Kenneth Clark, the art historian, summed up his BBC series Civilization (1978) by stating that, “The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough.”
Put another way, materialism doesn’t have what it takes to hold society together. This is perhaps evident in the causes of the recent credit crunch. Materialism has, once again, proved insufficient.
David Dimbleby claimed in the BBC series How We Built Britain (2007), that the steel and glass houses of commerce are today’s cathedrals. Lord Clark would have disagreed profoundly. The Church has enjoyed a level of success at holding society together that capitalism can only dream of.
The shortfalls of materialism are familiar to Conservatives. Through Disraeli’s One Nation Toryism, Arthur Balfour’s Retaliation, Joseph Chamberlain’s civic gospel, and Harold Macmillan’s middle-way (to name a few), Lord Clark’s critique that heroic materialism “isn’t enough” is recognisably Conservative. The limitations of materialism are also central to any understanding of the ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ of the early 21st Century.
For Thatcherism too, materialism was not enough, far from it. Thatcherism was not motivated by heroic materialism and it was rarely couched in such terms. The pursuit of material wealth was only part of a wider notion of civil society, in which materialism interacted with and accommodated other elements of civil society.
David Willetts, a former member of Thatcher’s Number Ten policy unit, explains that Thatcherism had “a broader civic goal”. “Civic Conservatism places the free market in the context of the institutions and values that make up civil society.”
In fact one of Margaret Thatcher’s main assets was her profound belief in civil society. Instinctively she was able to lend moral conviction to the government’s economic reforms, expressed in terms of civil renewal.
Cameronite Conservatism, Thatcherite Conservatism, Heathite Conservatism and so on, have at least one major thing in common: a justified scepticism of heroic materialism and a need to contain it in the broader context of civil society. An emphasis on materialism cannot form the centre of a social fabric.