It is always tempting for a conservative to believe the world is going to hell in a handcart, but are things just now as bad as all that?
On my last visit to Oxford, I took the trouble to stop outside the University Church, on the north side of the High Street, and gaze up at the statue of Cecil Rhodes.
My hosts assured me that Oriel College was about to remove the statue of its benefactor, so this would be my last chance to see it.
Instead of which, the statue is to remain in place, and the college is going to promote “educational equality, diversity and inclusion amongst its student cohort”.
The announcement was made in the most tactful possible terms. Oriel’s governing body insists it still wishes to remove the statue, but has discovered that “the regulatory and financial challenges” which stand in the way of doing so are too great.
In plainer language, the college authorities have realised the whole thing would a grotesque waste of money.
Over at Jesus College, Cambridge, it seems a similar realisation may be dawning.
As Charles Moore reports in The Spectator, Jesus wants to remove Grinling Gibbons’s bust of its 17th-century benefactor, Tobias Rustat, from the college chapel, because of his connections to the slave trade.
Here too, the likely costs of removal turn out to be considerable, and hard to reconcile with the college’s “charitable aims of education, learning, research and religion”.
Moore chronicles, in the cover piece of this week’s Spectator, how the National Trust’s charitable purposes were subverted after those running the organisation allowed Black Lives Matter to set a different agenda.
A body called Restore Trust has launched a campaign to get the NT “to return to its original principles”, and the NT’s Chairman, Tim Parker, has resigned.
In all three cases, the leaders of a long-established institution succumbed to an outburst of moral panic, and gave a hasty yet unconditional assent to changes which had not been thought through, and which turned out to be incompatible with the institution’s purposes.
Only the most bone-headed conservative would contend that institutions do not need to change, in order to adapt themselves to new conditions.
The problem here is the bone-headedness not of conservatives, but of certain glib and irresponsible progressives who convince themselves, with ineffable self-righteousness, that after a short period of study, or indeed after no study at all, they have arrived at the one true view of history, and are entitled to impose it on everyone else.
No institution should allow itself to be imposed upon in this way. If the history which is being urged is true, prolonged and careful study will confirm this.
When a statue has stood for a century without anyone making a serious case against it – indeed without most people noticing its existence – it should not be torn down in a momentary ebullition of moral funk, so those responsible for it can be thought of by others, and think of themselves, as fine fellows.
In the words of Edmund Burke,
“Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”
That can be found in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a sublime work which reminds us that conservatives have often feared with better reason than we now have that the world is going to hell in a handcart.