Jonathan Eida | Opinion
Being a conservative has come to mean many different things and conservatism has been used to describe a whole range of diverse views over the years. The association with the Conservative Party has helped to muddy the water as to what conservatism aims to achieve, by collating a host of different ideas together with each new administration claiming to represent conservatism. The result of the conflation between ideological conservatism and partisan politics has been that conservatism has lost its founding ideals, and has instead come to represent a collection of vague polices.
The loss of authentic conservative thought is leading us to settle for politically palatable policies, rather than policies that seek to ensure long-term prosperity. It is vital to rediscover the driving force behind conservatism if we are to effect change for the better.
So, what is it that constitutes conservative thinking?
The founding literature on this idea comes from Edmund Burke’s work ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France.’ The fundamental idea analysed by Burke in the book is that the way the French conducted their revolution was misguided. He claimed that revolutions created from the spur of the moment are bound to spiral out of control, becoming untenable. He suggested that small, well thought-out steps to effect change were a far better option that both kept stability and still allowed for the necessary change. The underlying attitude influencing this way of thought is the principle that not everything that came before is wrong, and there are things that are worth preserving. When a revolution gets underway, it is very easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, destroying all the foundations without much thought for the consequences.
This fits into the idea that every society has a collective memory. The concept of collective memory is that our history and the lives our ancestors lived inform us to this very day. Every decision that our society has ever made, for good and for bad, gives us a basis from which we can progress and make better decisions for the future. A revolution, according to Burke, replaces collective memory with a uniformed lifestyle, which is liable to fall into unforeseen errors.
Sir Roger Scruton furthered this idea. Scruton, when he asked what it meant to be a conservative, wrote that a conservative fundamentally believes there is something to conserve. That despite some of our ancestors’ misdeeds, totally obliterating their foundations isn’t a good option.
But what is it, though, that we are so desperate to conserve and what role does our history play in helping to achieve this?
When we look over our past, we can clearly trace every small step we have taken to reach the place we are today. This includes our journey with regard to our political institutions, as well as our societal values.
When we examine the gradual progression from an absolute monarchy to parliamentary power, we see that these steps took place with limited bloodshed and upheaval – which, compared to the French Revolution, is remarkable. We have also maintained stability in our form of leadership as a result, although one could argue that the English Civil War was a bit of a ‘blip’ in that regard – and one not repeated since.
But far more important than our political institutions are the values we have acquired through history. Absorbing and refining values into our culture has been a long process. The Judeo-Christian values that are so prized now were not always so. The rights of every individual, liberty and all aspects of freedom are relatively new in terms of being implemented on a socially-accepted level, not to mention a legal level. Some on the Left may sneer at our ancestors for taking so long in reaching these values, but it is precisely the journey they made and the history we wrote about them that shows how essential these values are.
This is why, when it comes to preserving our Judeo-Christian values, the Right are so strong in their defence of these, opposing the revolutionary mindset. “Easy come, easy go” as the saying goes, and it is very much the case that the more one takes these values for granted, the sooner they will be neglected. Proposals from the Left to curtail freedoms willy-nilly in the name of “the greater good” are disturbing for this very reason. Rights have simply been too hard-fought and hard-won, and the consequences of simply giving them up are too great.
The Right’s defence of Judeo-Christian values has branched into other areas of broader conservative thought. The close association between conservativism and free markets is one such area. The freedom of the individual and defence of liberty has led to a libertarian morality, whereby people have the right to conduct business freely and without limitation.
The classical libertarian philosophy goes like this: if a person works six days a week but has to pay 50% tax on what they earn, then they are essentially working for the Government for three of those days. The line as to where the level of taxation should be is up for debate, but the principle remains.
If you hold of the opinion that we are all part of a collective, then being a slave of the Government would not be an issue. However, for a person who holds that each individual has the right to private property, then there is definitely an issue with high taxation. However, it is clear that this issue stems from how rigorously one buys into the importance of the values that have been gifted to us.
The essential component to being a conservative revolves around an appreciation for what has come before. This is critical to understanding the significance of everything that has preceded us. Only then can we realise how fortunate we are, and feel the obligation to conserve what we have.