An Opaque Ideology?
Allan Pond considers the meaning of conservatism
We all know that self-congratulatory triad “I have principles, you have beliefs, she has an ideology”. To accuse someone of being ‘ideological’ is almost inevitably to criticise them and to indicate that their views are to be held of less account because of that. The irony is that with the exception of some academics in the social sciences it is among politicians that this form of insult is one of the most common tactics in debate. One of the contenders in the last Labour leadership election accused an opponent of being merely (or perhaps wilfully) ideological. This accusation implies a blinkered, biased, narrow or impractical and unreasonable approach to issues in contrast presumably to the critic’s own reasonable, rational, objective and practical view of the issue at hand. Ideology is always what one’s opponent appears to be suffering from. It is very rare for someone to happily admit that their own arguments are ideological. It is always the mote in the opponent’s eye that obscures, never the beam in one’s own.
Conservatives, both big C and small c, instinctively recoil from accusations that their beliefs are ideological because they regard their views about the world as derived not from abstract speculation or the application of a rigid dogma but from an everyday common sense approach to life. Lord Hugh Cecil, the Conservative politician, wrote a book early last century titled Conservatism, in which he defined conservatism as follows;
Conservatism is a natural tendency of the human mind. It is a disposition averse to change and it derives from a distrust of the unknown and a corresponding reliance on experience rather than abstract theoretical reasoning.
Cecil here draws a contrast between a practical approach and the intellectual or theoretical. This is a common enough distinction employed by many proponents of conservatism. A more recent exponent of this idea, that conservatism is much more a matter of temperament than ideological belief, is the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, particularly in his renowned essay ‘On Being Conservative’. The passage in that essay where he defines what he sees as the distinctive nature of the conservative disposition is well known and frequently quoted but it bears repeating;
To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible., the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. To the conservative, to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, cultivate and enjoy.
None of these traits or habits he identifies are in any obvious sense directly related to particular political views at all but are much more aspects of a personality. Now this idea of a conservative disposition has a lot going for it and does seem to sum up a good deal of what many of us encounter in behaviour, both our own and that of other people we may know. We can talk quite properly of people having ‘conservative’ tastes and it seems to become especially pertinent as we get older and become used to certain routines and often become less adaptable to new ways of doing things. All of this expresses important aspects of everyday experience and there is no particular harm in using ‘conservative’ in this way to mean a desire to stick with the familiar combined with a reluctance to follow the latest fashion.
However, though attractive, this idea that conservatism is a psychological trait is only of limited use when considering it as a political doctrine not because that doctrine welcomes everything that is modern – being far more selective it welcomes some aspects of modernity while eschewing others- but because as a political doctrine it is concerned with matters that effect the general interests of a whole society rather than those of merely individual personal preference. A socialist might hate all modern music or art; a liberal, shopping malls and mail order catalogues; while conservatives in their personal tastes may sometimes adopt some highly risky and innovatory forms of behaviour, such as smoking crack, dancing the night away to techno freak-beat, or going on charitable fund raising climbs up Kilimanjaro. Conservatives may often be cautious but that caution is directed towards the public realm rather than their personal private or leisure time pursuits.
Putting this in a philosophical idiom, conservatism is a political doctrine not a metaphysical one. It has definite views about politics and the kind of institutions that are best suited to preserving our way of life from unnecessary or fractious change, but it does not wish to espouse a total philosophy or system of beliefs or any golden rule that applies to every area of life, except maybe, to paraphrase George Orwell, break any rule sooner that do something outright barbarous. Does this make it an‘ideology’?
That of course depends on your definition of this slippery concept but there is no particular reason why conservatives should have any objection to having their doctrine described as such since all that ‘ideological’ means in this context is a set of beliefs or values that describe a particular attitude to the political and social circumstances of a community and conservatives have these beliefs just as liberals, socialists, greens or anarchists do.
Conservatives who recoil from the accusation that their views are ideological may, ironically, be paying an undeserved tribute to the dominance in the history of ideas of Marxist definitions. Marx’s classic account of ideological thinking in The German Ideology utilises the metaphor of the camera obscura to characterise it as a form of distorted thought that forces us to see everything upside down and reversed. Ideology produced, in his words, ‘phantoms in the brain’ that obscured the real relationships that held men in thrall. The result was a false consciousness which hid the ‘real’ interests lurking behind the mainsprings of everyday action. Historical materialism would exorcise these phantoms and make people aware of their true interests hitherto occluded behind the ideological veil. But the persuasiveness of this viewpoint depends solely on the acceptance of the claim that there is a deeper reality that exists underneath or behind the quotidian world of appearance. Doubt that contention and this definition of ‘ideology’ soon collapses.
