The Battle of Britain

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The Battle of Britain

February 27, 2002 13 min read
David Willetts

Conservatism celebrates what is distinctive in our own cultures--the history that has shaped them and the institutions that sustain them. Whereas socialism and liberalism claim to be universal, each nation has its own conservatism. I look with interest at continental Christian democracy, for example, but, as a British conservative, I do not feel a part of the same political movement.

There is however, one very important exception to that rule. The links between conservatives in Britain and in the United States of America are so strong that we can perhaps think of ourselves as belonging to one political tradition. We have those links before our mind today. One reason for this is the horror of the atrocity of September 11. All of America must feel enormous grief at that appalling event. So does all the civilized world. But, outside the USA, nowhere is that pain felt more intensely than in Great Britain. We have tried to express it as best we can in the Chamber of the House of Commons, in your embassy in London, in the Queen's decision that the guards at Buckingham Palace should play your national anthem along with ours. We have also tried to show our solidarity in the most practical way possible, with the decision of our prime minister, Tony Blair, to commit our armed forces to fight alongside yours. He has the full support of the British Conservative Party for what he is doing. Our new leader, Iain Duncan Smith, himself a former army officer who saw service in Northern Ireland, has made it clear that an outrage like this must not divide democratic politicians; it should unite us.

An important reason for the intense sympathy we feel in Britain after the events on September 11 is the fact that we do see your country and ours as branches from the same stem. Your branch is now far bigger and stronger than ours, and you have many other influences shaping you as well. But there is something very important that we share in the character of our political culture.

Today's lecture celebrates a political thinker who did more than most to show the common links of Anglo-American political culture and especially of conservatism in our two countries: Russell Kirk.

Sadly, I never met Dr. Kirk, although I do have the honor and pleasure of knowing Annette; but I feel I know him from what he wrote so prolifically and so beautifully during his long and distinguished life. One of the many strengths of his writing is the grace and ease with which he moves between conservatism in Britain and America. Indeed, at one point in The Conservative Mind, he refers, perhaps with some gentle mockery, to what he calls "the customary dependence of America upon Britain for philosophical discoveries." The links between the conservatism of our two countries are not merely intellectual or, as one could imagine Russell Kirk saying, with some distaste, "theoretical"; they go far deeper than that.

Some classical liberals trace the guiding principles of your country's constitution to John Locke. But, however much we conservatives might agree with John Locke's conclusions, we have a very different route for reaching them. Locke's liberalism is not to be understood as some piece of abstract theory. A conservative understands, not least thanks to the writings of Russell Kirk, that it is an abridgment of political practice. Locke's work could only have been written in Britain at the end of the seventeenth century because of the political experience of our country in developing our common law over the centuries. And it could only take root in your country with such vigor because of your experience as free men and women stretching back even before you gained independence from us.

The Conservative's Dilemma

Above all, then, conservatism is a body of ideas that emerges from political practice--and this is why we British conservatives now face some very serious dilemmas. If conservatism were just an abstract theory, we could carry on regardless of how our society is changing. Our political project would be clear--to try to compel our country to comply with our ideology. But conservatism is not like that. Our conservatism rests on the sense of our country, not just as an ideal but as an experienced reality. Therefore, as a conservative, one is always torn between, on the one hand, cherishing the traditions that have shaped our country, and, on the other hand, keeping up with our society as it changes. That is the dilemma I want to investigate today.

Conservatives are, of course, wary of modernization (not a term that Russell Kirk would relish). And, as conservatives, we are all familiar with the arguments why we should be wary of change. The old has a certain mellow beauty to it, a patina that we should love and respect. We are wary of change because we believe that the old is tried and tested: it has emerged by evolution and may contain a logic and a function that no individual can fully understand. When someone brought Palmerston a proposal for domestic reform, he is supposed to have replied: "Change! Change!, aren't things bad enough already?" But I believe that my party has now reached the stage where refusal to change would be imprudent, to say the least. Let me set out very briefly some of the stark facts about the position of the Conservative Party in Britain.

We have just suffered our second successive landslide election defeat. We have experienced defeats of this magnitude before over the past 100 years; but, for the first time, we have suffered two such defeats in quick succession--in 1997, and then earlier this year. Geologists may debate whether two successive results in which you have approximately the same number of seats can indeed be regarded as two landslides or not. As a politician, though, it certainly feels like two landslides.

