Tories Must Go Back to Basics

By Alec Greenfield

A portrait of Edmund Burke.

A portrait of Edmund Burke.

The Blue Party just got ignominiously tossed out of government. For the federal Tories, it is time to rebuild and re-brand.

If I were giving advice to the party executive, the first thing I’d tell them is to go back to their Enlightenment roots…and move closer to the political centre.

In other words, the Tories need to channel their inner David Hume and Edmund Burke – and stay away from any ideas that are too radical.

Conservatism, properly understood, is an Enlightenment philosophy just like liberalism. Try to ignore the cascade of snickering from progressive voices, and please hear me out.

Let’s start with David Hume (1711-1776). Hume was the great Scottish empiricist - the man who wrote that rationalism was an illusion and that “Custom is the great guide in human life.” In his book An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), he wrote that “(Custom) is the principle which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past. Without the influence of custom, we should be entirely ignorant of every matter of fact beyond what is immediately present to the memory and the senses. We should never know how to adjust means to ends, or to employ our natural powers in the production of any effect.”

True, Hume wasn’t specifically referring to politics in this passage – he was writing about epistemology (how human beings acquire knowledge). Nevertheless, he is a pivotal figure in the field of moral philosophy because he recommended philosophical modesty. Human beings are fallible, and there is a limit to what we can know. As such, he is a major intellectual influence on conservative thought.

In addition, Hume was a political moderate. In discussing the contest between Britain’s Tories and Whigs (we can equate them with Liberals), he wrote on their respective policies: “That both the schemes of practical consequences are prudent; though not in the extremes, to which each party, in opposition to the other, has commonly endeavoured to carry them.”

The other guy the Tories should keep in mind is Edmund Burke (1729-1797). A major Enlightenment figure, he would also be a moderate in today’s political climate.

Like Hume, Burke was an advocate of intellectual modesty and warned against being seduced by politicians who peddled “easy” solutions to complex problems (in Reflections on the Revolution in France): “Very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions…When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or totally negligent of their duty.”

Burke’s call for “a politic caution, a guarded circumspection, a moral rather than a complexional timidity” is a warning against radicalism.

The problem with radical decisions is that they almost always get derailed by the law of unintended consequences. A federal long-gun registry? The final cost was one billion dollars. Cancel the long-form census? Good luck with planning the budget and delivering government services.

As far as the federal Tories are concerned, they need to brush up on their Enlightenment forerunners and absorb their lessons.

They should discard the radical ideas of libertarians like Ayn Rand – those notions have no practical use in the real world.

In other words, the Tories should leave their copies of Atlas Shrugged at home.


Alec Greenfield graduated from Carleton University with a degree in history. After that, he taught English in South Korea for 14 years. He is fascinated by writers who are daring or unique. Besides politics, his interests include movies, travel, spec-fic, karaoke, and Kierkegaard. He lives in Ottawa.

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