Stand up for the real meaning of freedom

We need conservatism now more than ever

4 January 2014

When pressed for a statement of their beliefs, conservatives give ironical or evasive answers: beliefs are what the others have, the ones who have confounded politics with religion, as socialists and anarchists do. This is unfortunate, because conservatism is a genuine, if unsystematic, philosophy, and it deserves to be stated, especially at a time like the present, when the future of our nation is in doubt.

Conservatives believe that our identities and values are formed through our relations with other people, and not through our relation with the state. The state is not an end but a means. Civil society is the end, and the state is the means to protect it. The social world emerges through free association, rooted in friendship and community life. And the customs and institutions that we cherish have grown from below, by the ‘invisible hand’ of co-operation. They have rarely been imposed from above by the work of politics, the role of which, for a conservative, is to reconcile our many aims, and not to dictate or control them.

Only in English-speaking countries do political parties describe themselves as ‘conservative’. Why is this? It is surely because English-speakers are heirs to a political system that has been built from below, by the free association of individuals and the workings of the common law. Hence we envisage politics as a means to conserve society rather than a means to impose or create it. From the French revolution to the European Union, continental government has conceived itself in ‘top-down’ terms, as an association of wise, powerful or expert figures, who are in the business of creating social order through regulation and dictated law. The common law does not impose order but grows from it. If government is necessary, in the conservative view, it is in order to resolve the conflicts that arise when things are, for whatever reason, unsettled.

If you see things in that way, then you are likely to believe in conserving civil society, by accommodating necessary change. New Labour sought to weaken our society externally and to divide it internally by its unquestioning acceptance of the primacy of EU supranational authority, internally by indiscriminate immigration, class warfare and the ‘reform’, which usually meant the politicisation, of our hallowed institutions. Conservatism, by contrast, aims at a cohesive society governed by laws of its own and by the institutions that have arisen over time in response to its changing needs and circumstances.

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Such a society depends upon a common loyalty and a territorial law, and these cannot be achieved or retained without borders. But we find ourselves bound by a treaty devised by utopian internationalists in circumstances that have long ago disappeared. The EU treaty obliges its member states to permit the ‘free movement of peoples’, regardless of their desires or their national interest. With its open welfare system, its universal language, its relative wealth and its carefully defended freedoms, our country is the preferred destination of Europe’s new wave of migrants. At the top of every conservative’s agenda, therefore, is the question of immigration: how to limit it, and how to ensure that the newcomers integrate into a civil society in which free association, freedom of opinion, and respect for the law are all axiomatic.

Conservatives recognise that the right to vote out our rulers and to change our law is the premise of democratic politics. Whenever possible, they believe, our law should be made in Westminster, or in the common-law courts of our kingdom, not by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels nor by courts of European judges.

Until recently the conservative emphasis on civil society has led to an equal emphasis on the family as its heart. This emphasis has been thrown into disarray by the sexual revolution, by widespread divorce and out-of-wedlock birth, and by recent moves to accommodate the homosexual lifestyle. And those changes have to be absorbed and normalised. Ours is a tolerant society in which liberty is extended to a variety of religions, world views, and forms of domestic life. But liberty is threatened by licence: liberty is founded on personal responsibility and a respect for others, whereas licence is a way of exploiting others for purely personal gain. Liberty therefore depends on the values that protect individuals from chaotic personal lives and which cherish the integrity of the home in the face of the many threats to it.

Conservatism is a philosophy of inheritance and stewardship; it does not squander resources but strives to enhance them and pass them on. For conservatives, environmental politics needs to be rescued from the phony expertise of the scaremongers. But it must also be rescued from the religion of Progress, which urges us to pursue growth at all costs and to turn our beloved country into an array of concrete platforms linked by high-speed railways and surveyed from every hilltop by eerie wind-farms.

Those beliefs are difficult to act upon now. Through quangos and official bodies, the state has been amplified under New Labour to the point of swallowing private initiatives and distorting the long-established charitable instinct of our citizens. Regulations make it difficult for people to associate, and the nonsensical rulings of the European courts constantly tell us that, by living according to our lights, we are trampling on somebody’s ‘human rights’. Conservatives believe in rights but rights that are paid for by duties, and which reconcile people rather than divide them.

Left-wing thinkers often caricature the conservative position as one that advocates the free market at all costs, introducing competition and the profit motive even into the most sacred precincts of communal life. Adam Smith and David Hume made clear, however, that the market, which is the only known solution to the problem of economic co-ordination, itself depends upon the kind of moral order that arises from below, as people take responsibility for their lives, learn to honour their agreements and live in justice and charity with their neighbours. Our rights are also freedoms, and freedom makes sense only among people who are accountable to their neighbours for its misuse.

This means that, for conservatives, the effort to reclaim civil society from the state must continue unceasingly. One by one, our freedoms are being eroded: free speech by the Islamists, free association by the European Court of Human Rights, the freedom to make our own laws and to control our own borders by the European Union. We conservatives value our freedom not because it is an abstract possession of the abstract individual, but because it is a concrete and historical achievement, the result of civil discipline over centuries, and the sign of our undemonstrative respect for the law of the land.

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Show comments
  • David Webb

    Professor Scruton, almost none of what you wrote above could be accepted by the Conservative Party. “Conservatives believe that our identities and values are formed through our relations with other people, and not through our relation with the state.” I agree – but what this means is that Britishness is about a horizontal relationship between British people – people of like descent and culture – and not about the vertical relationship with the Home Office, which has granted a piece of paper (a citizenship document or passport) to millions of people who don’t share any commonalities with British people. There has got to be a distinction between being really British, and merely being a British citizen, which is just a relation with the state. Because Cameron supports the extinction of our nation by mass demographic change, he could not accept anything you wrote.

    • Daniel Maris

      I’ve up-arrowed that on the basis you haven’t said commonalities are a matter of race. I am very at ease with lots of people of different racial origin from me who I feel share in the broad current of British culture (our language, TV and film references, liking for sport, appreciation of our freedom, acceptance of democratic government and laws made by parliament etc). As you say, the vertical business is meaningless.

      • David Webb

        People of different racial origin almost never have culture affinities with us either – because multiculturalism encourages them not to share in British culture.

    • dalai guevara

      Your assumptions and conclusions are fatuous. The Germans or French never faced levels of immigration like we do now? Have their nations been wiped off the face of this planet? This has nothing to do with defining ‘Conservativism’, we quickly understand this to be an attempt to ‘repatriate’ the split vote on the right.

    • e2toe4

      I found your comment a bit confusing at first as to my mind the article is a good setting out of why Conservatism is not a dead sea scroll of a political philosophy but has a gaze every bit as progressive and forward looking as any left wing party.

      But he doesn’t anywhere equate this idea of conservatism with the present, pretty conflicted entity of the Conservative and Unionist party—so while I think it’s not a bad thing to tee off against the party, the article itself isn’t really about that at all.

      To my mind the article does a good job of setting out a blue print that is so different from the present Conservative party’s idea of conservatism (which seems to be a kind of Wannabee New Labour but with nagging money worries) that it might well serve as a decent checklist for David Cameron and his advisors to consult when they come to consider how they failed to win the last election, and lost the next.

  • Roy

    How can a picture of the entrance to New York harbour represent freedom when the policies of its government work against the original constitution, and are now dividing that nation? How can Britain, Conservatives or not at the helm, speak of freedom when their original peoples are deprived of the very country beneath their feet? Forcing them to share resources with a strange lot of newcomers uninvited by them. Is their freedom of choice worth zilch? Their law and order system taken off them and placed in the hands of compliant forces in collusion with the new comers. Is this the “new” freedom?

  • greatdivide

    Liberty and licence, indeed. Conservatives are losing the battle, and have been for a generation.

  • Daniel Maris

    Roger, nice Hegelian chap though he is (I’ve heard him speak), really has nothing to offer us where we are today.

    We need some clear thinkers and doers, not romantics.

    • goldushapple

      Roger may not be a doer, but he is a clear thinker – though somewhat muddled in prose. I would suggest the doers adopt some of his conservative beliefs.

  • global city

    Yes, absolutely. This is why our ‘Conservative’ party, who have in actual fact been an ugly patrician party of the elite’s vested interests masquerading as a Conservative Party, has finally had history catch them up.

    Squatting on political lands that they do not believe in, the Tories have for way too long been able to promote themselves as supporting the aspirational, the entrepreneurial, to be Eurosceptic, when all along the grandees have pursued policies utterly in conflict with these values.

    Not any more.

  • Peter Stroud

    A good article. Now it is time for our conservative leaders to rediscover Conservatism.

    • e2toe4

      That’s one comment I can understand…and agree with–this piece sits well beside the one in the issue about the Euro project and the way in which, an reasons, for labelling any non-orthodox party as ‘Far Right’ or ‘Right wing’.

    • Treebrain

      Excellent idea but it is always worthwhile to ‘follow the money’ when trying to discern where the genuine interests of any group really lie.

      With patrician Tory land-owning grandees and the Crown taking the bulk of EU subsidies to the UK is it any wonder they are not keen to halt the gravy train?

  • dalai guevara

    some blue sky thinking if I may:
    the tree is…green.
    thank you, that’s all for now.

    • PierreRobert

      I guess you mean that the tree leaves are green thanks to CO2, water and sunlight.

  • dalai guevara

    Now that I have read the article I must say that one thing struck me immediately.

    What the author has attempted to describe is not ‘Conservatism’ but the juxtaposition of those who require a Constitution to have themselves governed and those who do not.
    So this does not seem to be about political affiliation in an increasingly international post-left/right world, the argument appears to be designed as a counterpoint to a French ‘business outlook’.

  • BoiledCabbage

    The Coalition must be jettisoned now – plunging Cameron into the rigour of a minority Government – so that the true voice of Conservatism can be heard in time for the election, rather than the limp compromise of the Coalition, which is a turn-offf for everyone. Sink or swim – time for the Prime Minister to believe in something other than greasy PR tweets.

  • Magnus Hirschfeld

    After emphasising how important the family has historically been to conservatives, Prof. Scruton refers to “recent moves to accommodate the homosexual lifestyle.” At the end of this paragraph, he lumps tolerance of people being gay together with “the sexual revolution, (…) widespread divorce and out-of-wedlock birth.” He asserts that tolerance of gay relationships has been one of the factors that has thrown the conservative empasis on the importance of the family into “disarray”. At the end of that paragraph, he says, “Liberty therefore depends on the values that protect individuals from
    chaotic personal lives and which cherish the integrity of the home in
    the face of the many threats to it.”

    As a Conservative, I agree with much of what Prof. Scruton has written elsewhere in his piece. But it is really saddening to see a person of his intellectual stature succumbing to ignorance, prejudice and sloppy thinking in the area of gay and lesbian relationships. Gay people no more have a “homosexual lifestyle” than vegetarians have a “vegetarian lifestyle” or left-handed people a “left-handed lifestyle”. The term “homosexual lifestyle” is one that so frequently and casually used by people who choose to denigrate all gay people as being alien, feckless, narcissistic, sexually promiscuous individuals who should remain relegated to the margins of society. There are promiscuous and feckless gay people, just as there are promiscuous and feckless heterosexual people. But it is not the norm. And non-celibate gay people, regardless of whether the prejudices of their culture, their time in history or their family environment have forced them to remain in hiding, continue to make important contributions to society. Alan Turing is a particularly impressive example who comes to mind. And, of course, there are many gay and lesbian activists in the Conservative movement.

    People do not live “chaotic personal lives” as a necessary consequence of being gay and deciding not to be celibate. Some people do live chaotic personal lives, and this is by no means confined to gay people. A professional gay couple raising children as responsible and loving parents is neither demonstrating a “homosexual lifestyle” nor living “chaotic personal lives”. And if proportionally more gay people do have chaotic personal lives, then perhaps the psychological and social effects of a lifetime of homophobic discrimination, prejudice and marginalisation, of the kind Prof. Scruton’s text does nothing to challenge, carry a good share of the blame.

    It is a pity that Prof Scruton’s myopia will alienate many people who are natural conservatives, but who still associate the right wing with bigotry, ignorance and homophobia. Homophobia does not only offend gay people: it causes deep offence to many heterosexual people, across the political spectrum – and particularly to those very many people who have “out” gay family members. Society and the Conservative movement have moved on when it comes to homophobic prejudice and ignorance. Perhaps Prof. Scruton will manage this one day, as well.

    • Picquet

      Nonsense, start to finish. The essential point of Prof Scruton’s word on that subject was the key part which ‘family’ plays in the beliefs and outlook of the conservative Briton. It isn’t unique to the United Kingdom; all successful societies have the loyalties and bonds of family at their heart. Unsuccessful ones invariably reject the family as the key element, and instead project the state in its place. Homosexual ‘marriage’, a perversion if there ever was one, is a symptom of a decline in the strength of the society’s confidence in itself.

      • Magnus Hirschfeld

        The problem with your post it that, instead of trying to counter the specific points in my post, you have simply thrown a dollop of vague, woolly and platitudinous rhetoric. Gay people are members of families, too, and many of us strongly support the institution of the family and are very loyal to our family members, as the is the case for many heterosexuals. And just as not all heterosexuals have children, it is the case that an increasing number of gay couples are bringing up children.

        Supporting the institution of “the family” is inconsistent neither with a number of heterosexual and gay couples not having children, nor with a number of heterosexual and gay couples deciding to get married.

