“As little should happen as much as
possible”: Traditionalism and
libertarianism in the 21st century
“It is so to shape matters that the greatest possible liberty for the exercise of his own moral and intellectual qualities should be offered to him by law.”
– Robert Gasgogne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury.
By Calum Heaton
Gazing upon any portrait of Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, immediately conjures up images of Dickensian Victorian Britain, thanks to his serious and aristocratic demeanour, emphasised by his grand beard. However, Salisbury deserves as much recognition as Disraeli, the father of One Nation Conservatism, and Gladstone, the figurehead of classical liberalism.
The three-time prime minister was in fact the first beacon of ideological fusionism in the UK and, in this case, the seemingly paradoxical fusion of traditionalist conservatism and what would go on to be called libertarianism. This unusual blend, often perceived as entirely contradictory, has made a mark on the current British political landscape, most emphasised by the efforts of one backbench notable, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
When asked to focus on Lord Salisbury and his influences on this ‘traditionalist libertarianism,’ I was more concerned with trying to define ‘traditionalist’ than I was excited to write about such an important prime minister. For one, the word has been hijacked and consequently debased by populist groups who talk about ‘traditional family values’ or ‘traditional law and order.’
Upon further inspection, these baseless buzzwords actually bring along highly un-libertarian ideas such as opposition to same-sex families and the belief that the death penalty will bring the country back to some form of ‘traditional’ 1950s society where more people wore hats and bakers road bikes to deliver their bread. The ultimate flaw with this worship of the past, of course, is how traditional should one go? Taking law and order as an example again, would not the medieval practice of burning religious heretics and the hanging of petty thieves be declared as the ultimate form of tradition?
Mindless reactionary impulses, dubbed ‘traditional,’ are more than likely to fail given our organic society is in a constant state of flux. Put more simply, our values and concepts of the past and tradition are always changing, rendering it impossible to pinpoint what tradition X or Y actually means. Such mindless statements could mean reintroduction of a policy from a government in the 1930s or the diktats issued in 1st century Roman Britain.
However, tradition remains in other forms and Lord Salisbury blended it with his stern beliefs in civil liberty, limited government and the rights of the individual. He lived by his belief that “Whatever happens will be for the worse and therefore it is in our interests that as little should happen as possible”. From this we can determine Salisbury accepted some form of government but a minimalist one. During his terms of office, for example he opposed councils dominated by the clergy in case they tried to restrict the consumption of alcohol in their respective regions.
Even in the days of where 50 men ran the entirety of British India, Salisbury disapproved of the bureaucracy present in Whitehall. Disliking the treasury, the War Office and the Admiralty the most, he declared that any government department would “create business for itself as surely as a new railway will create traffic.” Most striking of all, though, was Salisbury’s opposition to state interference in the lives of the individual.
Writing on an issue which is often regarded as the pinnacle of modern libertarianism, Salisbury declared in a letter to Tory MP Sir Henry Peek in 1888, “I object to Parliament trying to regulate private morality in matters which only affects the person who commits to the offence”. Speaking in paternalistic Victorian England, this allusion to what became known as the harm principle is most shocking as it would be more fitting in the texts of Murray Rothbard or Ayn Rand almost a century later, than the speeches of a prime minister branded by historians a ‘negative reactionary.’
The values of Lord Salisbury are best exemplified in a speech made to the Kingston and District Working Men’s Association in 1883. Though a very separate matter, the venue for this speech certainly highlights that blue collar conservatism is a long-standing and potent idea. The Prime Minister declared “By a free country I mean a country where people are allowed, as long as they do not hurt their neighbours, to do as they like. I do not mean a country where six men may make five men do exactly as they like. That is not my notion of freedom.” In one speech, a prime minister of the Victorian era espoused the pinnacle building blocks of personal and political freedom.
Any further reading will reveal Salisbury’s attitudes towards an overbearing state, centralisation, laissez-faire economics and the nature of government bureaucrats. The nature of this piece, though, is not to analyse every detail of Salisbury’s premiership and whether or not he put his ideas into practice but to comtemplate the legacy he left and his place in the modern Conservative party.
American philosopher and political commentator William F. Buckley Jr is often regarded as the saviour of Republicanism in the US thanks to his assistance with the creation of the Young Americans for Freedom which rejuvenated the American right and paved the way for the ascension of Ronald Reagan. Frank S. Meyer, the senior editor of the National Review, was inspired by Buckley’s fusion of libertarianism and conservatism. Buckley himself was a walking example of fusionism, well emphasised by his South Carolinian drawl tinged with Received Pronunciation, inherited from his British nanny.
Buckley’s movement had social liberals on one hand and hard line Catholics on the other all united against statism. Men like Russell Kirk, a hard line Roman Catholic, wrote in Meyer’s paper. Though his religious views were incompatible with issues such as same sex marriage and abortion, he was a defender of constitutional liberty as much as any Ron Paul libertarian today. This staunch defence of a timeless document galvanised what was seen as two polar opposite strains of ideology.
We can see how traditionalist libertarianism has worked in America but can the same be said for the UK? Without sounding overly theatrical, we still need to answer what tradition should mean for the British right. Taking hold of the real meaning of the word with a clear concept of the values hoping to be espoused is essential for today’s centre-right.
Brushing aside the empty buzzwords of ‘traditional values,’ tradition should mean the upholding of liberty. The rhetoric is set in stone by Salisbury, exemplified by Buckley across the Atlantic and ready for the taking in Westminster. The historical legacy of the Salisburian Conservative party is a powerful weapon ready to be deplored in the defence of freedom and against big government.
In light of ever encroaching state control from either London, the Pentagon or Brussels, Jacob Rees-Mogg has taken up Salisbury’s mantle. A strong believer in property rights, checks and balances against the state and the ending of laws made in Brussels and Strasbourg, Rees-Mogg has continued Salisbury’s legacy. Just as Salisbury launched radical reform against the paternalistic Victorian state, Rees-Mogg has fought against the policies of those hoping to make us less free. Let us hope more men like him hear the rallying call and take up the mantle.
Finding it hard to define his exact political ideology, Calum is an odd mix of social and economic libertarianism combined with constitutional conservatism. Think of William F. Buckley Jr and Margaret Thatcher happily chatting away with a strange hereditary peer hiding in the corner. Follow him on Twitter @_LibertyPen