Conservatism is not unknown on the right-side of politics, but it is overshadowed by a right-liberal tradition that has dominated since the 1800s. I want to make a blunt case in this post that we ought to be more concerned about being trounced by the right-liberal tradition than by the Marxist one on the left. It is easy for people on the right to break with Marx, it has not proven easy to break cleanly with right-liberalism.
As readers know, I recently read the book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America by Eric Kaufmann. According to Kaufmann, in the 1800s the American elite had a dual consciousness. They identified positively as Anglo-Saxons, in the sense that they thought that Anglo-Saxons had a special dispensation to bring liberty (in the classical liberal sense) to the world. However, the commitment to this kind of liberty meant that open borders prevailed bringing millions of immigrants from many parts of the world to the U.S. The idea was that they would all assimilate to become WASPs themselves, but this didn't happen. Immigrant groups preferred to maintain their own religion and identity and sought political influence themselves. An alternative, pluralistic view of the U.S. emerged by the early 1900s in which Anglos were, first, reduced to just one group amongst many and then relegated further to being a group lacking a vibrant, worthwhile culture of its own.
Now, you would think that lessons would be learned and that this particular classical/right-liberal tradition would be seen as having failed historically. Instead, it has found ways to endure and even to continue to dominate on the right.
This brings me to a current day English journalist, author and politician named Daniel Hannan. He is prominent within the Conservative Party, being an MEP, Secretary-General of the Alliance of European Conservatives and President of the Young Britons' Foundation (which trains future conservative leaders and activists).
Hannan is by no means the worst amongst the Tories. He is a Eurosceptic; he defends national sovereignty and he supports the family. Nonetheless, it is remarkable just how much he is carrying on the nineteenth century classical/right liberal tradition rather than a conservative one.
Hannan wrote a column recently about the demise of the Liberal Democrats. In it he praised the Whig-Liberal tradition (the one that was opposed to the Tories in the 1800s). He went so far as to claim:
The Whig-Liberal movement was responsible for the finest developments in our history...
...Whig-Liberal principles survive best in a goodly part of the Conservative Party.
The takeover happened slowly, through successive transfusions. The first occurred in the late nineteenth century, when traditional Palmerstonian Whigs, alarmed by the Liberal Party’s drift towards social democracy, sidled up to the Conservatives, formally amalgamating in 1912...There was a second transfusion with the assimilation of some of the “coupon” Liberals following the First World War, and then a third with the absorption of the National Liberals during the 1950s and 1960s.
Ralph Harris...once told me that he had held a number of meetings with other classical liberals in the 1950s. They had concluded that their best tactic was to convert one of the two potential parties of government. Since Labour was hopelessly statist, they would try their luck with the Tories.
It worked. A party that was still imperialist, militarist and mildly protectionist in its outlook began to make space for what we would nowadays call libertarians. A few key individuals were convinced, including Keith Joseph, who after reading Hayek (a self-described “Old Whig”) declared that he thought he had been a Conservative all his life, but now realised he had only just become one. Keith Joseph had several disciples in the party, one of whom was the daughter of a Methodist grocer with a classic Whig-Liberal background. She, too, was convinced, and went on to become our country’s greatest ever prime minister. The revolution had happened peacefully and benignly in one generation.
Pure liberalism will always struggle to secure an electoral majority. While some of its positions are popular – tax-cuts, welfare reform, Euroscepticism – others are not. I always tell libertarian students to focus on the big issues, such as the economy and education, rather than fighting losing battles on relatively minor questions such as drugs and pornography. As part of a wider conservative alliance, as under Thatcher or Reagan, classical liberalism can enjoy meaningful triumphs. On its own, it will only ever be a fringe movement.
And yet, more than a century after its death was proclaimed, Liberal England lives on in large parts of the Conservative Party. We Whigs are not finished.
Revealing, isn't it? Hannan has a considerable influence in the Conservative Party, even though he identifies explicitly as a classical liberal. He believes that there was a "takeover" which transformed the Conservative Party into a classical liberal/libertarian one. He admits, too, that classical liberalism wouldn't win on its own but needs the electoral support of rank and file conservative voters.
