A review of The Conservatives: A History, by Robin Harris

The great expansion of commerce and material power that has taken place since the dissolution of medieval Christendom has begotten an immensity of riches, such wealth and luxury as would once have seemed as fabulous as a tale in the Arabian Nights. But the great expansion was also a great disruption, one that overwhelmed cultural forms that distinguish a merely prosperous community from a civilized one—or so conservatives from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Henry Newman to T.S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson have argued.

When, in the first decades of the 19th century, England's Conservative Party was born, the great question for conservative thinkers was how a freer and more plentiful trade could be reconciled with fitness of culture. William Wordsworth, moving from radicalism to conservatism, lamented that ever since the "old usages and local privilege" of the ancient market centers fell into decay, men had come to live "irregularly massed." His friend Coleridge proposed to counter the "Christian Mammonists" of the Manchester school with a national "clerisy," a cultivated priesthood which would superintend the "harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterize our humanity." The idea, with its origins in the paideia of the Greeks, was taken up by Matthew Arnold in his campaign against the philistines: in Culture and Anarchy he argued that a culture in which "trade, business, and population" are pursued as "ends in themselves" is a defective one, incapable of "developing all sides of our humanity."

Neither Arnold's nor Coleridge's was the language of the hustings, but as Robin Harris demonstrates in The Conservatives, his lively and comprehensive history of the Tory party, the politicians got no further than the poets in their efforts to reconcile market prosperity with cultural virtue—or rather they did get further, only the solution they lit upon was wrong.

The capital figure in this history is Benjamin Disraeli. Harris, a former director of the Conservative Party's Research Department and member of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Policy Unit, says that it is not fair that English conservatives should so often "exalt Disraeli" when Lord Salisbury was the more effective party leader, keeping the Tories in office for 14 of his 17 years as leader. But Harris himself devotes considerably more pages (68) to his chapters on Disraeli than to those on Salisbury (52), Winston Churchill (40), and Thatcher (21)—and rightly so. Disraeli was, from early manhood, sensitive to the tension in the conservative mind between its recognition of the virtues of free markets and its suspicion that a people whose aspirations begin and end in a dream of material opulence is likely to be a culturally degenerate one.

* * *

In his 1845 novel Sybil; or, The Two Nations, Disraeli, speaking in the voice of his narrator, criticized the first Reform Act in the language of Coleridge: "Has it cultured the popular sensibilities to noble and ennobling ends? Has it proposed to the people of England a higher test of national respect and confidence than the debasing qualification universally prevalent in this country since the fatal introduction of the system of Dutch finance?" Disraeli fingered, as Wordsworth had, the deterioration of cultural institutions that once exercised a pastoral care over particular human flocks and fused man's chaotic, fragmentary existence into something approaching wholeness. "There is no community in England," Stephen Morley, a character in Sybil declares, "there is aggregation, but aggregation under circumstances which make it rather a disassociating than a uniting principle."

When, in 1846, Prime Minister Peel came out for free trade and moved to repeal the Corn Laws, Disraeli led the Tory revolt against a leader whom he accused of having betrayed the party. Yet six years later the un-Peeled party itself renounced protectionism, and Disraeli, in spite of his antipathy to the Manchester school, acquiesced in what Harris calls the "broadly laissez-faire approach to economic and social policy" that was then "dominant in conservative thinking."

By his own confession, however, Disraeli continued to meditate on "the moral and physical condition" of the people, and on "the means by which it might be elevated and improved." During his "Young England" phase, in the 1830s and '40s, Disraeli argued that the Church of England—"the spiritual and intellectual trainer of the people"—could be an agency of regeneration. He pointed, too, to the cultural office the aristocracy might perform, if only it would, as Carlyle said in Chartism, act like "a real Aristocracy," the kind which, before "Cash Payment" became "the universal sole nexus of man to man," taught, guided, and succored the little people.

