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We need a thinker in the mould of Edmund Burke to present the case for a humane conservatism

In the UK today people of a truly conservative persuasion do not have a voice or a political party to represent them

By on Wednesday, 21 August 2013

'The kind of liberal conservatism David Cameron espouses is a mishmash of the good and bad, and is completely divorced from Christian spirituality' (PA)

'The kind of liberal conservatism David Cameron espouses is a mishmash of the good and bad, and is completely divorced from Christian spirituality' (PA)

Ed West’s review of Jesse Norman’s biography of Edmund Burke in the Herald of August 2 gives tantalising glimpses of the great conservative thinker and makes me want to know Burke better, not just his supposed remark, not found in his writings, “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing”.

West comments that “until the French Revolution, Burke was not recognisably ‘Right-Wing’, as it would later be called. He supported Catholic emancipation and argued in favour of conciliation with the American colonies. Burke was not against all change, just extreme change.” He quotes Norman’s interpretation of Burke’s political viewpoint, “For radical change to be genuinely worthwhile, it must bring overwhelming social benefit, or be the product of the most extreme necessity.”

Conservatism means preserving institutions of permanent value – such as the institution of marriage between a man and a woman; and being cautiously open to change when it is clearly an organic process, not imposed from outside – such as the development of the trade union movement. The trouble is that today in the UK, people of conservative persuasion do not have a voice or a political party; as a letter by CM Williams in yesterday’s Telegraph put it: “Mr Cameron is planning for defeat at the coming election, which will herald even more social democratic policies. Where are true Conservatives to go?”

Peter Saunders also reflects on this problem in an article on LifeSiteNews. He points out that the significant vehicles of our culture, such as parliament, the judiciary, the universities, the media and the arts, “are increasingly now populated and dominated by a liberal elite which embraces an atheist worldview and the ethics of secular humanism.”

To point this out is not to moan or gripe; it is simply to face reality. Saunders goes on to say that these liberal elite values are characterised by “sexual permissiveness, easy divorce, cohabitation, liberal abortion, increased welfare spending” as well as embryo research, same sex marriage, euthanasia “and the marginalisation of and discrimination against, those with conservative values.”

He contrasts this list with one of “social conservative values” such as Edmund Burke would have recognised and endorsed: “Sexual purity, marital faithfulness, family and community loyalty, upholding the sanctity of life, respect for king and country, accountability, responsibility, integrity, stewardship, simplicity, sacrificial service, self-control, a strong work ethic” and help for the weakest members of society.

Saunders argues that this latter list arises from Christian values and beliefs. David Cameron might talk about “responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love” in his speech on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, but essentially the kind of liberal conservatism he espouses is a mishmash of good and bad, contradictory rather than cohesive – and completely divorced from Christian spirituality. You don’t have to be a Christian to be a conservative, but you do have to recognise that, once severed from their Christian roots, conservative values are no match for a society run under “the dictatorship of relativism”, as Benedict XVI called it.

Burke would have understood all this. We need a thinker of his stature today, to present the case for a humane conservatism, based on unchanging Christian values. Otherwise evil will indeed flourish.

  • NatOns

    Thank the good Lord then that the Light of Faith is never a matter of belonging to Conservative, Liberal or Socialist ideals – they are all a social chimera, attractive though they seem. After all, the Truth in Catholic Faith is available to the conservative, the liberal and the socialist mind freely, and just as equally and frequently ignored by each. Hence the Catholic Church, in advocating its Christian understanding of the common good, plays with fire if it equates moral reason and its values with hope placed in conservative-ism .. or any other -ism locked into the dictatorship of relativism as this ‘ism’ must be.

  • Apostolic

    Under Cameron, the Conservative Party has betrayed its core beliefs in a top-down revolution in social values surpassing even the Reformation, for even that cataclysm didn’t challenge the most basic natural structure of the family..Apart from Edward Leigh and Bill Cash, there is scarcely a real Tory left, and Cameron, Osborne and others of the Notting Hill Set are certainly not Tories in any recognisable sense of the word.

    The poet, William Wordsworth, welcomed the French Revolution in much the same naive spirit of innovation that the Cameroons’ initiated the destruction of traditional marriage,

    “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
    But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,
    In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
    Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
    The attraction of a country in romance!”

    In “The Prelude”, Wordsworth had the humility to regret his youthful error:

    “Genius of Burke! Forgive the pen seduced
    By specious wonders . . .
    While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
    Against all systems built on abstract rights,
    Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
    Of Institutes and Laws, hallowed by time;
    Declares the vital power of social ties
    Endeared by Custom . . .”

    (Book VII 1850, 512-53)

    I doubt very much that Cameron will ever acquire the wisdom to make such an admission.