Our popular vote has gone down from 14 million in 1992 to 8 million in 2001, the lowest for the Conservatives since 1924. And we know what Margaret Thatcher would say to a company that had lost almost 50 percent of its customers in such a short period: "Adapt, or die!" We have no presence in parliament from Wales; we have virtually none from Scotland; we are very weak in London; we are very weak amongst people under forty.

Perhaps it might help to put this stark assessment of our electoral position in some sort of historical context. Conservative parties in mainland European countries have always struggled to break out from a rural core, generally taking the form of a peasants', or country, party. There has then usually emerged a separate pro-business, rationalist, anticlerical, Liberal party. The division between those two political forces is one of the reasons for the relative weakness of conservatism throughout the twentieth century in Continental Europe.

Our experience in Britain was very different. After the Liberals split in 1886, the Conservative Party, which had essentially been a rural English movement, merged with the Liberal Unionists. It was the Unionists who brought with them the City of London, big business, and Scotland. That created the modern Conservative Party that was to dominate British politics throughout the twentieth century. It was not just a politically powerful coalition. It was intellectually fruitful as well. The conservative instincts of community and the classical liberal belief in the market were held in a creative tension. It is a tension I have tried to investigate in my writings on conservatism over the years.

Now, however, that political coalition, created after 1886, is under threat as never before. We are in danger of reverting to being the English country party--an authentic Tory voice, certainly, but one with insufficient electoral support to govern the country. In such a situation we might apply to our party the wider principle that Burke identified in 1790: "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation."

A Program for Modernization

So what has gone wrong? And how can we set it right? I would like to set out six strands which, I think, add up to a program for the modernization of conservatism.

First, we need to escape from a common misreading of Thatcherism. I had the privilege of serving on Margaret Thatcher's staff in the mid 1980s. I saw her close up. She had extraordinary determination to tackle and cure the disease that had made Britain the sick man of Europe; but she was certainly aware of the need for "prudence"--to use a word that Russell Kirk made his own. She had to do what was right even though sometimes it was very unpopular; but she never committed the fallacy of assuming that unless something was unpopular it could not possibility be right. Since then, a strange brittleness has entered British conservatism. People have drawn the wrong lesson from her triumphantly successful premiership. They have wrongly concluded that conservatism needs to be ideological and that, all too often, that must mean being unpopular.

Secondly, we must tackle the actual concerns of the electorate. Margaret Thatcher tackled the problems of inflation, industrial relations, and the Soviet threat. These were her preoccupations because they were also the electorate's. In the last election, however, we did not fight on what the electorate were worried about; we fought on what we thought they ought to be worried about. Europe was much more of a preoccupation of the Conservative Party core and of Conservative politicians than it was of the voters whose support we were trying to win over. We have to get back in touch with the concerns of voters, which, today, are clearly about the state of our public services--health, education and transport.

There is, in fact, an opportunity here for the Conservative Party to revise its approach to the issue that has preoccupied it in recent years: Europe. In the areas of health or education, it is striking that standards in Britain now fall way behind standards in Western European countries, and Iain Duncan Smith has rightly said that one of our priorities must be to learn how they do things on the mainland of Europe. In Britain, after the Second World War, we voted ourselves in our hour of triumph the most socialist, the most centralized, the most bureaucratic welfare state of just about any advanced Western country. That problem is our opportunity now. Just as, immediately after the war, it was the ration books of socialism that turned people back to the Conservative Party, so, now, it may be the ration books of access to health care and other public services that enable us to regain popular support. The sort of health care system the French socialist government happily presides over would, if advocated by a British Conservative, be regarded as coming from the far extremities of political debate. The sort of education system which a German social democratic Chancellor is happy to preside over would, if advocated by a British Conservative, be regarded as a step beyond Thatcherism. So we can use lessons from Europe to open up ideas for reform of the welfare state in Britain and to transform it into what Iain Duncan Smith has termed a "welfare society." By doing this, we can use our changing position in Europe to tackle the preoccupations of our own electorate.

Thirdly, we must continually work to transmit conservatism across the generations, even as society changes. I am not aware of any conservative principle that says social change must always be a bad thing. There is not much that politicians can do about it anyway, thank heavens. In the British Conservative Party we have fallen behind a range of social changes including, and this is the irony of the situation, those unleashed by the success of Thatcherite economics.

