The fact that this question can be asked suggests some lack of certainty. No such problem with deciding what it doesn’t stand for: conservatism.
Conservatism is the only political and moral philosophy rooted in the founding Judaeo-Christian tenets of our civilisation. This applies not just, these days not so much, to the religion itself, but even to every seemingly secular principle the religion spawned.
That determines what conservatives wish to conserve: the core principles of Christendom, as refracted through the complex facets of contemporaneous society.
Therefore political conservatives (and conservative parties) must find a way of adapting those principles to the rough-and-tumble of quotidian life, making sure the latter doesn’t deviate too far from the former – and the former don’t compromise the latter.
The defining political feature of any country is the relationship between the state and the individual. The more power the central state possesses, the less conservative it is.
The key organisational principle of Christendom is that of subsidiarity, devolving power to the lowest sensible level. That’s why, before Jesus Christ became a superstar, no central Western government had even approached the power of today’s prime ministers or presidents.
Since everyone was believed to be individually responsible for his own salvation, it was assumed that everyone could also be responsible for taking care of the infinitely easier task of running his own life.
Kings thus held much more sway over the loftiest courtiers than over the lowliest peasants. The people just went on with their lives, which were steered with loose reins by local squires, magistrates and priests – not by the almighty central state.
This reversed the arrangement that had existed in the Hellenic world, where the polis was everything and the individual next to nothing. Personal sovereignty was a concept alien to the Greeks and Romans alike: people had any value only as citizens, not as individuals.
And citizens were happy to be subjugated to the polis, accepting that their own petty concerns were trivial compared to the communal good – as defined by the polis.
In an eerie sort of way today’s democratic politics resembles Hellenic antiquity, minus the philosophical depth and cultural refinement. This mock-classical heritage is reflected in the budget unveiled by the government yesterday.
Even before the 2008 crisis, sensible people knew that an economic disaster loomed at the end of a profligate spend-and-borrow policy. The way most Western states run their economies resembles a pyramid scheme, or cheque kiting if you’d rather.
Cheque kiting means writing a cheque for an amount greater than the account balance and then covering the deficit with a cheque drawn on another account at another bank where the funds are also insufficient.
If the kiter presciently opens multiple accounts in banks all over country, he can pursue the scam quite profitably – until one day the penny drops, as it were. Usually that happens when he gets too greedy to stop in time, an oversight he’ll then have plenty of time to contemplate in prison.
In that spirit, the chancellor has announced the winding down of austerity, which never was wound up in the first place. The Exchequer, he proudly declared, will loosen its purse strings to the tune of an extra £103 billion – this just days after the PM bemoaned the inordinately high cost of serving the national debt.
The government has been reticent about the source of the extra funds, but I can tell you where they’ll come from: printing and borrowing, the governmental version of cheque kiting.
Sooner or later the fraudulent cheques will be called to account, and the scam will come to a shattering end. But as long as this doesn’t happen before the next general election, it’s not this government’s problem, is it?
Their problem is to secure victory when the time comes, and damn all else. But why does this irresponsible, nay suicidal, spending spree improve their electoral chances? Why isn’t everyone screaming bloody murder?
Alas, our comprehensively uneducated public doesn’t realise that there’s a cheque-kiting scam under way. And even if they did, they wouldn’t care.
For they’ve been indoctrinated to think about such matters in the same slipshod way, and this applies to how they handle their own finances too. Maxing out a full pack of credit cards and mortgaging themselves to the hilt are the cornerstones of today’s private fiscal policies – mirroring the public equivalent.
Neither the government nor the voters give a moment’s thought to what will happen if, say, interest rates get to the level of 30 years ago, around 15 per cent? Doesn’t bear thinking about, that.
But this is only the most visible, and I daresay less significant, pitfall of promiscuous spending. For the state doesn’t shower prospective voters with money just to win their support. It does so to increase its own power.
Our state is paternalistic, meaning it performs towards us the same function as a father performs for his children. People welcome this care, forgetting that a father has practically an unlimited power over his brood.
He provides for the child’s food, shelter, education and medical care – but in return he acquires the right to tell junior that it’s time for bed or that there won’t be any pudding if he doesn’t eat his greens.
Extrapolating to politics, the more a state does for people, the more it’ll do to them. In the process, a provider state will draw more and more power to the centre, and away from the periphery.
Whether the state will worship Marx, as ours will under PM Corbyn, or pays lip service to Christianity, as ours does under the vicar’s daughter, is immaterial. It’s a distinction of style, rather than a difference of substance.
Some states achieve this end mainly by violence and diktat; others, such as ours, go easy on violence, heavier on diktat and heavier still on paternalistic hand-outs.
But they all pursue the same self-serving aims. Therefore, even though there might be some genuine conservatives in our Conservative government (which I doubt), the government itself has nothing to do with true conservatism. ‘Conservative’ is a misnomer.
The only good thing I can say about this lot is that, while defying the timeless principles of conservatism, they uphold what I call the ABC of today’s politics: Anyone But Corbyn.
Yes, that lot will be infinitely worse. But I can say one thing for them: at least they don’t call themselves conservative.