Edmund Burke, the passionate defender of the “ancient principles”, is considered by all accounts the founder of modern British political conservatism; and generations of ‘conservative’ thinkers have centred their political thesis on his philosophical and practical wisdom. Although Burke never produced anything that may be regarded as a systematic political treatise, he governed his life though a consistent political creed. Political thinkers have drawn from Burke’s creed and have grouped a set of ideologies that form the foundations of modern day conservatism. It can therefore be stated that Burke gave birth to such ideologies.
However, it is important that here an understanding of an ideology is noted; as conservatism is unwilling to be subscribed to fixed notions, but instead evolves to the current political climate based on past experiences. Conservatism is a ‘common – sensical’ philosophy, “a Natural disposition of mind”1 which rejects the idea that human beings can be perfected. Modern Conservative thought subscribes to substantive views regarding the nature of society, the role of reason in human affairs, the proper tasks of government and to a certain extent the nature of moral and legal rules; and in this essence cam be considered an ideology. This essay proposes that Burkes political creed is in all essential respects the doctrines articulated in modern British conservative thought.
The major brunt of Burkes writings consists of speeches and political tracts written for some particular occasion. He was not a systematic theorist in the sense of contemporaries like Hobbes and Locke. Nevertheless, Burke wrote the most coherent articulation of conservative philosophy in his reflections of the French revolution. In it, he attacked the principles of the rights of man and natural law as being dangerous to the status quo – to the social order present in Europe. He asserted that effective constitutions could not be written down from first principles, but needed to evolve, slowly and cautiously in the light of experience. He schooled the ideas of modern conservatism; to fear “revolution in the name of Reform”2 and that there is a possibility of slow political change over time.
Modern Conservatism can be divided into two factions; the absolutism of Joseph de Maistre’s reactionary conservatism and Burke’s evolutionism. Reactionaries consider that “First Servant of the Crown should be the Executioner”3 they seek to restore a vanished past of politics and religion; whereas evolutionists argue against radical change, not against all change. Rather than consider individual stances such as One Nation or the Middle Way, where Burkes influence varies, the following will instead focus on the Five core values of Conservatism; authority, traditional hierarchy, human imperfection, property and organic society.
Authority as a foundation of conservatism stemmed from the defence of the old European order. Authority is defended because it preserves order; questioning authority threatens to social chaos, so obedience to traditional ruling figures is imperative. Conservatives believe that authority is installed into society by nature itself and not in the form of a social contract. This argument derives from the fact that when children are born into this world, at no point are they asked whether they will obey the rules of society, instead they are imposed upon them from those who know better.
Conservatives believe in ‘benign paternalism’ that the landed classes have the necessary upbringing and authority to lead those who are not able to judge what is good for themselves. This is justified considering human imperfection and that society is stability seeking. “We are not sent here [to parliament] to represent the opinions of our constituents their rights we are bound to protect; their general interests we are bound to consult but not to their will, unless it shall coincide with our own sense of what is right”4. They however do not see their authority as an absolute power but as to guide society without unwarranted pressure.
Burke theorised In ‘Reflections of the French revolution’ how the French revolution would degenerate into terror and dictatorship. The revolutionary destruction of hallowed customs would not improve the world but fragment it. Authority he asserted preserves traditions, which contain the “accumulated wisdom and experience of past generations”5. Frenzied revolutionaries destroy these resources. Authority permits human beings to evolve whilst preserving the inheritance of past civilisations, this, which is founded on centuries of evolution, is preferable to the uncharted waters manufactured by irrational revolutionaries.
Burke argued that the stability of British intuitions derived from their having grown, almost organically, as society, had changed. The British constitution, not being written down, or ‘imprisoned in words’6, had a dynamic element, which operated as a safety valve. Burke accepted that a “state without means of correction was also a state without the mean of conservation”7. This was epitomised by the absolutism in France, the stubborn resistance to change of the French authorities caused the tension to be released as the revolution. In contrast, Britain’s authorities absorbed such pressures by acceptance to change, for example the glorious revolution of 1688, which prevented revolution.
Modern day conservatives hold traditional hierarchical institutions in high regard. Traditional institutes, whether they are the monarchy, aristocracy or even private property right, as a dependable wealth of experience, providing continuity and encouraging diversity. People belonging to these intuitions are secure in personal circumstance and therefore are able to behave altruistically. Furthermore, these intuitions provide familiarity to a stability seeking society, a complete dissimilarity to new established institutions. Although these institutions are respected, they are not sacrosanct and conservatives accept that they should have mechanism for change according to previous experience. This evolution should be in a pragmatic manner, not due to radical change.
sense “the individual is foolish . . . but the species is wise.”
Burke’s insight that inherited rules and institutions embody the cumulative knowledge and experience of preceding generations, His main point was that the process of cultural advance is utterly dependent upon the absorption and transmission of the cultural inheritance over time. received tradition is not only the foundation of civilized society, but of the structure of mind, reason, moral values, language, perception, behavior-in short, of all the learned rules whose observance distinguishes the human from the animal. the contemptuous dismissal of ‘irrational’ tradition, the desire to ‘wipe the slate clean’ and design society anew, merely testifies to a profound ignorance regarding the nature of social reality
Burke advocated such views throughout his work, especially in the reflections of the French revolution. He viewed society as being a complex mixture of hierarchy and classes, intermediate level institutions acted as a buffer between the state and the citizen. The French revolution proved dictum that ‘revolutions devour their own children’. The National assembly redefined everything before them, then the Legislative assembly did exactly the same; the result was that France was not only devoid of any long standing institutions but after ‘le grand peur’ was also without any aristocracy or landed authority. These Burke argued that these had stood the test of time and must therefore have positive attributes.
The stubborn resistance to change of these institutions had resulted in a New France with no experience or tradition. Burke advocated “change in order to conserve”8, that if the institutes reformed around their good points it would allow for some continuity in the future instead of the complete unknown France was faced with. Essentially, “Society is a partnership between those that have lived in the past, those that are living now and those that will live in the future”9, reform of traditional institutions would aid future generations, creating a common ground for all society to build upon.
Conservative thought is based upon the fallibility of human beings
Conservatives base their predictions of human behaviour on the presumption that we are imperfect. Often described as a “philosophy of human imperfection”, conservatism believes that humans are dependent and fear instability, therefore are society seeking on order to counteract these imperfections. The social order needed, in the eyes of a conservative, is one that clearly defines each individual’s place and maintains a stable and predictable life. Conservatives see that crime is not due to social conditions, but the natural greed and selfishness that is born into every human being. Therefore crime cannot be tackled by appealing to the morals of society, but by installing fear of punishment. This displays why conservatives feel that law is not implemented to safeguard liberty, but to protect order.
Burke also saw the need for law to protect order rather than liberty, since liberty is based upon rights. In this age of enlightenment many were calling for revolution based upon new-found rights, which Burke believed were constructed in a pub by men who had drank too much. And in this Burke thought, as do conservatives, that rights can be made up for every-thing, and so rather than law protect some-thing that is constantly changing it should serve to protect that can be said to be fixed, social order. In this Burke believed that law would be able to maintain the stability that every individual desired.