Conservatism is facing crises of uncertainty and identity. It is not sure of its principles or of how to express and apply them. It takes comfort in the conviction that it has always been most effective and convincing when empirical but it is in danger of losing the framework of order and even deference (when deserved) which makes such pragmatism possible.
This rather pontifical declaration may seem to apply to the Tories under the precarious leadership of Theresa May, decent but dullish, and victim both of her own tactical mistake over the unnecessary election and the greater mistakes she inherited from her predecessor.
But there is more to conservatism than the Conservative Party, trapped and divided over Brexit and handicapped by the greasy pole-dancing of some of those who fancy themselves as its next leader. The troubles of a weakened Tory government facing Britain's strongest challenge for decades are by no means the severest symptoms of an international crisis of conservatism.
Thankfully, there has never been a Conservative International. National traditions, attitudes, and circumstances differ greatly even in the western world and most conservatives steer clear of the general theories which inspired both the relatively benign internationalism of democratic socialism and the totalitarian version inspired by Marx and hardened by Lenin. I would even hesitate about writing about 'conservatism', had it not the saving grace of being largely a cast of mind and temperament rather than a body of doctrine. But at least in Europe, North America, and the former British empire there have been sufficiently common factors to create affinities in political traditions based on a sense of order, concepts of national identity and community, defence of legitimate interests, and (sometimes in reaction to the rise of socialism) a preference for what may be called either liberal or capitalist economics.
It can be easier for this tradition to assert itself and sustain internal coherence when it is sure what and whom it is against rather than when it is uncertain what it is for. That helps to explain the contrast this year between the Tories' revival in Scotland in face of nationalist separatism and their confusion over Europe, committed by circumstances to a Brexit that their leader and most of the cabinet did not vote for but which much of the party has made its heart's desire, shifting from a properly empirical and well-justified Euroscepticism to an ideological one. It is also why Tories wish that Jeremy Corbyn, who talks a good game for the far Left, actually behaved more like Michael Foot and, better still from a narrow party interest, Labour ranted like Arthur Scargill. I am not sure if Len McCluskey is yet up to it.
Wiser Tories have more to worry about, for some of their troubles (so evident in the mishandled manifesto for the unexpected election) reflect a much wider uncertainty in the mainstream politics of the western world. It affects almost all parties but is now almost as acute for the traditional Right as for the moderate Left.
In France the conservatism which expected to succeed the disastrous Hollande has been displaced by an eloquently enthusiastic, untested opportunist who may yet prove no more than a French Obama. In Italy the Christian Democrats, who were originally a genuine and necessary conservative party, degenerated so far that they gave way to Berlusconi, since discredited yet never quite replaced. In Germany, long and painful memories have obliged mainstream conservatives to dress up as centrists and act as ultra-Europeans, with a limited dispensation for Bavarians whose local patriotism absolves them from suspicion of nationalism. The result is the diversion of some right-wing tendencies into vacuous populist movements or minor parties tainted by traces of neo-Nazism. Meanwhile Putin's authoritarian Russia, despite genuflections to pre-communist traditions, lives up to the Churchillian epigram that it is 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.'
But the most spectacular and serious catastrophe for conservatism is the most obvious one: Donald Trump. We ought all to live in the hope that he may yet learn enough about government to squeeze past as a president; but whatever he is or may become he cannot pass himself off as a conservative. It isn't enough to believe in the rights of property if you don't think about its duties. Flag-waving patriotism is unconvincing without a critical respect for what is best in your country's traditions and institutions, and some understanding of them. At best Trump is a populist who unaccountably persuaded conservative voters that he was a lesser evil than Hillary Clinton and her entourage.
The troubles of conservatism, however, are more deeply rooted than in the mistakes of Tory governments or the demeaning of democracy by demagoguery. Conservatism has lost much of its standing throughout the English-speaking world in the universities, the media, the arts, and even the institutions most derided by secular liberals and most zealously targeted by real revolutionaries in the Jacobin, Bolshevik, and Nazi traditions: the churches. Some of the conservatives who survive in these public or voluntary sectors have let themselves be intimidated and keep their heads down.