But the second source behind this wariness of conservatives towards ideology lies far closer to home, and that is the highly influential argument, associated with Oakeshott particularly, that ‘ideology’ is a species of ‘rationalism’ which is an abridgement of a tradition of behaviour. Since conservatives value tradition, rationalism, especially when it manifests itself as ideology, and for Oakeshott it rarely manifests itself as anything else, should be avoided. This accompanies Oakeshott’s view about the dispositional aspects of conservatism that have proved so appealing and influential; that conservatism is less the possession of a defined check-list of particular beliefs, still less definite policy prescriptions and much more a mood, a characteristic stance towards experience and the art of living.
Now merely compiling a list of ideas or beliefs and attributing them to conservatism or for that matter any other political doctrine is a pretty fruitless exercise. There is no shortage of books or articles describing the ‘essence’ or the ‘core’ of conservatism but leaving to one side those that are clearly hostile – conservatism is about securing the rich and powerful, is the stupid party, is the doctrine of devil take the hindmost and so on; many of the attempts at definition, even if of a more sympathetic mien, will often include aspects that seem to be either in conflict with one another or even not distinctive to conservatism at all.
Kieron O’Hara in his insightful book Conservatism describes this nicely in a phrase as the ‘perils of definition by enumeration’, in other words drawing up a set of views or beliefs, a ‘list’ approach to conservatism, or for that matter any other ideology, and then almost inevitably finding some people who call themselves ‘conservatives’ (or ‘socialists’ ‘liberals’ etc) who fail to endorse one or more things on that list and then ruling by definitional fiat that these people cannot be conservatives and are really liberals in disguise or even socialists. This then becomes a futile hunt for the ‘true’ or ‘traditional’ conservative as if there is a form of timeless conservatism preserved for ever like Robert Peel’s death mask or the speeches of Lord Salisbury.
We are in danger of either lumping or splitting and indeed doing both at the same time. Adherents of a political ideology are often tempted to lump all their adversaries together. Life is so much simpler that way. So a conservative may find it difficult, or is merely reluctant to make the attempt, to distinguish between a democratic socialist and an authoritarian communist or a liberal who wants free trade from one who wants free love or free drugs. On the other hand from inside the ideology we are often far too ready to gloss over fine distinctions among our fellow believers so that conservatism becomes a pie-bald creature, even a motley mongrel, made up of ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’, or ‘libertarians’ and ‘statists’, or ‘neo-liberals’ and ‘one-nation’, ‘red’ or ‘green’ Tories, ‘paleo’ as opposed to ‘neo’, new right versus old right, crusties or crunchies.
That there might be differences of emphasis between these different types of conservative is perfectly true but that does not mean that some are more or better conservatives than others; they are just different as members of a family are different though sharing a common heritage and inheritance. We can identify a certain family resemblance between what seem to be contrasting conservative views. Just as we can spot a certain similarity of facial form or speech or physical gesture between members of a family in other respects quite different, so we can identify two major themes or attitudes that characterise just about all conservative views however much they might differ in incidentals. They are first, a suspicion of progress as a kind of general movement of society; and second, an emphasis on the value of an ordered and stable society. These are what distinguish a conservative from a liberal or a socialist and forever must. This is what we mean by saying that conservatism is a distinctive ideology.
If this definition of conservatism catches it adequately this does imply a certain stance towards ideological activity that sets the conservative apart from many other forms of ideology; not that conservatism is not an ideology, just that it is a very different form of ideology from others. First, as already touched on, conservatism is not at all about personal traits of character, still less of taste (hating rap, preferring plain chant) but is a public doctrine that has certain views about the nature of politics. People who prefer rap to plain chant may also be conservative on this definition! A socialist, without blanching, will talk about ‘socialist art’; there are numerous exponents of Marxist science or Marxist literary criticism. All these are way beyond the conservative’s ken. What is conservative ‘art’ ? Or conservative ‘culture’ ? It doesn’t exist.
