The year is 1987. It is the morming of 11 June. I am a student at the University of Warwick, spending the morning in the Chaplaincy, along with various other Christian Union members. A general election is to be held today. Someone — sadly I can’t remember who — tells me, very sincerely “You can’t be a Christian and vote Conservative”. A little later, in a completely different conversation, someone else tells me with equal sincerity “You can’t be a Christian and vote Labour”.
So I voted Lib Dem. *B’dum tish!*
No, seriously. As it happens, I did vote Lib Dem, but that’s not the point of this story. The point is that I learned a valuable lesson: you can’t take too seriously the things that people assert about politics based on their religion. (This observation has served me well as I’ve watched the Religious Right in America descend into self-parodying lunacy, science denialism and downright meanness.)
It’s no good just telling Christians “You have to vote for X because you’re a Christian” — for any X. Not even whatever X I happen to favour.
The year is 2015. It’s some time around March, and we know that a general election is coming up in May. I suggest to the pastor of my church that it would be good to do a preaching series on the positive foundational aspects of each of the major parties: one Sunday each. I’d find that fascinating, and encouraging, and I think it would help people to figure out who to vote for.
It would be easy to talk about Labour’s distinctive emphasis on favouring the poor (See Luke 1:52-53); and about the Liberals’ emphasis on the equality of all people (See Galatians 3:28). But if anything, I was even more excited about the prospect of doing the one on the Conservatives. In laying out the positive foundation of Conservatism I would have said something like this:
The name “Conservative” comes from the idea that we should be careful about changing things: that much of the time, things are the way they are for a good reason, even if it’s not immediately obvious; and so the burden of proof lies with those who want to make a change. Yes, institutions become outdated, and then should be updated or replaced entirely; but Conservatism warns us not to tear a thing down without first having an idea of what we’re trying to replace it with. It is a generalisation of the physician’s maxim “first, do no harm”, and it is perhaps best expressed in G. K. Chesteron’s parable of the lamp-post (though he himself aligned with neither Progressives nor Conservatives).
And I do believe this is an important principle. As Bruce Dawe’s poem Only the Beards are Different points out, revolution is a bloody business: before you start one, you’d better be darned sure that you’re going to land up in a better state than you started in.
I am not by nature a Conservative voter; but I do recognise the important principle that lies at the root of conservative ideology.
The year is 2016. After 52% of a population swallow a stream of outright lies told by privately educated politicians playing a “Let’s Leave Europe” game, the country is now governed by a Prime Minister who was not elected even as leader of her own party, let alone as Prime Minister. She herself campaigned to remain in Europe, but now leads the charge not only to leave, but to do so in the most damaging way possible: with a “Hard Brexit“. A Conservative government that was elected under a manifesto pledge to “Safeguard British interests in the Single Market” (page 72) now rushes, under its unelected leader, to do the exact opposite.
Whatever this is, it is not Conservatism. It is the exact opposite.
This government is now burning down the results of forty years’ partnership with Europe, tearing up forty years’ trade agreements, and doing it all in the most incompetent and alienating way. It’s the work of pre-school children tantruming, insisting they can have their own way in the face of all the evidence.
Where are the grown-up who are in charge? If the Conservative Party offers us anything, isn’t it stability, perspective, an emphasis on the economy? What has happened to all that? And how did it all happen so quickly?