What do conservatives wish to conserve? It is a question now often posed, sceptically, to conservatives by politely amused cynics, or those who see in the political right’s rhetoric little more than faux-patriotic flummery mixed with copious amounts of ‘business as normal’ neoliberalism. However, sincere conservatives who feel that their own political tribunes exist purely to implement precisely the same changes their opponents push, except a few years later and with a more apologetic tone, have been asking the same question for some 190 years.
It’s a question that Disraeli’s protagonist Coningsby poses several times in his 1844 novel of the same name. Referring to the rise of Peelite Conservatism, whose 1834 Tamworth Manifesto attempted to ‘adjust’ conservatism for the post-Reform Act era, at one point Coningsby asks:
What do you mean to conserve? Do you mean to conserve things or only names, realities or merely appearances? Or, do you mean to continue the system commenced in 1834, and, with a hypocritical reverence for the principles, and a superstitious adhesion to the forms, of the old exclusive constitution, carry on your policy by latitudinarian practice?
The irony of this was that even as Disraeli was writing, the things and realities he wanted to conserve – the prerogatives of the monarchy; the independence and purity of the Church; the authority of the landed aristocracy and the House of Lords that was their political vehicle – were (as he more-or-less-admitted) already in the process of being undermined, or were already mere ciphers. Indeed, when he finally gained meaningful power 30 years after the publication of Coningsby, Disraeli himself often found practical politics a difficult arena for the revival of these realities.
They had more reality to them in 1844, however, than any likely successor candidates have in 2023. Judging from the risibly OTT Pantomime Dame gurning of Matt Hancock, second only to Boris as the most shameless adulterer in modern political life, the idea that the Conservative Party would seek to conserve the norm of heterosexual marriages being the preferred, default context for having and bringing up children is shockingly controversial. More shocking to him, I imagine, than sexualised drag performances for children becoming normalised.
It’s striking that Matt Hancock always seeks to explain away the farrago of treachery, lies and sexual incontinence that constitutes the entirety of his life for past 2 or 3 years in terms of ‘love’. His public disgrace isn’t because he betrayed his wife, abandoned his children, flagrantly broke his own draconian COVID laws, made a complete prat of himself by eating kangaroo testicles in a fake Australian jungle, and was then later shown to have managed the pandemic through a uniquely toxic mixture of fear-mongering, incompetence and dishonesty (the latter fact made public because he was stupid enough to give his entire WhatsApp history to a journalist not renowned for her sentimentality towards politicians). Oh no. He’s simply guilty of ‘falling in love’.
Because everything that the Conservative Party once stood for has been dissolved by a mixture of the unintended social acid of their own economic policies and the rise and rise of aggressive secularised cultural progressivism, most ‘Conservatives’ have adopted the empty banalities (and worse) that now constitute our deracinated secular orthodoxy. Any impediment to the pursuit of pure liquid modernity, to the gospel of autonomy, self-realisation and unbounded freedom to pursue desire – ‘impediments’ such as religion, family, local communities, traditional social mores and moral codes – are now not only seen as hopelessly old-fashioned, but actively evil. ‘Tories’ like Matt Hancock (and many, many others) do not believe in conserving anything. Indeed, they’re actively in favour of eliminating any vestige of the institutions that their party was supposed to conserve.
But then again, that’s all they are. Vestiges. Even the very best Conservatives (and conservatives, small c) have to admit to themselves that there isn’t much left to conserve, and soon, unless something changes, there will be nothing.
Over the past 60 years, the family, on any metric, has been undermined to the point where ‘conservation’ isn’t the issue, reconstruction is. Indeed, with a birth-rate continuing to fall, mere survival would be quite an achievement.
The Church is now presided over by a group of liberal-deist bishop-vandals who are literally destroying the oldest continuous social and religious institution in England (except possibly the monarchy), the parish. One need not rehearse the usual statistics about secularisation and decline in Church attendance as they are only too depressingly familiar.
One could go on. The constitution has been messed and meddled with to the point of complete incoherence. The idea of the nation, whether of Britain or England, has been all but dissolved by the solvent of economic globalization and the ever burgeoning cosmopolitanism of the elites, be they bankers, academics, jet-hopping politicians or tech gurus. The idea of ‘local community’ is a joke in many parts of a country, characterised as they are by an ever mobile, churning, uprooted population, forever kept in an endless whirl by residential universities, the London brain-drain, unstable employment patterns and, of course, limitless immigration.
