Into this debate waded Janet Daley, Iain Martin, Peter Hoskin, Alex Massie, Graeme Archer, Fraser Nelson, and finally Fiona Melville, who invokes the ‘Broad Church’ leitmotif.
Reading some of these articles, one might be persuaded that a battle rages for the soul of Conservatism itself, not simply for the heart of the Conservative Party. The tension emerges because of the apparent Boles/Maude hypothesis that the present Conservative/LibDem coalition can and ought to continue into and beyond the next general election, for the sake of both parties (and, of course, the nation). And so the narrative becomes one of ‘Liberal Conservatives’ outflanking the ‘Conservative Conservatives’ whom the media term ‘Right-wing’ and Tim Montgomerie has (shrewdly) termed ‘Mainstream’: it has been quite a while since the ‘swivel-eyed Right’ have managed to lay claim to a term of middle-ground moderation.
The problem with all of these perspectives is that they lack perspective. It would not be a betrayal of either conservative principles or of the Conservative Party for this coalition to continue, not least because the party has itself been a coalition since its inception: it has always combined both Whiggish libertarian radicals and Tory authoritarian conservatives, holding them ‘in tension’. It is home to free-marketeers and interventionists (‘before breakfast and before dinner’); philosophical ideologues and political pragmatists; and, lest it be ignored, church-going Christians and secularist atheists.
The Party's chronic schizophrenia is only controlled when remedial treatment is administered by a determined leader: then the Party compliantly morphs to the successful leader's mould (or not, to the protestations of the unsuccessful leader).
Considering the history of conservatism and the Conservative Party’s historic relationship with the Church of England, it is surprising that no commentator has mentioned the Christian faith in this debate, even as the majority of the nation (ie the ‘mainstream’) continue to express adherence to it.
Mainstream conservatism has always been much more about what British conservatives have done and thought than what commentators have written. Conservatives are not necessarily participators in partisan politics; indeed, conservatism is a stance that may be defined without identifying it with the policies of any party. While the core of the philosophy may be distilled from broad and general principles around various themes of liberty – defence of private property, the importance of the nation state, the rule of law, societal evolution rather than revolution – these are the abstract embodiment of a long historical tradition which has frequently adapted to meet the changing social contexts over the centuries.
While the term ‘Conservative Party’ is a nineteenth-century construct, the party itself is the progeny of the religious disputes of the seventeenth century. By 1794, the ‘eternal truths’ of what is today known as ‘conservatism’ were being articulated, this being the year when Burke joined with Pitt (the Younger), who identified himself more with the doctrine and beliefs of the Non-Conformists than with the Anglicans. Locke had also previously published The Reasonableness of Christianity – a political theory of basic human equality reasoned from Scripture. It was not that such principles had not already found political expression, but at the same time as Locke was concerned to examine the extent to which the state should coerce in order to pursue the moral good, Burke was observing that society is organic, and that change must be evolutionary, not revolutionary; consonant with social mores and sensitive to national traditions. The whole frame of political discussion in this era is saturated with Christian assumptions. At the moment when the doctrines of the French Revolution and ‘the Rights of Man’ arose to threaten Anglo-Saxon liberty, it was Burke who confronted the revolutionary constitution-framers, advocating instead a Protestant understanding of man’s ‘moral agency in a civil order’:
Now though civil society might be at first a voluntary act, its continuance is under a permanent, standing covenant, co-existing with the society; and it attaches upon every individual of that society, without any formal act of his own... We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice...For Burke, the godfather of mainstream conservatism, any notion of ‘the Rights of Man’ was inimical both to his Protestant Christian worldview and to the constitutional settlement, and had to be tempered by the duties of man to the community of which he is part.
Burke’s organic conception of the state was cognisant of the fact that the liberties of the individual, poor, illiterate Englishman, especially in regard to religion, had been obtained by sections of the English nation, each seeking the redress of specific grievances, but seeking it always through legal channels and by legal means. He spoke of ‘great multitudes act(ing) together’, and noted the ‘grand chorus of national harmony’ which constituted a ‘beautiful order’.
Appeals to this ‘grand chorus of national harmony’ have been a constant mainstream refrain in conservative history, from the unity imposed by the Protestant Settlement, through the age of Empire, the creation of the British Commonwealth and the assertion of Britain’s ‘continuing role on the world stage’, all of which have been shadowed by the Worldwide Anglican Communion – the universal theological expression of England’s ‘beautiful order’. The conservative order (which may be termed ‘mainstream’) manifests itself in patriotism, custom, respect for the law, loyalty to a leader or monarch, and in the willing acceptance of the privileges of those to whom privilege is granted.
The more liberal strand of conservatism is articulated by Mill: ‘The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it’. The emphasis is on personal development and the negative impact of conditioning and conformity which are seen to stifle individual development. The liberty that Mill proclaimed was one in which all individuals are equally free to develop innate talents and abilities: he assumed that individuals would naturally tend to be drawn towards what they are good at doing and this natural ability, freely allowed to develop, would enhance society. Mill places liberty close to individualism because ‘over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign’. He dismisses corporatism and the social-collective, preferring individual expression in contradistinction to the state and its monolithic institutions. He would probably never have said that there is ‘no such thing as society’, but he was certainly concerned to note that ‘society has fairly got the better of individuality’.
