Emre Kazim and Matt McManus discuss the differences between the British and American brands of conservatism and how they come to bear on current political debates, including “Brexit.”
Much of our recent work has been focused on understanding the roots and dimensions of contemporary shifts in political—and especially right-wing—discourse. Whether it is examining the way that technological shifts have transformed our relationships with the nation state, or accounting for the emergence of what McManus calls postmodern conservatism, we think it is indisputable that we live in interesting and often volatile times. Much of this has been driven by the agitation of right-wing populists across the globe—from Donald Trump in the United States, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Victor Orban in continental Europe.
In this article, we wanted to look more closely at some of the deeper ideological tensions and dynamics which might have produced these developments. In particular, we want to examine why American conservatism was conducive to the exceptionally virulent emergence of Trumpist nationalism, while the United Kingdom, despite making a strong nationalist statement through Brexit, has nevertheless avoided a slide into full blown right-wing populist government. Our argument is that British conservatism is characterized by a greater degree of moderation than its American counterpart—and that this has a basis in the ideological foundations of the two respective branches Anglo-Saxon conservatism.
The Twin Roots of American Conservatism
Summarized very briefly, American conservatism has long been defined by two often intersecting ideological commitments. The first is Lockean style individualism and free market capitalism. The second, as noted by Weber, Taylor, and others, is a commitment to Christian traditionalism and mores. We will discuss both, in turn, before describing how they have evolved contemporaneously.
As observed by Patrick Deneen in his provocative recent book Why Liberalism Failed, the United States is very much a Lockean nation. The initial revolution was deeply inspired by the argument put forward in the Second Treatise on Government: that appropriation of private property was only permissible where one was given a chance to influence policy through democratic representation. This was well summarized in the revolutionary slogan “no taxation without representation.” But at a deeper level, American Lockeanism was fundamentally about the liberty to engage in self-creation. No state or moral majority should be permitted to interfere with an individual’s choices in life, particularly their religious choices, except in very extraordinary circumstances. To “live free or die” was the mantra of any self-respecting individual. This is an exceptionally permissive and modern moral position to take, one which leaves the state little room to either redistribute the fruits of “free” economic exchanges or to enforce traditional mores and expectations.
Despite making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the total population, the faithful make up a greater part of the American polity than almost any other developed country.
The second major ideological position within American conservatism was a commitment to upholding Christian traditionalism and mores. This has roots in the early incentives for American colonization, which was largely driven by Puritans and other Christian denominations who wished to establish safe and comparatively pure communities in the newly discovered continent. There they could be free from the interference of European leaders who, in the pre-Westphalian era, were all too happy to persecute religious minorities to enforce conformity to a singular Church. This religious impetus was noted by commentators like Tocqueville and persists to the present day. Despite making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the total population, the faithful make up a greater part of the American polity than almost any other developed country. While generalizing about such a large group is obviously difficult, many devout Christians are more willing to permit state intervention to regulate sexual behavior, prohibit abortion, and so on. These, and other socially conservative views, remain influential even where religious belief is becoming more fluid and less dogmatic. And this is an important point.
The differences between the Lockean and Christian commitments of American conservatism have always threatened to bubble over the surface, whether via a split in the Republican Party between libertarians and social conservatives or over specific policy issues such as acceptance for religious minorities and immigration from non-Christian countries. But the differences were quite readily papered over during the Cold War for a number of important reasons. Faced with an enemy who was both anti-capitalist and purportedly atheist, the fusionist philosophies of figures like William F. Buckley were attractive enough to paper over any deep ideological disputes. But no more. With the end of the Cold War and declining enthusiasm for the interventionist War on Terror, American conservatives have been forced to look inwards. As such, the ideological distance between the Lockean and socially-conservative wings has become starker.
The Christian elements of the movement have evolved subtly, shifting from a purely religious discourse to a nationalist one. Where Lockean conservatives were understandably pushing for greater neoliberalization and internationalization, social conservatives adopted postmodern variants of nationalism as a homologous trope to push for greater traditionalism, social homogeneity, and the marginalization of institutions and individuals who destabilize one’s sense of the collective identity. This dispute came to a head with the emergence of Trump, who has been heralded by intellectuals like Yoram Hazony for breaking with the Lockean tropes, which dominated the 21st century Republican party with promises to appoint socially conservative judges, massively curb immigration, and push more restrictions on abortion and transgender rights. This was obviously manna from heaven to American conservatives who felt they had long been ignored by Lockean individualists who favored free markets and the liberalized commodification of mores—and didn’t much care whether that proved destabilizing to traditional communities and beliefs.
The Incrementalism of British Conservatism
This distinction between the various iterations of conservatism serves as a monocle though which conservatism in the anglophone, more broadly, can be unpacked. Locke, as a 17th century Englishman, is responding to the continued consequences of the Reformation (read in terms of the Catholic-Protestant cleft), as well as the augmentation of the merchant empire (the East India Company was formed in 1600). Additionally, within Protestantism itself, fragmentations continuously occurred leading to intra-protestant sectarianism. From this context, as a means of mediating religious difference and maintaining a coherent polity, Locke distinguished between the freedom of conscience with respect to belief and with respect to action. He is forthright in his defense of the conscience of belief; this is a right which he deems sacred.
