Charles Ellingworth

17:53

Conservative discordance

Michael Oakshott was a conservative thinker.He wrote this in 1956 on the essence of being a conservative - note the small C.


“To be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”


It encapsulates the pragmatic quality of Conservatism - note the large C - that has made it the most successful political party there has probably ever been. It is in the philosophic tradition of Edmund Burke - that Cassandra of the French Revolution - who saw accurately where the idealism of revolutionary France would lead. It sees the need for change - but slow change - adapting and evolving institutions rather than sweeping them away. As he put it: “It is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.”


It was that adaptability that bought the Reform Acts of Disraeli that widened the franchise in the second half of the 19th Century and the acceptance of the Welfare State and  the changes wrought by Margaret Thatcher in the latter half of the 20th Century. It is rarely ideological - and when it is, things go wrong: the Corn Laws where Peel split the party in the 1840s: Imperial Preference at the turn of the 20th Century that put them out of power for nearly 20 years - and now over Brexit. 


Parliament, and the Conservative heartlands, seem to be  filled with misty-eyed idealists who see only sunlit uplands and a brave new world of plucky Britain trading its way to greatness on a world stage. They see sovereignty restored, where only British laws are made by Mother of Parliaments and welcomed by the yeomen of old England. If only the yoke of Europe can be cast aside, then Britain can reclaim its greatness. Throw aside painstakingly acquired treaties and trade agreements and the world will beat its way to our door. This is not meant to be a rallying cry for remaining - who can reasonably say that the EU is not filled with problems and democratic deficits? - but a thumb-nail of the almost mystical way in which the Brexiteers often describe their point of view. It is, to invert Oakshott, to prefer the unknown over the familiar, the distant to the near and the perfect to the convenient. In short, it is very unconservative.


This discordance reaches deep in other ways. Conservatives (with a small c) are fundamentally pessimists. They believe, with Thomas Hobbes, that unless human nature is constrained by laws and the power of the state, life would be ‘brutish and short.’ The left (with a small l) believe the opposite, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that humans are fundamentally good and that if only the tyranny of institutions and the state are removed then man’s better nature will prevail. However, when you look at the right/left divide in economics this seems to be inverted. It is the ‘right’ who now believe in unfettered capitalism and free markets in everything and the ‘left’ who want to control man’s economic worst instincts with regulation and legislation.


Is this unconscious discordance why modern politics seems so fractious and uncomfortable? 

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