Edmund Fawcett

The Princeton University Press recently partnered with the online New Books Network to launch the Princeton University Press Ideas Podcasts — a series featuring PUP and NBN’s interviews with Princeton authors.

Edward Fawcett, author of the just released “Conservatism,” recently spoke to NBN editor and podcast host Marshall Poe about his book and this timely topic. Here are some excerpted remarks:

I’m the editor of the New Books Network, and I’d like to welcome you to the Princeton Ideas podcast. Today, we have the pleasure of talking to Edmund Fawcett about his book, “Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition.”

I am a political author. I was for 30 years a political journalist. I worked in many countries, eight years as the chief correspondent for The Economist magazine in Washington, but also for the same magazine in Paris, in Berlin, as well as Brussels. I was the European and the literary editor on the same magazine. So I’ve been a political journalist most of my career.

I wrote this book because I’m bewildered by the predicament we are in. Speaking as somebody who is, I’d put it, on the liberal left, and speaking for all of us in that position, I think we often don’t listen hard enough to the opposition. So I thought to myself, I really must understand the strength of conservatism, why it is so enduring, why it is so dominant, and what it has to say for itself.

It follows a book I wrote six years ago … on liberalism, which I thought again was for different reasons, not very well understood. Liberalism is so much part of the air we breathe, so much is taken for granted about it, I thought, again, that would be worth telling the history of.

So both books start in the 19th century and run through until now. And both of them take in party political history, politicians, government, and the story of political ideas, neither of which, I sense, really make sense without the other…

Conservatism, like liberalism, is a practice, a historical practice of politics. It has a beginning, hasn’t yet had an end, but it’s got a dateable beginning early in the 19th century. It responded to a particular condition of society. It has followers, politicians, voters, thinkers, and so on. It has ideas. It has lots of them. It has an outlook. It has programs. But it isn’t a philosophy.

Philosophy sort of exists at a different level. I mean, this may seem a sort of unduly pointy-headed distinction, but I think it’s very important because it’s much too easy, I think, in looking at the political right, particularly today, to try and hunt out an outlook, a theory, and a philosophy. You have to get some sense of how the political right and the various thinkers justify what it is the political right is up to and how they set out its ideals and so forth. But at the same time, you have to see what actually the political right is doing. So you need to keep the two together. I think the way I put it in my book was that conservatism is a practice that has an outlook but is not itself an outlook.

The character of what conservatives resisted in the early 19th century and were trying to preserve hasn’t greatly changed, but the content has. I mean, let’s just take two examples.

Property. Conservatives started out in defense of property, but what was property when conservatives got started? In the 1820s and ’30s, certainly for conservatives, property was property in land. It was sort of invisible. Now, what is property? Property is virtual. It’s invisible. It’s utterly changed and it comes in so many forms one can’t begin to enumerate them.

So if you start out from this beginning of conservatism and look now, when conservatives then defended property, in one sense, they’re defending something very different from what conservatives defend now. In another sense, they’re defending the same thing. Also, who owns property has hugely changed. Then, very, very few people own property. Now, many, many, many people own property. Rich, poor, all sorts of people. So, again, what property is and who owns it has vastly changed. But you can understand, we’re still talking about property.

Another example is the state. A political outlook has to have a view of the state. But when conservatives in the 1820s and ’30s were thinking about the state, it was an utterly different thing in one way from what we talk about today, just in a matter of size. The state then was tiny. Taxation was … less than 10 percent. Now the state occupies 40 to 50 percent of a country’s economy.

Clearly, in one way, the scale and the reach of the modern state is vastly greater than the scale or reach of the state that early conservatives were talking about it. In another way, they’re talking about the same thing. They’re talking about a political authority which as liberals wanted, ought to be very constrained. And as conservatives wanted, they should be trusted and given full of full authority . . .

The first conservatives were the children and grandchildren of people who had been used to ruling. They did what they ought to be doing. They knew what they should be doing. Why is because their parents and grandparents had done it. They were used to ruling.

Conservatives by the 1820s and 1830s, they were the political outs. The liberals became the political ins. It took conservatives not very long to learn the new rules of the new game and to become equals to the liberals at the electoral game and indeed to beat them. And that roughly was the political story from the 1830s to the 1880s.

It was the smoothest in Britain, where you had a parliamentary system that had some history and you had two parties, the Tories and the Whigs. The Tories became the Conservatives. The Whigs became the Liberals. The Tories eventually learned enough about electoral politics to prevail over the Liberals.

The story was more complicated than the United States because the party labels don’t quite fit. You had to know Whigs and Jacksonians who morphed into Democrats and Republicans . . .

Over the course of the 19th century, as they adapted to modern liberal capitalism, conservatives had a choice. Either they remained resistant and recalcitrant, trying to bring back the past or hold up the future, or they became, in effect, right-wing liberals. What I mean by that is liberals who are keen on defending business, finance, and property, but who understand that they can’t control all aspects of human life. They can’t tell people what to think or do or how to behave. In other words, they have to be socially quite liberal. And I think conservatives, when they were successful in the second period, got that message and became what I call right-wing liberals or liberal conservative . . .

You have really in this period, 1880 to 1945, you have two possibilities for people who don’t get into the liberal Democratic game on the right. You can either go to the hard right and try to reject the system or step out of politics and become a cultural critic. Cultural criticism of this kind has always been, ever since, a very, very strong voice among conservative intellectuals . . .

Something that’s very interesting about the hard right is they have a very brilliant and appealing set of rhetorical appeals. And one of them is the victim. We are victims. We have been victims of liberal elites. We are the victims of foreigners. A related theme is the true nation. The true people have been captured. Who have they been captured by? They’ve been captured by liberal elites, or they’ve been captured by foreigners. These are very, very appealing. But when you look at them, they’re really quite empty. As indeed, you know, Trump the billionaire hasn’t been captured by anybody.

“Conservatism: The Fight For A Tradition” by Edmund Fawcett, Princeton University Press, 544 pages, $35.

To hear the entire discussion or other Princeton University Press Ideas Podcast, go to press.princeton.edu/ideas/podcasts.

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