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Scruton on conservatism

    Inspired by philosopher Roger Scruton's vision for modern conservatism, Dr. Kieron O'Hara writes on why we need a Conservative Party that appeals to a wider constituency, while maintaining the essential principles of liberty, personal responsibility and a smaller state.

    Given that conservatives are supposedly the ‘stupid party’, it’s extraordinary what a depth of intellect modern conservatism has to draw upon. In particular, any discussion of the fundamentals by Roger Scruton, such as appeared in and The Spectator yesterday is bound to be welcome and thought-provoking, especially, as he says, as the debate is vital for a party derailed by the financial crisis and confused by coalition.

    Scruton’s manifesto is made up of a preamble and 10 principles – admirably concise and focused, and containing much to admire. His reiteration that the state is a means, not an end, is important in these days when politicians, voters and the media conspire to blame government for whatever goes wrong (and thereby incentivises it to attempt, however ineptly, to “put it right”). We can go further: the state not only is not an end, it cannot legitimately determine the ends of social interaction. The state should ensure that the nation is an arena in which people can pursue their own ends without illegitimately cramping the style of others. So one omission from Scruton’s ideas is support for government transparency – it’s worth raising a cheer for Francis Maude’s open data programme which is enabling civil society groups to understand their own environments much more accurately, and develop ideas and policy independently of government.

    None of Scruton’s 10 principles, broadly construed, could possibly be objectionable to anyone who maintains that individual freedoms, identities and values are of fundamental importance. His Burkean argument for stewardship of the environment, and his observation, echoing Adam Smith, that free markets are essential when the right social conditions obtain (the rule of law, respect for contracts, respect for justice), are important qualifications to more doctrinaire liberal/libertarian traditions.

    But blogs are about disagreement, not agreement, and it is important to challenge some of the detail. Scruton rails against “empty progressivism” – yes, but I believe a tolerant, open-minded conservatism is both possible and, electorally-speaking, essential. Scruton, the author of the wonderful England: An Elegy, sometimes seems to have given up on modern life entirely. Not all of us have.

    Scruton’s focus, as befits a conservative concerned above all with territory and place, is with the vexed question of the nation. His first three principles state that the nation state is the sole vehicle for democratic legitimacy, that civil society depends on protected borders, and that Parliament should be sovereign. As I say, these are fine as broad principles, but I have trouble with the flesh Scruton puts on the bones. He sometimes seems to defend an idea from a golden age, but conservatism must surely take into account the realities, however unpleasant, of the day.

    Similarly, immigration: Scruton argues for control and restraint. OK, but the arguments about the benefits of immigrants for the host country are quite finely balanced. Circumstances change. I know from my own context in the university sector that ludicrous visa rules, and – worse – daft rumours such as the idiotic scheme to demand bonds from entrants from countries with a bad reputation, make the recruitment of good scientists and wise thinkers from emerging economies difficult. These are influential future friends of Britain, potentially lost forever.

    One more example: Scruton writes about the iniquities of the welfare system, and the rewards that go to fecklessness. Again, hard to argue with the main idea, but in practice it is hard to separate fecklessness from misfortune, or resentment against a world that is perceived to be unfair, or aspects of identity in certain parts of our society that it is not the state’s business to break down. Is there a danger is that a sensible refusal to reward fecklessness could easily morph, in the furnace of policy development, into a self-defeating draconianism which will merely perpetuate the social divisions that stand in the way of the “common loyalty” that Scruton rightly places at the centre of his ideas?

    The Britain, or the England, that we have is generally speaking a more tolerant and polyglot place than many assume. That is why we need a Conservative Party that appeals to a wider constituency, while maintaining the essential principles of liberty, personal responsibility and a smaller state.

    Dr. Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. His book 'Conservatism' was published in 2011 by Reaktion Books. 

    Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and has a DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford. His research interests are:
    the politics and philosophy of technology, particularly the World Wide Web; transparency and open data; privacy; memory; and conservative philosophy.

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