Blast from the Past: Sean Gabb on “Modern Conservatism”

From Free Life No 18, May, 1993

Modern Conservatism
David Willetts
Penguin Books, London, 1992, 216 pp., £5.99
(ISBN 0 14 015477 9)

The Author of this book is the Consultant Director of the Conservative Research Department, and is a Member of Parliament. Both capacities tend to lower him in my view. I will try nonetheless to set aside my prejudice and to review his book solely on its merits.

This is an easier and a more productive task than I expected, for Mr Willetts has produced a very good book. Though in part a work of exposition, drawing on all the usual sources, old and new, it goes far beyond this limited purpose, and provides a synthesis that both persuades intellectually and provides a complete political agenda.

The case as stated in its opening is the familiar one. Contrary to all the imaginings of the utopian philosophers, we are fundamentally not rational beings. We cannot be perfected. We cannot be made fit for a social order based wholly on light and reason. Certainly, the modes of thought and social organisation that developed chiefly in England, and have since spread in stages throughout the world, can usually be given a powerful abstract justification. But the success – indeed, the continued existence – of these modes owes nothing to rational deliberation, and everything to an often unconscious habit. To abolish, or even to try altering these habits is to risk our enjoyment of the benefits that proceed from them. Anyone who thinks otherwise falls into demonstrable error. Anyone who proceeds from thought to action commits acts that range from the absurd to the catastrophically monstrous.

When, therefore, we come to an examine a functioning social order such as our own, our most proper attitude is one of curiosity mingled with reverence. We are not to seize on its apparent faults and reject it in favour of something else spun out of a single head. Nor, as has been most often done this century in those countries lucky enough to avoid a total reconstruction, are we to advocate sweeping reforms simply on the grounds of “modernisation” or of bringing something “into the twentieth century. We must instead try to understand the inner workings of society – to conjecture by what innumerable and infinitesimal stages the present order of things evolved to its present sophistication. This will require us to look even to those habits and institutions that rest on justifications manifestly absurd, asking whether they might not nevertheless serve a useful purpose. Then, and only then, shall we be ready to consider what deliberate changes may be necessary, and how these may best be combined with what already is. The best change is so cautious and incremental that only those directly affected notice its happening. Even the most radical, sudden change is best achieved so that within only a few years it becomes difficult to tell the old from the new.

Illustrating his case, Mr Willetts gives the usual examples of what happens when the accumulated wisdom of the past is thrown aside in some passion for immediate improvement. I will, however, give my own favourite example.

In 1911, there was an epidemic of bubonic plague in Manchuria. This was large enough to worry all the usual governments and international organisations – there were fears of a new Black Death – and so much effort was put into containment.

Now, it was soon discovered that the carriers of the fleas which in turn carried the Pasteurella pestis bacillus were marmots, large burrowing rodents who were hunted for their skins. It was also discovered that the nomadic tribesmen who had hunted marmots for centuries were largely unaffected. Mostly affected were the Chinese hunters who had just poured into Manchuria following the collapse of the Manchu dynasty and the lifting of all controls on movement into the region.

The reason for this difference was that the native hunters followed certain customary rules that tended to minimise the risk of infection. They never trapped marmots, but only shot them. If an animal moved sluggishly, it was left alone. if an entire colony showed signs of infection, the hunters would at once pack their tents and move on.

Only in 1894 had the causes of bubonic plague been identified. Before then, its means of transmission had been an absolute mystery. Yet here was a nation of illiterate nomads not only doing as the newest research might have advised them, but doing it by custom since time immemorial. Asked why they acted so, they gave the most bizarre mythological justifications that said nothing about the avoidance of infection. There was no talk of some divinely inspired ancestor whose teachings had avoided the anger of the gods, or whatever. All the evidence pointed to a long history of slight and unconscious adjustments to environment. As with a purely natural selection, there had been small revisions of habits. Those contributing to greater well-being had been copied and passed on to later generations as ritual.

Ignorant of epidemiology, the Chinese hunters were rational enough to sneer at these rituals, and to go about the business of catching their marmots in the most cost-effective manner. They died in their thousands, and sent the bacillus down the new railway lines towards the rest of humanity.1

Had the philosophy here illustrated been more generally received, the century now closing might not have been so filled with interesting events.

