Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition
By Edmund Fawcett Princeton University Press, 544pp, £30
What is conservatism? Is it dogma or disposition, ideology or instinct? And what are conservatives? What do they have in common with each other, past and present, and how do they differ from socialists and liberals?
These are some of the thorny questions Edmund Fawcett sets himself to address in Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition. As with its sister volume of 2015 on liberalism, the book is ambitious to a degree: nothing less than a history of conservatism and conservatives in four countries over a quarter of a millennium.
But it is intended to be more even than that. Fawcett describes himself as a left-liberal, and at its core this book betrays a practical, indeed polemical, intent: to map out the enemy’s terrain, to identify their key generals and field commanders and to benchmark their forces and weaponry, so that when battle is next joined they can be routed and driven from the field. The result is a work of over 500 pages, which counterposes sections on “parties and politicians” and “thinkers and ideas” in Britain, the US, France and Germany from the early 19th century to the present day.
The appendices alone act as laser guidance to the target: there is one on conservative keywords, another on the philosophical sources of conservative thought, a third that is nothing less than a 38-page gazetteer featuring potted biographies of over 160 putatively conservative politicians and thinkers, from Edmund Burke to Pat Buchanan.
The book is thus part compendium, part Cook’s tour, part tract. Yet in many ways it succeeds. The narrative is absorbing, the pace unflagging. The reader is carried along by the energy of the prose, by sharp insights and nice turns of phrase, and above all by the author’s evident engagement in politics and joy in ideas. A veteran of the Economist, Fawcett has lived in each of the four countries he has chosen, giving him inside expertise. And he has the knack of writing sympathetically about ideas with which he personally can have little sympathy.
Yet such a project brings with it its own difficulties. With so much material, so many names and ideas to be fitted in, the desire to push onwards and outwards constantly threatens to disrupt the intellectual thread of the argument. It becomes hard to discern the genuinely important from the merely incidental. Deroulède, anyone? Wilhelm von Kardorff?
Thinkers who are also campaigners gain extra prominence, which pushes the narrative away from the contemplative past and towards the activist present. Few would doubt the contributions of Roger Scruton, but one might ask if he should have more than twice the space allocated to Michael Oakeshott.
Especially since Oakeshott’s seminal characterisation of forms of political association, and indeed the associative tradition in British conservatism from the little platoons to the Big Society, is all but ignored.
The task of sorting out the wheat from the chaff is not helped by Fawcett’s insistence on conflating conservatism and “the Right”. And it is made harder still by the vast array of different doctrines and policies that have claimed the conservative mantle for themselves over the years.
Various people seem to have been included – Donald Trump, Ayn Rand, Steve Bannon – because they have been called conservative, rather than because they are. Others, such as Andrew Sullivan, one of the most thoughtful and influential conservative writers in America today, have been missed out altogether. And of the conservative tradition in left-wing politics, exemplified in Britain by Blue Labour, there is barely a mention.
It is not until page 427 that Fawcett acknowledges that “Forcing past philosophers into present-day partisan boxes is a kind of intellectual ballot-stuffing.” Well, quite. But the converse is also true: there can be ballot-stuffing of partisans too. Telling one from another requires the articulation of a theoretical core to conservatism, but here the book opts for description and inclusivity rather than a clear and focused philosophical argument.
Fawcett’s reservations about nomenclature do not always extend to politicians and controversialists, as we have seen. But there is one example in the book that is especially striking: his classification of Boris Johnson as a “hard right” politician. Moments of Brexit rhetoric apart, this will surprise anyone who has studied Johnson’s policies, either as mayor or prime minister. Coming from Fawcett, who is Boris Johnson’s uncle, it is more surprising still.
Jesse Norman MP is the author of Edmund Burke: The First Conservative and Adam Smith: Father of Economics