When, however, after the election of 1874, the Conservatives came in with an absolute majority in the Commons for the first time in a generation, Disraeli, who kissed hands as prime minister a second time, did nothing to advance a "Young England" program which, fanciful as it had been in the 1840s, was by the middle '70s positively antediluvian. But rather than give up his ambition to improve "the moral and physical condition" of the people, he performed the brilliant sleight of philosophic hand that has inspired and bedeviled right-of-center politics in England and America ever since.

* * *

The partisans of what Harris calls the "paternalistic" strain in Tory politics had always looked, for inspiration, to feudalnoblesse oblige and to the local institutions of pastoral care which, under the superintendence of the church, had their center in the old market-square culture of Europe. Disraeli had once been a leader in this Romantic school, but now, with substantial power in his hands, he overcame his fondness for the "last enchantments of the Middle Age," and proposed that the modern state should take up the role of paternal guide, cultural teacher, pastoral almsgiver, and spiritual healer.

It is true that the social-reform legislation enacted during Disraeli's second ministry was modest in comparison with what came later. The "forces of property, commercial and industrial as well as landed," Lord Blake wrote in his classic biography, "were by 1874 too deeply rooted in the Conservative party to make it politically possible" for Disraeli to pursue a broader program of social reform. Nor is it clear that he wished to do so, and he made a distinction between what he called his own "permissive" reforms and the "coercive" reforms advocated by dirigiste thinkers. Harris, however, rightly calls the distinction "flimsy," and at any rate the Acts of Parliament themselves were of less consequence than the philosophy with which Disraeli justified them. "The divine right of kings," he wrote in the general preface to the 1870 "Hughenden edition" of his novels, "may have been a plea for feeble tyrants, but the divine right of government is the keystone of human progress."

* * *

Disraeli's ghost has never ceased to haunt Anglo-American conservatism. The great man's spectral fingerprints are all over the history of big-state conservatism, from the pleas for protectionist tariffs with which Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain revived the Disraelian fronde against Peel, to the Beaconsfieldian "Big Society" proclaimed by David Cameron at the last general election. Disraeli's example justified Tory acquiescence in the "thirty years of socialistic fashions" deplored by Keith Joseph at Upminster in 1974; it supplied a rationale for the Keynesian policies Harold Macmillan pursued during a ministry devoted, in his words, to "that pragmatic and sensible compromise between the extremes of collectivism and individualism for which the Party has always stood in its great periods." Nor has the shade of Disraeli been idle in America, where the influence of the Beaconsfieldian romance on the country's Right can be detected in Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism, in Nelson Rockefeller's welfare-state Republicanism, and in Richard Nixon's dalliance with a guaranteed minimum income.

It is true that right-of-center fishing expeditions in paternalist seas have often been undertaken not from conviction but from expediency, to win an election or to forestall a more radical policy. When in 1948 Churchill argued that the Tories should (in Harris's précis) "take as much credit as possible for the welfare state now taking shape," the démarche was frankly cynical, and during his last ministry Sir Winston candidly described his domestic program—"Houses and meat and not being scuppered"—as a means of staying in power. But if, like Naaman in the House of Rimmon, Churchill conformed without believing, it is not evident that Chamberlain and Baldwin—or even David Cameron—can be similarly absolved on grounds of politic Tartuffery.

* * *

Harris shows that Cameron, on becoming Tory leader, pursued a Beaconsfieldian agenda of "re-branding" the party in order that it should appear sensitive to people's cultural concerns. True-blue M.P.s of the old school were looked upon as little better than therapsidian brutes; in remodeling the franchise the Cameronians sought to replace the fogeys with "socially liberal young people and representatives of ethnic and sexual minorities." The renovation of the party required, too,

the discarding of what were regarded as old shibboleths, such as commitment to a small state (a banned phrase), low taxes, business interests and hostility to Europe. In their place the emphasis was to be on concern for green issues, social and sexual equality, quality of life—GWB (General Well Being) rather than GNP (Gross National Product)—and on government's social functions and spending (above all, the NHS).


