Conservatism has been transformed from a pragmatic political approach into an ideology that demands adherence to a set of beliefs and blindness to evidence and analysis. We see it in the response to global pandemic, and in the denial of climate change. It is in its death throes. The question is, will it take humanity with it?
Conservatism is not the exclusive preserve of a political party, but as there is one that brands itself ‘Conservative’, it’s worth pausing on what they claim are their ‘values’:
- Our individual freedoms and right to social justice are respected and upheld
- Our right to free enterprise and industry is protected and encouraged
- Our dignified institutions and traditions are safeguarded and carefully maintained
We can instantly discard the first two, just as the party itself has; ‘social justice’ is nowhere to be seen in any of this party’s policies. As for the second, talk to the owners of many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who have been forced to close, or perhaps re-base themselves out of the country following Brexit.
‘Uniquely special past‘
The third, however is at the heart of a conservatism that runs wider than the political party. It is the essence; our institutions are ‘dignified’, though many of us would struggle to identify this adjective in the proceedings in the Palace of Westminster, and they must be safeguarded and carefully maintained. The old ways are the best; there is no possibility of us imagining, still less designing or creating anything that could improve on them. Now lay on top of that belief an ideology born out of it; an ideology based on the belief that not only is the past the best, but that our past is uniquely special.
A government guided by such beliefs, faces all challenges wearing an ideological straitjacket that limits analytical and creative thought; the policies put forward must conform to the ideology. What happens when these policies fail? The ideology cannot be wrong; it is a matter of how it is applied. Failure must indicate that it was not properly applied. Why else would it fail? The next policy prescription must therefore be stronger, harsher, purer. Every failure pushes them further down the rabbit hole because the ideology must be shown to be a success.
For a while, people believe them, and therefore the ‘Overton Window‘ – a term used to describe the range of policy ideas which are generally accepted as reasonable – moves in their direction. The politicians of a different persuasion face a problem. They can follow the governing party, in the hope of peeling away those who become disillusioned. This is the low-risk course; but following it allows the ideology to begin binding them, just as much as it binds the governing party. The alternative, high-risk, strategy is to shatter the ideological illusion. Tear off the straitjacket and challenge everyone to follow to a different, better place. It takes courage. It might well fail. But it is honest.
Institutions and political processes must adapt
Let’s consider that third belief of the Conservative Party; the institutions we have are the best, and cannot be improved. Ridiculous: institutions and political processes must adapt to changing circumstances. The daily shenanigans at Westminster make this painfully clear. Impossible to improve on walking through lobbies and being physically counted as a way to take a vote? No matter that someone might be unavoidably absent, or mistakenly walk into the wrong lobby, and thereby undermine the democratic value of the result; nothing could be better? Most of us would see this, in the age of telecommunications and IT as a simple matter of efficient working of government. Thinking of a better way is not, after all, so difficult.
If we look beyond the sphere of government, there are many signs that our institutions, no matter how well they served us in the past, are creaking under the strain of new circumstances and new challenges. They belong to a past age, so it’s not surprising their fitness for purpose is in question. What drives change is necessity; the threat that without change, they will fail completely, and we will all suffer as a result.
War used to drive change
In the not-too-distant past, war has often been the catalyst. Whether you call it war or not, we are in a period of dramatic international competition that is driving change in our policies, and in global institutions. In response to the resurgent threat from Putin’s regime, NATO is changing. Policies with profound implications for all of us are changing as a result of the rising power of China. And of course, there is the very present, very real threat posed by climate change, threatening the existence of all human life on the planet.
Are our competitive institutions, the nation states, able to respond quickly enough to meet this threat? The nations meet at climate conferences, struggle to agree targets, and fail to meet them, because they fear the actions needed to do so would lose them power and give temporary advantage to other governments that were less scrupulous. That an honest attempt to do so simply leaves you vulnerable to the less scrupulous. So, humanity teeters on the precipice of oblivion. If some of us tip over, will that provide the necessity to change, or will it be too late?
Conservatism doesn’t have the answers to future threats
Conservatism, whether political, economic, societal or international, has no answers to the multiple threats we face; its adherents may believe that more capitalism will provide perpetual growth, or that we will emerge as the ‘winners’ from armed conflict, or even, from the natural disasters engendered by climate change. Only the fittest shall survive, and by implication, it is they who ‘deserve’ to.
But to imagine that survival on a small piece of land (more likely several where there was once one as sea levels rise) constitutes some sort of victory, and creates a sustainable future, while the rest of the world is consumed by fire, flood, famine and pestilence, is obviously ridiculous. Population movement on a global scale due to drought and famine will dwarf any problems we see now. A planetary environment turning hostile has no favourites. The survivors of the first cataclysms will get no respite, no future that is secure. That is the ultimate selfish delusion.
If that’s not necessity sufficient to drive change, I don’t know what is. It is time for humanity as a whole to realise the old paradigms, the idea of the apex predator ruling those beneath, the ‘alpha male’, the fastest, strongest, fittest are leading us to destruction. Humanity should instead, in its teeming billions, be treating the Earth as its hive, and learning from the social cooperation of hive dwellers.
Our need to survive will kill conservatism
Conservatism is a dead end, and it is already in its death throes. Change on the scale we face will kill it off. And the changes we make must be dramatic and difficult because nothing else will do. Conservatism in all its aspects must be torn down; it must be replaced by a new radicalism, a willingness to think of solutions without boundaries set by the past. We are all in this together, to survive, or to disappear as a brief flash on the face of the Earth, a tiny spark that briefly illuminated a small planet on the outer fringe of a very ordinary galaxy.