Stand Up for the Real Meaning of Freedom

Spectator (UK) | Published on January 4, 2014

By Roger Scruton

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When pressed for a statement of their beliefs, conservatives give ironical or evasive answers: beliefs are what the others have, the ones who have confounded politics with religion, as socialists and anarchists do. This is unfortunate, because conservatism is a genuine, if unsystematic, philosophy, and it deserves to be stated, especially at a time like the present, when the future of our nation is in doubt.

Conservatives believe that our identities and values are formed through our relations with other people, and not through our relation with the state. The state is not an end but a means. Civil society is the end, and the state is the means to protect it. The social world emerges through free association, rooted in friendship and community life. And the customs and institutions that we cherish have grown from below, by the ‘invisible hand’ of co-operation. They have rarely been imposed from above by the work of politics, the role of which, for a conservative, is to reconcile our many aims, and not to dictate or control them.

Only in English-speaking countries do political parties describe themselves as ‘conservative’. Why is this? It is surely because English-speakers are heirs to a political system that has been built from below, by the free association of individuals and the workings of the common law. Hence we envisage politics as a means to conserve society rather than a means to impose or create it. From the French revolution to the European Union, continental government has conceived itself in ‘top-down’ terms, as an association of wise, powerful or expert figures, who are in the business of creating social order through regulation and dictated law. The common law does not impose order but grows from it. If government is necessary, in the conservative view, it is in order to resolve the conflicts that arise when things are, for whatever reason, unsettled.

If you see things in that way, then you are likely to believe in conserving civil society, by accommodating necessary change. New Labour sought to weaken our society externally and to divide it internally by its unquestioning acceptance of the primacy of EU supranational authority, internally by indiscriminate immigration, class warfare and the ‘reform’, which usually meant the politicisation, of our hallowed institutions. Conservatism, by contrast, aims at a cohesive society governed by laws of its own and by the institutions that have arisen over time in response to its changing needs and circumstances.

Such a society depends upon a common loyalty and a territorial law, and these cannot be achieved or retained without borders. But we find ourselves bound by a treaty devised by utopian internationalists in circumstances that have long ago disappeared. The EU treaty obliges its member states to permit the ‘free movement of peoples’, regardless of their desires or their national interest. With its open welfare system, its universal language, its relative wealth and its carefully defended freedoms, our country is the preferred destination of Europe’s new wave of migrants. At the top of every conservative’s agenda, therefore, is the question of immigration: how to limit it, and how to ensure that the newcomers integrate into a civil society in which free association, freedom of opinion, and respect for the law are all axiomatic.

Conservatives recognise that the right to vote out our rulers and to change our law is the premise of democratic politics. Whenever possible, they believe, our law should be made in Westminster, or in the common-law courts of our kingdom, not by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels nor by courts of European judges.

Until recently the conservative emphasis on civil society has led to an equal emphasis on the family as its heart. This emphasis has been thrown into disarray by the sexual revolution, by widespread divorce and out-of-wedlock birth, and by recent moves to accommodate the homosexual lifestyle. And those changes have to be absorbed and normalised. Ours is a tolerant society in which liberty is extended to a variety of religions, world views, and forms of domestic life. But liberty is threatened by licence: liberty is founded on personal responsibility and a respect for others, whereas licence is a way of exploiting others for purely personal gain. Liberty therefore depends on the values that protect individuals from chaotic personal lives and which cherish the integrity of the home in the face of the many threats to it.

Conservatism is a philosophy of inheritance and stewardship; it does not squander resources but strives to enhance them and pass them on. For conservatives, environmental politics needs to be rescued from the phony expertise of the scaremongers. But it must also be rescued from the religion of Progress, which urges us to pursue growth at all costs and to turn our beloved country into an array of concrete platforms linked by high-speed railways and surveyed from every hilltop by eerie wind-farms.

Those beliefs are difficult to act upon now. Through quangos and official bodies, the state has been amplified under New Labour to the point of swallowing private initiatives and distorting the long-established charitable instinct of our citizens. Regulations make it difficult for people to associate, and the nonsensical rulings of the European courts constantly tell us that, by living according to our lights, we are trampling on somebody’s ‘human rights’. Conservatives believe in rights but rights that are paid for by duties, and which reconcile people rather than divide them.

Left-wing thinkers often caricature the conservative position as one that advocates the free market at all costs, introducing competition and the profit motive even into the most sacred precincts of communal life. Adam Smith and David Hume made clear, however, that the market, which is the only known solution to the problem of economic co-ordination, itself depends upon the kind of moral order that arises from below, as people take responsibility for their lives, learn to honour their agreements and live in justice and charity with their neighbours. Our rights are also freedoms, and freedom makes sense only among people who are accountable to their neighbours for its misuse.

This means that, for conservatives, the effort to reclaim civil society from the state must continue unceasingly. One by one, our freedoms are being eroded: free speech by the Islamists, free association by the European Court of Human Rights, the freedom to make our own laws and to control our own borders by the European Union. We conservatives value our freedom not because it is an abstract possession of the abstract individual, but because it is a concrete and historical achievement, the result of civil discipline over centuries, and the sign of our undemonstrative respect for the law of the land.