Let's look at Edmund Burke - was he a Conservative? Lord Acton, the Liberal historian, thought him one of the three greatest liberals, alongside Gladstone and Macaulay. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx branded him “an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois” and criticised his hypocrisy in supporting the American revolutionaries but attacking the French Revolution. Sir Winston Churchill summed up Burke’s polysemy when he wrote, “On the one hand he is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority.”
Strictly speaking, our contemporary panegyrics to Edmund Burke are anachronisms. He was neither a Conservative (such a party did not exist), nor a Tory. Burke was a Whig and, by extension of his fervent advocacy for Roman Catholic emancipation and free trade, indubitably no friend of the Tories, generally ardent Anglicans and protectionists.
Yet Burke should be considered a founding father of modern Conservatism precisely because of his apparent contradictions. To those who believe that politics should be about belief systems strictly adhered to, such as Karl Marx, Burke was indeed a hypocrite. However, Burke did have beliefs, as innate to him as any Conservative today, centred on freedom, responsibility and community. That he felt able to apply these instincts to the American Revolution but not the French is a mark of his pragmatic appreciation of context. The revolutionaries in France might well have set to their task with liberté, égalité et fraternité in mind but the cause descended into murder, mayhem and misery, amidst which disappeared those virtues evident in the Thirteen Colonies a decade before.
In the North American revolutionaries, Edmund Burke saw a rejection of tyranny; contrariwise, in the Jacobins of the 1790s, terrorizing ideologues. It is via that anti-dogmatic streak in Burke that we can discover our most authentic link to his tenebrous thinking.
The policies of political parties ebb and flow yet certain instincts remain the same. It is possible to remain true to Conservative instincts – such as freedom, individual responsibility and community – yet still be able to approach policymaking pragmatically, flexibly and openly, in the national interest. It was Burke again, who said, “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”
Genuine conservatives are not ideologues. Conservatives do not possess any scopic Weltanschauung, instructing them how to re-order the world as presented to them. Lord Hailsham, wrote in The Conservative Case (1959): “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself.”
Political parties steeped in ideological dogma are congenitally ill suited to the purlieus of coalition politics. The “compromise and barter” that Burke spoke of does not come naturally to them.
“Compromise” (or “consensus”) has been a word besmeared in right-wing politics since the 1970s. Margaret Thatcher said, “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies.” Perhaps such a stance was necessary for her time. Perhaps it was even a pragmatic reaction to the discord of her time. To contemporaries of the late 1970s, the ‘Butskellite’ consensus of the post-war period did appear to have run its course. Nonetheless, some of the inimical, unintended consequences of the 1980s may have been averted – or at least mitigated – by a modicum of consensus building.
Come what may, Burke’s “compromise and barter” is palpably valuable here and now. In order to provide this country with the strong government needed to impel and sustain economic recovery and deficit reduction, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats boldly came coalesced into a remarkable accommodation, in the national interest. Neither party could get everything that it wanted. The Coalition Agreement, excogitated with astonishing alacrity, is the result of “compromise and barter.”
The Conservative Party's standing as the ‘natural party of coalition’ is not only based on the recognition that politics is “founded on compromise and barter.” It is also based on the party's diverse political heritage. This summer gone, ConservativeHome, a right-wing political website, asked new Conservative MPs to answer a short questionnaire, including naming their political heroes. Their responses roamed freely through eras and philosophies: from Edmund Burke to William Wilberforce to Benjamin Disraeli; from Winston Churchill to Rab Butler; from Iain Macleod to Margaret Thatcher.
One answer, above all, was worthy of more detailed scrutiny. Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, named Richard Cobden as his political hero, because he “gave up his business prospects to further the philosophy of freedom in the general interest. He was principled, pragmatic and yet thoughtful.” Those who know their 19th century history will recall Cobden as the radical Member of Parliament for Stockport, to whom Sir Robert Peel, “without scruple...attribute[d] the success” of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, beyond any other individual, including himself. Richard Cobden was most certainly no Tory or Conservative. He was a tireless advocate of free trade, a policy with which few Conservatives now would disagree. Then, however, the issue of free trade split a nascent Conservative Party between old protectionist Tories, the country bumpkin party of yesteryear, and the liberal conservative Peelites. The protectionist majority were the direct antecedent of today’s Conservative Party – an unbroken corporate lineage runs from Lord George Bentinck, through Benjamin Disraeli, all the way to David Cameron. The rump of more liberal Peelite Tories, which included William Gladstone, eventually merged with Radical and Independent Irish MPs to form the Liberal Party. To which group do we owe the greatest philosophical debt? Entire theses have been devoted to that question, but I hope that you will appreciate my basic point. We are not merely a product of the Conservative Party but also a product of Whig, Radical and Liberal thought.
Conservatives are not only sharing power and office with the Liberal Democrats; they also share origins. The two parties have gone their various ways in the past 150 years but I believe that they still share those core instincts of freedom, responsibility and community. The example of Richard Cobden and free trade demonstrates how particular policies can seem anathema to a political party in one era and fundamental in another – yet instincts remain the same. Compromising and building consensus does not mean a dereliction of principles – it means applying those principles to the needs of your time.
A broad philosophical heritage and the un-ideological, pragmatic, conservative instincts of freedom, responsibility and community can cross partisan divides. The time will come again when the Conservative Party can govern on its own. Yet if that is not the case in May 2015, and once more, we are faced with necessary “compromise and barter”, then again the party must not be troubled – for the Conservative Party is the natural party of coalition.