Toby Baxendale is an entrepreneur who is the CEO/Founder of Direct Seafoods, a Director of the Edelweiss Fund and also Chairman of The Cobden Centre.
Last month on ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie asked “What is Right-wing?”. In this article I seek to answer the question, using small “c” and little “l” to denote the conservative and liberal systems of political-thought and Capital “C” and “L” for the respective political parties of those names.
On the Origins of the Terms Left and Right-wing
After the French Revolution of 1789, those who sat on the right hand of the Legislative Assembly were supporters of the Ancien Regime, of the Monarchy and Aristocracy, those on the left were the radicals who would oppose its reinstatement. So the conservatives seeking to conserve were Right-wing and the liberals, seeking to entrench the move of power away from the old arrangements and into that of the people were left wing.
What does it mean to be a conservative and hence a person of a Right-wing disposition? I summarise here Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism to help with the question.
On The Conservative Disposition
Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto was aimed at
“that great and intelligent class of society… which is far less interested in the contentions of party, than in the maintenance of order and the cause of good government”.
There are two axioms of conservatism; the first is spelled out in the above. The second axiom is that contract is not the foundation of society, but authority is:
“Society exists through authority, and the recognition of this authority requires the allegiance to a bond that is not contractual but transcendent, in the manner of a family tie.”
Scruton points out that you do not look after your parents when they are older because contractually they looked after you when you were a baby; there is piety that transcends this relationship, it trumps contract. That is akin to our relationship with society as individuals.
As much power as possible should rest outside of the Commons – this prevents excitable legislation in favour of short term fads like, “civil partnership,” “the free market,” the “welfare state” that fundamentally upset the existing social bonds.
Law is the will of the State. It must enact what is consistent with the wish of society. The legitimacy is derived from the civil bond and not from any individual rights of man. Legislation should be resisted if it does harm to the civil bond; if it does harm to the individual, this is of no concern to the conservative. This is opposite to the liberal maxim to allow you to do anything so long as it does not harm anyone.
Commenting on the rise of Hayekian economic liberal influence on Tory thinking, Scruton says:
“Economics stands to politics in much the same relation as neurology stands to personal affection. While I could, in principle, regard my friend as an organism activated by a complex system of nerves, and base all my knowledge of him and all my anticipations of his behaviour in that description, I certainly would not thereby understand him as I understand him instinctively through friendship. He would have become, for me, a mechanized corpse, towards which love and hatred, liking and anger, admiration and contempt, indeed all emotion that is distinctly human, would be more or less impossible. I would be forced to turn away from him as something alien and unintelligible.”
The role of the state is that of a guardian. All aspects of the civil society (Church, schools, university, traditions in sport, cultural events etc) should seek to become established in a constituted state:
“Establishment in the great internal aim of politics: the aim of government. It is through this that the forces of society become subject to the power of the state, in finding authority through the authority of the state. The conservative dogma is that the order of the state must be objective, comprehensive , and commanding the allegiance, so that the contrasting conditions in society can achieve their ideological gratification in the condition of subject hood, without recourse, to lawless self-determination. Without this completion in establishment civil society remains always on the brink of fragmentation.”
New Alignment in Politics
This summary of the conservative and Conservative Party position really up to World War I and should be contrasted against the liberal and Liberal Party position up to the late 1880s.
Herbert Spencer confronted these issues in the 1884 essay “The New Toryism”:
“Most of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type… Dating back to an earlier period than their names, the two political parties at first stood respectively for two opposed types of social organization, broadly distinguishable as the militant and the industrial—types which are characterized, the one by the régime of status, almost universal in ancient days, and the other by the régime of contract, …then these two are definable as the system of compulsory cooperation and the system of voluntary cooperation.”
Commenting on the regulatory outbursts of the well meaning Liberal administrations as opposed to their historic mission to displace the powers of the Monarch and Aristocracy from predating on the masses of people, Spencer went on to point out,
“They do not remember that, in one or other way, all these truly Liberal changes diminished compulsory cooperation throughout social life and increased voluntary cooperation. They have forgotten that, in one direction or other, they diminished the range of governmental authority, and increased the area within which each citizen may act unchecked. They have lost sight of the truth that in past times Liberalism habitually stood for individual freedom versus State-coercion.”
He then warns us that we have exchanged the malevolent dictatorship of the Monarch and Aristocracy for the new despotism of Parliament and legislation.
“Thus, then, is justified the paradox I set out with… Manifestly the implication is that, in so far as it has been extending the system of compulsion, what is now called Liberalism is a new form of Toryism.”
By contracts the Tory party from thenceforth had the influx of liberals who sought to resist the encroachment of the State in alliance with conservatives who sought to preserve parts of the civil condition that were being eroded by successive Liberal, then Socialist leaning governments.
The Modern Conservative Party
So the Conservative Party for over 100 years has become the defender of the individual against the State, historically a Left-wing position. Since the 1970s there has been an ideological pull to economic liberalism. This sought to radically empower the People v the State, a historic Left-wing position. Much of the social-conservatism of Thatcher, such as “Clause 28” stayed in place. With Cameron, we now have a continuation of the economic liberalism coupled with a socially liberal agenda. Localism is about powering local communities in ways which they have not had power before, dispersed from the top to the bottom and wielded thereafter by smallest local community for its betterment. This bears little resemblance to the State power of old that the Tory would hold in such reverence.
Little is left of the conservative philosophy in the Conservative party; it has been usurped by classical liberalism as its principle guiding light. The Party is now more Left-wing in historical terms than Right-wing. It is a curious alliance of less so influential socially conservative and more influential economic liberals. This I believe is a good thing.