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The Libertarian Spirit of Traditional Conservatism

By David A. Cowan

In the current debate between so-called Freedom Conservatives and National Conservatives, it has been widely assumed that the latter's embrace of British and European-inspired conservatism must result in a philosophy that is more hostile to liberty. Charles Kesler has described National Conservatism as “a re-writing of American conservatism along new, less brazenly American lines, assimilating it, in effect, to the nationalism of other nations, beginning with Great Britain.” Matthew Continetti also remarked that “pre-2016 conservatism was distinctly American, National Conservatism is global: Its signatories hail from Israel, Croatia, Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, Poland, France, and Hungary. Whereas pre-2016 conservatism held the Declaration of Independence in esteem, the National Conservative statement ignores the Declaration and references “the Constitution of 1787” once.”

British and American conservatism have never been identical. Even so, conservatism in Britain, including its traditionalist strands, is quite different from counterparts in continental Europe. While there are certainly important points of difference with American political traditions, there is also significant overlap. Alongside British conservatism’s attachment to customs and institutions is a spirit of liberty.

Although the word “Tory” dates to the late 17th Century, British conservatism owes its modern origins to late-eighteenth century Whigs, principally Edmund Burke and William Pitt the Younger, who were repelled by the violence and disorder of the French Revolution. In the centuries since, British conservatism has absorbed waves of disillusioned liberals, ex-communists, and former social democrats. The Conservative and Unionist Party, to give the party its full name, is itself a result of the late-Victorian “fusion” of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism, held together by a commitment to freedom balanced with community.

The balance within conservatism was unsettled by the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the rapid decline of the current government following the pandemic. But it would be prudent for American conservatives to think about how British conservatives have managed (or mismanaged) their task. To help illustrate this point, it is revealing to examine how even the most traditionalist school of British conservatism, often referred to as High Toryism, attempted to fuse freedom with community. Freedom Conservatives and National Conservatives will need to find a similar balance to avoid a permanent fracture in the broader conservative movement.


High Tory Tradition

There is a recent tendency among American conservatives to judge conservatism in Britain as no different from the “blood and soil” conservatism of continental Europe. In recent times, British conservatism has been thrown together with authoritarian traditions. As a result, Brexiteers have been put in the same box as Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban.

This conflation marks a departure from the shared sense of an Anglo-American conservatism that was popular during the heyday of the Thatcher-Reagan years and lingers in some corners of Westminster and the Beltway. But the rise of national populism and postliberalism, as well as challenges distinct from the problems of the 1980s, has caused this understanding to diminish. The relationship between the UK Conservative Party and the US Republican Party has become increasingly distant since the George W. Bush years. Conservatives on both side of the Atlantic face a difficult time of maintaining the few bridges left, let alone building new ones.

As for British conservatism's historical relationship with conservatism in Europe and America, it sits between the two as a form of hybrid. American conservatism, and the political order it defends, has been influenced by British schools of thought, such as “country” ideology, Enlightenment philosophy, radical Whig politics, and religious reform, that also make up a part of British conservatism's heritage. In this respect, there is considerable overlap between the two traditions.

Yet conservatism in Britain has also been shaped by other schools of thought such as High Churchmen, reactionary Whigs, Evangelical conservatives, among others. These traditions had less influence, if any, in the United States.

Even so, British traditionalism remains distinct from traditionalist schools in Europe due to its commitment to institutions. Britain has enjoyed considerable continuity over the centuries, as its constitution has evolved from medieval monarchy to modern democracy. This path was not always easy or free of violence. Yet it stands in contrast to most other European countries that have experienced cycles of revolution, civil war, dictatorship, and occupation. 

As a result, European politics often features multiple right-wing parties that respectively lean towards classical liberalism, traditional conservatism, or centrism. In Britain, there is a single Conservative Party, that has succeeded in winning elections for generations. It owes this longevity and broad reach to one of its greatest practitioners: three-time Prime Minister, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury.


