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Coffee House

Liam Fox, Theresa May and the meaning of conservatism

14 March 2013

3:41 PM

14 March 2013

3:41 PM

Speeches by Theresa May and Liam Fox have produced a surge of interest in what Conservatives stand for. Politics in recent years has become an endeavour by a political class, divided by only superficially different beliefs, to use mass advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion. The emphasis on ‘modernisation’ and detoxification grew out of this narrow, calculating spirit, but it has led the Conservatives away from the ideals that have made this country worthy of allegiance. And yet, readily to hand, there are guiding principles that could stir the heart of many a potential Conservative voter.

Many conservatives see themselves as champions of liberty. But what does such a claim imply for the role of government today? We can trace a common interpretation of liberty from Milton and Locke in the seventeenth century, through Burke and Smith in the eighteenth, to Hayek in the twentieth.

The common thread is a belief that the political system should foster and protect the freedom of the individual. Individuals should be able to lead their own life, according to their own views, under the protection of the state of which they are members. But the freedom being guaranteed is not an abstraction. For traditional liberals it was ‘virtuous liberty’, to use the phrase of Joseph Addison, founder of the Spectator. Individuals are understood as people capable of improving constantly their moral and intellectual qualities.

The ideal of virtuous liberty is not compatible with class-war politics, or any majoritarian approach that seeks to gain power in order to use it for the advantage of one group at the expense of another. Supporters of virtuous liberty are fearful of factions seeking to dominate. Today factionalism often takes the form of campaigning for political recognition of victim status, which can then be used to secure preferential treatment, often disguised as equality. Imposing equal representation of ethnic groups in occupations is firmly ruled out because it can only be achieved by suppressing the ability and effort of people who do not belong to the politically preferred group.

The enforcement of any pre-ordained pattern of outcomes is always wrong. For example, the state should never enforce a ratio between the income of the richest and the poorest. Protection against severe privation is a very different matter. The end result of providing a welfare minimum will be that individuals can more easily fulfil their potential to develop and grow as moral personalities. A good deal of welfare support can be justified for this reason, but not redistribution of incomes or wealth for its own sake. Taxation policy should never be based on whipping up resentment between the rich and the poor.

Nor is virtuous liberty aimed at ‘small government’. It aspires to ‘limited government’, or intervention to create conditions for personal freedom and no more. Is the sheer scale of government ever a legitimate concern, as calls for ‘small government’ imply? The size of government as such is relevant if it is so extensive that no private organisation could ever resist it, or if its presence in economic and social life was so wide that it left no room for private initiative.

Demands for small government are closely related to non-interventionism in economic policy. The liberty of all, shared equally by all, requires constant intervention. The fundamental ideal entails active government. It is true that some liberals have demanded complete freedom from state control. But traditional liberalism has never been a purely negative idea. It has been a positive doctrine of the free person, with a position in society guaranteed by the state, which secures the rights necessary to lead a free life. The fundamental idea is that the individual personality alone has intrinsic and ultimate worth, and that because it has the capacity to develop, it is entitled to freedom to change and improve. The condition being sought is not a natural state of affairs. Virtuous liberty requires institutions carefully crafted by time.

In economic matters the state will often be well advised to keep its distance and allow wide scope for human experimentation and discovery. But, as Hayek argued, whether it should or not, is a matter for pragmatic judgement, not something that can be determined before the facts. There are many investments in research and new technologies, for example, that a government can legitimately make. They are best thought of as creating facilities for human co-operation. So long as they add to the sum of human achievements, without usurping the role of individuals in civil society, they can be justified.

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Traditional liberalism is demanding of the individual. A society based on virtuous liberty and democracy calls forth the best in its members. Its belief in the possibility of human improvement and its commitment to political institutions that guard and protect liberty make it a worthy ideal for a political movement. Can the Conservative party reclaim its heritage, or will it pass to a Labour party now being renewed under the influence of one-nation thinkers?

David Green is Director of Civitas

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