Norman Tebbit’s intervention into the debate surrounding same-sex marriage has been met with little respect. “When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child,” he asks, could the product of a sperm donor be heir to the throne? One could point out that this hypothetical scenario seems rather ludicrous, but it also seems rather irrelevant: the same dilemma would arise should this sapphic sovereign be in a civil partnership.
What is interesting to me is that Norman Tebbit, that war horse of old Toryism, is phrasing his opinions in the terms of practicalities rather than of values. He, and others like him, are unable or unwilling to defend the virtues of the present but merely admonish us regarding hazards of the future. They caution against change, but give little sense of the value of conserving. This, it seems to me, has long been a problem for conservatives.
The strangest writing in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France come when the wise old Irishman begins to rhapsodise about Marie Antoinette: “the great lady” for whom “ten thousand swords [should] have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult”. Burke offers no reasons for admiring the Queen, and I cannot help wondering if he had thought his belief in the efficacy of institutions was too cerebral and that he had to promote not simply a belief in them but a love for them. This was not his strength.
Somewhat more recently, Ed West bid farewell to his Telegraph readers with a piece that revelled in its own miserabilism. “It’s my job as a conservative to depress you,” he said, for “conservatism is depressive realism”. “That’s not to say that things are always bad, or necessarily getting worse, but that there is a natural tendency among humans to ignore problems, and it’s our job to point this out”. I can’t help feeling that conservatives have done more than this or people would never have voted for the miserable sods.
I am not questioning West’s belief in the value of grim scepticism. To the extent that I am a conservative at all it is largely because, after years of indulging pleasant ideas about the world, and often being startlingly rude to people who cast doubt upon them, I have concluded that many of the world’s blessings are fragile and many of our attempts to multiply them are dangerous. Yet this does not make me much of a conservative because when I foresee no baneful consequences from the collapse of this or that institution I have little cause to spring to its defence.
It was simpler when everybody was religious, and believed that society functioned in accordance with God’s will. If something was alright with the man upstairs, people believed, it was alright with them. Being deprived of the language of religion made it hard for conservatives to articulate their values to themselves, never mind to other people. Once can see this in the prose of Mencken, who disliked change but did not seem especially fond of the present.
Leftism has few such problems. It offers the marquee attractions of faith in its ideas of progress towards an Edenic future, and of malicious forces that attempt to obstruct the path. Conservatives, though, tend to offer grievances and fear. This can be uninspiring at the best of times, and when they have no substantive cause for either in opposing change they seem peculiar.
This is not to imply that they heartless brutes. (Or, at least, that many of them are.) Pessimists tend to value a great deal. The primary reason that I have for fearing threats is that they might deprive me and others the things I treasure: freedom, peace and that which appears to be beautiful. Yet, as an agnostic mired in a swamp of subjectivity, I have no clear sense of the kind of society that it is right to inhabit. I’m not saying that one should be thrown together, as that would be like trying to build Rome over lunch, but without expressing what it is good as well as what is worrying conservatives are doomed to failure, as they are going up against teams of designers and marketers with no one but risk managers.