Neoconservatives, New Conservatives, and Old Tories

David Brooks notes that last week’s elections here in England–which included Tory Boris Johnson being elected as Mayor of London–signals a shift in global conservatism. Britain, he suggests, is home to a new breed of conservative which has left Thatcherite econo-centrism behind, while American neoconservatism keeps looking for another Reagan. As he puts it:

That means, first, moving beyond the Thatcherite tendency to put economics first. As Oliver Letwin, one of the leading Tory strategists put it: “Politics, once econo-centric, must now become socio-centric.” David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, makes it clear that his primary focus is sociological. Last year he declared: “The great challenge of the 1970s and 1980s was economic revival. The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival.” In another speech, he argued: “We used to stand for the individual. We still do. But individual freedoms count for little if society is disintegrating. Now we stand for the family, for the neighborhood — in a word, for society.”

It’s true that British Tories are “social” conservatives, without that spiralling into the narrow, single-issue politics it does in the States, fixated on abortion or gay marriage. But embedded here is an interesting point–which gets to the heart of what I think is wrong even with “new” conservatism, or at least what I think signals a fundamental tension for any Christian who would entertain conservativism. Listen to how Brooks continues:

This has led to a lot of talk about community, relationships, civic engagement and social responsibility. Danny Kruger, a special adviser to Cameron, wrote a much-discussed pamphlet, “On Fraternity.” These conservatives are not trying to improve the souls of citizens. They’re trying to use government to foster dense social bonds. (emphasis added)

These conservatives “are not trying to improve the souls of citizens.” Why that proviso? Behind that qualification is the assumption that it would be problematic if they were trying to “improve souls.” In other words, it sounds like not even these “new” conservatives will entertain a program of character formation. That would be anathema. Why? Because if you scratch even these new conservatives deep enough, you find a classical liberal underneath–an heir of Locke who thinks each of us is the master of our own fate, captain of our own souls, autonomous lords of our own realm of freedom–so anybody else better keep their hands off.

Or, to put it otherwise, neither neoconservatives nor Cameron’s “new” conservatives are willing to be “Old Tories” of the sort Ruskin extolled, who were precisely concerned with the formation of character, the improvement of souls. Indeed, it’s precisely what he decried in the industrialized wastelands of his own time, easily transposed to the commercialized wastelands of our own:

Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished,–sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is—we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this,–that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages (“The Nature of the Gothic,” in Stones of Venice).

But then my discomfort is not with formation per se–that is, it’s not that I have some liberal worry about others imposing on my autonomy. Rather, I admit that I’m not certain I want to trust the task of formation to the state. And thus, once again, the uneasy relationship of conservativism and Christianity.