More significant, however, is the readiness of those who want to appear moderate or 'mainstream' to allow radicals who pose as progressives to dictate – quite literally – the terms of debate on social trends in a way that that would never be tolerated in discussion of economic realities. It is a false moderation that surrenders to intellectual dishonesty but the temptations are great.
I was about to link an unecumenical dismissal of the current posture politics of the Vatican with some derision of the Scots Kirk's affirmation of the Christian view of marriage, modified by a dispensation for congregations that are persuaded to ignore it. Then I remembered reluctantly growling to my own minister: 'I suppose we can live with it.' The conservatives who fail to take a stand soon enough, or who try and fail, face an awkward choice between accepting debate on terms rigged against them or opting out and surrendering influence on subsequent events.
There are still defenders enough of 'neo-liberalism' or 'capitalism', though the truly conservative ones know that these are imperfect means to worthwhile ends, tools to be operated and not idols to be worshipped. There are far fewer ready to challenge the leftish vocabulary to which many 'Centre-Right' politicians and journalists are too happy to conform in more general debate. This is perhaps excusable in the shallows of a popular culture which has turned words like 'decadent' and 'subversive' into fashionable terms of approval, but it should not be the language of serious politics, far less of the universities or the more solemn reaches of the media.
It is understandable that politicians practising in today's cultural climate should want to escape censure for racism, sexism, homophobia, sectarianism, even ageism, and sign up as friends of diversity and enthusiasts for equality. But some of these terms are now frequently used as a protective screen for expression of retaliatory prejudices: see almost any denunciation of 'straight white men.' Most of them, though owing much to recollections of past injustices, are so pliable as to be liable to self-interested distortion. They should be abandoned in favour of more precise and definable terms, such as prejudice and improper discrimination.
Others, like 'equality', are glibly used when they need rigorous examination, for it is self-evident on any sports field, classroom, committee room, or concert hall that human beings are in many respects unequal and yet – in the eyes of the Christian religion and some other philosophies – equal in the sight of God or whatever is substituted for Him. And almost everyone has a little list of those whom they would gladly omit from the 'diversity', to which they pay fashionable lip-service. For much of the Left, conservatives are high up the list.
In this climate there are duties and dangers for conservatives. There is the obvious danger that an inarticulate reaction against the tyranny of illiberal radicals will allow opportunist populists like Trump to displace traditional conservatism. There is a risk that the leadership of conservative parties, anxious to head off the populist challenge, will fall into the hands of the articulate, eccentric, and unelectable, or even of intelligent but unprincipled demagogues and careerists. Readers may send in some names. There is also the danger, which cost Theresa May so dearly this year, of patched-up and botched-up policy initiatives which are meant to show how vigorous conservatism can be but which offend more people than they attract.
Some of the duties of conservatism are obvious, especially for a party in office. In face of fair and unfair criticism and the occasional departmental disaster it has to show that it has a grip on government. That was where John Major failed and opened the way for the long-lasting (but now expired) spell which Tony Blair cast over British politics. In the immediate future in Britain that means making the best of Brexit, without much apparent help from the other side of the negotiating table. But that special and urgent case is linked to more familiar problems of handling inflation and maintaining the harmony of the Tory party, which like all major parties, is itself a coalition. All this is easily said but not easily done in the fractious aftermath of the referendum and election.
Other duties are harder to define, for governments do not control social trends and any political party has its share of people who set a deplorably bad example. Modern Britain too often appears notable for greed and grievances, with too much grasping and whining and too many individuals and self-interest groups in search of opportunities to take offence. Only to a limited extent can politicians influence such moods. But it is a conservative duty to seek that limited influence.
For the moment the most urgent duty of both the Tory party and conservatives in general may be to take out as much as possible of the bitterness, fractiousness, and deviousness which now poisons the debates on Brexit, not only between parties but within them. A little emotional self-denial would be helpful not only from the ultra-Brexiteers but from Michael Heseltine – and from the editor of the Evening Standard as well as the Daily Mail. We need as far as possible a calm Brexit, especially as the choice of hardness or softness lies more with the other 27 than with us.
Conservatives, whether originally excited or distraught over Brexit, have a special responsibility to try to make it a coherent and, as far as possible now, an amicable one. In doing so they would affirm one of the truths of conservatism, which is that the art of government is often to adjust to events rather than shape them. And enrolment should be encouraged in a similar art-class across the Atlantic.