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27 May 2013

Conservatism means telling people what they don’t want to hear

In what is sadly his last blogpost for the Telegraph, Ed West signs off with a meditation on the true meaning of conservatism:

  • “One of the most telling comments David Cameron has ever made came last week when he accused some of his critics of being 'pessimists' for believing that he won’t get a deal in Europe.
  • “Of course we’re pessimists, we’re conservatives – that’s the whole point. Some see a glass half-full, some see a glass half-empty, we see the downfall of Western civilisation and the country going to the dogs. If you want cheery, happy people who think everything’s going to turn out like one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses drawings of heaven where the kids are lying in a field next to a moose, join the Liberal Democrats.”

Not that conservatism should be confused with relentless pessimism:

  • “Conservatism is depressive realism. That’s not to say that things are always bad, or necessarily getting worse, but that there is a natural tendency among humans to ignore problems, and it’s our job to point this out”

Still, “depressive realism” – doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, does it? Compared to the alternative, though, it’s ice cream and jelly:

  • “Since the time of the Greeks, people have been coming up with schemes to create better societies that are hopelessly unrealistic, and from 1789 the human race has become hugely inventive at thinking of terrible ways to leave us all impoverished or dead, most of them based on the idea that humans are instinctively good. The European project is one such highly optimistic idea: just because every single attempt to overcome national identity in history has ended in miserable failure and bloodshed, that’s not to stop us trying again, eh, folks?”

It’s also wrong to characterise conservatism as a do-nothing philosophy. Conservatives believe that progress is possible, but only by working with reality instead of chasing dreams:

  • “Conservatism may sound miserable, even misanthropic, but it only recognises that within the communities we live in, which are from an evolutionary point of view unnaturally large, there need to be firm rules to minimalise free-riding, violent conflict and economic disaster. The idea of evolutionary conservatism is to build a society that is as just, progressive, wealthy and happy as is possible within the boundaries of human nature.”

The greatest divide in political philosophy is not between right and left, but between conservatism and all of its rivals. Socialism, liberalism, libertarianism, populism and fascism have their obvious differences, but they all, in their own way, have the same message – anything is possible. Only conservatism turns round and says, oh no it isn’t – humanity is flawed, we all make mistakes, so don’t get carried away.

Ed West concludes with an appropriately downbeat assessment of his own output as a writer:

  • “Sometimes I look at my own byline picture and want to punch it. I’m sure it must be impossible, after writing comment pieces for a while, not to hate yourself to a certain extent; in fact there’s probably something wrong with you if you don’t. Maybe you’re a psychopath.”

"Psychopath" is probably going a bit far, but it would be a good thing if more conservative commentators showed the self-doubt that characterises Ed West's writing, instead of the self-righteousness that is best left to the other side.

Of course, we must always endeavour to stand up for what we believe to be true, but as mere mortals we cannot be certain that it is. In any case, given the times we live in, a conservative does well just to be heard – to be right as well is the icing on the cake:

  • “That’s ultimately what political commentators are for, to say something different when faced with the collective madness that passes for current opinion.”


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