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.