I — Architect or Caretaker
Is Conservatism prepare to supply, in the new era we are entering, the main creative and moulding influence in the national life?
Liberalism cannot. Its thought is barren: its fires are cold: it sees no objective: even if it did, its energies are too exhausted to let it reach it.
Socialism, on the other hand, has force, fire, energy indeed; but its objective, if attained, spells economic disaster and moral despair; it can neither increase wealth nor develop character. The omnipotent State, the kept citizen, responsibility checked, initiative crippled, character in cold-storage, wealth squandered—towards such a goal, Britain, it may be said, will never consent to be led very far; but every step taken is a step wasted, and if a safer road with a better ending be not found for the people—if the alternatives are to be between Socialism and stagnation—the national choice will not fall on stagnation.
For a moulding and creative force there must be, since free nations do not live by caretakers and policemen alone. It is Conservatism which must do the architect’s work. Nothing else is worth its while. From time to time, no doubt, there will be a demand for intervals of repose, when even the most stationary party might fulfil a useful function. But any party can “mark time.” That calls for neither principles nor vision. It is in action that principles come into play. The caretaker’s job is for those who are past work. And, in fact, the principles of Conservatism are not only unexhausted but are exactly fitted to lead the country along the next stage of its journey. To adopt the caretaker’s attitude now and refuse the architect’s task would be to deprive the country of the benefits of a constructive Conservatism at the very time when most it needs it; for a positive, active alternative must be presented to the mass of the people, who are unceasingly urged to believe that in Socialism alone does there lie, for the rank and file, any hope of reaching and enjoying “an ampler ether, a diviner air.”
Yet faith in Conservatism—subconscious, intuitive—remains to-day, as ever, the deepest-rooted political instinct of Britain. It has been a tragedy too often repeated, indeed, that the broad, sound, living national Conservatism has found itself reflected, in the purely political sphere, by a bloodless, rigid, paralysed habit of mind, which has traded on that subconscious, intuitive faith, and has often imposed what would have proved an intolerable strain on any loyalty less patient and less profound than is that of the people of Britain to the underlying truths of Conservatism.
Yet it is only by the Conservative party that the best energies of the country can be released; for it is the character of the race which feels the appeal of Conservatism; and it is only when its character is touched, that these higher energies can be liberated. Therefore, there is a work for Conservatism to-day which no other party in the State can do. If Conservatism will not do it, it will remain undone. Heavy, then, is its responsibility, if the Conservative party refuse to apply its active principles to the deeper troubles of the new era; for in these principles alone can a cure be found.
Britain, unlike France, achieved political democracy without the disaster of revolution. Whether or not a similar success can be achieved in the economic sphere, depends first and mainly upon the ability of a constructive Conservatism to apply its own principles to the problem.
Private property, in the Conservative view, is the basis of civilisation, for on it rest the character and the economic freedom of the individual citizen. To Conservatism, therefore, the way lies open to expound the greatest of all social truths—that the success and the stability of a civilisation depend upon the widest possible extension amongst its citizens of the private ownership of property.
And round private property the political combats of the future will rage: their issue will decide whether wholesale pauperisation is in store for the people, or an advance to new levels of character and responsibility: the issue itself depends upon the vision, the courage, the resource of Conservatism.
It is only when the new era is analysed, its problems stated, Conservative principles recalled, their appropriate application suggested, that the full need for a constructive Conservatism can be realised. And whether the analysis, the statement, the application, in these pages attempted, be correct or not, this much is certain—that the battles ahead cannot be won, or the moulding, creative influence exercised, by the use of a caretaker’s mop.