Roger Scruton has set down his ten principles of modern Conservatism. I have taken an interest in the question of what defines a modern Conservative, and had a number of goes myself – e.g. here, here, here and here. So I was naturally interested in what Roget would say. But I found myself in quite significant disagreement with him on three connected points, and on at least one of these points I felt Roger’s position to be not merely a very different variant of Conservatism from mine, but in fact in sharp opposition to what I would understand as the Conservative view. Let’s see why.
Here are the three points I disagreed with.
- First, Roger says that a source of the “fundamental axiom” of Conservatism, namely that “the State is not an end but a means”, is the view that “The social world emerges through free association, rooted in friendship and community life.” I have a quibble with this – only a quibble but an important, deep quibble with significant implications.
- Second, Roger says that “A conservative policy must therefore free education from all the non-educational purposes to which it has been subjected.” I don’t think that’s right at all, and I don’t see why it follows from any Conservative doctrine or worldview.
- Third, Roger says “The Nation State is the sole vehicle for democratic legitimacy.” I believe this to be not simply wrong and not to follow Conservatism, but in fact to be anti-Conservative.
Let us take these points in turn.
What is my quibble with the view that the social world emerges through free association, rooted in friendship and community life. It is this: I don’t see why tribe could not be a legitimate basis for society, either as in terms of the historical tale we tell of the emergence of societies or as our account of the world today. Locke’s “First Treatise on Government” is an extended attack on what today seems to us to be a highly eccentric – indeed, plain weird – position advocated by one Sir Roger Filmer, namely a defence of the divine right of Kings derived from the King’s role as head of the family and his descent from Adam as inheritor of stewardship of the earth. Yet the fact that Locke felt it worth devoting an entire Treatise to attacking Filmer’s view and that it was an attempt to rationalise a serious position believed in the seventeenth century should give us pause for thought.
Why could a society not evolve tribally, with the legitimacy of the rulers of that society deriving from their role as heads of the family (the tribe)? There could be different methods for choosing the head of the tribe – as the son of the previous head; by the tribal shaman choosing the next head; by a direct election by the heads of the tribe; by various sub-families within the tribe choosing their own electors who then collegiately choose the head.
Whatever the method of selection of rulers, it is not obvious why family membership, rather than association by choice, could not be a legitimate basis for a society.
Indeed, at some level, those that argue for nation states based on blood – e.g. a Jewish state, or a German state or an Irish state – seem on the face of it precisely to be deriving their concept of state legitimacy from tribal association rather than “free association, rooted in friendship”. I shall below deny that Nationalism is the only legitimate basis for democracy (a view Scruton advocates later) but I note first that Scruton’s position on free association risks implying that nation states are not legitimate at all (which I don’t want to say either).
What is the problem with saying that “A conservative policy must therefore free education from all the non-educational purposes to which it has been subjected”? It is this: a conservative policy on education might have (and historically has had) many wider social and economic purposes, and I don’t believe that was wrong. For example, universal education under the Forster Education Act 1870 was advocated by many Conservatives as a necessity for political society that flowed from widening suffrage – if the poor were to be allowed to vote, they had to be educated so they understood what they were voting for. Again, other Conservatives have seen education as a mechanism for encouraging social mobility (e.g. rightly or wrongly, many Conservatives advocate grammar schools on those grounds). Other Conservatives have always taken the view that education policy should reflect the economy’s future needs – so if the country in the future will need more chemical engineers, then education policy should favour the study of chemistry and engineering. Scruton’s position is that education should be a contract purely between teacher and child. But if the taxpayer is to be the funder of education, the taxpayer has a legitimate interest in what is taught and studied.
Now to the big problem. Scruton says: “The Nation State is the sole vehicle for democratic legitimacy.” I think that is anti-Conservative. A Conservative need not believe that nation states are illegitimate, but cannot believe that they are the only legitimate form of state or believe that the only legitimate forms of state that are not nation states are those that are not democracies. For a Conservative must be a Unionist and can be an Imperialist. A Conservative can believe that the Welsh and the Scots are nations without believing that implies they must exit the UK. And a Conservative ought to believe that there is no necessity in the British being a nation for Britain to be a legitimate constitutional entity. Similarly, a Conservative ought not believe that France is an illegitimate democracy just because it has voters in South America and the Pacific Islands, or that either the British Empire was intrinsically illegitimate (since not a nation) or it would have been impossible in principle for the British Empire ever to have become a legitimate democracy.
A Conservative does not have to believe that nationalism is always wrong. But no Conservative can believe that nationalism is the only legitimate basis for democratic association. That is Toryism at best. Surely it is true that many modern Conservative Party supporters are in fact simply English nationalists, but we should not redefine Conservatism into English Toryism.
I have many further disagreements with Roger’s position – mainly revolving around important things he has left out. But these three points seemed worth explaining alone.