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.


  1. Dr John N Sutherland
    Feb 18, 2014

    I too find the Independence debate a challenge as a Christian. Politicians sell utopias and gehennas. Either, vote for me and everything will be grrrreat, or, vote for them and the bottom will fall out of your world.

    The YES people are selling a positive vision; albeit, unachievable through their efforts. The NO people are selling scares, albiet, none of them provably true.

    I am leaning pro-YES. Why? Because if nothing positive can be said about staying in the Union, then it’s gonna fall apart anyhoo, sooner or later, so better get it over with. But, anyone voting YES should expect to work themselves silly trying to make the independence experiment work.

    Interstingly, when I make these balanced points, I get very few ‘likes’ on news websites.

    • Ken
      Feb 20, 2014

      Hi John …
      some positive things about staying in the union

      – de facto currency union – no negotiation needed.
      – efficiency of government / economies of scale. What will it cost to duplicate all departments of UK government ? e.g. costs less per head to manage embassies and foreign relations for 63+million than 5+ million.
      – awards of UK government contracts for our industries (e.g. ship building )
      – as someone who has UK and US citizenship I can tell you that having to deal with taxation and pension issues across borders is a huge headache. It will only get worse for every Scot as fiscal policy diverges. To phrase positively … fiscal simplicity.
      – Large company/charity administration easier in one country than in two e.g. Giftaid to large charities such as Tearfund easier for them to administer in one country rather than two.
      – an economy capable of weathering financial storms. (An independent Scotland would have been bankrupted by RBS)

      As noted in another posting I don’t see our society being appreciably different in its ethos one way or another so why go to so much effort to not change.

  2. stuart blythe
    Feb 19, 2014

    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.

    ‘more-or-less working’ – who or what determines the validity of that claim – it has been working – or the morality of the ‘working’.

    pessimistic conservatism is both ‘pessimistic’ and ‘conservatist’ the opposite of which needs not be ‘utopian’ .

    • steve
      Feb 19, 2014

      Hi Stuart, thanks for stopping by. I am not advancing this as an argument so much as being honest about an inclination – a prejudice – in my own mind. The question you ask is a very good one, and needs to be answered if an argument of this shape is to be constructed. I suspect it is not answerable in general terms (so, any defence of the old House of Lords would look very different from -say – a defence of standard Baptist liturgical practices, which might also be justified by some form of this argument).
      To pre-empt myself slightly, I think my basic definition of ‘work’ in political/national terms is straight out of Augustine’s De civ.: does it generally tend to stop people killing each other, where once that was common? For all its many faults, the European Union may be seen as basically more-or-less working because it is a surprising number of decades since an army marched across Flanders.

  3. Ken
    Feb 19, 2014

    I wonder if the mission of the church changes much if at all in an independent Scotland … whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ wins, we will likely operate in a very similar social environment after the referendum as before it; trends with same sex marriage, named state guardians for all children, homelessness, etc. will not be directly affected as most social policy areas are already devolved matters. True there would be some changes regarding nuclear weaponry on the Clyde, but I don’t see evangelical churches very militant about that at present.

    I can’t help thinking though that the whole question of independence is very much like considering divorce. I don’t see that splitting up the family is inherently a good idea. Not much would change but lots would be more complicated. We would duplicate many government functions in smaller (less efficient) units. Unlike say the North/South Sudan split there really are no insurmountable, life limiting problems that independence would fix. If we remained in a currency union we would not be significantly more independent than we already are except in foreign policy. Independence and devo-max seem increasingly similar in everything but name.

  4. Chris E
    Feb 20, 2014

    “. It is a basically pessimistic conservatism”

    The problem with pessimistic conservatism, is that if we adopt the same principle of ‘this corruption of nature’ that drives your other comments (which I believe to be true) we’d have to admit that we are equally bad at knowing what to conserve as knowing what to reform.

    Personally, I suspect a independent Scotland would be a reasonably successful state – which would still contain the problems. The SNP strikes me as a national rather than nationalistic party, who while pushing in a business friendly direction seem to have fairly strong social democratic roots. The presence of a country like that – speaking the same language – next door, would provide a very powerful counter to the current argument that There Is No Alternative.

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