The suffix “ism” has two distinct implications, though they may be combined. The first is doctrinal: “marxists” are defined by beliefs, propositions derived from the thought of Karl Marx, even though the meaning and relative importance of those propositions is likely to be interpreted diversely and contested. The second implication suggests tendencies of attitude and behaviour rather than belief as such: “racism” means a tendency to react in a discriminatory way towards people perceived as being racially different rather than any conscious beliefs about race. Thus many “racists” could truthfully deny that they believed overtly racist propositions about racial difference or inferiority, but it is not beliefs that make them racist. “Conservatism” in most of its ordinary usages is logically much more like “racism” than it is like “marxism”. It is much easier to describe typically conservative responses and to outline the context in which conservatism has developed than it is to list any defining beliefs of conservatism.
The origins of conservatism lie in eighteenth century Europe during a period in which religious disputes ceased to be the prime determinant of the political agenda and the secular doctrines of the “Enlightenment” shaped the intellectual agenda. These doctrines were typically about “natural” rights (later “human” rights) – generally those rights which a person is said to possess simply on account of their existence – and about political equality and universal suffrage. Conservatism can be identified as a variety of combinations of scepticism about and opposition to the claims of the Enlightenment, including a view that they may be ultimately correct, but could only be implemented slowly and carefully. In particular, Conservatism in Britain was defined by opposition to the French Revolution of 1789 and to a large scale extension of the franchise. In retrospect, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is considered to be one of the defining texts of conservatism, though Burke’s objections were not so much to the revolution as a change of regime (he had not objected to the American “revolution” and the subsequent establishment of a republic), but to the abstract and supposedly universal principles claimed by the French revolutionaries as the basis of their new republic. The “Tory” Party, which had evolved from a parliamentary faction supporting the previous, Stuart, regime to one whose uniting principle was opposition to the ruling, “Whig”, oligarchy, further evolved into the Conservative Party by the early 1830s. The name “Conservative” was first heard in the debate about reform of the suffrage in 1831 and when the “Great Reform Act” of 1832 was passed the name became generally applied to opponents of the Act by both themselves and their opponents. Sir Robert Peel’s speech at Tamworth in 1834 – the “Tamworth Manifesto” – is generally seen as the event which finally and inexorably transformed the Tory Party into the Conservative Party.
Of course, if one opposes a set of beliefs or propositions it might be from several different points of view; an “ism” so defined might turn out to contain not just very different doctrines, but also opposites. For example, universal suffrage and declarations of natural rights might be opposed because they are in flagration of what is believed to be a natural order headed by a divinely appointed monarch: such was the conservatism of the French anti-revolutionary writer, Joseph De Maistre. But you might also oppose these claims because you thought they were the kind of irrational nonsense which could only be justified by religion rather than by reason. God may have decreed the equality of persons, but if he didn’t neither our capacity for logic nor that for observation suggests that people are equal. This is closer to the kind of conservatism which could claim descent from the philosopher David Hume or from the modernist, consequentialist Jeremy Bentham who described natural rights as “nonsense on stilts” and argued that the existence of any right could only be justified by its consequences for human happiness as assessed in a particular context; he specifically denied, for instance, a right not to be tortured. Thus, when it comes to a fundamental aspect of human belief, the truth of revealed religion, conservatism can be derived from both faith and its opposite.
It follows that any attempt to characterise conservatism must start with a list of the numerous and considerable difficulties facing such an exercise. Much conservatism “durst not speak its name”, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s elegant phrase: that is, for historical reasons it cannot be self-ascribed. In much of continental Europe after 1918 “conservatives” were authoritarian clerical-monarchists, harking back to pre-war regimes, but closely allied in practice with Fascism and similar tendencies and thus disgraced after 1945. As a result when a “Conservative” group was formed in the European Parliament in 1989 its only members were from the United Kingdom and Denmark. Both of these countries had remained monarchies and neither had experienced a home-grown authoritarian regime. Most republics are in some sense or other post-revolutionary and their constitutions define them as egalitarian and progressive, moulded by Enlightenment values. Thus to be overtly conservative would be to define oneself as being in opposition to the existing state, which would be a paradoxical and problematical way of being a conservative. Political scientists, on the other hand, tend to classify quite large numbers of political parties as “conservative”: it can become something of a residual category, those which are left over when socialists, liberals, radicals &c have been listed. “Christian Democrat” parties are the most common to be classified as conservatives against their will, so to speak, though Christian Democrats, at least in principle, base their politics on beliefs quite different from those of conservatives.