It is, however, the changes in the folk-morality of the nation that are most depressing. They are obviously linked to the other factors, but need to be seen in their own right.
Let’s take Matt Hancock. He met Gina Coladangelo and fell in love – or at least lust, who knows. He had an affair with her, then (once he was found out), left his wife and children for her.
There are two ways of looking at this all-to-familiar story. One is basically: ‘good for him’. It might be couched in a more shameless or a more apologetic tone, either ‘why shouldn’t he be with the woman he loves, especially if he no longer loves his wife any more?’, or ‘It’s a shame for his wife, but #loveislove’. The other is: no, this isn’t ok. Betrayal is bad. His marriage vows should actually mean something, and he if he meets another woman who he likes, lusts after or even loves, then his commitment to his marriage and family is more important, and he should simply repress those feelings, because it is his duty to do so.
Of course, coverage of Hancock’s affair was distorted by the usual political hypocrisies, but if you ignore who he was and see it simply as a generic case, the truth is that probably the ‘good for him’ view would gain majority support, certainly among the various factions of the elite, probably among the majority of the under 35s, and sadly among many others too.
The moral air that the vast majority of us now breathe is that of self-gratification, personal autonomy, and hedonistic-materialistic utilitarianism. It often comes with a heavy dose of emotional sentimentalism to soften the cynicism, but that it what it amounts to. Any other ethical register – the importance of restraint, duty, honour, sacrificial responsibilities to others – strikes many as not only silly, but actively suspect or even evil, as such fusty old principles will not let people ‘be who they really are’.
But what love is there without these things? Talk of ‘love’ has become merely talk of self-love, dressed up as some sort of noble moral imperative. When Christ talks about love, is it the love of self-sacrifice: ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ It is the love of obedience: ‘if ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love’. It is a love that is best expressed in discipline, humility and the annihilation of pride and self-love. It is perhaps most pre-eminently a love grounded in truth – it ‘rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth’.
The truth is that ‘who we really are’ is not, generally, something to be celebrated. In one sense, we ‘really are’ children of God who can be redeemed and grow in holiness via grace, but given the fallenness of human nature, most of the time ‘being the person we want to be’ means: being sinful. Being selfish. Being puffed up, worldly and often exploitative. I for one don’t want to be ‘the real me’. I’ve met the real me. I’m awful.
This folk-morality is deeply anti-Christian. Sometimes it’s claimed that the emphasis on love and a certain egalitarianism means that it’s a sort of secularised ‘All You Need is Love’ style post-60s version of Christianity. But it isn’t really. One sliver of that heritage has grown to be a monstrous, cancerous tumour while the rest of the moral framework of Christianity has been tossed aside as antithetical to, on the one hand, the greed and grandeur of capitalism, and on the other, the incontinence and pride of ‘leftist’ progressivism.
In this moral wasteland, no wonder we have a crisis of family, community, the church, and all manner of other things. Once we’ve lost the ethos that animated all of those other institutions, they truly are empty forms, mere shells that barely deserve to be conserved.
So what we need is not conservation but reconstruction. And politics won’t be much of a help there – not yet, anyway.
Politics can play, given a fair wind, some role in trying to maintain or encourage the conditions in which virtuous habits, strong families, burgeoning faith, humane economic norms and rooted local communities can flourish. But there is not a fair wind blowing. Politicians will govern in accordance with the moral norms and culture that they find around them. And ultimately they are not solely or perhaps even mainly to blame. Neither is the media, neither are any of the scapegoats left and right like to blame.
You want to know the problem? Look in a mirror.
