Only Conserve

Bob Barron, The Remains of the Day 1

Bob Barron, The Remains of the Day 1

Only Conserve

Peter King condemns change for change’s sake

One of Edmund Burke’s most famous sayings is that ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’. This is sometimes used to suggest that conservatives should not oppose change, but rather engage with it and that without change there is no possibility of survival. The result is that Burke can be, and is, used to justify political change, and to make it respectable for those conservatives, including many in the current ruling party, who like to label themselves as progressives.

It is no longer enough for a Conservative merely to want to conserve things. Conservatives have to be modern and progressive and seek to create a better society. Conservative politicians argue that they wish to help people achieve their aspirations, to reach higher and to make a better life for themselves. What they cannot countenance is that we might actually prefer where we are and only want to be left alone. We do not all want to be somewhere else and are very sceptical of the idea that there can be somewhere better.

It is worthwhile, then, putting Burke’s quote in its proper context. In doing so, we shall see that Burke is actually pointing toward a rather different conclusion that the ready grasping of change. He says:

A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve. The two principles of conservation and correction operated strongly at the two critical periods of the restoration and Revolution, when England found itself without a king. At both those periods the nation had lost the bond of union in their antient edifice; they did not, however, dissolve the whole fabric. On the contrary, in both cases they regenerated the deficient part of the old constitution through the parts which were not impaired. They kept the old parts exactly as they were, that the part recovered might be suited to them.[1]

Burke is writing here in response to a request for his views on the French Revolution and, in particular, whether he would agree with those in England who argued that the French were merely doing what the English had done in their Glorious Revolution of 1688, namely, overthrowing an illegitimate monarch. Burke’s correspondent was trying to enlist Burke’s support for the premise that the people had the right to rid themselves of a king they could no longer support. Burke, a noted supporter of the rights of the American colonists and the Indian native population, was presumed to stand behind the idea of universal rights.

But this was a complete misunderstanding of Burke’s position. For him, rights did not arrive out of some abstract principle but from particular historical circumstance. Burke argues that the revolution of 1688 did not involve the overthrow of a monarch so much as a situation where the English used their traditional and considered Constitution to correct a deficiency that had arisen through the abdication of an unsuitable monarch. The Constitution was not set aside, but rather was used and followed in order to repair the deficiency and so continue on much as it always had done. Precedent was used to determine a way forward that was consistent with the traditions and history of the country.

Accordingly, the decisions taken in 1688 were not acts of repudiation but rather acts of repair. The deficiency caused by the abdication of an unsuitable king was remedied using those parts of the Constitution that still held fast. The result was that the traditions of the country were strengthened rather than weakened. The Glorious Revolution was not a transgression but a clarification of already existing ideas.

Burke was here seeking to deflect the accusation that the French, with their capture and imprisonment of their monarch and usurpation of his authority, were in some manner mimicking the English. The French, however, had committed the treachery of innovation and operated according to the fiction that a monarch could be replaced if he no longer governed according to the will of the people. Burke showed that this was opposed to those actions of the English, who had merely sought to protect their constitution and ensure a recovery of tradition. They were not then properly speaking revolting but acting in a manner consistent with established ways.

We should note here that Burke talks only of conservation and correction and makes no mention of reform or improvement. Change is necessary not to modernise but to maintain and preserve what is ancient. Change is not something to relish but rather it is something to be managed. Change is something to endure or suffer as best we can. The best means to get through it is by using our working traditions to salve those parts that need repair. In other words, a society has to have the means to react to circumstance.

So, to follow Burke, we only change because it is necessary to do so, and we use what still works to remake what is deficient. We do not innovate or invent, and we do not rush our change as if it were an end in itself. What we have to do is to slow down, to ensure that we retain control. We change only to preserve what we already have, and we do so out of a recognition of its intrinsic value as the means by which we are what we are.

This puts a completely different complexion on the original quote. It is only by removing it from its proper context that anyone can use Burke’s statement to justify the changes we see going on around us. The fact that change is inevitable does not mean that we must encourage, promote or even accelerate it. Change is to be mitigated and we do this using the safety and security provided by known ways. So to claim that Burke is somehow on the side of progress is to seriously misunderstand one of the great masters of conservative thought.

[1] Burke, E 1999, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Liberty Fund pp., 108-9

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

See more of Bob Barron’s artwork at

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