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HomeNewsThe moral case for conservatism – Part 2, the nation state

The moral case for conservatism – Part 2, the nation state


Yesterday we published the first part of a speech given by Sam Burgess at the launch of his recently published book,The Moral Case for Conservatism, in which he made the case for conservatism in juxtaposition to its destructive rivals, socialism and liberalism. 

Today he looks at it in terms of the enduring truths about humans and their needs that conservatism meets, starting with the nation state.

Thinking back to my friend’s description of conservatism, if we’re honest, lower taxes is probably what a lot of people associate conservatism with. While there is nothing wrong with lower taxes, this perception represents a real failure to communicate the life-giving, hope-giving, human heart of the tradition. Conservatives should be shouting from the rooftops that the economic and political ideas of conservatism have the power to transform people’s lives.

If I didn’t genuinely believe this, I wouldn’t be a conservative.

In the book I hope to unearth the roots of the British conservative tradition that originated with Edmund Burke. In my PhD I dug into Burke’s political thought, and time and again I found enduring truths which, though our context has changed, still have much to say to us today.

Most of the great political truths boil down to truths about human beings. While these are not in need of discovery, they do need presenting afresh to a new generation in a new context. I’ve tried to make the book as accessible and plain-speaking as possible, because after two years of trying to decipher continental philosophers at university, I came to the conclusion that if a truth can’t be communicated simply, then either it’s not worth knowing or there is a German somewhere laughing at your expense.

What I am not trying to do is present a groundbreaking new political paradigm; my aspiration is far more modest. I simply hope to write what I take the conservative tradition to be, and communicate why this is a moral vision which our country sorely needs.

In the book I have offered an account of the principles that I believe define conservatism and then demonstrate how they apply to areas of our public life. Tonight I have time to mention only three of these: the nation state, the market and community.

First, let us turn to the nation state. In the book, I argue that we need to rejuvenate a sense of national pride in our country. There are many who are tired of being told that their nation is responsible for the world’s problems without any acknowledgement of the huge amount of good Britain has achieved at great cost.

Too often, patriotism is allowed to be caricatured as small-mindedness or bigotry. It has been easy for many of us to stand by silently while the Left denigrate Britain’s achievements, but this silence has borne toxic fruit. A YouGov poll in 2018 found that 55 per cent of young people in England did not feel proud to be English.

By constantly reiterating the message that we should be ashamed of our history, we deprive people of a legitimate patriotism. Pride in our nation doesn’t mean that we don’t offer an even-handed acknowledgement of the wrong that has been committed, but when we paint a universally negative picture, we end up producing a counter-response of radical nationalism. Moreover, we vindicate the narratives of our enemies.

People want to feel proud of their country: it is part of our tribal make up that we want to be proud of the group we belong to. Since the time of Burke, conservatism has welcomed these natural instincts. Burke identified that taking pride in the local and the familiar is the first step in a chain of affections. Through our parochial attachments we are signposted to more distant horizons, and tutored in how to love a community and how to serve a society.

So when conservatism defends a healthy patriotism, it seeks to take our tribal pride and channel it constructively into the right things, most fundamentally pride in a set of values.

We should be proud that as a country we have championed human dignity, bringing an end to the transatlantic slave trade, promoting universal suffrage and pioneering national health care. We should be proud of our gritty resilience which compelled our nation to stand alone against Adolf Hitler. We should be proud of our legal system, our scientific innovations, our sense of fair play and our entrepreneurial flair.

The nation state offers a forum in which a people can develop these shared values, and effectively express themselves through democratic institutions. While this process will still involve fierce disagreements, the chance of real conflict is rendered less viable by the stabilising influence of a shared culture, a common system of law and above all, a sense of a shared past that we have walked together.

The great moral achievement of the nation state is that within a nation, communities are not defined by the arbitrary trivialities of skin colour, ethnicity, regional tribe or any other capricious biological factor. Rather, they are defined according to the broad consensus of moral values which are the lifeblood of a successful civilisation.

Where this commonly held patriotism brings different people together, the liberal politics of intersectionality increasingly focuses on the differences between us rather than the commonalities that unite us. We should not be surprised if this leads to division rather than unification.

Tomorrow Sam Burgess looks at the second significant feature of conservativism – the market.

The Moral Case for Conservativism can be purchased here. 

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Sam Burgess
Sam Burgess
Sam Burgess, has a DPhil form the University of Oxford, is author Edmund’s Burke’s Battle with Liberalism and is married with a young daughter

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