The Meaning of Conservatism, 3rd Edition by Roger Scruton, South Bend, Indiana, St. Augustine’s Press, 1980, 1984, 2002, 206 pp., $17
By the middle of the 1970s the Left was triumphant throughout the Western world. Marxism was orthodoxy in the university classroom even in classes where politics and economics had no discernable relevance. A battery of fraudulent new departments had been or were in the process of being launched throughout academia which purported to be devoted to the scientific study of this or that but which in reality were simply venues to allow gripes and grievances against Western civilization and its traditions and institutions, to be vented. Governments had committed themselves to the goal of reducing inequality through taxation and social programs, passed regulations and established bureaucratic agencies dedicated to the extirpation of non-egalitarian ideas and attitudes, and more-or-less declared war on those institutions which were believed to foster these non-egalitarian ideas and attitudes, especially the family and the church. They had further committed themselves to a combination of anti-natalism (sexual emancipation, birth control, abortion, etc.) and open borders, liberal immigration, that together comprised a population replacement program that bore an ugly resemblance to Bertolt Brecht’s joke about a Communist government dissolving the old people and electing a new one. Vocal opposition to this program was effectively suppressed by accusations of racism backed, in many countries, by race relations laws.. The poverty of third world countries was regarded among the intelligentsia as the legacy of European colonialism and imperialism rather than the work of the incompetent and kleptocratic dictatorships that had in so many cases replaced the imperial governments and so Western countries were expected to give large amounts of money in foreign aid to prop up those very incompetent and kleptocratic dictatorships.
Then the late 1970s saw a resurgence of the Right that in North America would manifest itself in the Reagan presidency in the United States and to a far lesser extent in the Mulroney premiership in Canada. In the United Kingdom, the resurgence began with Margaret Thatcher’s taking over the leadership of the Conservative Party from Edward Heath in 1975 and culminated in her premiership from 1979 to 1990. Thatcher’s rise to the leadership of the Conservative Party marked the end of the “post-war consensus”, i.e., the agreement of the Conservative Party leadership not to challenge, cancel or undo any of the policies, programs and changes introduced by the Labour Party that had more-or-less been Conservative policy since Clement Attlee’s Labour Party trounced Winston Churchill’s Tories in the 1945 election after World War II. After thirty years of this depressing capitulation to socialism, Thatcher’s leadership breathed new life into both the Conservative Party and the United Kingdom, but she and her ideas met with much skepticism and criticism from other Conservatives, and not just from the “Wets”, i.e., those like Heath who were ideological supporters of the post-war consensus. Statesman Enoch Powell and journalist Peregrine Worsthorne, for example, both High Tories who had little love for the post-war consensus, were highly skeptical towards Thatcher from the beginning, although both later supported her in the leadership crisis that ultimately saw her ousted both as leader of the party and Prime Minister. (1) Among traditional Tories, there was concern that Thatcherism, with its rhetorical emphasis on the free market, personal choice, and democracy, powerful weapons as these concepts were against the enemy of socialism, would replace conservatism with liberalism or American republicanism.
One Tory who had such concerns opted to express them by writing a book outlining the concepts of conservatism. This was Dr. Roger Scruton, philosopher, polymath, and at the time professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College in the University of London. Scruton wrote The Meaning of Conservatism in the late 1970s, as the Thatcher Conservatives were preparing to take office, and it was first published in 1980, shortly after they had come to power in the 1979 election. In Gentle Regrets, the collection of memoirs in which he tells how he came to hold his views, he said that writing this book made him persona non grata in both official Conservative Party circles and left-wing academia. It was also the book upon which his well-deserved reputation as the leading conservative philosopher of our day was built.
