Lament for “liberal conservatism”

Judging by David Aaronovitch’s review of Anne Applebaum’s upcoming book Twilight of Democracy, both he and Applebaum are unhappy with what they see as the decline of liberalism, especially east of the Rhine.

‘Liberal conservatism’ at work

In 1999 Miss Appelbaum and her husband Radek Sikorski, who later became Poland’s Defence Minister, entertained their friends in his native country. All of them were then “classic liberal conservatives”, whatever that means, which isn’t much.

Since then most of the couple’s guests have become xenophobic, anti-Semitic “active supporters of right-wing populist and authoritarian parties”. The principal reason for that metamorphosis is, according to Applebaum, despair about such things as, in the words of one of her disowned friends, “massive demographic changes… that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.”

Such apostates to the cause, adds Aaronovitch, aren’t “just to be found in Poland. They bolster Viktor Orban in Hungary, the new far-right Vox party in Spain and Donald Trump in America.”

Tragic, that. Then again, perhaps Miss Applebaum ought to have been more selective in her choice of friends. For example, none of my conservative friends has become a fascisoid populist.

The problem is that neither Applebaum nor Aaronovitch has a clear understanding of what conservatism means. Otherwise they’d know that Appelbaum’s former Polish friends never were conservatives in any clearly definable sense of the word.

They were anti-communists who rallied under liberal slogans they saw as an antithesis to totalitarianism. To their horror, once the Berlin Wall fell, they found out that their countrymen took to liberal democracy like a duck takes to acid.

In Eastern European history, those countries knew liberal democracy for only about 20 interbellum years. The rest of the time they were ruled by empires, be it Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Nazi or Ottoman. And for over 40 post-war years they were lorded over by the Soviet Union and its satraps.

None of that precluded the subsequent shouting of liberal slogans, that was the easy part. The difficult part was building a new body politic by fleshing out a skeleton pieced together from scattered bones.

Liberal slogans had to become liberal policies, but that transition has proved impossible to sustain in countries where liberty was seldom the predominant concern. Moreover, outside observers, including those who, like Applebaum, had an inside track, grossly underestimated the lasting corrupting effect of communism.

Communism was poison dripped in the nations’ bloodstream, and detoxification was always going to take longer than the period of exposure. Writing liberal constitutions on paper takes hours; writing them in people’s hearts takes generations.

The situation is different in the West, and lumping Duda, Oban, their Spanish counterparts and Trump together obfuscates the problem, rather than elucidating it.

“Liberal conservatism” has never failed in the West for the simple reason that it has never existed: it’s an oxymoron. Appelbaum and Aaronovitch attach that term to whiggery, which gradually lost the conservative features it used to have.

Traditional British Whigs differed from the Tories mainly by their focus. If the Tories were mainly the party of aristocracy, the Whigs also represented the emergent middle classes.

Hence they placed a slightly softer accent on traditional hierarchical values and a slightly greater one on such classic liberal desiderata as free trade, pluralism and civil liberties. ‘Slightly’ is the operative word there: the Whigs weren’t out to destroy tradition, and the Tories weren’t opposed to civil liberties.

On the Continent, things were different. For the Enlightenment wasn’t concerned with preserving tradition. It was out to crush it and replace – rather than complement – the old political, social and cultural order with liberté, égalité, fraternité. And the Enlighteners didn’t even realise that the middle element of that triad made the other two impossible.

Unlike Whig liberalism, the Continental kind wasn’t even remotely compatible with conservatism. For it’s a truism oft-repeated (by me, among others) that conservatives are defined by what they wish to conserve. Hence the only definition of conservatism that seems to defy any rational disagreement is the emotional, intellectual and visceral need to preserve the legacy of our civilisation, Christendom.

As the name implies, Christianity was the cornerstone of that civilisation, and it was that cornerstone that European liberals successfully knocked out. In fact, I see the Enlightenment as above all a revolt against Christianity, and in due course British liberals joined in.

If that great Whig Edmund Burke saw the hand of divine providence in the workings of the world, new, secular liberals saw nothing but their own hands at the tiller of history. They mistakenly thought they could get rid of Christianity and still keep the civilisation it had begotten. That didn’t work out, predictably.

The new secular state born out of atheist revolts and built on the foundation of liberté, égalité, fraternité or its equivalents, has proved to be vulnerable to totalitarian upheavals – not only physically but also ideologically.

The two cataclysmic revolutions of the 20th century, Soviet and Nazi, came in the wake of attempts to create liberal democratic states in Russia and Germany. The ease with which that was reversed is understandable.

Liberal democrats and totalitarians are as close in their slogans as they are different in their methods. Both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis touched the right chords in liberal democratic hearts by their touting of equality, free this and that, elimination of traditional hierarchies, their replacement with meritocracy, the rights of citizens and so forth.

Some of those promises were mere ruses designed to grab power, but some others were genuine. And both groups were united in their hatred of conservatives, defined as anyone who couldn’t bear to see the traditional civilisation of Christendom stamped into the dirt.

Socialism follows unchecked liberal democracy as naturally as liberal democracy follows atheism. In the end, true, as opposed to ‘liberal’, conservatives find themselves politically, culturally and socially homeless.

All mainstream parties in the West are what Appelbaum and Aaronovich call “liberal conservative” and what I call variously socialist, which is to say hostile to conservatism. So what options do conservatives have if, unlike me, they wish to take part in political life? Precious few, which explains their drifting towards assorted populist parties.

In Eastern Europe, where commitment to liberal democracy is of a more recent and less robust vintage than in the West, the ideological possibilities are wider. Their fascisoid demagogues can appeal to Christianity and attack post-Christian liberalism the way Western populists can’t.

Neither Aaronovitch nor Appelbaum is intellectually equipped to rise above the simplistic binary view of ‘liberal democracy good, everything else bad’. They don’t discern the structural flaws in the democratic edifice, and accuse those who do of heresy and apostasy.

Simplistic views have caused much damage throughout Western history. And they have a rich potential for causing much more.

7 thoughts on “Lament for “liberal conservatism””

  1. So where am I?

    Born a Jew, but not disposed to practice any religion or to deny my heritage; repelled by totalitarianism (communist and all other); voting Conservative in every election since old enough to vote (b. 1933). Where do I belong? Apparently not in any category you would recognize because I regard Christianity as even less justifiable than Judaism.

    Please help me to understand!

    1. First, the Conservative Party hasn’t had much to with conservatism for a rather long time. Second, a conservative may not be a Christian, but he must cherish our civilisation and acknowledge its debt to Christianity. Otherwise, he isn’t a conservative, although he may be a good person. Denying one’s Jewish heritage isn’t part of it all. Our culture, especially its ethical aspect, is Judaeo-Christian.

      1. All true, your response. I vote Conservative mainly because that appears to be the least of the evils on offer. It still leaves me with no comfortable “home” in current politics; so an outsider. Maybe that is indeed the most comfortable situation for me.

      2. “Our culture, especially its ethical aspect, is Judaeo-Christian.”

        Correct. The laws, moral code and ethical standard of western nations are all based on teachings of the Bible.

  2. Changing the subject:

    “Writing liberal constitutions on paper takes hours; writing them in people’s hearts takes generations.”

    Is this the most significant and true observation you have ever made? And what does it mean for politics and progress?

    1. It’s a point I’ve made often, usually in response to Americans saying that Britain has no constitution because it has never been written down in a single document. I tend to say that written constitutions are like prenaptial agreements stipulating the frequency of sex: if you have to write it down, you might as well not bother.

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