Political Ideas and the Ideal Polis


Politics saturates our news bulletins, making a relatively refreshing distraction from viruses. Last night, our lockdown unusually prevented the commemoration of Mr Fawkes’ plans for Parliament, for which a growing number of people are beginning to sympathise. Across the ocean, two angry old men are both claiming to be the one to preside over America from January. I here consider the three political ideas which have gripped the West for the past two centuries: conservatism, liberalism and socialism. The modern political parties and candidates which have acquired these names or claim to own them are often not faithful to the respective idea’s origins.  

Liberalism has a positive view of human nature. It desires people be free to do as they please with minimal regulation of interference. Popular from the French revolution, though found in the writings of John Locke, it seeks to free people from tyranny and vested interest. It denied that the state is God’s agent on earth, especially in the person of unelected monarchs claiming divine right. Modern liberals are not especially liberal, loving as they do passing lots of laws and regulations to control the way people think and act. The Conservative Party is the most liberal of Britain’s parties, with its free market capitalism and objection to Tony Blair’s ID card proposals. Still, liberalism prefers the unhindered accumulation of wealth, that which the Bible calls greed. It is reluctant to interfere in market processes, such as minimum wages and health and safety. The poor must help themselves; anything beyond this would be an overbearing state. Consequently, classical liberalism does little to help the most vulnerable.  

Liberal Party election poster, 1979

Conservatism was also a reaction to the French Revolution. Shuddering at the bloodshed and chaos, it feared radical change and disorder. It traditionally has a negative view of human nature, recalling Luther and Calvin’s ideas of human corruption and original sin. Man must be limited and regulated, by those institutions which have passed time’s test, such as the courts and parliament. The state was instituted by God to regulate our worst instincts. Found in the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke, conservatives shared with liberals a love of private property, the former for its limit of governmental power, the latter for the stability it offers. Conservatism is obviously represented in elements of the modern Conservative Party, but this is debateable. Conservatism, by defending property rights and fearing significant change, tends to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Although it believes the rich should help the poor, this decision it leaves to them. Conservatism preserves the past and romanticises inequality, with landlord and tenant cheerfully cooperating. Though a natural ally of Christianity, whose antiquity and values it appreciates, conservatism often creates unspiritual, state churches little better than arms of government.  

Walter Crane artwork, English Radical History 

The most recent ideology is that of socialism, coming from Karl Marx and others. While not necessarily demanding fully blown communism, the socialist sees economic inequality as man’s basic problem. While some have too much wealth, others do not have enough to even survive. The state is authorised to narrow this gap, by heavy taxation or nationalisation. Like liberalism, it has a positive view of human nature: if only humans, especially the workers, could be released from oppression and poverty, they would be free to enjoy the fruits of their labour and a harmonious society. The British Labour Party, especially under Jeremy Corbyn and Clement Atlee, came closest to ushering in socialist government. Some have favoured violent revolution (Leninist) whereas others are content to work within existing democratic structures to achieve greater equality, such as our own Labour Party or France’s George Marchais. Unfortunately, socialist governments seldom seem to attain their goals and are sometimes hostile to Christianity on account of its conservative nature.

There are other political theories and ideas out there- anarchism, nationalism, feminism, to name a few. Most countries, however, are generally shaped by the ‘big three’. Each has its merits as well as drawbacks, each one has its enthusiasts and supporters, as well as its opponents and detractors. Whereas some countries are better run than others, I cannot but think that our constitutions and parties are great reminders of our fallen inadequacies. We each long for better government, for fairer administration, to be ruled and governed by man and women of integrity. So few citizens realise these aspirations. Rather, we crave the perfect government of heaven: the believer, its perfect Ruler, the unbeliever, its perfect pleasures. In the heavenly city, there will be no shortages, perfect freedom and a love of our ancient heritage. He will combine and better our own politics' aspirations but without any of the shortcomings and defects. 

And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power. Col. 2:10

Top image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay