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Is there a moral case for conservatism?

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The author of Edmund Burke’s Battle with Liberalism has just released his newest engaging book, The Moral Case for Conservatism, published by Wilberforce Publications.

Author Samuel Burgess argues that conservatism is not simply a political tradition but a moral one, built on Christian foundations, with real power to transform lives.

Typically, conservatism has been defined as a political philosophy merely opposing change and innovation, and favouring free enterprise, private ownership and ‘socially conservative’ ideas. However, Burgess argues that “conservatism is not concerned with preventing change, but it is concerned with ensuring that changes made within a nation are necessary and beneficial.” Furthermore, true conservatism holds community at its heart.

While some may see the title and wonder what a political party can teach us about morality, Burgess is quick to clarify that the book concerns the principles of conservatism (small ‘c’), not the Conservative Party (big ‘C’) which, in many ways, has drifted from its roots. Rather, he argues the political party in the UK has “shown signs that they have forgotten the very meaning of conservatism.”

He explains, “As with all political labels, we must be careful not to assume that a commonality of name implies a commonality of belief.” He goes on to trace a brief history of conservatism from proto-conservatives such as Richard Hooker (b. 1554), through Burke and others opposed to the French Revolution, to the turn of the twenty-first century.

Conservatism, Burgess argues, is not a rigid ideology, but is favourably disposed towards six broad principles:

  • Moral and philosophical realism
  • An accurate account of human nature
  • A scepticism about abstract ideologies
  • A belief in freedom under law
  • The preservation of healthy customs and institutions
  • Limited government and the primacy of civil society

Burgess writes, “some political theories are logically derived from, and consistent with, religious beliefs. Conservatism is a body of political conclusions that has been constructed within the scaffolding of the Christian tradition. Christianity does not give us a political model, but it does offer an account of the nature of the universe we live in.”

The book examines eight aspects of life, including community, markets, religion and beauty, explaining why the principles of conservatism continue to be relevant: “Above all, conservatism holds community at its heart, in the belief that human relationships can transform lives in a way that government programmes cannot.”

As Edmund Burke himself once argued, political institutions and government programmes will never instil ‘parochial affections’ into society: “On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons, so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment.” (Reflections on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke) Rather, society is made better through relationships and in community, where these ‘affections’ can be nurtured.

Burgess’ aim is that citizens are challenged to change society. His desire is to see a society in which communities are strong, families come first and talk of duty is as common as talk of rights. If we are engaged in a culture war, he argues, then individuals making a stand in their communities is just as important as the grand strategy played out in Westminster.

He concludes: “It is my sincere hope that conservatives will be prompted to reflect on the human heart of their own tradition, ensuring that it never strays into exclusivity or avarice. But I also hope that sceptics will reconsider their opinion of a tradition which has brought opportunity to millions and in the past has set Britain on a brighter path.”

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