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The History of Anglo-Conservatism

By Samuel Mace

There is a long history of American-British relations, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Of course, there has been collaboration—most significantly during the Second World War.  Yet there have also been serious tensions and even outright conflicts from War of Independence to the War of 1812, to the Suez crisis, and beyond. We talk of the ‘special relationship’. Especially in recent years, though, this has involved overt American influence on the now junior partner.

We shouldn’t be surprised by these differences. America and Britain have very different cultures. In the UK, there has been a stratified class system and no official segregationist policies. The US has traditionally opposed a strict class system, but has also practiced racial categorisation and segregation. Irving Kristol noticed these differences when he lived in London in the 1950’s. Different cultures inevitably point toward different models of conservatism.

To distinguish those models, we need to define conservatism in the first place. Roger Scruton identified the philosophy outside of a specific party or policy and proclaimed it as a loyalty to the institutions helping to guide and regulate society. Conservatism thus should be seen as an appeal to established authority as opposed to human rationality.

Although it appeals to history, historian Edmund Fawcett has argued that conservatism is inherently modern in its reaction to the liberal surge of the 18th and 19th centuries. This was not to deny the premodern roots of conservatism. Looking throughout history, we frequently find states and politics founded upon belief in enduring order, authority grounded in ritual, and the importance of social stability. Yet the emergence of liberalism helped conservatism define itself in opposition to the liberal wave. Conservation is old, but conservatism is relatively new.

We might say, in other words, that conservatism tries to stop the ‘march of progress’. At times, this has meant opposition to ideas we now accept, such as political democracy. Critics of conservatism suggest that the sharper edges of conservatism have flirted with authoritarianism as an attempt to stop the oncoming liberal storm. But conservatism begins with useful scepticism about potentially dangerous movements such as Burke’s fear of the disastrous French Revolution.

To what extent can we see the UK and US occupying the same conservative tradition? In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk found the US and America the two nations to have avoided revolution, giving at least some common cause between the two nations. Fawcett agrees. He believes the shared inheritance of Edmund Burke’s writings gave the anglosphere a conservatism more measured than that of our continental cousins, who took greater inspiration from thinkers such as Joseph De Maistre.

Burke and Maistre’s ideas were not entirely opposed. Both believed in the limits of ideals and national self-government, as opposed to the European empire pursued by French revolutionaries. Yet they had very different reasons for thinking so. Maistre believed in harsh discipline, to the point that Isiah Berlin labelled him the originator of fascism.  Burke was more measured, distrusting the ability of people at any one point in time to make their own rules and seeing society as the contract between the living, dead, and those yet to be born.   

Burke is not the only source of transatlantic conservatism. American constitutionalism owes a significant debt to the work of John Locke, as well as English jurists such as William Blackstone. Yet, the political realities of both countries highlight significant differences between the two traditions. The role of federalism, race, and class all differ between America and the UK leading to splits between American and British conservatism. 

In his recent history, The Right, Matthew Continetti notes in the early 20th century, it was the Republican Party that endorsed racial integration, a legacy of its emancipatory foundations as well as its commitment to a free market economy. This vision of the right contrasts with elements of conservative thinking in the UK that found the free market economy not to be a conservative idea, but rather a pre-eminently liberal one. In The Meaning of Conservatism, Roger Scruton emphasized the difference in economic thinking. Despite his general support for the Conservative Party, Scruton pointed out that it often failed to uphold conservative traditions in the late 20th century, preferring to pursue free market policies and European integration. On the other hand, the kind neo-conservatism associated with Kristol never found much support in Britain.

Economics is not the only area of difference. Although the Republican Party emerged from the anti-slavery movement, in the 20th century American conservatives were reluctant to support legal measures against segregation.  In the UK, race has been a less prominent issue. On the other hand, concern about immigration has been a consistent them. When Enoch Powell delivered his “rivers of blood” speech, he was denounced by Tory leaders. But he remained popular among grassroots supporters.

Finally, the relationship between conservatism and the institutional parties has been different on each side of the Atlantic. Only Britain has a Conservative Party—the most successful winner of the last two centuries. In America, at least until recently, conservative elements could be found in both parties. Although he’s since made peace with conservative activists, Donald Trump evoked that history when he insisted in 2016 that “this is called the Republican Party, it’s not the conservative party.”

Recognizing these differences is necessary to understanding the different political situations in the US and the UK. With Biden widely unpopular, Republicans seem to enjoy reasonably good prospects in the next election. Yet they face the grim reality that they have not won popular majorities in four of the previous five Presidential elections. Electoral success is important. But it does not translate into governing authority without a broad coalition that has so far eluded Trump. Rather than recognising the movement’s struggle to achieve such a majority, conservatives have largely sought to insulate themselves from public opposition through methods such as gerrymandering. In extreme cases, conservatives have even denied election results, blaming mass illegal voting for unfavorable outcomes.

The Conservative Party in the UK suffers from a very different problem. Being in power since 2010 has seen the movement run dry of ideas. Smaller parties such as Reform UK may not threaten its electoral base, but with an inactive and declining party membership, conservatism in the UK is turning towards multiple directions ultimately leading to none at all. It doesn’t help that some Conservatives, such as former prime minister Liz Truss, have embraced a style of culture war politics that’s familiar in America but doesn’t play well in Britain.

To survive these crises, conservatives—and Conservatives—need to stop appealing to a unified Anglo-American tradition. The intellectual sources, historical precedents, and institutional setups in each country are different. British and American conservatism do share common origins. But they have become different things that cannot be “fused” without diminishing each.

Samuel Mace has a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Leeds and writes Theory Matters. He tweets at @thoughtgenerate


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