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What is a conservative?

With furrowed brows and incredulous expressions, family and friends ask me time and time again why on earth it is that I’m a conservative? Why I bother affiliating myself with a party which among many circles is thought of as little more than an insidious cult, blundering its way from one screw up to the next, without sparing a thought for those unfortunates whose livelihoods have been ridden roughshod over?

Well, the reason us quite straightforward. It’s that I am confident that the conservative party are best placed to deliver the kind of reform that will change the country – and indeed the world – for the better. I am confident in this because there exists a common conservative tradition which is the best way so far identified for bettering the lot of humanity by allowing people to live the kind of lives that they want to live. This tradition is also beneficial as it simultaneously serves as a counter to an antithetical tradition, which has been historically the most sure-fire way of lumping the most abject misery upon humankind.

This conservative tradition is often misidentified, and this misidentification is responsible for much of the abuse that conservatives so often find themselves on the receiving end of. It is typically assumed (and quite understandably so) that to be a conservative is to want to conserve some long-established order, to try and keep things the same as they have been for hundreds of years.

This conception of conservatism is better thought of as an attitude of mind than a political tradition. By this definition, the trade union movement in Britain could be accurately described as conservative, due to its steadfast reluctance to accept change or move with new ideas, despite its continual working to secure the election of collectivist, even radical governments.

This conservative attitude of mind should thus be considered as quite distinct from the political tradition. Though of course this is not to say that those with a conservative attitude of mind do not exist within the conservative party. History gives us few examples of those who have undertaken political activity to seek to stop it. Contentment is not the hallmark of politicians, persistent activity and striving for change are the very lifeblood of politics.

If we list under the banner of conservatism such iconic figures as Burke, Peel, Churchill, Thatcher and Cameron, we may see a uniting common thread that is most certainly not a desire to keep things as they are.

What unites such temperamentally diverse conservatives is not then an aversion to change. What unites those of the conservative political tradition is an aversion to imposed change. What unites them is an opposition to those changes which attempt to introduce a preconceived grand plan on society. What they have sought to preserve is not any particular state of society, but its spontaneity. Their opposition has been to the type of changes which seek to produce a particular outcome and to make people live in a particular way.

Edmund Burke, widely regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, identified this, saying of it that “we must obey the great law of change” as “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation”. We may see this conservative political tradition manifest itself in Burke’s attitude to the French revolutionaries of his day. His dislike of them did not stem from any obsessive aversion to change – he recognised that changes were often necessary. What he objected to was the attempt to make society conform to a rational plan, his conservatism was grounded in his rejection of endeavours to produce a preconceived outcome.

From Burke to Hayek, conservatives have believed that society is far too complex to be planned by the mind of man. It should develop and evolve naturally, spontaneously, as the result of the aggregate of decisions of millions of individual actors. There is more wisdom in crowds than in any well-meaning dear leader. To borrow a phrase from the 20th century former conservative philosopher (and Caius alumni) Michael Oakeshott “what conservatives object to is the attempt to steer society”.

Thus, by opposing plans to make society conform to a preconceived end, conservatives have established a political tradition which links Burke, Churchill, Peel, Salisbury, Liverpool, Thatcher, Hayek and others. It tries, in the words of R.J White, to “legislate along the grain of human nature rather than against it”.

This conservative political tradition serves as a bulwark to the most wicked, destructive of ideologies – collectivism. No other ideology has so hideously mangled the affairs of humanity on such a widespread scale. By serving as the antithetical tradition, conservatism protects people around the world from impoverishment and misery, whilst bettering the lot of humankind.

The conservative political tradition is why throughout history conservatives have tended to prefer free markets to command economies, individual liberty to nanny-statism, liberal representative democracy rather than a dictatorship of the proletariat (or any dictatorship for that matter). These things reflect their determination to let society evolve naturally, rather than according to some grandiose preconceived plan. This is why I am a conservative, and why, I think, you should be too.

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