An Opaque Ideology?
Peter King identifies the timeless essence of conservatism
When God finally spoke in English he did so in tones of moderation and quietness. After the violence and turmoil of the Reformation, the Civil War and the Restoration, the authors of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer sought to ease religious tension and to find a middle way between the extremes of Catholics and Protestants. The aim of the Church of England was to disarm and prevent conflict:
“It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.”
The Church is presented here as the middle way between the Catholic and Reformed traditions that had, in their turns, dominated public life since the Reformation. The Church of England was now not to be seen as a vehicle for any particular extreme, but was rather as holding a middle path between the excessive enthusiasm of either side. The Church exists to hold the balance between competing forms of devotion which ask for complete and total allegiance and for the denial of any other path.
Later, in the Order for Holy Communion, during the Prayers of Intercession, the Priest prays that God save and defend the Queen, but also that ‘we may be godly and quietly governed’. We are to fear God and worship Him, but we are expected to be able to live quietly, undisturbed by the extremes of religious and political dispute.
This view of religion, by putting an emphasis on the middle way and avoiding dispute, can be seen as empty, and as being more concerned with maintaining the peace than proselytising and declaring the Gospel. There was certainly a sense, as writers such as Trollope have shown, that it was conformity rather than belief that held the Church together. Indeed, some might suggest that the Church was a mere instrument of the state, intent on maintaining the social order, the true opium of the masses.
But this is to misunderstand the role that the Church had undertaken. As Roger Scruton has argued, the Church became a focus of unity, of holding a community together. But it did this not by enforcing a rigid conformity, but by creating a common sense of identity. It was the Church of England. It was for the English and by the English. What mattered was not what was believed in Church but what it represented. Hence it is important to note that the form of worship authorised for use in churches from 1662 onwards was titled The Book of Common Prayer. This was what the English did together and demonstrated what was shared by all.
Of course, there was dissent and controversy within the Church of England, and religious toleration was by no means complete until several centuries after 1662. The Church was not always able to maintain its unity, but it did largely succeed well into the 20th century in presenting a unifying force. And what mattered was not what the Church believed in, but rather what it did not insist upon. It could accommodate a range of views and do this because of what it was seen to represent.
The view represented in The Book of Common Prayer, of keeping the mean between two extremes, is demonstrative of a particular view within political and social thought (and we should see The Book of Common Prayer as much as a political achievement as a religious one). Instead of the modern view that it is possible to reach a consensus between competing views, the view exhibited by the Church was one of contending visions of the good that could not be reconciled. The Book of Common Prayer did not so much seek to find a way of bringing Catholics and Protestants together as to find a means of keeping them apart, of holding the balance between them. The antagonism and differences did not go away. They were rather held in place and each allowed to operate without adversely affecting the other.
This essentially conservative view, which we find in the work of writers such as Michael Oakeshott, is that the role of government and public institutions is to ensure that irreconcilable differences do not develop into violence and conflict. It does not seek to find the consensus, because this does not exist, and indeed cannot exist without imposing one view on another. This would not avoid conflict and division but rather institutionalise it. Instead the aim is to find some means of commonality within which differing conceptions of the good can co-exist. The authors of The Book of Common Prayer achieved this by ensuring that members of the Church of England were not forced to believe in much at all. After over a century of religious controversy the way to avoid conflict was to empty out the Church of much of its content and to focus instead on it as an institution. One was expected to believe in the Church of England as a commonly held entity rather than in any particular doctrine.
To put this another way, the Church of England sought to hold the middle way by avoiding being relevant. It did not seek to pronounce on every issue and to involve itself in controversy. Rather it sought to locate the issues of the day within the timeless nature of God’s Church. We might say that this largely held until relatively recent times when the Church seemed to feel the need to make itself relevant. This meant that the Church now sought to locate itself in relation to the key controversies of the day. The Church is no longer holding the balance but allying itself to one side.
I have no wish here to develop a critique of the current leadership of the Church of England. I am not even particularly concerned with whether this is a particularly complete picture of the Church’s history. We could indeed just as readily point to figures such as Wesley and Newman, and see the history of the Church as one of conflict and division. My aim is rather to point to what was the particular principle that was placed at the very heart of the Church. This is the idea of the middle way, of steering a way between extremes. In other words, it is the deliberate rejection of radicalism in all its forms. It is where we take seriously the notion of conserving, of keeping things as they are in order to hold the balance between equally compelling views of the good. It is where we do not seek to take sides but maintain a position where all sides can be accommodated.