  • philip

    The problem with this view is that, from the current starting position, it does not give you guidance on what is right and what is not. From the current starting position we need radical change (of the welfare system, protection for life, marriage and so on). What happens when the wrong institutions become the ones that are handed down? We need an external frame of reference to determine what is right and what is wrong and we cannot rely on somebody’s interpretation of which changes originally arose organically. Also, it is easy to use Burke to justify anything (when is an evolution a revolution?) most gay marriage proponents (and perhaps even Norman himself) would (wrongly) regard gay marriage as an evolutionary step that extends a life-long commitment to another group whose relationships are now better understood. We need external frames of reference.

  • Apostolic

    Burke believed firmly in the principles of natural law, as understood then. Modern Tories generally do not. Still, Catholics of a traditional outlook will find much in Burke to provide appropriate words to reinforce their instincts.

  • D. A. Christianson

    Apostolic hit on something there, and it’s very important. “Burke believed in natural law” which is demonstrably true. The thing is natural law does not evolve, it is, was, and always will be, and we attempt to violate it at our peril. Burke is a good model, but even more there than here, the government needs to get out of your way. Adam Smith and several others come to mind to add to your syllabus. Nor would it hurt to add a bit of Thomas Jefferson, he was, of course, quite proud to be British, before he despaired of the government.

  • David Lindsay

    A new biography of Edmund Burke has been written by Jesse Norman, and it has attracted favourable comment from Charles Moore, official biographer of Margaret Thatcher.

    Yet, like almost anything by Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Disraeli, Chesterton, Belloc, or any Pope since 1891, almost anything by Burke would be screamed down in the Conservative Party that Thatcher has bequeathed, never mind in UKIP. The Independent Labour Party was said to include “even a variety of Burkean conservatism”. Anyone of such mind now has no political home but Labour.

    Today, Labour alone stands in succession to those among whom there persisted an ancestrally Jacobite disaffection with the legitimacy of the Hanoverian State, of that State’s Empire, and of that Empire’s capitalist ideology. That inherited, theologically grounded disaffection produced Tory action against the slave trade, Tory and Radical action against domestic social evils, Tory and Radical extensions of the franchise, the creation of the Labour Movement, and the opposition to the Boer and First World Wars.

    Labour is totally opposed to the cruel cuts in our conventional defence. To the ruinous reduction in provincial disposable incomes by the abolition of National Pay Agreements. To the further deregulation of Sunday trading. To the replacement of Her Majesty’s Constabulary with the British KGB that will be the National Crime Agency. To the devastation of rural communities by the allowing of foreign companies and even foreign states to buy up our postal service and our roads.

    To Royal Mail privatisation, which would sever the monarchy’s direct link to every address in this Kingdom. To the return of the East Coast Main Line, the only publicly owned railway in Great Britain and the one requiring the least subsidy from the taxpayer, to the private sector from which it has already had to be rescued twice. And to the disenfranchisement of organic communities by means of parliamentary boundaries designed by and for “sophists, economists and calculators”.

    Every single Labour MP voted to demand a real-terms reduction in the British contribution to the EU Budget. The number of Conservatives who voted with Labour was lower than the number of Liberal Democrats in the Commons. David Cameron has wholly failed to deliver that reduction. Ed Miliband has appointed Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor and Jon Cruddas to head Labour’s Policy Review.

    As Prime Minister, Ed Miliband will fight for Britain’s national interest at European level in the traditionof the only party ever to have held a referendum on the issue, the only
    party ever to have fought a General Election on a manifesto commitment to withdrawal, the party that voted as one against Thatcher’s Single European Act, the party that provided three times more votes against Maastricht than the Conservatives did, and the party that kept Britain out of the euro.

    Labour is the force for the Union against separatism on at least three fronts. Moreover, the vast area of England where Labour now massively predominates would secede from any Thatcherite rump state. The three regions of the Deep North alone have a combined population considerably greater than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

    But the relative success of Labour at the local elections in the South in 2012 and 2013, capturing first Chipping Norton and then Witney Central, indicates that the Coalition’s vindictiveness is bringing the South East back into the United Kingdom. However, the whole of England has been removed from the United Kingdom without our consent by the dismantlement of our National Health Service. That defining aspect of British identity still exists everywhere else. The BBC is blacking out this scandal. Only Labour supports England’s NHS.

  • David Lindsay

    The Conservative Party has been defined by the takeover of the bovine Tory machine by successive waves of Country Whigs, Patriot Whigs, Liberal Unionists, Liberal Imperialists, National Liberals as one of whom Michael Heseltine first sought election to Parliament, Alfred Roberts’s daughter, those around the Institute of Economic Affairs (although its founders and its founding backer, like Roberts, never actually joined the Conservative Party), and now the Liberal Democrats.

