Conservatism is more of an attitude than a political dogma. While there are many in the modern Conservative Party who adhere to political creeds such as libertarianism or liberal conservatism, surely a desire to conserve and a scepticism about sudden change is more about values and attachment to the tried-and-tested than ideology or political theory. And that is a good thing. I still believe that while the majority of the British public are not necessarily overly enamoured with the concept of the invisible hand of the market or shrinking the state, they do possess an innate conservatism. It is that commonsense sceptism about political theories that kept the ancient institutions of state, the monarchy, the established church and the House of Lords intact in the turbulence of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries and saw the Conservative Party flourish in the era of universal suffrage in the last Century. Lose touch with that conservative attitude and the Party loses the foundations of its support.
That is why it is deeply worrying that the Conservative Party seems to have developed an enthusiasm to be seen to be doing and changing. My suspicion is that most people would prefer it if politicians did less not more. The trouble with politics is that it can attract the sort of person who wants to make their name and usually a name is gained by changing something, whether or not the change is good – Edward Heath taking Britain into the Commonmarket or Nick Clegg’s abortive attempt to destroy the House of Lords spring to mind. The Conservative Party should be the natural foil to this – it represents the attitude so pithily summed up by the second Viscount Falkland: “When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change.”
It seems that many of the areas of policy where the Conservative Party has been perceived as vulnerable in recent times are where they have been more radical. It is people’s natural conservatism that leads them to resent the growth of the supermarket at the expense of the local high street and it is again conservatism that leads people to resist development in their backyard; indeed the whole urge to protect the environment is a sort of conservatism – the conservation movement.
I believe Mr Cameron got it right when he realised that much of the alleged toxification of the Conservative brand could be cured while remaining true to Conservative values. It is right that we are now a party of conservation and a party of localism. Localism, despite its being given a name like a dogma is fundamentally conservative - as Edmund Burke pointed out patriotism springs from people’s membership of the little platoons rather than loyalty to a large, overweening state. The Big Society is truly conservative – it is about voluntary organisations holding society together rather than that same overweening state the Socialists look to.
Unfortunately, the Coalition I believe obscures the clarity of who the Conservatives are. What could be more un-conservative than attempting to unravel the constitution by abolishing the House of Lords or attacking marriage by changing its definition to include same-sex partnerships? It is very worrying to many voters with a conservative outlook to see the Party that should represent them allowing the Liberal Democrats to run away with policies that attack institutions far more important to a conservative outlook than deregulation of the market.
What is also disconcerting is when MPs seem to rush headlong enthusiastically into reform. Those reforms may well be justified, but if conservatism is more of an attitude of scepticism than political dogma, much as elected police commissioners may fit in with Localism, should we not have approached the policy with more of a sceptical try-it-and- see, piecemeal approach? Instead there seems to be something almost zealous about the Party’s approach to change.
A case in point is the reform of the laws of succession, being rushed through Parliament in one day. To a Liberal Democrat such as Nick Clegg the longstanding nature of primogeniture is a reason to overthrow it. Surely to conservatives the approach is one of not rushing, but thinking through the implications. Of course, it probably will be better for the survival of the monarchy if primogeniture is abolished, but there will be unforeseen implications and that is exactly why the conservative response should be to carry out this reform in a slower and more considered way.
One is reminded of the Church of England being disconcerted by the enthusiasm of Methodism. The Anglican Church reacted in a conservative way; it exhibited an attitude of scepticism about the enthusiastic hymn-singing and evangelism. Now in the long run it was probably a good idea for the congregation to sing hymns, but the conservative attitude is to take these things step-by-step and not to rush people who might be uncomfortable about change. So please let’s have a little less enthusiasm and a bit more English reserve!