Conservatives must heed the call for ‘society’
Updated: Jan 14
The Conservative Party’s ability to adapt pragmatically to the political, economic and social landscape is often lauded by its supporters as the key reason behind its electoral successes, and derided by its opponents, who claim that the party is interested in nothing other than obtaining office.
While Conservatives certainly approach grand plans, dogma and ideology with a great deal of scepticism, the idea that this inevitably comes twinned with a lack of principle is entirely wrong. The party can, and indeed consistently has, fused its natural pragmatism with a clear and coherent political philosophy.
Philosophically speaking, what unites conservative thinkers from Edmund Burke to Sir Roger Scruton and politicians from Benjamin Disraeli to Boris Johnson is what has been labelled ‘civic conservatism’. Civic conservatism is often perceived to be a modern and obscure offshoot of the mainstream conservative tradition, but it in fact encapsulates the very heart and soul of conservative politics and is more relevant than ever.
In the past 15 years alone, there have been a number of excellent conservative thinkers who have highlighted the importance of civic conservatism. The David Cameron opposition years were heavily influenced by the likes of Danny Kruger, now the MP for Devizes, and Philip Blond, the author of the seminal book Red Tory, who both provided the intellectual basis for the future Prime Minister’s excellent Big Society concept.
Some years later, the seismic EU referendum ushered in a renaissance of civic conservatism, with David Goodhart’s Road to Somewhere and latterly David Skelton’s Little Platoons both arguing that neither deregulating the market or strengthening the state would constitute a sufficient response to the underlying causes of Brexit.
Naturally these writers make different arguments, but they are united by a belief that the excesses of ideology and dogma on both the left and right not only ignores but also endangers the key tenets of civil society such as a sense of place, community, tradition, the family, and local relationships.
The conservative, and indeed Conservative, priority should always be to strengthen these societal links which bind people together. Conservatism is, after all, based on a Hayekian perception of knowledge; the belief that information and wisdom isn’t concentrated in one place such as the central state or based on first principles but instead spread across society and time.
This means that the institutions which make up society are incredibly important as they contain the experience and knowledge not just of a range of existing individuals but different generations too. True liberty is transmitted from civil society to the individual when that individual is firmly enmeshed in these traditional structures, rather than treated in an atomistic way.
Strong local links and a sense of belonging are becoming more and more important to people in this country and across the world. Four years ago, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU overwhelmingly for eurosceptic reasons, but there were undeniably other related factors at play too. As Danny Kruger said in his excellent maiden speech:
Brexit is about more than Global Britain; it is a response to the call of home. It reflects people’s attachment to the places that are theirs. Patriotism is rooted in places. Our love of our country begins with love of our neighbourhoods. Our first loyalties are to the people we live among, and we have a preference to be governed by people we know. That impulse is not wrong; it is right.
Danny is absolutely correct. Brexit, and what has followed since, has demonstrated that our country is crying out for stronger community bonds, enhanced institutions and more of an emphasis on the local. If 1945 was a call for the state and 1979 was a call for the market, then the 2016 referendum and 2019 General Election were both a call for society.
The response to this call needs to focus relentlessly on the local, in the best traditions of conservatism. One way to advance this would be to build on David Cameron’s localisation agenda by making it easier for communities to own pubs, shops or post offices which are threatened with closure.
It should also involve strengthening the most fundamental element of civil society: the family. Fantastic Conservative MPs like Fiona Bruce have written extensively about how politicians could help to bolster families, while 44 Conservative MPs recently wrote to the Prime Minister to call for a new families ministry.
On the economy, the infrastructure revolution, free ports and reforming business rates will not only play a crucial role in boosting economic growth in areas which badly need it, but also help to improve the social fabric of these communities. The Prime Minister has rightly recognised that the state can play a crucial role in spreading the benefits of free market capitalism more widely, and in doing so strengthen societal bonds and a sense of place.
With some degree of irony, the radicalism of the decision taken on 23 June 2016 needs to be met with a genuinely conservative response. It is the Conservative Party, following its most fundamental instincts, which is uniquely placed to bring about the social renewal which the country clearly needs. With a Prime Minister who possesses an understanding of this along with the numbers he needs to be bold, the party can and must deliver.