September 7, 2020 - 9:43am

Back in December the talk was all of how the new Red Wall Tory intake would pull the Conservative Party Right on cultural issues. But despite the apparent rout of Cameroon-style ‘double liberalism’, the political worldview that brought us a decade of austerity sweetened with platitudes about social freedom is proving resilient.

Two new salvos have been fired in the Tory double-liberal insurgency. The first of these comes from Tories freshly-elected in the 2019 landslide, some in Red Wall constituencies, a group of whom have called for a revival of Theresa May’s proposals for ‘gender self-identification’, abandoned by Johnson following a divisive public debate. The second comes from ERG member and Shrewsbury MP Daniel Kawczynski, who tweeted last week about ‘productive discussions’ with a colleague on moves to legalise ‘assisted dying’.

In these two political campaigns we can see the liberal nature of what many modern Tories think of as ‘conservatism’. The central principle on which the ‘self-ID’ advocates base their argument is that Conservatives ‘have made it a central tenet that individuals should be free to live their lives as they choose’. Similarly, Kawczynski’s tweet about assisted dying includes a photograph of the book Last Rights, which frames the campaign for assisted dying in terms of individual rights and freedom.

This stance, though strongly identified with conservatism since Margaret Thatcher, owes more to the liberal individualism of John Stuart Mill than the conservatism of Edmund Burke. For Burke, liberty was inseparable from morality, which was best conveyed through convention — even if this sometimes seemed arbitrary. As he put it in an oft-quoted 1791 letter:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites […] Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.
- Edmund Burke

John Stuart Mill, in contrast, saw conventional morality largely as an imposition. In On Liberty (1859) he wrote:

The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.
- Edmund Burke

Burke’s position was once a standard line of conservative argument. Individual desires and choices must be weighed against the aggregate impact of those desires and choices on the collective. Freedom, for Burke, means self-restraint according to shared values transmitted by custom. But this view has, today, been obliterated by a consensus that (except where imposed by law) bringing social expectations to bear on an individual is by definition oppressive: merely ‘the despotism of custom’.

Many have accused Mill’s liberal progeny in the Tory Party of giving the lie to the name ‘conservative’. But this is unfair, because the balance of social consensus has for decades now been with the liberal ‘conservatives’. Those who insist on the political salience of dimorphic sex, or seek to defend the long-standing social taboo on suicide, no longer have ‘the despotism of custom’ on their side. Rather, they’re obliged to argue their case from first principles, against the weight of an accepted presumption in favour of individual freedom.

Paradoxically, then, those arguing for a return to traditional mores are not defending convention, but have instead become the radicals calling for change.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.