Conversely, in the United States, the paradigm and exemplar of a modern republic, about 40% of people now identify themselves as “conservatives” and this term is also generally used to describe a large faction of the Republican Party. Given that the prolegomenon to the Constitution of the United States embraces the main propositions of the Enlightenment such as natural rights and equality as “self-evident”(even if it was interpreted in practice for two centuries to mean only the equality of white males) this is an odd ascription for a loyal American. Most American conservatives would describe themselves as both “fiscal” and “social” conservatives, though it is possible to be one without the other.: Gerry Brown as Governor of California has described himself as a fiscal conservative and social liberal since the 1970s and many have followed him in this self-ascription. “Fiscal” conservatism means prioritising the containment of public expenditure and it can be considered a legitimate aspect of conservatism, albeit one which non-conservatives often have to adopt. But for several reasons “social” conservatism may be a misnomer. Conservatives, it might be argued, above all accept the realities and imperfections of society; they believe that there will always be inequalities – and they believe that there will always be crime, infidelity and a variety of sexual preferences and activities. “Social” conservatism in its American form fails to accept reality and seeks to legislate about things which should not be subjects of legislation. Thus it is often a form of republican idealism, aspiring to a much-improved form of society imbued with republican virtues, rather than a true variant of conservatism. As a result we find in contemporary global politics both conservatives who cannot call themselves by that name and idealists who insist that their idealism is conservative.
At least in a trivial sense one can be “conservative” in respect of any established regime. Journalists covering the Soviet Union in its later stages frequently identified as “conservatives” those who opposed the reforming spirit of glasnost and perestroika introduced after 1985 by the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev. A similar language has been used about the theocratic and revolutionary regime in power in Iran since 1979.This raises the question of whether one can be “conservative” in respect of a regime which is, in another way, fundamentally opposed to conservatism. The answer must be “yes”, though only in a trivial and limited sense, just as an individual can be “conservative” in respect of fashion or finance. This might also be extended into a more significant sense when modes and rates of change are discussed. For example, it might be considered properly conservative to argue that a regime such as the Soviet Union was never going to work – that is, work well – in the long term. But it did last seventy years, traditionally the normal length of a human life, and a majority of the population had known no other regime. Under these circumstances a conservative might legitimately argue in favour of a slow and rather evolutionary form of change rather than the “big bang” collapse which actually occurred. The “big bang” was favoured by many economists who cited abstract and fundamentalist arguments about how economies should be run and how economic change should occur. This author has heard many people in the former Soviet Union express envy of China’s relatively ordered and linear progress towards capitalism.
Just as there may be conservatives, in a sense, within radical regimes, it is also true that non-conservatives often express and embrace conservative sentiments. Indeed, many of the ideas which have come to define conservatism as opposition to the radicalism and progressivism fostered by the Enlightenment have been developed by thinkers who could not themselves be described as conservatives. Edmund Burke is the most important example of this. In his Reflections he sought to show how Englishmen had “real rights”, slowly acquired under a constitution grounded in the development of their society. Merely declaring that all men had abundant and equal rights, as the French revolutionaries had, was a dangerous fantasy and no substitute for the real rights which were allocated by social hierarchies and historically acquired obligations. When the revolution degenerated into the Reign of Terror Burke’s arguments became impossible to ignore. Yet Burke had favoured the American Revolution on much the same intellectual basis as he detested the French and his views on India and Ireland were liberal and reformist. His anti-revolutionary arguments are as liberal as they are conservative and it is worth remembering that until well into the twentieth century he featured more prominently in books and essays on liberalism than on conservatism.
George Orwell is parallel in many respects to Burke. In the twenty first century his works can be found recommended prominently on self-ascribed conservative websites. These include some of his essays, but especially his novels 1984 and Animal Farm; both are assumed to be powerful propaganda against any kind of totalitarianism, especially communism. Yet Orwell always described himself as a “democratic socialist”, albeit one who disapproved of Communism after his experiences in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. As with Burke, Orwell offers us well-expressed conservative ideas without, himself, being a conservative. These include an acceptance of at least some English constitutional traditions and a rejection of everything which fell under the heading of “smelly little orthodoxies”, a phrase he coined while praising Charles Dickens. It is not just that non-conservatives express conservative sentiments, it is that the most prominent and definitive of conservative ideas have been expressed by non-conservatives. Perhaps we should bear in mind John Stuart Mill’s description of the Conservative Party as “the stupid party”, though Mill would have been the first to concede that his description was not intended to imply that the party was always wrong.
