Radicalism’s Glittering Allure
Peter King resumes his exegesis of ‘real’ conservatism
There is an obvious allure to radicalism. It all seems so straightforward. We can identify what is wrong, we strongly oppose it, and we seek to bring it down. We want a remedy for this all-too-apparent problem. No more argument is necessary. All we have to do is to make the change.
And we claim the moral high ground: we are the ones being active and purposeful. We have a cause and we are acting for a reason. Justice is on our side: the faults in the system are all too apparent and the future, unlike the sullied present, can be pictured without blemish. We are, to coin a phrase, ‘going forwards’ as moral beings doing the right thing.
To be radical means being both fundamental and extreme. This is a necessary part of radicalism and indeed it is part of why being radical is so celebrated. We are aiming for the complete or fundamental solution. Our efforts are not half-hearted and tempered by circumstance. No half measures will do: this is what to be radical means: to get to the very core of the issue. There is then an imperative sense here. We need a far-reaching solution and there is no moral purpose in holding back. Once we have identified the problem we must go right to the very end, to where the logic of our argument leads. Achieving our virtuous ends matters more than any means. We want to deal thoroughly with the problem rather than put anything off.
Radicals are not satisfied with just getting by. They do not want a band-aid solution, but a complete cure. Radicals want it all. They want, and expect, to win.
So it is obvious why radicalism has such an appeal, and it is no surprise that the leadership of the Conservative party has rejected the idea that the role of the party is simply to be the protectors of the past. The Conservatives claim that they wish to take the country as it is. But by this they mean that they want to be modern and progressive and acknowledge that politics is a concern for change rather than stability. They are forward-looking and wish to create a new society, even if the rhetoric of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was somewhat short-lived. The party has sought to compete for the same constituency as the parties of the left, as can be seen by their promotion of gay marriage, and the suggestion that mothers should be working rather than at home looking after the children.
These policies have inevitably created hostility within the natural constituency of the Conservative party. This has led to a considerable decline in party membership and to defections to the United Kingdom Independence Party. There is now an emerging constituency to the right of the mainstream Conservative party. Yet these opponents of the Conservative leadership, be they still within the party or without, also wish to wear the badge of radicalism. They too wish to fundamentally change Britain, whether by an end to mass immigration or the exit of the UK from the European Union. Of course, instead of looking to a better future we might suggest that these more extreme conservatives wish to return to a better past. So they wish to end the multicultural society that they argue has been imposed on us by a metropolitan elite and the European Union. They wish to end immigration and repatriate those who are not of British or European descent. They claim that this is ‘real’ conservatism, but their language is often extreme and full of demands, calling for things to be stopped, ended, or torn down. Like radicals on the left, they present politics in simple oppositional terms and present straightforward and clear proposals for change, in the belief that no right-minded person could possibly object to them.
Radicalism, by its very nature, tends towards the extreme position. There is a natural tendency for radicals to congregate together. However, the consequence of this is that their views are only ever confirmed and this process of confirmation leads to the development of ever more extreme positions, where the truth becomes blindingly obvious and no alternative is tenable. Thus the future becomes quite clear and the route to it simple and evident to all.
But just because something appears straightforward does not mean that it is readily attainable. Indeed, if we seek to change the world in a fundamental manner, we will necessarily be taking risks both in terms of where we are going and how we will get there. If we pull something apart, can we really be confident that we can put it back together and make it work again?
Yet while we see radicalism as far-reaching and decisive in its impact, we need make very little effort to be radical. We can readily point to the problems of the present and the past. Their faults are all too clear to us. We can put forward simple slogans and claims that the future, because it is as yet unsullied, will be better. We can rely on a natural optimism, and the desire that things can and will be better. We can offer a total answer, free from compromise, and this will have a ready appeal compared to the muddied, partial solutions of those dependent on the past.
The problem, however, is that conservatism is a disposition that takes the past very seriously. Conservatism is usually taken to mean reliance on the tried and trusted, on tradition and a scepticism about rationalism and theoretical speculation. It is a backwards-looking ideology, which stands for what currently exists and against utopianism. It relies on experience to justify action, and so is wary of anything that appears to be too easy. So while radicalism doubtless has an appeal, we can question in what manner it is compatible with conservatism.
Lip service is paid in Conservative circles to such thinkers as Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott. But are these luminaries actually being listened to? Indeed what would it mean for a Conservative politician to follow Burke? Conservatives, if they are to take seriously the name by which they are called, should accept that we are not here to create change, but to pass on to the next generation what has been left to them by their predecessors. We are born out of a particular tradition and it is our responsibility to pass that tradition on. Society owes us nothing, but we owe it everything.
If we are to take seriously Burke’s dictum that society consists of the living, the dead and the as yet unborn, we must recognise our place as intermediaries who are to transmit the wisdom of our predecessors to our successors. It is a very modern conceit to believe that the world, and everything in it, is a resource for us to use in the here and now. The older, the traditional, view is that we merely hold it in trust, on a temporary lease before it is handed on to others.
PETER KING is Reader in Social Thought at De Montfort University. His most recent books are Keeping Things Close: An Essay on the Conservative Disposition and Here and Now: Some Thoughts on the World and How We Find it, both published by Arktos in 2015
*See more of BOB BARRON’S art work at http://bob-barron.com