The other day I was talking to a chap who feels about the EU the way a tree feels about dogs, and for pretty much the same reasons.
He said regretfully that our side would probably lose the referendum – because the British people are too conservative to want to change things.
Now, while we agree in our assessment of the EU, we diverge in our understanding of conservatism. I’d say that a conservative would be more likely to support a proven statehood that has been around for centuries than one that has existed, in historical terms, for five minutes. Someone who opts for the latter is rather the opposite of a conservative – unless he misunderstands the term.
Any reasonable understanding of conservatism has to start with the question of what it is that we’re trying to conserve. And there’s the rub, as a famous English conservative once put it.
For different nations define political conservatism differently because their traditions vary. Thus the Russians would use the term to describe Stalinism, the French don’t really use it all, whereas the Americans use it to denote economic libertarianism, which has something to do with conservatism but not much.
One can understand their terminological difficulties. Speaking specifically about political conservatism, there’s little in the Russian political tradition that’s worth conserving. And what would a French conservative wish to conserve? The pernicious Enlightenment tautology of liberté, égalité, fraternité? And would an American political conservative wish to conserve the pernicious Enlightenment falsehood of all men being created equal?
It’s no wonder the term ‘conservatism’ is nonexistent in France and misused in America. Let’s just say that the term seems to lack a universal, one size fits all, definition.
However, at the risk of being thought presumptuous for trying to succeed where others have failed, I’d like to offer what to me sounds like the only unassailable definition of a Western conservative: he who wishes to preserve the political, cultural, religious and social heritage of Western civilisation, otherwise known as Christendom.
Given this understanding of conservatism, the British political variety presents few challenges of definition – it practically defines itself. If the overall quest is to conserve the heritage of Christendom, including its political manifestations, then traditional (as distinct from today’s) Toryism is coextensive with my definition.
The triad of ‘God, king and country’ may be as primitive as all slogans tend to be, but it’s more precise than most, encapsulating neatly the essence of British conservatism, both its transcendent inspiration and political expression.
I’d suggest that constitutional monarchy (first achieved and then debauched in England) underpinned by qualified franchise is the only method of government that truly reflects the political essence of Christendom. This theoretical postulate has received ample empirical proof in the history of the UK and, before it, England.
A monarch ruling by divine right or some similar claim to legitimacy represents the transcendent aspect of such a system, a factor of constancy linking generations past, present and future on a timeline demarcated by Creation at one end and the Second Coming at the other.
At the same time, an elected parliament is a temporal institution translating the people’s interests into political action and preventing the monarch from becoming a despot. To achieve a workable balance, Parliament’s power must be real but limited, the monarch’s power limited but real, and they should both feel accountable to the institution that is itself accountable to God only.
It’s true enough that this system, as close to ideal as is achievable in this world, has been well-nigh destroyed in its traditional native habitat. But every British conservative must lament this situation and do what he can to reverse it.
I’d be so bold as to insist that no Englishman who claims to be a conservative in any other sense can possibly be anything like what he claims. Specifically, no true conservative can possibly support the wicked fly-by-night contrivance that goes by the name of European Union.
The EU simply doesn’t fit: it hasn’t been historically proven, it has no legitimising divine authority, it takes neither people’s wishes nor – more important – their interests into account, it has no safeguards against despotism, it has no balance of power. In other words, it’s everything a conservative should abhor.
Yes, it’s likely that the British will vote the wrong way on 23 June. But they’ll do so not because they’re conservative but because they’ve been corrupted by almost a century’s worth of socialist – which is to say anti-conservative – propaganda. This effort is now at its peak, and it’s likely to succeed because the British no longer have the mind or the education to understand even the most basic of political realities.
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” said Churchill, and this adage is a hundred times more accurate today than it was when he said it. Hence, if the British vote Remain, it’ll be not because they’re conservative but because they’ve been – and are being – corrupted and dumbed down.
I’m glad we’ve sorted this out: nothing destroys serious debate as much as failure to agree on the fundamental terms.
2 thoughts on “Who says the British are conservative?”
While I totally disagree with your invocation of the divinity as the source of legitimacy your concusion is spot on.
The Socratean wisdom of you last sentence is spot on. Voltaire employed it also. But what do we agnostics do about defining our conservatism, Alex?
I suppose your answer would be to find and submit to God. But as the years have passed it has become increasingly difficult, even with the help of your books and blogposts.
If you can’t feel it, you shouldn’t fake it, has always been my mantra, even though I do try to live my life by six tenths of the Decalogue. The first four tenets are still a stumbling block and therefore the ten are in the wrong order perhaps? The pragmatism of the last six has always appealed to me. The cruelty of the Universe drives me to determinism.
I will undoubtedly vote “Leave” on June 23rd for most of the reasons you elicit. Maybe the gut reaction I have is what you describe, but my puny intellect can’t transport me to where yours has taken you. Sadly.