Second, although I broadly share Oakeshott’s views about the dangers of rationalism, abridgement in itself is not necessarily the main problem about certain forms of ideology. After all a map is a necessary abridgement (of terrain) and a dictionary a useful one (of language) and we would be considerably worse off without either. And as Oakeshott himself pointed out many aspects of what passes for both liberalism as well as conservatism are actually distillations or sedimentations of manners of behaviour that are characteristic of our nation’s history and culture.
It is difficult to conceive of how our traditions of democratic politics could be conducted other than through the medium of ideological dispute. The political philosopher T J Robinson has described ideological language as the language of adherence. By using it we show our affiliation to a cause, a set of beliefs, a view about what should be done in the political realm and limited to that usage ideological language indeed has an honourable, arguably essential, place in all political activity.
The problem is much more when this ideological language leaks beyond politics into other areas, or when other languages (those of science or history or theology for example) leak into political discourse in an attempt by an ideology to lend itself a false air of legitimacy and certainty. Clearly the paradigm case of this is Marxism but some conservatives have also been tempted to mix up their languages, using theological notions of the fall or original sin to make claims about what is desirable politically, or importing scientific arguments about inherited abilities into debates about how society should be organised. What largely defines the conservative notion of ideology is not merely a scepticism about grand projects in politics, though clearly that is central, but as much a scepticism about applying even its own beliefs beyond the narrow and circumscribed arena of the public realm.
Politics for the conservative is a remedial activity which can never always simply be about resisting change but about balancing between complete stasis and utter chaos. This is why images of steering and navigating boats across bottomless seas are so popular with conservatives; steering a course between extremes to avoid the rocks. While the bottomless sea is like life events, often unfathomable, ever changing and subject to squalls; something is always just ahead to surprise and upset the best set course. But unless we refuse to leave the harbour, and in life we cannot, conservatives must make an ally of the changeable weather keeping a close eye on the charts without confusing them with the actual watery terrain. One needs always to be aware of surprising and uncharted outcrops of rocks and reefs which may lie ahead.
This gives to conservatism a consequentialist as well as a circumstantial cast. In other words it is the consequences of change, indeed of any activity whether to change or to conserve, which is of far more concern to the conservative than the motives or principles used to advocate that activity. So, in other words, the form of government for the conservative is not nearly so important a matter as what governments actually do. They therefore have a largely pragmatic approach to government rather than viewing it through the prism of principle. The state is seen as a necessary evil not an unalloyed good and who governs is far less important for the conservative than that good government is carried on.
And the conservative views circumstances as determining what attitudes they adopt to aspects of the political realm rather than any notion of a set of absolute or universal rights. If rights exist they are derived from a national historical cultural tradition and involve correlative duties and obligations of course. They are not abstract entities based on some unspecified universal ‘reason’. That means that conservatism is not rigid and can change its views on all sorts of political issues quite happily if the situation calls for it. Take as a minor example the argument for a minimum wage. When first proposed by the New Labour government conservatives in general were opposed not only on the grounds that it was an interference in the freedom of contract (actually many conservatives would not have even considered arguing on these grounds because that is also a somewhat universalist idea) but because it was likely to lead to higher unemployment as small businesses would be deterred from taking on extra staff. But having been in operation now for some years this dire consequence has not been confirmed so most conservatives have come to accept the minimum wage and generally see it as a good thing. Indeed the Conservative government has now increased this minimum wage substantially and renamed it the ‘living wage’.
So conservatism is far more flexible as an ideology than many others, certainly Marxism, and is able to change according to the needs and demands of any particular period, culture or circumstance. And that is the main reason why conservatism has proved so powerful in keeping itself the dominant political force that it has in Britain over the past one hundred and fifty years or more. That it fits our national character and mood very closely is certainly one reason. But equally it is because its very adaptability, its ability to change itself while preserving its identity, has been based on the limited nature of its ambition which, unlike many other ideologies, is not to remake the world but to conserve the beneficial while reforming the disadvantageous. Rather like a gardener and certainly not like a social engineer, the conservative prunes and modifies, in accord with the season, and works within the borders rather than either allowing the garden to grow wild or ripping it all up to lay down a concrete wasteland on top.
ALLAN POND is the author of a forthcoming book on conservatism. He writes from Northumberland