Friday 9 October 2015

More thoughts on what Scottish conservatives can learn from the US...

Having had a chance to think a little more about my previous blog on the subject...

There are some presumptions in my treatment of this question that were not clear to me but (in part as a result of helpful combox challenges) have become clearer. In no particular order:

1) Something I've been banging on about for years: not everything that concerns the polis is political. This is true in at least two ways: a) the most important parts of our social existence (the family, the little platoons of civil society, the interiority of the self) are only the concern of politics to the extent that politics needs constantly to be reminded that the State needs to leave space for them; b) for everyday politics to thrive, it needs to rest on a level of reflection about human life that sits between the abstractions of much academic debate and the daily grind of party political life. Neither of these truths is clearly or regularly acknowledged in current Scottish political life. Both are (or at least have been) better dealt with in American thinkers such as Russell Kirk.

2) The exclusive concentration on a UK perspective among most Scottish conservatives while understandable (if you think the question of the Union is key, then the battle is going to be dominated by this issue for the next few years at least) is destructive. Unless that deeper level of conservative thought about 'the permanent things' of human life retains a place in Scottish public discussion, then more damage will be done to Scottish life in the long run than whatever happens with the Union. To put it slightly more crudely than it deserves, it is more important that someone starts talking about (say) the place of the traditional family and a humane education in modern Scotland than whether or not Scotland becomes independent. (This is particularly true if Scotland does become independent and, for a generation or more, there is no conservative presence in Scottish intellectual life because it has previously focused entirely on the Union.)

3) I think what I find most admirable about Buckley and the National Review is the way that it created a landscape for conservatism. If you think that conservatism is concerned with the value of a number key things (eg God, family, country, scepticism, little platoons etc) you would expect a kaleidoscope of prudential judgments about how these values are to be realized. (And so on the one side (well, strictly, just outside the borders) you have radical libertarians such as Rand, and on the other ur-traditionalists such as Bozell in his Carlist phase.) One of the problems with modern conservatism (especially but not just in Scotland) is the lack of internal squabbling at a sufficiently deep intellectual level. A landscape of conservatism has to be inhabited by marauding and mutually (slightly) suspicious tribes.

4) We need to do God more. Western civilization is bound up with Christian theism. There's room for the humane sceptic, the Muslim (perhaps even (in Scotland) the Catholic) within a broad understanding of that theistic focus, but to allow the centre ground to be dominated by the assumptions of a militant anti-Christian secularism is commit intellectual and social suicide.

5) A particular point for Scotland. The history of Scottish nationalism is one that had a place for conservative understandings of society. I would expect (see 3) there to be different views on the place of the Union/Independence among modern Scottish conservatives. That (certainly in UKIP and the Conservative Party) there appears to be unanimity in favour of the Union is a sign of intellectual weakness and lack of depth. (It didn't surprise me -although it seems to have surprised many others- that the deepest conservative in the UK at the moment, Roger Scruton, came out broadly in favour of Scottish independence.) Given a conservative focus on the local and the place of tradition, it would be odd if some conservatives were not nationalists. Equally, given the conservative emphasis on stability and scepticism about the State's ability to improve human life, it would be odd if some were not.

6) A particular point for Catholics. There is a temptation, especially given the fideistic turn of much twentieth century Catholic theology, to turn from politics and questions of society towards pietism. Whilst it is important for us to remember the limitations of the earthly life, equally, a simplistic focus on our supernatural end is not in keeping with Catholic teaching. (Think St Joan of Arc. Think of the social teaching of Leo XIII.) At the moment, the neuralgic issues of Catholic teaching (sex and the family) are neuralgic precisely because they are out of step with modern, secular beliefs, and the 'push' to change Catholic theology and for individuals to fall away from the Church comes from this. While there is clearly a place for a simply reassertion of authority ('This is straightforwardly what the Church teaches...') there is also a place for defending a broadly conservative view of society on the grounds of human nature (or natural law if you prefer). If socially conservative views establish a hearing in the marketplace of political ideas, this will reduce the tension felt by individuals between what is socially acceptable and what the Church teaches. (There will always be a faithful, saintly remnant who keep the teachings, no matter what. But I see absolutely no reason why we also shouldn't strive to create the most favourable social circumstances for a 'just about solid enough' crowd to accompany them.)

7) I'm not mad about the label 'conservative'. It suggests a link with the Conservative Party which is (almost) entirely imaginary. (I see very little sign of conservatism as I mean it in the modern Scottish or UK party.) There is absolutely no reason why the key elements of conservatism (let's try God, family, country, little platoons, scepticism, tradition) shouldn't be present in most of the modern Scottish political parties. Indeed, it is essential if 'conservatism' is to function as a major part of the political debate, that it is wider than local party loyalties -that it becomes a landscape (see 3) in the same way that 'progessivism' seems to dominate current parties. So find another label if you can ('social' conservatism is the best I can do). It's the substance that matters.

8) And finally. I think  my previous cry for a Scottish William Buckley Jnr was one of those lines that creates misunderstanding as much as it helps by being striking. I don't think we should (or indeed could) import some aspects of American cultural war conservatism into Scotland. (You can take your pick on what these rejected elements might be, but I suspect that they might include aspects on race and projecting national interests through force. Perhaps, in general, we need to drop that sense of war in culture wars?) But this is a deep political struggle about culture: how people see their lives and flourishing as social beings. By all means take some of the intransigence and heat out of the debate if you can. But the fact remains that Scottish discussion about how to live in societies is dominated by a very narrow (and wrong) set of 'progessive' assumptions. It is for that cultural struggle that we need a McBuckley (and Kirks, Bozells, Burnhams etc etc): popularizers who remain in touch with deeper issues and are willing to create a genuine, socially conservative landscape of debate as alternative to the monotonous progressive dogma of what passes for public intellectual life in modern Scotland.


  1. This is a fascinating post, Lazarus, and one well worth pondering over.

    I agree that the politicisation of so many different aspects of Scottish life is troubling. Healthy conservatism recognises that vital and essential parts of our lives are not to be colonised by the political, and these properly autonomous spaces need to be respected.

    It is so true that the real task for 'conservatives' in contemporary Scotland is to defend the permanent things, not to maintain the Union at all costs (which is the sort of ideological thinking which conservatives ought to be able to resist). As you acknowledge, whether we remain part of the UK is not in fact the most important question facing us.

    1. Thank you, Kenneth, and apologies for not approving it before now! (No excuse -just carelessness in checking the blog!!)

    2. No need to apologise, Lazarus: this is your blog and you can do what you like with it. That said, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to things that catch my eye in some particular way!