View from
The Right

The “Orthodox Conservatives” and the Essence of British Conservatism

(Patricia Hamilton/Getty Images)

Orthodox Conservatism believes that the culture we have is held in trust—and that it is particular to us and our shared history; it is distinctive, not exclusive and is open to those who wish to join.”

Social conservatism is dead in Britain, or so we’re meant to believe. Those who describe themselves as such are deemed outdated in their ideas and bigoted in their beliefs. Social and cultural conservatives are old and old-fashioned, out-of-date and out of time. All we have to do is wait for them to die out, and we can move on into our glorious future. 

It is the belief of the Orthodox Conservatives that this is a mistaken view, and this group hopes to represent those who find themselves longing for an alternative to the “There Is No Alternative” politics of the last 30 years. 

To reassure those who are nervous of what this group represents, the goal of the Orthodox Conservatives is not to reconquer the conservative movement and party for the forces of reaction. The goal is less grandiose but more serious: to provide a space within the conservative movement and party for those of a more socially conservative temperament to meet and discuss ideas—and also to provide a forum for considering how these ideas could contribute to shaping the policy discourse. 

The Orthodox Conservatives believe social conservatism is something that, as British academic Paula Surridge argues, still matters to a great many people up and down the country. Part of the problem (and one that was revealed by the reactions to the 2019 general election) appears to be that people are unclear as to what social conservatism actually is today, so this needs some clarification.

First, the Orthodox Conservative vision of social conservatism is not inherently reactionary. For Edmund Burke, “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.” The Reactionary views the world with despair, yearning to bring the past into the present and freeze it in time, while Conservatives view the world with realistic hope. Conservatism “maintains to continue,” as Giuseppe Prezzolini puts it. Social conservatism is a living, vital sensibility, concerned above all with maintaining the fragile and easily broken intergenerational covenant, binding the dead, living and unborn into a community in spirit that stretches across time. This pact is communicated across the generations through our culture that resonates with the echoes of our Christian past, embodying the continued meaning of our collective life that lives on after we are gone.

Conservatives are not rationalists who believe that reason is the same everywhere and always, equally accessible to every individual, and that as Yoram Hazony and Ofir Haivry write, “one need only consult reason to arrive at the one form of government that is everywhere the best, for all mankind.”

Orthodox Conservatism sees people as born into an unchosen social order that surrounds us and shapes how we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world. Orthodox Conservatism believes this social ecology pre-exists the flawed, imperfect individual, and acts to mould and shape his crooked heart to participate in our common life, one which is based in duties and obligations as well as rights and privileges. The wisdom of individuals is small and subject to irrational human instincts and desires. These formative familial, local, and national bonds enable us to maintain the fabric of civil society that form future generations by restraining and directing these impulses. Orthodox Conservatism believes that the culture we have is held in trust—and that it is particular to us and our shared history; it is distinctive, not exclusive and is open to those who wish to join. 

Conservatives are not rationalists who believe that reason is the same everywhere and always, equally accessible to every individual, and that as Yoram Hazony and Ofir Haivry write, “one need only consult reason to arrive at the one form of government that is everywhere the best, for all mankind.” Instead, they are empiricists who believe that learning from the long historical experience of a particular culture or nation is the way to achieve the stability and order that enables beneficial freedom. This is achieved by the conservative emphasis on the maintenance of “the integrity of the inherited national edifice,” which allows for adaptation while retaining the best of what we have.

In contrast to the view of the situated individual, the liberal view of the world sees these constraints as limits to the individual’s ability to realize his full autonomy. As John Gray and Patrick Deneen have written, for liberals from Locke to Rawls, the human person is unattached to time, place, and the people who inhabit these spaces. Instead, humanity is a collection of free-floating atoms, whose only motivation is freedom, choice, and the accumulation of these things through social emancipation and economic liberty. 

In our time, a political implementation of this worldview has been attempted through what David Goodhart calls double liberalism—and what Michael Lind dubs the “technocratic neoliberalism” of the last 30 years. This is the “synthesis of the free-market economic liberalism of the libertarian right and the cultural liberalism of the bohemian/academic left.” In policy terms, this post-Cold War dispensation has meant deregulation, offshoring, radical individualism, and mass immigration.

This vision of a global future—one in which ceaseless and constant flux is the norm, change is the only moral ideal to be celebrated, and stability is to be denigrated—was and continues to be divorced from what people actually long for. The elites who administer this vision denigrate the attachments people in Britain have to their sense of home. As YouGov shows, they offer the opposite of what large numbers of the British people actually want, which is both economic and cultural security. 

Those in Lind’s Overclass, who have enjoyed the benefits of this order, still find it difficult to accept that those they govern have legitimate grievances about how globalization has played out. Rather than taking responsibility for contributing to this state of affairs, they signal their morality by engaging in performative wokeness. Our elites, Mary Harrington argues, preach cultural dissolution for others while practicing conservatism for themselves. As Disraeli would say, woke views, “are very convenient opinions for the rich and powerful.”

The vision of the Orthodox Conservatives is relevant today because it recognizes that what we face is not something that can be solved only through economic technique. The Right must move past its fixation with economism and speak the language of identity to engage with the crisis of solidarity that is shredding our society, leaving our social fabric dangerously frayed. 

The erosion of the sense of what Roger Scruton calls the “first person plural” is made worse by the insistence on seeing ourselves as atomized economic actors whose only goal in life is to accumulate personal material wealth. We see this most starkly in the meaning crisis that is gripping society and in young people, in particular. Is it surprising that an ideology predicated on the isolated individual has overseen rocketing rates of loneliness among old and young? 

As Thomas Fazi has argued, social conservatism today is, therefore, about defending against those things which threaten the need of those in society for “community, belonging, rootedness and identity.” In other words, the need for a home. All this rests on exploring the question Samuel Huntington posed: who are we? This is an urgent discussion and relates to the state of what Hazony calls the bonds of mutual loyalty that hold society together but are now seriously strained. If we don’t know who we are, how can we hope to renew our institutions that ground us and encourage a feeling of common sympathy and sentiment to each other?

Brexit presents an opportunity and a risk: to see our country crack up along lines of tribal identity, or to strengthen our sense of solidarity by building on a shared national identity—the upper limit of community—grounded in a shared culture. Social cohesion is crucial in renewing our mutual loyalty and has been neglected or half-heartedly attended to for too long. This is something that must be prioritized by an intelligent use of the state. 

To this end, an immigration system that benefits us must partner with a greater emphasis on integration. Law enforcement meanwhile is essential to provide the order people need to live safe and secure lives. All this must be paired with an economic settlement that benefits the heartland working and middle-class outside the London hub. This settlement must, as Gray Connolly writes, hold the needs of those in the dawn (children), dusk (elderly) and shadows (disabled) of life as a priority. The dignity of work and strength of our human relationships, what used to be called the common good, must be the driving force of social conservatism today.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made some promising noises about leveling up the nation, of knitting communities together again, and reducing regional inequality. He has said that one shouldn’t have to leave home, family and community because of economic conditions brought about by poor political choices. His quiet patriotism, one which demonstrates a gratitude for what we have, is welcome. He has given voice to the right instincts, while some of his policies have been disappointing. Orthodox Conservatism aims to balance out these more liberal predilections, while giving substance to the growing movement in British conservatism towards the politics of home.

Henry George is a freelance writer living in the U.K. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.

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