Here's something else that is remarkable. Hannan wants to follow a very similar political course to that of the Anglo elite in America in the 1800s - despite the historic failure of that policy. He wants to lead the UK down a similar path.
For instance, he has a similar view that the English speaking peoples have a special dispensation to bring classical liberalism to the world. He has written books with titles such as, Inventing Freedom: How the English-speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. He does, it is true, advocate an orderly rather than an uncontrolled immigration programme; nonetheless, he writes very positively of the waves of immigration that transformed America into a "global" civilisation:
Immigration – controlled, legal immigration – can bring advantages to the destination state.
...Human capital is the most valuable resource in any economy and, by and large, the people who have the energy to leave everything behind for an unknown country are the kind of people who will boost their new home’s GDP.
A museum has just opened in Antwerp in the old warehouse through which more than two million emigrants, including Einstein and Irving Berlin, passed between 1873 and 1934 on their way to North America with the Red Star Line. The display manages to convey the vastness of the population movement without losing the scale of the individual families.
...Every migration involves courage – often a quiet and unremarked heroism. We know it better than many peoples: the Anglosphere became the first global civilization, and English the first global language, largely as a result of massive migratory flows.
“Every immigrant,” as Ronald Reagan put it in a characteristically upbeat phrase, “makes America more American.” The reason that immigration worked in the United States was precisely that it was regulated and controlled...In a country that was hungry for labour, there was scant interest in absorbing those who would be unable to work.
It's not exactly the same as the laissez-faire attitudes of the nineteenth century, but it's not far off: there is an idea that the needs of the market are what matters (migrants as "human capital") and that making yourself in the market is a higher purpose, so that immigrants who uproot themselves to do this are heroic, ideal citizens. Hannan believes that the transforming waves of migration to the U.S. are a lesson for the UK and Europe to follow rather than avoid, despite the fact that the long-term result in the U.S. has been the creation of a large political constituency for the leftist party rather than the rightist one.
Hannan is aware of the problem. He has admitted that if Ronald Reagan had faced the same ethnic balance as exists today he would not have been elected. Immigrant voters have stuck to the left:
The GOP faces a problem common to Right-of-Centre parties around the world. Immigrant communities, despite the initiative required to relocate to another country, and despite their often conservative values when it comes to enterprise, self-reliance, family and so on, tend to gravitate to the Left.
Again, that's a revealing comment. In his mind, the waves of immigration are made up of people who want to be self-made in the market and who are therefore right-liberal brothers-in-arms. And yet they vote for the statist, left-wing party.
He finds hope in the success of the Canadian right-wing party in appealing to immigrant groups by granting them special favours, for instance, in granting visas or in getting them into parliament.
Whether such outreach programmes work or not (I'm sceptical), the larger point is that the right-wing parties are still carrying on as if it's 1839. The message is still that being Anglo is positive in the sense that Anglos have brought liberty to the world; that this liberty involves a focus on the individual and the free market; that it is such a positive to uproot oneself to another country in order to be self-made in the market that the immigrant identity becomes a focus of national identity (a nation of immigrants); that immigration policy should be focused on the needs of the market for human capital; and that immigrants will naturally assimilate to (and be a natural constituency for) this view of the world.
The right-liberal view is a radically transforming one, that won't leave much behind of the original populations which adopted it. We are supposed to bequeath to the world not ourselves but a certain understanding of liberty, but it isn't even likely that this understanding of liberty will survive in the leftist, technocratic states that grow from right-liberalism.
Let me return to my starting point: if we focus on criticising Marx, then who is going to criticise Hannan? What is the greatest negative influence on our current PM, Tony Abbott? Surely it is more the influence of figures like Hannan than anyone associated with Marxism?
We can contribute something positive by creating a political culture that has broken cleanly with right-liberalism. I don't think we've achieved that yet.