Victorian Fusionism

As a nineteenth century British aristocrat, Lord Salisbury is far removed from the socio-political world of twenty-first century America. But there are vital lessons to be drawn from his career. Leader of the Conservative Party for twenty-one years and Prime Minister for over thirteen years across four terms in office, Salisbury dominated the late-Victorian scene. He was a proven winner, triumphing in three landslide victories and becoming the first incumbent Prime Minister to win re-election since the 1832 Great Reform Act. Key to this political success was his ability to win over and assimilate the Unionist defectors from the Liberal Party in the wake of William Gladstone’s decision to promise home rule for Ireland.

Salisbury wrote extensively about his understanding of politics. Historian Robert Blake declared Salisbury to be “the most formidable intellectual figure that the Conservative party has ever produced”. As a younger son, who inherited his father’s title later in life because of his older brother’s death, Salisbury was expected to marry a wealthy heiress, but instead married for love. His father cut him off financially, and Lord Salisbury became a journalist to support himself. Many of his articles were published anonymously in conservative journals, and he would continue this work as a rebellious MP in the 1850s and 1860s. Salisbury’s defense of traditional institutions such as crown, church, and landed wealth was twinned with a robust belief in individual autonomy and a free society.

Despite this impressive record of achievement, Salisbury’s government is not associated with any legislative masterstroke or historic crisis, unlike Benjamin Disraeli’s advocacy of the Second Reform Act or Winston Churchill’s leadership in the Second World War. But this was a feature, not a bug. According to historian Paul Smith:

Salisbury’s Conservatism, though not diehard, was more of the resistant than of the adaptive variety…In an age of democratic politics centered largely on social issues, Salisbury seems to belong to a distant and antipathetic tradition, the last grand aristocratic figure of a political system that died with Victoria, or even before, a great whale irretrievably beached on the receding shore of the nineteenth century. Into the ‘progressive’ strain of modern Conservatism he simply will not fit.

Instead of announcing an agenda of reform, Salisbury’s conservatism was a negative stance for resisting undesirable change. Accepting human fallibility and distrusting notions of progress, he believed that politics should be based on conserving the existing social order. According to Salisbury, it is “the central doctrine of Conservatism, that it is better to endure almost any political evil than to risk a breach of the historic continuity of government.” The amazing thing is that Salisbury convinced voters, again and again, to agree with him.

This combination of intellectual depth and distinctive philosophy made Salisbury an interesting figure in Conservative politics, especially at a time when the parliamentary party was lacking serious talent. The objectives he supported were shared by many of his parliamentary colleagues, but Salisbury’s ideas were much more deeply considered, rather than being purely instinctive. It also contained a fundamental attachment to freedom that would define his view on the limitations of the state. As historian Maurice Cowling observed,

By freedom Salisbury meant, in the most personal sense, being left alone. By a free state, he meant one in which 'a man may go where he likes and do what he likes so long as he does not injure his neighbours'. He meant a state in which no more restraint was imposed than was necessary to meet this requirement. He rejected the idea that a free state was one which produced self-fulfillment for its members. In his view freedom was what a man did with himself, and it was self-evidently desirable that he should have as much of it as possible.

Biographer Andrew Roberts shared this assessment, arguing that Lord Salisbury belonged in “the pantheon of Great Libertarians”.

Salisbury’s belief in individual freedom was not based on an optimistic view of human nature. On the contrary, he lived in fear of humanity’s dark side. The arrival of social reform and mass democracy threatened to allow the lower classes to plunder the wealthy. Revolutionary violence and overthrow of the constitution appeared dangerously close. Salisbury defended the rule of law, especially property rights and contract, to safeguard against class conflict. He claimed that “The struggle for power in our day lies not between Crown and people, or between a caste of nobles and a bourgeoisie, but between the classes who have property and the classes who have none.”

Rising inequality and class tensions fueled challenges to the educated and propertied elite in Victorian Britain and generated support for socialism and other forms of collectivism. Calls for state intervention grew in response to the advance of industrialization, urbanization, population growth, economic depression in the 1870s, and escalating tensions in Ireland. Responding to these conditions, Liberals began to speak about the importance of positive freedom and depart from laissez-faire. This led to a range of campaigns for action on issues such as alcohol prohibition, workers’ rights, education, housing, and public health.