Consequently, our party is no longer appealing to young people. We are not appealing to women under forty, even though women aged between twenty and forty are probably the group whose opportunities and life chances have been transformed most dramatically by the changes in Britain over the last two decades. We are not even focusing as effectively as we could on older people. That is because we have failed to make a crucial distinction between ages and cohorts. It would not be shortsighted for the Conservative Party systematically to appeal to the "over fifties," a group for which the messages of conservatism might be thought particularly relevant. We can do that providing that we appeal to successive generations as they reach fifty and systematically recruit new people to the conservative cause when they reach that age.

Mick Jagger, having reached his half-century, recently appeared on the front page of Saga Magazine, the leading British publication for the "over fifties"; but, instead of appealing to the Rolling Stones generation, we conservatives have continued to appeal to a specific cohort of people with whom we have grown old together. So, first of all we were appealing to the "over fifties," and ten years later we discover that we are appealing to the "over sixties." That is not a rational approach for a democratic political party. Furthermore, it breaches what I regard as a fundamental obligation of myself and my colleagues as conservatives: to pass on the conservative cause and the Conservative Party to the next generation, in at least as good a shape as we found it and have inherited it. That is the obligation of social continuity, as Russell Kirk called it, and it is an obligation that we are not currently discharging.

Fourthly, we should be tackling what in the nineteenth century was called the "condition of England" question. We should be reaching out to people who expect us to do things to combat the social problems of our country. Of course, a grandiose war on poverty is not for us. There are better ways than that, and, anyway, government hyperactivity is now itself part of the problem in Britain.

Russell Kirk tells a story about his early days as a bookseller in East Lansing, Michigan. A customer came into his shop one day and asked for a book in a way that mirrors the attitude of most voters nowadays. He said: "I am looking for a book that will tell us what to do about all these modern problems. But it has to be a small book and there can't be anything about religion in it." I guess that is the remit that most politicians in Britain feel we have been set by the electorate; but there is no reason why Conservatives shouldn't do our bit in trying to raise the prospects of social improvement, tackling the problems of crime in our cities or the breakdown of the family. We have to show that the Conservative Party cares about the condition of Britain.

Fifth on my list would be the theme of freedom, which must be at the heart of modern conservatism. We believe in personal freedom coupled with personal responsibility instead of bossiness accompanied by government interference. But lately, as my friend Peter Lilley put it after our election defeat, "The Conservative Party talked far too much about locking people up and not enough about setting people free." We need to recover the balance of freedom and responsibility and show that we are the only party unquestionably committed to the principle of "ordered liberty."

Sixth, and finally, we need to celebrate the local, the neighborhood, in a spirit that I have called "Civic Conservatism." It is difficult for national governments to do good, or to enforce manners and morals. Local institutions, however, can have a role in shaping us and our behavior. In particular, they provide the "proliferating variety" which Russell Kirk perceived to be an essential ingredient of order and social cohesion, engaging our early affections and loyalties and thereby training us in the art of responsible citizenship.

So this is my agenda for modernizing conservatism:

  • First, be prudent, not ideological.
  • Second, respond to the electorate's worries and not our own obsessions.
  • Third, embrace a degree of social change, so that we can pass on our party's principles to the next generation, who will live in a society that has taken on different forms.
  • Fourth, show a commitment to improving the condition of Britain.
  • Fifth, offer a faith in freedom and the innate wisdom of the people, not a dependence upon regulation and interfering government.
  • Sixth, celebrate what is local, in all its varieties.

Is all this modernizing? Yes. Is it authentically conservative? Yes, I believe it is that too. It is what the Conservative Party did so successfully after 1906 and after 1945. The only reason we British Conservatives can celebrate almost two centuries of history as the Western world's most long-lived political party is precisely because, in the past, we have been willing to change. The British Conservative Party must set out to achieve what Republicans here in America accomplished between 1996 and 2000.

Conservatives will always be wary that such a process of modernization risks jeopardizing our basic principles. Our Tory instincts warn us against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But in politics, unlike child care, it is not always clear where the bathwater ends and the baby begins. But the times now demand that we break free from the temporary forms that shaped conservatism in the later twentieth century, so that we are better able to transmit an understanding of "the permanent things" to future generations.

In the words of Russell Kirk's friend T.S. Eliot, in "Little Gidding," "We cannot restore old policies, or follow an antique drum."

David Willetts, M.P., is Shadow Secretary of State, Work and Pensions in Great Britain and author of Is Conservatism Dead?


David Willetts