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Angela Tilby: Who is the Burkean candidate?

15 July 2022


Portrait of Edmund Burke

Portrait of Edmund Burke

YOU might think from the leadership debate that the only value that Conservative voters prize is value for money, together with low taxes and spending cuts. But political conservatism is an older and broader tradition than that, and deserves to be understood more sympathetically — perhaps especially by those who identify with the Church of England.

Modern Conservatism has two sources, both with roots in the 17th century. The first is ardently royalist and High Church; the second is derived more from the Whig Party, and particularly from Edmund Burke. High Church Toryism has almost disappeared, although a faint caricature remains, perhaps, in the persona of Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Burkean conservatism, though, could be more fruitful. David Cameron tried to explore it with his “Big Society”, much mocked though it was on the Left. But it remains a potent source of inspiration for those dissatisfied with what contemporary Conservatism offers. For Burke, horrified by the violence of the French Revolution, the point of government was to ensure stability and continuity. He feared both the fury of the mob and the brutal repression that followed the victory of the revolutionaries.

Burke owes much to Richard Hooker, the apologist for early Anglicanism, with his belief in divine law as dynamic, enabling power. For Hooker and for Burke, everything is linked to everything else, each part to the whole. This is why Burke believed that social morality began with a love for the “little platoon” to which we are naturally attached: family, place, faith, good habit. Well-being starts small.

What I suspect would wind him up most today is the theoretical linking of protest movements such as Black Lives Matter, Pride, anti-colonialism, and eco activism into a quasi-Marxist global ideology, set to overthrow the current order.

Burkean conservatism is aimed at social order, but it is a layered order, neither imposed from the top down nor driven by ideology. Individuals are right to take pride in their roots. We should also recognise a mutuality of duty and obligation across all parts of society.

There is scope here for a contemporary conservatism that puts a new emphasis on families, on sexual fidelity, on proper paid childcare, on the “levelling up” of childhood opportunities, and on the essential part played by voluntary organisations and charities.

These exist not merely to supplement state provision, but as a necessary defence against too much state power. There should be greater devolution and an enhanced valuing of the local. Life should not be lived in our heads or online. Our well-being is enhanced by the casual encounters enabled by the pub, the corner shop, and the parish church. A friend who has lived for years in different parts of central Europe believes that “neighbourliness” remains a particular English virtue, and one that we should treasure more. Any candidates for a Burkean conservatism?

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