Dear David Willetts,
It seems churlish of me to take issue with your comments in Blair’s Gurus [Willetts’s critique of Blairism] because your comments on my own work are all favourable and, I am therefore disposed to think, fair and accurate. My only deficiency, in your eyes, is to have been misunderstood by Tony Blair.
Yet the issue involved is important enough to deserve further debate. You emphasise my own conviction that the origins of economic success, for countries as for firms, are founded in the unique historical experiences of these countries and firms; and that while we can and must learn from others, imitation of what we suppose to be a superior model is bound to fail. You describe this as “English exceptionalism.” As a Scot who feels that the contribution of his compatriots to British economic development was critical, I demur slightly; but I am sure that you will accommodate me and that you recognise that there is, similarly, an American exceptionalism, a German exceptionalism and a Japanese exceptionalism.
Actually, I doubt if Tony Blair would have any difficulty in agreeing with us on this. There is in fact a paradox here: what we are all agreeing on is a deeply conservative doctrine. Indeed for modern conservative philosophers such as Michael Oakeshott or Tony Quinton, the notion that what is valuable in social or economic institutions is the product of their unique historical evolution, is central to their argument.
Much of what the public finds attractive in New Labour is that it is, in this sense, conservative. The public believes that New Labour will cherish the National Health Service, maintain the values of the welfare state, and be hesitant to change the structure of British Rail or the Post Office-despite the widely recognised deficiencies of all these institutions.
The point is that the collapse of socialism has left our political bearings confused; it has removed the pole around which all political economy has been organised until now, influencing the discourse of its opponents as much as its supporters. Today’s proponents of Oakeshott’s rationalist fallacy-the notion that an ideal model of social and economic organisation can be developed independently of a particular culture, society and history-are not on the left, but on the right. They are emissaries of the Adam Smith Institute, who know what is right for Azerbaijan even before they step off the plane.…