Scruton describes his book as a work of dogmatics and acknowledges that in writing it, he was doing something conservatives are usually unwilling to do, i.e., express the conservative instinct or attitude in a formulaic fashion, except in situations of crisis. This reflects a fundamental distinction he makes between conservatism on the one hand and both liberalism and socialism on the other. Conservatism is about real societies as they exist in the past and present, whereas liberalism and socialism are obsessed with finding the formula that will produce an ideal society in the future. In this distinction can be seen the influence of the thought of Michael Oakeshott, Britain’s leading conservative philosopher of the generation prior to Scruton. Oakeshott’s influence, like that of Edmund Burke and G. W. F. Hegel, can be found on almost every page of this book, and Scruton appropriately concluded the preface to the first edition by saying that “it satisfies the first requirement of all conservative thought: it is not original, nor does it try to be”. (p. xii)
Conservatism, Scruton says in his first chapter, begins as an instinct or attitude that arises out of a person’s sense of belonging to something larger than himself, not in the sense of a cause directed towards some ideal, but in the sense of an established social order, that is older than he is and will hopefully outlast him. This order might be that of any number of institutions, such as clubs or churches, but ultimately, at the political level it is that of the person’s society, country, or nation. The conservative instinct consists of a person’s identifying himself with this order, and feeling within himself its “will to live” (p. 10). Conservatism is not, therefore, an unthinking resistance to change, but a reflective rejection of change that would harm or kill the social order, and acceptance of change that helps to preserve and continue that order. Whereas liberals and socialists see politics, i.e., the exercise of government power, as means to external ends, freedom and social justice respectively, the conservative sees society’s government, as containing its own end, the health and life of the social order.
The conservative view of society, therefore, is that it is a living organism. In his second chapter, Scruton contrasts this with liberalism’s view of society as a contract, explaining that liberalism fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between freedom, rights, justice and the individual on the one hand and society and its order on the other. Drawing upon Kant’s understanding of justice which requires that we treat others as ends in themselves and not merely means to ends of our own, Scruton explains that contracts consists of reciprocal promises between individuals, which bestow rights upon each other in the sense of a claim upon the other person to fulfil his promise. This, Scruton says, cannot be the genesis of society, because the existence of an established social order is a precondition for this kind of bargaining.
It would be absurd, he points out, to regard the obligations which parents have towards their children and vice versa in contractual terms. The bonds within a family are transcendent, beyond the realm of contracts negotiated and agreed upon by self-interested individuals, and our duty to fulfil the obligations conferred by those bonds is a matter of piety rather than justice. This is true as well, he argues, of the bonds within civil society. Echoing Burke’s remarks about the “little platoons”, he maintains that the sense of loyalty and affection that we develop early in life towards our families and home, we later extend to the other social establishments we find ourselves in, and ultimately to our societies, nations, and countries in the form of patriotism.
Allegiance is the term for this feeling of affection and loyalty, which begins at the level of the family and rises, in patriotism, to the level of civil society, and one of the most important topics in this book is the relationship between allegiance and authority. If power is the ability to command obedience, authority is legitimate power, i.e., power that is held and exercised by those with a recognized right to hold and exercise it. It is the nature of allegiance to recognize that authority, in our parents as children and in the government of our society as citizen-subjects.
Scruton dismisses the Marxist theory that the concepts of legitimacy and authority are merely ideological constructions designed to justify the holding of power by those who so hold it as being of no practical political relevance regardless of whether it is true or not. Without these concepts we are left with sheer, naked, coercive, power and so clearly we need them. It is the way in which we conceive of our society that helps us to understand it, find meaning in it, and participate in it, that is truly important to politics, and here the idea of legitimacy is vital.
