One force in the Tory party calls on Conservatives to save the country; the other calls on them to update themselves © Phil Disley
The mid-term of a government is a time of reflection, in which the parties can revive their attachments and reformulate their message. Two recent volumes, Britannia Unchained, co-authored by a group of young Conservative MPs, and Tory Modernisation 2.0, issued by Bright Blue, an organisation that campaigns for reform within the Conservative party, give us some indication of the forces now at work in shaping Tory thinking. The volume by the MPs—Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss—is a detailed analysis of the ways in which Britain has been failing, and the ways in which it could regain some, if not all, of its former stature. The volume by Bright Blue is a plea for the party to “modernise.” The one calls on Conservatives to save the country, the other calls on them to update themselves in order to solve their image problem. These two messages correspond closely to David Cameron’s policies over the last two years. So it is worth enquiring whether the messages are really compatible, and whether they stem from some long-term vision that will re-establish Conservatism at the centre of British politics.
Britannia Unchained is well written and well researched. It includes many telling comparisons between our country and others from which we can and ought to learn. The argument is remarkable not least for its unideological tone, attributing much of our current fiscal crisis to the mistakes, rather than the malice, of the Labour party, and showing a readiness to share some of the blame. If all politicians resembled Kwarteng and co in their willingness to address real issues with a similar seriousness and clarity, parliament would not be the disreputable place that so many people now think it to be.
Tory Modernisation 2.0 contains contributions from two MPs, David Willetts and Francis Maude, but Bright Blue is not a parliamentary campaign, having been conceived in think tanks, including the “Progressive Conservatism Project” at Demos. The book opens with Matthew d’Ancona’s lively discussion of the Tory party’s image problem among postmodern people. What follows shows why progressive conservatism has an image problem among more traditional conservatives like me. There are intelligent thoughts from David Willetts but the chapters are for the most part thin on ideas and uninspiring. The suggestion that the party must reform in keeping with social change is not new: Burke already argued in the founding document of British conservatism that “we must reform in order to conserve.” But that implies that we must have an idea of what we are hoping to conserve and why.
On this point the contributors to Tory Modernisation 2.0 are uncertain. What is it, in the end, that they wish to hold on to: the nation, the Union, the family, the free economy, the freedom of the individual? Their discussions veer constantly away from the places where this question can be asked. The tone is for the most part secular, utilitarian and disenchanted. Religion is off the agenda; so too is national sovereignty. The loss of our legal autonomy to Europe is barely mentioned. The family is there, sort of—but gay marriage is above it on the agenda. The contributors are serious people, troubled by the obvious fact that the old sources of social sentiment, to which we might appeal in building a civil society that is not just another name for the state, are drying up. But—with the exception of Willetts and d’Ancona—they show little or no familiarity with the tradition of conservative thinking. Modernisation seems to mean looking at the world as though it began this morning. The result is interesting in its way: but it would be better described as the “postmodernisation” of the Tory party. And I doubt that the electorate would vote for a postmodern Tory party.
The five authors of Britannia Unchained turn to economics whenever they need a conclusive reason for their policies. They are acutely aware that our civil inheritance can no longer be taken for granted. But their first concern is to outline the economic cost of this. I sympathise with this emphasis. For how do you counter the emotional impact of arguments from the left—arguments about social justice, equality and compassion—if you don’t refer to the cost of putting them into practice? And the cost is huge.
The authors show, through comparison with Canada, just what it means to pay for your promises by borrowing, and just what you ought to do to break the habit. They give a devastating account of Britain’s educational decline, and the economic effects of it. They tell persuasive stories, with both statistics and well-chosen examples, of the real price of our benefit system and of the welfare culture that has flowed from it. They do not shrink from addressing some of the deep social and spiritual problems that have emerged in postwar Britain—notably the collapse of the work ethic, and of the family structures that go with it. Necessarily, however, their arguments depend on the financial aspect of the things they deplore, and they retreat into the castle of economics whenever the big ideas loom on the horizon.
