What do conservatives conserve?
Conservatives believe that we ought to preserve many of the values of the past. So how come they like capitalism which keeps changing the world?
It would be typical of political language if “conservatives” were progressives. Well, some are. The free market libertarian conservative thinks that entrepreneurs throw up changes – not least in technology – that will make life better. Such a person is inclined to sneer that the soft-left, liberal green campaigners are Luddites who hate progress. But conservatives really do like their history.
But hang on. Aren’t the left often described as progressive because they believe that life can get better and better if only we have enough politcial reform and taxation?
All the above is true and complicated. And here’s another problem. Both left and right are always claiming that history belongs to them. The left says history is one long struggle to get a fair deal for everyone. The right says it cares about the institutions we have been bequeathed from history, by which it tends to mean the bits that didn’t get reformed by the left.
So the left sees Chartists and Magna Carta and anti-slavery movements and the right sees the Monarchy and soldiers in gorgeous uniforms and clubs in Pall Mall.
Actually, the right is very complicated. Many of its thinkers and politicians are people who struggled out of the working class to education, affluence and power and are quite inclined to draw a different line. They say that if they can do it, anyone can.
But to get back to the history.
I can say that my conservatism looks back at the history of my society and insists that there is great merit there. And I mean that I claim the oppressed and the oppressers as both part of a historical continuum which I feel myself to be the heir of. My conservatism insists that I don’t want my age to throw away the pain and glories of the past. I am happy to see the merit in everything in my national past, including Empire.
It happens that this view is enriched by my understanding that I am in some form a world citizen. I am conscious that, say, the British Empire was not entirely noble. But I insist that it had great nobility and was in any case extraordinary and richly human.
So it comes to this. I think a conservative says that the main lesson of the past is to build on it and to remember that we have a hard job to live up to the courage and talent we can see in every class and nation there. I think the liberal and leftist mind is more inclined to say that we have really only to enjoy, relish and build on the work of the reformers and even the revolutionaries of history.
And finally, the conservative Briton does say that when he looks at history, there is a lot to be said for the so-called oppressors amongst his ancestors. They made a lot of stuff happen, much of it very good.
Leave a comment