By the time Salisbury became Conservative leader, the Liberal Party was being overrun with what was then called 'faddism' as different factions pursued specific causes that benefited different activist groups. Liberal policy became the product of the interfering of do-gooder intellectuals. Lord Salisbury confronted this trend, championing the freedom of the working men and criticizing the man in Whitehall who thought “he himself is the best person to decide” other people’s affairs. Although he feared mass democracy, Salisbury became a kind of libertarian populist, defending workers’ rights to live their lives free of a liberal nanny state.

In many ways, Salisbury accepted the orthodox economic teachings of his time, abandoning protectionism for free trade, but he was not ideological As Prime Minister, he tried to keep the overall size and cost of government low, while making concessions such as establishing the Board of Agriculture (albeit with no budget), and passing the 1888 Local Government Bill. Salisbury distrusted bureaucracy and associated its excesses with authoritarian regimes like Prussia with its “despotism of officials”. But Lord Salisbury also retained a paternalistic concern for the poor and supported modest social improvements such as the 1885 Housing Act.

This limited view of state intervention also shaped Salisbury’s foreign policy. Under his watch, Britain was the world's leading power during a time of growing multipolarity. He saw foreign affairs as a state of nature in which morality would always be overcome by power. International rules had their place but could not hold against the natural aggressiveness of states. This meant seeking peace and stability between the great powers, but not interfering with another power’s internal affairs. Preventing foreign aggression and restraining British intervention would also help the government keep taxation and military expenditure low, which would be popular with voters at home.

These arguments and ideas laid the foundation for Conservative electoral success during the 1880s and 1890s. Historian E.H.H. Green concluded that “In part Salisburyian Conservatism was able to hold the ring for its varied propertied interests because the party fulfilled its defensive role very well, in that it seemed to control the mass electorate and forestall a Socialist threat.” This was critical at a time when class identities were overtaking religious loyalties in the new age of mass democracy, incentivizing newly enfranchised suburban and urban voters to abandon liberalism for conservatism. Although collectivism would still march forward under Liberal and then Labour governments, the Conservative Party maintained its position as the defender of property, enterprise, and opportunity.


The Peterhouse Right

Despite his political triumphs and intellectual depth, Salisbury did not become a household name for later generations in the same way as Burke or Disraeli. Early to mid-twentieth century British conservatives preferred to rehabilitate the memory of more progressive conservatives such as Sir Robert Peel that could resonate with the new era of state interventionism.

But as the post-war economic consensus came under growing pressure, though, there was a resurgence of interest in Salisbury from a new generation of traditional conservatives. At the heart of this movement was Peterhouse, Cambridge’s oldest college. From the 1960s onwards, the fellows of the college provided a focal point for High Tory thinkers to gather and exchange ideas.

The most significant character in the “Peterhouse Right” was Maurice Cowling, a political historian, who was influenced by philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s pragmatic brand of conservatism as well as Enoch Powell’s call for free market reform and immigration controls. For Cowling, politics was a clash of interests that could not always be reconciled as many moderate conservatives claimed. Despite Cowling’s more pessimistic tone, this chimed with Thatcher’s rejection of "consensus politics" and belief in the need to identify "our people," namely the aspirational working and lower middle classes.

Traditional conservative writers and academics began to connect with Conservative parliamentarians through the Conservative Philosophy Group, founded in 1974 by Roger Scruton, John Casey, Hugh Fraser MP, and Jonathan Aitken MP. Thatcher attended their meetings as part of her search for Tory political thought during her time as Leader of the Opposition. It was at these meetings that she would meet with Powell, and engage with thinkers such as Edward Norman, then Dean of Peterhouse, to forge a clearer idea of the connection between Christian ethics and individual freedom.

In 1976, these High Tory intellectuals established the Salisbury Group as a forum for academics and writers to help present their views to a broader reading public. First, they produced Conservative Essays, edited by Cowling, in 1978 which included contributions from T.E. Utley, the journalist and speechwriter for Powell and Thatcher, Edward Norman, John Casey, and Roger Scruton who had just begun his journey towards becoming one of conservatism’s most gifted spokesmen. Scruton was so admired that he was tasked with setting up a journal for the group in 1982 which became The Salisbury Review and continues to be published today.

