Why the next Tory leader should accept classic conservatism anew

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By Alexander Black

Theresa May will resign on the June 7 triggering a leadership contest which will elect a leader who will ultimately have to bring the Conservative and Unionist Party back to its roots. They will have to answer one key question many have been unable to properly define under May’s premiership. This is: ‘what does the Conservative and Unionist Party really stand for?’ To answer this question, one must look at the history of conservatism and the bedrock of its ideology.

Fundamentally, conservatism can be broken up into six generic inextricably linked categories which all regard politics as a vessel employed to empower individuals (meritocracy). It also should consist of a balance between ideology and pragmatism. 

Starting with the legislature, laws are created to provide constrains on human behaviour to make the possibility of freedom nearly achievable. Without law, many, if not all humans would give in to their corrupting natural disposition which would consequently result in pandemonium. This, to some extent, remains true, yet it is still quite a pessimistic view of human nature.

The second, and most important factor in my opinion, is the concept of equal opportunity. Every individual in the UK should be able to, and aim to, achieve one’s potential. Yet the reality is that from equal opportunity stems inequality. There will be those who are more able, or more motivated, to achieve more and aggrandise their position, and those with a tendency to lag behind, to drag on society, and not fulfil their potential. Yet without equal opportunity, those who would be able to self-actualise and reach their potential are hampered by a lack of equal opportunity. Thus, equal opportunity must be strived for to enable a proper meritocracy to function.

Inequality is required to create a strong and flourishing society. Those who are motivated will boost their wealth, with the incentive being increased prosperity. Those who cannot, or will not, increase their prosperity levels are therefore worse off. This inequality in wealth creates motivation, a key building block of a strong and stable society. If all had an equal distribution of, say wealth, regardless of their ability, what incentive would there be for innovation, improvement, studying, etc, if a doctor could earn the same as those who collect and separate rubbish? Why would anyone push themselves, or have any motivation, if the ‘easy’, and lazier, route would gain the same level of prosperity as the skilled path? A healthy balance of inequality provides an ideal for many to strive towards, and forms the bedrock of a strong meritocracy. 

Another key facet of conservatism is that change should only occur when appropriate and fitting to the occasion. Radical change, as pioneered by the far left, is overly pre-emptive and potentially damaging to society. Piecemeal change should never have effects which cannot, with hindsight, be reversed. This is to protect key social institutions, such as the monarchy, and create social stability. As the Duke of Cambridge once eloquently put, change should occur ‘when it can no longer [be] resisted’. However, this should not be interpreted as the preservation of all—with only the best vestiges being protected.

The concept of less-radical change is interwoven with social establishments. Conservatism holds tradition in high regard. Tradition is preserved through the preservation of social establishments, such as the monarchy, and political institutions. These establishments help to bind common individuals together into a society with a shared identity. This is where, for example, a form of patriotism stems from—with the idea of a nation being ultimately a social establishment worth dying for. 

Lastly, as with the other previous factors, the concept of an individual’s liberty is one pioneered through conservatism. Individuals should be allowed to develop their own personalities, shape their own destinies, and forge their own paths free from oppression. Yet, everyone is entitled to liberty until it intrudes on another’s liberty. Then, and only then, should certain freedoms be curtailed (such as the suspension of habeas corpus in the aftermath of a terrorist attack). For example, a redistribution of wealth, which many socialists seek, would impede the liberty of those the wealth was taken from. If a society strives for such a radical form of equity, then they would be, in essence, severely limiting the freedom of many individuals, and remove the incentives associated with a meritocracy. 

These key planks of ideology form the basis of the foundations on which the Conservative and Unionist Party was founded. Yet they are rarely mentioned, with general election campaigns lacking this ideological vigour. So, the future Prime Minister, to remake the case of conservatism for the younger generation, has to highlight the building blocks of the party’s ideology to restore public confidence in what was once seen as a safe pair of hands—actually strong and stable, rather than weak and wobbly.