An aspect of that stupidity was always an instinctive rejection of new ideas and therefore a reliance on “tradition”. The English word tradition, like the word tractor, is derived from the Latin verb trahere. which means to drag or to derive. It is, of course, pretty stupid to believe that the way things are done now and/or have been done in the past is either the only or the best way in which they might be done. But it is much less stupid to be sceptical about proposals to replace arrangements which work to at least some people’s satisfaction (including, perhaps, one’s own) by alternatives derived from reason or theory. In some cases the objection might be that the proposed arrangements were untried; in others cases it might be that such arrangements had been shown to work, but only in different conditions. Burke’s arguments against the French revolutionary ideologues were of the former type and can be seen as stressing the virtues of reliance on tradition against the dangers of reliance on theory: we do not have to know why something works to know that it works. Being a traditionalist in this way makes one also a relativist. Liberals, democrats and socialists naturally tend to be fundamentalists in that they believe that liberalism etc represent political forms which should be implemented always and everywhere. Conservatism leaves much more room to allow that aristocracy, dictatorship or imperialism may be better forms of government – in particular, that they may evolve more beneficially – in particular circumstances.
But it should be noted that conservative traditionalism is political rather than cultural: it prioritises tradition in legal and constitutional matters, including status systems and property rights. It is no typically conservative to be preoccupied with folk traditions and cultural practices, still less to want to revive semi-defunct linguistic and musical forms. Those are more the preoccupations of populists and nationalists. The important sentiment attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham, that a man (person) should try everything at least once, apart from morris dancing and incest was (if said by him) an opposition to folk-nationalist fashions in music and a preference for a grand, classical, international tradition. But it might also be taken in the twenty-first century to be an opposition to government sponsoring of folk traditions ( as practised variously by the Soviet Union under Stalin’s influence and by the European Union) on the grounds that only constitutional traditions are worthy of public attention. Naturally, these distinctions between senses of tradition and conservatism have applications in sport: a simple sporting conservative might want to keep things exactly as they are, but there is also a more complex argument that much of the appeal and commercial value of sport is dependent on its maintenance of continuity with its traditions.
A further complication to the understanding of conservatism is that, whereas, as we have seen, some people of conservative disposition can be described as naive or simple conservatives in that they just want to keep everything as it is, virtually every intellectually or politically active conservative in modern conditions must also be a “conservative reformer”. That is, they must accept that some changes must be made in order that some other, valued, things remain. Although the phrase “conservative reformism” is of mid-nineteenth century continental origin, the founding father of conservative reformism in the anglophone world was undoubtedly Benjamin Disraeli who perceived that to preserve what he, as a Jewish semi-outsider, valued about English life it was necessary to make important changes primarily to improve the condition of the lower classes by extending the franchise and improving working conditions. As a result his Conservative Party became more of an agent for change than its Liberal rival in certain respects. Most sportsmen will be familiar with the essential logic of conservative reformism even if they have little interest in politics in its everyday sense. This is because in much sport what is valued is what Pierre De Coubertin called “the spirit of sport”, the honesty, comradeship and gentlemanly conduct without which he believed sport would be pointless. But what he called the “tendency of sport” – the desire to do things better than other people and to win – compromises sporting practice, which tends to become “sharp” practice: sports and games become more aggressive, more defensive, more deceitful and more influenced by extraneous factors such as coaching and doping. Typically, rules must be changed to penalise such practices and to restore the underlying spirit.
Finally, anything construed as conservative belief must be compromised with the needs of two institutions which are usually important to conservatives, the nation and the party. The continued existence of nations and national identities are part of the reality which conservatives seek to embrace and preserve. But they may contradict other aspects of conservatism. For example, a belief in free trade and the free movement of labour may come into conflict with aspirations to preserve national identity and to enhance national strength. A Conservative Party leadership is also bound to regard the winning of elections as a necessary condition of any kind of success. Thus there is a natural conflict between “purists” who want the party to stick to its principles and “pragmatists” who emphasise that principles are of no value in practice if you are never going to have an opportunity to implement them. Thus, whatever members might believe privately the acceptance of a National Health Service has been part of Conservative policy in Britain for generations. Of course, this is natural conflict is at the heart of most political parties and it was minimal in the British Conservative Party in the period when they were in competition with a Labour Party nominally committed to socialism. The dilemma has been more of a problem for the “conservatives” in the Republican Party in the United States.
