“Society is indeed a contract…between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
“To me a Tory is a person who believes that authority is vested in institutions – that’s a carefully honed definition.”
Enoch Powell, 1992
It was once considered received wisdom that hierarchy was not only desirable and necessary to a happy and prosperous society, but that it was in fact the will of God; rebellion against which was not merely bordering on an act of treason but blasphemy, too.
The thinking was, right through to the dusk of the Victorian age, that as the societies of bees, apes and wolves were hierarchical as per the Creator’s design, so too must that of man, as he was also one of God’s creations.
Interestingly, this justification probably said more than its advocates intended. By 1859, Charles Darwin had shocked the world with his assertion that we were, indeed, no more than highly advanced beasts ourselves, descended from the same line as our hierarchical primate brethren.
Darwin was treated with a mixture of ridicule and revulsion by many people of his age – those we would now call social conservatives – but, like the subjects of Darwin’s theory, conservatism is itself a philosophy which continually adapts and evolves in response to new information and circumstance.
Today, for example, it is the cornerstone of conservative philosophy that this bestial nature is at the root of the “radical intellectual imperfection of the human individual” (to quote the late Lord Quinton) and that therefore a man can only be free standing upon the sum of knowledge and experience gathered by those who preceded him, vested in the institutions and culture of his society.
Unlike Jean-Jacques Rosseau and his acolytes, from the Jacobins of the French Revolution to the Bolsheviks of the Russian, we do not believe in the inherent goodness of man which is then corrupted by society. We believe man is born wicked but is moulded to be good and to serve a purpose greater than that of his own survival by society and its institutions.
It is this founding principle that allowed Enoch Powell to repeatedly speak of his “High Tory ultimate faith in the people” – of a belief that, left to their own devices, ordinary men and women are capable of making rational choices for themselves without the need for direction by patricians, priests or commissars. It is what makes conservatism, and Toryism, anathema to socialism.
I began this journey from self-described classical liberal to someone unashamed of speaking of himself as a conservative (I must admit to still struggling with Tory, much as my Tory friends urge me) listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg speak at a Freedom Association event in Manchester Town Hall at the 2013 Conservative Party Conference.
I had hitherto appreciated Mr Rees-Mogg for very much the same reasons many Conservatives and non-Conservatives do; he was a somewhat amusing and cuddly caricature of the landed gentry, a stuffy throwback to a bygone age dominated by patricians, but pretty harmless with it. He was a traditionalist, which I was then not, and this was not a creed I immediately associated with liberty; instead my mind was cast to the nannying paternalism of the Churchill/Eden/Macmillan period.
Yet this funny man with the plummy voice and pocket watch dangling from his lapel produced the most eloquent defence of liberty, individual choice and leaving people alone I think I had ever heard. Furthermore, it was presented as a defence of tradition, of perennial British values; something this Government wouldn’t know if it was smacked in the face by a bulldog in a Union Jack waistcoat brandishing a joint of roast beef.
I began to see I was a conservative in the English sense of the word because we have in this country a centuries-old tradition of individual liberty under the rule of law rather than the rule of men. And, for me, this “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” conservatism extends to a very cautious approach to the institutions which have helped shape this tradition.
It is why I loudly voice my support, with a straight face, for the hereditary element of the House of Lords; the fact that such a system would be either undesirable or impossible to create from scratch is not a good enough reason to abolish something which worked as an effective counterpoise to a near-universally reviled elected House. Neither is an unthinking and ideological subservience to democracy.
I am a conservative because like the founder of modern conservative thought, Edmund Burke, I believe society to be a contract between the living, the dead and those yet born; that civilisation is a deceptively fragile thing which is best held together by the shared traditions, customs and institutions of a free people rather than an authoritarian state. That, in the words of Viscount Ridley, we should not fear spontaneous collectivism; only that which is forced. That, as every revolution from that of France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Iran in 1979, and the Arab world in 2011 has shown, once you start tearing things down, what is built in its place can be the stuff of nightmares.
But I am also a conservative because, while I oppose change for its own sake, I do not support the status quo for its own sake either. It was, after all, Sir Robert Peel who repealed the Corn Laws in the interests of the poor against the landowners; Benjamin Disraeli who first extended the vote to members of the working class, and Stanley Baldwin who extended the vote to all women. Even Enoch Powell, the arch High Tory, voted to abolish the death penalty, legalise homosexuality, and ban corporal punishment.
I am a conservative because, unlike some who mistake their reactionism for conservatism, I believe in a philosophy which does not nail itself to the past; instead using it as a guide to navigate inevitable, necessary and desirable change along proven principles. A philosophy which recognises society is a fluid entity which is all the better for running at a steady pace than finding itself wading in a stagnant mire.
This article is part of our ongoing ‘Why I am a Conservative’ series, in which supporters of CfL talk about their beliefs and values. If you would like to take part please email email@example.com