A few years ago I was addressing an audience along with Michael McDowell. I described myself as a ‘conservative.’ He winced a bit and wondered why I would use a term like that. Almost no-one, not even people who are genuine, bona fide conservatives, are willing to describe themselves as such.
It is because of the baggage that is attached to the label. Conservatives are attached to worn-out customs and traditions. Worse, they have defended oppressive and authoritarian systems of Government. Time and again, history has shown them to be in the wrong.
Why, therefore, would anyone call themselves a ‘conservative’? Isn’t it much better to be a reformer, a liberal, or better yet, a radical? If you do that, you are pretty much guaranteed praise, or at least a quiet life. You can see why even conservatives are reluctant to self-identity as such, even to themselves.
I call myself a conservative because that’s what I am, both by temperament and philosophy. A conservative is suspicious by default of demands for sweeping social change. We want the need for change to be demonstrated. Like the defence team in a trial, we want a certain burden of proof to be met and we believe the burden of proof rests with those who have declared the status quo to be guilty of some deficiency.
When we look at a tradition, which is to say, a practice that has evolved over time in the white heat of human experience, we tend to think it is there for a reason and you should think long and hard before changing it, never mind overthrowing it completely.
Marriage is an excellent example of a universal social custom. Yes, it does vary from place to place and time to time. In some cultures, there is polygamy, for instance, and in others divorce is harder or easier to obtain.
But at its heart, as a social institution, it has always been the sexual union of male and female directed ultimately towards the generation and rearing of children, even if a given couple is infertile. Only a very unusual society pretends the sexual union of man and women is of no special consequence and would therefore drastically alter the definition of marriage the way we have.
Other traditions can and should be overthrown, for instance the radical separation of the sexes into the world of work and the domestic world, even though the separation was often not half-so-radical as we are now led to believe.
Aside from a willingness to give tradition and social custom the benefit of the doubt, conservatives are very suspicious of all utopian schemes. That is because we have a realistic view of human nature. Humans are imperfect and imperfectible. Indeed, that is often why we have certain traditions; so as it rein in some of our worst impulses.
This is also why conservatives tend to be a bit suspicious of the State. The State can become too powerful, destroying social customs and mediating institutions in the name of either freedom or equality thereby leaving the individual alone against the State because the family has been weakened, religion has been weakened, the community we call the nation has been weakened.
To put it another way, we don’t like an overly powerful State because we like the various communities that help to give our lives shape, and we tend to like time-honoured ways of doing things because they are often very civilising and very realistic.
If I had to boil my politics down to a few precepts, I suppose they would be as follows: don’t overthrow a tradition without very careful thought; reject all utopian schemes; look after marriage; and one I haven’t mention here, look after the money. Highly indebted societies invariably run into trouble.
Do we conservatives have a proper political home in Ireland currently? No. Instead we have political parties that have never seen a tradition they don’t want to overthrow, that believe open-ended personal freedom will lead to utopia, that confuse family breakdown with ‘family diversity,’ and which love to spend money they don’t have.
The job of the conservative might be very unglamorous, but it is also very necessary. The loss of an effective conservative voice in Ireland means we are now a car that is all accelerator and no brakes. We don’t see the point of brakes when all that lies ahead of us seems to be ‘progress,’ no matter how many dangerous turns and cliffsides there are waiting for us.