Friday , May 27 2022

The road away from conservatism

(Image: Len Copland)

The following is a joint piece from Jake Scott and Angus Gillan


The greatest obstacle facing Boris Johnson is the clear lack of a philosophy at present. As the oldest political party, still active, in history, with a record of continued and effectual governing, one would be quite right to reason that successive Conservative governments would hold a coherent set of ideas. At times this has been true; at others, like now, the party has lost its way. The Conservative Party is now bewildered, and without core principles to guide us, we are derailing. When such a crisis of confidence ensues, poor policy is the outcome. One need only look at the stumbling path this government has taken through the coronavirus pandemic to see a real-world example.


A different crisis now, however, is not one in which Government policy is failing, but rather one that is happening willfully. The desecration of Stonehenge cannot be endorsed. 


Conservatism has the messiness of being an operational ideology; it begins from the real world, born of perspectives shaped by a particular time and place, and seeking answers to enduring questions with recourse to equally enduring wisdom. Yet, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has overruled the Planning Inspectorate to approve the development of an (upwards of) £2 billion dual-carriageway tunnel under the most famous prehistoric site in Europe. The work will ‘introduce a greater physical change to the Stonehenge landscape than has occurred in its 6,000 years as a place of widely acknowledged human significance.’ 


Fiscal irresponsibility and disregard for taxpayers and heritage defines this state-backed infrastructure project, which is more akin to the actions of governments in developing nations. In fact, it is exactly what is happening in Egypt, with the construction of ever more highways across the pyramids’ plateau. The Egyptian government similarly projects marginal improvements to travel times, but has received widespread condemnation for its disdain for the unexplored heritage. On Salisbury Plain, the justification is that 4.8 seconds per mile will be shaved off a circa 100 mile journey, though let’s forget that part of the road will still be a single lane, so you can bet on being stuck behind tractors.


While Adam Smith argues in part for state infrastructure projects, it is very much true, as Philip Lynch has written in The Politics of Nationhood, that an essence of Conservatism is a rejection of ‘activist or ideological politics based on end-state goals.’ The Government, driven by the ‘levelling up’ agenda, is looking to deliver such end state goals, as vigorously displayed in the Spending Review. It is hard to justify such projects when ‘all archaeology in the construction zones would be destroyed and the A303 would become the largest ever human intervention in an area fashioned and revered by over a hundred generations of our ancestors.’ 


Even with emergency archaeology, up to half a million artefacts are now consigned to be lost under tarmac. With sites such as Stonehenge, surface level work may be an eyesore, but the material that teaches us about our past is buried beyond a metre underground, in the tunnels’ path. There will also be no time to capture environmental data via the long processes required for soil sampling. We will never know how many will not get the feeling of excitement when the news, a tweet, or a WhatsApp message from a family member lets you know that material dating back thousands of years has been newly discovered. 


Inheritance for future generations

Beyond money time, it is the rampant disregard for the damage that will be inflicted on the World Heritage Site that shows the Conservative Party’s abandonment of its foundational values. The value of things lies not in their utility but in their history: life is a social contract, ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’, in Burke’s immutable words.


This levies a duty at those living now, to respect the inheritance that has been passed to us and, in so doing, recognise that we living few are not at liberty to judge the value of something. We cannot choose our past and it would be arrogant to think we have the ‘right’ knowledge capable of judging the value of our past to future generations. Our duty is one of stewardship, of inheriting not only the things passed down to us but the wisdom they hold within them, which cannot be so wantonly cast aside. Those who forget from where they come, will forget who they are. 


In order to steward the world well and pass it on to future generations, British intellectual history has regarded institutions as repositories of guiding, not dictatorial, wisdom, and professional warnings that their actions will not preserve millennia-old artefacts should send chills through the spine of any conservative. In opposing the tunnel, we are not deferring to bureaucratic agencies; rather we take their insight and choose to not deprive the next generation of making future discoveries. 


Sense of self-worth from heritage

Without robustly caring for this inheritance, the government chips away at our social fabric. Adam Smith saw that people have a desire for esteem. Societies were held together in part by a sense of worth. From Disraeli’s Monarchy, ‘One Nation’, Church discourse, to Thatcher’s defence of the Falklands in the face of commentary that said Britain did not have the energy to fend of half-baked dictators, Conservatives have often seen within, or dreamed of, individuals and Britain having latent power within us to achieve more than is expected of a small island in the cold north Atlantic.


By turning our back on the reverence of ancient monuments, why would our party believe in the sanctity of any part of our history? As Christopher Berry (David Hume p.152) wrote in his study of David Hume, while referencing Roger Scruton (The Meaning of Conservatism 1980 p.66) the conservative views themselves as ‘part of an order that transcends anything he could himself enact’. If we are to level-up with such headstrong abandon that we will cause ‘substantial harm’ to Stonehenge, why not tear it all down to be replaced by concrete and glass?Sadly, this is exactly what is happening with our current  state backed major infrastructure projects; despite commitments to incorporate the Eagle and Tun pub, built in 1900, into HS2 Curzon Street Railway Station, the century old red brick building has been demolished, Victorian red brick with a century of stories, replaced by ageless glass.


Indeed, this is the problem of the current Conservative Party’s attitude to historical sites: they are not viewed with reverence, valuable as things in themselves, but as roadblocks on the path to a brighter future. But this future is increasingly out of reach. When this social fabric is damaged, it is almost impossible to replace; instead, we are faced with a radical choice of forming a new social fabric or going our own separate ways. If the historical identity of a people is so deeply damaged, so too is the reason for that people’s future association; Bernard Yack wrote of a nation as a temporal entity, sharing a history embodied in communal things, but if those things disappear, so too does the history. Thus, the social contract of Burke is broken, and the self-worth identified by Smith will not be felt by those who come next. 


It is poor party politics 

From the theoretical to the tangible, politics revolves around holding power. To do so, governments and oppositions must ensure that their core values are entwined with, and define, the contemporary discourse. As Andrew Taylor wrote, ‘effective statecraft also required a convincing narrative of what Conservatism is.’ (Taylor, Economic Statecraft p.135). Again we posit the question, if we are to coldly desecrate heritage sites with statist endeavours, what is this conservatism? 


A parliamentarian well versed in the dangers of the ‘continuing commercialization of the public realm’ is Jesse Norman. This effort, to create a modern commercial society that promotes human values is the Conservative Party’s only real hope: to recognise that ‘capitalism’ is not simply the constant pursuit of money at all costs, but is a mechanism for the enrichment of a whole society, by building on that society’s historical identity. After all, what values could we possibly know that a society holds, if we do not have a history there to inform us?


The case of the Stonehenge tunnel thus has been hit with three strikes, and should certainly be out. It is a financially irresponsible state goal endeavour during a time of fiscal crisis and contraction, ignoring the reverence of heritage, and undermining the social contract. 


From the bulldozing of Victorian buildings and the cutting down of England’s ancient woodlands for HS2, to the sacrilegious tunnelling, this party is not acting conservative. Long after we are gone, people will sit under old trees and gaze at what we leave behind. If we carry on our path, then they may curse our memory as well. 


If you would like to pledge to stop the tunneling, please sign the petition run by the Stonehenge Alliance, led by historian Tom Holland:


About Jake Scott

Jake is a Master’s student of Political Theory at the University of Birmingham in the UK with a focus on ideology, and edits the online publication “The Mallard” for conservative students. He is interested in poetry, fiction, moral and aesthetic philosophy, history and, of course, politics. He considers himself a traditional conservative, and focuses on social and cultural conservatism, describing his economic stance as a “reluctant capitalist”.

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