Conservatives are not known for quoting Terry Eagleton’s columns in The Guardian, but they would probably agree with him that ideology, like bad breath, is something other people have. Conservatives might speak of their disposition or worldview, but not their ideology. Ideologies stir passions and start revolutions. Could there be anything more vulgar to a level-headed conservative? Ideology, they would say, is for communists and anarchists; conservatism is common sense. Opponents of conservatism often echo this sentiment, treating it as a camera obscura designed to naturalise property, privilege a nd power. Conservative thought is ultimately ideas in the service of interests, void of intellectual merit. If any of this is true, we might wonder whether conservatism is really an ideology at all. Perhaps it is all negative space, mere shadows of other ideas rather than ideas themselves. Is conservatism simply the name we give to rich white men rationalising their power? If Tories are so shy, can we ever know what they believe?
In our final All Souls Seminar of the year, the College’s very own Professor Ian Loader offered a best-case ideological account of British conservatism and its relationship to crime and punishment. (Or, to translate for any conservative readers, ‘law and order’.) He began by noting how frequently conservatism is mentioned then dismissed by criminologists, written off as if we already know what it is. Conservatism, he suggested, is criminology’s Other, as mystifying as it is wrong. Rather than a body of ideas rooted in a national tradition, conservatism is instead something to be critiqued, the ideological catalyst for all manner of political failures. Criminology’s sympathy seems to be in short supply. Yet such complacency is foolish. Conservatism is a dominant political tradition in many countries, few more so than Britain, whose eponymous party supplied Prime Ministers for 57 years of the twentieth century. If nothing else, surely we can learn something from the natural party of law and order.
It is helpful to start by comparing the social scientific worldview to the conservative one, as these groups are often locked in mutual misunderstanding. Some of their differences are surface level, but others are fundamental. To a conservative, a basic point of departure is that crime is a moral category, strongly connected to ideas of community and order. Crime is the realm of sanctity and sin. It is not something cognitive to be measured and analysed, worse still ‘problematised’ or ‘interrogated’. Social scientists, a conservative would argue, have let their fetish for measurement get the better of them, training themselves to think of people as things and behaviour as data. When it comes to crime, they would say, criminology misses the point spectacularly. Conservative ideology expresses the popular intuition that crime displays callous disregard for civic life, jeopardising order and undermining authority. In doing so, it corrupts social relations and threatens established institutions. To take two examples, theft degrades the meaning of work and private property, while rioting celebrates hedonistic destruction. Each crime breaks the rule itself and the rule to obey rules.
Just as crime is intrinsically moral, so too are its causes. Crime cannot be treated as the end point of an impersonal causal sequence, a symptom ultimately determined by something else. Numerical metrics of ‘impulsivity’ or ‘thrill seeking’ are no match for a vocabulary of vice and character. Like many people, when conservatives hear ‘criminogenic risk factors’ they probably think ‘excuses’. After all, what about the people living in run-down housing, with no job and a broken home, who don’t steal? To the extent that crime does have social causes, they can be attributed to conservatives’ favourite word: decline. The evidence, they would say, is all around us. Decline of the moral and social institutions of civil society; decline of the family, church and education; decline of patriotism and fellow-feeling. To some, these speculations are little more than moralising. But accusations of moralising about crime are no insult to a conservative. What else are you supposed to do? Conservatives’ moral intuitions also apply to punishment. To assess punishment, as many people do, purely terms of its consequences, for example as a mechanism of reducing crime rates or curbing re-offending, is a category mistake. Punishment, within a framework of discretion and restraint, is a moral necessity, not an instrumental exercise.
Conservatism, like contemporary nationalist populism, is thus capable of moralising time and place. It manages to blend cultural pessimism about the future with nostalgia for an imagined past. These features distinguish conservatism from an ideological family with which it is often erroneously grouped, namely neoliberalism or libertarianism. Although they have been fellow travellers at times, there are many important differences. Libertarians’ passion for individual sovereignty and risk-taking, for instance, is anathema to conservatives, for whom morality and meaning flow from collective tradition and local community. Similarly, neoliberalism celebrates the creative destruction of capitalism, where conservatism seeks stable growth in the national interest. Taken to its logical conclusion, neoliberalism places myopic faith in free markets and personal choice, rendering it a mirror image of other totalising ideological schemes. A conservative, by contrast, would discriminate between liberty and license, viewing lack of restraint as a parody of real freedom. To conservatives, freedom is but one aspect of the totality of institutions and practices that constitute our national identity. Moreover, the social atomisation encouraged by neoliberalism risks poisoning the trust and co-operation needed to sustain free markets in the first place. In the conservative mind, there are few laws higher than that of unintended consequences.
