When mainstream political parties, media, and academia turn on their own country, could the “politics of home” be the solution?
The best proponents of this view, in living memory, were British, although their ideas had the most success in America: Michael Oakeshott and Sir Roger Scruton were anchored in a geo-cultural-political “home”—a “place” of belonging, rooted in tradition and localism, a “somewhere” worthy of conservation.
Scruton writes in The Meaning of Conservatism (1980) that “conservatism arises directly from the sense that one belongs to some continuing and pre-existing social order, and that this fact is all-important in determining what to do.” In Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (1985), Scruton draws on Oakeshott to define “conservatism in the British tradition as a politics of custom, compromise, and settled indecision,” akin to “a conversation.” In How to Be a Conservative (2014), Scruton reduces his conservatism to the belief “that we have collectively inherited good things that we must strive to keep.” The crucial chapter is entitled “Starting from home.”
Oakeshott and Scruton set themselves as polar opposites to the transient, rootless “anywheres.” Thence, the politics of home is opposed to the transnationalism of neoliberalism and progressivism.
For instance, if job seekers must move wherever the jobs go, the free market is separating the people from their places. Both neoliberalism and progressivism are at fault here—championing transnational freedoms at the expense of national control and local interests.
Scruton set conservatism against both liberalism and socialism. He regarded both as too abstract, dogmatic, blinkered. Thus, he warned conservatives against focusing merely on the protection of freedoms—even though he championed freedoms. The politics of home is not opposed to freedoms: it simply reminds us that there is more to conserve than just freedoms.
For this reason, the politics of home is uncomfortable with fiscal conservatism. Communities need to invest in themselves. Individuals might have charitable motivations, but still face the collective action problem. If the community’s representatives or leaders won’t invest in the community’s heritage and the services that keep people local, who will? For Scruton, fiscal conservatives kill communities—at least the small, poor, remote communities that ironically are most defined by place.
Although Oakeshott and Scruton pre-date what we now know as woke progressivism, their instincts to conserve are clearly opposed to the woke imperative to tear down and replace.
The floundering responses of mainstream conservative parties justify rediscovery of the politics of home. The most recent Anglo-American discussion brought together Jacob Rees-Mogg (the leader of the House of Commons, as appointed by Boris Johnson in 2019) and Robert P. George (a legal scholar at Princeton University).
Mogg started by railing against “the socialist idea that you should hate your country.” He countered that societies should celebrate their pasts without shirking any part of it.
In response, George reminded us that, for Scruton, the virtue in tradition is that it develops naturally from “trial and error.” Even where traditions are not ideal, they are still our traditions. They bind and root a society, so should not be dismissed lightly.
Rees-Mogg characterized freedom of speech as a necessary barrier to tyranny, as a necessary condition for pluralistic discourse. George added that it is “a necessary condition of truth-seeking”—fundamental to education and parenting.
Their discussion started to sound more American than Anglo, which is partly a good thing. Mogg noted the superiority of the U.S. Constitution’s protection of free speech.
Cross-fertilization is always vulnerable to being caricatured as foreign, however. George over-egged the pudding by grounding the politics of place in faith and family, from which he gets to his social conservatism. The discussion soon shifted to Catholic conservatism. Mogg, George, and host Michael Knowles, best known for a podcast on PragerU, are proud Catholics, comfortable with the language of catechism and thence the sanctity of life. The politics of home, however, is not necessarily religious—although it is probably fair to say that any religious conservatism incorporates the politics of home.
Mogg took comfort that so many former Labour voters voted for the Conservative Party in 2019. This sounds complacent to me. Britain’s general election of 2019 was less an endorsement of the Conservative Party and more a referendum on whether Parliament should remain dominated by Remainers despite the popular vote in 2016 to leave the European Union. The Moggster himself made this point before the 2019 election (when he self-identified as a populist). He repeated this point during his discussion of the politics of home in 2021: Representatives sometimes need reminders that they are not in power to tell the people what to do, but to do what the people want.
Mogg sounded complacent again when he came to make prescriptions. He said we should ask the young to “have the courage of your convictions”: consider conservatism on its merits, not on what the elite tells you.
George sounded optimistic when he described love for family—and thence love for home, community, and country—as natural, something born, part of “human nature” and “human experience.” He prescribed explaining to people that loving home is natural.
I agree with these prescriptions, but they can sound platitudinous or unambitious next to the woke’s promises of justice, equity, and harmony.
If the politics of home is to counter the woke, it must justify its default position to conserve. This is not to say that the default position should be opposition to change, just that we should conserve, short of reasoned persuasion to change.
The woke deny us reason. Their default is to change, without the burden of reasoned persuasion. Thence they caricature all opposition as unenlightened, cautious, regressive, bigoted. They are hypocrites, but pointing out hypocrisy to the hypocrites doesn’t usually work, just as pointing out lack of reason to the unreasonable doesn’t usually work. The mad crowds don’t have the skills to realize their madness, having dismissed those skills as products of the very society they have condemned as beyond redemption.
The solutions here are not easy, and the politics of home is not a panacea. Nevertheless, a default position to conserve our places should be one of the virtues that we routinely, explicitly articulate.
We should start by identifying conservatism with conservationism, as Oakeshott and Scruton did. Conservationism is difficult for woke progressives to deny: they claim to own it, even though they are creatively destructive in implementing it. Conservatives need to reclaim conservationism.
From there, we can defend freedom of speech by conserving the freedom to speak, we can defend our communities by conserving our heritage, we can defend our places by conserving our statues, we can defend democracy by conserving civilized discourse, we can defend ourselves by conserving our places.
By clarifying who is conserving places, we clarify which side has the whole community at heart.