There are two sources of energy that are currently firing up our broken political system. The first is the popular anger toward the political class as immigration and rapid economic change threaten people's sense of belonging and security. And the second is the powerful desire for greater self-determination played out in both individual and national terms.
The insurgent forces which embody these two sources of energy are the independence politics of the SNP in Scotland and of UKIP in England. They are also present in Wales and in the growing political confidence of English cities in asking for greater autonomy. They are driven by a politics of identity and belonging, and by people’s desire to transform their powerlessness.
Our political settlement is exhausted and Labour’s Policy Review has spent two years rethinking what Labour stands for as we build a new model party. In our pamphlet, One Nation: Labour’s political renewal, of which I am a co-author, we argue that Labour’s renewal and electoral victory is best rooted in a radical and conservative politics of earning and belonging.
Labour’s traditions are conservative in valuing relationships, work, family and community. And they are radical in defending the labour interest, and in sharing out power, resources and opportunities between members of society. At the heart of the labour interest has been a deep conservative instinct for the preservation of society and people’s mutual dependence.
Robert Blatchford’s Clarion Fellowship is an example of this conservative and radical tradition. It was a big influence on English working class life at the end of the nineteenth century.
It mixed of entertainment, sport and socialism. The Clarion Fellowship brought people together to organise cycling clubs, rambling associations, glee clubs (choirs), theatres, socialist scouts, arts and crafts, and the local Cinderella Clubs that provided food and entertainment for children living in the slums.
Blatchford was an English patriot and a William Morris type of socialist who preached cooperation for the common good. He was also a man who understood that politics was about people actively making their own culture and sense of identity. He summed up his politics with the comment: ‘We were out for Socialism and nothing but Socialism and we were Britons first and Socialists next’.
Socialism was inseparable from love of country. In his new book, How to be a Conservative, the philosopher Roger Scruton begins with his father’s socialism and love of England. But for Scruton, English liberty led him in another direction. He describes his Conservatism as a love of home. By which he means the common life and inheritance that belongs to “us”, the people, and which grows out of everyday life. Home is our customs, habits and language, our neighbourhoods and the landscapes we live in. It is also the generations who have been and those to come, the history of our country, and our memories. It is not ethnic in its origins, but it requires integration into its membership.
Scruton argues that the binding principle of society, “is not contract but something more akin to love”. It cannot be made by the state or by politics. It is made in the ordinary life of friendship, family, community and love of place. He believes the market has a corrosive effect on human settlement. Global capitalism is a “kind of brigandage in which costs are transferred to future generations for the sake of rewards here and now”. Society, he says, should place constraints on the market.
Scruton is a Conservative, but he is describing the instinct of socialism. However, conservatism and socialism part company in their responses to politics, power, and the money interest.
For Scruton, society is a “true spontaneous order”, and so the constraints on markets are already there in the form of customs, laws and morals. If these decay, there is no way that legislation can replace them. Scruton argues that we cannot escape from the “commodification” of life that prosperity has brought to us. All we can do is strive to discipline it through good taste, the love of beauty and the sense of decorum. We should acknowledge our losses, the better to bear them.
Confronted by the power of money and the destructive impact of the market, the Conservative response is to turn to libertarianism and aestheticism. The response of socialism is democracy. Creating power with people to resist and check the power of markets to commodify their labour and turn it into a thing valued only by its price.
For Scruton, conservatism is a philosophy of attachment. But in life nothing stays attached forever, and so inevitably conservatism is a politics about loss. It is a kind of pragmatic rearguard action to preserve and protect what it considers to be social and human value. It retreats, makes a stand, retreats, holds its ground, retreats. Can there be a settled life when everyone and everything is in motion?
It is a question that also goes to the heart of socialism. The politics of socialism is about self-determination. It is a philosophy of human action based in relationships and subject to reciprocity – the give and take which establishes a sense of justice. Its conservative instinct raises the question of equality because each individual is irreplaceable in our mutual dependence. Equality of worth is the ethical core of justice. It is the necessary condition for social freedom which is the basis of a settled life. Edmund Burke describes it as “that state of things in which liberty is secured by equality of restraint”. In the past, we called it fraternity.
The Left has followed the liberal philosopher Friedrich Hayek’s disparaging view of conservatism in his essay, Why I am not a Conservative. Conservatism, with its fear of change and timid distrust of the new, is dragged along paths not of its choosing, constantly applying the “brake on the vehicle of progress”. But the destructive impact of liberal economics over the last 30 years requires that we reassess our prejudice and recognise the enduring presence and value of the conservative instinct in society. It will allow us to better understand the importance to people of home, a sense of belonging and a love of country.
Labour built its history organising working people to defend the integrity of their family life, to struggle for fair wages and a decent home, and to create a better future for their children. It was an aspirational politics about bread and butter issues. It is also about creating power together for individual freedom. Our traditions of English liberty—say what you think, live as you will—run deep in our country. They are conservative and radical in their origins, and this paradox is the source of Labour’s renewal as a political force in England.
This article first appeared at ConservativeHome.
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