Why conservatives need to...erm, conserve
As western societies fracture into chaos, there is an ancient way to national unity
The Prophet Nathan rebukes King David; Eugène Siberdt, 1866-1931
As ever, Judaism has the best line. “Put not your trust in princes,” said the psalmist. Amen to that.
Both the United States and Israel are about to have new governments. Next week sees the inauguration of America’s 46th president, while Israel will be going back to the polls in March to elect a prime minister.
In both countries, the populace is divided between those who regard their current leader as a prince who would rescue them from monsters and those who regard the prince himself as a monster.
President Donald Trump has just been impeached for the second time, on this occasion over his role in last week’s riot at the US Capitol which was stormed by his supporters. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is fighting for his fourth term in office despite facing corruption charges.
In both America and Israel, however, political divisions go far deeper than the passions aroused by Trump or Netanyahu. The political structure of each country makes it prone to fissure.
That’s because these structures did not grow organically from historic tradition. Each country created its political settlement as new — in America, through the revolution in the 18th century that sundered it from British rule, and in Israel, through its rebirth as a nation as part of the new international order after two world wars.
Coincidentally, both became independent after freeing themselves from Britain. Both, however, failed to incorporate the driving force for unity and tranquility that Britain possesses — and for which it happened to draw upon a model established by the Jews.
This was a constitutional monarchy. As explained by Daniel Elazar in a paper for the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, the power of the monarchy in ancient Israel was limited by the principle of a covenant between the king, the people and God. Other centres of power were established that also constrained the king.
A covenant is a commitment going beyond mutual advantage, requiring instead joint obligations in a permanent, unconditional and unbreakable union. Although different in certain respects from today’s democratic set-up, this model of monarchical power limited by temporal parliaments has governed Britain ever since antiquity.
True, in the 17th-century Britain had a revolution led by Oliver Cromwell and other parliamentarians in which they executed the king. But after this developed in turn into a dictatorship that eclipsed parliament, Britain returned to a constitutional monarchy and has renounced political extremism ever since.
The key point is that the unity of the country was restored through reviving continuity with ancient tradition.
By contrast, the American Revolution, like its 18th-century French counterpart, sought to wipe the historical slate clean. America’s Founding Fathers inscribed on this empty slate a set of abstract principles such as liberty and equality from which the liberated nation would construct its new, idealised society.
Instead of loyalty to the British crown, Americans institutionalised allegiance to the US Constitution. But this was merely a body of laws severed from their roots in religion, history and tradition.
True, the Founding Fathers made many references to God and the Hebrew Bible, and like Britain were inspired by the Davidic monarchy that had brought the Israelite tribes together in a unified kingdom. But they ignored the key insight of the Jewish tradition — the absolutely central role of cultural memory, continuity and inheritance, and the corresponding duty to hand down history, tradition and observance to every succeeding generation.
America ruptured that continuity when it broke with the crown. It thought it could unite instead around abstract principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Instead of an inclusive and flexible balance of interests, its constitution established a rigid separation between religion and state, separated the powers of law and politics, and turned abstract and detached principles into a secular faith.
But without anchorage in their ultimate authority, principles are fragile and vulnerable.
The British philosopher and conservative thinker Sir Roger Scruton, who died a year ago, wrote that America was “a nation created by politics,” identifying itself explicitly as “the land of the free.”
As such, it has earned the gratitude of millions by magnificently upholding freedom at home and abroad. But liberty does not attach people to each other.
Scruton, who fought for the freedom of people oppressed under communism, also valued community and solidarity, order and decency, honour and faith. He understood that these aren’t abstract and universal principles, but are particular to distinct communities and grow organically over time.
In Britain, such principles have been guaranteed by a covenant between the monarch and the people that stands above politics as a sacred bond of trust. The people owe their allegiance not to a set of ideological abstractions but to the monarch in parliament, who therefore serves as the fulcrum of unity.
Ironically, Israel ignores its own ancient model for creating a stable and united society. In its fractured and dysfunctional political system, interests are not balanced. Instead, power is concentrated in the hands of those who win the endless struggle between competing groups.
Accordingly, it is unable to address the fundamental division between those who see the state as the fulfilment of Jewish religious belief and those who view it as a way of breaking with Judaism in favour of universal values.
All of this is why conservatism finds its most authentic expression in Britain, but is scarcely even understood as a political doctrine in either America or Israel.
Conservatism is, as the name implies, all about conserving. In Britain, despite the erosion of national unity through the culture wars, this means conserving continuity with the past and the history that binds the society together.
In Israel, these things are conserved by religiously observant people but take the form of community enterprises, not a national political structure.
While the power afforded to ultra-religious parties by Israel’s political system is disproportionate and damaging to national unity, Israel will not survive unless it defines itself specifically as a Jewish state bound by Jewish principles and tradition.
Nations that instead pin their identity on universal principles ultimately have no defence against those who wish to refashion that identity.
American conservatism, meanwhile, is narrowly defined around limiting state power. The ultimate guarantor of American freedom is the citizen bearing arms, so conservatives have found themselves conserving the national value of individualism. This has rendered them powerless to fend off the onslaught against the historic principles of western culture.
Now unity will be even harder to establish — not just because of angry Trump supporters who will continue to believe the election was stolen from them, but because of the Democrats’ agenda.
We are already seeing their vindictive vendetta against all conservatives. They will also promote full-on identity politics, which is based on stirring up poisonous resentments, institutionalising injustices and setting group against group in an endless struggle for power.
The point about presidents and prime ministers is that they are not princes but politicians. This baggage makes their place as leaders of the nation conditional and fragile. If they behave badly, this provokes not only political fracture but enduring national trauma.
Of course, the monarchical genie cannot be put back into the bottle where it has escaped. But rather than putting our faith in princes, we should place it instead in covenantal politics and continuity.
And the template for this, the best way of ensuring a united and tranquil society, is contained in a book that the secular west disdains at its peril.
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