        • Picquet

          The concept of homosexual ‘couples’ bringing up children is to me, utterly repugnant. The use of children as a confection, without consideration of the possible consequences for the future lives of the children, is cruelty in the extreme. I reject the rest of your post as ghastly rubbish.

          • Magnus Hirschfeld

            Rather a delusional post, saying more about the toxicity of the writer than about any intended referent. What truly harms children is not being brought up by a loving and responsible same-sex couple, but having the scourge of a hard-hearted and prejudiced parent who blights his family and social environment with thoughtless callousness and bigotry. Thankfully, this is a breed of parent that is fast being consigned to the dustbin of history in this country. And about time.

          • Picquet

            Delusional? From someone with an obvious attachment to M Hirschfield? That, and this last post of yours tells the world a lot about you, I’m afraid. They come for you early in the morning, you know.

          • Magnus Hirschfeld

            Early in the morning? You certainly sound as though you speak from experience!

          • Praxilites

            I agree wholeheartedly Magnus. These kinds of issues show that the left at their best have a valid point of view on some issues and although I support the main thrust of Scrutons arguament i found that particular passage hard to take.

  • Gergiev

    The Conservative Party is not conservative.

  • Julieann Carter

    It’s a shame our Conservative Party changed it’s emblem from ‘the flame of freedom’, to an environmentally conscious, tree!
    It’s a shame our Conservative politicians rush to apologise whenever one of the Lefts increasing myriad of ‘minority communities’, claims they are offended!
    It’s a shame that presently Mr Gove is being criticised by his own colleagues for robustly arguing his point of view, re WW1. We love conviction politicians, don’t force him to be silent. Can’t you see that is in large part the appeal of Nigel Farage?

    The Conservatives, in my view, need to confine to history the words, ‘benefits’, and ‘entitlements’. They belong to New Labour.
    The Conservatives need to better define what welfare payments are for, and where they come from. Something like ‘Temporary Tax-payer Aid’.
    It still astounds me that so many still believe they are entitled to a certain lifestyle at the tax-payers expense. Like bemoaning having to ‘pay bedroom tax’ – (though still in receipt of some subsidy) – while at the same time acknowledging ownership of a brand new car, and related monthly payments. I read this today, along with another quite shocking testimony. These people didn’t even realise the implications of what they were saying. They were simply ‘entitled’. The other testimony related to a 4 bed flat purchased by parents for their daughter. The daughter ‘paid them’ the monthly mortgage – entirely met by HB. The hard-working tax-payer paid for that flat


    Very good article Roger, i heard distant drums and saw a tattered Union flag filling with the breeze, and my bottom lip was quivering. But this article,if it had no clue to it’s author, reads like a stirring battle-cry for UKIP and the Peoples Party, and i would be little surprised and glowing inside. Fact is, few tories believe in this or are interested for that matter, so Ukip et al will continue to grow, and so be it.

  • Sumoking

    Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill 2013-14, talk Freedom, legislate AUTHORITY! Conservative mantra never changes.

  • montana83

    The Tea Party in the US gets it. The Republican Party is like the Conservative Party in the UK. Maybe UKIP is the answer for the UK, if for no other reason than to totally shake up Cameron and his cronies. Here in the US, the Republicans can not have another Dole, Bush, Bush, McCain and Romney sequence of political class managers who want to be in office but not project power. Those guys 5 are RINO’s supported by Karl Rove type political consultants,

    Both our countries face the same horrible problems: 1) Government out of control 2) Crazy immigration policies guaranteed to bring in left wing voters and 3) No understanding that a welfare state and an immigration state are incompatible and 4) So much more – the list is endless.

  • mgreaves

    There is already a party in the UK which espouses these principles. It is certainly not the Conservative Party which now looks, at best, more like a European Christian Democrat party (and as often as not, like a Social Democrat party). The present Conservative Party ceased to be a truly conservative party twenty years ago and is currently engaged in a long slow death because it has junked conservative values.

    No, UKIP is that party.

    I could not find anything much in this with which I or my fellow Kippers would disagree terribly much. I would add to the paragraph on education that it should be treated by the collective that is the British people as an investment in all our futures and that our education system (including University) must be so designed with the future of our nation at the forefront of our minds and in a way that, along with an attractive low-tax regime, encourages our finest people to do all their education in the UK and to remain here thereafter.

    If these are your values, join UKIP today.

  • Albert Aho

    Those who preach from collectivism’s altar declare that equality of wealth must be imposed in the interests of “society” and that the “rich” must pay their “fair” share.

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