Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A killer argument? No, no it isn't

A killer argument? No, no it isn't

It is always a temptation for journalists wishing to make a cheap point to accuse opponents as lacking historical knowledge.  It implies a sort of effortless superiority of the intellect.  It is, however, a technique that should be handled with care, as it is extremely liable to rebound upon its user.  Take Nick Cohen in the Observer:

The phrase "Conservative intellectual" is not an oxymoron, but you can always spot a phoney Tory thinker when he or she says that they belong to the tradition of Edmund Burke and share his love for the "little platoons" of civil society. For Burke was a Whig, not a Tory.

You really can tell a phoney ‘historian’ when he or she cites 18th Century party divisions as if there were a straight continuity of politics from 1780 to present.  Modern political parties have a messy inheritance.  The Conservative Party has co-opted (in reverse order) National Liberals, Liberal Unionists, and Pittites. Interestingly, one party that does not form part of the Conservatives’ intellectual inheritance is the Tories of the 17th and 18th centuries.  The term ‘Tory’ as used to describe what we would now refer to as the Conservative Party was not widespread until about 1812 – the two ‘Tory’ parties are entirely separate.  Cohen, in trying to show up others’ historical ignorance has ended up by revealing his own.

This may not be the place to discuss the influence that Burke has had on Conservative philosophy (if there is such a thing), but there is absolutely no contradiction in a Conservative cleaving to Burkean theories of civil society – rather the reverse. 

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