Chris Manby: Why I am a Conservative

The first part in a new series, in which CfL members talk about their beliefs and values. If you would like to take part please email editor@con4lib.com.

I sort of drifted into conservatism out of an instinctive patriotism and a desire to preserve the nation I love. I hero-worshipped Winston Churchill as a child. I still do. His ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’ enjoys pride of place on my bookshelf. Growing up, my favourite films were ‘The Battle of Britain’, ‘Zulu’ (and, of course, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’).

In retrospect, it probably came as no surprise to anyone that I became a freedom-loving right-wing pain in the arse.

Loving one’s country is a beautiful and natural thing. It is also a deeply conservative act. Leftists often point out that nations are imagined communities, yet I suspect many still cheered for Team GB at the London Olympics three years ago. The European Union is founded on the notion that nation states can be quietly done away with, yet it has nothing to offer in their place.

The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” – Ronald Reagan

To be a conservative is to oppose radical change for it’s own sake. Left liberals cry out ‘hope!’ and ‘change!’ with little regard for what they hope to change. Conservatives take a step back and ask ‘why do we need to change this in the first place?’

The nanny state treats us like children. The welfare state treats us like victims. The surveillance state treats us all like potential criminals, and the security state treats us all like potential terrorists. To say it’s all a bit suffocating would be a dramatic understatement.

Britain is the country of Magna Carta, parliamentary democracy and the common law. We are a nation founded on the principle that no one is above the law and no one is beneath it. Our institutions evolved in such a way that no single person or body was ever able to cling to supreme power for long.

Libertarianism is not some aberration that threatens to overwhelm society beneath a tide of licentious anarchy. It is the recognition that – just like the monarchy, parliamentary sovereignty, cream tea and the full English breakfast – freedom under law is our birthright.

To be a libertarian anywhere in the English-speaking world is to be a conservative in the truest sense of the word.

I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it: ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

– Margaret Thatcher

Britain became great when its ruling classes believed in thrift, responsibility and self reliance.

The entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century harnessed fossil fuels and factories to change Britain for the better. The old feudal aristocracy lost it’s hold on the levers of power. In it’s place emerged a hard-working middle class of factory owners and managers. Living standards, even for the poor, improved dramatically. Philanthropic and self help societies flourished.

Tellingly, all this happened when government was much smaller and intervened less in the affairs of the British people.

It is revealing that much of Britain’s freedom-loving culture was destroyed by the creation of a cradle-to-the-grave welfare state that treats people like statistics rather than human beings with individual worth.

Everything begins with the individual man or woman. Without the individual there can be no families, no civil society, no concept of nationhood or humanity.

Yes, we’re all individuals.”

I’m not.”

– From Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’

Critics of libertarianism portray the free society as an irresponsible free-for-all. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Being free means being responsible for your actions. You do not have the right to do harm to others. You can’t just kill or maim or rob or cheat whoever you want.

The best sort of law for the purposes of freedom is the English common law tradition because that way law builds up slowly, and sensibly over time rather than being simply imposed from above – as in continental style law codes.

Freedom of thought and action allow each of us to pursue the beliefs and the lives that we choose for ourselves. The idea that some jumped up bureaucrat on a personal crusade to eliminate some invented public evil can deny me the right to use my mind and my body as I choose is frankly repellent.

The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus. Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the automobile industry that way.”

– Milton Friedman

The free market has been the single greatest force for good the world has ever seen. All around the world, poverty is in retreat before the forces of enterprise and free trade. The global middle class is expanding.

Hong Kong is unquestionably a better place to live than Cuba. Chilean capitalism has proven far more successful than Venezuelan ‘Chavismo’. The best thing any government can do to improve the lot of it’s people is to get out of their way.

Yet anti-capitalists don’t care about any of this. It is currently fashionable in Guardian-reading circles to blame ‘neoliberalism’ for widening inequality. Yet making the rich poorer does not make the poor richer. Envy is no basis on which to order a society.

There’s something about the militant left in particular that really irritates me. I don’t know whether it’s their bone-headed insistence that capitalism is bad (m’kay) despite all evidence to the contrary, or their parroting of Marx as though he were some kind of infallible demi-god.

Perhaps it’s more that any ideology that regards cutting public spending as unforgivable whilst championing political murder (as all good Marxist-Leninists must) is just plain nuts.

It’s always better where the Tories are.”

– Margaret Thatcher

I joined the Conservative Party precisely because I believe in personal liberty, the free market and the nation state. That is not to say the Tories are perfect. Far from it.

Many within the party are far too enthusiastic about the ‘European’ project, expensive ‘green’ policies and crackdowns on ‘hateful’ speech. The Conservative Party frequently loses sight of what it ought to stand for.

But the Tories are a big tribe. The ‘win at all costs’ heirs of Disraeli and the liberty-loving heirs of Gladstone plod the streets together in blue rosettes. The party that threw up the quisling europhile Ken Clarke also produced Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s greatest postwar Prime Minister.

The reason Conservatives for Liberty exists is to encourage the best instincts of the Conservative Party and restrain the bad.

I have a lot of sympathy for UKIP. I don’t for one second believe they are a racist party – every political movement has it’s fair share of nut-jobs and oddballs.

They certainly have a certain plucky underdog charm (as anyone who has ever watched Nigel Farage savage Herman van Rompuy must admit), and I’d be lying if I said I’d never been tempted to go over to the dark side.

But I reject the lure of UKIP because I believe that splitting the right is a terrible mistake. For one thing, right-wingers leaving the Conservative Party abandons the Tory field to the squishy centrists. For another, well, it’s my party too and I’ll be damned if I’m forced out of it.

The nature of Britain’s electoral system works against parties whose membership are dispersed. That’s why, for all their bluster, UKIP only managed to win a single seat at the last general election. It also explains their new-found enthusiasm for proportional representation.

Call me old fashioned, but changing the voting system to advance the agenda of your preferred political party strikes me as pretty un-conservative.

People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”

– Edmund Burke

Conservatism isn’t something you can define in a dictionary. No single person or party has a monopoly on it’s meaning (I’m looking at you, Raheem!). To claim that yours is the only true form of conservatism is hubristic, ignorant of history and – frankly – just plain silly.

I’m a conservative because I’m a libertarian. I’m a libertarian because I’m a conservative. To me, the two are one and the same.

 

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