We are all liberals nowadays ... It sometimes seems as if the spectrum of ideas in political life ranges from the sovereign consumer of the neo-liberal right to the sovereign chooser of the egalitarian left. ("What liberalism cannot do", New Statesman, 20th September 1990)
Professor Alasdair MacIntyre puts it this way,
Contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question. (Whose Justice? Whose rationality?)
How did liberalism become an unquestioned orthodoxy? In part, by capturing what was supposed to be the conservative opposition. What John Stuart Mill recommended as a liberal strategy back in 1840 has been effected. Mill didn't think it practicable to persuade conservatives to identify as liberals. So he suggested that conservatives be encouraged to believe that liberal opinions were themselves conservative.
What could be done about the conservative classes of society? Mill wrote that his fellow liberals should,
ask themselves if they are content that these classes should be, and remain, to a man, banded against them; and what progress they expect to make, or by what means, unless a process of preparation shall be going on in the minds of these very classes; not by the impracticable method of converting them from Conservatives into Liberals, but by their being led to adopt one liberal opinion after another, as a part of Conservatism itself. (On Coleridge)
What we see today in mainstream politics is a captured conservatism, just as Mill wanted it to be, one that is unfit to provide a principled opposition to liberalism.
It's no use, therefore, simply supporting conservatism or conservative parties as they are. If we're serious about challenging liberalism, the first thing we have to do is to return to a clear point of distinction between conservatism and liberalism.
In other words, we have to answer this question: what political beliefs would make someone a principled conservative rather than just another member of the liberal orthodoxy?
I'd suggest the following. First, a principled conservative would want people to be free as they are really constituted, namely as men and women, as members of distinct communities and traditions, and as moral beings. He would not accept the liberal idea that we are made free through a radical autonomy in which we self-create who we are.
Second, a principled conservative would not accept that freedom is the one, reductive, organising principle of society. He would consider freedom to be one important good to be held in balance with other significant goods, such as love and loyalty, family and country, courtesy and charity, beauty and grace, and honour and courage. These virtues are not always to be sacrificed to the good of individual freedom.
Third, a principled conservative would recognise the existence of a common good. He would not see society just as an immense set of individual goods needing to be harmonised with each other. He would recognise the importance to individuals of the distinct community and tradition they belong to; therefore, he would accept as a significant common good the well-being of his own community and tradition and the common purpose of maintaining their existence through time.
If I have struck in the right places a serious liberal would flinch when reading the above. And the point should be to strike in the right places - not in order to shock or deliberately offend liberal sensibilities (that would be unserious), but to find the most effective point of distinction to finally drag conservatism out of the liberal orthodoxy.