Burkean Stewardship

Many conservatives believe that there is something of value in the current way of life, which should be conserved and should be handed to the next generation in at least as good a condition as it is in now.  It is a viewpoint that is sometimes referred to as ‘traditionalist’ or ‘Burkean’ – after Edmund Burke’s eloquent depiction of the British political system in the late 18th century, in his letter Reflections on the French Revolution:

“By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives.  The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of providence, are handed down to us, and from us, in the same course and order.  Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but, in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression.  Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve, we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete.” [para. 57]

Burke’s description emphasised gradual evolution within a framework of continuity, building upon the foundations of accumulated wisdom.  It is “mysterious” because it is now partly unconscious or its origin is forgotten.  His vision of conservatism was repeatedly mentioned by Thomas Sowell, in his book A Conflict of Visions, as being consistent with a “constrained vision” of mankind that placed its trust in:

“the social experience of the many, as embodied in behaviour, sentiments, and habits, rather than the specially articulated reason of the few, however talented or gifted those few might be.” [p. 37]

Sowell argues that the “unconstrained vision” – progressivism – vests too much power in the hands of persuasive politicians.

Burkean stewardship has to be considered as an approach to government, rather than as an ideology, because its starting point is the status quo; this varies according to time and place – having different sets of values in France, the Netherlands and the US – as described in an Economist article: Future of the right.  It has been argued that the British Conservative party, for example, owes its survival to its lack of ideology and pragmatic adaptation to what people want – as described in a New Statesman article, Why the Tories Keep Winning.

It is based on experience, so it is unlikely to lead to chaos.  It is less risky than pursuit of ideals such as liberty, justice or equality and it has the advantage of conforming to people’s expectations – but it can also be seen as clinging to power, as described in the next sub-section (

It can be very stable, as in the example of the Chinese government’s gradual modernisation of the economy from Deng Xiao Ping onwards without changing its political system.  The Asia Society article on Confucianism described the Confucian ideal of governing for the benefit of the people as:

“a lofty ideal for the state: the ruler was to be a father to his people and look after their basic needs.  It required officials to criticize their rulers and refuse to serve the corrupt.”

Although stewardship can allow for gradual evolution, it might fail to adapt sufficiently quickly to change.  Nowadays, with improved communications, people quickly become aware of what is happening elsewhere and can mobilise support for change in their own countries.  Stability depends on people being patient and obedient to their leaders, but this is an increasingly unrealistic assumption.



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