On pessimistic conservatism: a prolegomenon to more comments on Scottish independence
I do not currently have any metrics enabled on this blog – I genuinely have no idea how many people read any given post; I am alert, however, to who shares or comments on a post. A bot that says a thousand visitors came by matters less to me than one person whose judgement I trust saying ‘what you said there matters’. On this basis, I was very struck by the reaction to my first attempt to say something on the question of the coming referendum on Scottish independence: a number of people whose opinions I trust deeply indicated it was very helpful, so much so that I intend to offer some further comment over the coming weeks/months.
This post is, as the subtitle suggests, preparatory to that comment; as I reflect on the questions, I am aware of something that colours the way I think about political issues, something that also should be disclosed before I offer any argument. It is a basically pessimistic conservatism. Not, I hasten to add, any sort of Conservatism – that particular political party holds almost no attraction for me. Rather – well, it begins with my Doktorvater, Colin Gunton, and with his conviction that the continuing task of theology was to overcome the Enlightenment. And yes, I know that we do better to talk about several national enlightenments than ‘the Enlightenment’, and yes, I know that Colin’s historical constructions were cast in the highest contrast, when nuance is more often needed in history – but sometimes, often perhaps, he saw to the essence of things.
Enlightenment thought in almost all its varieties – even Evangelical Christianity, which is a variety of Enlightenment thought, as David Bebbington has shown, and to which I am indebted and by which I am formed – is profoundly optimistic about the potential results of human endeavour. The characteristic Enlightened attitude is that we can and should change everything, because we can and probably will do everything better…
…I don’t believe that.
Nor, of course, do many of us today; a few of us discovered modernity in the fin de siècle despair of Housman or Munch or Mahler – or in the decadent response of Wilde; the rest of us saw hope gassed and gunned down on the plains of Flanders. Through the twentieth century, hope was always an achievement, and generally hard-won (in the political sphere, few got this like Obama on his first campaign trail). But the Enlightenment myth lives on: if we overthrow tradition, we can replace it with something that will, inevitably, be better…
…I don’t believe that.
The Enlightenment myth lives on in politics more sturdily than in most places, perhaps because politicians have to be in the business of selling hope. Reforming this, changing that, will bring massive transformation; the society is basically good, and only a few easily-adjusted antiquated structures prevent that basic goodness being displayed. We know enough to make things right…
…I don’t believe that.
And this unbelief is, for me, Christian. There is nothing so deceitful as the human heart, the prophet declares, and all our attempts at self-salvation and self-justification fall apart and fail. The idea that, given a tabula rasa, we will be able to build the Kingdom of God (or any other given utopia) is a dangerous delusion.
My standard current example of this point is the upper House of the Westminster parliament, the House of Lords. Until a recent ‘reform’ it consisted of members who inherited their seats, essentially by virtue of being ancient landholders. I have read an attempt to justify this theologically (Coleridge, On the Constitution of Church and State), which was surprisingly plausible if one allowed it its axioms, but I take it that any reasonable person will regard the old constitution of the House as indefensible. So, what do we do? Reform it of course…
…the recent history of House of Lords reform has followed two routes. One has been the stuffing of the House with party appointments – some career party politicians; some party donors; a very few people of some independence and some real merit (I have the privilege of knowing, and working with, one or two of these). The other route has been removing the hereditary peers and offering a series of abortive plans to replace them by some form of election, all of which have failed, because there is no consensus on what a reformed upper House should look like – in particular, there is a basic tension between a public desire for a House that will hold the lower House and the executive to account, and a partisan desire to have a relatively supine upper chamber.
The logic here is straightforward: the proposition ‘X is a bad/unjust/indefensible state of affairs’ does not entail the proposition ‘we can improve X by executive action’. The old composition of the House of Lords had worked, after a fashion, for about three centuries; during that time there has been adjustment and tweaking – the 1911 Parliament Act most obviously – but, fundamentally, a bizarre and unjustifiable accident of history was working OK. Recent legislative changes, pushed through variously by all three main Westminster parties, have ripped up this bizarre and indefensible, but effective, status quo, and have been unable to put anything in its place.
Of course, this story was not inevitable – although the conflicting demands of party and nation might have been seen, in retrospect, to make it extremely likely – but it illustrates what I call ‘pessimistic conservatism’: if something has been, more-or-less, working for some decades or centuries, ripping it up in the confidence that you can do something better is not always – perhaps not often – wise.
This attitude is of course not inevitable – as I have indicated, to the extent that evangelicalism is an Enlightenment worldview, it is not natively Evangelical (perhaps it is more Calvinistic, and so more natively Scottish…); it is, however, a significant part of the way I view political questions. If I am going to muse in public about independence, it is going to be on this basis. I do not want to apologise for that, but I do want to be honest and open about it.