    That is simply what the Conservative Party party is. It has never been anything else. It never will be. It never can be. Just look at the reaction from within it to week’s expression of concern by the National Farmers Union that the United Kingdom supplies a mere 59 per cent of her own food.

    The feeble reaction from UKIP indicates that it is just another, competing expression of the same thing. UKIP is as incapable as the Conservative Party of thinking outside Liberalism. The I in its name is therefore meaningless.

  • Apostolic

    This is true (although you appear to have overlooked Ramsay Macdonald and National Labour’s involvement) but none of these takeovers involved foisting such a social change as the wholesale redefinition of marriage on an unwilling party and electorate. Marriage is anterior to the state and is not rooted in any particular church but in natural law. Even pagan polygamous marriages in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea are heterosexual in structure. Yet this government decided first to implement it regardless of and without thinking through the consequences. Of course the Conservatives have changed down the decades, which is part of their past electoral success, but they had never, until recently, seen themselves as a party of social engineering.

  • David Lindsay

    They most certainly have.

  • AlanP

    The writer says “you don’t have to be a Christian to be a conservative”. True. Any more than you have to be a conservative to be a Christian.
    It should also be noted that there is a difference between a Conservative and a Tory. Enoch Powell always insisted he was the latter, not the former.

  • $20596475

    “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing”.

    Very wise and completely correct words, which we would all do well to adhere to in our lives.

    However, there is a wholly wrong assumption running through this article which seems to imply that only those on the right are “good”. There are many good people on the left and in the centre ground of politics. They see evil where you may see none. I certainly do.

    As a firm supporter of social democracy I, for one, am very happy that the Conservative party have re-modeled themselves along more social democratic lines. To have remained, or to lurch again to the far right, would make them unelectable for the forseeable future Then the danger is that we would get another bout of Labour and all that implies. I don’t think the UK could handle that again.

    Politics is, as I think most agree, the art of the possible. Whether or not you prefer the traditional conservative values, and/or are a Catholic, there is little point anyone recommending that such views be followed if you cannot command a working majority in parliament, and actually be able to put them into effect.

    I find it very strange that social democratic (aka “liberal elite) values are categorised in the way they are. The truth is actually that many of the values which are attributed to conservatism apply at least as well to social democracy, which has nothing whatsoever to do with “sexual permissiveness, easy divorce, cohabitation, liberal abortion, embryo research, same sex marriage, euthanasia “and the marginalisation of and discrimination against, those with conservative values.” It has no views on these things which are actually cultural changes in our society.

    Social democracy has every bit as much enthusiasm for ““Sexual purity, marital faithfulness, family and community loyalty, upholding the sanctity of life, respect for king and country, accountability, responsibility, integrity, stewardship, simplicity, sacrificial service, self-control, a strong work ethic” and help for the weakest members of society.” as conservatism has. What it adds to this list is freedom of choice, and it is this which perhaps separates the two approaches. Conservatism controls. Social democracy leads, involves, and then permits people to reach their own conclusions.

    My own conclusion is that we may face a political future stretching into the next few decades in which we have a series of coalitions, sometimes slightly left leaning, sometimes slightly right and perhaps infected once or twice by UKIP, before they fade into history.

  • Apostolic

    They did not interfere with so basic an element of society as marriage. The USSR were the first to do so. As my previous posts should indicate, I have little time for the Conservative Party. You, in contrast, appear to be ideological in presenting a rosy picture of the Labour Party. In this, you appear to be as selective as those you criticise in the Conservative Party, while seemingly possessing a somewhat excessive regard for your own knowledge.

    Post-war British society has been the victim of individualism from both parties: the double whammy of economic individualism from the Right (Thatcherism) and ethical individualism (including Roy Jenkins’s disastrous initiation of the permissive society) from the Left. Of the two, the latter has been the more deadly, for economic individualism was at least capable of being restrained by the country’s Christian culture. Once Jenkins & Co got to work destroying that in the name of ethical individualism, there was nothing left to restrain capitalism. Once Labour destroyed time-honoured codes of morality in the private sphere, how could it hope to retain a sense of obligation and solidarity in the public sphere?

  • Burkeskeptick

    Sympathetic to your assertion, but why should we assume natural law is atemporal when nothing is more natural than time? Natural law is not the same as divine law which we might, with all humility, suspect is supertemporal. In fact, didn’t the fact, the historical event, of the incarnation ‘change’ natural law?

  • $24570317

    A good comment from one with whom I often disagree.
    Charles Moore’s deadly imprimatur should have been an early-warning sign to all.
    I agree, in particular, so very strongly your 2nd paragraph.

