What are conservative values?

Edmund BurkeEdmund Burke: 'Conservatives believe, with Burke, that the family is the core institution whereby societies reproduce themselves and pass moral knowledge to the young.' Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As the Conservatives strive to heal the divisions in their party it must surely have occurred to them to wonder what the word "conservative" really means, and why it has had, for so many British people over the past 200 years, such a positive resonance. The important lesson of the is not that the party is losing appeal for marginal groups and floating voters – to whom it never appeals for long in any case. The important lesson is that the party has jeopardised the allegiance of its core constituents, those who willingly describe themselves as conservatives, and live according to the unspoken norms of a shared way of life.

Such people are not all middle class, not all prosperous, not all brought up to think that economics is the only thing that matters. When politicians address them with questions such as "How do we repair the economy?", "How do we reform our educational system?", "How do we ensure a fair deal for pensioners?", there is one word in all such questions that stands out for them, and that word is "we". Who are we, what holds us together, and how do we stay together so as to bear our burdens as a community? For conservatism is about national identity. It is only in the context of a first-person plural that the questions – economic questions included – make sense, or open themselves to democratic argument.

Such was the idea that Edmund Burke tried to spell out 200 years ago. Burke was a great writer, a profound thinker and a high-ranking political practitioner, with a keen sense both of the damage done by the wrong ideas, and the real need for the right ones. Political wisdom, Burke argued, is not contained in a single head. It does not reside in the plans and schemes of the political class, and can never be reduced to a system. It resides in the social organism as a whole, in the myriad small compromises, in the local negotiations and trusts, through which people adjust to the presence of their neighbours and co-operate in safeguarding what they share. People must be free to associate, to form "little platoons", to dispose of their labour, their property and their affections, according to their own desires and needs.

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