What is the Burkean conservative ideology?

Many people have asked me, increasingly more so recently, what I mean when I say I am a “Burkean conservative”. Some are aware of the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke – the namesake of this term – some are not. I admit, it’s not a term you see used that often anymore, but many conservatives regardless of their political affiliation identify with Burke to some extent, and his influence on the conservative movement is much more prominent than many people actually know. It may well be best for me to explain this as coherently as I can now, for my own sake and for the sake of other Burkeans.

So the term “Burkean conservative” comes from the Anglo-Irish MP Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who is remarkable for opposing the French Revolution for its disregard for tradition and religion. Burke is generally considered to be the “founding father” of modern conservatism. Burke is generally considered to be the embodiment of the fusion of classical liberal and socially conservative ideas that formed the basis for modern British conservatism, and eventually broke away into other factions such as the “liberal conservatives” and “traditionalist conservatives”. So what was it about Burke that was so special? Well, for his time, Burke was remarkably progressive. He was a member of the Whig Party in the British Parliament, which was generally accepted to be the more  liberal party (their main rivals being the aristocratic Tories), he supported free trade, defended the American revolutionaries in their struggle for liberty, remarking “the people never give up their liberties but under some delusion”. Burke was also sympathetic to the cause of Catholic emancipation, especially in Ireland where the majority of the population were Catholic, and wrote in praise of the “Hindoo religion” in India, and the quote “I take toleration to be a part of religion” has been interpreted by some to be advocacy of religious pluralism.

But for all Burke’s “liberal” ideas, he was restrained by a sense of morality – and therein lies his conservatism. His passionate belief that religion was necessary for the foundation of the state was the source of his disdain for experiments in secularism such as the French Revolution. Burke believed that a Christian government maintained a sense of moral direction, and that Christianity served as a guiding force for all forms of civil management. In this respect, Burke was a traditionalist, and he defended the established Church (the Church of England). He was scornful of atheists, writing “writers against religion, whilst they oppose every system, are wisely careful never to set up any of their own” and, “nothing is so fatal to religion as indifference”. Burke argued for religion on the grounds of stability and social cohesion more than any theological arguments.

NPG 655; Edmund Burke studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds

Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

So all conservatives owe some of their philosophy to Burke: the opposition to destructive change and a belief in individual liberty upheld by the rule of law. But modern conservatism has become a little hazy and unclear in places, and policies undertaken by the modern Conservative Party have associated the word “conservatism” with things it never should have been associated with at all. If Burke were to learn about the ideology of modern “conservatives”, he would in all likelihood be shocked, perhaps shocked enough to write a polemic similar to his masterwork of conservative thought: Reflections on the Revolution in France

A large number of modern Conservative Party members like to term themselves “classical liberals” or “libertarians” today, and express an undying love of the free market, liberal economics and place themselves under labels such as “Gladstonian liberal” and “Old Whig” (as Edmund Burke referred to himself), singing the praises of previous conservatives such as William Ewart Gladstone (who later became a famous Liberal Party Prime Minister) and Burke, and claiming that due to their liberal ideas in the past, they can justify their own liberal agendas today – for instance, some Conservatives I have met fully support the pro-choice camp for abortion and say that government intervention in an economy, or society can never be justified, advocating in some cases, unbridled freedom, and advocating for individuals to define their own lives completely. They are forgetting their Burke: “liberty too, must be limited in order to be possessed”. It is highly respectable to follow the classical liberal tradition, but not if one does not understand what that actually means. Classical liberalism values liberty as the most important tenet of its philosophy, but also shares that philosophy with the belief in the unbreakable rule of “natural law” – something which many who use the term “classical liberal” today, forget.

Using some people who had a some libertarian ideas from the past to justify ultra-libertarian policies today is misleading. As I mentioned before, Burke, Gladstone, Peel, and all the others “progressive conservatives” of the past had a sense of morality, which limited their own perspective on liberty. Immoral actions, they believed, were damaging to society, and if allowed to propagate, would erode the rights (and liberties!) of the people over time. In today’s world, secularism is becoming increasingly topical as religion, especially the Christian religion in the Western World, begins to fall out of favour as a majority religion. Many people still have a personal sense of morality, what is right and wrong, but it is beginning to slip away at the edges, and our state, it seems is no longer run by any guiding moral force whatsoever. One need only see the Prime Minister’s nonchalant attitudes to problems such as mass-foodbank usage, willingness to cut disability benefit overnight, and establishment of a surveillance state to pry into individuals’ privacy to see how little care there is for right and wrong among our leaders.

So, that is why I am a “Burkean conservative”. Like many thousands of others, I am conservative – I think our country’s traditions are immensely important, and have stood the test of time, and are thus worth keeping. Sometimes I use the term “classical conservative”, reminiscent of the neoclassical period that Burke was living in, and the classical liberalism that was widespread at the time (I use this purely to distance the name of my ideology from the policies of the Conservative Party leadership), but, though I draw on the classical liberal tradition somewhat in my passionate belief in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to property and the free market, I cannot with in faith call myself a “liberal” or “libertarian”. My own Anglicanism guides my worldview to a point where I believe some things to be wrong. This does not mean I cannot tolerate things I consider to be wrong, but I certainly believe a moral standpoint to be essential in the governance of a function state. A state without morals is directionless, with no greater aim for the society to achieve, and no moral examples being set. The state may not have a right to impose morality on others, but it can at least try to embody a good sense of morality through its actions. Like Burke, I see the value of tradition, morality (religion) and liberty – and by being a Burkean conservative, my politics seeks to find the perfect balance between the three.

“Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom” – Edmund Burke.

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