A Conservative view of the constitution

Earlier this month, I spoke to the Edinburgh University Philosophy Society on the Conservative view of the constitution. The photograph shows me with some of the officers of the Society following my talk.

In large part, I drew on the thesis developed in my article, ‘Speaking for the people: A Conservative narrative of democracy’, published in Policy Studies, 33 (2), in 2012. I outlined the basic dispositions of British Conservatism – a basic scepticism of man’s reasoning and a wariness of grand schemes, a reliance on the accumulated wisdom of generations, and working with the grain of human nature.  In addressing the constitution, I developed the key elements of a Conservative approach – a commitment to past and future generations, an empirical approach to decision making, and a trustee rather than a delegate model of representation.

On an empirical approach, I drew out the extent to which a rational approach focuses on theory – if the facts don’t fit theory, there is something wrong with the facts – whereas the empirical focuses on what can be done.  The situation we face may not be the ideal, but it is the real. I quoted Vivien Hart’s neat way of putting it: ‘In America the emphasis has been on what democracy is and should be, while Britain has been characterised by a more pragmatic and less urgent emphasis on what democracy is and can be’.  The Conservative also takes a Burkean view of representation, leaders being elected to lead, having regard to the needs of future generations, as well as what has gone before, and not simply the demands of a transient majority.

I identified the key attributes of the Westminster model of representative and responsible government – coherent and transparent, accountable, effective, flexible and responsive – and the challenges posed by the extensive and intellectually incoherent constitutional changes of recent decades.

There was not only a large, but also an engaged audience, with the talk eliciting some good questions.  They included ones about direct democracy and the implications of referendums. In dealing with referendums, I addressed the extent to which they are strictly irresponsible, in that there is not a body that is responsible to the people for decisions on public policy, since the people cannot hold themselves accountable for the outcome of a referendum.  It made for a stimulating evening.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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2 Responses to A Conservative view of the constitution

  1. Croft says:

    The last point should have gone down well enough in remain central. I family friend who is at the uni did add that its a somewhat inconsistent view there; many seem to regard the brexit referendum as an outrage that should be blocked but would man the barricades for Scottish Referendum!

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