The Cameronians were influenced, Harris observes, by American theories of "libertarian paternalism," and mindful of the admonition in Sibyl that there "is no community in England," their pursuit of a governing philosophy culminated in the vision of a "Big Society," a plan to promote community (that most delicate and elusive of associative forms) by means of a bureau in Whitehall, described in the party literature as "a powerful Office for Civil Society to fight for the interests of charities and community groups," to be staffed by the usual public-sector mandarins.

"You had better try to do no good," Lord Melbourne used to advise politicians, "and then you will get into no scrapes." The predicament of the conservative is that the advice is sound even though the cultural debacle is real. The West is poorer for the destruction of her historic culture, the memory of which is still vivid in the old regional and provincial centers of Europe, in the Piazza del Campo in Siena and the Place de la République at Arles, in the old agora centers of Prague, Florence, and Bruges, where even after the lapse of centuries the visitor is conscious of a complex cultural machinery in which art and poetry cooperated with dramatic and liturgical forms, as well as with religious faith, to nourish a civilization that was not only creative but in some degree unifying, a civilization which, in addition to realizing a high idea of style, developed an ingenious system of pastoral and charitable care.

The culture was in many ways splendid: the modern state cannot begin to recreate it, or devise an effectual substitute for it. Edmund Burke questioned whether the state can even distribute alms without doing more harm than good. "Of all things," he wrote in his 1795 "Thoughts and Details on Scarcity,"

an indiscreet tampering with the trade of provisions is the most dangerous, and it is always worst in the time when men are most disposed to it; that is, in the time of scarcity…. To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them, and not they the people. It is in the power of government to prevent much evil; it can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in anything else [emphasis added].


Not that Burke would have turned men out (in Orestes Brownson's words) "into a bleak and wintry world to starve, freeze, and die." "Whenever it happens," Burke said,

that a man can claim nothing according to the rules of commerce, and the principles of justice, he passes out of that department, and comes within the jurisdiction of mercy…. Without all doubt, charity to the poor is a direct and obligatory duty upon all Christians.

* * *

It is precisely this culture of charitable and pastoral care, evident in institutions like the French Hôtels-Dieu (Hostels of God) and the Venetian Scuole Grandi (Great Schools), that conservative paternalists in the mould of Disraeli and liberal paternalists in the mould of Franklin Roosevelt tried to build with the resources not of culture but of the state. The experiment failed; the remedies devised to repair the cultural fabric proved in many cases more damaging than the initial ruptures. To paraphrase George Moore, the philanthropic statesman is the Nero of the modern age.

Because the goods the paternal statist seeks are cultural, not political, they cannot be obtained by political means. The culture of the old market-place centers, the shells of which bear witness even now to the historic core of what C.S. Lewis called the "Old Western" civilization, was not, except incidentally, the work of politics or the state. It was the work of faith acting in cooperation with art, of mysticism acting in concert with customs, manners, and tradition. It was largely spontaneous, highly imaginative, profoundly musical: it was saturated with myth, and deeply indebted to the poets. It was above all the work of particular people in particular places, acting on their own intimate knowledge of local needs, conditions, and ways of doing things.

If Harris's The Conservatives teaches a lesson, it is that cultural reform must be sharply distinguished from political and economic reform. The two greatest conservative reformers of the last century, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, knew the importance of cultural forms and "values," but being no less conscious of the impotence of government in this sphere they did not seek to codify a cultural renovation in the statute book. Cultural reformations are the work not of legislative acts but of revolutions in the popular mind. They are inspired not by statesmen but by prophets: the confusion of the two vocations is a characteristic symptom of our time. The young Disraeli—the composer of the mystic trilogy of SibylConingsby, and Tancred—was a prophet manqué who missed his destiny in becoming merely a politician.