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The Death of Anglo-American Conservatism

The conservatism of Edmund Burke has long served as a source of frustration for radicals, and as a necessary restraint against destructive root-and-branch reforms. But now the top elected representatives of conservatism in the United States and the United Kingdom have embraced radicalism themselves.

PRINCETON – In remarkably similar ways and almost at the exact same time, US President Donald Trump and Brexit have destroyed transatlantic conservatism. Yet while American conservatism has always had rather shallow roots, British conservativism is the product of a long and rich intellectual tradition, which makes its demise all the more astonishing.

The old conservatism opposed radical change but accepted the need for adaptation in the face of new developments and preferences. It favored a piecemeal approach to reform and rejected the wholesale uprooting of institutions, on the grounds that sweeping change is too hard to control. Conservatives were pragmatic, and would not fall for promises of a magic fix to any problem.

According to this worldview, major reforms can still be pursued. But they should be approached in such a way that the effects can be assessed, and the process reversed if necessary. This is the opposite of radicalism, which rejects incrementalism and views any failure of reform as evidence not that one has made a mistake, but that one hasn’t gone far enough.

In the United Kingdom, conservative pragmatism and the search for consensus eventually became a source of frustration for more radically inclined Labourites as well as ultra-Tories. Both complained that the major parties had become a near-identical confection of “Butskellism,” so named for the twentieth-century Conservative thinker R.A. Butler and the moderate Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.

The first British politician to try to break the post-war consensus was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who waged a war against what she saw as an establishment that was standing in the way of necessary change. Still, she remained surprisingly faithful to gradualism. Thatcher was able to face down the trade unions, the foreign office, and the City establishment because she took them on one at a time. Had she challenged them all at once, she probably would have failed.

Thatcher also brought an old-style conservative approach to international politics, where she saw alliances as a crucial part of any reform process. In her view, European integration could be a powerful mechanism for making incremental, but ultimately quite far-reaching, progress toward a more liberal economic order. Eventually, though, the sheer scale of Thatcher’s reformism began to irritate people. Sensing that there was simply too much change afoot, some conservatives developed a profound aversion to compromise.

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That aversion has been on full display throughout the Brexit process, which was always going to amount to a revolution no matter how one approached it. The problem with revolutions, of course, is that they open the door for too many alternatives. As the possibilities for radical reform expand, new fissures open up. As in France in the 1790s, the revolution always eventually devours its own children.

Since the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, its laws, regulations, and governing practices have become increasingly intertwined with those of the continent. To some in the UK, Brexit thus appeared to offer an escape from a constantly changing world. In a process that is more anti-conservative than conservative, reclaiming “sovereignty” is the first step toward remaking an entire political and social order.

Yet as the more perceptive Brexiteers must realize, recreating a modern society from scratch is a lot like writing your own word-processing program when you could just use Microsoft Word. This is especially true of the legal order. A fundamental change like “restoring sovereignty” requires confronting an endless array of trivial issues that nonetheless have serious and unpredictable implications.

Moreover, Brexit emerged from a vision of democracy that has hitherto been wholly absent from the British political tradition. In fact, populist Brexiteers have fomented hostility against the very institutions that made Britain: Parliament and the rule of law. The traditional British approach to democracy was enshrined in Edmund Burke’s 1774 “Speech to the Electors of Bristol.” Because public policymaking is complicated and involves many tradeoffs, Burke argued, well-informed representatives should be chosen to make the appropriate judgments about any given policy choice. Each of the 21 Conservative MPs whom Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently expelled from the party for rejecting a no-deal Brexit is a perfect exemplar of the Burkean vision.

By contrast, the new anti-conservative vision rejects parliamentarism and champions a doctrine of unmediated popular sovereignty. Yet, in practice, this philosophy makes the application of sovereignty impossible, because it offers no means of managing the endless stream of mundane and complicated policy choices that governments must wade through on a daily basis. Proclaiming that “the people” will decide doesn’t cut it, because there simply is no way to put every policy question to the public.

To be sure, in the future, an artificial-intelligence application could be invented that enables governments to query the public’s opinion on a reform package and its attendant tradeoffs. Yet this realization of popular democracy would require a level of social transformation that is at odds with the conservative mindset.

The populist vision also implies the elimination of centuries-old democratic institutions. For example, beyond democratic representation, traditional conservatism also champions the rule of law, without which there can be no constraints on the exercise of power, whether by a tyrant or a populist revolutionary.

In an eerie coincidence, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s recent decision to launch an impeachment inquiry into Trump came on the same day that the UK Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s prorogation (suspension) of Parliament was unlawful. Perhaps genuine conservativism is poised to stage a comeback against the nihilistic imposters who have been acting in its name.

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