All of these considerations reinforce the view that conservatism is best identified as a tendency rather than as a body of doctrine and that attempts to outline a conservative creed are doomed to failure. It cannot be said (though it has been claimed) that conservatives believe in an “organic society” nor that they (particularly) believe in “free” markets: these sorts of claims are vague and unhelpful rather than clearly false. But there are doctrinal consequences of the historical nature of conservatism, even if these tend to be also vague and negative. Karl Mannheim was right to suggest that conservatives reject “natural law thinking”. They do not believe in arrangements which can be applied universally or can only be justified by reference to abstract reason or universal rights. They cannot believe there will be societies in the foreseeable future which are markedly different from those we already know or clearly better than the best we have already had. They must have more faith in well-established procedures than in anything newly invented or untried. Philosophically, as I have argued elsewhere, they must be “conceptual sceptics”, giving the ideas of equality or human rights (in particular) little value in determining policy. They cannot, at least in an important sense, be humanists if by that term is meant a kind of post-religious religiosity which emphasises mankind’s unlimited potential or intrinsic worth. The sceptical conservative is always going to doubt that a declaration of human rights or a project for socialism is really going to be of benefit, given the realities of local circumstances.
Conservatism and the Amateur Hegemony
Modern sport and organised games were largely the creation of English public schoolboys in the period 1815-63. In general the creation was the re-invention and amalgamation of ancient practices which had been rowdy and lacking in formal discipline as modernised, codified and respectable games. They were constrained not only by written rules but by an unwritten grundnorm of “gentlemanly conduct”. The ancient folk games which were replaced had been mostly in decline, often a terminal or near-terminal decline. In an urbanising and industrialising society there was a shortage of space, but also of time for such pastimes. The traditional forty four “high days and holy days” were reduced to the mere four “bank” holidays eventually recognised by legislation in 1868. Above all, traditional games were an embarrassment to the middle classes who from the 1830s held power in many aspects of English life and who tended to see many folk traditions, including games, as enemies of progress and respectability. Nowhere was this as fully evident as in Derby where the traditional football rivalry between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peter’s has given its name to close local rivalries throughout much of the world.. The game had grown in scale with the city and by the 1840s was considered a serious threat to public order. The prophets of order and respectability were eventually able to rid themselves of the turbulence.
The significance of the elite “public” schools is that they did possess the resources to develop games. These included large spaces, such as the “Close” at Rugby, long, “free” afternoons and a relatively broad geographical knowledge by the boys of different games. Above all, they had official tolerance for their activities: it was at first, as in the case of Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby from 1828 to 1842, no more than tolerance. For a later generation of headmasters, those described in J.A.Mangan’s Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School, the cult of games became a kind of ethical enthusiasm.
When a sub-committee of boys met at Rugby in 1845 to produce a printed rule book for a code of football they were an important part of a complex process of development, argument and schism which led to the foundation of the Football Association in 1863. The FA became the model and exemplar for sporting organisation: a national association loosely ruling an ill-defined structure of clubs, competitions and local associations. To fail to adopt this model was to fall behind. The period 1863-1895 was one in which an enormous range of sporting practices, ranging from the role of the goalkeeper in Association Football to the list of events recognised in track and field athletics were in effect set in stone, including most of the competitions and institutions which have lasted into the twenty first century. But as well as being the golden age of codification this can also be described as the period in which the amateur hegemony was established as in almost every case procedures were put in place which instituted the primacy or superiority of amateurism in sport.