There is a brilliant scene in the last series of The Thick of It when foul-mouthed spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker goes on a magnificent rant:
Let me tell you this. The whole planet’s leaking, everybody is leaking! You know? Everyone’s spewing up their guts onto the internet, putting up their relationship status and photos of their vajazzles! We’ve come to a point where there are people, millions of people, who are quite happy to trade a kidney in order to go on television! And to show people their knickers, to show people their skid marks, and then complain to OK! magazine about a breach of privacy! The exchange of private information – that is what drives our economy. But, you come after me because you can’t arrest a landmass, can you? You can’t cuff a country. You might as well just go and – you can’t lynch that guy there, can you? But you decide that you can sit there, you can judge and you can ogle me like a Page 3 girl. You don’t like it? Well, you don’t like yourself. You don’t like your species, and you know what? Neither do I, but how dare you come and lay this at my door! How dare you blame ME — for THIS! Which is the result of a political class, which has given up on morality and simply pursues popularity at all costs. I am you and you are me.
This speech struck me at the time as being profoundly insightful. Despite being a response to a specific context (essentially the Leveson inquiry) and blaming ‘a political class, which has given up on morality’, the real drift of it was that we’re all to blame for our moral decline. A whole culture and society has, largely if not completely, given on morality. Politicians are merely giving the people what they want, and what people want is to have their selfishness and their pride and their greed for instant gratification affirmed.
Yes, political changes might have accelerated or even encouraged this, but most of us bought into a culture of licence over liberty and greed over goodness only too readily. We suddenly found that a lot of the old restraints, whether in the form of laws or moral norms or institutions or customs, no longer existed: and we threw ourselves into the resultant anarchy with licentious abandon. Our character and moral fibre as a people, both individually and as a collective, is more important than any politician or law.
This is a truth that Disraeli also recognised. The wise (if somewhat shadowy) guru of Coningsby, Sidonia, makes much the same point when he ascribes the political dangers of the 1840s not to laws or institutions per se, but to something deeper. ‘It is not in the increased feebleness of its institutions that I see the peril of England; it is in the decline of its character as a community’.
When it comes to this moral decline, I’m no better than most. When I became a father and found that suddenly my time wasn’t my own and I was jointly responsible for another tiny human being, I found it hard. Really hard. At one level, I hated the loss of freedom, the fact that it definitely marked the point when my life wasn’t simply a succession of opportunities to indulge myself. In an age where most of my contemporaries did not have children and still had their evenings and weekends to themselves, changing nappies rather than being out enjoying myself made me feel a bit sorry for myself.
Hope lies at the other level, however. Because at another level, I saw the loss of freedom for what it was: a salutary ‘moral chain’ on my appetites. I recognised the tendency to selfishness and irresponsibility in myself, and though I didn’t and don’t always successfully resist it, I did and do at least dislike it. I looked at the old principles, which still exist in residual form enough for us to be aware of them, and realised that they were the right ones, hard as they might be. I realised that my yearning for my old irresponsible ways merely reflected a lot of elements of myself that were not admirable or even freeing, but just squalid and lowly and horrible.
Something similar had happened when, not long before I became a father, I was baptised. I realised that my old humanist-liberal beliefs were not the result of generosity and enlightened kindness, but merely a confused and not particularly coherent justification for a lack of true self-reflection and honest acknowledgment of the truth of my own (and others’) fallenness and need for repentance and rebirth.
Birth. Rebirth. Neither in the case of the actual birth of my son, nor in my rebirth in Christ in my baptism, did the state or politics play the leading role. And to find something worth conserving again, it’s exactly these ideas – birth, rebirth – that we need to look to.
This decline in the old moral ethos is particularly unhelpful for men. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways the consequences for women are worse, but men needed that old moral framework, as much to protect others as themselves, more.
The chaos of a moral and actual economy defined by ‘limbic capitalism’, where the norms and institutions that restrained us from indulging our worse, most animalistic instincts are swept away as unconducive to both rampant consumerism and the new individualistic politics of ‘progress’ alike, is a disaster for men.
Men, conditioned by their evolution and hormones and whatever else to be more aggressive, sexualised, and generally unable to restrain their desires and instincts, need restraints and codes of honour and moral norms – and the institutions to enforce them. Badly. Once you let men loose in a world where these restraints have gone, you are asking for trouble – and not just for the men themselves.
And trouble has duly resulted. We now see generations of men succumbing to addiction, whether to cannabis, alcohol, gambling, opioid drugs, or worse. Men corrupted by the moral disaster of 24/7 instant access to hardcore pornography. Men who either are so enraptured by the prospect of a never-ending course of casual sex and uncommitted relationships, or so demoralised by no sex – or love – at all, that fewer and fewer of them get married and have children. Men without moral purpose, without honour, and without spiritual life, whose self-indulgence and aimlessness is encouraged, not challenged, by our politics, economics and culture.
