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Conservatism, conservation and commerce

For many Conservatives, the Coalition government’s eagerness to sell off forests and to build on the green belt goes considerably against the grain. It is, as Peter Oborne wrote in the Telegraph last January, ‘contrary to all Conservative teaching and experience’. However as I argue in my forthcoming book on politics and the past such arguments are based on serious misconceptions.

Oborne and others have been quick to trace these destructive instincts back to the Thatcher governments. The Iron Lady’s rather ambiguous relationship to the national past gained a lot of attention, both at the time, and since. Radical planning decisions, which consistently favoured commerce over heritage, sat alongside stirring invocations of ‘Victorian values’ and pleas to take inspiration from our great and glorious past.

The standard explanation of this is that Thatcher was not a Conservative at all; she was an old-fashioned Liberal. Thus the values of middle class capitalists replaced those of the landed upper-class. The ‘Victorian values’ Thatcher emphasised were those of progress and industry, not of sentimentalism or paternalism.

Yet, pro-commerce, anti-conservation Conservatism goes back much further than Thatcher, as this article in the Liberal Pall Mall Gazette on 4 December 1888 shows:

It is curious to note how Conservatives belie their name when they come to deal with objects which are worth preserving only because of their beauty or antiquity. A few years back, under Conservative auspices it was proposed by a private bill in Parliament to pull down the old Charterhouse and erect warehouses on the site. This wonderfully interesting relic of monastic architecture, with all its historical and literary associations, was only preserved from destruction by the determined action of a knot of Radicals in the House of Commons. More recently we have had the Daily Telegraph, thundering for the demolition of the beautiful church of St. Mary-le-Strand, and now the Times is gloating over the threatened destruction of Newgate gaol, and its replacement by “handsome shops.”

 The truth is that our aristocracy has become a plutocracy, and no longer cares for anything which does not contribute to the accumulation of £ s. d.

Emily Robinson

An earlier version of this blog appeared at

Published inBritish PoliticsConservatives

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