  • Emma Green

    I agree. I’m not sure that any of the current parties express true conservatism. they all seem tainted by liberal secularism. I believe thinking Catholics have a bit of a dilemma. Unfortunately the only parties that seem to represent some of the things we espouse are also racist, zenophobic, homophobic far right parties. What then do we do?

  • Granny

    Is it the job of any of today’s political parties to develop ‘Christian spirituality’? I certainly would not expect that from a Mr Cameron or a Mr Clegg or a Mr Milliband or even perhaps, a Mr Farage, and I would not vote for them if that is what they had to offer. If, however, that is really what I want then I would set up my own Christian political party and play the game from that platform but that of course may not work so easily and would not get me very far in terms of commanding any large and influential constituency, so perhaps instead it is after all more feasible in a secular, ‘modern’ world to think of colonizing a particular party that comes nearest my dreams for Christian spirituality, carve out the much-desired niche therein and hope for the best….. yet wise in the knowledge that other Christian voters will not be looking for that when they vote and their pebbles may be cast for another, different party and that ‘Christian spirituality’ so much beloved my myself may not rank so high in their scheme of things.

    Was it not Jacob Rees-Mogg who recently admitted on TV that his guiding inspiration in terms of voting on same sex marriage was the Pope; from him he took his lesson. Undoubtedly he may have taken Burke’s comments on the representative closely to heart: “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. … Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” What when his judgement goes against the words of the Tory leader who claimed that he supported same sex marriage precisely because he was a Tory? What then is a Tory?

    I wonder how many Catholics in the USA really bothered to listen to their Republican-minded hierarchies when it came to Obama’s going for a second term. Christian voters are a complete mix of all sorts, for whom priorities at election times are rarely uniform and single-stranded; ‘Christian spirituality’ has to take its place in the rag-bag alongside all other odds and ends. Is the only way around this the creation of a party dedicated to these values?

  • Apostolic

    The Tories did indeed compound the disastrous permissive revolution inaugurated by (pre-New-)Labour snob, “Woy” Jenkins, in the 1960s, for which they shoul be condemned.

    Reading your self-promoting “Big-Up-Yourself” introduction in response to Ed West’s review of the Burke biography in the online Catholic Herald some weeks ago would surely not rank as a humble gesture, except perhaps in Tony Blair’s book.

    As regards the name “Apostolic” being a feature of those who hold their knowledge in excessive regard, I should have thought that the opposite would be the case. We are all called to be apostolic, and I would guess that anyone using such a name wishes to emphasise that these are not his/her own opinions with any merit due to him/herself, but are drawn from the wisdom of the Church, to whom all credit is due..

    Regarding your encounters with men of the homosexual persuasion and their traits, writing as a happily and faithfully long-married man with a teenage son, who almost invariably attends the novus ordo, we clearly move in very different social circles.

  • David Lindsay

    Oh, I wouldn’t bet on it.

    The link on Ed’s post was just because reprinting the text would have filled too much space.

    That said, I have done it on here.

  • Apostolic

    Which remark only goes to prove that you live in a comfort zone of crude caricatures and rigid stereotypes. Small wonder you fell out with the Labour Party, which goes up in my estimation.

  • Apostolic

    Which remark only goes to prove that you appear to live in a comfort zone of rigid stereotypes and caricatures.

  • $27740841

    “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.’
    I don’t agree. In the face of evil, men who do nothing are hardly good.
    They are more likely to be either cowards or too concerned with preserving their lifestyles to act.

  • $20596475

    Then it seems that you are disagreeing with Ms Phillips’s for she quotes it with apparent approval.

    I think though that you are misunderstanding what it actually means. The statement is not “Men who do nothing in the face of evil are good”, which is what you imply. It is that if good men do nothing, then evil will prosper. That they are good men is a given. It is whether they act which is being reviewed.

  • $27740841

    I’m not implying what you say at all. It would be ridiculous to suggest that “Men who do nothing in the face of evil are good”.

    Granted, evil may begin to grow without good men realising it. But once evil begins to prosper, and men, good or not so good, begin to notice, can any man who does not make a stand, or at least speak out, still be considered ‘good’?

    The statement “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing”, which according to Ms Phillips cannot be found in Burke’s writings, trips easily off the tongue. But what is it suggesting? That a man, or woman, can stay silent or do nothing as evil flourishes and still console themselves with the fact that they are “good”?

    Sorry for resorting to anecdote, but a woman I know refused to speak out against an evil she knew was being perpetrated. Her reason – she didn’t want to “rock the boat”. Thankfully, someone else spoke out? But tell me, was she ‘good’? Or just selfish and/or cowardly?

  • Conrad J. Noll

    What is the corollary of “the dictatorship of relativism”?… “the beneficence of absolutism”?

  • D. A. Christianson

    An interesting point that I haven’t thought through, but think I’d best.