Peter King commends constraint
The form of conservative politics that I espouse has no purpose. Governing is an end in itself and it is leading nowhere. The purpose of government is the hold the balance between the conflicting and often contradictory aims of individuals and groups within society. What motivates my conservatism is not a set of principles, but the practicalities of our life as we lead it. We can only live through the operation of constraint based on the recognition that others, with equal justification, wish to pursue their own ends. The main purpose of government is to maintain those constraints.
I can admire those who do not bend in their morality or religious beliefs and refuse to compromise. But in politics the inability, or refusal, to compromise is dangerous. The problem of principled people in politics is that they tend to believe that their principles stand above all others and that they should therefore be imposed on the rest of us. It is for our own good to be directed by those with access to the truth. So, it is not just that these people are prepared to sacrifice themselves, but that they are willing to sacrifice the rest of us along the way.
I am almost serious when I argue that a principled conservative happily admits that he does not have any principles. He does not wish to impose a worldview on anyone and he is quite happy to take the world as it is. The conservative knows that there can be no consensus in society but merely the accommodation of difference. To impose one view at the expense of all others has little to do with truth, but is rather an expression of power. Indeed, it is worse: it is power without authority, which can only come when power has a legitimate basis.
Conservatives are people who wish to protect things. They recognise what is valuable in their culture and their daily lives and work to sustain these. This is not about principles, but is a matter of reaction. It is a disposition based on vigilance and on an awareness of the dangers posed by others who wish to sacrifice the present for a future only they can imagine.
Accordingly, I would suggest that the best form of government is that which treats us with relative indifference. We elect governments to make decisions on our behalf so that we can then pursue our own ends. We do not wish to be bothered continually by these decisions, even though we know them to be important and complex. We wish others to take the responsibility so we can do other things.
This does not mean that we are uninterested in the world around us. Rather we feel that there are other things that are more pressing and matter more to us. These interests, to those outside, may appear trivial and mundane. But then so they should: it is through their indifference that we are preserved.
I do not consider this to be apathy. It is rather the wisdom of closeness: a benign self-interest that allows us to focus on what is close and so ignore others as they do the same. It is actually based on an understanding of what really matters to us, a recognition of what we can change and what we want to keep the same. We should remember that Edmund Burke’s idea of the ‘little platoon’ was descriptive and not prescriptive. Burke saw what it is that we need to do to live well. This is just how things are, not how he thought they could or should be. This benign self-interest is how we do live, and this, I would argue, pertains whether we wish it to or not. Those who seek change, be it reform or revolution, are as dependent on those things as anyone else.
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
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