December 3, 2002


A Question of Temperament [What makes one a conservative?] (ROGER SCRUTON, December 3, 2002, The Wall Street Journal)
Here and there in the modern world you can find countries with conservative parties. Britain is one of them. But the U.S. is the last remaining country with a genuine conservative movement. [...]

It is a tautology to say that a conservative is a person who wants to conserve things: the question is what things? To this I think we can give a simple one-word answer, namely: us. At the heart of every conservative endeavor is the effort to conserve a historically given community. In any conflict the conservative is the one who sides with "us" against "them" -- not knowing, but trusting. He is the one who looks for the good in the institutions, customs and habits that he has inherited. He is the one who seeks to defend and perpetuate an instinctive sense of loyalty, and who is therefore suspicious of experiments and innovations that put loyalty at risk.

So defined, conservatism is less a philosophy than a temperament; but it is, I believe, a temperament that emerges naturally from the experience of society, and which is indeed necessary if societies are to endure. The conservative strives to diminish social entropy. The second law of thermodynamics implies that, in the long run, all conservatism must fail. But the same is true of life itself, and conservatism might equally be defined as the social organism's will to live. [...]

It is one of the great merits of America's conservative movement that it has seen the need to define its philosophy at the highest intellectual level. British conservatism has always been suspicious of ideas, and the only great modern conservative thinker in my country who has tried to disseminate his ideas through a journal -- T.S. Eliot -- was in fact an American. The title of his journal (the Criterion) was borrowed by Hilton Kramer, when he founded what is surely the only contemporary conservative journal that is devoted entirely to ideas. Under the editorship of Mr. Kramer and Roger Kimball, the New Criterion has tried to break the cultural monopoly of the liberal establishment, and is consequently read in our British universities with amazement, anger and (I like to think) self-doubt.

Eliot's influence has been spread in America by his disciple, Russell Kirk, who made clear to a whole generation that conservatism is not an economic but a cultural outlook, and that it would have no future if reduced merely to the philosophy of profit. Put bluntly, conservatism is not about profit but about loss: it survives and flourishes because people are in the habit of mourning their losses, and resolving to safeguard against them.

This does not mean that conservatives are pessimists. In America, they are the only true optimists, since they are the only ones with a clear vision of the future and a clear determination to bring that future into being.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2002 10:30 AM

America's great good fortune is to have been founded upon the highest ideals and wisest insights of the liberal tradition, so that for us the conservative temperament and the best liberalism are united in a single political grouping. Preserving the past and promoting our liberty are merely two motives for doing the same thing.

Posted by: pj at December 3, 2002 1:37 PM

Scruton's generally OK but he takes forever to make his point.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at December 3, 2002 1:41 PM

British conservatism may be a little short on ideas, but its main problem has to do with its leaders. People like Balfour, Heath and Major are not exactly men that will be remembered for their leadership qualities.

Thatcher is a major exception (no pun intended), not the rule.

The other great leader of the Conservative Party in the twentieth century, Churchill, was even more idiosyncratic. Not only was he half American (rather rare for a British aristocrat of his time), he was hardly a party faithful (he pulled a double Jeffords during his carreer). And many of his ideas were completely out of touch with the mainstream, which was quite fortunate in 1940, as the mainstream was inclined to imitate France and surrender at the very first opportunity.

Finally, let's never forget that Neville Chamberlain was not a Labour prime minister.

Posted by: Peter at December 3, 2002 1:56 PM

Yeah, I don't think you can even call Churchill a conservative in the American sense:

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2002 3:48 PM