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The history of the decline and fall of conservatism

The fifth stage is the crisis which has resulted not so much from Brexit as from Covid. Brexit was a revolt of a new Country party against the Court party of almost all assembled authorities, including both Labour and Conservative authorities. After some dithering, Johnson chose to side with Country. Hence 2016. But Covid has broken all of the traditions of opposition I have sketched thus far. For it is the Conservative Party – no matter how reluctantly – which stands at the head of a unified Court party which has done more than anyone since Walpole has done to ignore the Country, and not only ignore it, but oppress it. Johnson has presided over the establishment of an entirely technocratic politics of problem-and-solution which is, alas, not a politics at all, but the substitution of technique for politics. In this situation, the Government appears to be as committed as the opposition is to a unified politics of Universal Lockdown and Universal Vaccination and Universal Carbon Elimination in which no one is defending any aspect of the old order (including the church or universities) or even liberalism itself. The Conservatives have no longer got anything to defend. They have capitulated to their enemies and done it with a grotesque hyper-Disraelian-Bismarckian-Maoist-Malthusian flourish by way of forcing us to take the knee, take the mask and take the jab. They are not Tory, not liberal, certainly not even ‘austere’. They have found a magic money tree. They are presumably waiting for the seas to turn into lemonade. They are locking us into a magnificently communist-corporate hybrid order which will make the public-private partnerships of Blair and Brown look extremely pallid. If this continues then the only conservative thing about the Conservatives will be their inclination to hold on to their name.

Dr. James Alexander

This is an excellent essay specifically about the grotesquely misnamed Conservative Party in the UK, but some of it applies to other notionally ‘conservative’ groups elsewhere, particularly in the Anglosphere.

18 comments to The history of the decline and fall of conservatism

  • Rudolph Hucker

    That article might also be titled: “The Birth of The UK UniParty”.

    People will be even more confused, because it is getting terminally difficult to see any differences between the Conservative and Labour parties. It doesn’t make any difference who you vote for, you get the same policies.

    “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

  • Snorri Godhi

    A link to the essay?
    Pretty please 🙂

  • A link to the essay?

    Ah, it was an html glitch, now corrected… link under the name 👍🏻

  • Paul Marks

    Just as generations of liberals have been taught that liberalism is John Stuart Mill and Walter Bank Bailout Bagehot (that would have come as news to Prime Minister Gladstone – who did not follow either of them) with their lack of any real private property principles (if you looking for a moral or economic defence of large scale private land ownership or large scale private ownership of factories, mines and so on – do NOT look to J.S. Mill) and their support for more and more government services or bailouts (“everyone agrees” that government should provide.. according to Mill, “concede whatever is safe to concede” says Bagehot), so generations of conservatives have been taught a total MISINTERPRETATION of Edmund Burke.

    Conservatives have been taught that conservativism is “gradual and peaceful reform” with “reform” or “change” being defined as more and more Collectivism – “Social Reform”. As both Disraeli and President Nixon putting it this way “conservative men – liberal measures”, “liberal” measures being defined as more statism, and “conservative men” meaning THEMSELVES – themselves in the Big Chair, so they can…. well what exactly? Put into effect what the people who voted for them did NOT want.

    How many people who voted President Nixon wanted the United States crawl to Mao (the largest scale mass murderer in human history), vastly increase Welfare State spending, get rid of the last link money had to anything real (the last link with gold went 50 years ago), and introduce wage and price controls – and a whole web of other regulations? Any Nixon voters at all want all this? Or any of it?

    Did Conservative voters in Britain want what Edward Heath did (clue he did what Nixon did)? No they did not.

    Who voted Conservative in 1992 (John Major) in order to “spend more money than Labour even promised to spend” (Prime Minister Major though that was a good thing)?

    And who voted Conservative in 2019 to get the policies we have received? Yes I know “Covid 19” – but the increase in government spending started before then, as did the regulation increase.

    Whilst future Conservative leaders, in Britain, the United States and-so-on are taught that conservativism is “gradual and peaceful reform” with “reform” meaning leftism (Collectivism – not just higher government spending, but more and more restrictions on Freedom of Speech and so on), this will continue.

    It is easy to to attack Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan – but at least they TRIED to roll back the state. That actually makes them very unusual among conservative leaders – who have been fed this “gradual and peaceful” road to Collectivism for a very long time.

    By the way honourable mention should be made of a man who is often horribly smeared – President Warren Harding.