Amateurism is a complex concept with a range of meanings. Even in the apparently simple sense in which it is commonly used, meaning, roughly, “unpaid”, it is highly ambiguous. W.G.Grace, for example, as the greatest star of Victorian cricket, made far more money from his game than most of his contemporaries who were professional footballers made from theirs and made gains in a wide variety of ways all of which were prohibited by the much stricter code of amateurism which prevailed in Rugby Union. The term “hegemony” in the reference to an amateur hegemony is used in the sense given currency by Antonio Gramsci, meaning a kind of moral and intellectual authority which is internalised by its objects (as opposed to a coercive form of power which succeeds over overt opposition).The “amateur hegemony” allowed a variety of responses to professional sportsmen. In rugby, rowing and athletics, for instance, they were marginalised by schism. In the already established sports of horse racing, boxing and cricket, professionals were distinguished from amateurs but not barred from competition with them. The most rapidly growing sport, Association Football, followed this pattern, but severely limited the earnings of footballers according to a “maximum wage” regulation. I have argued that the amateur hegemony showed a partial tolerance towards the idea of professional sportsmen; what it could not tolerate was a fully commercial model of sport in which (for example) clubs would relocate to the most profitable venues. The abiding and underlying principle was that sport was the province of gentlemen, not tradesmen, even if those who were gentlemen on Saturdays were actually tradesmen on Mondays.
The precepts and procedures of amateurism originated in London and the surrounding “Home” counties in England. They fitted most naturally into the social structures which existed there and generated greater tensions even when transmitted to other regions of England, let alone to the United States or the Soviet Union. Yet they did achieve a kind of global suzerainity and if there was a single individual who transmitted them to the world, it was Baron Pierre De Coubertin through the Modern Olympic Movement. Thus the largest sporting organisation in the United States, the National Colleges Athletic Administration, has resolutely clung to its claim to embody amateur values and after 1945 the Soviet Union abandoned its previous contempt for “bourgeois” amateurism in order to flex its muscles in the Olympic Games. Soviet and other Communist athletes also competed in prestigious English amateur events such as the All-England Lawn Tennis championships at Wimbledon (amateur until 1968) and the Henley Royal Regatta. As a visual image of the amateur hegemony this author treasures a vivid memory of Henley in the 1960s: an East German eight had won the “Grand” and they stood, in identical suits, rigidly to attention saluting the Union Jack as the band played God Save the Queen.
The most significant single date marking the retreat of the amateur hegemony was 1961 when the maximum wage in English Association Football was abolished. The immediate stimulus for this reform was the emergence of a global labour market in footballers, with English and other British players moving abroad. (Given the nature of the amateur hegemony they were initially reviled by the British press for their “greed”.) But the more powerful underlying force for change was the development of television: as the technology improved, stage by stage, to make the watching of a game on the screen comparable to being a live spectator – and even superior in some ways – a market was created for watching many sports which was on a different scale from anything which had existed previously. I have written elsewhere of how Bob Lord, as chairman of the Football League Management Committee saw the potential for some clubs to use television to move into a different financial dimension. Lord was also chairman of Burnley Football Club, a small club which had thrived in the conditions of the amateur hegemony. He saw television as football’s greatest enemy and correctly predicted a world in which Manchester United would develop a global fan base if the commercial power of television were not restricted.
We cannot talk of a “collapse” of the amateur hegemony; events moved slowly and it was a retreat, never a surrender. But events did move in the same direction on all fronts: the major tennis tournaments became “open” in 1968, track and field athletes began to receive money prizes and appearance fees overtly in the 1970s and the presidential regime of Juan Samaranch at the IOC from 1980 introduced a more devolved and relaxed approach to the idea of the Olympics being an event for amateurs. Finally, in August 1995 the International Rugby Board voted to allow professionalism in Rugby Union, a sport which had effectively defined itself as amateur. But although in one respect most of sport had changed its nature, there had been no revolution: in most cases the institutions and competitions remained those which had been established between 1861 and 1895 and governing bodies remained determined to aspire to “love of the game” and “gentlemanly conduct”.
Thus a kind of conservatism is an important aspect of contemporary sport. It involves an appreciation of the value of what was created by the amateur hegemony and a mission to preserve and perpetuate that achievement where possible. Such conservatism is not specific to Conservatives: many socialists and liberals – in fact, almost anybody except a free market libertarian ideologue – are likely to bemoan and regret aspects of the commercialisation of sport. Some widely held values are incorporated into the amateur conception of sport. And there is also a kind of basic conservatism which attaches to systems which persist. This is unlikely to be perceived in terms of my broad periodisation of 1863-95 and 1895-1961. Most sports fans would see this in terms of the history of their favoured sport; for example, in Lawn Tennis that would be 1869-1968, in Rugby Union 1871-1995 or in track and field athletics 1882 to approximately 1976. Most fans of football clubs apart from the very wealthiest are likely to look back on the period 1863-1961 as one in which there was much greater security and stability and less fear of winding-up orders, administrations and extinctions.