It should be no surprise by now that conservatives take a rather dim view of human nature, rejecting beliefs that we can co-exist in an ideal world. Theirs is not a doctrine of utopian improvement, but of tragic decay. Collective life is constantly imperilled, requiring the careful management of change and a continuing respect for tradition. It is no wonder that conservatives are proud of the historical accretion that is Britain’s uncodified constitution. To them, it is a model of time-tested pragmatism rooted in a common culture, as opposed to an abstract declaration of human rights. Why tamper with our inherited patrimony of civil liberties and seek the generic continental version instead? Their reticence about universal human rights illustrates the broader point that conservatives have a more dense conception of what is required to hold a nation together than other ideologies. Within a rich tapestry of culture and tradition, order is a subtly normative concept, a basic social good to which other values are subservient. Since order is more easily destroyed than maintained, it must be shored up in institutions designed to restrain us. When it comes to crime control, authority is of course the medium, but it is also the message.
Conservatives’ concern for order and scepticism about human nature lead to a fondness for the institutions of civil society (e.g. charity, church), socialisation (e.g. family, school) and government (e.g. Parliament, police). Crime and its control requires the coordination of all of these institutions. States cannot and should not attempt to engineer human improvement by acting alone. If only living together were so easy.
The mixture of order, tradition and scepticism – applicable to crime and punishment as well as other policy areas – leads us to Michael Oakeshott’s formulation:
‘To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.’
This seems to be as good a statement as any, but it will not satisfy all conservatives. No single definition can exhaust the meaning of such a diverse ideology.
So what can we conclude about conservatism, crime and punishment? Quite simply, conservatism matters. It is an ideology we must take seriously in its own terms, not something to be diagnosed in terms of an underlying structure of power (e.g. privilege, economic anxiety) or emotion (e.g. anger, alienation). Listening to people in good faith spares us the mental gymnastics of unmasking what conservatives are really saying. Crucially, conservatism is an ambiguous and sceptical creed, supported both by penal populists and moderating reformers. As Loader put it, conservatism is both a source of penal prudence and expansion. Any ideology so historically and geographically varied, supported by so many different people, cannot simply be a synonym for ‘punitive’. When searching for a better politics of crime, we ought to remember that conservatism has shown itself very capable of articulating moral and emotional concerns about the world in terms of time and place. Conservatives tap into the idea of the nation as home, a place of stability supported by intermediate social institutions and strong collective identity. These are powerful images when it comes to crime and punishment.
None of which is to suggest that we should fall for conservatives. There is not space for a full appraisal of conservatism, but some critical commentary is irresistible. For a start, conservatives are not omniscient. Much as they might like to, they cannot monopolise ‘the lessons of history’ or claim an exclusive command of ‘practical experience’ and ‘common sense’. Only crude ideologues are so self-assured. Conservatives are as prone to error and misunderstanding as anyone else, despite their knack for sounding terribly reasonable. These pretensions were best summed up by the lady at Claridge’s who responded to the 1945 election of Clement Attlee by saying, ‘But this is terrible. They have elected a Labour government and the country will never stand for that.’ Conservatives may be the self-appointed custodians of order and morality, talking the talk of intrinsic morality and the nation as home, but they have shown themselves all too ready to flout these principles when it is politically expedient. The casual chauvinism that seems to flourish among conservatives is hardly moral. Our prisons are often brutal and degrading. Brexit is anything but orderly. Austerity does not feel like home.
Given its attachment to time and place, there are big questions about where conservatism goes from here. All ideologies have some overarching conception of time, not just the utopian futures promised by communism, fascism and technocracy. But the past that conservatism reveres is always receding. Conservatives manage to find failure in every recent decade: the hedonism of the sixties; the welfarism of the seventies; the consumerism of the eighties; the globalisation of the nineties. Our secular worship of technology these days is not exactly inspiring either. Conservatives know better than anyone that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. But the problems don’t stop there. They are compounded by our increasingly anti-elitist politics and secular, diverse culture. Memories of total war and national pride are fading as the generations pass. Britannia no longer rules the waves and the family of nations might soon divorce. Ironically, much of Britain’s international strength comes from the financial centre of London, a by-word for mass mobility and multiculturalism, where the only constant is change.
Perhaps these challenges will not prove fatal to British conservatism. It will most likely adapt and consolidate as time passes, rummaging through the past and present to find new sources of collective pride. The honest truth is that traditions are invented and nations are imagined communities. If the well of conservative inspiration ever runs dry, they should remember an old Soviet joke: the future is certain, it is only the past that is unpredictable.
Dominic tweets from @Dominic_aitken