In the debate about the recent sell-off of the Royal Mail, there has been far more attention on the price of shares than the fact that the ownership of the “Royal” concept is in private hands. The greatest privatising prime minister of them all, Margaret Thatcher, held back from privatising Royal Mail precisely because she recognised the sensitivities over selling off not simply a nationalised company, but an institution linked to the monarchy.
Conservatism is not just about economics. Perhaps the way to differentiate between conservatives and the Left is that conservatives take into account more than the dismal science – as Thomas Carlyle described economics. For a conservative, concepts of patriotism, tradition, religion and the family are what make society function too. We are not simply defined by our economic class and our economic needs.
It was an ideology (Socialism) that defined people simply by their economic interest and ignored custom and tradition that led to the dire national crisis of the winter of discontent in 1979. When people began to regard themselves as fighting an economic war against the ruling class, rather than being part of a nation with shared customs and traditions, conflict and instability were the outcome – as demonstrated by militant trade unionism. If the modern Conservative Party only relies on economic arguments and forgets those values that are fundamental to conservatism then it has already given up the fight to economic rationalists and socialists.
A conservative should be able to say with conviction that the Queen’s head being on the stamp, the Royal epithet to our postal service, even the red pillar-boxes have a meaning that is not necessarily economically quantifiable.
Conservatism recognises that emotions are often more important than the bottom line. Monarchy, the established church, the House of Lords are there not because they are economically efficient (although the suggestion they are costly is a misconception put across by left wingers with an agenda); rather, by preserving and protecting these institutions we recognise that the commonwealth is more than an economic polity and is held together by qualitative rather than quantifiable values only.
If the debate about privatisation of Royal Mail only focuses on the cost of the shares and not on the importance of Royal symbolism then sadly it is the Whigs and not the Tories who have won the great debate about the spirit and soul of our nation.