Being politically conservative is a vague, hard to define notion that depends heavily on the context in which the term is used. To be a conservative in an Islamic theocracy is very different to being conservative in a communist dictatorship or a liberal democracy. Even within a country, the meaning of conservative can change over time. In Britain in 19th century, conservatives were avid protectionists. Nowadays, British conservatives champion free trade, with most scepticism of free trade deals coming from the left.
But conservatives have some general, if flexible principles. They are opposed to revolutions or radical change, preferring incremental reforms informed by the wisdom of the past. They value tradition, order and stability, particularly with regards to the family. Conservatives tend to be proud of their countries and their national cultures. Property rights, the freedom to do business and particularly in the English-speaking world, a small state, are paramount.
It ought to be obvious that war is not conservative. War is highly disruptive to society, rapidly changing it and in often unpredictable ways. Families become weaker as fathers go off to fight, and are permanently broken if those fathers die. The economy becomes weaker as taxes and borrowing rise to fund the war. The state becomes larger, more powerful and more intrusive. Traditional institutions are disrupted. Global trade becomes more difficult. It’s no surprise that after WW2, Britain elected Labour in a landslide. The people were so accustomed to socialism in wartime, they wanted it in peace as well.
Britain and America are both led by people who self-identify as conservatives. Yet their decision to bomb Syria is anything but. The bombing campaign will only prolong the civil war, which Assad will win. Civilian casualties will increase. More people will be made refugees. The Syrian nation, which has already endured catastrophic losses, will only crumble further. It will cost us money, increase anti-Western sentiment in Syria and the rest of the Middle East, and lure us closer to direct confrontation with Russia and Iran. Our leaders have no implementable vision for Syria. With the failure of the Iraq War now obvious, any attempt at regime change is politically impossible. Their only hope is that the bombing serves as an exercise in damage limitation: that Assad will stop using chemical weapons. But even if he did, he could still use more conventional methods to kill civilians. The air strikes could result in more dying than if we hadn’t intervened. Not intervening is the least worst option.
It goes without saying that the actions of the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, are reprehensible. Assad should make Syria a democracy, gives the Kurds their own state and end the civil war. Being opposed to intervention doesn’t mean taking the other side. The non-interventionist view is the patriotic, conservative one- the view that keeps our economy, society and political life the healthiest. If the Syrian bombing campaign, conducted by the Right, goes badly wrong, Britain and America will move decisively leftwards. The Vietnam War resulted in the hippie movement and draft-card burning. The Iraq War resulted in Obama and a Democratic landslide. This time, opposition to war could put a radical socialist in the White House and Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10. May and Trump should look at recent events, and think again.