New Right & traditional British Conservatism

The New Right, as it is called, has had a phenomenal impact in Britain and the United States since 1979. Both its successes and failures have led to an intense ongoing debate, especially within the British Conservative Party, as to what extent the New Right represents a departure or continuance of, what some perceive as, traditional Conservatism. The long and rich past of the Party has made the citation of a particular period of its history, as being either a source or illustration of traditional Conservatism, very difficult indeed.

Nonetheless, certain tenants transcend the breadth of its history to form the criteria by which the New Right can be judged. Conservatism is, first and foremost, composed of many conflicting strands of thought. It does not stand as a monolithic ideology offering an unalterable set of prescriptions which configure to some preconceived, and as yet, unrealised ideal of society. It is not surprising then that "there are many conservatives who would deny the attribution of ideology to their beliefs.

"1 British Conservatism is, therefore, more accurately, characterised by the prevailing strand or grouping at any given time. This displays a fundamental point, namely that Conservatism avoids being ideological because it is, by nature, not. By contrast, one of the most striking aspects of the New Right is its strong ideological fervour. Margaret Thatcher and her mentors, like Sir Keith Joseph, were fired up by the battle they believed they were waging against the damaging post-war consensus and the pernicious ideology of socialism.

Unlike previous incarnations of Conservatism, Thatcherism (which is the British New Right) relied heavily on actual thinkers and academics rather than the traditional sort of ancestral wisdom which was personified by Harold Macmillan: who had once said "distrust the clever man. " In light of this, it is of little surprise then that John Stuart Mill referred to the Tories as "the stupid party. "2 Although having borrowed from Adam Smith in the early nineteenth century the Conservatives by no means had a Karl Marx. Thatcher felt that this traditional absence of a strong ideology was a disadvantage.

She is reported to have said after her election as Party leader in 1975 that: "We must have an ideology. The other side have got an ideology that they can test their policies against. We must have one as well. " This is where Friedrich A. Hayek, Milton Friedman and the Centre for Policy Studies came in. The Conservative Party had not witnessed this degree of ideological zeal before and it represents something of a departure. It also worked exclusively thereby distancing itself, maybe misleadingly, to what had gone before. Thatcherites saw each MP as either "wet" (meaning a paternalistic Conservative) or as a "dry" (an ideologue).

The "wet" Ian Gilmour (dismissed from the Cabinet in 1981) entitled his assault on Thatcherism Dancing with Dogma. It has passed into Thatcher legend how being "one of us" was the only way to gain favour. The importance of this term is reflected in how it was used as the title of Hugo Young's acclaimed biography of Margaret Thatcher. This ideologicalism is a departure but it does not represent a complete break with the past. Most Conservatives today, who speak of traditional Conservatism, refer to a paternalistic aspect which reached its zenith in the period after the Second World War up until about Edward Heath.

It is usually identified by language which stems from Disraeli and his references to "One Nation" from his novel Sybil in 1845. It is highly debatable as to whether this is indeed the most traditional form of Conservatism because it did, after all, contain some facets which differed from the eras of Edmund Burke and Robert Peel. Indeed, some of the differences within Conservatism are reflected in the tremendous difference between these two giants of Toryism or Conservatism alone.

This complexity is not surprising considering the Party's long history which has seen Conservatives adapt and respond to changing circumstances in order to meet the needs of the Nation and Party. What the two figures above illustrate is a form of Conservatism which reflected the needs of the period within which it had to exist and survive. It also allows for the fair conclusion that traditional Conservatism emerged, in frail form, under Peel in the mid-nineteenth century to embrace its belief in measured and progressive change with a sense of compassion.

Although this overview implies differences with the New Right there are also similarities. The New Right fits in with the Conservative tradition of rising to the needs of Nation and Party and is an example of typical Conservative adaptability. It is, after all, the world's oldest and most successful political party. Peel dramatically refashioned the Tory Party by moving it in a new direction, despite hostile opposition, to expand its base of support and to deal with the land-owning elitism of politics. A tradition continued to a different extent by Disraeli.

Much the same could be said for Thatcherism, which pressed unreservedly for the end of the broadly accepted status-quo. Keynesianism (which was already being gently questioned under Jim Callaghan) and corporatism were held responsible for British decline and she aimed to obliterate them. Again, it ushered the Party further in a new direction – away from its previous acceptance of such arrangements and the general consensus which had surrounded the essential matters of politics since the War. The Party examined itself and the national condition, remodelling itself accordingly. This is a very distinctive Conservative tradition.

The New Right did, however, abandon any notions of paternalism and instead emphasised the importance of economics in emancipating the individual. Economics was above politics. This brought the New Right into conflict with the One Nationists who felt, like P. Norton and A. Aughey in 1981, that the "disposition towards economic policy may entail the disseveration of the concept of One Nation. "3 The emphasis on free markets, deregulation and an non-interfering state has a strong tradition in Conservatism which stretches back to the publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.

