Friday, September 21, 2007

Conservatism

Unity, in a typically thought-through piece, has a go at deconstructing modern Conservatism, on both sides of the Atlantic. As always with his pieces, it would be to do it a great disservice to look at it piecemeal, so make a cup of tea and go and read the thing yourself.

That said, I do now propose to do him a great disservice, and attempt to answer some of the points he raises (and not just because he was nice about me - if being described as a classic Conservative is nice). The first point is that Conservative and right-wing are not synonymous. This is absolutely right - especially as the term 'right-wing' has largely lost all meaning. It originates, incidentally, from the inter-war French Parliament as a physical description of where the deputies sat - Socialists and Communists on the left, Monarchists and Conservatives on the right, and moderates in the middle. It wasn't a conclusive definition then, one delegate saying that he 'was elected on the left, voted with the right, and sat in the middle', and it's no better now.

The second, linked point is that Conservatism is not the same as Republicanism - which Atlanticists on both sides of the pond often ignore. There was an excellent Flanders & Swann concert in New York where Michael Flanders introduced a song about British politics by saying "now, you must realise about British politics that, like you, we have two parties. We have the Labour Party or, as you would say, Socialist; and we have the Conservative Party or, as you would say, Socialist." That may be less true now, but it's worth remembering that Republicans are not Tories, and vice versa. For God's sake - even the name is anathema to Conservatives!

Unity then identifies a strain of political thought, particularly on the US right, that he thinks is making all the running on the right:

These people aren’t just dumb and ignorant, they’re dumb, ignorant and proud of it. In fact they revel in it to extent that what passes for debate in their circles tends to bear more of a resemblance to a shit-flinging contest at a chimp’s tea party than anything one might reasonably consider an argument.

There's a hefty element of truth in this, and the best place to find these people is in comment boxes all across the web. Realising that tu quoque is a pretty weak argument, I would point out that this phenomenon is hardly unique to any political viewpoint. Read Comment is Free and you'll see that the above is a pretty apt description of that too. But is the Right in terminal decline? Unity thinks so:

Intellectually its already in a state of near-terminal decline, more so for being blind to its own failings, which are perhaps best summed up in the all to common practice of its remaining adherents describing themselves as being:

…an economic liberal and a social conservative.

Well, if that’s how you like to describe yourself then congratulations. Bully for you. You’ve made an interesting lifestyle choice but in no sense can you call that a political philosophy.

Well, for all that I do see myself as a Conservative, I have always (since a nauseatingly young age in fact) described myself as an economic Conservative and a social liberal. I'm a Conservative in the same way that PJ O'Rourke is a Republican - the blog title wasn't just a grab at lustre-by-association. Bluntly, I want a government that leaves both my wallet and my cock alone - but since I use my wallet more often, I'm a Conservative.

Part of the problem here is the woolly and unhelpful use of words like 'liberal'. Neo-liberal economics is essentially a classically free-market position, slightly tweaked. Being liberal on personal matters ought to mean leaving them the hell alone - but 'liberals' often seem to want to intervene everywhere. If the Conservatives want to legislate on encouraging marriage, does that make them more or less liberal than the Labour Party who want ID cards, or the Liberal Democrats who want to ban petrol-engined cars?

Unity identifies, as a fatal weakness, the fact that Conservatism, as a philosophy, is inherently contradictory and hollow. In a sense, though, that's less of a bug than feature. Strong and coherent ideas are quite often wholly wrong. Fascism (in its theoretical sense) is moderately coherent, Communism more so, Theocracy more so than either. None are desirable. When Benjamin Disraeli said that a Conservative Government was an organised hypocrisy, he wasn't being rude.

Conservatism holds, more or less, that Government is usually worse than the alternative - yet when in power, they have, obviously, to exercise Executive power. Often, they will have to extend it. It has always been hard to define Conservatism, as usually it genuinely doesn't stand for anything. There are no great texts that a Conservative can shake and say 'See! It's all in there!'

Unity, in my view correctly, identifies the libertarian right as the most influential (and funniest, best-written and prolific) part of the 'right-wing' British blogosphere. Have a look at my links on the right - Mr Eugenides, the Devil's Kitchen, Dizzy, Guido (though Unity won't like that one): all are from the libertarian side. Of classic Conservatives, probably only Matt Sinclair counts. Since I flirt with libertarianism myself, particularly on social policy, why don't I consider myself one?

