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?