Some are turning to the nihilistic, animalistic worship of money and sexual power offered by the likes of the loathsome Andrew Tate. Others embrace the nasty, embittered world of inceldom. Others find some comfort in the work of Jordan Petersen, who, to be fair to him, is probably not such a bad thing overall, since the banalities that he trots out are more wholesome and helpful than most of what else is on offer, albeit very far short of the ideal. Most, however, drift outside any coherent or self-conscious moral, spiritual or ideological framework, many suffering with mental health problems or addiction, others subsisting in the void, at best finding some outlet in intense physical exercise and ‘self-improvement’ drives.
There is nothing for these men to ‘conserve’. They want to destroy, to lash out, or at best find some moderately less psychologically painful way of struggling through.
And their travails matter for all of the broader issues we should care about. There are no strong families or increased birth rate without decent, honourable men living with purpose. There’s no hope for the Church unless men start going. There are no flourishing local communities and organisations without dutiful, solvent men volunteering and helping out. There’s no hope in general if 49% of the population are either useless, feckless or feral.
We have to reconstruct a better way for them.
This better way has to combine a number of qualities. Firstly, it has to work with the better grain of masculinity itself. Men’s aggressiveness and vitality can respond well to restraint and discipline. A sort of martial instinct can be harnessed to high purposes. Secondly, it has to find better moral ideals than having sex with hundreds of women or owning a lot of cars. It has to appeal to a noble instinct that puts a high value on looking after the weak and honouring women and children – and in my view this means that it must be Christian, either implicitly or explicitly. Thirdly, it must be social and appeal to a broad, collective sense of camaraderie and brotherhood and supporting each other.
My mind instantly turns to the recovery of the ideal of chivalry and the spirit of the Christian gentleman that occurred in the 19th century, encapsulated in movements, books and ideas such as the novels of Walter Scott; the Young England movement; Kenelm Digby’s ‘The Broadstone of Honour’; the ‘muscular Christianity’ of people like Charles Kingsley – and so on.
My mind also turns to the long tradition in this country of male sociability and self-organisation, of male clubs and organisations that harnessed a fraternal, voluntaristic impulse that appeals to a sort of very male ‘band of brothers’ sensibility: of guilds, sports clubs, working men’s clubs, the Boy Scouts, even masonic lodges – even, I suppose, meetings of Alcoholics’ or Gamblers’ Anonymous (which are majority, albeit not exclusively, male). This tradition encapsulates the salutary use of rites of passage, of some degree of ritual or ceremony, of shared pursuits, and of accountability to each other through pledges or making public commitments.
These things seem antiquarian, and obviously hard to simply resurrect. But they have a splendid core of sound principles that I think could be repurposed.
For example, Kenelm Digby was an eccentric man who wanted to recover his idealised version of medieval Christian chivalry in a very different age. Nonetheless, the core of the moral code he outlines seems evergreen. A chivalrous man believes and trusts in God; he is strictly honest and honourable, and despises all that is base; he is courageous and heroic will always fight for what is right, no matter how hopeless the cause; virtue is more important to him than money; he is loyal to the ends of the world; he is courteous and generous; he demonstrates humility in all things; he is modest and always respects and cherishes women; he protects and helps the poor, weak and vulnerable. Imagine the opposite to Donald Trump, and you’re near the mark.
(Indeed, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is ominously significant that the leading ‘Conservative’ politicians in much of the western world in recent years – not only Trump but people like Boris and Matt Hancock come to mind – are basically the exact opposite of these values.)
