Editor’s Note: The author is a British counter-extremism practitioner working in the public sector. In order to write candidly about a sensitive subject, they have been granted anonymity by EER.
The late conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton claimed that conservatism is better understood as an instinct, rather than as a set of specific ideas. Perhaps most prominently the instinct to conserve what one believes to be good, or as Scruton put it, “the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed but not easily created”. In the same vein, another conservative philosopher, Edmund Burke, proclaimed that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. Sometimes called “High Toryism”—or, in America, “paleoconservatism”—this kind of conservative perspective, embodied by Scruton, is, as the man himself said, historically rooted in finding answers to the questions of “who we are, how we belong, questions of identity, questions of loyalty, what binds me to my neighbour?” Such questions are integral to the radicalization debate. Indeed, it is this lack of an individual’s feelings of identity, belonging, and community that make them vulnerable to exploitation.
Scruton wrote Eulogy to England, an evocative book in which he mourned an England he believed to have passed on. Within it, Scruton spoke nostalgically of English culture, but without the sentiment of the racist or chauvinistic Far-Right. Expressing sensitive feelings of losing one’s culture, patriotism, or simply mourning change, might be seen as a sort of release valve—easing feelings of loss that might otherwise grow into resentments. In reducing such resentments, it follows that Far-Right agitators would have fewer grievances to weaponize—and the Far-Right know it.
Unsurprisingly in America, the Alt-Right relished the chance to attack conservatives, coining and popularizing the obscene and abusive term, “Cuckservative”. Some assumed this meant conservatives were too submissive towards liberal demands; for white supremacists, however, it accused conservatives of being race-traitors. Angela Nagle chronicles how, after criticising Donald Trump, the conservative National Review writer David French received enough death threats and racial epithets (directed at his daughter) to warrant training his teenage children in handgun use.
In the absence of more moderate, Centre-Right voices like Scruton, who offer alternative prescriptions for perceived conservative grievances, the Far-Right is uncontested to offer its poison. The culture wars have made it tough for conservatives to project their voice amongst the crowded, louder parts of the Right that dominate the zeitgeist. The gradual fading of institutions that used to give meaning unconditionally has robbed the vulnerable of further safeguards. Among white Britons, both religion and the family have arguably never been culturally weaker. For those not interested in university, manufacturing jobs no longer provide the significant meaning and security they once did. The working men’s clubs and unions, which used to accompany such jobs, have largely evaporated, too. To those without the educational or financial freedom to move, these changes leave very few options.
Of course, many do not share the conservative feelings of this demographic, but it is difficult for such people to appreciate just how deeply this sentiment is held by others. David Goodhart’s concept of “anywheres” verses “somewheres,” developed in his book The Road to Somewhere, is helpful in showing how totally one part of the population can lack an understanding of the real primacy culturally conservative values have to the other:
“Our country is now split into two rival value blocks, the anywheres vs the somewheres,” says Goodhart, who goes on to explain:
“[A]nywheres” have achieved identities … their sense of their self comes from their educational and career success. If you have an achieved identity, it becomes portable. … You can live anywhere, you can live amongst people very different to you without feeling discomforted. Whereas if you have an ascribed identity, if your sense of yourself comes from the particular place that you were born or the groups you belong to, I think your identity is more vulnerable to being discomforted by rapid change. People with “somewhere” identities tend to think of change as loss, whereas anywhere people tend to … thrive on it.
Within this binary split, anywheres have portable identities and are therefore not well placed to understand the deeply-held sense of meaning, belonging, and identity somewheres derive from place. The discomfort expressed by somewheres about the pace of change in a given neighbourhood, say, or the desecration of a British flag, leaves serious anywheres baffled. They begin to wonder what is wrong with such individuals. This confusion can result in spurious insinuations of racism towards somewheres; the only sense an anywhere can make out of these sentiments is to stigmatize them.
This tendency for anywheres to pathologize somewheres is a problem and risks facilitating radicalization. Goodhart argues that while anywheres are only about one-quarter of the population—and somewheres are about half—the anywheres are very culturally dominant and have most leadership positions in state institutions; this would include those handling countering violence extremism (CVE) issues. In this situation of de facto minority rule, if the ruling minority misunderstands the subordinate majority—casting their outlook not as a difference of view, but as illegitimate bigotry to be ostracized—it risks creating a much larger pool of people who feel aggrieved about “political correctness,” and these grievances then can be (and already are) weaponized by the Far-Right to recruit for their odious cause.
