Why I am not a liberal

Before I begin this article, I would like to open with the disclaimer that Conservatives for Liberty is a broad church amongst liberty-orientated Conservatives, and we passionately believe the Conservative Party is as much a home for classical liberals as it is for libertarians, Burkean conservatives, and High Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Furthermore, it is our conviction that our shared belief in liberty binds us far stronger than anything we disagree on divides us.

That said, my own political journey over the last five years has taken me decisively from the classical liberal wing of this church to an unashamed conservative who is only just beginning to get used to the word Tory. I have actually written a great deal on this change here, here, and here so, despite the title of this piece, I do not think it appropriate to repeat it here.

However I recently revisited Friedrich von Hayek’s epilogue to his 1960 magnum opus The Constitution of Liberty, titled Why I am not a conservative. In the tract, Hayek paints conservatism as a “probably necessary” opposition to drastic change, which is about as kind as he gets. He later characterises the conservative as “an opportunist and lacks principles”, happy to use coercive and arbitrary power to enforce what he believes is right.

I found myself taking great exception to much of this which, without being disrespectful, I attributed to a fundamental misunderstanding of Anglo-Saxon conservatism by an author who, being Austrian, would have been far more familiar with the nature and pedigree of European conservatism; an ideology which, with its emphasis on “social markets” and positive rights, is rooted in the reactionism of the European monarchies, as well as Catholic dogma, and could not be more different from its English namesake.

Interestingly, while Hayek fails to make the distinction between European and English conservatism he does not fail to notice that what was known as conservatism in the United States in the 1950s was something altogether different.

What in Europe was called ‘liberalism’ was here the common tradition on which the American policy had been built; thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.

However this American liberal-conservative consensus itself stemmed from the English common political tradition of the Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights. As radical as American republicanism may have seemed in the eighteenth century, the colonists saw themselves as conservatives; they wished to preserve their rights as freeborn Englishmen against what they saw as a tyrannical crown. The French revolutionaries, however, sought to establish liberties they had never enjoyed.

Another passage I took great exception to was the following;

Advocates of the Middle Way with no goal of their own, conservatives have been guided by the belief that the truth must lie somewhere between the extremes – with the result that they have shifted their position every time a more extreme movement appeared on the other wing…The position which can be rightly described as conservative at any time depends, therefore, on the direction of existing tendencies.

This is a truly preposterous statement which says more about the “Centrism” of parties like the Liberal Democrats than it does about anyone serious in their conservatism. Furthermore, a more valid criticism of conservatism would be not so much its dependency on “existing tendencies” but on the past. Though, as a conservative, I would naturally consider that a strength; that, unlike socialism and liberalism, conservatism does not believe in a timeless, universal, and transportable ideal (democracy bombs, anyone?) but in the unique and organic development of cultures and civilisations based on their unique experiences.

Hayek also goes on to characterise liberalism as “not averse to evolution or change; and where spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it wants a great deal of change of policy.” Yet this is also the very nature of Burkean and Peelite conservatism; the willingness and even the desire to change and adapt to new circumstances, discoveries and attitudes, albeit with one eye on tradition and one foot firmly on a sound philosophical foundation.

On this theme, Hayek also claims “conservatives are inclined to use the power of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind”, which is a grotesque and comical mischaracterisation. Conservatives did not seek to prevent or slow the Industrial Revolution nor, indeed, the imperialism which was to so radically transform British life.

But conservatism also places a premium on experience; we are proud not to be easily won over by high minded ideas. True, it does take leaps of faith to embrace ideas like free trade, but it was the Conservative Sir Robert Peel who, after very long and careful consideration, decided to begin the process by repealing the Corn Laws. Thereafter, free trade began to become part of the conservative canon once its success was obvious. And it is worth remembering that one of our principal criticisms of socialism has always been that it is an untested, idealistic system of governance which risks a great deal for an abstract utopia.

Hayek also criticises what he sees as conservatism’s lack of theoretical foundation, that its proponents “invariably find themselves appealing almost exclusively to authors who regarded themselves as liberal”, citing Edmund Burke’s lifelong identification as an “Old Whig”. Yet this is again where an Austrian economist may struggle with the vagaries of English political development.

Whiggism was by its very nature conservative, as distinct from liberal, in its desire to preserve the dominance of the landowning aristocracy as much as the Magna Carta. The Great Reform Act of 1832, pushed through by a Whig government, was the ultimate act of conservatism; it co-opted the middle class into the political process as a means of staving off proletarian revolution and preserving property – above all that of the aristocracy.

The British have often been called a conservative people and, in many ways, they are. Yet Britain’s unique political development has always made it essentially liberal in contrast to its European neighbours, even when it is being conservative. Such is the confusing nature of British politics, and why I am minded to forgive Austrian economists for getting it wrong.

Paul is the Conservatives for Liberty Creative Director. Follow him on Twitter: @Whiggery

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