If we are to confront these ideas, it seems to me, we must begin from Plato’s famous distinction between philosophy, whose goal is truth, and rhetoric, whose goal is persuasion. In a media-dominated democracy truth counts for very little, while persuasion is everything. Looming over the battlefield of modern politics is the rhetoric of equality. It fights for any side that can capture it, defending traditional conservatism as equality of opportunity, and socialism as equality of outcome.
Philosophically speaking the idea that all human beings are equal is questionable. Equal in what respect, for what end, and in what perspective? Are criminals to be treated equally with law-abiding citizens, for instance? Nevertheless, from the rhetorical point of view, the very same idea of equality is the premise of every winning argument. Equality demands equal treatment for disadvantaged and advantaged children, and therefore exams that make no real distinctions between them. It demands equal treatment for nationals and for migrants, and therefore the abolition of effective border controls. It demands equal treatment for gay and straight people, and therefore gay marriage.
Looming slightly less prominently over the battlefield is the rhetoric of freedom. Philosophically speaking it is again highly questionable whether human beings are or ought to be free: free from whom, to do what? In the name of freedom men abandon their families; schools abandon discipline; universities abandon the old and tried curriculum in order to offer students a wider choice of degrees. Freedom means opportunity, and opportunity means that the canny, the determined and the strong rise to the top, enjoy those phenomenal city salaries, and join the new class of global fat cats. Dressed up in this way, individual freedom cries out for top-down control.
Yet freedom also opens the road to the rest of us; educational freedom creates opportunities for those at the bottom of society; economic freedom protects the volunteer and the entrepreneur against the smothering cloak of regulation; freedom of conscience protects us from the rule of priests and mullahs, while freedom of speech enables us to scorn bigots and bullies without fear of reprisal. Freedom, in this sense, is unquestionably a good thing—unless it is abused. And there’s the rub. What counts as abuse, who is to decide, and what should be the penalty? The philosophy here is deep and difficult but the rhetoric is easy. Matthew Arnold summarised the matter succinctly: “a very good horse to ride; but to ride somewhere.”
Reading these two books I came to the conclusion that the current difficulties for the conservative cause lie exactly in the tension that worried Plato. The philosophy of conservatism, launched two centuries ago by Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and David Hume, and on the continent by GWF Hegel and Joseph de Maistre, is, in my view, difficult, intricate and true. Today’s winning political rhetoric, by contrast, is simple, persuasive, and false. The theory of knowledge and its social function that inspires Michael Gove cannot silence the loud cry of the teachers’ unions for equality whatever the cost. The subtle arguments for the market economy developed by the Austrian school will never extinguish the zero-sum fallacy, which says that if some are rich it is because others aren’t. Burke’s defence of common law justice, like Hegel’s defence of the family and the corporation, has little weight against the rhetoric of “compassion.” Even those on the right who believe that the long-term effect of this rhetoric is to make everyone dependent on the state, and the state dependent on borrowing from a purely imaginary future, will go on repeating it. For the ruling belief is that “in the long run we are all dead,” as Keynes famously put it—none of us will have to pay for current policies and meanwhile it is best to look caring and nice. The philosophy of conservatism has nothing to say in response to this. For it is not about appearing nice. It is about conserving the foundations of civil society. Whatever rhetoric you choose for promoting that cause, the other side is going to describe you as “nasty.” For rhetoric is about appearance, not truth.
The five authors of Britannia Unchained are aware of this. They tell alarming stories about the new generation of Britons, de-skilled and de-schooled in the name of equality. They describe a society in which household savings have dropped from 8 per cent to less than 2 per cent of available resources, and in which one fifth of adults have an unsecured debt of £10,000 or more. Twenty-five years ago the top wished-for careers of British children were in teaching, finance and medicine—in other words, careers as useful members of society. Today the top wished-for careers are sports star, pop star and actor. Kwarteng and co do not blame anyone for this. Instead, they hunt for the inspiring exceptions and the ways in which we can all work together to put the country back on its feet.