    Warren Harding campaigned on cutting taxes, cutting government SPENDING, and rolling back the state socially as well – by restoring Freedom of Speech and releasing political prisoners.

    And that is what President Harding did – he was not tricking gullible “Babbitt” voters, President really did want to roll back the state – and that is what he succeeded in doing.

    This is the real reason President Harding is hated by the education system (and the general cultural elite) – not because of sexual affairs, or financial corruption (which he was not involved in anyway), it was because he really did roll-back-the-state.

  • Paul Marks

    A Conservative academic to me a few years ago “history has no reverse gear”.

    He said that to me without any irony at all. And it might as well have come from the brain of Disraeli and Bismarck. Indeed from the philosophy of Hegel (which the Marxists have made such use of).

    That sort of “Conservative” is as much use as a chocolate teapot.

    If Conservativism is not about rolling back the state (being “reactionary” – “Boo-Hiss”), both economically and culturally (for the statism does terrible cultural harm) then it is pointless – it is just having President Nixon rather than President Johnson, or Prime Minister Heath rather than Prime Minister Wilson. The same road (the road to HELL) with just a different person driving the bus.

  • A Conservative academic said to me a few years ago “history has no reverse gear”. (Paul Marks, August 19, 2021 at 3:39 pm)

    So the Taliban resuming control of Afghanistan is a step forward?

    That sort of “Conservative” is as much use as a chocolate teapot.

    Less – I could eat a chocolate teapot even though I could not drink from it. But it might be overly harsh to say the academic was no more use than Biden organising a withdrawal.

  • Snorri Godhi

    If Conservativism is not about rolling back the state (being “reactionary” – “Boo-Hiss”), both economically and culturally (for the statism does terrible cultural harm) then it is pointless

    Dunno… restoring absolute monarchy (see Shlomo Maistre) or introducing theocracy, seem pretty conservative /reactionary to me.

    Anybody who wants “gradual and peaceful reform” is a pseudo-conservative in my book, but there are different ways of being truly conservative. Absolutism is one of them. Theocracy is another.

    The conservatism that i favor could be described as “cautious, tentative, reversible reform”, preferably in the direction of less government; and taking away arbitrary power from unaccountable bureaucrats.

    But if people object to this attitude being called “conservative”, i don’t mind adopting a different label.

  • Snorri Godhi

    PS: another attitude that should be accepted as conservative is Salisbury’s:
    Every change is for the worse; therefore, we must make sure that there is as little change as possible.
    (Quoting from memory.)

    That strikes me as the most genuine form of conservatism. (Although one that i don’t endorse.)
    And i hope that you’ll notice the similarity to Plato.

  • bobby b

    It’s all sort of relative, isn’t it? Aren’t progressives “rolling back conservatism” right now? Don’t we just cycle back and forth to some extent?

    Conservatism isn’t “no change.” It’s the embodiment of the Chesterton fence principle. There will always be change – advancement – improvement – conservatism simply says change for change’s sake is no virtue, that there needs to be merit in the change.

  • Shlomo Maistre

    It’s all sort of relative, isn’t it?


    Aren’t progressives “rolling back conservatism” right now?


    Don’t we just cycle back and forth to some extent?


  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – there was nothing conservative about absolute monarchy. On the contrary it was a radical revolt against traditional limitations on the power of the monarch.

    Someone who thinks that the Great Charter in England of 1215 or the French charter of 877 were bad things, or that Louis XIV (“the Sun King”) or Frederick “the Great” were good rulers (that their unlimited power was justified), is a funny sort of conservative – indeed they are not a conservative at all.

    A Western conservative believes that there are fundamental limits on the power of the state, and that institutions (the mechanisms of government) should reflect that. Erick von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, amongst many others, wrote on this.

    Someone like the “Sun King” (Louis XIV) transformed all this – turning a once proud and independent nobility into painted clowns living in his palace, and treating the Church as a department of the state, and turning commoners into servants of the state – forced to pass examinations and get licenses to practice every trade and profession (the work of Colbert).

    No one can seriously think any of this is conservative – and I do NOT believe that Shlomo Maistre does (his use of the term “Absolute Monarch” – like the Emperor Diocletian – was unfortunate).

    There is nothing wrong in having a monarchy – see Liechtenstein to this day (where the Prince has some real power – in balance with other elements), just as there is nothing wrong with being a Republic (the Republic of Venice was one for a thousand years) – but no person should have “absolute” power. Shlomo knows that – it was just an unfortunate slip (we ALL make unfortunate slips – I certainly do).