What’s more, such an heroic appeal to an older ideal, with its mixture of Christian morality and a code of quasi-martial valour, is the perfect sweet-spot between a better Christian ethical framework and working with the grain of masculinity. It’s the tone of muscular Christianity that you find in many of St Paul’s epistles, particularly in Ephesians 6:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints
It also appeals to men’s imaginations, their souls. All human beings need to feed their imagination, to transcend mere utilitarianism, bureaucracy and economistic motives, men as much as women, and they don’t get much chance in a sanitised and disenchanted modern world. Pure instrumental reasoning and narrow rationalism has got us into the mess we’re in at the moment. Perhaps we need to harness men’s less rational side. As Sidonia observes:
There has been an attempt to reconstruct society on a basis of material motives and calculations. It has failed. It must ultimately have failed under any circumstances; its failure in an ancient and densely-peopled kingdom was inevitable. How limited is human reason, the profoundest inquirers are most conscious. We are not indebted to the Reason of man for any of the great achievements which are the landmarks of human action and human progress. It was not Reason that besieged Troy; it was not Reason that sent forth the Saracen from the Desert to conquer the world; that inspired the Crusades; that instituted the Monastic orders; it was not Reason that produced the Jesuits; above all, it was not Reason that created the French Revolution. Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination. Even Mormon counts more votaries than Bentham.
When it comes to being clubbable and associative, the main problems are the decline of the voluntaristic spirit, and the fact that it is legally difficult nowadays to advocate for an all-male space or organisation. But, as Mary Harrington points out in her recent book Feminism Against Progress, if women (rightly) want to defend their single-sex spaces, then shouldn’t a distinct form of all male sociability be allowed too?
This is important, because I’ll tell you what won’t help tackle the crisis of masculinity, any more than Andrew Tate or other nihilistic appeals to sex and power-worship: middle-class women with clipboards telling men to ‘check their privilege’ or chastising them for their ‘toxic masculinity’. Too many institutions – schools for example – are dominated by a feminised attitude that finds any appeal to things that captivate and potentially ennoble men ‘distasteful’ – and given that such institutions are overwhelmingly dominated by women, that’s hardly surprising. Any mention of the ‘armour of God’ or a noble battle or epic adventure or a ‘band of brothers’ will give these women conniptions, which, if protecting and honouring women is what you want, is completely counter-productive. If you want positive male friendships to flourish, if you want lost young men to be able to find father figures and role models, if you want a better form of masculinity to flourish, it must be done on its own terms, in its own way, among men. Lecturing them or trying to ‘educate them’ out of their instincts won’t work. You have to try to direct their nature into better channels, not dam it up altogether.
What practical form all of this would take I do not know. I have this vague vision of a sort of loose club which asks anyone wishing to sign up to commit themselves to a series of chivalric pledges. They could then hold themselves accountable, either in person or online, to each other if they struggle to uphold those pledges or break them. They could create local branches and meet, and award each other prizes or badges or ‘orders of manhood’ or whatever (like, I suppose, the ‘degrees’ or ‘grades’ of freemasonry) for certain achievements (volunteering). They could organise sports fixtures between themselves, or trips and outings. I don’t know exactly. Perhaps that’s too formal and fussy. We could work it out.
For what it’s worth, my pledges would be something like (with apologies to Roland):
- Fear God, support the Church, and always act like a good Christian
- Tell the truth, uphold promises, and act with honour at all times, even if to your own disadvantage
- Act with courage, perseverance and complete loyalty, always shoulder to shoulder with your comrades
- Respect the honour of women, and abstain from anything which degrades or hurts them
- Protect the weak and defenceless
- Act always with humility, modesty, courtesy and chastity
But the whole enterprise would have to be much broader than some voluntary organisation. The aim is to change the entire moral weather, in the media, on TV, in books, on social media in favour of this sensibility and these principles.
This is just one example of what I mean by moral reconstruction in one area of life. We will need it to occur in many others. It has to come from below, from voluntary activity, from laymen and women, because it’s not going to come from an elite that are even more corrupted by progressivism than the mass of the population. In my mind it is related to attempting to revitalise orthodox Christianity more broadly and re-evangelise now essentially heathen western countries, but it goes much wider than that. Without it, politics will descend even further into a pointless squabbling match conducted in a moral desert between vacuous non-entities, always making their degraded appeals within the broader cultural context of a set of worthless or actively evil secularised cultural and moral assumptions that can only make things worse.
With it, politics might become a meaningful battle again. We might be able to rebuild institutions and habits and mores that encourage human morality and flourishing again, and that can be defended and even encouraged within the broader civic sphere.
Who knows, one day we might end up building something worth conserving again.