I am convinced that the only people still making comparisons between the political philosophy of Edmund Burke and the modern Conservative Party have either never read a word of the man’s writing or have selectively chosen to forget the last half-century of British politics. Such amnesia may be preferable to accepting the cold, hard reality of a Party that masquerades under the name ‘Conservative’ acting consistently and obnoxiously against conservative interests, all the while probably not even realising that they are doing it.
Assuming that such a learned and eloquent thinker would ever have been selected by the intellectually moribund Conservative Party of our day in the first place, a parliamentarian who was to write a tract espousing similar beliefs to those in the ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ would probably be forced by the Party Board to make a public apology before promptly being whipped back into line. Moreover, any impassioned defence of the English constitution on Burkean lines by a representative of a Party which has done so much to either damage it first-hand or to tacitly endorse its abasement could scarcely be taken seriously. When the very Prime Minister and leader of the Party which by all accounts glorifies historic English constitutional liberty is unaware of the literal meaning of ‘Magna Carta’, and proposes to introduce a ‘British Bill of Rights’ while we already have a perfectly good one on the statute books, how can any notion of commonality with Burke seem anything more than ill-informed delusion? Even the objects of Burke’s disdain in the ‘Reflections’ knew about our Glorious Revolution but were attacked for wrongly comparing it to the Revolution of 1789; what would he have made of a British Prime Minister seemingly forgetting it completely?
Our current Prime Minister may be less comically ignorant of British history than David Cameron, but this has not prevented him from acting in a manner as profoundly unconstitutional and untraditional as his predecessors. Burke was not resolutely against incremental constitutional changes and reforms when they produced good outcomes, but he warned against the dangers of men “rashly meddling with what they do not understand”. Is there a better description of the measures the Prime Minister has taken in response to the current coronavirus crisis, and the methods he has used to implement them? The Coronavirus Act has given the state exceptional and unprecedented powers, disrupting the traditional relationship between the police and the public, trampling on habeas corpus by allowing people to be detained if suspected to be ‘potentially infectious’ and ignoring previous emergency legislation introduced in 2004 which would have resulted in greater parliamentary scrutiny, somehow making Tony Blair more of a moderate custodian of the constitution in this instance. The response to the crisis is representative of a Party which has little respect for the precedence and constitutionalism which Burke held in such high regard.
More than this though, the manner in which this Conservative government has responded to this current crisis would be completely repellent to a man who revered the values of moderation and prudence in politics, the latter being “not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but…the director, the regulator, the standard of them all”. For Burke, prudence was rooted in the experienced and the concrete – “the dominion of circumstances”, which seems like the very opposite of the speculative Imperial College modelling which the government was so quick to accept and use to justify what Lord Sumption calls “the greatest interference with personal liberty in our history”. Instead of pursuing a moderate course of mediation between the different interpretations of the gravity of the crisis, this Conservative government recklessly accepted the most alarmist one without hesitation, which the experience of Sweden has shown to be based on flawed assumptions and buggy, outdated code. Burke famously called society a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. The government’s response to this crisis has trampled on the traditions of our forefathers, squandered their savings, destroyed the businesses and livelihoods of many hard-working Britons and saddled future generations with needless and enormous debts.
The significance Burke placed on the Established Church in strengthening British society would be an uncomfortable, eccentric opinion in the modern Conservative Party. A Party which has aggressively adopted multiculturalism, continually weakened the married family through changes to divorce laws and abandoned the Church of England it once protected can only be seen as a vehicle of secularism; something Burke would have mourned as devastating for both the social cohesion of our society and the souls of everyone in it. Under this supposedly Conservative government, you can be arrested for preaching the Bible, banned from protesting outside abortion clinics, dismissed from your job as a nurse for speaking to patients about Christianity and fined for not baking a cake endorsing an LGBT message. Nor are these ugly manifestations of secularism any surprise in a country where only 1% of 18-24 year olds identify as Anglican - a quite baffling statistic when so many children attend Church of England schools. While the Conservative Party is certainly not solely responsible for the decline of Christianity in this country, they have made no efforts and indeed have no desire to reverse this monumental change, with its current leader being an unabashed social liberal leading a distinctly socially liberal life. In religious terms, modern Britain resembles far more the secular Revolutionary France at which much of Burke’s ire was directed than the Anglican society he defended, and while the Catholic faith endured and revived in France, the decline of the Church in this country is irrevocable.
It’s high time to fully rid ourselves of the delusion that ‘Burke’ and ‘The Conservative Party’ have any business appearing in the same sentence. He lived in a country which bears almost no resemblance to the one we live in now, with attempts to link his political philosophy to the actions of Conservative governments ranging from tenuous to the absurd. It wrongly suggests that the Party of our day holds any values at all except those which will help get it into power. If Conservatives still making such a comparison had any knowledge of Burke’s writing they would be quick to disassociate themselves with someone whose conservatism, Christianity and intellect simply have no place in modern British politics.
This essay was written for the CUCA Essay Prize