Sunday, March 16, 2008

Universalist conservatism

While I am no apologist for the BBC I think that Conor Burns is being a little too aggresive in his attack on them for calling the victors of Iran's election "conservatives". Conservatism can be understood as a passion for institutional stability - a wish to preserve something in an established order. In that sense, a conservative in one country could favour free-markets and democratic governance and, in another, theocratic tyranny. There is no universal conservatism and a conservative could be a man of good sense in England but not in Iran.

Hayek's critique of conservatism is rooted in this problem. If your passion is for preserving then you concede the future to your enemies; if the fight is between conservatives and socialists you will move slowly to socialism. That is why I think that conservatism needs liberalism (in the European sense of the word).

I think that the Iranian "conservatives", clearly defending an established order we would not want to defend, highlight a dilemma for all conservatives. At what stage is there too little worth conserving? At what stage do we concede that conservatism needs to be set to one side in favour of the more radical medicine of liberalism?

I set out the ideas in this post, in more detail, a while back on TCS Daily.

P.S. All this doesn't mean that the BBC's article isn't sloppy. Whether or not the Iranian election victors were 'conservative' or 'reformist' doesn't get at the crucial distinction among Iranian hardliners - clerics or soldiers? The BBC's analysis is weak because they don't draw that distinction so can't properly analyse what the change means for Ahmadinejad. That leads to false enigmas like this one: "However, many of the conservative winners are critics of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com


Shuggy said...

You touch here on the basic question that conservatives find it difficult to answer: what to do when your enemies come to power? Any answer to the question will have to take you away from Burkean concepts of protecting institutions that are the repositories of human wisdom and towards formulating some abstract principles. So where does that leave conservatism? Being a 'conservative' is much like being a 'progressive' - it leaves you entirely dependent on the place from which you start.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Indeed. I hope my TCS Daily article approaches an answer to that question.