Yet, all this being said, there remains one obvious problem. As Mr Willetts asks,

[d]oes the conservative simply think that everything which exists is all right?[pp. 74-5]

There have always been pure conservatives, whose answer to this question would be a firm “yes”, who would resist all change, no matter from what or in which direction. There have been conservative defences of slavery and suttee. There are now conservative defences of trade union privilege and of the mining communities threatened by deregulation of the market in coal. In its purest form, conservatism is nothing more than a defence of whatever is, and never mind what it is. At times, indeed, it comes oddly close to the political correctness which tells us that female circumcision is acceptable wherever established among black people.

But this kind of conservatism is only important so far as it can be manipulated by others. The most impeccably conservative thinkers and politicians have been willing on occasion to turn radical. It was, for example, largely by Tory Governments in the last century that the slave trade was put down. By bribery, by threats, and sometimes by force of arms, the rest of the world was made to give up an ancient and previously almost unquestioned custom. The politicians concerned thought nothing of opening themselves to the same charge of utopian meddling as they were laying against the English jacobins and chartists.

The usual language of conservatism presupposes an ideological underpinning of the doctrine that it advances. Above, I use the phrase a “functioning social order”, and discuss the most appropriate means of achieving “such deliberate changes as may be necessary”. These are my words; but this type of wording is scattered through all the great conservative classics. Whatever may be said about the unideological nature of conservatism, it is clear that most conservatives want only to conserve certain institutions. They know how to recognise a functioning social order. They are as good as any socialist or liberal at knowing what changes are necessary. It is what I like most about Mr Willetts’ that he does not raise the usual smokescreen of “tory pragmatism”, but explicitly looks within English conservatism for the criterion by which what ought is separated from what ought not to be conserved.

His first proposed criterion is durability. If an institution has lasted for a long time in undiminished vigour, and without great and obviously attendant disadvantages, he says, the presumption ought to be that it serves a useful purpose. For modern England, this is as an effective criterion. It allows an attack on nearly everything in our national life that is wretched and in need of drastic reconstruction. Trade union privilege, to take a standard instance, though established, dates only from 1906, and has notoriously been one of the causes of our relative economic decline.

It is not, however, generally effective. The slave trade, after all, was more anciently established than the House of Lords, and had not been attended by any obvious disadvantage for the élites by whom and in whose interests social arrangements had previously been judged. If the feelings of the enslaved were now to be considered, it was not in accordance with any criterion of durability. Nor does this in itself tell us what is a functioning social order, or allow us to tell good changes from bad in an age when change, for whatever reason, becomes necessary.

Mr Willetts’ next criterion, though, is the right one. Institutions are good or bad so far as

they rely on state power. Reliance on legal enforcement is obviously not of itself wrong – any conservative understands the need for a framework of law and order – but at the very least, there has to be a presumption against intervening in arrangements reached by mutual consent. If an institution has only been able to survive by deploying such powers, then there is a real need for it to justify itself.[pp. 76-77]

To some extent, there is nothing unusual here. All Conservative politicians believe to some extent in private enterprise: it lets them bribe the lower classes without having the country decline too fast. Mr Willetts, though, has no time for this style of apologetics, or for the more aggressive corporatism that has tended to replace it. “Perhaps” he says,

the most unpleasant term in the political vocabulary is “UK Limited”.[p. 133]

His own defence of the free market is more than an argument for privatising the telephone network and deregulating the opticians. He quietly suggests a cutting back of the State far beyond anything contemplated by the Thatcher Government even in its most radical mood. He suggests a thorough application of the voluntary principle in economic affairs.

Nor does he draw any artificial distinction between the economic and the personal. He stands for a rejection of the moral paternalism within the Conservative Party that has come increasingly since 1979 to determine what we may do with our own minds and bodies.

Of course, there is no explicit mention of the liberty infringement and crime expansion schemes now run by the Home Office under the various names of the “War on Drugs” and the “protection of public morals”. That would have the Party bosses straight at this throat. He might be accused of classical liberalism – of having rejected the true tory path for the “shallow sophisms” of John Stuart Mill. Even worse, he might be denounced as a libertarian: and that would be the end of his career in politics.