However, for most non-conservatives there are bound to be ideological reservations about the creations of the amateur hegemony. For egalitarians and socialists, however they might embrace some of the principles involved, the amateur hegemony itself is bound to be seen as essentially elitist. Most liberals are going to have reservations about something which systematically cuts off commercial possibilities and earning opportunities. The fullest embrace of the amateur hegemony was always going to be – and must remain – from Conservatives who lack these reservations. There was a system which ring-fenced most sport from both the state and the market, which allowed people to get on with their sporting lives and to enjoy the physical and spiritual satisfactions of the sporting life. Conservatives find it easier to accept what Montesquieu called “mixed government” . He argued that the best form of government was not one which embodied a coherent set of principles derived, for example from the idea of the divine right of kings or from popular sovereignty, but one which combined contradictory principles, as the British Constitution combined monarchy with liberty and elements of popular representation. David Hume and Voltaire both made similar remarks about the advantages of the British constitution in the eighteenth century. Commitment to the elusive and even contradictory values of the “British Constitution” has been an important element in the continuity of British Conservatism and it has an important analogue in the protection of sporting institutions from any unmixed government or smelly little orthodoxies, whether they come from commercialism, egalitarianism or even amateurism.
The Ideology of Performance
The market forces generated by television were, arguably, inexorable in the long term in their effect on the governance of sport. But the structures of British sport came under an earlier pressure from failures on the field of play and the public and press reactions to them. Of course, the two things were connected because television (literally) brought home such failures to a much wider public. During the period 1948 to 1954, just as sport was re-establishing itself after the war, English and British teams met with a series of historic humiliations. These included a comprehensive loss to the Australian cricket team in the “Ashes” series of 1948, a defeat by the United States at the football World Cup in 1950 and thrashings (3-6 and 1-7) by the Hungarian football team in 1953 and 1954. At the 1952 Summer Olympic Games in Helsinki Britain’s only gold medal was in an equestrian event. The press, which pre-war had been supportive of sporting authorities and generally apologist about failure, became more critical. The sole university physical education department in the country (at Birmingham) initiated a debate about comparative standards in sport and alternative methods of organisation. This was followed by a government report, Sport in Society, in 1960 chaired by the doyen of government reports, Sir John (later Lord) Wolfenden. What I have called the “Why are we so crap?” debate was under way and it was to lead ultimately to the existence of ministers for sport, councils for sport and programmes for funding athletes which re-established Britain as a major sporting power, at least in Olympic terms, third in the medals table in 2012.
Much of this process has taken place under Conservative governments, especially during the period when John Major was prime minister between 1990 and 1997. This included the introduction of a National Lottery in 1994, with part of the profit devoted to investment in sport. Originally, this was limited to investment in the physical infrastructure of sport, but after the publication of Raising the Game the following year lottery funding was also available to develop elite performance. It is fair to call this the Sovietisation of British sport since before the success of Soviet sport it would not have occurred to a Conservative government to create such a programme, but in fairness it must be pointed out that a substantial minority of countries followed similar patterns. The initial reaction of a Conservative government to the Wolfenden recommendations had been completely different and, arguably, more conservative. Harold MacMillan’s cabinet discussed the recommendations in December 1962; Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, whose ministerial responsibilities already included being Lord Privy Seal, Minister for Science and a special responsibility for North East England, volunteered to be Minister for Sport, but made it clear that he had no intention of doing anything. This minimalist spirit of leaving well alone was not replaced until the Labour victory of October 1964 and the appointment of the former football referee Dennis Howell as a much more pro-active minister for sport.
Hailsham’s approach can be said to have been authentically conservative: there was a system of clubs and associations; it was, in itself, a stable system; it provided sport for those who wanted it and could afford it at no cost to the public purse. But the trouble with identifying an authentic Conservative sports policy is that Conservative politicians in office are always going to act more as politicians than as conservatives. They are not unusual in this respect: for many years the world has been full of socialist idealists bemoaning the pragmatism and compromise of socialist politicians once in office. Even so, the British Conservative Party has a reputation in comparative politics as having a high level of capacity to compromise its principles in order to gain or retain office, particularly when compared with the Republican Party in the United States, many of whose activists also describe themselves as conservatives. The attitude of the two parties to state involvement in health care would be the prime example of this comparison.
