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As benighted as the Bourbons: Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk at a European People’s Party summit earlier this year (European Peoples' Party CC BY 2.0)


What does it mean to be a conservative in Europe today? My answer is simple: to be a conservative means to reject the politics of negativity — anger, revenge, hatred, guilt and resentment — and instead to pursue a positive vision: a liberal-minded vision of generosity and justice, of peace and prosperity, of democracy and conviviality under the rule of law. To be a conservative means, in other words, to take the best ideas of the past and apply them to the present: not in a negative spirit of reactionary fear of the future, but embracing this world as we find it, with all its defects and depravity, its opportunities and its glimpses of divine glory, in the hope of improving it before we leave it for a better place. Conservatives are conscious that the material world matters to us all, but that it is not the only one; just as we know, too, that those living in it are not the only people who matter, for we cherish the generations who have come before us and learn from them, while never forgetting that we are but the harbingers of posterity, the generations to come who will inherit the world that we bequeath them. Conservatives feel the weight of history not as a burden, but with gratitude for the responsibilities that have been placed upon us by God. We are responsible for the preservation of the civilisation that has formed us and of which we in turn must endeavour to be worthy. For us European conservatives, our primary duty is to the civilisation of the West; but our responsibilities do not stop there. Wherever in the world the forces of barbarism seek to destroy humanity and liberty, we must resist and overcome them. If we do not, they will seek us out sooner or later. Even if they fail in their attempt to annihilate us, physically and culturally, the barbarians may do great damage.

Who are the conservative thinkers to whom we should be looking for inspiration? Here in Madrid, such questions spring naturally to mind, for this Most Catholic Kingdom of Spain is and always has been of a naturally conservative disposition, and conservative thought has flourished here at least since Ferdinand and Isabella ushered in the Spanish Golden Age. The grim fundamentalism of the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and his Dominicans was only one side — a dark one — of that glittering coin. This was also the Spain that opened up the New World, that created global markets and trade routes, and to which we owe, perhaps, the very idea of “Western” civilisation. This was the Spain of El Greco and Velázquez, the Spain of Calderón and, above all, of Cervantes. It is worth recalling that the strict censorship of the Spanish Inquisition did not apply to the most popular literary genre of the day, novels and romances of chivalry. My godfather, the historian Hugh Thomas, describes this as “a remarkable toleration”. The author of Don Quixote — whose quatercentenary we celebrate this year along with that of his contemporary, Shakespeare — was a true Spanish conservative. He loved the past, he revered the old knightly virtues of courtesy and mercy, but he was also a man of action who was wounded at Lepanto, helping to save Christendom from the Ottoman threat. Like Shakespeare, another great conservative, he loved his country more than himself. He believed in God, but his subject was humanity. For Cervantes, we are all, like the Don, muddle-headed fools with lucid intervals. Such is the hard-headed conservative view of politics and especially ideology. To a conservative, the pursuit of a perfect world, the world of which the Left has always dreamt, is at best like tilting at windmills; at worst, it means the abandonment of all the chivalry that mitigates man’s savagery to man and especially to woman. We cannot avoid mistakes, but we may hope by the end to emulate the Don’s epitaph: “Morir cuerdo, y vivir loco.” (“To die in wisdom, having lived in folly.”)

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