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Deep dive into conservatism’s changing character

29 January 2021 21 views No Comment

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition 

By Edmund Fawcett, 

Princeton University Press, 554pp, $59.99 (HB)


Since its 19th-century origins, conservatism has represented an important segment of Western political thought and tradition. Especially in Britain, Europe and the US, conservatism, as Edmund Fawcett puts it, has “defied its reputation as a backward-looking creed by confronting and adapting to liberal modernity” from time to time. By doing so, the right has served long periods in office, effectively becoming a dominant force in Western politics.

Yet despite their electoral and political success, conservatives have continued to fight with each other about which values to defend and how far to accommodate the tenets of social democracy.

In Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition, Fawcett provides an absorbing account of this rich but deeply conflicted history.

One of my favourite writers, Fawcett, a self-declared left-liberal, worked for more than three decades at The Economist, serving as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, as well as being its European and literary editor.

Focusing as it does on the US, Britain, France and Germany, in this impressive publication Fawcett not only canvasses conservatism’s intellectual forerunners — especially Edmund Burke, James Madison and Joseph de Maistre — but also examines the role of the founders of conservative parties, including figures such as Republican US president William McKinley and Conservative British prime minister Lord Salisbury (Robert Gascoyne-Cecil).

According to Fawcett, the “aloof and erudite” Salisbury was “the leading architect of a modernised Tory party that successfully triangulated its liberal- democratic foes”. Indeed it was under Salisbury’s guidance that “Toryism learned to speak for business and finance, as well as for the landed interest”.

This book clearly chronicles the cultural critics of the 1920s and 30s, and recounts how advocates of laissez-faire economics broke the post-1945 economic and political consensus. For what is essentially a lengthy historical essay about the political right, Fawcett says he has “plundered widely” from the works of many writers and scholars in the field. He has done so to good effect and in the process produced a vivid narrative of the changing character of political conservatism.

Importantly, Fawcett describes how in the 21st century Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, and to a lesser extent their European counterparts, have pushed conservatism towards adopting a highly nationalistic, disturbingly hard-right populist political agenda.


This was epitomised by Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”, which itself was borrowed from the “America First” campaign of rabble-rousing Louisiana governor Huey Long, who had also promised to “help the little guy without hurting the rich”.

Fawcett’s immaculately researched and well-indexed book shines useful light on how nationalism has been used to dog-whistle racism to secure the votes (particularly working-class votes) to maintain Conservatives in office in the US and Britain and, in so doing, to shift the political norm to an illiberal extreme right that claims to speak for “the people”.

Yet, as Fawcett convincingly argues, “to survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support”. In particular, it needs the support of conservative politicians and thinkers “who accept liberal and democratic ground rules”. Whether this can occur in a post-Trump world is a moot point. Either way, it will be fascinating to witness in the years ahead the changing characteristics of conservatism in action.

Fawcett’s fine book puts front and centre a key question for the right in the coming decade: should conservatives compromise with their historical opponents or resist? Another question is: should the fight “be primarily in party politics over power and government, or in intellectual and cultural life”? Surely it should be both. But the outcome is indeed a dilemma for our times, which Fawcett’s book has served us well to effectively raise, if not to definitively answer.

A final point. After devouring this intellectually captivating book, I am reminded of what Owen Harries taught me at the University of NSW: the enemy of political conservatism is not liberalism but radicalism in all its forms. That being the case, it seems hard to deny that these days conservatives should be looking for allies with whom to rebuild what Fawcett tellingly terms “a shaken centre”

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 42 books.

The Australian, January 29, 2021, p 10.

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