Angus Gillan is a political researcher and campaigner with a background in modern politics and ancient. Jake Scott is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Birmingham and Editor of The Mallard.
The greatest obstacle facing Boris Johnson is the clear lack of a philosophy. As the oldest political party with a record of continued, effectual governing, one would be right to reason that Conservative governments hold coherent beliefs; however, now the party has lost its way, bewildered, and without core principles to guide us.
When such a crisis of confidence ensues, poor policy is the outcome. The desecration of Stonehenge is one such, and it cannot be endorsed. Grant Shapps has overruled the Planning Inspectorate to approve the development of an (upwards of) £2 billion dual-carriageway tunnel under the most famous prehistoric site in Europe.
No practical justification would endorse the fact ‘all archaeology in the construction zones would be destroyed and the A303 would become the largest ever human intervention in an area fashioned and revered by over a hundred generations of our ancestors.’
Conservatism has the messiness of being an operational philosophy; it begins from the real world, born of perspectives shaped by time and place, seeking answers to enduring questions with recourse to equally enduring wisdom. An essence of Conservatism is a rejection of activist or ideological politics based on end-state goals. The Government, following the ‘levelling up’ agenda, is looking to deliver such state goals, as displayed in the Spending Review.
The disregard for the damage that will be inflicted on the World Heritage Site shows the party’s abandonment of its foundational Burkean values. The value of things lies not in their utility but in their history: the vision of life as a social contract.
This levies a duty on the living, to respect the inheritance that has been passed to us and, in so doing, recognise that we living few are not at liberty to judge the value of something. We cannot choose our past and it would be arrogant to think we have the ‘right’ knowledge to judge the value of our past to future generations. Our duty is one of stewardship, of inheriting not only the things passed down to us but the wisdom they hold within them, which cannot be so wantonly cast aside. Those who forget from where they come, will forget who they are.
In order to carry out this task, British intellectual history has regarded institutions as repositories of guiding, not dictatorial, wisdom, and professional warnings that their actions will not preserve millennia-old artefacts should send chills through the spine of any conservative. In opposing the tunnel we are not deferring to bureaucratic agencies, but taking their insight and choose to not deprive the next generation of its discoveries. Without robustly caring for this inheritance, the Government chips away at our social fabric.
Adam Smith noted that societies are held together by a sense of collective worth and personal esteem. From Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’ discourse, to Thatcher’s defence of the Falklands (rejecting commentary that said Britain did not have the energy to fend of half-baked dictator)s, Conservatives have often seen individuals and Britain having latent power within us to achieve more than is expected of a small island in the cold North Atlantic.
As Christopher Berry wrote of David Hume, the conservative views themselves as ‘part of an order that transcends anything he could himself enact’. If we are to level-up with such headstrong abandon that we will cause ‘substantial harm’ to Stonehenge, why not tear it all down? Sadly, this is exactly what is happening with our current state-backed major infrastructure projects; despite commitments to incorporate the Eagle and Tun pub, built in 1900, into HS2’s Curzon Street Railway Station, the century-old red brick building has been demolished, Victorian red brick replaced by ageless glass.
Indeed, this is the problem of the current Conservative Party’s attitude to historical sites: they are not viewed with reverence, valuable as things in themselves, but as roadblocks on the path to a brighter future. But this future is increasingly out of reach. When this social fabric is damaged, it is almost impossible to replace; instead, we are faced with a radical choice of forming a new social fabric or going our own separate ways.
If the historical identity of a people is desecrated, so too is the reason for that people’s future association; Bernard Yack wrote of a nation as a temporal entity, sharing a history embodied in communal things, but if these disappear, so too does the history.
If we are to coldly desecrate heritage sites with statist endeavours, what is this ‘conservatism’? From the bulldozing of Victorian buildings and the cutting down of England’s ancient woodlands for HS2, to this sacrilegious tunnelling, this party is not acting conservative. Long after we are gone, people will sit under old trees and gaze at what we leave behind. If we carry on our path, then they may curse our memory as well.
If you would like to pledge to stop the tunnelling, please sign the petition run by the Stonehenge Alliance, led by historian Tom Holland.