The old Whig-Tory divisions persists in the Conservative Party still; indeed, ‘Liberal Conservatism’ as a mainstream faction can trace its origins in the Conservative Party back to 1822. The competing ‘wings’ of the Party are not now so much concerned with the status quo of King or Church over revolutionary reform, but with such philosophical concepts as the via media between Burke’s benign paternalism and Mill’s individual liberalism.
While the conservative is undoubtedly concerned with liberty, there is no support for complete autonomy or unrestrained individualism because attempts to articulate truths about the world are likely to be founded on observation, and the conservative sustains a disbelief in the instant changeability of human nature. The Conservative Party is in tension because conservatism itself seeks to articulate a middle way between institutional continuity and personal freedom: the individual’s identification with something greater – be it society, class, religion, state or nation – is deemed to possess an innate authority or to be of a value which transcends the value of individuality.
It is this Conservative ‘middle way’ which constitutes the ‘mainstream’, and (it is to be observed) this is not the same as the ‘centre ground’ to which politicians perpetually insist they must appeal. The Conservative via media is an enduring leitmotif: it emerges in Disraeli’s ‘One Nation Conservatism’, Macmillan’s 1938 book The Middle Way, and again (for example) in Butler’s 1946 pamphlet The Industrial Charter, which embraced Labour’s establishment of the NHS and nationalisation programme. Cameron's expressions of 'Social Justice' and 'Compassionate Conservatism' sit squarely in this historic mould.
Patriotism has been indispensible for the Party because it has the capacity to unite disparate groups and instil social cohesion: it is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the Conservative Party – essentially the party of England – has traditionally identified with the objectives of the Church of England and the institution of Monarchy as a symbol of nationhood; as incarnations of the spiritual, political and historical entity of which the English are a part. As Margaret Thatcher observed:
The Tories began as a church party, concerned with the Church and State, in that order, before our concern extended to the economy, and many other fields which politics now touches. Religion gives us not only values – a scheme of things in which economic, social, penal policy have their place – but also our historical roots. For through the Old Testament our spiritual roots go back to the early days of civilisation and man’s search for God.This is the mainstream spirituality embedded in the psyche of the nation. In past eras, the Conservative Party not only introduced income tax and welfare with appeals to Christian notions of justice; they legalised trade unions, opposed free trade and favoured legislation to govern the sale and conditions of labour through the Factory Acts. If these past policies heralded the ‘And’ theory of Conservatism, it is difficult to understand why its exponents are ideologically opposed to a continuing Conservative/LibDem coalition.
The party has always had a strong tradition of social concern and action which is rooted in Protestant Christianity and fused with the establishment of the Church of England. Some of the greatest movements for social reform have been led by Conservatives and their Whig and Tory forebears: Toryism has been as much a public theology as a political creed. ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ is the continuation of this tradition: it is based in part on the doctrine of original sin, which holds that Man is sinful and likely to want something for nothing; Man’s sinful nature leads to indolence. The modern expression is to do with ‘concern for the poor’ in a context of capitalism.
Is this overarching theme worth a little compromise? Are repayment of the national debt, resolution of the budget deficit and the revolutions in education and welfare worth the compromise of more ‘Right-wing’ policies on (say) upholding marriage or extricating ourselves from the European Union?
Certainly, liberalism is antithetical to conservatism because of the former’s emphasis on individual autonomy and the 'Rights of Man'. But it is increasingly difficult, in an age dominated by ‘rights’ and an obsession with individual liberty, for any party to assert the individual’s obligation to be ruled; to submit to a law-enforcing higher power. Modernity is concerned with individual freedom, but the obsession is to the detriment of a philosophy of human nature (political or moral) which articulates what that freedom is or why it matters. It is now pursued irrespective of the theological history and political culture which preceded it and helped to define it.
So modern politics takes on the meta-narrative of disjunctive micro-narratives: communitarianism transcends individualism as knowledge is created and accessed not by individuals but in community. David Cameron has been keen to exploit this development, conveniently providing him with an opportunity to address the frequently-misquoted adage that ‘there is no such thing as society’. The Conservative Party have been focusing on empowering communities because the sense of political community is intrinsic to people’s sense of the need for social community. This is part of his ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ agenda. And community is a fundamental human good because commitments and values are shared; the good life demands participation in a political community, and this requires communal participation in a political organisation of the widest scope, such as the nation state.
Just as society has moved beyond the nineteenth-century confines of the nation state, so the Conservative Party has loosened its formal association with the Church of England. It has been supplanted by informal links with such groups as the ecumenical Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Conservative Muslim Forum and the Conservative Humanist Association. There is, as yet, no Conservative association for Buddhists, Hindus or Sikhs, but that day will surely come.
To be a ‘mainstream’ Conservative is not to withdraw but to reach out: to be mainstream is to be mission focused with a straightforward message of social salvation and political redemption; and that Conservative creed must be orthodox, which can only come from an understanding of the history, appreciation of the traditions and agreement upon religio-politico-philosophical definitions.
But let us never forget that this message is foolishness to those who are being lost.
And that might include some of those who have been welcomed to take communion within our Broad Church.
Like the Church of England, the Conservative Party tends not to do excommunication very well.
Unless it be of its traditionally-minded, orthodox and loyal adherents.