During this formative phase in Thatcherism’s development, these traditional conservatives provided an authoritative voice in favor of dismantling the ‘liberal’ or ‘One Nation’ Conservatism of moderates such as R.A. Butler and Harold Macmillan. Many, although not all, also supported the case being made by classical liberals for reducing the size and power of the state in the economy. They realized, however, that conservatism could not be limited to economics. Conservatism also had to defend the social and cultural norms and institutions, such as family, religion, community, and patriotism, which hold individuals together and promote human happiness.

It was never Thatcher’s intention to just glorify the market. Instead, she hoped to roll back the state so a moral revival could be driven forward by the ‘little platoons’ of civil society. Traditional conservatism lent intellectual weight to Thatcher’s cultural views. Indeed, one cannot fully comprehend Thatcher’s gradual conversion to Euroscepticism without considering her distinct sense of British national identity. Thatcher’s genius lay in how she fused economic liberalism and cultural conservatism together under the guise of radical rhetoric. As a result, classical liberals and traditional conservatives combined forces to turn the tide of socialism.     

Despite the impressive array of traditional conservative minds which came from Cambridge during the Thatcher years, though, there has been no lasting movement to carry on their work. Like Salisbury’s example, many of these gifted intellects have been forgotten, while classical liberals have been left to monopolize Thatcher’s legacy by linking her economic victories with the Liberals William Gladstone and John Stuart Mill. Moderate conservatives have supported this interpretation to exorcise Thatcher from the conservative tradition. David Cameron’s modernization project facilitated the Conservative Party’s shift away from Thatcherism towards social liberalism until the Brexit referendum brought his premiership down.


The New Conservatism

The disappearance of prominent advocates does not mean that traditional conservatism has disappeared in the country or is now irrelevant to the concerns of the present Right. Mainstream public opinion is very much to the right of Westminster on cultural issues such as immigration, crime, and gender. The Brexit vote was an affirmation of British national identity and sovereignty. This nationalist feeling has been fueled by people’s concerns with the impact of globalization, and the drift of powers towards the bureaucracy and judiciary.

If classical liberals hope to champion free trade and free markets over the next few years in the wake of Brexit and the pandemic, then they will have to seek out and cooperate with traditional conservatives within a popular and patriotic coalition. Liz Truss’s failure to work with traditional conservatives, which led to the resignation of her Home Secretary Suella Braverman over immigration policy, demonstrated the shallow support for economic and social libertarianism in the modern Conservative Party. Only by showing how free markets and the nation-state can be complimentary rather than contradictory, can we see British conservatism undergo a renaissance.

While the Conservative government drifts towards electoral defeat, the conservative movement has been renewing itself. National Conservatism held a major UK conference last year and the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship launched. The New Conservatives caucus formed with MPs elected since the Brexit referendum. It is reminiscent of the coalition building and ideological debate that occurred during Thatcherism’s formative years. It is yet to be seen whether the Conservative Party can engage with this process meaningfully in opposition or descend into further internal division. But if British conservatism can renew itself through a new fusionism, and not disintegrate into warring right-wing factions, then there might be hope for the American conservative movement to do the same.

Salisbury’s example can provide inspiration once again. Modern conservatism has become more anti-establishment than its Victorian antecedent, but it must relearn the art of the politics of resistance that made Salisbury so formidable. A healthy skepticism, aware of the imperfections of human nature as well as the limits of both markets and the state, can help navigate emerging challenges. But, most importantly, Salisbury was able to rally together a broad coalition around a patriotic and libertarian populism that pledged to keep the cost of government low, protect ordinary people from liberal nannying, and defend the national interest. Salisbury demonstrated how conservatism could be populist without being authoritarian and defend liberty as well as community. The Victorian statesman should be an example to any conservative interested in turning back the progressive tide.

David A. Cowan is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of Cambridge. He is also a former staffer and researcher in the UK Parliament and has been published at American Affairs, The American Conservative, Engelsberg Ideas, National Review, and The Vital Center.


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