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TCW summer reads: What it means to be a true conservative


The Moral Case for Conservatism by Samuel Burgess; Wilberforce Publications, June 2019. 190 pages, £10.00

Following the Conservative leadership election, Boris Johnson said: ‘If you look at the history of the last 200 years you will see that it is we conservatives who have had the best insights, I think, into human nature.

‘And the best insights into how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart. And time and again it is to us that the people of this country have turned to get that balance right: between the instincts to own your own house, your own home, to earn and spend your own money, to look after your own family. Good instincts, proper instincts, noble instincts.

‘And the equally noble instinct to share. And to give everyone a fair chance in life. And to look after the poorest and the neediest and to build a great society.

‘And on the whole in the last 200 years it is we conservatives who have understood best how to encourage those instincts, to work together in harmony to promote the good of the whole country.’

To appreciate the political philosophy, and indeed theology that underlies those themes, Dr Burgess provides a timely and accessible primer explaining the moral principles and examining the historical evidence on which these pillars of conservatism are based.

Relevant to ‘Brexit in 100 days’, Burgess argues that Edmund Burke’s insight that the ‘small platoons’ of families and neighbourhoods, the hundreds of small tribes bound together by cultural commonalities, are the basis for the nation state and its role as the cradle of democracy. Transnational modes of government, such as the EU and the Soviet Union, fail because national identity and common identification grow naturally by common and local association – supranational identity cannot be superimposed on culturally disparate nations (p 25).

Burgess’s work will interest all who seek an analysis of the decline of Christian faith in British society and its consequences. He investigates the rise of libertarian individualism – ‘do whatever you enjoy’ – in the philosophy and politics of the last three hundred years which believe that human beings are solitary rights bearers, not morally ordered with a higher purpose. The resultant dissolving of family and community ties and responsibility has resulted in an overly interventionist state which, far from assisting the poorest and least educated, traps them in a mindset of dependency. By contrast, encouraging and enabling everyone to work brings hope, meaning and self-worth.

Dissolving family and community ties has also resulted in burgeoning legislation and regulations with which only the larger businesses can afford to comply and thus has contributed to the growth of mega corporations and decline of small local businesses. A focus on diversity as a criterion for making appointments has unintended racist implications (p 84). Burgess also discusses conservation, the environment, art and beauty.

He claims that conservatism offers the promise of a strong civil society, in which neighbourhoods and families meet our deepest needs, in which those who know us best are empowered to help us when at our lowest. It promotes a culture of genuine equality of opportunity for all, a government that promotes law and order, provides social goods such as a security net for the most vulnerable but knows its limits.

A seven-page bibliography gives a rich resource for exploring in detail many of its themes and practical insights, which can be referenced in the six-page index.

Many may disagree with such robust advocacy, and those who do should read and assess his clearly put case.

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Dr Chris Sugden
Dr Chris Sugden
Canon Dr Chris Sugden is Secretary of Grassroots Conservatives. He has worked in higher education in Oxford, India, and South Africa.

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