The Making of a Conservative: Part One

By Wright, Esmond | Contemporary Review, August 2000 | Go to article overview

The Making of a Conservative: Part One


Wright, Esmond, Contemporary Review


TONY Blair and other outspoken exponents of his 'New Labour' government have unleashed numerous attacks upon the 'Forces of conservatism'. In May they began a crusade to depict conservatives as products of public school and Oxbridge 'privilege'. Yet most conservatives, including myself, are not the products of public school and Oxbridge. The Prime Minister himself is, of course a public school boy and Oxford man.

British conservatism, at its best, has always been formed by its followers' experiences of life rather than some abstract thought. Since the Conservative Party has dominated British politics in the last century, it may be helpful to recount how my experiences made me into an historian and a Conservative Member of Parliament.

'We are what we are', wrote Voltaire, 'by what we have experienced. All experience is good, and the bitterest is often the best of all'.

I studied history, as my major subject, at a newly-opened grammar school in Newcastle-on-Tyne, at King's College, Newcastle, (then part of Durham University) and at the University of Virginia - and in the Middle East, as a soldier in the Eighth Army in the Second World War. Each of these was an exciting training school. But the central factor in my education was the study of history.

The Study of History

The study of history opens up a world of imagination and wonder as well as of facts and values. The study of the past, the preoccupation with fact and truth, the criticism of evidence, the constant analysis and questioning, the distaste for mere conjecture and opinion, the awareness that the same facts can be presented differently according to one's vantage point, the growing knowledge that all descriptions are but approximations to truth, that change and revolution are brought about by a host of forces of which the most trivial can turn out to be the most important; that men may cite as causes, wittingly or not, what may not be the real causes of all; and that all events, however small, have consequences beyond one's capacity to plan or to foresee, or even to conjecture, beyond a certain point: history is - the phrase is Bolingbroke's - philosophy teaching by very precise examples. One may, of course, derive a philosophy from history, but only by selecting the evidence, just as the revolutionary can act on a pretext, and then find a philosophy to justify his action. Since the past is far too complex and variegated for any one mind to comprehend, no single pattern can emerge of itself, binding for all time, or even for one's own life-time. Truth, like beauty, is to some degree - perhaps to a great degree - in the eye of the beholder. All writing is partisan, even when the partisanship is not exaggerated to give punch and passion to the prose. And the historian soon realises too that the future will always be different, not only from the past, but from everyone's rational expectation of it.

Still, to the historian, objectivity is a real and binding duty; it ought to be at once his obligation and his creed. And the notion of any one single idea having validity for all societies in all ages is clearly heresy. History is full of examples of men who have been dominated by a Great Idea and have used it to ravage and destroy. Few of them may have intended this, but many an ideologue in politics has proved to be both a bad prophet and a destructive tyrant. As my friend, Professor H. C. Allen of University College London and later the University of East Anglia at Norwich, put it, 'No tyranny is so dangerous as that of a general idea'.

I found myself, in 1936, accepting as a personal creed the view of H. A. L. Fisher, expressed in the Foreword to his History of Europe, which was the first prize book I won at school. Then Warden of New College, Oxford, he was described as a disillusioned Liberal. (He had been Lloyd George's Minister of Education, and - though I did not learn this until much later - he had failed to get the Chair of History at Glasgow University in 1894). …

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