Fresh from the United States and a public speaking training day with the esteemed John Shosky, he has some advice for all of us in regards to the right books to be reading.
“SEARCHING FOR CONSERVATIVE THOUGHT:
TEN BOOKS THAT SHOW THE WAY”
I am often asked to recommend readings on conservative thought. I hesitate because my list is very individual and personal. I am sure no one else would choose the same readings. So I concede my list is very idiosyncratic. I also want to select volumes that may not be apparent or current.
I came to conservatism by working for Ronald Reagan. I was a low-level, never important, lucky-to-be-there guy. I worked on the cabinet level and in some very minor jobs in the White House. I wasn’t a conservative before that…just a guy leaning that way, looking for some direction, searching for self. The Reagan Administration reached out to independents, democrats, and even confused people like me. So I picked up the background as I sent along, except for two books which I will mention below (Buck and Cowling, which explain why I was leaning right). It would have been more meaningful for me if I had a background before the Reagan Administration. I would have understood more of the context and the conversations during that time. But working in that environment made we aware of the need to acquire a deeper foundation at some point. I have tried to do that over the years.
Because my sojourn has been wide-ranging and somewhat intense, the ten books listed here I offer with confidence. I know they are helpful.
My own belief is that conservatism is a substantial, formative, and supportive view of political thought and the democratic process. It is a political philosophy with deep and strong roots. In my view, it offers the best approach for the protection of freedom, equality, and human rights. It empowers and ennobles citizens through its teachings and practice. We should be proud to be conservatives. Conservatism offers protection of democracy and liberty. It demands individual responsibility, transparency in government, checks and balances, honesty, fairness, decency in behavior, civility, concern for others, compassion, and citizen involvement. A conservative is always questioning authority, looking for information, examining the past, and demanding proof. A conservative embraces the values of good education, loyalty, hard work, ethical conduct, respect for others, organic connection with history, and hope for the future. Many, like T.S. Eliot, link conservatism with religion. I would merely say that the values inherent in most religions are compatible with conservatism, such as self-improvement, love of our fellow man, living a life of service, rule of law, and rejecting unethical conduct. Of course, others would make stronger claims here.
So here are ten books I recommend. Any of them would provide a stronger knowledge base for conservatism. Each is inspirational, motivational, and sound (YBF sound).
- How Conservatives Think. Edited by Philip Buck. Penguin Books, 1975.
This was the first book I carefully read about conservatives. I know I wouldn’t be a conservative if I had not bought this book during my studies in London. It made me think about conservatism. I want to emphasize that…made me think. Buck provides a very helpful explanation of traditional, historic conservatism, 1678-1975. Note the date of the book. This collection is pre-Thatcher. That is important to know because she revolutionized conservatism, contradicting much of Buck’s viewpoint. For him, the giant figures are Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, although Buck has selections of readings from a number of sources, such as Matthew Arnold, and Harold Macmillan, and Michael Oakeshott. Sadly, this book is long out-of-print. But if you can find a copy on Amazon or in a used-book store, don’t hesitate to buy it.
- Conservative Essays. Edited by Maurice Cowling. Cassell Publishers, 1978.
On a later trip to the UK I found this book (again, please note the date, published a year before Thatcher and the conservatives take power). I was reading some other works on the history of the Conservative Party and found Mrs. Thatcher to be nothing short of revolutionary. I linked her with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. In my mind, even before I thought about Reagan, I saw Thatcher as a new kind of conservative, bending the party to her will, taking conservatives into new economic territory. In my mind, she was exciting, dynamic, visionary, and liberating. So I found these essays very powerful. There are contributions by Roger Scruton, Kenneth Minogue, George Gale, Shirley Robin Letwin, and many others. But the essay not to miss is by T.E. Utley, “The Significance of Margaret Thatcher.” He contrasts the contemporary (1978) division in the Tory Party between the Keith Joseph/Thatcher wing and the Edward Heath/old school wing. He believes this division is more about “bad political manners” than irreconcilable differences. He argues for full party support for Thatcher. Utley shows that Thatcher’s vision for a strong Great Britain internationally, and a domestic Britain with more freedom, less taxation, reduced government, and a stronger economy deserves complete party support. I read that essay with great interest and agreement. Again, an old book, out-of-print. It is worth a prolonged, successful search.
- Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater. By William F. Buckley, Jr. Basic Books, 2008.
I loved William Buckley. Even as a child, sitting in our living room, I would watch “Firing Line,” his public service program. Every week, Buckley would interview contemporary political or cultural figures. His style was intelligent, strategic, aggressive, savage, and ruthless. Buckley would take no prisoners. I don’t know how some politicians had the courage (or arrogance) to appear on the program. The conversation was on a very high level. For viewers, the discussions were educational and entertaining. You might want to check out some of them on YouTube. The programs were memorable, especially his interview of Ronald Reagan. Later, working in the White House, there were two figures that were treated with massive, total respect and reverence: Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s book, Conscience of a Conservative, and his groundbreaking presidential campaign in 1963, gave the conservative movement weighty arguments, a persuasive vision of America, and a hero. This book tells the history of American conservatism, recalls the Goldwater campaign and its impact, and presents a very engaging portrait of Goldwater. There is so much of Buckley in the book that you get a two-in-one. If you want to know more about Goldwater, there is an autobiography (Goldwater) written with Jack Casserly that filled in the gaps. I read it during the last months of the Reagan Administration. It had just come out. It explained what was happening around me much better than any other source at that point.