For those who don’t share conservative sentiments, there are two further obstacles to understanding. Firstly, the word “conservative” is used by the Conservative Party, which means that the non-conservative person has to ignore the impulse towards partisan tribalism that can so easily divert their analysis. Secondly, to confuse matters even more, despite the name, the Conservative Party does not really represent conservatism as most people understand it. The reality is that the Conservative Party—for better or for worse, depending on your perspective—has long since drifted from its conservative moorings, and adopted the pragmatic considerations of professionalized party politics, which in practice means largely acquiescing to, rather than seeking to reverse, the changes made by the other side. To put it mildly, maintaining robust support for family, religion, and marriage are unlikely to feature prominently at a Conservative Party conference.
Pondering the current state of conservatism in party politics, Scruton said the following:
The Conservative Party has always been suspicious of intellectuals, on the perfectly good grounds that intellectuals think and thinking is dangerous—you might come up with the wrong idea. So, the Conservative Party has been very demure about it [having intellectually conservative roots]. But now I think it is that lack of a proper thought-through basis to their worldview is beginning to show.
To give another example: people—especially the politically engaged somewheres—readily assume that conservatism denotes financial austerity, but traditionally this is not the case prior to Margaret Thatcher. For Edward Heath’s Conservative government in the 1970s, the top rate of tax was 75%, while from 1932 to 1980—a period that included nine Conservative governments—the average top rate was 81%. Again, whether one thinks this is good or bad, the idea that conservatism has a great deal to say about economics is a relatively recent phenomenon, a long way from its culturally-focused tradition. The Republican U.S. President George H.W. Bush once inadvertently acknowledged the limitations of the free market in the conservative imagination. Speaking about the “invisible hand” that the godfather of free economics Adam Smith said guides the system, Bush noted that it “cannot touch the human heart”.
To an extent, Brexit demonstrated the strong culturally conservative streak in Labour voters too, with around 61% of Labour constituencies voting to Leave. The existence of Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour movement speaks to this point too. Even George Orwell, one of Britain’s most famous socialists, stridently defended English cuisine (which one has to be exceedingly patriotic to do). It would be a serious mistake to think that culturally conservative instincts are held solely by Conservative voters.
The widely held, cross-party nature of the conservative instinct is proof positive that it is not something that can be eliminated by persuasion. Indeed, research suggests that with age, people generally move from Left to Right. What this suggests, from a radicalization perspective, is that the way forward is to provide the space for the growth of a robust conservatism in the zeitgeist that can be guided towards moderation, and away from extremes. While this approach may offer a preventive environment for those vulnerable to being drawn into radicalization, it may also help people who are already radicalized, too. It is naïve to expect someone to transition from supporting violence in the cause of an ethno-state towards jubilation for the multicultural society. Reducing the person’s propensity for violence must be the priority, and that is more easily achieved by the shorter ideological journey to constitutional conservatism, rather than trying to get them to adopt post-modern liberalism. Conservatism can provide a safter philosophical middle ground, where some legitimate grievances—around the loss of meaning, belonging, purpose, etc.—are assuaged, while the ideological elements that can lead to support for violence, like racial superiority or chauvinism, are removed.
A significant impediment to adopting this change of strategy is the overwhelming dominance of Left-leaning people in the CVE field. When seeking to deradicalize those on the Far-Right, many CVE practitioners start from a false premise and, crucially, they try to give Left-wing solutions to what began as Right-wing questions. The Moral Foundation Theory, proposed by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, argues that we are predetermined to think along five moral foundations. Extensive cross-cultural research underlines that liberals are significantly invested in two of the moral foundations (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity), but are unmoved by the remaining three (ingroup loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity). Conservatives, meanwhile, are invested across all five. This would suggest that liberals are blind to what conservatives value. Why is this relevant? Because Left-leaning people do not join the Far-Right. Right-leaning people join the Far-Right and deradicalization is in part about following the radicalization trail backwards. In this case, it means asking, “What grievances led this person towards the Far-Right?” If you lack the capacity to feel emotion when the flag is burned, or cannot understand why people would value deference to tradition and incline towards the sanctity of culture, you risk overlooking certain radicalization factors—and consequently, any deradicalization measures proposed are destined to fail.
If non-violent, often ultra-conservative Salafis are allowed to deliver deradicalization services to violent Islamists, consistency demands conservatives can deliver deradicalization to the Far-Right. People who tie their identity to race, can instead look to place; they can develop a sense of a collective “we” from shared values and traditions, rather than skin color. The questions of how the vulnerable find a sense of identity, belonging, community, purpose, and meaning are the most central questions to conservatism, and it is unfulfilled needs in these areas that largely drive people towards radicalization because they are unconscious in nature. When these unconscious needs are made conscious, they are deprived of their power. Until now, conservatives have been underused in Far-Right deradicalization efforts. It is about time that changed.