Indeed, the “conservative” part of British conservatism is its incrementalism, and this serves as a very powerful mechanism of establishing stability.
In contrast, Locke is quite militant in this opposition to conscience with respect to action. No moral respect, or social liberty, is afforded to someone who acts upon their conscientiously held beliefs. His primary argument is that this would erode society, disempower the legislative and executive, and lead to general chaos. This is a position he shares with Hobbes. In light of this, there is a somewhat ironic element to the championing of Locke as a classic liberal: the argument here is that to afford someone freedom of conscience with respect to belief—but not action—is not to afford them much at all. Despite this, within the English—and then subsequently British context (the Act of the Union 1707 was passed a few years after his death)—this tradition of mediating belief (as non-state affair) and action (in terms of concerns of the state) grew into a very British form of tolerance.
It is difficult to characterize this, however; notions such as fair-play, pragmatism, and proceduralism come to mind. In this tradition, the idea is not that people will not hold strong beliefs. Rather, it is that the state is not the fulcrum of expression for these strong beliefs. This liberalism is a continuous tradition, and in another irony, British conservatism (as a vehicle of transposing tradition) represents a continuation of such liberalism. Modern British conservatism has its roots in this Anglo-Saxon liberalism and the modern manifestation of this is most stark with when compared to the strand of Christian traditionalism in the American context. In the UK, conservative prime minister David Cameron legalized same-sex marriage; on the issue of abortion, there is nothing like the anti-abortion (“right to life”) campaigns that are observed on the other side of the Atlantic; the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson—who is regularly recognized as one of the most popular, likable, and competent figures in the Conservative Party, and is often touted as a potential future leader—is in a same-sex marriage; debate around the issue of euthanasia is seen as cross-party and a matter of conscience, and it is more actively discussed in the House of Lords as opposed to the House of Commons (i.e. it is somewhat de-politicized).
The examples cited above are with respect to social positions, which show how distinct British conservatism is in comparison to the American Christian traditionalism. However, this is not to say that, therefore, British conservatism is effectively that of the form of liberal Lockean Americanism. Indeed, there are strong counter examples of how this is not the case. The clearest example is that of the British welfare state. Yes, there is the narrative that the Conservatives are eroding state welfare programs. However, Conservatives argue themselves that the welfare system required reform—a position that was popular enough to get the party elected in a time of economic crisis. “We must live within our means” is hardly the same as: “The state has no role in social programs.”
The most famous example is that of the National Health Service. The American Lockean is quite adamant that the state should not provide this program; as U.S. Senator Ted Cruz argues, people should have the right to access health insurance, rather than have the right to health insurance per se. The state is minimal and the individual so sovereign that a person must have the liberty to choose not to have any kind of health provision. In the UK, British Conservatives know that it would be electoral suicide to openly call for the privatization of the National Health Service. Plenty of Conservatives believe that the NHS is a source of national pride and maintain the importance of it remaining nationalized. Although closer to the liberal side of state minimalism, British conservatism is generally a much more moderate force, which recognizes the role of the state in crucial areas such as healthcare and defense.
Indeed, the “conservative” part of British conservatism is its incrementalism, and this serves as a very powerful mechanism of establishing stability. In the 74 years since the end of the Second World War, the Conservatives have held power for 46 years, Labour for 28, and of those 28 years, 13 years were under a “New Labour” government. It is reported that when asked what her greatest achievement was, the then-retired former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher replied “Tony Blair.” Such pragmatic, incremental conservatism is so entrenched that the Labour government had to become “Blue-Labour” in order to get in to power. Remarkably, huge programs of privatization were undertaken by this very Labour government. This observation also tells us something about the nature of British society; it appears that the electorate generally moors itself in the “center.” This appears to be affirmed when looking at when more radical governments were voted in, namely the Labour government of Attlee (1945-51), and the Conservative government of Thatcher (1979-90). Where the former created the welfare state and was voted in at the close of the Second World War, the latter liberalized and de-industrialized the British economy off the back of the major economic decline in 1970’s.
Conclusion: Brexit, Populism and Conservatism
This also contextualizes the Brexit vote, which is indeed a break from incrementalism. One reading of the vote is that an American traditionalist form of conservatism expressed itself in the UK. However, when looking at the voting constituencies, it becomes clear that the voting majorities to “remain” in the EU were concentrated in the south east and in urban centers, whereas the “leave” vote was concentrated outside of the major cities and in rural areas. When the vote is broken down further, a strong collation is found between areas that have done better economically (“remain”) and those that have done worse (“leave”). Although there was a myriad of reasons behind the “leave” vote, simply reducing it to an expression of nativism is unjustifiable. In the oh-so British tradition, radical moments (Brexit is indeed a non-conservative discontinuity) are brought about through dire situations and understood in economic terms. These historical observations are key. Without the unifying pressure of the Cold War, American conservatism is disintegrating through its internal tensions, whereas British conservatism prods along as a behemoth of moderation.
Dr. Emre Kazim is an ethicist currently working on digital ethics at University College London. He can be found on Twitter at @EmreKazim_
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf