"You the People" Conservatism

Jerome di Costanzo
16 June 2009

“My firm conviction is that we of the conservative camp must put ourselves entirely onto a democratic basis. After the collapse of the old conditions nothing else can provide us with a future and a justification except pure democracy. Even if democracy has a dark side it is preferable to the quasi-democratic aristocracy of the representative system.” Philipp Anton von Segesser, 1866

Jerome di Costanzo is a writer and journalist. He blogs for ladroitelibre and lives in Yorkshire How this quote from a mid-19th century Swiss politician could perfectly transpose to Britain today! Jonathan Steinberg, author of "Why Switzerland?" goes on to comment: “Philipp Anton entered politics as naturally as certain old Etonians become Tory MPs and, like some of the ‘wetter’ among them, he incorporated the paradox of the aristocrat as democrat.”

Does this not aptly depict a David Cameron of today? What is it about Conservatives and democracy? They could be seen as in opposition when one considers the sovereign democratic tendencies of the Thatcher years. Today cynicism might make us think that Cameron’s latest declarations about democracy at the Open University are just to push Gordon Brown towards a new election. But the evidence points to a real governmental and social strategy: during the debate on the Lisbon treaty, they asked for a referendum; David Davis resigned – forcing a by-election in his constituency – because of his opposition to our Orwellian society, creating the ‘fight for freedom’; and then last week, David Cameron called for elected peers in the Lords, more power for the local councils, and a turnover of parliament with a reduction in the number of MPs. Laura Sandys, who is a member of the Tory Conservative Taskforce [and Chair of openDemocracy] calls this “a truly British Revolution in the making…”. Perhaps the Tories want us to see them as knights-in-shining-armour, rescuing our sick political system? Whatever the case, it is interesting to look at what is happening to this reputedly patrician party. What is this new form of British Conservative rhetoric – a “You the people” Toryism?

This newly proposed trust between the Tories and the people has some similarities with the Tory doctrine of “One Nation”. In 1845, a year after the publication of Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, Benjamin Disraeli wrote in opposition to the newborn Marxism: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets: the rich and the poor.” This quote sparked the beginning of the One Nation movement inside the Conservative party. The Tory was then positioned on the border of a liberal doctrine with a patriotic appeal to national feeling against the class war. This doctrine was the People, the Nation, against disorder and social inequality. Randolph Churchill was one of the disciples of this Tory democracy. It was also to become the political basis for Winston Churchill, explaining his regular transfuge to the liberal party and his genius in giving a definition of One Britain nationalism when facing the Nazi danger, perfectly illustrated by the war film of this time – the “This is not a gentleman’s war!” of The Life and Death of the Colonel Blimp. One Nation fought against barbary, exalting the lower class, where the Tommy (beautifully incarnated by John Mills) had the cunning intelligence of a Homeric Ulysses.

With the post-war consensus, from Harold Macmillan to Edward Heath, One Nation Toryism ruled Conservative thinking. It was bullied by the nationalist “river of blood” speech of Enoch Powell, with the popular support of the workers of Smithfield market and here the One Nation was fatally wounded, only to be followed by a resurgence of elitist and patriotic feeling during the Thatcher Years, and then dying out with the confusing “Back to Basics” debacle of John Major.

In 1997, in reaction to the victory of New Labour, Damian Green tried to revive the One Nation Tory with the Tory Reform Group, but with little concrete success. In 2005 David Cameron hailed the “Nine principles” of the Conservative Way Forward. The concise declaration of the CWF gave the new principles of 21st century Conservatism: the introduction stating “Each nation must be free to determine its policies to the benefit of its citizens.” and followed by the two first principles – “Freedom: For responsible individuals, guaranteed by the rule of law administered by and independent judiciary and minimal state activity;” and “Democracy: The exercise of political power, with the consent of the people – through regular elections on the basis of universal suffrage and a secret ballot.” Their nine principles marked the end of opposition inside the party between the liberal Thatcherite and the liberal Humanist, but liberal all the same, so is this still Conservative? Or could “You the People” just be a politically correct liberal democratic party?

Cameron’s speech at the Open University could have been influenced by French aristocratic but liberal thinker Tocqueville and his program starts with the same observations as Tocqueville, that democracy has a tendency towards ‘middling values’, creating relativist conformism, and perversely can generate individualism. When MPs abuse the system, Lordships are bought for cash, a Prime minister doesn’t want to endanger his position with a democratic election, a financial crisis is created by individual risk-taking and some minorities decide to segregate themselves within their own country, our democracy is showing clear symptoms of individualism.

