In times of turmoil, when the political and legal order is changing in unexpected ways, it is important to conserve what is best.
Being able to understand our history is essential, at least if one wants to keep steady with hope and optimism for the future.
In his recent book Conservatism, Sir Roger Scruton makes a great contribution to helping those who may be losing heart. The book was published in Great Britain last year, but this month it is being published in its first American edition, with the added subtitle: An Invitation to the Great Tradition.
Scruton offers a deep understanding of history that brings today’s debates and disappointments into perspective.
In six chapters, his short book is an illuminating education for anyone who is baffled and confused by today’s most acrimonious debates in politics and law. The short preface he wrote for last year’s edition is expanded this year into a longer preface about how important our times are.
The Internet and the social media have disrupted the political process
“The Internet and the social media have disrupted the political process,” writes Scruton.
Branches of government are in antagonistic competition with one another. Political leaders previously unthinkable are now being elected. Issues previously thought to be unmentionable are now at the centre of controversy.
If populism wishes to sweep away the checks and balances of the political process, what should the response be by anyone who is entrusted with office?
Liberals have presided over a secular political order that has yielded the great rights and freedoms championed by liberal individualism.
There is much good in this liberal order, argues Scruton. Thus, conservatism should be understood only as “a necessary counter to the excesses of liberal individualism.”
The concern of conservatism is, as its name suggests, to conserve everything that is good. But conservatism recognizes this also requires thoughtful change and reform.
It is unproductive and dangerous to be swept up by ideological culture wars
Therefore, it is unproductive and dangerous to be swept up by ideological culture wars that pit liberals versus conservatives.
“The root of politics,” writes Scruton, “is settlement – the motive in human beings that binds them to the place, the customs, the history, and the people that are theirs.”
Conservatives who understand the history of their best ideas will realize this. Their focus will be on peacemaking over local issues.
They will not be polarized against their own neighbours, as if they must engage in a grandiose opposition to “globalism” or some other spectre of “totalitarianism.”
Conservatism by its nature is not meant to be an international cause, at war with conspiratorial forces of darkness, argues Scruton.
Instead, as his book’s study of history does show us, conservatism arises only pragmatically, to counter liberal excess, in order to preserve what is best.
But this countering of excessive liberal concern for equality is not made with a completely different conception of rights and freedoms.
Instead, it is concerned with a more effective concrete application of abstract liberal ideas. The application should not do more concrete harm than good, which is what usually happens when the abstract ideas are too zealously pursued.
“We must reform in order to conserve.” — Edmund Burke
Conservatives must understand themselves not as reactionaries to liberal policies. As the great statesman and conservative thinker Edmund Burke said, “We must reform in order to conserve.”
But as Scruton helpfully explains, such “reform” must not be violent and destructive, for such are the liberal excesses of which conservatism remains critical.
Conservative “reform” is better thought of as adaptation. And its form of adaptation is an accommodation to whatever is able to build up trust between neighbours.
“For liberals it is not the specifics of our local history and acquired obligations that should govern our political behaviour, but the universal ideals of the Enlightenment,” laments Scruton.
Because of the current imposition of such abstract ideals, “most of us are living under a government of which we don’t approve,” he notes.
Even though we live in democracies, those governments rarely enjoy a majority vote. Scruton asks, how then can we explain why our societies don’t collapse?
The answer is a truth recognized by conservative thinkers, but neglected by liberal excess
The answer is a truth recognized by conservative thinkers, but neglected by liberal excess: namely, “that political communities, democracies included, are held together by something stronger than politics.”
Trust holds local communities together. The maintenance of trust requires that politics and law must support and not undermine peace between neighbours.
Rights and freedoms cannot be understood in isolation as individual possessions. They are “brought into being by the customs and institutions of society,” explains Scruton.
Any violence to those customs and institutions does harm to trust. The history of conservative thought, warns Scruton, instructs us how this harm is truly grave.