As you may have noticed, there’s been quite a lot of squabbling within the Conservative Party over the issue of the EU referendum recently. The party leader is all for remaining within the EU as he clings to the terms of his “renegotiation”, that is to say, his failure to achieve the majority of reforms that he sought to gain, or that his party wanted for that matter; all this despite the fact that a poll by Conservative Home showed that the majority of party members were set to vote leave. Several prominent Conservatives have openly supported the Leave campaign: Boris Johnson, Daniel Hannan, Michael Gove to name a few.
But hold on just a moment – something that happened recently got me thinking. A few days ago I was walking with a friend (who is a member of the Labour Party and intends to vote remain) and we were talking about which way we would vote in the coming referendum. “But Alex, what are you?” he asked “I’m a conservative” was my stalwart response. “Yes,” he continued “and what do conservatives do? They preserve things; they don’t like change – and what would leaving the EU be? It’d be one of the most radical changes in our international situation for decades.”
His words stuck with me for a while – and I ruminated on them. He has a good point – in its most basic sense, conservatism is an ideology which is generally suspicious of change and wholly opposed to radical change on the basis that ripping up what is established in our constitution and way of life often causes more damage than good. So is it truly conservative of us to vote leave? Having considered the history and the facts, I think it is; and I think my Labourite friend has fundamentally misunderstood the values of British conservatism, and here is why.
I have studied the history of the British conservative tradition fairly intensively in recent months, partly out of interest, and partly to form the basis of a book I am working on covering the tradition. Over the course of this research, I have found quite a wide spectrum of conservatism which has taken hold of British politics over the past 400 years or so. However, what was by far the most interesting were the foundations on which the Conservative Party was founded, a party which certainly forms the cornerstone for British conservatism in the modern age.
The Conservative Party was founded to be an alternative to the aristocratic Toryism of the 18th century, and its members in the early years were the sorts of people we might now call “classical liberals”. Characters such as Robert Peel and William Gladstone started out as Tories, but a new kind of Tory – those committed to the ideas of individual freedom within the constraints of natural law, free trade and the free market. Their conservatism came mostly from their Christian values, and their reluctance to endorse widespread reform in a time of great social upheaval. Since then, the Conservative Party has always been most successful when defending those liberal values – the values that our parliamentary democracy was founded on with the implementation of the Bill of Rights in 1688.
On these grounds, I find it very hard to find any of these figures endorsing a trans-national political union, which supersedes the sovereignty of our national parliament, and sets laws and regulations which increasingly seem to be to the detriment of the British people. With the EU run by a commission of unelected bureaucrats, several of whom have actually expressed contempt for democracy, the principles of democracy that Britain has stood by for centuries are being eroded.
My personal favourite expression of the EU’s anti-democratic agenda comes from former President of the Commission José Manuel Barroso: “Governments are not always right…decisions taken by the most democratic institutions in the world are very often wrong” in an amusing outburst of frankly authoritarian intent. The aims of the EU’s leaders therefore are clear – they want closer union until the nation states of Europe are federated into a single United States of Europe, which it seems, would not even be run democratically, if in Mr Barroso’s opinion, democracy is so flawed. This concept in itself should make the British conservative retch, as it seems this institution is completely devoid of any desire to spread liberal democratic values and by extension, British values.
David Cameron continued the Remain campaign’s scaremongering tactics recently, talking of a threat to peace if we left the EU. Whilst the idea of a Third World War being imminent if we left the EU (which wanted to create its own army, and support foreign intervention, there’s peacemaking for you) is laughable, we should not forget that the last group of people who sought to create a European superstate – the Nazis – were bravely defeated by British and allied soldiers in 1945. While the EU is not trying to introduce a superstate in as violent and discriminatory a way as the Nazis, it seems insulting to our Glorious Dead’s memory to rip up the values they fought for just for the sake of continued European Integration.
It would seem then, that it is in the interest of British conservatives to vote to leave on the 23rd June. If we are to preserve our constitution, our rights and freedoms from a tyrannical overseer, we must do so. Maybe it would be different if we had secured genuine reform, or we actually had a strong influence in EU policy, but unfortunately we do not, and David Cameron’s failed renegotiation has shown that the other European leaders have a completely different agenda to the British people’s, and have no interest in accommodating for us. On this basis, it is not a radical act to leave the EU, it is instead a highly conservative one – it is an act of self-preservation without which we may see a completely different, undemocratic Britain in the space of twenty, ten, maybe as short as one or two years’ time!
I’m sorry Mr Cameron, but I’m afraid you are not being very conservative in your support for EU membership. Perhaps our Prime Minister wants to sell our democracy down the river for the sake of appeasing those in Brussels, or perhaps he is genuinely misguided in thinking that there is some value in our membership of the union. Either way, remaining within the EU is far more of a threat to our national values than leaving.
In the words of Benjamin Disraeli “I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution; a Radical to remove all that is bad.” If it is radical to shake off the shackles of the EU from our constitution, and endeavour to build a freer Britain based on the ideas that have been handed down to us for generations, then we must be radical. It seems to me however, that we might lose all that is good in our constitution by failing to vote to leave the EU.
Alex is a student who will be reading for a Classics degree in October. When not studying the ancients, he devotes himself to politics and the philosophy of conservatism. He blogs at Burkeanthinker and you can follow him on Twitter: @burkeanthinker
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty