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The English Revolution – Part 1

Some time ago in one of the Spectator Coffee House threads I was pugnaciously challenged as to what being a conservative meant. It is difficult to encapsulate it neatly because I believe part of what makes a conservative tick is the dislike of labels and a one-size-fits-all ideological dogma. I think that in traditional conservatism lies both pragmatism and circumspection - call it caution if you like. Nowhere is this perhaps more applicable than in the case of our country's evolved and somewhat eccentric constitutional arrangements.

In an era where progress - any progress - is increasingly seen as a default good thing and any resistance to progress is scorned as regressive, it is not easy to advocate either pragmatism or circumspection. Within political history most change has resulted from the imperatives of revolution or reform, the one an upheaval, sometimes violent, the other a more gradual progress often succeeding through persuasion and consensus. But it would be wrong to think that both forms always result in improvement - even in the long term.

For modern politics, especially in Britain, reform seems to have become a truncated thing, more often imposed than persuaded. Politicians these days, of all main parties, seem more willing to fast track reform on the basis of it being 'the right thing to do' and the presumption that what is already there can - must - be improved upon. I'm not so sure. The certainty, one might say the arrogance, of these politicians is seldom evidenced by the track record of their predecessors. British political history is littered with the wreckage of costly mistakes and unintended consequences. Often the reform is driven more by ideological aspiration than by any convincing evidence of need and the tone of the rhetoric demanding change begins to sound more like dogma. There is little sense that the government understands it is just a tenancy with caretaker responsibilities beyond just the economy and equal to if not exceeding their apparent desire to change everything. In the conservative mind perhaps lies a profound but slightly cynical belief that some matters are often best left be.

The unwritten British constitution is an untidy thing, more cobbled together as a shanty town than as a perfectly designed skyscraper. It has got by, surprisingly successfully, and until about 1963 its apparent chaos and inconsistencies were seen as much a strength as a weakness. But Mr Cameron's generation of young career politicians share their arrogance with the relentless rise of wonkery; the promotion of theoretical excellence by people who make a living from its arcane manipulation of words and its presumption of infallible certainties. It might be no coincidence that those teaching the creed and those learning it rarely represent any endeavour outside it. But more surprising is the way that it has also managed to usurp the language and strategies of almost every practical endeavour in this country, from the board room to the hospital ward, from the call centre to the barracks. Wonks and their close cousins accountants now pretty much reign throughout our society. How it came to be that boring bean counters became synonymous with strategic management, power and leadership is something of a puzzle to me but the effects are plain to see in the chaos surrounding banking, for example, and the growth of corporate feudalism. The idea that the wonderful richness and interplay of human beings actually deciding things case by case according to context, experience and circumstances could be improved upon and measured by spreadsheets, targets and tick boxes never convinced this conservative but it did create whole tiers of ambitious management and aggressive careers, many of which have become exceedingly lucrative for those involved in promoting them. The poor old man in the street has never been so put upon or stitched up like a kipper by the unholy alliance between political robber barons on the one hand and corporate robber barons on the other, both of whom now tyrannise with the spreadsheet, the targets and the tick boxes fed into the oracle of the computer.

But back to the constitution and the recent round of tinkering done and tinkering planned for the House of Lords by our political masters and their wonkery. I recently had a bit of a sort out of books and childhood items, sadly realising that they would mean nothing to anyone but me and that I might as well dispose of them now than to have my family burdened by their disposal later. Amongst the books was G M Trevelyan's 'The English Revolution 1688-1689' - a school text book that had somehow survived the alarums and excursions of an active life here and there across the globe. As I held this little red book the memories came flooding back. Of long dull days in Victorian classrooms, sitting at desks encrusted with the graffiti of generations of repressed schoolboys, watching chin in hand the dust motes twinkle in the sunbeams as the master droned on. The smell of chalk and damp grey flannel and the sound of dinner; the shrill cries of excitement and encouragement from the pitches and the slippery, mud splattered misery of running on a cold, damp, fog-enshrouded autumn afternoon. Happy days - looked back on from afar.

So, I sat down and began idly reading Trevelyan's Little Red Book, wondering whether the formidable intimidation of digesting it for examination would be overcome by my not having to. Passages of wisdom leapt out at me, now illuminated by the experiences of adulthood, of watching arrogant politicians successively wreck this country.

"In the mid-eighteenth century, religious fanaticism was moribund, and the fanaticism of class and race had not yet arisen to vex mankind with new ills. During this blessed breathing space between the English and French Revolutions, Englishmen learnt by the passage of quiet years the difficult art of leaving one another alone. And the King and his subjects, governors and governed, also learnt to abide by the law, in that most legal of eras."

"These engrained habits of toleration and respect for law sank deep into the English mind during the hundred years that followed the (English) revolution, and had their effect when the stresses of a new era began - with the democratic movement, the French Revolution and the social problems of the great industrial change. The habit of respecting constitutional rights acted as some check on the violence of the anti-Jacobin reaction, and the same habit of mind carried the Radical and working-class movements into legal and parliamentary channels."

"Government by discussion" Trevelyan called it and it seems to me that is the sort of government a conservative espouses but which has almost passed. Now it seems we have government by emotional blackmail, by accusation, by diatribe. A chaotic cacophony of multiple vested interests and needs, all convinced of their own certitude, all determined to become the priority of a Westminster that should do something and all advanced by alternately demanding and denouncing. Where, within this clamour is there room for reflection, for circumspection and for objective discussion? Does Nick Clegg really believe that in five minutes he and his wonks can come up with something that will serve Britain better than centuries of evolution, of tried and tested cobbling together and muddling along together?

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  1. Excellent!

  2. A Conservative believes in:
    Less Government; better Government
    Less taxation; better Taxation
    Less regulation; better regulations
    Less law, better enforcement

  3. “I believe part of what makes a conservative tick is the dislike of labels and a one-size-fits-all ideological dogma.”

    Too right, Nicholas! Or perhaps I should say, ‘Right on!’ or maybe just, ‘I agree!’

    Those who inhabit the Westminster bubble have a vested interest in maintaining a narrowly defined “one-size-fits-all” political consensus. No matter what the political weather they can happily to and fro between parliament, think(ha!) tanks, quangos, “consultancy” and the meeja. Got to say the right thing though. By happily abandoning their conscience they are handsomely rewarded. Just as well because an increasing number of them have never done an honest day’s work in their lives!

    In the outside world, employment has been dumbed down to such and extent that today nobody is allowed to operate without a crib sheet or a checklist abounding with tick boxes. Initiative, common sense and responsibility are a thing of the past. The de-skilling of employment might have started with the advent of production line manufacturing but the inexorable dumbing has since spread into all areas of human activity.

    After 100 years of “progress” we can all drive around in cars that work and watch TV in HD but the downside is that we are all expected be the same. In the “age of diversity” we are supposed to think the same, weigh the same, eat the same, and utter the same. Only accepted norms of being are allowed. Long gone are the days of, “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

    For me, Patrick McGoohan summed it up nicely back in the ’60s.

    “I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.”
    The Prisoner, 1967.

    Today? “May the farce be with you!”

  4. A conservative finds it difficult to belong to a party, doesn’t make a fuss, doesn’t expect other people to pay for them or their family, doesn’t wear their heart on their sleeve, and mostly minds their own business. Probably the majority of decent British people. That is why they aren’t really represented in public life.

  5. PS conservatives tend to be generous with their own money and sparing with other people’s. They like to help other people directly, not via the government.

  6. Hugo Rifkind gets the kicking his lefty article in the Spectator deserves:

  7. There is a contradiction at the heart of what Nicholas writes which he may illuminate and resolve in Part 2. This is as follows. The conservative, he writes, is someone who tackles society’s problems by discussion. This tradition of government by discussion, he continues, has now however largely passed. There are still of course many conservatives who are frustrated that there is no discussion by our country’s government whether, for example, to pass our legislating powers to Brussels, to increase the staff of the state as a ruse to enlarge the constituency of a political party but at the cost of the country’s finances, to bring into the country vast numbers of unassimilable foreigners with no role to play in the economy but with a culture or ideology alien or hostile to ours, or to dismantle our armed forces and their traditions . The most striking example of this was last week with the news that Clegg and Clark had instructed government advisers to ignore “agitation from parliament” in arriving at decisions on the UK Commission on a Bill of Rights.
    What should a conservative do in this situation? If he tries to insist on discussion by government, he will be ignored. It would be distasteful for him to adopt or to call for his representatives to the tricks of the modern political class. If, on the other hand, he renounces insistence on government by discussion altogether in recognition that it can no longer be effective or allowed, will he cease to be a conservative in any sense recognizable either by Trevelyan or Nicholas? Do the times, in other words, require in order for constitutional principle to be upheld that the radical conservative brook no discussion in cleaning out those who block government by discussion? Whenever the radical conservative steps on to the stage, the other actors to cry “far right” and drive him into the wings where discussion may be held but cannot persuade the audience. Should the radical conservative return like Colonel Pride and expel “the grandees” from the stage to permit our old constitution to be restored through the trial of those guilty of treason against its principles and practice? Would this be conservatism? Does anyone have the moxy?

  8. I think I take the view that democracy should not be subverted by democractic means. I mean that an anti-democratic state (of whatever form) should not be able to legitimise itself by the forms of democracy when the spirit is absent. When a state has subverted, or is subverting, democracy, then it must be resisted by all non-violent political and social means so that democracy is restored and preserved.

    It should not be possible, for instance, and reflecting on this blog post, for the state to say that ‘we have democractically decided that there is no need for any more discussion’. It should not be possible, for instance, for a Government minister to say, ‘You can express your concerns about gay marriage but we are going ahead anyhow, whatever you say’.

    When the organisations that are supposed to reflect public opinion, both parliament, press and polling organisations, have all been subverted then other means to continue the democratic discussion must be found. I am starting to develop a polling website now because I believe that YouGov, for instance, in such a close relationship with the political class, is unwilling to represent the honest opinion of the people, and is subverting what could be a means of democratic expression to narrow and selfish ends. Maybe it won’t work. But I feel that I have to try. We all have to try.

  9. A good essay. The paradox is that the left is relying on the natural restraint and good manners of the traditionalist right to outflank and to ridicule them. The danger is that they may forget many conservatives other core characteristics, namely the holding of their own convictions and the courage to put them into action

    Any way that you look at it, we are heading for conflict of some sort. All predicated and directed by the left

  10. Re: Right vs Left, conservatives and liberals etc.
    A very interesting interview with Judge Andrew Napolitano.

    “Why Taxation is Theft, Abortion is Murder, & Gov’t is Dangerous”

  11. Nanny Fascism
    We have a Prime Nanny from the ranks of the Conservative Nannies and a Deputy Prime Nanny from the Liberal Nannies; we also have a Nanny of the Exchequer, a Foreign Nanny, a Home Nanny and a Nanny of Justice, etc. On the benches opposite, representing the Nanny Party, formerly Old Nanny and then New Nanny and now just, well, the Nanny Party, we have the Leader of the Opposition Nannies, the Shadow Nanny of the Exchequer, the Shadow Foreign Nanny, the Shadow Home Nanny and the Shadow Nanny of Justice, etc. In Brussels, taking precedence over all the United Kingdom Nannies, we have…

    Time to throw the toys out of the pram…?

  12. Anticipating Part 2 with pleasure: when things that are best left be have not been left be how does the conservative adopt the necessary radicalism while remaining conservative and should he aim to return things to where they were when they were best left be or reform the status quo to construct things which thereafter should best be left be but which are not as they were earlier when they should have best been left be? Do we move backwards to move forward or forwards to move backward?

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