Sport is intensely subject to what John Hoberman calls “the performance principle” which we can recast here as the performance imperative. Success and failure are clear-cut, defined by victory and defeat. Ever since Harold Wilson made a connection between England’s defeat by West Germany in the 1970 World Cup and the subsequent defeat of the Labour Party at the general election (a connection one imagines would have been inconceivable to his predecessor Harold MacMillan only a few years previously) politicians have been aware of a “feelgood factor” arising out of sporting success. Although irrational and immeasurable the theory is that national sporting success tends to act as a kind of rosy glass through which other aspects of national life are seen and that this reflects on the perception of a government’s achievement (whether the success is a consequence of government policies or not or seen as such). To some degree the successful holding of major events such as Olympic Games and football World Cups, though obviously less well defined, has been appended to this idea of the feelgood factor.
If one considers the differences between the two major parties which have held office in Britain over the last fifty years in respect of sports policies one sees an apparent opposition of approach modified by a strong tendency to convergence. As early as 1966, a year after the formation of the first Council for Sport, the Labour government was defining its policy in terms of “Sport for All”. This slogan has never been repudiated and was also taken up by the European Union (as it now is). Of course, being against “Sport for All” is a bit like being against children or happiness so the extent to which it was a slogan with substance, taken to mean the maximisation of freely and equally available facilities, has varied enormously. The Labour government of 1974-79 was in a sense the high period of substance and excited opposition from Conservatives who tended to believe that the sports councils were obsessed with getting Muslim women into swimming pools and insufficiently concerned with serious sporting competition, especially in schools. The eventual Conservative response came under a prime minister, John Major, who was the most genuinely committed sportsman – at least in the modern sense in which “sport” is taken to include organised games – of any British prime minister. The combination of the lottery funding and Raising the Game has been considered effective and been praised by many non-Conservatives.
“New” Labour governments after 1997 embraced these policies . Conservatives formally embrace “Sport for All”. For several elections the two parties’ manifesto sections on sport have embraced both aspects and have given the same reasons for fostering sport: it benefits health, decreases crime and fosters patriotism and community spirit. There is no mention of the truly amateur, Kantian, idea that one might sail a boat or hit a ball as an end-in-itself; governments have extreme difficulty with that sort of concept. Mass participation and elite success are always portrayed as symbiotic despite the obvious geographical evidence that China has elite success without mass participation and that Argentina, in Olympic terms at least, has mass participation without elite success. Or the historical evidence that Rugby Union in England, for example, has prospered at elite level since professionalisation in 1996, but has declined massively in terms of the number of adult males playing the game. The differences between the two parties tend to be nuanced, unstated or differences of emphasis rather than clear substance.
Conclusion: the Elusiveness of Conservatism
Suppose one asks the questions, “What should a conservative believe about sport?” and “What should a conservative want to do about sport?” In the absence of any kind of electoral or political constraints there are are several different positions from which to approach these questions. The “classical” liberals who found their political home in the Conservative Party from the 1920s onwards would naturally suggest a laissez-faire policy: sporting facilities should be bought and sold on the open market and professional sport is a form of “entertainment” also best left to market forces. Though occasional Conservative MPs have expressed these sentiments they have never been a mainstream view and are certainly not the only alternative. A more typical view would be a defence of the amateur hegemony, seen as a kind of ancient constitution embodying well-rooted values. This would share with the laissez-faire response a desire to limit the role of the state, but the ring-fencing in this case would be also from market forces. Or the starting point might be the simple scepticism which perceives that principled change is more likely to make things worse that better: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”, though with the inevitability of long debate and reflection on what constitutes “broke”. And there are increased difficulties if it’s already been broke and suffered an attempt to fix.
If these approaches are not already diverse enough you then add in the needs of a Conservative Party with professional politicians who need to be elected it becomes very difficult to define what is distinctive about Conservative policy. Perhaps, as usual, the differences between conservatism and other beliefs are best expressed in terms of absences and negatives. They consist primarily of having less concern about equality and “human” or “natural” rights thought to be predicated on existence and therefore more priority to those rights occurring because of existing obligations, including especially the rights of private property and private clubs.