The Defence of the Social Order

by J MW

The Defence of the Social Order

Maurice Cowling's volume, Conservative Essays (1978) attempted to define right-wing trends on the eve of Mrs. Thatcher's victory. In this excerpt, he defends inequality as a vital conservative principle.

In the Conservative conception of freedom, in other words, there is a great deal of double-talk and many layers of concealed consciousness. Conservatives, if they talk about freedom long enough, begin to believe that that is what they want. But it is not freedom that Conservatives want; what they want is the sort of freedom that will maintain existing inequalities or restore lost ones, so far as political action can do this. And this is wanted not only by those who benefit from inequalities of wealth, rank and education but also by the enormous numbers who, while not partaking in the benefits, recognise that inequalities exist and, in some obscure sense assume that they ought to. They assume, that is to say, that a nation has to be stratified and that stratification entails privilege; and they assume this not as a matter of principle but because it is something to which they are accustomed. They are accustomed to inequalities; inequalities are things they associate with a properly functioning society and they do not need an ideological proclamation in order to accept them. They assume them pragmatically in the course of identifying themselves socially in a way they would not do if confronted with a principle.

It is in this context that the freedom rhetoric must be understood. It is a way of speaking which resonates somewhat and seems to have resonated effectively in the last three years. But it is not what Conservatives want, even if it fits in with what they want. Indeed, it is a way of not saying what they want, a way of attracting sympathy and support for, and attributing principle to, a social structure which they wish to conserve or restore. They wish to conserve, or restore it, of course, because it is the only one they know. They wish to conserve, or restore it--some of them--because it is one from which they benefit. But they wish to conserve, or restore it, most of all because they believe that it is, or can be made to be, beneficial in itself and more beneficial than any that is in sight. 

The ‘social structure‘ is a subject about which it is necessary to speak carefully. For Burke, who, inserted it into modern thinking, it meant Monarchy, Aristocracy, Church and People; for us it means something very much more complicated, It means all the gradations of classes that exist in a modern society, including a far larger middle class than Burke had conceived of, a more powerful and less Christian intelligentsia than he thought desirable and a division, which scarcely existed in his mind, between the lower-middle classes and an immense, self-conscious working class beneath them. It includes the conception that taxation should not prevent responsibility being rewarded, provided that that does not entail penalizing those who have wealth without assignable social responsibility. It includes a system of law which makes it possible to maintain a variety of educational systems, to own, accumulate and pass on property, and to enjoy a legally defined freedom to speak, publish and so on. 

To put this in terms of inequality is to adopt a socialist analysis. But, since inequality is an unavoidable feature, it is best to meet the analysis head on and agree that the Conservative conception of a social structure not only assumes that marked inequalities are inevitable but also declines to justify them because their inevitability makes justification unnecessary. To decline justification of the principle is not to say that there cannot be discussion of the content; almost all determination of the form and incidence of taxation and the direction and distribution of state spending involves a discussion of this sort. It is not the principle or the discussion, however, but the balance of operative power that determines the outcome, and it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise when the conservative classes are, quite naturally, by instinct and assumption, as much as anyone else, jacobin or republican royalists who deny legitimacy, get what they can and try to keep what they get, and are Conservative because instinct and self-interest coincide in the judgement that existing arrangements should be preserved.

The Conservative party exists now, as at any other time since 1886, because those who perform the duties or acquire the benefits connected with inequality, do not want democratic arrangements to break down. They judge it better if possible, to get part of what they want by acting effectively through the parliamentary system than to get a bigger proportion under some other sort of regime, They accept the fact that a balancing of costs is involved and that, if the price that is paid for parliamentary government is too high, there will be those who will want parliamentary arrangements superseded. This volume is written in the hope that parliamentary arrangements will be maintained, that most of what is needed can be secured by rhetoric rather than force and that the function of the Conservative party in these circumstances is two-fold---to press the existing elite and its replacements to think and act in a conservative manner, and to give public expression on their behalf to opinions that will help create a public sentiment of national solidarity with them. 

Elite is not a word to conjure with among Conservatives. But it is a conception that has to be faced. England today is a suburban country and run by middle-class professionals. So is the Conservative party, it is run by middle-class professionals and will go on being run by them for a long time in the future. If the failing of aristocratic politicians was a tendency to pick up a second-rate intellectual language in the hope of reconciling the thinking classes to them, the failing of middle-class professionals is to think solemnly and speak earnestly as if it were enough merely to say what they mean in order to be understood. In order to be understood and followed in a democratic system ( as indeed under any other form of government) it is necessary to do something more. In particular it is necessary to persuade citizens that they belong to a city that is worth belonging to.

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