Yet, while Mr Willetts can be described as a classical liberal, he is also undoubtedly a truer conservative than the sad, fawning creatures one mostly finds in Central Office or the Parliamentary Party. For all the great British conservative thinkers were also liberals. They taught reverence for the organic institutions of what happened to be the freest and most open society that had – or perhaps has – ever existed. Their speculations were on the growth and defence of such institutions as trial by jury, parliamentary government, and an unshackled press. It may be that some defended freedom because it existed by tradition. More commonly, though, they defended tradition because it embodied the freedom which they had learned to value on more rational grounds.

Their denunciation of ideology came in part from their knowing the weakness of unsupported abstract reasoning. In larger part, it came from a wish to deprive the collectivists and their radical dupes of a weapon of which they themselves had little need. But a hundred years of collectivist triumph have nearly shattered the organic liberalism of Old England. The case remains for moving cautiously, for seeking the latent wisdom or necessity in every institution proposed for reform – for not trying to jump straight to some Libertarian Alliance utopia. Even so, the true spirit of English conservatism now requires an explicit guiding ideology. And that ideology is classical liberal or libertarian. Those who deny this can quote the words of Burke and Salisbury, among others. But, more importantly, they miss the reasoning behind the words.

Though Mr Willetts, quite evidently, does not miss the reasoning here, his book is not equally good in all its sections. For example, his claim that

David Ricardo’s economics showed that government borrowing was just taxation deferred[p. 6]

is false in the given context. Ricardo was a great explainer and systematiser, and the most apparently obvious truths have been – and are – denied by conventional wisdom. But the folly of letting the government borrow money had been fully known – had even been a commonplace of political debate – since at least the 1690s: there are precise complaints scattered through the works of Swift, Bolingbroke, Junius, Adam Smith and Burke, to name only a few objectors. I shall particularly mention David Hume’s essay Of Public Credit. For if somewhat vague about that writer’s epistemology, Mr Willetts has read enough of the economic writings to quote approvingly from the essay Of Money.

Again, his denial of our present drift towards a police state is almost offensive. In case my readers should think that I am now letting prejudice have the better of me, I quote him at some length:

The list of constitutional reforms is quite considerable. The Data Protection Act of 1984 allows everyone access to information held about them on computer records, except for those concerning crime, tax and national security. There is a right for an individual to see his file and insist on changes if the material is incorrect. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 gives judicial protection to journalists’ notebooks. The Criminal Justice Act of 1988 sets out new, more rigorous rules on treatment of suspects, as well as allowing the press to challenge specific orders restricting their reporting. The Security Service Act of 1989 at last puts the security services on a statutory footing and in the words of the then Home Secretary “for the first time, provides a means of redress for a citizen who thinks that he has a cause for grievance against the service”. The Official Secrets Act, also of 1989, strips “away the criminal law from the great bulk of official information so that budget secrets, draft White Papers on health, correspondence dealing with pension decisions will no longer be subject to an Official Secrets Act.[pp. 159-61]

Anyone who has read the Acts mentioned above, and seen their impact on the case law, will take a less complacent view. In every important respect, they enlarge the power of the State. Such guarantees as they contain of just treatment are rather closer in their effect – and, I believe, in their intent – to the paper rights enjoyed in the old Soviet Bloc than to the solid protections of life, liberty and property that we used to possess under the common law.

But Mr Willetts is a member of Parliament, and, together with wrapping his liberalism in code, turning out smug, emollient drivel of this sort is part of the price that he must pay for his seat. There was a time when no honourable Englishman would have accepted such terms. But today, it is a public duty to accept them: the country cannot be wholly ruled by traitors and buffoons.

Perhaps therefore I should ignore this great blemish on his book – just as I am ignoring his now rather funny praise of John Major as a man of vision and principle.

For the same reason, I overlook his calling Winston Churchill a “transcendently great leader”[p. 18], when everyone with a candid eye for history knows that he was a bloodthirsty old windbag who would have served England far better than he did by drinking himself to death in 1910.

Now, did reading this book dispose me more kindly to the Conservative Party? For a while, it did. It had no effect on my voting intentions. I will vote Conservative nearly regardless of what corruption and misrule I must thereby endorse: the overall result has only to be better than a Labour Government. Nevertheless, for an entire half hour after reading his book I really believed again that the Party was what I thought it was back in 1978 when I first joined it.

That is a remarkable effect for a book to have in March 1993.

Sean Gabb


1. For those interest in following this case further, its full citation can be found in the notes to Chapter 4 of William H. McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1977. Back to document

Leave a Reply