Thursday, March 17, 2005

On behalf of all my Irish ancestors, a happy Pat's day to all!


I am always amused at how well Disraeli's propaganda has lasted. Although the idea was not original to him, it is mainly Disraeli whom we have to thank for rebranding the British Tories in the 19th century as the "Conservatives". And the reason Disraeli did that is a very modern one. Under his leadership, the Tories became a great party of reform. It was Disraeli who introduced some of Britain's first worker protection laws and who extended the vote to many working class people who had never had it before. So he named his party according to what it WASN'T in order to confuse his opponents and reassure his allies. Communists do the same thing when they label their governments as "Democratic".

So why did Disraeli lead the Tories so far down the road of reform? Because he saw that the pressure to give the vote to the workers would in the end be irresistible. There had long been agitation for it and that agitation was getting ever more energetic. So what he wanted to do was to avoid another French Revolution. He wanted the transition to majority rule to be peaceful, orderly, non-destructive and non-tyrannical. He succeeded brilliantly. He succeeded in moving the Tories away from being a party of the rich to being a party for all Englishmen and he rightly saw that working class Englishmen could be relied on for patriotism and good sense just as well as more prosperous Englishmen could be. And that is true to this day.

So while it is true that Disraeli wanted to conserve what was best from the past, conserving anything was for him no more than a means to an end. And if that end needed reform to achieve it, that was fine too. So what was he aiming at achieving by his reforms? Unlike Leftists, he was not aiming at equalizing everybody or creating the worker-led tyranny that his contemporary, Karl Marx, was advocating. He was aiming at the opposite of that. He wanted to preserve civility and avoid tyranny. He wanted people to be free to get on with their lives without interference from other people or from the State. He was part of that great tradition in English politics that values individual liberty and suspects the State. And that tradition goes back a long way in England -- right back to the time when Britannia became England about 1500 years ago. The advocates of the individual versus the collectivity have not always been called conservatives but in England they have always been there -- as I set out at length here

Even conservative intellectuals these days still sometimes fall for Disraeli's old propaganda trick (see e.g. here) and assume that the prime aim of conservatives is to conserve -- but in so doing they simply show their ignorance of history. Liberty for the individual is the prime aim of conservatives -- everything else is secondary to that. And present day politics are much like the politics of Disraeli's day. Conservatives don't want to conserve our disastrous educational and social welfare systems, they want to reform them. And they want to reform them by empowering the individual -- just as conservatives have always done.

The most loved and most influential conservative leader of the 20th century knew what conservatism was about, of course. He said: "If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism..... The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom". And if Ronald Reagan did not know what conservatism is, who would?


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