The two remaining candidates for the Tory leadership stress different aspects of conservatism which appeal to different sections of the parliamentary party and the wider (although not very wide) party membership. For example, Liz Truss wishes to cut taxes whereas Rishi Sunak prefers to reduce inflation before making tax cuts. Both will maintain a hard Brexit and cut bureaucracy (despite the fact that it was Brexit that increased it). Both aim to restore honesty and decency to political life and see themselves as the heir to Mrs Thatcher.
These claims and others draw from the underlying social and political philosophy of conservatism. I shall suggest the main features of that philosophy as it has developed in the UK since the 18th century, and consider how far the candidates continue it.
The earliest outline of conservatism known to me is in the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-97). Burke was born in Ireland but became a not very successful English MP. He is more accurately regarded as a political writer than as a political theorist or philosopher. He was suspicious of the abstract: an enduring feature of Conservatives and one which distinguishes them from socialists. In particular, he was critical of the French Revolution. He rejected the appeal of the revolutionaries to rights and the central place they gave to reason. We can see to this day the suspicion with which Conservatives regard rights, especially 'human rights', and even more especially European human rights.
Unlike liberals and socialists, Conservative thinkers usually possess a keen sense of what they see as the darker side to human nature. Present-day Conservatives wish to counter crime with what we might call a 'prison works' approach. On the other hand, Burke speaks of a need for what he refers to as 'the decent drapery of life... pleasing illusions to make power gentle and obedience liberal'. Traditional Conservatives have therefore stressed communities and community feeling as ways of modifying anti-social impulses.
Traditional conservatism depicts society's forms and institutions as evolving steadily over generations. Steady evolution, they think, will enable today's individuals to see themselves as linked to earlier centuries and so reinforce their own sense of identity and culture. But Burke's stress on sense of identity and culture has been transformed by current Conservatives into an aggressive anti-European nationalism.
The traditional Conservative will say that individuals are the best judges of their own interests and that it is up to individuals to make their own way through life. They stress the importance of individuals being permitted to benefit from the results of their efforts and to pass these benefits on to their families. Going along with this is the belief that we should provide for our own dependents. For those who cannot support their dependents, traditional Conservatives prefer charities to rights, and point to difficulties when such matters are placed in the hands of the state.
In terms of foreign policy, Burke supported the emancipation of the American colonies, the emancipation of Ireland, and the emancipation of India from the mismanagement of the East India Company. Early conservatism, therefore, was not inward-looking and its foreign policy could be described as 'liberal'.
In this brief outline of early conservatism, it is possible to detect some of the views of present-day leadership contenders. For example: the hostility to 'rights'; the sense of tradition, say in support for royalty and its customs; a belief in 'decency'; a suspicion of 'experts'; a dislike of 'foreigners', but also support for other countries where the values of decency are denied.
Perhaps there was an approximation to 'early conservatism' in the regime of Harold Macmillan, and as I said, there are still elements of it expressed by some present-day Conservatives. But a spanner was thrown in the works by Margaret Thatcher and a different form of conservatism appeared: 'free market' conservatism.
Current Conservatives wish to identify with Mrs Thatcher, perhaps because her era is regarded as one which exemplifies clear and definite values, as contrasted with the confusion and uncertain standards of the present government. What were the values of the Thatcher form of conservatism which current leaders wish to emulate?
Mrs Thatcher is famous for saying in 1987: '... there is no such thing as society', which sounds a very anti-Burkean position. Consistent with the anti-intellectual Conservative tradition, her comments were made in an interview with a magazine not usually publicly displayed on the shelves of political theorists, namely, Women's Own
. Her main point seemed to be that when people have a problem – homelessness, unemployment, etc – they turn to the government for help. But, she said, people have a duty to look after themselves, their families and their neighbours; and governments can only work through the individuals who make up such groups.
In other words, the thrust of her argument seemed in fact actually to be Burkean. She seemed to be saying that there is
such a thing as society and that people should turn to it first and not expect governments to solve every social ill.
But that interpretation does not make for eye-catching headlines. Her point is good conservatism, however, and it launched an idea which David Cameron later took up with his promotion of the 'big society'. It is unfortunate that Cameron's idea was not given more substance. It is in keeping with the political philosophy of communitarianism, about which I have written in SR, and also in a medical context.
The reason why Mrs Thatcher was misunderstood is not that not enough people read Women's Own
but rather that her distinctive policies went in a very different direction: into extreme free-market, managerial individualism. The source of this policy was not in traditional English conservatism but rather in the economics of Milton Friedman and US Republicans although (despite claims by Mrs Thatcher) not in Adam Smith.
I shall not expand here on Mrs Thatcher's highly biased interpretation of Adam Smith (if she had ever read his books). My point in this essay is that extreme free market individualism is not the pathway of traditional conservatism. But since the time of Mrs Thatcher, it has been imported from the US and is now central to conservatism. It has been endorsed in different ways by both current leadership candidates (although Mrs Thatcher would not have cut taxes at the risk of increased inflation and a hike in interest rates).
There are several problems with the free market version of conservatism. Firstly, it benefits most those sufficiently well-off to buy its market products, while those with few financial resources are disadvantaged.
Secondly, market solutions are not appropriate for current social and economic problems such as inflation, pollution and environmental destruction.
Thirdly, the capitalism involved in a free market economy distributes wealth very unevenly. Investors and management roles are well-rewarded while the wages of what trade unions call 'working people' are limited (although the wages of some but by no means all occupations can be increased by means of strikes). Free market economics tends to create a smallish very wealthy class, in contrast to a large relatively impoverished class.
All these disadvantages are legacies of the Thatcher brand of conservatism which potential leaders of the current Conservative Party show every sign of endorsing.
The Thatcher hope was that the benefits of her policies would 'trickle down'; the current Conservative slogan is 'levelling up'. Both have failed. Whatever it is called, the gap between the rich and poor and relatively poor is greater than it has ever been and is increasing.
There is a Conservative (and indeed a Labour) belief that 'levelling up' will be assisted, for example, by HS2; that digging up the beautiful English countryside at the cost of countless billions in order to knock 30 minutes off rail journeys from London to Birmingham or Leeds will assist 'levelling up'. That belief is for the athletes of credulity. I wonder what the ticket price will be.
The problem for both contenders for leadership is that the last few years have done serious damage to the whole brand of conservatism. Burke's version of conservatism – which stresses community and an underlying decency – has been undermined: 'community' has been undermined by a free market 'sod you' attitude, and decency by the lies and corruption at the heart of government. For example, having committed themselves on TV to honesty with the electorate, both candidates went on to say that the huge queues at Dover have nothing to do with Brexit and are obviously the fault of the French. 'We've taken back control!' But not in the passport queues or in the supply of workers for everything from fruit picking to the NHS. As Basil Fawlty would say: Don't mention Brexit!
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow