The Tory Left: A Politics of Community (Part I.)

A ‘Thin’ Tory Left

In a recent blog post on ConservativeHome Paul Goodman has heralded the revival of ‘the Tory Left’ with the launch of the ‘compassionate Conservative caucus’- a group of Tory MPs who seek to promote greater social justice and reduce poverty. What is so intriguing about this launch is the way in which religion underwrites many of the group’s key aims and ambitions. Comprising many practicing Christians among its number (Colin Bloom of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, Gary Streeter, Caroline Spelman, Fiona Bruce, John Glen, Alistair Burt and Lord Bates) the caucus seeks nothing less than social and moral renewal, ‘[placing] less stress on markets than the moral framework that makes them possible, and is more disposed to take a positive view of government intervention and of the state itself.’. The visible presence of Church-going politicians (particularly Anglicans) among caucus members should in no way surprise us- given the group’s conscious borrowing of the High Church One Nation tradition. Pro-European, public spirited and community-focused, these advocates of Tory Democracy have always seen Christian teaching (and by extension a philanthropic national church) as the bedrock of Conservative politics. But if one looks at the rather scant aims of the group, they seem a long way from the intellectually rigorous theologically rooted politics of many of the great postwar Conservatives. Among its jumble of aims the caucus supports:

  1. More support for marriage in the tax system.
  2. Companies being strongly discouraged and perhaps barred from paying their highest-paid employees more than X times the salary of their lowest-paid employees.
  3. Higher levels of housebuilding so that more young people can own their own homes.
  4. Caps on donations to political parties and mandatory voting.

Worthy aims they maybe, but a vision for a new Tory Left this is not, particularly when compared to the sheer idealism and ambition of one of the Prime Ministers heroes,  the radical One Nation Tory, Harold Macmillan. The first thing to note about Macmillan was his extreme moral distate of either markets or profits without social or moral limit. Thus, unlike many latter-day Conservatives, who favour privatization and deregulation, Tory Democrats like Macmillan wanted to see the construction of a vibrant and active  state, able to lift people out of material and spiritual decay. As a result Macmillan did not just want to use state-power to merely tinker around the edges of Capitalism; he wanted a wholesale transformation of economic life, so it might serve, not hinder, the needs of communities. At the heart of this seemingly un-Tory appetite for reform was a deep Tory critique of an economic system which is too eager to sacrifice individuals, communities and tradition in favor standardization, utility and profit. How might this critique help contemporary left-wing Tories re-animate their tradition? Before we can answer this question, it is worth considering both the roots and the shape of Macmillan’s politics.

Toryism as Double-Refusal


A lucid window into Macmillian’s politics can be found in the former prime minister’s first maiden speech to the House of Lords in November 1984. Mindful of the Miners’ strike of that same year, Macmillan lamented:

 It breaks my heart to see – and I cannot interfere – what is happening in our country today. This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in. It is pointless and we cannot afford that kind of thing….Then there is the growing division of comparative prosperity in the south and an ailing north and Midlands. We used to have battles and rows, but they were quarrels. Now there is a new kind of wicked hatred that has been brought in by different kinds of people (Hansard, House of Lords, 13 November 1984; Vol. 457, c. 240).

Macmillan’s conclusion to his speech is significant. Moving from the external events of Britain’s economic crisis to a set of spiritual solutions, Macmillan exhorts his listeners:

If some of the dreadful, wicked systems which have crept into our lives are replaced, if we abandon cynicism, criticism and hatred for each other, and if we take up the great theme which St. Paul gave to us—to rely more upon faith, hope and charity, but above all upon charity—then I foresee the young men and women from every home in England setting out with confidence on a new phase along the long road which we call Man’s pilgrimage here on earth.


Here we see Macmillan as the quiet Anglo-Catholic- determined to unite the nation around the kernel of Christian ethics. In an era of conflict between an old industrial culture and a new financial economy, Macmillan wanted to call his country back to ‘the old way’ – rooted in the organic conception national community, which bowed before the collective wisdom of Christian morality. In this move, Macmillan refuted two dehumanizing materialisms of his political age. The first was Scargill’s appeal to the dialectical materialism of Marxian socialism which reduced all public questions to diabolical class-interests. The second was the barren materialism of the Thatcherite monetarists who reduced moral questions to matters of profit and loss. In both cases, thought Macmillan, such systems are destructive of the community (those chains of common sentiment and common interest upon which civilization depends).

The Roots of Macmillan’s Toryism

The formation of this religious politics undoubtedly began for Macmillan before the first world war under the private tutorledge of the Anglo-Catholic Ronald Knox, then Sligger Urquhard, the first Catholic don at Balliol College since the Reformation. Knox had been inspired by Cardinal Newman’s Tractarian movement. Possessed of great intellectual power and literary skill, Knox impressed upon Macmillan the way in which old Catholicism was bound up with the material output of British culture. The spires and other monuments were not merely remnants of a Catholic past- they were expressions of a particular type of community, one in which Christians (like the stones of a mighty Cathedral) fitted into a whole. In this scheme, the formation of stable community was one of the highest moral aims, not because it accomplished any political purpose in itself, but because life together was the rock upon which the moral unity of the ecclesia was built. Such a robust conception of a shared life meant a radical criticism of all that negated it: hedonism, commercialism, and unrestrained Capitalism. Such a mood of generalized rejection of modern political ideology was wholly consistent with the general temper of intellectual English Catholicism in the early twentieth century, and the doctrine of distributionism favored by converts like Waugh and Belloc.

Harold Macmillan number 10 official.jpgSuch fertile seeds of a theo-political conception were much extended not merely by Urquhard’s personal interest but by the religious and political atmosphere of Balliol prior to the earth-shock of 1914. As the scholar of English Toryism E.E.H Green notes, by the late 19th century Balliol had become the centre of a new strand of Idealist-Collectivist politics, which, with more than a touch of Hegelianism, had re-imagined the State as an ethical organism with responsibilities of Christian love towards its citizens. One result of the enthronement of this new social philosophy at the heart of 19th century Oxford was the emergence of new templates for early twentieth strands of socialist and liberal thought, but also offered new paths for an English Toryism tired of classical laissez-faire. Such developments  accorded well with Urquhard’s own social Catholicism which blended advocacy of the Catholic Workers movement with a  desire to see the social and theological renewal of English Protestantism. On both matters, Urquhard was convinced that many of the problems that faced Britain at the end of the 19th century had their roots in a spiritual crisis. How did these reflexes shape the young Macmillan? Something of influence of both men can be gleaned from the fact that as Macmillan headed off to war in 1914 to witness the death of an old Europe, he took the New Testament and Augustine’s Confessions with him to the trenches. We can only guess how the energetic Captain interpreted Augustine and Monica’s heavenly vision at Ostia or understood the sublime consolations of the Sermon on the Mount midst the horror, yet it was undoubtedly true that the war changed him, not by making him more worldly (as it did for many men of his generation) but intensify his horror of materialism. As he reflected years later:

[Whatever] your views happen to be about practical theology, I don’t think a nation can live without religion….If you don’t pray every night and if you don’t believe in God and if you don’t think you can serve God eventually, you can’t serve all these problems and you can’t even survive them….When you give up religion you give up on idealism….


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