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This is one of a series of EXCERPTS from older articles put online by John Ray as a public service. The articles concerned are in general otherwise available only by special request to a University or other major library.

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The Political Quarterly, 1953, vol. 24, nos. 1-4, pp. 129-133.

PRINCIPLES OF CONSERVATISM



By Keith Feiling

{Keith Feiling was Chichele Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford, 1946-1950, and an historian of the Tory Party}

The stately epitaph which Burke composed for the Prime Minister of his making declares that it was Rockingham's purpose to make party "a living depositary of principle". And it ends "remember, resemble, persevere". It is a good deal easier said than done. Members of a party do not differ, or they at least agree to disagree, on the items of a platform, but when it comes to the principles on which all platforms ultimately rest, there is plentiful room for doubt and dissent. All that an individual student of politics can do is to ascertain, to the best of his powers, the principles which the most illustrious minds of his party have taught, and from which its most positive leaders have advanced....

Nor, once more, do we have a right to expect an undeviating consistency of principle in a long-lived party. Just as the attitude of the Labour movement radically changed in regard to state 'interference' during the half century that ended in 1906, so on equally weighty questions the Tory and Conservative parties veered to and fro over the revolutions of two centuries. Beginning as monarchists who preached passive obedience, in the revolutionary era they dedicated themselves to the defence of individual liberties against "the general will". They were low tariff men under Bolingbroke and the younger Pitt, but high-tariff men when Peel dragged them into a new world. They were isolationists or Little Englanders, as against the Whig junto and Walpole but imperialists under the inspiration of Disraeli, Chamberlain, and Rhodes. It can, then, hardly be in the continuity of principles like these that their identity must consist.

Indeed, if we called them the most unprincipled of all parties, in the sense that rigidity or exclusive principle has been alien to their manner of thinking, there would be a measure of truth in it. It has sometimes been, unkindly, noted that they have often borrowed their leaders, or absorbed them; the puritanic Harley, the Whig Pitts, the radicals Disraeli and Chamberlain. The reason for this, surely, goes deeper than biography. Within a free society, the new urges of party begin on the left and, as they develop, impel elements of the left centre towards the right. By such constant accretions the Conservative party has been perpetually transformed from within. It has taken in the Burke and Portland Whigs, Irish Whig landowners and Liberal peers, the radicalism of Birmingham, and a considerable influence of thought returned from dominions overseas. Any such amalgamation, however indigestible at first, ends in some reshaping of ideas, and affects the balance of interests. More presumably than other parties, the Conservative cause represents many coalitions, by the very law of its growth.

More, then, consequently in all probability than others, the Conservatives should be a comprehensive cause. Even if we ignore its very wide territorial variations of type, and pass over likewise its first unorganized century of life, the elements that have gone to compose it in modern times are mixed, contrasted, even mutually hostile. Pitt and Canning, as against Castlereagh and Wellington; Wordsworth and Coleridge, as against Burke; Shaftesbury, the evangelical philanthropist or Michael Sadler, as against Newman; Peel and Disraeli; the Brontes and the Froudes; Salisbury and Chamberlain; Balfour and Randolph Churchill; Goschen, Hicks Beach, Birkenhead, and Bonar Law. In the case of any single individual, some stress of ambition, some original quality, or secondary disillusionment, may be taken into account. Even so, when we sum up the multitudinous feeling behind them, our problem remains. It is to isolate the 'principles', in agreement with which, or accepting which, they were all substantially willing to serve.

If the first may be thought rather a method or a temperament than a principle, for all that it seems a fundamental. It is a scepticism, amounting to disbelief in any purely intellectual process as a means to explain rights and duties or to justify political obligation. They distrust general notions such as "the community" and would argue that the despotism of reason may cloak as much sinister self-interest and self-deception as any other tyranny. Burke made eloquent how he hated 'the very sound' of abstract rights, insisting that men do not act on metaphysical speculations. And even more. His teaching was that the rules of politics are but morality enlarged, and that all moral questions are mixed questions; not to be resolved by pushing some one abstract principle to its extremity which must end in force, open or concealed, but always by reference to relation and circumstance and moral effect......




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