A detailed history of political conservatism

Edmund Fawcett’s Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition was published last October, and follows on from his 2015 work: Liberalism: the Life of an Idea. Fawcett has had a glittering career in journalism, writing for The Economist for several decades, where he served as the chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels. In this book, he provides a detailed history of political conservatism from the late 18th century, tracing both the evolution of political parties as well as the development in conservative thought.  

He focuses on four key countries – his native United Kingdom, the United States, France and Germany – and examines the history of conservatism from its origins in opposition to the spirit of the French Revolution, through the long periods of political ascendancy and on to the recent rise of the hard right – a development which the author believes has profound consequences for the future of mainstream conservatism. Though he happens to be the uncle of one Boris Johnson, Fawcett is himself a man of the liberal left.  

He is, however, an exceptionally shrewd observer and he has a gift for explaining how conservatives have “[i]n the perplexing rush of modern change… spoken to a universal human desire for familiarity and stability – for tomorrow to be like today.”    

The author believes that conservatism and liberalism both developed in response to the momentous changes which occurred in the era of the Industrial Revolution. Societies were industrialising and urbanising. This resulted in traditional social ties being weakened along with the control exerted by traditional authorities – political and religious alike.  

Given modern political realities, some may be surprised by how wary the proto-conservatives were of the advance of “capitalist modernity,” a development which early liberals welcomed. Edmund Burke, for example, did not just oppose the violent revolution in France. The father of conservatism also took a dim view of banking (“The kind of wealth which will be resorted to by all who wish for change”) and feared an excessive democratisation of parliament. Clearly, something more fundamental was at play.  

Faced with destabilising forces (political, social and economic), Fawcett writes that “the first conservatives sought order in the prevailing institutions (crown, church and aristocracy), prevailing legal patterns (ownership and inheritance), or prevailing social forms (deference, faith and loyalty).” As is made clear by the chronological overview, the degree to which conservatives supported traditional institutions has varied, and the greatest success of conservative parties has been in outlasting some of them (like the French monarchy) and managing the decline of others (like the Church of England).  

This meant that enormous changes still occurred, but only gradually, and in such a way that the existing traditions were preserved in an altered form. Here, Fawcett’s example of 19th-century Toryism is particularly illuminating:

In 1830, British conservatism stood for church against chapel, farms against manufacturers, and country against city. By 1880, the ethical shape of those attachments – orthodoxy against dissent, tradition against novelty, virtue against vice – was still recognisable but flexibly and more pragmatically held. In urban-industrial conditions of modern capitalism, the Conservatives were becoming an adaptable right-wing party of wide democratic appeal. 

His point is demonstrated by the electoral successes of late 19th-century Tory prime ministers such as Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. These leaders were more supportive of free enterprise than their predecessors were. Their willingness to adapt helped to attract a new support base among the burgeoning middle classes, which meant that as voting rights were expanded, the party which had resisted greater democratisation and liberalisation ended up winning democratic elections.  

Not only did conservatism make peace with liberal democracy, it ended up succeeding within this system, and helping to make it work for everyone.  

Fawcett’s narrative, however, extends far beyond electoral performance. Traditional religious beliefs were greatly impacted by the social upheaval brought about by modern capitalism, and many 18th century Christians feared these changes. Rather than standing aloof however, committed Christians opted to engage in helping to shape the direction of their countries for the better. 

Fawcett describes the role which the French priest, Father Felicité de Lamennais, and the German Bishop, Wilhelm von Ketteler, played in establishing “a contemporary role for Christian faith in its social mission,” which helped others to lay the groundwork for what became known as Christian Democracy. This was particularly important to the evolution of post-war Germany. After the horrors of World War II – and the failures of the Catholic Centre Party and other moderate groups to stop Hitler’s rise – Christian Democratic leaders played a central role in building the new West Germany, and embedding Catholic political and social tradition within its constitutional framework.  

Interestingly, the author contrasts this willingness of these Christian Democrats and other social Catholics to engage with the broader world with what he sees as a worrying trend within modern-day Christianity, where thinkers such as Rod Dreher advocate a retreat from ever-more secular societies. Indeed, the consequences of the failure of liberal democracy informs much of what the author has written, as does the spectre of rising populist and nationalist movements.  

The emergence of the “hard right” (which the author defines in admirably clear and fair-minded terms) is explained as a failure of the mainstream right and left alike, but it is a challenge which is particularly serious for conservatives given that the populist right represents a strain which has always existed in conservative thinking.  

This is far from a new trend. One of the examples of the irresponsible anti-democratic right he points to is Charles Maurras, who led the thuggish Action Française which sought to destabilise France’s government in the 1930s. Rather than work to strengthen their country’s governing institutions, Maurras followers wanted nothing to do with the Third Republic, instead engaging in street violence.  

In 1934, a far-right mob went as far as to attempt to storm the parliament in Paris (a tactic which sounds vaguely familiar). Their hatred of the political system went so deep that Maurras and others of his inclination welcomed the Republic’s fall in 1940, even though it meant German occupation. The tale of Maurras is a chilling one when considering the rise of like-minded political entrepreneurs who set out their stall in complete opposition to the existing establishment.  

Examined in its entirety, Conservatism is an intellectual tour de force. Throughout the 417-page work (with 100 more pages in detailed appendices, indices and notes), Fawcett demonstrates an extraordinary breadth of knowledge, not just about the historical development of party politics, but also about the philosophical undercurrent which fed into conservatism in the four countries he examines. 

There are some minor flaws. Fawcett’s discussion of political philosophy does sometimes venture into the realm of the esoteric or abstruse. Many of the figures he examines appear to be of only minor significance, but here they sometimes occupy as much space as truly consequential governing figures.  

Fawcett also seems to overstate his case in writing of the recent electoral success of conservatism across them. This is true of Britain (where the Tories have won the last four general elections) and somewhat true of Germany, but the case is far less clear-cut in France and the United States, where the growing popularity of socialism among younger voters bodes ill for the future prospects of the Republican Party (and the nation writ large).  

Fawcett’s description of the rise of the hard right does not fully explain what is causing this. The changes which transformed human life two centuries ago were among the most transformative in our history, but the first decades of the 21st century point to the possibility of even more radical change: technological developments which render many workers useless, ongoing secularisation, weakening family structures, ballooning social entitlements, steep demographic decline, mass migration, environmental challenges – the list goes on and on.   

That is not to be pessimistic. There is nothing to be feared in the future: for just as the author quotes T.S. Eliot in saying, the:  

…conservative response to modernity is to embrace it, but to embrace it critically, in full consciousness that human achievements are rare and precarious, that we have no God-given right to destroy our inheritance, but must always patiently submit to the voice of order, and set an example of orderly living. 

The challenge of managing major challenges and preserving the best traditions of our past will occupy the attention of conservative politicians in this century. In explaining the vital role which their intellectual antecedents have played, Edmund Fawcett has done them – and political students of all stripes – an invaluable service.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.