    Niall – I stand corrected, there are uses for a chocolate teapot (one can eat it, or use it an an ornament – or….). I apologise for my error.

  • Paul Marks

    An example of how institutions can get out of control is Austro-Hungary (the Hapsburg Empire) in 1914.

    The Emperor of Franz Joseph did not want war – and neither did the Prime Minister of Hungary, they both feared that war would destroy Austro-Hungary (which it did). Yet high officials first managed to push (manipulate) the very elderly “Papa Franz” into war, and then pushed the Hungarian Prime Minister into agreeing to a war that he feared would lead to utter disaster.

    German influence was part of this – but it was also the incredible power of the bureaucracy (civilian and military), the Empire was strangled in its own Red Tape (and many other colours of tape) – in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the most bureaucratic state in Europe, perhaps in the world.

    It was almost like a modern country (say the United Kingdom) where the elected government appear to be, to some extent, puppets of the Civil Service and the various “agencies” and other administrative and judicial bodies.

    The Prime Minister of Hungary knows this history rather well – which is why he demands (insists) that the elected government must rule, NOT the unelected officials (or judges).

    For this he is, bizarrely, called an enemy of democracy – when it is exactly democracy that he is defending.

    In a democratic country the people rule – either directly or via people they elect (and can remove). A democratic country is NOT a country where unelected people set policy.

    Sadly whilst the United Kingdom has left the European Union it appears to have kept what the E.U. calls “European values” – i.e. the rule of unelected officials and unelected judges, which the Hungarian and Polish governments reject (and quite rightly reject).

    Elections should not be about voting in someone who just has an entertainment function – they should be about electing people who have actual power over the administrative machine, the elected people should actually DECIDE POLICY.

    This does NOT mean that the elected politicians should have absolute power (no one should have absolute power) – but they must decide the policies of the government, they must not just be there to dance about and make speeches.

    Even a monarch (say the Prince of Liechtenstein – who has some say, although so do the elected politicians) making policy is someone who is KNOWN making policy.

    Having totally unknown officials making policy (officials of whom the vast majority of people have never heard of) in line with some international body or international bodies (also unelected – and controlled by unknown people) is not acceptable.

  • Paul Marks

    “We have to do this – it is policy”.

    Who decided the policy? Response being blank (baffled) look on the face of the official – followed by “its policy – here is the paper with it written down”.

    We can not carry on like this – it is not “conservative”, it is not anything (other than a mess). And it is in many Western countries now.

    You end up like the Austro-Hungarian Empire – strangled in its own Red Tape, with Emperors and Prime Ministers following “policies” they do not agree with, but have no real power to change.

    Someone who says “I do not want to this” (repeatedly – and explains the reasons why they do not want to do it), but then accepts that they “have to do it” because “it is policy – it has been agreed for a long time, and internationally” is NOT in power.

    They may be “in office”, but they are NOT in power.

  • Paul Marks

    There is also the bizarre saga of Mr Dominic Cummings (I hope I am spelling his name correctly).

    I am wary of what he says – because what he says fits my own prejudices (which are the opposite of those of Mr Cummings) too neatly (real life is not that neat). But anyway…..

    Like Colonel V in the United States (how dare President Trump try and change POLICY – policy is not for mere elected people) – Mr Cummings appears outraged that the Prime Minister did not follow POLICY without expressing some dissent. How dare Mr Johnson express dissent – the media were also horrified by this.

    This is all backwards – it is for the elected leadership, in this case the Prime Minister and other ministers – and with the approval of Parliament, to determine policy. Rather than be horrified by a system of international governance that takes policy away from the elected (thus reducing democracy to a farce) Mr Cummings is outraged that elected leaders express dissent, even if they then submit.

    Again this all seems a bit neat – too much in line with my own prejudices to be fully true. But even if it is partly true – then it is indeed an outrage, but in the exact opposite way to the way Mr Cummings says.

    As for Mr Cummings saying the name of “Bill Gates” with such awe – Mr Gates has no medical qualifications (indeed he has no qualifications – in any subject), and he has not been elected by anyone in the United Kingdom (or anywhere else). Why was Mr Cummings taking orders from Mr Gates? He should have been doing what the Prime Minister told him to do.

    The language is also odd – resisting lockdowns was “herd thinking” according to Mr Cummings, whereas (of course) it was the lockdowns (internationally – they are still going on in some countries) that were and are “herd thinking”.

