Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
The EU features in so much of the news at the moment that I thought I should write about something else. So: where to turn, but to The Paris Statement? No, nothing to do with climate accords. Rather, it’s the 36 paragraphs of first-person-plural assertions that make up the recent manifesto call of a group of European academics including Roger Scruton. Setting out the case for its subtitle – “a Europe we can believe in” – the statement offers us lots to discuss, much of which, however, relates to things aside, directly, from the EU.
There are two main difficulties facing anyone addressing the increasingly urgent calls for new joined-up ideas on the right of British politics. First is a need to get better at recognising the good stuff that’s already there (a surprising mistake for conservatives to make). And second is the little problem that comes from the way in which any ideological approach is somewhat anathema to most standard understandings of conservatism. The reason that the Conservative Party (and its previous instantiations) has managed to veer from absolute monarchism, to free marketereering, to one-nation paternalism, to individualism, to wannabe communitarianism, to social markets, to whatever-it-is-now, is that conservatism is responsive and situtational, rather than tied to a set of fixed ideals.
Understandably, therefore, many conservatives feel uncomfortable when handed long lists of ‘things we believe in’; the ordered bureaucracy and central planning that – at its lowest moments – CCHQ exemplifies are many conservatives’ worst nightmare. Yet thinkers persist in trying to describe and define the political term that holds these politicos together. Philosophers from Burke to Oakeshott to Scruton, have, in varying ways, attempted to isolate its tenets – whether by focusing on broad ideas, from pragmatism to patriotism; or on policy approaches, from fiscal restraint to environmental agendas.
Scruton is one of the ten signatories of The Paris Statement, which reads, quite plainly, as a manifesto for a certain kind of social conservatism that opposes a certain kind of modernity. This is a conservatism rooted in the ‘good’ liberties of Western Europe (its writers counsel against the “libertine hedonism [that] often leads to boredom and a profound sense of purposelessness”), the love of custom over dogma, and an allegiance to the home that has been left “unfulfilled” except through “football loyalties”. Sure, the statement points up the ways in which the EU (or the “false Europe”) has prevented and trampled upon that ‘lost’ style of politics and society, but its message is both broader and narrower than its name and subtitle suggest.
The statement makes a fervent argument for the nation state – something it explains as central (but not inevitably so) to the “real Europe”, having been born from wars amongst its members. And its writers decry contemporary “lust for the approbration of the international community”, the “cultural destruction” wreaked by the weak teachers and academics who stand against free speech, and the tyrannies of technocracy. One can feel, therefore, a little confused why the statement focuses on Europe, rather, say, than the world, the West, Western Europe, or just the UK (or, even, England). The problems it describes are not the problems of Europe alone; the answers it poses do not depend on the supra-national. Of course, part of the reason for the writers’ European focus is that they feel the EU exemplifies the problems they identify. And part of the reason is simply that the Brexit moment opens a nice neat space for someone – or some ten people – to fight fire with fire in a battle against those positing that the EU represents all the answers to everything, as a moral arbiter in a Godless time. The statement uses that space, for better or for worse.
Its embrace of “the real Europe”, for its classical traditions, Christian values, and celebration of married couples and parenting, leaves us with some unsettling questions. What about the rest of the world? What about those people who lead their lives in different yet nonetheless valuable ways? What about those who worship different gods, those who delight in the fact that the civil rights movements of the twentieth century have led to freer and fairer societies, those mothers who want to go out to work? The supremacist (sorry, controversial word, I know) sentiment of the statement frustrates, and its emphasis on Muslims can make for uncomfortable reading. (Incendiary language rarely helps in the making of difficult arguments.) Its writers worry about a “multicultural world without borders”, yet feel that the “real Europe” is “our precious and irreplaceable civilisation” – that “Europe is our home”. This can seem contradictory.
Nonetheless, the statement gives conservatives a great deal to consider. In a time when so much thinking within the Party prioritises plots and partisanship, this kind of unabashed engagement with the big issues de jour is welcome. The statement is not alone in attempting that, of course: from the fringe debates of the Party conference (so much more substantial than the main stage speeches, as many have pointed out) to George Freeman’s big tent fiesta, there is both demand for and supply of ideas within the centre right.
The biggest question, however, is what space there is for conservatism within that. Few in British politics do not recognise the need to temper the “corporate giganticism” that the Paris Statement identifies as threatening even political sovereignty; few aren’t worried by the social, representational, and economic imbalances dividing our country. What can modern conservatism offer? Which political ideologies should it espouse today? The Paris Statement does not satisfactorily answer these questions. The political leaders of the future will be those who engage seriously with them.