This leads me back to philosophy. What, in the end, does a conservative seek to conserve, and why? If you can answer those questions you can address the practical corollary: how? The answer is implicit in the arguments of the five MPs. They are seeking to conserve a country and its institutions, in the face of internal and external threats. They do not believe that Britain can flourish, either economically or morally, under the present weight of welfare dependency, or with an education system that puts equality ahead of knowledge as its goal. They believe that British business must be freed from excessive regulation if it is to function properly, and that the free economy is an asset that we should value as much as we value freedom generally. They point to all the areas, from policing to healthcare, in which regulation is defeating initiative, and tired old policies are holding us back. And I find nothing to disagree with in their diagnoses. However, their argument raises a question that it does not answer: just what is this country, this Britain, that they wish to conserve?
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David Cameron has now made his first clear statement on the matter, promising a referendum on the greatest question that confronts this country, which is the question of whether it actually exists as an autonomous political entity. Smith, Burke and Hume were clear that they were defending an enduring political order, kept in being by custom, law and religion. They admired the inherited freedoms and rights upheld by parliament and acknowledged that freedom depends upon a moral consensus and a society-wide habit of trust. All three came from the Celtic fringes. But all three shared the belief in England, a settlement established by long-standing custom and civil institutions, whose parliament exists to resolve conflicts and not to change the way things fundamentally are.
This idea, of a territory that is home to a settled people and an accepted legal order, was expressed by Hegel in terms of the nation state, while de Maistre endowed it with mystical and religious foundations. Throughout the early years, as the British Tory party moved towards democracy, sometimes following the liberals and sometimes leading them, it remained wedded to a vision of inherited social order, and believed that it was the duty of the politician to conserve that order. Defining this order, describing its virtues, diagnosing its ills and proposing remedies—this was the stuff of politics. This approach is one reason for the astonishing success of the Conservative party over nearly two centuries. It has defined the customs and institutions that it is seeking to conserve in terms that a large proportion of electorate broadly agree with—it has been the party of monarchy, of the family, of the Church of England, of law and order, of the common law, of the armed forces and of all the little platoons which aspire to some share in the pomp and circumstance of old England. So understood England is not a “nation” exactly, in the way the emerging Germany of Hegel or the France of de Maistre were nations. It is a moral idea, and one to which the Tories have always appealed when asked to define what they are for, rather than what they are against.
The left has understood this, and therefore set out to deconstruct the idea of England, to show it to be a class-ridden and socially divisive sham—what Plato would call a “noble lie.” And it has leant heavily on the grievances of the Scots and the Welsh in pressing the point home. The Labour party has encouraged a school curriculum from which the “we” concept has been more or less excised, with pride in empire replaced by shame at our former belief in it. But perhaps no move that the party made during its recent 13 years of office has been more upsetting to the Tory interest than that of creating a Scottish parliament without removing the Scottish members from the parliament of Westminster. This move has finally marginalised the English idea, by giving to the Scottish electorate two votes, one to govern themselves, and another to control the English. Moreover it has given a reliable block vote to the Labour party in Westminster.
Those are only some of the problems faced, now, by the Conservative party in its search for a defining philosophy. Demographic changes, highlighted by the recent census, further emphasise the difficulty in reformulating the philosophy of “us.” Far easier, you might think, to replace “us” with everyone, to dissolve the country and its culture in the abstract idea of human rights, and to march with Nick Clegg into a transnational future, leaving England on the dust-heap of history. That, in effect, is what the “modernisation wing” of the Tory party is hoping for—a new kind of conservatism which conserves nothing, changes everything, and is guided by the very same rhetoric of equality and human rights that shapes the left-liberal agenda. If that is where we are, then conservatism is dead. But I take heart, nevertheless, from the five MPs, note their understated and very English kind of patriotism, and am encouraged when I see that only two of their names could have occurred in Trollope or Dickens.
Read Conservative confusion, Robin McGhee’s response to this article