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Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett

Edmund Fawcett, “a left-wing liberal” (his term), here performs, with grace, acuity and good humour, a signal service for conservatives. He introduces us to each other.

Reading his book is like being at a vast family party, where as one glances round the marquee one is struck by the affinities between people who have never met, but have much in common.

Here one encounters cousins of whom one may, perhaps, have heard, but about whom one knows next to nothing.

In one of the most delightful parts of his book, published as Appendix C, Fawcett in under 40 pages gives us brief lives of over 200 conservative politicians and thinkers, drawn from Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom have attained some degree of eminence since the French Revolution.

This brevity is wonderful. It is not difficult to find a long book about any of these people. To find a dozen lines that are worth reading can be almost impossible.

And conservatism is itself an almost impossible subject. As Fawcett remarks in his preface, “A chaos of voices has often made it hard to say what, if anything, conservatives stand for.”

He notes a paradox:

“Puzzling as it sounds, conservatives have largely created and learned to dominate a liberal modern world in which they cannot feel at home.”

He remarks that he is not writing solely or even primarily for the benefit of conservatives:

“Readers on the Left will get a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore.”

And he adds a pointed question for his companions on the Left:

“if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Part of the answer to that question is that the Left often fails to take the Right seriously. Moral condemnation forestalls understanding.

Another part of the answer is that the Right does take the Left seriously, is indeed terrified of the damage it can do. Fawcett begins with two conservative opponents of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Burke is for British and American conservatives a marvellous source of wisdom, endlessly invigorating and enjoyable. Few of us have ever felt at ease with Maistre’s savagery, but Fawcett insists that although “Maistre was never going to sit well in conservatism’s front parlour”, he “belongs in the household as much as Burke”.

We are happier to be told that Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), a Prussian who studied under Kant, worked for the Austrians and took a retainer from the British, translated Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution into German, “teasing out Burke’s thought in long footnotes that tidied up the argument in rationalist spirit”.

Gentz, Fawcett suggests,

“was an early model of a familiar present-day figure, the clever policy intellectual with top degrees circulating between right-wing think tanks, conservative magazines, and political leaders’ private offices.”

And Gentz in his essay “On the Balance of Power”, published in 1806, developed the ideas which would guide the post-Napoleonic settlement, upholding peace between nations while retarding not just revolution but democracy.

Fawcett is excellent at giving us a feeling for his conservatives by quoting remarks which a less worldly Lefty would not find funny, and might therefore be inclined to censor.

So at a dinner at the Congress of Aix in 1818 we get Gentz telling Robert Owen, pioneer of utopian socialism and of the co-operative movement:

“We do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”

But Gentz was not some blinkered reactionary, who supposed the ruling classes could restore to themselves the privileges they had enjoyed before 1789:

“Revolution had to be fought, Gentz insisted, not with nostalgia but with modernity’s own weapons.”

Here is another part of the explanation for conservative incomprehensibility. Intelligent conservatives are at once more attached to the past than their opponents, and more anxious to understand what will work in the future.

This mixture of mixture of emotion and pragmatism cannot be reduced to an ideology – the very thing that leftish commentators consider it a mortal weakness not to possess.

Fawcett’s book is brilliantly organised, so one can without difficulty find what conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States were saying and doing in any particular period.

He himself worked for The Economist as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, and also as its European and literary editor.

As in that magazine, his eye for what is happening overseas is very good, but the texture of British politics is sometimes smoothed away in order to make it fit some editorial analysis.

Fawcett does not get Benjamin Disraeli. Few historians of ideas do, for by the time the butterfly has been pinned to the page, he is dead.

Millions of voters did get Disraeli, loved his patriotism and felt exhilarated by his impudence. He is the only Prime Minister who has inspired the creation of a posthumous cult: the Primrose League.

When he comes to Stanley Baldwin, Fawcett attributes his description of the new Conservative MPs elected in 1918 as “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” to Lloyd George, as if only a Liberal could see how repulsive the Tories were.

Baldwin succeeded in part because he well understood how repulsive the Tories might seem, and took enormous pains to create a more favourable impression.

In 1980, Fawcett introduces us to “the hard right”. It is an unsatisfactory label, for the word “hard” makes it sound more defined, and less yielding, than it really is.

Fawcett knows the term is not satisfactory, for he keeps worrying away at it, and trying to justify it. In the course of a passage about Donald Trump, he writes:

“The hard right, in sum, was not weird or extreme. It was popular and normal. Indeed, it was alarming because it was popular and normal.

“Lest the term ‘hard right’ here sound loaded, and the account of events overdrawn, the passion and dismay with which mainstream conservatives themselves reacted needs recalling. They did not, in detached spirit, dwell confidently on the hard right’s visible weaknesses and incompatibilities. They did not ask if there was here a pantomime villain got up by the liberal left.”

Trump was and is an opportunist, a huckster who has belonged to three different political parties, and who seeks, as American presidential candidates since Andrew Jackson have sought, to get himself elected by expressing the anger of poor white voters who loathe the condescension of the East Coast establishment.

When he comes to consider Boris Johnson, Fawcett quotes The Economist‘s description of him as “indifferent to the truth”, and its advice to voters last December to vote Liberal Democrat – a way, perhaps, of feeling virtuous, but also of opting out of the choice actually facing the country.

Fawcett goes on to attribute a “forceful hard-right style” to Johnson, and a “disregard for familiar liberal-democratic norms”. The author is worried, for as he declares in his preface:

“To survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support… When, as now, the right hesitates or denies its support, liberal democracy’s health is at risk.”

The conservative family is in danger of going to the bad. This is true, but has always been true, and sometimes the warnings have turned out to be exaggerated.

Johnson enjoys teasing liberals, but has lived much among them, craves their approval and himself possesses many liberal characteristics.

Fawcett will know this, for he is the Prime Minister’s uncle: a brother of Johnson’s mother Charlotte.

The near impossibility of defining Johnson, something of which his critics complain, could even be a sign that he is a conservative.

These quibbles about the last part of the book in no way diminish admiration for it as an astonishingly accomplished survey of the last two centuries of conservative thought.

38 comments for: From Disraeli to Johnson, the Left has never understood the Right, and Fawcett shows us why

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