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Ian St John

Dr Ian St John is the author of Disraeli and the Art of Victorian Politics and The Historiography of Gladstone and Disraeli, and teaches history at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School in Elstree.

Few would deny that Conservatives find it difficult to talk about society, but it was not always so. Burke’s conservatism was saturated with the social context of political action.

But as liberalism and socialism developed a rhetoric of social reform in the late Nineteenth Century, so did Conservatism become a refuge for the formerly liberal doctrines of individualism and laissez faire economics.

This tendency was confirmed by the adoption of a monetarist analysis of the economic ills of the 1970s, and reached its apogee in Margaret Thatcher’s observation that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals’.

However, for something that doesn’t exist society has proven stubbornly hard to ignore, and successive Conservative leaders have found the need to proclaim a social vision. Cameron heralded a ‘Big Society’, Major the ‘Classless Society’, and Theresa May has recently spoken of a ‘Shared Society’.

Even so, the Conservatives are yet to command the social agenda in politics. Why is this?

Surely it is because Conservative social talk has a contrived quality, appearing as something subordinate to a prior attachment to the individual enterprise society.

Yet this will not do. It won’t do because it means that the Conservatives are always conceding too much ground to their critics; because it curtails the Tory appeal to the working and talking classes; and because it is wrong.

Here I explore that last claim through an exposition of the ethical teachings of FH Bradley, a notable representative of the Oxford Idealist School of the late Nineteenth Century. His reflections upon the ends of life provide a starting point for a Conservative approach to the social realm.

The great corrective that Bradley’s work provides to current Conservative approaches to social policy is that the starting point cannot be the individual: it must be with society itself. Social philosophies are not something to be erected on an individualist foundation; rather the social is the foundation upon which any judgement regarding the role of the individual must proceed.

What, Bradley asked, is an individual?

“Let us take a man, an Englishman as he is now, and try to point out that, apart from what he has in common with others, apart from his sameness with others, he is not an Englishman – nor a man at all… he is what he is because he is a born and educated social being, and a member of an individual social organism; that if you make abstraction of all this… what you have left is not an Englishman, nor a man, but some I know not what residuum, which never has existed by itself, and does not so exist.”

The individual of Liberalism is an abstraction with no real existence. Each of us is made who we are because of the social context into which we were born and educated, and through which we made our friendships and in which we do our work. This is truly a shared society – one that we share with the others who constitute it and with whom we help to make it.

What we have then are not universal people or global citizens, but actual British people, moulded to the deepest level by the fact of their being brought up within a British social milieu.

Once regarded in this way, a social philosophy cannot be bolted onto a political identity – it is intrinsic to any ideology from the very beginning.

This is an idea to which Conservatives ought not to be unsympathetic. Most varieties of Conservatism attach considerable importance to the social identities that people forge in their lives, and Burke himself celebrated the little platoons of which each individual is a member, and through which they develop a civic consciousness in a complex network that together constitutes the state.

What are the political implications of this understanding of the individual? For Bradley, the social context of the individual sets the framework within which they act morally, and indeed realise their potential as a human being. As he explained in ‘My Station and its Duties’, if the essence of each individual’s self is formed through their social relations, then to realise their self through action is to realise this social self, and this can only be done through action with others in a communal setting.

What this means in practice is doing one’s duty in whatever social role one occupies, whether as worker, parent, or volunteer. The answer to the question ‘what am I to do?’ lies close at hand: you know what position you occupy, you know your duties – perform them!

We must say that a man’s life, with its moral duties, is in the main filled up by his station in that system of wholes which is the state, and this, partly by its laws and institutions, and still more by its spirit, gives him the life which he does live, and ought to live.

Conservatives frequently appeal to notions of responsibility and duty, and Bradley provides a means of grounding these words in the lived experience of real people.

Further aspects of Bradley’s doctrine retain a contemporary political purchase. For example, implicit in the idea of each of us doing our social duty is the end of all such action as such – the well-being of the community.

If each of us plays our social role to the full, then the development of society is promoted. As individuals we do not merely acknowledge society as a fact; we want that society to flourish, to be harmonious and supportive – a society that we are proud of.

Only in so far as each of us does our duty will such a society be built and all of us can find meaning in the part we play in making this happen. In realising our social selves we simultaneously realise the good of society as a whole.  The social good need not be the monopoly of the Left.

Surely, some will object, this talk of self-realisation is all too redolent of muddled progressive thinking, obscuring the sharper lines of a world in which individuals pursue tangible goals such as wealth and class mobility within a capitalist wealth-generating dynamic?

What we have here, of course, is the dichotomy between two conceptions of freedom: the negative freedom to be left unhindered to do what we want, and the positive freedom to realise whatever potential we possess.

Conservatism has tended to subscribe to the negative conception of freedom, advocating a minimal state, low taxation, and clearing a path for individuals to make the best of themselves as they see fit. It is this understanding of freedom that has rendered it so difficult for Conservatives to come to terms with society, for when they talk of the Big Society or the Shared Society there remains a suspicion that society acts to constrain the individual, stifle enterprise, and encourage the growth of the state.

Yet this negative conception of freedom has proven an inadequate guide to conduct. Thinking people tend to believe that freedom means the freedom to enjoy a fuller life through realising all our potential, and not merely the potential to make money.

Liberalism’s model of the acquisitive individual was flawed in theory and false as a description of the human condition.  Conservatives need to free themselves from it and embrace a positive conception of freedom, re-capturing this tradition from the Left – and this is something Bradley helps us to do.

For Bradley, the end of all action is self-realisation. The good life is one where an individual realises who they are as a person, and this means realising their talent for art or intellectual endeavour, and, above all, realising their social-self by playing an active part in the communities that mould them.

A perspective such as this ought to form the starting point of a socially conscious Conservatism. How is this to be done? Here Bradley’s work chimes with the earlier formulation of Burke.

Given the essentially social nature of the individual, their life requires for its full flowering the richest possible social experience. Achieving this involves participating in a range of social structures, whether it be family units, local communities, sports clubs, colleges, workplaces, social media forums, charities, or Churches.

Society is compounded out of such a network of social groups, and a constructive Conservatism ought to promote them. To act virtuously is to play our part within them.  In doing so we realise what we are as social beings.

Yet we also help to build a bigger, more sharing society, facilitating the freedom of others whilst promoting the development of the nation state. Ultimately this is what is at the heart of any truly Conservative vision – and it is one that will resonate more strongly with every passing year.

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