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Why Boris’s new government must learn from the wisdom of Burke


FOLLOWING the convincing Conservative victory in December’s general election, there has been a veritable flood of prescriptions about what the new government must do.

These have ranged from reforming the inherent Left-wing and libertarian bias in many institutions, quangos and ‘at a distance bodies’, funded by the State, to a radical overhaul of the Civil Service and of Parliament itself.

This is well and good and to be expected after such a sweeping victory, but what has not yet been asked about is the moral vision which should underpin reform. Without an overarching vision, reform, if it takes place at all, will be piecemeal, for momentary advantage and unprincipled.

The young scholar Samuel Burgess has reminded us in two excellent books of the legacy of Edmund Burke – as much a founding father of conservatism as any.  Burke’s main objection to the French Revolution was that it overthrew history, custom and religious values in national life in favour of ‘pure reason’.

Burke did not believe, and nor should we, that such confidence in human reason, especially of one generation, was justified.  The descent of the revolution into a bloodbath showed how right he had been.

He was much more sympathetic towards the American Revolution, which he believed had been brought about by British misgovernment. In spite of this, the new American state did not rid itself of all its inherited institutions and values, but adapted and developed them for use in a federal United States.

Now that Brexit is a near-certainty, our values, our freedoms and our laws will no longer arise from the radical ‘enlightenment’ attitudes of the bureaucracy in Brussels.

So what will be their basis? According to Burgess, an authentically conservative view of society will place a high value on a sense of a shared history, on national identity and a sense of belonging (to use David Goodhart’s phrase, on being ‘somewhere’ people) rather than the libertarian nostrums of autonomy, untrammelled liberty and ‘lumpen’ equality, alongside a playing-down of the need for cultural, linguistic and social cohesion.

Why should we put individual reason, or even just sentiment, above the accumulated wisdom of society? The notion of the inalienable dignity of the human person is written into both national and international law. It is firmly grounded in the Judaeo-Christian teaching of the Bible that each human being is made in the image of God.

This tradition, however, also teaches that we are persons in relation: We are what we are because of our relationships with others. Burke is severely critical of the kind of social contractarianism which imagines individuals as prior to society, which is then seen as created by individuals coming together for mutual protection.

For Burke, society is basic and primal and humans are, by nature, social beings. Autonomy in itself cannot be the sole value in making policy decisions about human welfare. Equality, similarly, is based on the common origin of all humans (here science and religion agree). It is thus about the equality of persons – not of ability or status, lifestyle or behaviour.

Every society must decide on how opportunity is to be provided for all, but also how talent and hard work are to be rewarded. It must support those units of society, such as the family, which demonstrably make for social and personal flourishing. The bounds of liberty cannot just be ‘no harm’ to other individuals, but the Common Good and the survival and health of vital social institutions.

If we are not to receive political and civic morality from Brussels, from where is it to come?  Burke takes an evolutionary, rather than a deconstructionist or revolutionary stance. This may mean going back to King Alfred for our need of national identity and for the abiding value of a common law tradition. It could be about starting with Magna Carta on our notions of justice, or the Bill of Rights for a proper recognition of conscience and freedom of belief.

Burke was aware, of course, that moral insights derived from the cumulative wisdom of a people have to be applied in contemporary situations such as the French or American Revolutions or the impeachment of Warren Hastings, in which he played a leading role, for corruption in the East India Company.

The American political theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offered a defence of democracy in the light of an emerging post-war order. Our ‘capacity for justice makes democracy possible’, he declared, whereas our ‘inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary’.

In other words, humans are creatures of both light and darkness, noble and fallen, capable of great good, but also of the worst evil. They are neither Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ nor Hobbes’ ‘nasty and brutish’. That is why purely permissive and libertarian societies have within them the seeds of their own destruction – as do, on the other hand, authoritarian ones.

Any society must provide for restraints which do not only prevent harm to others, but also for the sake of that which society cherishes for its own identity and survival. 

Burke saw social order as reflecting a generally ordered universe and both as having purpose and destiny. Natural rights and duties, language also, best arises from such a moral and spiritual framework rather than just being assertions of what is the case.

In England, at any rate, consciousness of national identity goes back to the Venerable Bede’s account of the unifying of the English Church and its people, to Alfred’s pacification and unification of disparate tribes and peoples, to the emergence of Parliament and to the promulgation of nationwide poor laws under Henry VIII.

This consciousness is what lies behind the support for Brexit and the Conservatives’ election victory. The history of many Continental nations is quite different and more recent in this respect.

Any government would do well to note the deep-seatedness of such a sense of identity. Those arriving on these shores, as workers or refugees, have been welcomed precisely because the Judaeo-Christian basis of national life has guided people not only to welcome the strangers but to love them, that is, to seek their highest good. New arrivals, however, also need to be aware of the sense of identity, belonging and history into which they are entering.

True British values of personal worth, freedom, dignity and equality have been derived from the deep reservoirs of tradition and adapted for present conditions and questions. They cannot be plucked out from thin air: Persons are persons in relation, not autonomous monads. There should be respect for law, but bad laws are challengeable and changeable.

Democracy is not enough in itself, because it can become a tyranny of the majority. It has to be complemented by there being one law for all and equality under the law, but also the recognition of, and respect for, conscience and freedom of belief. Respect for other people’s beliefs should be required,  but not agreement with them. In a free society, you should be able to assess and criticise my beliefs and I yours.

Any remoralising of society, as called for by Gertrude Himmelfarb and others, around the value of work, delayed gratification, self-improvement, philanthropy and civility must take these reservoirs of wisdom into full account.

As far as Burke is concerned, there can be no true conservatism without religion, that is the social expression of the spiritual, and no religion can be true if it abdicates its responsibilities in the public square.

In England, this has meant the special duty of the Established Church to remind the nation of its accumulated wisdom, based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, when important decisions have to be made about war and peace, social justice, the nature and health of the family, the meaning and destiny of the human person and much else besides.

Even if the Established Church does not fulfil this role, or if there is no established church, the cumulative tradition still remains important for policy and legislation. It should, by all means, evolve and grow, but it cannot be abandoned. The alternative is to make up beliefs and values as we go along and no true conservative would want that.

The incoming government has, of course, a programme to govern, which has been set out in the Queen’s Speech but, if it is to be truly conservative in its approach, it will ever have regard to the accumulated wisdom of the nation and how that can be used to govern and to legislate.

This article appears on the conservativehome website and is republished here by kind permission.

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Michael Nazir-Ali
Michael Nazir-Ali
Michael Nazir-Ali is former Bishop of Rochester and current President of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue.

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