Prime Minister and Conservative party leader Boris Johnson during his campaign to ‘Get Brexit Done’, 2019 © Getty Images

Towards the end of his life, the renowned political philosopher GA Cohen, a radical egalitarian who had made his name as an analytical Marxist, asked himself why he wanted to conserve so much of the world around him, including his scholarly home, the venerable Oxford college, All Souls. Were there truths in conservatism, he asked, that should be rescued from big-C political Conservatives, those who “blather on about warm beer and old maids cycling to church” and then “hand Walmart the keys to the kingdom”?

This tension between the desire to conserve and preserve, and the defence of a liberal capitalist economic order that “restlessly turns society, lives and outlooks upside down” is at the heart of Edmund Fawcett’s panoramic new history of conservatism. It is study which, in the wake of the US presidential election, is of significant current relevance.

Fawcett, a former Economist journalist and author of an acclaimed study of liberalism, sets out to chart the intellectual and political history of the conservative tradition, dissecting its contradictions and dilemmas, the better to show how it has dominated a liberal modern world in which its standard bearers can “never feel truly at home”. He writes in “comradely spirit with a question for the left: if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Conservatives have often been written off as anti-intellectual members of the “stupid party”, content to rule but not to think about it very much. Recent scholarship in the UK has challenged that interpretation and conservative ideological debates, from Edwardian arguments over tariff reform to contemporary Euroscepticism, are now much studied. Fawcett widens the inquiry to traverse the terrain of conservative thought and political practice in four countries: France, Britain, Germany and the US.

The choice of countries is somewhat arbitrary, and decidedly western, but the scope is nonetheless encyclopaedic. Fawcett’s conservative pantheon is densely populated with thinkers and politicians, from a foundational moment when reaction to the French Revolution gave birth to forerunners of modern conservatism, such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, to the voluble antagonisms of the present day.

He organises his study into four eras, from a period of frontal resistance to modernity (1830-1880), to a second phase of adaptation and compromise (1880-1945), a third of political command and intellectual recovery (1945- 1980), and finally, the rise of the “Hard Right” that has characterised recent decades. In each period, parallel stories are told of conservative parties and politicians, and ideas and intellectuals.

The author’s conservatism exists in a dialectic, first with liberalism, and then with liberal democracy (he notes, in a characteristically witty aphorism, that liberalism lays out the feast and democracy draws up the guest list). The choice of whether to compromise with liberals and with the imperatives of democratic political competition define the trajectories of modern conservatism. Conservatism survives and prospers when it gives ground to liberalism and democracy, as British, French and, up to a point, American conservatives did from the late Victorian era onward. It splinters and degenerates when it refuses to compromise, as segregationists did in the Southern states, and authoritarian conservatives did in the French Third Republic. At worst, it abandons the liberal democratic field altogether, like those on the anti-Weimar German right who fell in with Nazism.

But Fawcett also takes aim at the present, and the “fight for a tradition” that gives his book its subtitle. What he calls the contemporary “Hard Right” is an amalgam of “hyper liberal” heirs to Thatcherism and the Tea party, and nativists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Alternative for Deutschland. Shut out of power by liberal-conservatives in France and Germany, the “Hard Right” has captured the commanding heights of Anglo-American conservatism. It gave birth to Trumpism and Brexit, and it found a useful figurehead in Boris Johnson, a politician of ambition but no settled convictions.

The challenge for Republicans and British Conservatives alike is whether they want to leave liberal democracy to this hybrid of uncontrolled markets and national populism or rebuild the shaken centre. The future of liberal conservatism is at stake.

By framing its dramas chiefly within the confines of liberal democracy, however, Fawcett’s story tends to skim over conservative struggles to defend capitalism against socialism and communism, at home and abroad. In the first half of the 20th century, conservatives were preoccupied with how to meet the ideological challenge of socialism and the political muscle of organised working-class movements. After the second world war, western conservatism erected cold war ideologies to contain Soviet communism. Today, conservatives are preoccupied with how to handle the rise of China.

Perhaps for similar reasons, Fawcett pays only limited attention to conservative imperialism. He does not hesitate to identify racism and virulent anti-Semitism when it appears in the conservative story but he largely abjures the task of theorising the linkages between conservatism and empire. That makes the task of understanding post-imperial conservatism harder.

The chief virtue of Fawcett’s rich and wide-ranging account is to demonstrate how conservatism has repeatedly managed to renew itself, politically and intellectually. The conservative tradition is a remarkably fecund one. For both its supporters and opponents, that is a truth worth rescuing.

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition, by Edmund Fawcett, Princeton, RRP£30, 544 pages

Nick Pearce is professor of public policy at the University of Bath

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