It seems to me that this view is the very essence of conservatism, particularly (but not exclusively) in its English form. However, it is one that has fallen out of favour: there no longer seems to be any necessary connection between conservatives and the desire to conserve. It has become increasingly common for conservatives of various stripes to call for radical change and even for some to call for a ‘conservative revolution’. What seems to motivate many contemporary conservatives is not the need to conserve or to hold a middle way, but rather to achieve a particular end state in politics. This applies to traditionalists as well as modern conservatives. There are traditional conservatives who seek to return Britain to some earlier state. This might mean Britain leaving the European Union, or rejecting multiculturalism and egalitarian. They might seek to end non-white immigration and even to repatriate those they consider do not ‘belong’. What is important to us here is that they see themselves as radical, perhaps even revolutionary, in their intent. They are not prepared to accept the old ways of politics, which they consider have failed, but wish a more direct approach to achieving what they take to be widely held aims.
But is it really tenable to be a conservative and a radical or a revolutionary? Is not the nature of conservatism to preserve and therefore to limit the possibility for change? Indeed why would conservatives – people who explicitly label themselves as wishing to conserve – want to wrap themselves in the banner of radicalism?
Some might point to the etymological meaning of the word ‘radical’ as getting to the roots of the matter, and reaching a full and complete understanding of it. True conservatives, they argue, should readily wish to do this. So for a conservative to be radical, it would only mean that they are trying to gain a full understanding of an issue and so get right to the heart of the matter. But as Roger Scruton has argued, conservatives are concerned with the surface of things and do not subscribe to hidden meanings. Conservatism is not an analytical position or one based on a clear rationality. Conservatives do not wish to explore the underneath of things, as they know they can only do so by destroying what they seek to examine. We can get to the roots only by pulling up the plant and examining them, perhaps by cutting them up and then discarding them once we have discovered what we wish to know about them. But why would conservatives wish to destroy that which they are party to? They wish to be rooted, to stay in place and not to be dug up. We should therefore be distinctly non-radical: to be anything else would mean destroying the traditions we seek to preserve.
Radicalism means to uproot rather than being rooted; it means to pull up and destroy what is living and sustaining in order to pursue an end beyond what is rooted. It is based on a refusal to accept the world as it currently is. The radical cannot accept his place in the world. Instead he believes he can remake the world in a different image, and this applies even to those attempts to ‘take back’ the country or to return to a golden age rather than to create something entirely new. But this is based on an illusion, that there can be a way back and that there was indeed a golden age that the radical can recreate. But, whatever they might claim, radicals are in fact trying to build something new. Even if a conservative golden age did once exist, there is no conceivable means of remaking it.
For a conservative the present can be all there is. It has been made by the past and it can be no other that what is here and now. The present is therefore unconditional and we have no choice but to start from here and to accept it. To do anything else would be to gamble, to risk the only life we will have for a hope of something better. We can only have any certainty about the present, where we are, rather than where we are going. This rather banal statement – ‘this is the only life we have’ – is crucial for understanding the significance of conservatism. Radicalism and extremism involve sacrifice, of oneself and of others, in order to achieve some uncertain gain. The costs of that sacrifice can be known, for we can lose all we have now, while the benefits can only be guessed at. What we sacrifice is all we have. Some might see the cost as worth it, but most of us might not.
The Book of Common Prayer is the result of the rejection of extremism. Extremism had torn the country apart over successive generations as different religious groups fought to gain supremacy. What was lost was a sense of commonality and in its place was a hatred of the other. The views of the other could not be allowed to persist, but had to be stopped were the perfect future to be obtained. The Book of Common Prayer does not seek to support one side against another, but to reject the very idea of a conflict. Implicit in the work is the idea that we should accept that we can never fully agree with each other. Accordingly, we should all limit our actions to accommodate others and so try to hold a balance. This involved establishing an institution – the Church of England – that could accommodate difference and allow most to settle within it without having to justify themselves to anyone but their God.