The liberal view of legitimacy, however, that it can only come from a contractual arrangement, is unacceptable to the conservative for the same reasons that the contract theory of society is unacceptable and in his third chapter, in which he discusses the political expression of civil society and its binding customs, culture, and traditions in the state and its constitution, he argues against the related modern concept in which democracy is equated with legitimacy. Democracy, like the social contract, is regarded as dubious by the conservative because it “privileges the living and their immediate interests over past and future generations” (p. 47). It is only by showing respect for the dead, he argues, that the interests of those yet to come can be safeguarded in the present, and therefore for the conservative, democracy must not be absolute but subject to limitations, and must “take place in the context of institutions and procedures that give a voice to absent generations”. (p. 48). This is one reason why conservatives are historically and traditionally, monarchists, because traditional monarchy is just such an institution:
Not being elected by popular vote, the monarch cannot be understood merely as representing the interests of the present generation. He or she is born into the position, and also passes it on to a legally defined successor. If the monarch has a voice at all, it is understood precisely in the cross-generational way that is required by the political process. Monarchs are, in a very real sense, the voice of history, and the very accidental way in which they gain office emphasizes the grounds of their legitimacy, in the history of a people, a place and a culture. (pp. 48-49)
The equation of democracy with legitimacy is not the only modern sacred cow that Scruton butchers in this book. Earlier in the same chapter he showed the fallacy of the concept of human rights, which proposes the existence of rights in the absence of any tradition and social context that might secure them and give them meaning and which separates the rights people claim for themselves, from the rights they reciprocally confer on others, in which their own obligations and duties lie. Later, in the next chapter, he takes on the liberal/libertarian idea that the legitimate function of the law is limited to protecting citizens from harm and securing their rights, the “humanitarian” idea that the purpose of law and the penal system is to rehabilitate the offender, and the egalitarian concept of “social justice”. The first is too simplistic, abstract and individualistic. The law is the will of the state, the public face of civil society, and so is an expression of society’s moral consensus. The state punishes crime, the breaking of the law, in order to protect society, to which crime is an expression of antagonism. This view of the penal system, and not the idea of rehabilitation, is actually the more humane, for the rehabilitation view, by separating punishment from the crime to which it is a response and orienting it towards a desired effect in the person punished, subjects the latter to a process that has no clearly defined limits. “Social justice” is an affront to natural law and justice, being based not on the reciprocal rights and obligations that naturally arise between people in ordinary social existence, but on the unnatural ideal of equality.
In each of these cases, Scruton’s arguments against a popular modern notion, arise naturally out of his basic concept of conservatism as the instinct to maintain and preserve the health and life of the social order. This is true as well, of the arguments he presents when he turns to economics in his fifth and sixth chapters. Here he argues for private property against Marxism and socialism in general, but not on the basis of the rights and freedoms of the individual or purportedly scientific economic theory in favour of the free market, as Thatcher and Reagan did. His starting principle is that ownership is a human necessity, because it is through ownership that people are able to perceive physical objects through a lens other than desire, an essential precondition for relating to and interacting with other people in society. Property begins, he argues, not with the factory or marketplace, but with the home, where the family lives and accumulates its belongings. Marxists attack family and property together, and conservatives, who perceive natural affection in the family as the source of the feeling of allegiance that creates the bonds of civil society, must defend the two together against this attack. Scruton defends property, against the British socialist ideas of wealth redistribution as the goal of taxation policy, public ownership as a valid alternative to private monopoly in industries that are not essential public services, and the expropriation of accumulated wealth in his fifth chapter, and against the Marxist defamation of property as the source of social alienation in his sixth. In doing so, he presents the conservative position as a “qualified endorsement of modern capitalism”, rather than the unqualified endorsement of free-market ideologues, and the task of the conservative as being the preservation of the social order from the forces that threaten it in capitalism and socialism alike.
From this, Scruton moves on to offer a defense of the autonomy, not of individuals, but of institutions like the sports team, the family, and the educational institution. By autonomy he means their right to pursue their own internal ends, rather than be compelled to serve external ends imposed upon them from above, such as those of egalitarianism which is particularly destructive because these institutions, like society itself, are fundamentally hierarchical. It is through institutions like these that we participate in society, and it is the job of the state, as the governing body of society, to guard and protect their autonomy rather than to impose external ends like those of egalitarianism upon them. This leads to a discussion, in the eighth chapter, of how authority and power come together to form establishment, the conservative ideal, in both the state and the autonomous institution of society, and finally in the last chapter, of the boundaries between the public and private life of a society.
The implications for public policy of these conservative doctrines, all of which are expressions of that same basic conservative instinct to preserve the health and life of the larger self which is one’s society, are myriad, as Scruton himself says in an axiom towards the very beginning of the book. The purpose of the book was not to prescribe policy, but to express the beliefs regarding life, society, and government that arise out of a conservative frame of mind, and this Scruton has done marvellously. Whatever effect this book may have had on its author’s career, it earned him his place beside Hooker and Burke, Disraeli and Oakeshott, among the leading theorists of conservative thought.
(1) In Powell’s case the support was from the outside. He had left the party in protest over Heath’s compromises, particularly regarding the Common Market, but indicated that he would return if Thatcher retained the leadership, which, of course, she did not.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca