The Meaning of Conservatism: Disraeli Followed Burke's "Politics of Imperfection", While Thatcher Favoured Hayek's Free-Market Ideas. to Which Line of Political Thought Are Today's Tories the Heirs?

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Over the past couple of years, David Cameron's Tories have sailed under a flag of convenience marked "progressive conservatism". For most commentators, the important question has been just how "progressive" this new ideological confection is. Many on the left have taken it for granted that talk of Cameronian "progress" is just that--talk--and that the Conservatives' commitment to, in their leader's own words, the "progressive end of making British poverty history" is entirely rhetorical. On the right, the intellectual outriders of Cameronism have laboured strenuously to establish its "progressive" bona fides.

Few, however, have thought to ask how conservative progressive conservatism is. Yet it is a question worth asking. For example, do Cameron's plans for "radical" welfare reform and for "decentralising responsibility and power" reflect a traditionally Tory preference for what Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of civil society over the institutions of the central state? Or are they, as most Labour politicians would like us to believe, just Thatcherism with the edges smoothed off?

The political historian and former Labour MP David Marquand thinks that the left is getting it dangerously wrong in charging Cameron with "crypto-Thatcherism". He sees the Conservative leader as a "Whig imperialist", a descendant of Burke who offers "inclusion, social harmony and evolutionary adaptation to the cultural and socio-economic changes of his age". Supposing that Marquand is right, where does this leave Cameron in relation to the recent history of his own party? To answer that question, one needs to look back more than 30 years.

In October 1976, the philosopher Anthony Quinton was invited to deliver the T S Eliot memorial lectures at the University of Kent. He took as his topic the history of conservative thought in England, tracing a lineage that stretched from the Tudor thinker Richard Hooker, via Bolingbroke, Burke and Disraeli, to the 20th-century political theorist Michael Oakeshott. The conservatism espoused by these thinkers was, Quinton argued, a "politics of imperfection"--that is, their views about the nature and proper extent of government were rooted in a vision of human weakness. For Burke and the others, men are morally and intellectually imperfect creatures, and political authority--specifically, the authority that inheres in customs and institutions--is to be understood as a remedy or palliative for that imperfection.

The principles of this venerable tradition guided Tory politicians from Disraeli and Lord Salisbury to Stanley Baldwin and Rab Butler. But by the time Quinton came to give his lectures, the Conservative Party was preparing to abandon them. Two years earlier, Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph had founded the Centre for Policy Studies, one of a number of "New Right" think tanks that would make the intellectual running in British politics in the late 1970s, and would transform the Tories from the party of Burke and Hume into the party of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek--turning it from a conservative party, in the Quinton sense, into a classical or neoliberal one that would begin a long and ultimately destructive march through many of Britain's most established institutions.

According to an apocryphal story, shortly after acceding to the Conservative leadership in 1975, Thatcher interrupted a colleague who was in the middle of making the case for a continuation of the kind of pragmatic accommodation with the postwar settlement that had served the Tories so well throughout the 1950s. Brandishing a copy of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, she is supposed to have thundered that "this is what we believe". (Around the same time, Joseph announced that it was "only in April 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism. I had thought I was a Conservative but I now see that I was not really one at all". What he meant was that he was a belated convert to the virtues of laissez-faire. …