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21 June 2013

Heresy of the week: Conservatism is not about keeping everything the same

“A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop!” These words – from that great conservative intellectual William Buckley – are often quoted in attempts to define conservatism. However, it is not the full quotation, which carries on as follows: “...at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Note the qualification. Conservatism is not about blanket opposition to change, but about remaining open to the case for continuity – even when others have closed their minds to it. Indeed, given the option, continuity is to be preferred. Or, as various conservatives are quoted as saying: “if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” But again note the qualification – change may be necessary.

This is something to bear in mind when reading Peter Oborne’s critique of the Coalition Government in the Telegraph. As we know, Mr Oborne doesn’t like other people having a go at David Cameron and his team, but he reserves the right to do so himself:

  • “...it is absurd to criticise Mr Cameron’s government for being too cautious and consensual. If anything this admirably radical administration deserves criticism for doing too much. In its urgent ambition to leave an enduring mark on society, it is arguably in danger of trying to make too many changes at once.”

Oborne is certainly right to say that this a radical government:

  • “On welfare, on education, on health and even (up to a certain point) on the economy, Cabinet ministers have embarked on ambitious change. Many of these changes are, furthermore, emphatically Conservative in vision and inspiration.”

The charge that the Government is making “too many changes at once” is less convincing. Britain is still on the path to bankruptcy. It is heading for the cliff edge at a slower rate than before, thanks to the progress made since 2010, but it has yet to stop, let alone turn around.

Oborne, though, is afraid that the Government has been infiltrated by a gang of blue Maoists:

  • “There are too many radicals at the heart of the Cameron government – and not enough Conservatives. These radicals fail to share the Conservative insight that continuity matters more than change, and stability more than either.”

Continuity of what exactly? Oborne concentrates on two examples – the civil service and the legal system. It would seem that Francis Maude is intent on politicising the former, while Chris Grayling privatises the latter:

  • “In an extraordinary and unprecedented development, 18 out of 20 permanent secretaries have quit their departments since the 2010 general election. This is a scandal.”

Oborne writes as if thirteen years of Labour rule had never happened and had no significant impact on the composition, character and competence of the civil service. After a disastrous decade of monumental administrative failure, can he really not see the need for sweeping change? If the mandarins have not found the transition from profligacy to austerity to their liking, that is their problem – and the decision to quit was theirs too.

The Grayling reforms to the legal system are a separate matter – though once again the driver is the urgent need to save money, not ideology. Oborne claims that “after Mr Grayling has done his work justice will continue to be available, at a stiff price, for the very rich” – rather like the current situation, then.

It's all very well for philosophical conservatives to exclaim “don’t just do something, stand there!” But sometimes the status quo is unsustainable. Or, to look at it another way, sometimes we have to choose what to conserve and what to let go. Right now that choice is between national solvency and the favoured arrangements of a bloated establishment.


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