Saturday, 15 July 2017

"It starts with what you can see from your doorstep" - thoughts on conservatism


Conservatives don't spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a conservative. After all politics is boring, political philosophy doubly boring. So we don't spend hours discussing the nuance of our ideology, preferring instead to talk about the garden, the football or the state of the gulleys on Bingley Road.

The problem with us conservatives not thinking much about conservatism is that others decide to do it for us. And they really don't get it at all. A thoughtful consideration of conservatism get replaced by a set of negative stereotypes depending on who is doing the defining.

To our right we get faux-conservatives who pretend that they're the only real conservatives. Everyone but them are 'cucks', 'conservatives in name only' or, worst of all 'liberals'. The true conservatism for these people is a sort of warmed over nationalism peppered (or even pepe-ed) with sub-literate on-line memes and old-fashioned racist tropes.

To our left are a bunch of folk who range from considering us sad thickos to really, genuinely hating us. No chance of a positive press here, we're greedy, uncaring, elitist and even murderous. Conservatism is a bloated, red-faced man in a pin-stripe suit.

As conservatives we've allowed these oppositional stereotypes to dominate people's understanding of the ideology (insofar as it is an ideology - but more of that later) because we spend almost no time considering what we do believe and, more importantly, what conservatism means to the millions of people who simply toddle along to the church hall and vote for us.

Conservatism is ill-defined - it's felt rather than analysed, emotional rather than intellectual. Unlike the left there is no ur-text, no 'Capital' that provides a bedrock of religious certainty to ideological discussion. We have a set of populist aphorisms - 'hand up not a hand out', 'people who do the right things', 'choice and opportunity' - but these don't help except as a set of clues to what we believe.

The advantage, of course, with all this is we can, like the Red Queen, believe almost anything if we try hard enough. This is the problem that some absolutist free marketers (and those Pepe-loving nationalists) have with conservatism - it doesn't preclude a role for the state or assume that there is some perfect model of government that, if introduced, will lead us to the Fields of Elysium.

The disadvantage with the lack of that ur-text or even a recognised corpus of accessible conservative thinking is that there's no obvious ideological filter through which to assess policy. Conservatives literally wing-it much of the time at least in ideological terms. When people speak of some sort of conservative ideological mission they largely miss the point - it's mostly this is what we do not a case of this is what we believe.

As a starting point in understanding conservatism let me say that emotional meaning is more significant than philosophy, at least in its role as an ideological source. Place, people and values matter more to conservatives than the words in some book written in the 19th century. Where there are central texts to liberalism and socialism, there is no source book for conservatism - we can't get ideological reassurance from Marx or Smith or Mill.

As conservatives, however, we can take advantage of not being tied to a canon to dip into a wider range of sources, to use fiction - Austen, Trollope, Tolkein and even Disraeli - as well as philosophy. Above all though, conservatives should pay more attention to sociology than economics. Most of our problems are because we haven't done this, we've allowed ourselves to be captured by the dry logic of what Deidre McCloskey calls "Max U" - maximising utility, utilitarianism, metrics, technocracy, Plato's Philosopher Kings.

If you spend time with conservative people - and as a Conservative Party member and activist of forty years, I can say that I have done just that - you soon realise that the stuff of national debate and headlines is not the stuff of conservatism (not, as I've noted, that conservative folk spend that much time talking political philosophy). Boil it down and the core of our belief is about community, family, neighbourhood, friends - social capital, sociology. Yet we bang on as if economics is everything, dry and dusty emotionless numbers.

Because of this and because we don't think enough about what we're about, conservatives become pragmatic, technocratic and seem uncaring. If we don't ground our policy in community, family, neighbourhood and home, we end up sounding like the young man with the spreadsheet trying to tell the old publican why his business is dying. Or worse that it would be an improvement to close that business and turn the property into a convenience store or some flats. Apply this thinking to how we see the poor. Not benefits scroungers. Not immigrants. Not undeserving. But somebody's family. Someone's neighbour. Someone's friend.

The reverse used to be true about conservatives. The folk bothering about their neighbourhood, the town, the country were mostly conservatives. The sense of social duty and that 'we can't let things like that happen here' was what drove my grandmother and two friends to start delivering meals on wheels in the years after WWII - ferried round by the local curate who had a motor-cycle and sidecar.

In Britain, conservatism doesn't need a relaunch, we just need to literally go back to our roots as conservatives. To understand why we are what we are and to start talking about those conservative things - few of which, once we've got past thrift, have much to do with economics, at least in that Hayekian or Marxist "we've a prescription for the perfect society here in this book" sense of economics.

Firstly, everything is local. This is what matters most to people. Their family. Their friends. Their neighbours. Their community. Their place. As Kipling said:
GOD gave all men all earth to love
But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Belov├Ęd over all
Admitting our hearts are small is just the start - we must then be able to answer the questions people have about their school, their hospital, their road, their house, their family. It's not that people in Sevenoaks don't care about school and hospitals in Wilsden, of course they do. It's rather that those small hearts make them care much, much more about the things of their neighbourhood than they ever will about things in distant (even five milesaway) places.

Today this means giving people control of the answers to these questions, at the very least a say, a chance to hold the people running the services to account. So when we say we don't like the EU, it's not because it's evil or stupid but because it's simply too far away to understand what our neighbourhood, our community and our family needs except as numbers on a spreadsheet or a footnote in a think-tank report.

Even the local council is too far away to really understand what matters in our communities, to our families and for our neighbourhood. Yet the flattening of everything - creating Harm de Blij's 'flat earth' in the pursuit of Max U - makes that council just an outpost of the distant regime. And people know this and feel excluded. For some there's enough money to escape (or even to be an 'Anywhere' person, a 'Flat Earther') but for most people that's not an option.

If conservatives are to make a difference - and what's the point if that's not the aim - we need to stop trying to make everyone's lives better by centralised fiat. And start with making our and our neighbours lives better. Conservatives should apply that old shopkeeper's adage - 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves'. Look after communities - the bit you can see from your front door - and the whole of society, even the bits we can't see, benefits.

The Knight Foundation, an American charity that supports journalism and active citizenship, ran a programme called 'Soul of the Community' that showed how there is an "important and significant correlation between how attached people feel to where they live and local GDP growth" and what "most drives people to love where they live (their attachment) is their perception of aesthetics, social offerings, and openness of a place". If people love where they live, that place will succeed - it's Sam Gamgee going round The Shire planting a grain from Galadriel's garden in every corner.

For me this is the starting point for a conservative mission. We're not about grand schemes for the perfect society but rather for places that people love. I quoted Kipling's 'Sussex' above but I could equally have used Casey Bailey's 'Dear Birmingham' because it's exactly the same sentiment - I love this place for all it's flaws, mistakes and problems. It's my place.

This is where we start - with home, friends, family and the places we love. You want a conservative manifesto then it starts with how we give folk the power and the tools to turn the places they love into great places. For sure there are lots of other things about keeping people safe, about nation and stuff like that - even macroeconomics if you insist, but if we don't start with what we can see out of our front door we've missed the point.

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1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

Very good post. I think as I have grown older I have come to see myself as essentially a conservative more than a libertarian. And I think the key to conservatism is a love of the particular over the general, and a scepticism about the top-down, imposed, one-size-fits-all solution to any problem.