In this context democracy becomes an empire of relativism where all ideas are similar to others, a Brown or a Cameron is the same thing, and if you want to vote for difference you have to turn to the extremes. This is the Tocquevillian nightmare. And what is the solution? Tocqueville envisioned the creation of a local and intermediary order – a nod towards the old regime, which ruled the life of the citizen locally. And here we may recognize a point in Cameron’s speech about wanting to give more power to the local councils – the local democratic order. Two points from the CWF’s Nine principles are associated with this new local policy: “Community: Defined by geography, tradition, inheritance and sense of identity” and “Choice for individuals must be maximised – even if the state accepts responsibility for provision of a safety net.” In this sense, local governments aren’t micro-parliaments, but real expressions of human particularities, befitting each area’s political traditions and moral values as shared by the members of a community.

So what does the “You the People” philosophy need for it to become a real Conservative policy and not a liberal one? Just as the old aristocratic class survived in the representative system described by Segesser, the preservation or the recreation of a pre-modern form of local government can be viewed as a mark of pure Conservatism. This realism in political analysis should be a Conservative virtue, as is perfectly illustrated by Roger Scruton: “Conservatism is itself a modernism, and in this lies the secret of its success. What distinguishes Burke from the French Revolution is not his attachment to things past, but his desire to live fully in the present, to understand it in all its imperfections, and to accept it as the only reality that is offered to us.”

So is Cameron’s view of our democracy realistic? The analysis of the situation through the eyes of Tocqueville completely fits with the reality of our society, liberal and democratic, and in this sense can’t be considered a liberal heresy of Conservative dogma. But how is Cameron the faithful successor of the Tory patrician tradition? It is certainly in his trust in an elitist democracy, not just vain elitism, but a chivalric one: our knights-in-shining-armour. With a country in economic crisis and the standing elite completely disqualified by their own weakness and established position, as was the case in 1791 when Burke wrote his reflections, it is the great gamble of Cameron in his “You the people” politic to regenerate the elite by making them better and more accountable to the people. The important place of the elite, traditional, national and local in a democratic and transparent government ensures that Cameron’s Conservatism isn’t, on this point, latent liberalism. Scruton’s identified duty to recognise the reality of the present, with all its imperfections, is vital to the ruling elite, because if they don’t pay attention to reality, people could be tempted by more radical ideology such as Marxism, which Disraeli faced, or Nazism which Churchill confronted, or the French Revolution which roused Edmund Burke. These ideologies could legitimately be criticised because of their lack of consideration for human life.

The accuracy in describing reality and its imperfections requires a careful sense of morality – what is good and what is bad. For the moment at least the Tory party’s programme doesn’t answer fundamental questions: what are the moral values of its elite? What are our common values or ethics? What are our traditions, our heritage? What is our sense of identity? And what is their order? What are the real imperfections of our present? We are free, says the Tory manifesto, but we are far from a valid democracy! And the problems of scandal and corruption in parliament are not solved by giving more power to local councils – the corruption will still be there just on a smaller scale in greater numbers. Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue concluded: “ what matters …. is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” The question about the moral life could be misinterpreted – it is not a nostalgia for the past moral order, but a question about our values in our society. It is also a way of clearly defining a difference between our 500 years of political experience and the version of democracy upheld by an Ahmadinejad or a Hugo Chavez.

The finality of a clearly communicated moral goal is what makes a successful Tory – Edward Heath never announced his goals with his policies, and this obscurity made Thatcher seem all the more remarkable. In today’s political context, the moral goal of a Promised Land is necessary and it doesn’t yet appear in the Conservatism of “You the People”. It could be made apparent by answering the question “which values do we want to believe in to secure a peaceful society?” or by stating practically what our future is with regard to, say, Europe, the environment, globalisation or immigration. Here is the debate, and it must be supported by plurality, because it is by real debate that we can reach an ideal renovated democracy with more justice and more security.

The proposed democratic vision embodied by Cameron has no face, and can’t guarantee its success on the repeated empty refrain of democracy and freedom if it doesn’t succeed in encouraging people to actively participate in the debate about our values. With courage and foresight, it must enter into the moral forum, trying to answer the traditional question of politics that started with democracy in Athens: what is good for society? This is crucial for the success of Cameron’s new strategy to create a real, popular and interclass movement with a strong feeling of responsibility for the good of One Nation. Here in the widest sense is a potential definition for our democratic system in general – a successful addition of human singularity while preserving the common good.


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