It was, however, a departure from post-war Conservatism. There had always been mixed and opposing views within Conservatism on the merits of capitalism. Lord Hailsham had criticised capitalism as "an ungodly and rapacious scramble for ill-gotten gains" whereas Burke before him regarded "the laws of commerce" as being "the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God. "4 In this respect the New Right had roots within the longer history of Conservatism. The ferocity with which it economic policies were pursued, in the face of stiff opposition, represented something of a departure in the broad consensus of post-war Britain.

It was really a return to the traditional policies pursued by Conservatives before 1940 rather than a revolutionary new approach. This also illustrates how difficult it is to define "traditional" Conservatism. It is misleading however to consider this conversion or reversion as something which began suddenly with Thatcher. The New Right had come to exist after a period of gradual change and modification to Conservatism which began under Edward Heath. The 1979 Party manifesto contained many similarities with one of 1970. Admittedly, this does not account for what came after, in subsequent General Elections.

The "Selsdon" mentality bore parallels with the New Right in moving towards "a radical, technocratic questioning of institutions, customs and ideas. "5 Heath had shown the same propensity to dispense with the past where necessary when he said: "we are going to build on the past but we are not going to be strangled by it"5 The New Right aroused tension in the party because, unlike Heath, it saw itself as ideological and was wholly unwilling to compromise. Yet, t is crucial to mention, in this context, that compromise had never really been a feature of traditional Conservatism.

It only came to be regarded so in the consensus of post-war Britain. The New Right represented a visible continuation in continually pertaining, mainly in rhetoric, to various nebulous concepts in which all Conservatives take refuge: "Nation, Church, Monarchy, Family, Authority, the Rule of Law, Order, Hierarchy, Deference, Community and so forth. "6 The New Right held to virtually all of these in its rhetoric. This is advantageous because each of these concepts, as all Conservatives know well, unites each of them as well as being able to transcend class in their appeal.

The New Right was hugely populist and classless, keeping to a later Conservative tradition as the franchise was extended in the last century. Some, but not all, traditional Conservatives feel, however, that the New Right has undermined Conservative values due to its own inherent contradictions. A few examples are the conflict between meritocracy and monarchy or community and individualism. The New Right chose to be opposed to constitutional reform (unlike almost every other leader since Peel) while fundamentally altering institutions such as the Civil Service and Local Government.

Maybe it is the undermining of traditional Conservative concepts that lays the New Right open to the accusation that it un-Conservative. It could be retorted that it is a belief in certain traditional Conservative values which has bred the contradictions and anomalies in Thatcherism by splitting the New Right between Traditionalists or Authoritarians and the Libertarians. The former wish to maintain traditional Conservative values while also pursuing a New Right agenda.

Arguably it is the latter, represented by MP's like Alan Duncan, which are the departure from traditional or any other form of Conservatism. Thatcher represented the dominant Traditionalist grouping which Alan Clarke has stated is really Gladstonian Liberalism. In his view Thatcher was not really a Conservative. Heath is of the same opinion. In 1985 Heath wrote: "I don't believe that what we have now is true Conservatism. Its 1860 Laissez-Faire Liberalism. "7 Yes, Thatcherism does have many similarities, in domestic terms, to the Liberalism of the past century.

What is negated in this argument is that Gladstone had been a Peelite and was once regarded as a future Conservative leader. So, if Thatcherism is neo-liberalism it does not necessarily mean it is not traditional Conservatism. Her domestic view was indeed Gladstonian but her foreign policy view was, to muddy the issue further, closer to Disraeli and that of Winston Churchill (a former Liberal). The foreign policy of Thatcher (excluding Europe because it defies categorisation) was very Conservative indeed, and the Falklands is considered its proudest achivevement.

The New Right has been found not to be a departure in all key aspects so it must therefore be concluded that it represents a continuation – it is not separate from traditional Conservatism. There are too many threads within it which relate to Conservative history and values for it to be considered a break with what had gone before. It did not or does not seem a blatant continuation because, as time wore on, it increasingly sought to exclude or sideline those who held reservations about the New Right project (the One Nationists).

The New Right thrived on confrontation by constantly defining itself by what it was against. Its abandonment of consensus meant it departed from post-war Conservatism but not from traditional Conservatism per se. Sir Robert Peel, back in 1846, had split the entire party due to his refusal to compromise over protectionism for the land-owning classes. By contrast, the Party managed to hold together under the leadership of Thatcher for ten years and even went on to win a further Election in 1992.

A simple majority of MP's had supported Thatcher in the internal ballot of 1989. There must have been common ground under the New Right for all this to have been achieved. The New Right saw themselves as an ascendant strand of traditional Conservatism and did not regard themselves as a complete departure. "Between lasting values and changing circumstances there must be a constant dialogue" Thatcher had said in 1977. It was or is its uncharacteristic ideologicalism which obfuscates the issue of continuity making it seem like a departure.

It refused compromise and objected to any tempering of what it thought the best way to proceed. The New Right was not really new because it related to many aspects of Conservatism which had gone before: "the New Right is in fact a renewed Right. " It prized freedom, was thrift, classless, populist, nationalistic or patriotic and authoritarian to name but a few. Neither its contradictions or an erroneous view of traditional conservatism should allow it to be labelled a wholesale departure from traditional Conservatism, it is not.