It is easy, when talking of Burke, to treat him as just like any other political writer: someone who advances policies, with an accompanying list of expected benefits or drawbacks. But Burke is much better viewed a political philosopher. He does not propose policies based on their relative merits or demerits, but rather, proposes a different way of evaluating policies entirely. Burke’s message is not that what we have inherited from tradition is better than what we might put in its place. Burke’s message is that we cannot know the true value of our traditions until we have gotten rid of them, at which point, it is too late. We are familiar with a similar attitude in ecology. Human attempts to exterminate species or alter the landscape have famously been met with disastrous, unforeseen results, because we do not know the full function of each animal in the delicate ecosystems we meddle with.
Burke’s philosophy, then, encourages delay, and his arguments often serve to complicate an issue we think is simple. So a government that remembers Burke is a government that seeks not to meddle, because it places faith in the natural systems that have lasted up to now. Two things in particular stood out to Burke as having more value than people realise at first glance. These are religious values, and the value of inheritance.
To begin with, I would like to address the idea that the free-market principles of the current Conservative Party somehow conflict with Burke’s. They do not. The markets, like the ecosystem, are complicated, and the different parts serve a variety of functions we cannot hope to know fully. Burke’s wisdom is encapsulated in the saying “The individual is foolish, but the species is wise.” By this, Burke meant that the practices we have inherited from the past are not coincidental, but represent a deeper wisdom and often, an unchanging aspect of our nature. What practice is more widespread across times and places than using markets to organise our resources? What practice resonates more with the in-built human sense of fair trade and individual freedom than allowing people to trade, consensually, for the common good?
The Burkean should be overjoyed, then, that the Conservative Party has recently opted to cut corporation tax and to raise the minimum tax threshold by £500 for everyone. For this represents the Conservative Party placing their faith not in their own, individual judgements of what it is best to do with our resources, but in the practices that represent a species-wide wisdom. Money is better off in people’s pockets, where the wisdom of the species guides its spending, than in the hands of government, for individuals to spend foolishly. Moreover, Burke did care about the furthering of prosperity, something Conservatives know the free market excels at. In Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” he condemns the revolutionary French government not only for their crimes, but for their many economic “follies,” which regrettably “bought poverty” for the French people and contributed to “an industry without vigour, commerce expiring.”
Burke also opposed what we today call a ‘politics of envy.’ Then, as today, groups sought to destroy good things in the name of ending unfair differences. Then, as today, there existed a special malign for benefits that could be inherited. Then, as today, activists failed to recognise that the practice of passing down our valuables provides an incredible incentive to spend responsibly, to safeguard and conserve. ‘The Hereditary Principle’ is put forward as follows: “the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation without excluding a principle of improvement.” The wisdom of allowing goods, and indeed titles to be inherited, is that it furnishes both the parents and the children with a sense of preservation and duty regarding their possessions, and harnesses the emotional power of “a relation in blood” to do so.
This, the Conservative party has surely recognised. It’s reluctance to get rid of hereditary peers, for instance, displays a recognition that a title passed down from generation to generation carries a sense of duty that is not replicable by any other means. Similarly, the Conservative Party recognised, in 2015, that high death taxes (sorry, inheritance taxes) encourage reckless spending, and rightly raised the nil rate band on inheritance tax. This is something Labour does not realise about private schooling. Their plans to raise VAT on private education, as well as removing the charitable status on schools, would have been needlessly destructive, costing an estimated £7 billion, for what? To sever many families’ links to their past, and to flood our already over-crowded state schools with uprooted students who won’t fit in. It is no wonder that under Labour’s leadership, the UK plummeted down the international league tables for school performance. Between 2000 and 2009, England fell from 7th to 25th in reading, 8th to 28th in maths, and 4th to 16th in science in the PISA league tables. All this represents a failure to realise what Burke, and the Conservative Party know: whilst somewhat unfair, there are a huge number of benefits to letting parents pass on good things to their children, be it their money, or their values in education.
So far my essay may seem to have been relatively uncontroversial. I have pointed out that it is in the spirit of Burke not to interfere, both with the market that delivers prosperity, and the hereditary process that delivers security. It may seem I have missed a hugely significant part of Burke’s work, namely, his defence of traditional religious values and the Church of England. Indeed, isn’t this at base level the essence of social conservatism? The idea that people are best off getting married, having families, working hard and living with dignity? Burke has a lot to say in favour of religious values: “All nations have begun the fabric of government, by establishing originally, some right or other of religion”.
I must admit that it doesn’t seem the Conservative Party has done much to defend religious morals in recent years. Abortion is legal, divorce is easier, and of course, it was a Conservative government which famously legalised same-sex marriage in the UK. Has the Conservative Party forgotten Burke when it comes to religion?
This depends on what you think the best course of action is for a social conservative in the UK today, where people are on the whole socially liberal. Often, when we talk of defending religious morals, we think this means doing what Americans do. This involves a hard-line, authoritarian response to changing social norms: whether people like it, or not, the law will dictate that same sex couples cannot get married, that abortion is illegal, etc. But I believe the Conservative party of the UK offers a different model for dealing with social change.
It is better, if one is a social conservative, to preside over responsible, careful change, than to resort to enforcing social conservatism via the law. This is for a few reasons. The first is that rejecting all change would only lead to the Conservative Party’s rejection by the British people, who love liberty and always have done. This only allows Labour into power, who are ideologically committed to ending religious morality, rather than pragmatically committed. Besides, if the Conservative Party really does believe that religious morality is better for people than the alternatives, letting people experiment is harmless, because they will naturally return to religious morality anyway. “Change is the medicine of the state” said Burke, noting the importance of letting the inevitable happen.
“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it risks the loss of that… which it wished most to conserve”. This is surely true, Conservative governments have acted accordingly. For what could be worse for the cause of marriage, for the cause of the family, for the cause of the church, than to have them irrevocably linked in the mind of the public with draconian laws that infringe on human rights? This is exactly what has happened in America, and this is largely why the pro-choice movement has been able to frame the debate in the language of human rights.
Something similar could be said of the Conservative Party’s use of referenda. David Cameron held three. Referenda can be dangerous, and facilitate change, but were also employed by Cameron as a way of facing up to the appetite for change rather than feeding it, an attempt to answer these questions decisively and lastingly by taking them seriously.
In conclusion, I believe the Conservative party have epitomised the wisdom of Burke in recent years. Whenever people have gathered with the intention of inflicting painful change on the United Kingdom; be it messing up the free market which makes us prosperous, the hereditary system which brings us stability, or the religious morality which guides our conduct; they have found themselves opposed to the Conservative and Unionist Party.
This essay was written for the CUCA Essay Prize