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Tories and Conservatives: A Study in Contrast

Andrew Sullivan notes one of the ironies of the Thatcher era: “She wanted to return Britain to the tradition of her thrifty, traditional father; instead she turned it into a country for the likes of her son, a wayward, money-making opportunist.”

The Conservative Party had its factions before Margaret Thatcher, but it was under her that the old Tory ethos lost ground to what we in the United States would recognize in many instances as neoconservatism. Henry Fairlie sketches the traditional Tory his 1984 essay “If Pooh Were President“:

The conservative and the tory may be allies, but they are not the same creatures. Americans may not appreciate how shattering it is to come to their country and find a ‘conservatism’ that has no element of toryism to nourish and humanize and correct it. The conservative can all too easily drift into a morally bankrupt and intellectually shallow defense of those who have it made and those who are on the make if the tory is not there to remind him of what Edward Heath, in denouncing Margaret Thatcher, called ‘the ugly face of capitalism.’

The first mark of the tory is a steady, unvolatile, almost unconscious confidence in the resources and resilience of his society. He is not much disturbed by the ‘movements’ that wash over or through it form time to time. He plants his own saplings; he will not be here to see them when they are grown, but he knows that long after he has gone, and whatever the winds that buffet them, they will take root in the soil of the society and give shade to it. What more can a tory do? More to the point, what more should he do? He can see no reason why those who are the governors of a well ordered society should spend their time reacting to every fad. Why get hot under the collar about the apparent decline of the traditional family? It was never in question that before long people would with to recover the traditional family, even if altered (and so strengthened) by the assault that was sprung against it. One may say that the English aristocrat has always been the truest tory because he knows that his own family has survived the most eccentric and often reprobate conduct of its members for centuries.

And Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in The Strange Death of Tory England, describes some of the new type of right-winger attracted to Thatcherism:

By the time she reached Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher had gathered around her skirts her own group of court intellectuals … some more impressive than others. Not a few of those who became her ardent supporters had begun life on the left, from the historian Hugh Thomas, to Paul Johnson, a former editor of the New Statesman who had once called for the abolition of all traditional institution from the Brigade of Guards to the House of Lords and who had been enraptured by the student revolt in Paris in 1968, to the extreme case of Sir Alfred Sherman, who for a time ran the Centre for Policy Studies, the innocuously named right-wing think-tank, and later became an advisor to Radovan Karadzic. Thomas had written a history of the Spanish Civil War, Sherman had actually served with the International Brigades as a devout Communist. There was nothing unusual about this rightward tendency, which had been a phenomenon throughout the century and throughout the west. The revealing truth about many of these was that they had become right-wingers, but not Tories. It was no doubt because of their idiosyncrasy that they had an affinity with Mrs. Thatcher, although in their bellicose intransigence transferred from left to right they also illustrated Newman’s saying that convictions change but habits of mind endure. They encouraged her own cantankerous opposition to many of her colleagues, as well as her disdain for much custom and tradition.

For all that something was lost in this changing of the guard, it has to be said that traditional Toryism wasn’t doing much for an England that in the 1970s was, as Sullivan writes, “a decaying museum—some horrifying mixture of Eastern European grimness surrounded by the sculptured bric-a-brac of statues and buildings and edifices that spoke of an empire on which the sun had once never set. Now, in contrast, we lived on the dark side of the moon and it was made up of damp, slowly degrading concrete.” It’s a case in point of Burke’s maxim that “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”—a saying that holds as true for conservatives themselves as for what they wish to conserve.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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