When Conservatives Need To Change

The recent departure of British Members of Parliament from their previous parties was predicated in part upon the “extreme” nature of the Conservative party’s Brexit intentions. “We haven't changed, the Conservative Party has,” said the resignation letter submitted by former Conservative MPs who are now part of the newly formed Independent Group. At first glance, the conceit that the Party has changed seems reasonable: the Conservative government has the nation en route to Brexit, with or without a deal maintaining economic links to the EU, and this marks a sea-change in British foreign relations. The assumption is that, because the Conservative party is proceeding with a bold act, namely Brexit, its ideals are changing. On the contrary, a firm grasp of principles, even conventional principles, sometimes demands the most distinct disruption.

There are many skeptics who deride Major League Baseball’s regimen to shore up the game’s pace of play (limits on mound visits, pitch clocks, etc.) as unacceptable amendments that would “change baseball.” But as one observer pointed out, baseball was already changing: the average game length has been on a fairly steady rise since such numbers were tracked. An important principle comes from that analyst’s remark: sometimes, to preserve old ways, such as the length of a baseball game, new actions must be taken, and changes must be made.

Taking a subject more similar to Brexit, the American Revolution is perhaps one of the most consequential examples of this principle. Many point to this event as a contentious revolt which obliterated monarchical and aristocratic values in order to begin a new egalitarian society. While to some degree it is true that the American project did away with social structures such as class (excepting, of course, for some time the heinous atrocity of slavery), the American Revolution was simultaneously a restoration of the English tradition of rights and liberty. As Peter Berkowitz has said, American colonists’ desires for rights to representation in tax decisions were “nurtured by their shared tradition of freedom.” That is, the Americans were, in revolting, attempting to maintain the personal liberty which was hitherto characteristic of their life as English subjects abroad. Yuval Levin has also pointed to this in saying that, in addition to its bold statements of equality, the Declaration of Independence contains grievances that “are all about being denied by the English the way of life and the system of government that the Americans had been enjoying by then for a century and more.” Thus, the Revolution, which was obviously a massive cultural transition that included plenty of bloodshed and chaos, was not an entire repudiation of social institutions and ways of life. It was, in fact, largely a revitalization of a previously existing societal order.

Conservatives are usually viewed as proponents of the status quo. To a large extent this is true: they trust in the time-tested quality of institutions that have emerged in society over generations. But it is clear enough that a conservatism that defines itself by maintaining only what currently exists falls short. Overlapping to some degree, modern conservatism in America is usually viewed as a package of ideals that include small government, open markets, personal liberty and a strong civil society. While the Tories may not match seamlessly with either concept of conservatism, as much as the party name may indicate, their intent to carry out Brexit is an employment of both sorts of conservatism. The execution of the British exit from the EU is the fleshing out of the old idea that self-determination by a nation’s citizens is correct. Thus, by sending the nation into the temporary flux of Brexit, the Conservative Party’s principles remain constant, and the departing members were simply wrong about their previous party’s transformation.