If conservatives recognise anything it is that we all have roots. To say we are rooted is to suggest we are connected, that we are placed. It is an awful cliché to say that ‘we are rooted in the soil’, but then, to coin another one, clichés become clichés because they have some truth in them. We have a sense of place and we feel located. This may be a small space, like a village or even our own dwelling, or it may be a community or a nation. But we can identify with that place. We are rooted into that place. This is another way of suggesting that we gain meaning from what is around us.
Yet this sense of rootedness is not merely about meaning. It is also about obligation. As Simone Weil suggested, being in a community – being tied to a people in a place – brings with it an obligation. We are committed to something and this is a two-way process: that something is committed to us. We gain from our connection with others and with an ideal, but that also means that we too must work to protect and to nurture that connection and that ideal. Being rooted in the soil brings with it an obligation to maintain it, to sustain it and to put back more than we have taken out. Our use of the soil is a form of trust, held by us for those gone and those yet to come. But it is also about the way we can trust our surroundings, in their regularities, their assuring qualities, and their certainty. This place then is very much what we are stuck in.
But there is more to ‘place’ than that. Places are often substantial things that can stand up to the elements and resist their buffeting. Our dwelling covers us and protects us. It allows us to be intimate with those we love and share with; it helps us to feel secure by offering us privacy. But to do this it must be grounded. A house is built on foundations. These foundations go down into the ground and remain there as solid embodiments of our need for roots. They stay where they are, and for this we are grateful. Foundations are anchors; they hold the house tight to the ground. They form the sustaining link with a place.
We put down roots, but this is not always or ever of our own choosing. Often it is where we fell and ‘took’ in the ground, or we were planted there by others. We are located here for reasons that are unclear to us, even as we realise the importance of our being here. But we need not understand our rootedness for it to work for us. We have fallen already on made ground that has ruts carved into it by those who preceded us with their traffic and commerce. So, as we put down roots, we find that there are paths already leading to us. It is often only because we are connected to well-trodden path – that we can say our roots go back generations – that we will be accepted in a place and feel able, and are allowed, to call it ours. It is only once we have shown our obligations and commitment to a place that our roots are acknowledged. It is important precisely because it will guard us against false idols and the pernicious belief that we can take up our roots and walk. We cannot simply disengage in the hope of finding something new and better.
The root holds the plant up, so that it can reach up to the light. It takes its energy from both above and below. The root is a source of nutrition from close by. It is within the soil, taking up sustenance from around it. But it also supports the plant as it takes its energy from a source that is distant, seemingly eternal and certainly universal. So we link into that which is near: we take the shelter offered by our rooted dwelling, but we are nurtured also by more distant, impersonal and long-lived entities like a community and traditions and customs.
The root is grounded in something that is solid and permanent, which supports it physically, just as the root gives physical support to the plant. Plants, of course, can be pulled up, transplanted, re-potted. The root needs space and may need to be moved if the space is insufficient. Yet it cannot be in continual motion. It needs to be put back into something solid. Roots need to be settled.
The root, indeed, is the main supporting element for the plant. But it is not the reason for the plant. The root is as it is because it has a purpose to fulfil, and it can fulfil this purpose. It is the plant’s response to the demand for life. The root is what seeks out the nutrients needed for life. It is therefore active and purposeful, but it is not an entity in itself. In this way, the root is the main conduit to the external world. It is the only point of direct and regular contact with the world outside.
We are rooted in what is around us. We have settled into it. We have become, as it were, anchored into the soil, into that place which is ours, with its particular rhythms and the sense that flows from it. This rootedness is found in institutions such as family, community, class and nation, as well as in particular places that we have come to love.
The idea of the root offers a sense of certainty and integrity. It is a symbol of continuity, of a located fulfilment of our plans. It is by staying still and remaining constant that we grow. Roots nurture us. And so, despite having the same derivation, roots and radical are conflicting ideas: one is about being settled and the other is about tearing up; one is about accepting what we are and where we are, and the other is about questioning. And in the questioning, the radical destroys the root.
 Scruton, R (2012): Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (Atlantic Books)
 See in particular Oakeshott, M (1991): Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Liberty Fund)
 Scruton, R (2001): The Meaning of Conservatism (Palgrave Macmillan)
 Weil, S (1952): The Need for Roots (Ark)
PETER KING is Reader in Social Thought at De Montfort University. His most recent books are Keeping Things Close: An Essay on the Conservative Disposition and Here and Now: Some Thoughts on the World and How We Find it, both published by Arktos in 2015