By Martin O. Hutchinson
Academica Press, $39.95, 772 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF
The great British conservative tradition is embraced and treasured across the political spectrum of the mainstream American right, “paleocons” and “neocons” alike. However, even those who believe they have all the answers from Edmund Burke or Paul Johnson, and who adore Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, should find Martin Hutchinson’s ambitious neo-tome an education and revelation.
Mr. Hutchinson, a former London international merchant banker turned economic and business columnist for United Press International, here attempts the audacious and immensely ambitious effort of redefining conservatism or, in his use of the terminology, recovering it from the many, often conflicting interpretations that have been placed upon it.
He is rigorous and consistent in his definitions and analysis, and he is also a fearless, equal-opportunities controversialist. Libertarians who rejoice in his celebration of the achievements of minimal-government, low-taxation British leaders like William Pitt the Younger, Lord Liverpool and Lord Salisbury will likely be appalled at his equally easy approval of Britain’s acquisition and maintenance of a world-spanning empire.
Neoconservatives will happily embrace both his domestic free-market and international imperial sympathies, but are sure to be stopped in their tracks by his fierce critique of Churchill, in his view a big-government interventionist who sold the pass on domestic economic affairs and big-government manipulation of society. (He is far more enthusiastic about Margaret Thatcher.)
The author dares to place the famous 18th- and early 19th-century prime ministers Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool, both of whom governed Britain longer and more continuously than any prime minister in the nearly two centuries since, as figures of far more importance even than the beloved Burke.
This is an act of daring, but makes a great deal of sense when one stops to think about it. Burke is justly celebrated for his prophetic greatness as a thinker on the need to conserve the organic traditions of society and in his prescient opposition to the French Revolution, equally applicable to every sweeping, global, utopian ideology (whether secular or ostensibly religious) that we have experienced ever since.
But he was ultimately a thinker and an influence. It was Pitt and Liverpool who were the great pioneer implementers, who set the actual examples of implementing such policies and making them work. Indeed, to this day, Pitt’s influence and example on Thomas Jefferson’s crucially important, defining presidency remains virtually ignored.
Mr. Hutchinson will also drop a lot of jaws in his treatment of Neville Chamberlain, whose conduct of British foreign policy during the fateful years 1937-39 can truly be deemed catastrophic. But Mr. Hutchinson vigorously argues that Chamberlain should also be remembered for his remarkable achievements as Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer (or finance minister) from 1931 to 1937, when he saved his nation from fiscal and social ruin, engineering a robust and lasting economic recovery without running up any dangerous fiscal deficits, keeping the national currency — the pound sterling — strong and bringing down unemployment rates far lower and more lastingly than President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal managed to do at the same time in the United States.
Arguably, Mr. Hutchinson’s most remarkable thesis in a book filled with fresh and thought-provoking insights is his treatment of those oft-neglected English monarchs, Henry VII, the father of Henry VIII and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I, and Charles II, who restored the monarchy after the time of Oliver Cromwell.
The cautious, deliberately low-key and colorless Henry VII is always overshadowed by the images of his vastly more spectacular son and granddaughter. Also, fanatical devotees of Richard III are tireless in their efforts to blame Henry, the first Tudor, for the murder of the boy princes in the Tower of London. Charles II was loathed by the Whig school of historians for his crypto-Catholicism and close relationship with King Louis XIV of France.
Mr. Hutchinson, however, celebrates both of them as classic pioneer conservatives, of the greatest importance in establishing the enduring English tradition of minimum-government, low-taxation administrations that simultaneously preserved law, order, security and an excellent investment climate while still contriving to balance the budget.
Moreover, Henry and Charles both inherited state polities and societies that had been torn apart for decades, even generations, by ferocious sectarian passions and civil wars. Yet both built so quietly, so patiently and so well that the stable, prosperous and securely peaceful nations they created endured for centuries after them.
Much of the last section of “Great Conservatives” is a lament for the “fall from grace” of British conservatism following the time of Salisbury. Just as many American conservatives blame President George H.W. Bush for opening the way to the election of President Bill Clinton, Mr. Hutchinson blames Salisbury’s nephew and successor, Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour, for opening the way to the Liberal Party landslide of 1905.
And it was those Liberal leaders who, nine years later, took the fateful decision to plunge into an avoidable world war — Mr. Hutchinson argues that whether or not the war was avoidable, British participation in it certainly was — with imperial Germany. The million British dead and seriously wounded in that war, and the avalanche of big-government measures to regulate Britain economically and socially, ended the nation’s long tradition of free markets and minimum government, he maintains.
Even Lady Thatcher in her famous 11 years in power — the longest single consecutive term of office since Liverpool — could only “turn the clock back” to some degree (not nearly far enough), according to this interpretation.
It remains an open question whether Mr. Hutchinson will have the impact with this work that he desires in the short term. It is written in a readable, highly accessible, personal style with many anecdotal asides, but this is hardly the way to endear oneself to the academy. He resolutely insists on offending the many shibboleths of every wing of the American conservative movement, even while celebrating the greater whole.
None of this, however, should deter the reader from embarking upon an exhilarating and thought-provoking intellectual adventure.
Martin Sieff is chief political correspondent for United Press International.