- God and Man at Yale: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. By William F. Buckley, Jr. Regnery, 2002.
In 1951, Buckley wrote his first book about his education at Yale. It shocked the establishment. Buckley became a figure of consequence to the conservative movement. He was vilified by the left. This book later sparked thousands of on-campus efforts by conservatives. Arguing that Yale was a secular, left-leaning, intolerant, and inflexible institution, Buckley stunned readers with his candor, his examples, the naming of names, and his conclusions. He asked alumni to withhold financial support from Yale until it changed. That didn’t happen. In many ways, college education is more rigid, out-of-touch, and leftist than fifty years ago. The book is still relevant and widely read today. Students would find it contemporary, confidential, and prophetic. The price of the book is worth the new introduction by Buckley.
- Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches. By Ronald Reagan. Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Yes, you can read the histories and memoirs. But why not read the original words? These speeches made history, starting with 1964 televised speech on behalf of Goldwater (the famous “Time for Choosing” speech). Reagan provides an introduction to each speech. There are the obvious choices, such as his first inaugural speech and his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. There is so much more, such as his touching eulogy of actor Robert Taylor and his masterful farewell address at the end of his presidency. These speeches help explain Reagan’s persuasive appeal to the American people and show how conservative principles may be successfully crafted into messages that resonate across the political spectrum. They are a formidable reminder that conservatism doesn’t have to be compromised to have a broad appeal.
- Why I Am a Reagan Conservative. Edited by Michael K. Deaver. Harper, 2005.
This is a collection of testimonials by conservative politicians by Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, Rick Santorum, Douglas, Hurd, Grover Norquist, Jim DeMint, the late Robert Novak, and others (including Chuck Hagel, the current US Secretary of Defense who has been a strident supporter of President Obama). Each explains how Reagan’s conservatism influenced his/her political thinking. When the book came out ten years ago it was much discussed. It is still a good set of examples of how people from a variety of circumstances embrace conservatism.
- Margaret Thatcher: The Collected Speeches. Edited by Robin Harris. HarperCollins, 1997.
Again, go to the source. Harris brings together all the great Thatcher speeches. It is important to read them. More than any other politician of the last half century, Thatcher uses logic, argumentation, facts, statistics, examples, and other forms of proof in her speeches. She wants to persuade through the weight of her arguments. So listening to the speeches may only be the beginning of understanding her thought. READING the speeches reveals so much more. In Harris’ recent biography of Thatcher (Not for Turning) he writes about the amount of work that went into each speech. You can appreciate that if you read them. These speeches are demanding. And they work without compromising the message. Look for different levels of argumentation woven together. I am afraid that this book is hard to get. Amazon may be the best source.
- A History of Conservative Politics: 1900-1996. By John Charmley. Macmillan Press, 1996.
I bought this in 1997 trying to understand the downfall of Thatcher. I read it with absorbing concentration. As a work of history it was first-rate, giving the background on the people, politics, issues, and situations that became the history of the Conservative Party in the Twentieth Century. Once again, note the date. Major was in power (but the bird was hovering in the air with anticipation of Blair). Charmley devotes chapters to Balfour, Bonor Law, Baldwin, Chamberlain, and Churchill. He then devotes chapters to groupings of conservatives and movements. So Eden, Macmillan, and Heath are given more context. Then Thatcher emerges as a “radical.” Her success is given its own chapter. Charmley concludes with Major, arguing that conservatism works best when balances ideology and pragmatism. But he warns that such a balance often can be a weakness. It might be wise to follow this book with Tim Bale’s The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron.
- England: An Elegy. By Roger Scruton. Chatto and Windus, 2000.
This is a great book, a profound work of thought, and a distinctive work of scholarship. Scruton explains the values and history of England. He explains how a national character was established. England was a community with mission and purpose. He makes a powerful case for the influence of religion, common law, government, culture, and the countryside in creating, forming, and molding that character. But England is changing. This sense of community is eroding. He worries that the admirable character of the English is also being transformed. Anything by Scruton is worth reading. But this book helps place past conservatism in perspective. Some important, unifying, bonding values have been lost. These lost values come at the expense of conservatism. Frankly, this book offers a tragic picture. It is worth the time to read it. If he is right, then there is more work to do, and more at stake, than we may realize by following the daily headlines.
10. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Seventh Revised Edition. By Russell Kirk. Regnery, 1985.
We started with a selection of readings by Burt. We end with a history of those thoughts, an explanation of what was said. In 1953, Russell Kirk wrote a masterpiece of explanation and analysis. This became the book everyone had to read. It still holds that urgency and credibility sixty years later. Don’t hesitate…buy this book and read it. Keep it on your bookshelf for instant reference. The chapters crisscross the Atlantic, looking for the sources of conservatism in Britain and in the United States. There are brilliant chapters on Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill. There are also chapters on John Adams, James Fenimore Cooper, and other early American writers. If I could urge you to buy and read one book, it would be this one.
As my friend, Morton Blackwell, founder of the Leadership Institute, has said, we must “read to lead.”
John Shosky is president of Roncalli Communications and the author of The Words of our Time (Biteback Publishing, 2012). He worked for the Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 Administrations. He writes at www.thewordsofourtime.com.