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Liam Fox, Theresa May and the meaning of conservatism

14 March 2013

Speeches by Theresa May and Liam Fox have produced a surge of interest in what Conservatives stand for. Politics in recent years has become an endeavour by a political class, divided by only superficially different beliefs, to use mass advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion. The emphasis on ‘modernisation’ and detoxification grew out of this narrow, calculating spirit, but it has led the Conservatives away from the ideals that have made this country worthy of allegiance. And yet, readily to hand, there are guiding principles that could stir the heart of many a potential Conservative voter.

Many conservatives see themselves as champions of liberty. But what does such a claim imply for the role of government today? We can trace a common interpretation of liberty from Milton and Locke in the seventeenth century, through Burke and Smith in the eighteenth, to Hayek in the twentieth.

The common thread is a belief that the political system should foster and protect the freedom of the individual. Individuals should be able to lead their own life, according to their own views, under the protection of the state of which they are members. But the freedom being guaranteed is not an abstraction. For traditional liberals it was ‘virtuous liberty’, to use the phrase of Joseph Addison, founder of the Spectator. Individuals are understood as people capable of improving constantly their moral and intellectual qualities.

The ideal of virtuous liberty is not compatible with class-war politics, or any majoritarian approach that seeks to gain power in order to use it for the advantage of one group at the expense of another. Supporters of virtuous liberty are fearful of factions seeking to dominate. Today factionalism often takes the form of campaigning for political recognition of victim status, which can then be used to secure preferential treatment, often disguised as equality. Imposing equal representation of ethnic groups in occupations is firmly ruled out because it can only be achieved by suppressing the ability and effort of people who do not belong to the politically preferred group.

The enforcement of any pre-ordained pattern of outcomes is always wrong. For example, the state should never enforce a ratio between the income of the richest and the poorest. Protection against severe privation is a very different matter. The end result of providing a welfare minimum will be that individuals can more easily fulfil their potential to develop and grow as moral personalities. A good deal of welfare support can be justified for this reason, but not redistribution of incomes or wealth for its own sake. Taxation policy should never be based on whipping up resentment between the rich and the poor.

Nor is virtuous liberty aimed at ‘small government’. It aspires to ‘limited government’, or intervention to create conditions for personal freedom and no more. Is the sheer scale of government ever a legitimate concern, as calls for ‘small government’ imply? The size of government as such is relevant if it is so extensive that no private organisation could ever resist it, or if its presence in economic and social life was so wide that it left no room for private initiative.

Demands for small government are closely related to non-interventionism in economic policy. The liberty of all, shared equally by all, requires constant intervention. The fundamental ideal entails active government. It is true that some liberals have demanded complete freedom from state control. But traditional liberalism has never been a purely negative idea. It has been a positive doctrine of the free person, with a position in society guaranteed by the state, which secures the rights necessary to lead a free life. The fundamental idea is that the individual personality alone has intrinsic and ultimate worth, and that because it has the capacity to develop, it is entitled to freedom to change and improve. The condition being sought is not a natural state of affairs. Virtuous liberty requires institutions carefully crafted by time.

In economic matters the state will often be well advised to keep its distance and allow wide scope for human experimentation and discovery. But, as Hayek argued, whether it should or not, is a matter for pragmatic judgement, not something that can be determined before the facts. There are many investments in research and new technologies, for example, that a government can legitimately make. They are best thought of as creating facilities for human co-operation. So long as they add to the sum of human achievements, without usurping the role of individuals in civil society, they can be justified.

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Traditional liberalism is demanding of the individual. A society based on virtuous liberty and democracy calls forth the best in its members. Its belief in the possibility of human improvement and its commitment to political institutions that guard and protect liberty make it a worthy ideal for a political movement. Can the Conservative party reclaim its heritage, or will it pass to a Labour party now being renewed under the influence of one-nation thinkers?

David Green is Director of Civitas

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  • Smithersjones2013

    Can the
    Conservative party reclaim its heritage, or will it pass to a Labour
    party now being renewed under the influence of one-nation thinkers?

    Is it April 1st already. Is Green seriously suggesting that the big state authoritarian social engineers of the Labour Party represent anything other than an oppressive suffocating blanket of self-serving bigotry and political crassness that is the Labour Party. Green is clearly living (in his head anyway) on another planet. There is nothing ‘liberal’ or ‘democratic’ about Labour!

    • Makroon

      Good post. Unbelievable nonsense from Mr Green. The one thing that Labour have conspicuously NOT done, is rethinking. Exactly the same rotten gang, exactly the same rotten “politics of stunts and interests” (enriched by extra union input).

  • huktra

    David-Congratulations on raising your head with the message.
    As Fraser said on Monday the bastards are getting close to the 46 to trigger a cataclism from which the party would not recover in half a century.
    David Cameron has been groping along without a guiding message.
    He can begin here.

    • Vrai Telemachus

      have you not yet understood? The days of party politics, short enough as they were, are now over. Since your Conservative MP was quite likely a failed Labour candidate at some time, or a member of the Communist Party, being a Conservative clearly means nothing other than one of several routes to gain power, influence and wealth.

      it does not matter if the Conservative Party collapses. there will be another one coming along in a minute. Or you might as well just vote Labour or Lib Dem. We have caused a revolution in politics and you are still acting as if the Conservative Party represents conservatism. Have you not looked at any of the things they have actually done? Can you not see that they are practically no different to the things thta Labour would do?

      You really don’t have a choice. We have removed entirely the basis of choice as a foundation of democracy. congratulate away. It makes no difference. Do you really think that his statement was not already cleared with the rest of the political class, or at least those who really run things?

  • Grrr8

    A lot of defending of lower taxes/ ending re-distribution of wealth (to the small extent that happens today) in the above post. I wonder how you feel about sexual freedom, freedom to do as you wish with your property or freedom to cross borders and live/ work/ trade where you will. There seem to be precious few defenders of these freedoms among the modern conservative party. More of them amongst the Lib Dems in fact.

    • Wessex Man

      The Lib/Dems are a done party more so than the Tories, if the scandal had broken before the postal votes had been sent in Cleggover wouldn’t have had his “outstanding victory.”

  • Portendorfer

    Locke is one of thegiants of modern education and admired by Gove, the true soul of the party:-

    “Abandon the rod, except as a last resort; abandon scolding, threats, rules, rewards, arguments, and persuasion; train to right thinking and right action through the use of approval and affection, with all their normal accompaniment of benefits, when children behave properly, and of disapproval and coldness, with their natural consequences in the withdrawal of pleasures and companionship, when children misbehave. But above all, use this moral discipline morally—that is, with direct reference to your child’s motives,
    to his will in the matter, not with reference merely to the outward effect of his actions.”
    If the movement that is conservatism could follow its spiritual roots we would not now be in the mess we are.

    • Field Marshal

      I agree that Gove carries the true spirit of conservatism. The worry about Fox is that he appears dangerously radical and I fear that May has not shown herself adept at the ministerial brief.
      Gove on the other hand has steered through contoversial measures and maintains connect with the faithful and much of middle Britain too.

      • Bill Kenny

        ‘The worry about Fox is that he appears dangerously radical’ nothing like Locke, Smith or Hayek then?

        • Makroon

          The “worry about Fox” is that he is strange and an outsider. Utterly unsuited to lead a major party, and an electoral liability.

          • huktra

            Did I hear unhinged and werrittingly corrupt?

      • Vrai Telemachus

        Gove is one of us. Ask him about gay marriage. Whoever funds schools runs schools. Do you really think free schools are going to be free? You want an independent education then you will need to fund it yourself, otherwise the state piper will call the the tune in due course and when each school is isolated from every other school there will be no resisting the will of Government.

        That is the reason for free schools.

      • huktra

        Gove would be the first to decry any attempt to destabilise Cameron.

  • Austin Barry

    “Can the Conservative party reclaim its heritage, or will it pass to a Labour party now being renewed under the influence of one-nation thinkers?”

    Or will it pass to UKIP?

    • rubyduck

      It has.

  • brossen99

    This is the only Tory game in town at present !

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