  • Paul Marks

    Perry is fond of repeating the old line about the Conservatives being the “Stupid Party”.

    Certainly some Conservatives (like some members of any group) are stupid.

    For example, some (some) Conservatives are crowing about “Only Fans” banning sexually explicit content from October.

    The owners of “Only Fans” have not had some religious conversion – they are banning sexual content because of pressure from the banks and payment clearers.

    Why are they, the banks and payment clearers, interested? Because of the Social Justice agenda – which they are signed up to via various government and non government agencies.

    Dear very-very-very stupid people – this is not just about banning porn. This Orwellian named “inclusion agenda” (“inclusion” means banning people – exclusion, just as “diversity” means uniformity) will be used on YOU.

    Conservative thought will be banned – under the same agenda that is being used to ban porn on “Only Fans”.

    So happy about censorship now?

  • Thomas Sowell discusses the point well in his “A Conflict of Visions”, looking at social policy, moral ideas, etc.

    – The present is disproportionately filled with ephemeral folly; the past was too, in its day, but that part of the past that survived to the present has lost a lot of this stuff.

    – The present’s ‘brave new ideas’ and ‘latest fashions’ are untested. That part of the past that survived to the present has been tested.

    Thus the past – or rather, not the past in its day but the past’s survivals into our day – is in general superior to the fashionable rubbish of the present.

    However, this is only true because the past has been weeded. If the past changed nothing, lost nothing, then it would just be a preserved present and there would be no reason (actually not quite no reason, but only much weaker reasons) to prefer it to the present. So, paradoxically, it is only the ability of the present to discard some of the past that makes the past’s survivals statistically superior to the present’s ‘bold new ideas’, ‘rejection of prejudice’, etc.’

    Burke is one of the thinkers Sowell quotes to make this point. Burke expressed it as

    “To innovate is not to reform.”

    Burke derided the French revolutionaries who

    “changed everything and reformed nothing”

    Sowell calls this pro-past viewpoint the ‘constrained vision’, one of the constraints being your inability to change anything to gain an imagined good without incurring losses. Another is your inability to foresee the consequence of a change nearly as well as the already-experienced consequence of the current state or some past state – and the more ‘radical’ the change (i.e. the more unlike anything ever before tried) the more untrustworthy its proposer’s imaginings of how it will work are. In that sense the constrained vision is a conservative vision.

    However the ability of a few changes in each generation to squeeze through the well-constrained net is paradoxically what gives the past its ability to outperform the present. A truly frozen past would gradually diminish to being just another date’s present. It is wise to object to change – if and only if the past did too but not always successfully.

    I recommend getting ‘A Conflict of Visions’ if you want to think about it – my summary of Sowell’s thoughts is brutally brief (and maybe a thought or two of mine crept in).

    Sowell sometimes calls the constrained vision “The Tragic Vision”.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Niall (summarizing/interpreting Thomas Sowell):

    – The present is disproportionately filled with ephemeral folly; the past was too, in its day, but that part of the past that survived to the present has lost a lot of this stuff.

    – The present’s ‘brave new ideas’ and ‘latest fashions’ are untested. That part of the past that survived to the present has been tested.

    Thus the past – or rather, not the past in its day but the past’s survivals into our day – is in general superior to the fashionable rubbish of the present.

    I trust that the analogy to Darwinism has not escaped you.

    And i add that this is why i said that ‘conservatism’ IDEALLY means

    “cautious, tentative, reversible reform”, preferably in the direction of less government; and taking away arbitrary power from unaccountable bureaucrats.

    Why cautious, tentative, and reversible?
    Because WE DON’T KNOW whether any change is for the better or for the worse. (It’s likely to be for the worse, but there are problems to be solved.)

    Why in the direction of less government?
    Because change in the direction of more government is much harder to reverse.
    (There are other reasons, but they are not related to “cautious, tentative, reversible change”.)

    Why no arbitrary power to “civil” “servants”?
    Again, because arbitrary power cannot easily be taken away: it is almost irreversible.
    (Again, there are other reasons.)

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: if you think that “conservatism” has never been associated with absolute monarchy, then the most charitable interpretation is that you know something about the historical use of the term that i don’t know.

    However, after reading (in a previous debate) your bizarre claim that Plato was a man of the “”left””, i am skeptical about that. Let me return to this issue tomorrow.