PJ O'Rourke said that "A libertarian is a conservative with an acknowledged vice, like, say, a teenage girlfriend." I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that, but I would say that Conservatives are, essentially, sober libertarians. Get a few drinks in us and we support flat taxes, legalised drugs and, when my wife's not listening, probably teenaged girlfriends. But, in the grey mornings, Conservatives tend to think that these might be nice ideas, but they won't work. The inner civil-servant is an ever-present in most Conservative thinkers.

I've gone on a bit, and I'm not really sure whether or not I've addressed the question of what sort of Conservative I am, let alone what Conservatism means. Iain Macleod gave the pithiest summing-up of this view of Conservatism:

"The Socialists can scheme their schemes; The Liberals can dream their dreams: we have work to do."

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5 Comments:

Blogger Unity said...

A fair write-up, Tim.

As regards classical conservatism you make the point for me perfect by acknowledging that its an essentially pragmatic creed.

The actual origins of much of my thinking stem from a seminar paper I wrote 20 years ago at university in a module on British politics where the seminar leader quite deliberately threw me, the socialist, the lead on the session on the Conservative Party, and the one Tory in the group the session on Labour, to see what would emerge.

My contention at the time - and still - is that the notion of a conservative ideology is an oxymoron because the defining characteristic of conservatism is that it is unideological to a fault, and I also argued that the induction of liberal economic theory and Hayekian ideas on the nature of society would by Thathcer and Joeseph, would result in structural tensions in British conservatism that could eventually rip the Tory Party apart.

Much of that I still stand by, although I would add that, to some extent, the Tories are victims of the prevailing trends in political culture which demands near absolute cohesion across political parties, much of which stems from the media driven perception that legitimate internal debate equals splits and a lack of cohesion.

To a considerable extent what has been lost is the appreciation of political leadership as a balancing of forces and opinions, which is the traditional role of a British Prime Minister, as opposed to the setting of uniform agenda to which all must adhere, which is what you get with an American President.

In one sense, the transition from Blair to Brown should work in the Tories favour because Brown's style is both pragmatic and inclusive - we're back to actual cabinet government once again after years, under Blair, where it barely existed. As people become acclimatised to that change then its possible we'll see political culture move back towards an appreciation of the collective approach to government which is more comfortable territory for old school conservatism.

However, the problem you have with Cameron is that, on one level, he's being pushed as a continuation of the presidential political culture, reinforcing expectations that he'll have everyone in the Tory camp singing of the same hymn sheet, while at the same time he's trying to reassert the notion of leadership as a balancing of opinion through the policy-making process.

As things stand he's neither strong enough as a leader or deft enough as politician to reconcile those two facets of his approach, which leaves him looking rather weak and something of a hostage to fortune in terms of the tensions that exist between the remaining one nation Tories and those who've inherited the Thatcherite mantle.

While its nowhere as bad as as it was when the party was facing off over Europe, what is coming across to the public does still look like splits and internal fault-lines and its that that I strongly suspect is most hurting him in the polls as it makes him look to be weak, vacillating and not at all in charge.

3:21 pm  
Blogger Unity said...

>>> Being liberal on personal matters ought to mean leaving them the hell alone - but 'liberals' often seem to want to intervene everywhere.

Now there's a question, indeed, to which the best answer is to be found in Isaiah Berlin's work on two liberties and, especially, in his lectures on the philosophical enemies of liberty, especially that dealing with Rousseau.

3:33 pm  
Blogger Devil's Kitchen said...

"Get a few drinks in us and we support flat taxes, legalised drugs and, when my wife's not listening, probably teenaged girlfriends. But, in the grey mornings, Conservatives tend to think that these might be nice ideas, but they won't work."

Probably true, Tim, since I wake up in the morning and still think that flat taxes, legalised drugs and teenaged girlfriends will work.

And, I must admit, I would enjoy Flat Taxes, I have definitely enjoyed drugs and even had teenaged girlfriends.

DK

6:48 pm  
Blogger Devil's Kitchen said...

P.S. You're remarks are too, too kind.

I think...

DK

6:53 pm  
Blogger Tim J said...

Unity, I'm not quite so sanguine about Brown as a cabinet government fan, but I agree with most of what you say about Conservative thought - except for two things.

I don't think it's entirely doomed as a movement - the manner in which the Labour Party has adopted so much of it is some evidence of that, and I'll still defend, perhaps slightly diffidently, the fact that ideas and ideology only get you so far in politics; that am ideological mind is often a closed one; and that the step between ideology and dogma is a short one.

DK - you Libertarians are like those buggers that go out on the lash all night and wake up feeling fine and go and play squash. So maybe it's that Conservatives are libertarians with a hangover...

4:06 pm  

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