinent to our discussion on reaction. The first is that, unlike the more intellectual form of reaction, the common sense version needs a spark in order to turn it from a murmur to something more active. It needs something to generate it and give it form. Second, the issue of Housing Benefit shows that while this form of reaction is often latent, once it does become active it can quickly find a voice and a set of arguments to articulate. Once there is an issue to focus on, there is no lack of argumentation to support it, and these arguments might have a spontaneity and naturalness that matches that of the movement itself.
What this suggests is that there is a role for intellectuals in awaking and arming a more populist revolt against progressive elites. Intellectuals should seek to articulate the sense of disaffection that otherwise remains unarticulated. If intellectuals are able to turn what are common sense notions such as those on fairness into a coherent narrative then it is possible that reaction has a future and that the nostrums of modernity can be challenged.
Now this might be seen as opportunist or as pandering to an ignorant and bigoted populism, and one can certainly expect those accusations to be made by progressives. But what the debate over fairness in welfare shows is that there is a ready connection between intellectual and common sense notions of reaction. The intellectuals are doing nothing inconsistent with what they themselves believe. What matters then is whether the two parties are capable of talking to each other. It may be that the opportunities of doing so are not always obvious, but I believe here there is an historic opportunity to bring the two parties together. In doing so, we can show that, as perverse as it may otherwise appear, there is indeed a future for reaction.
Dr. PETER KING is the author of Reaction: Against the Modern World (Imprint Academic, 2012)