Thursday, 3 August 2017

Thoughts on a 21st century conservatism

Chris Dillow in that slightly laid back manner of his asks why us Tories seem to be uncomfortable with the 21st century:
It’s become a cliché that the Tories want to return to the 1950s, before the age of mass migration and our entanglement with the EU. These, however, are not the only examples of Tories discomfort with the modern world. Tom Welsh says the Tory party is threatened by the large number of university graduates, and Amber Rudd seems befuddled by the internet.
Now partly this is simply a reflection of Tory demographics but we should also spot that, especially with the Internet stuff, getting all flustered over new things isn't the preserve of us Conservatives. Check out the angst about disruptive digital transport technology, the constant fretting about robots and jobs, or the renewed enthusiasm for fixing prices and managing markets. Hardly embracing the modern world.

And, let's be honest about the 1950s - who wouldn't want to return to a full employment, low crime world with strong communities and social capital? So perhaps us Tories need to start explaining how, without casting aside all the myriad ways in which today's world is better, we can help build a 21st century version of those happy days.

Chris suggests that the reason for conservative angst is that the world hasn't quite turned out quite like we expected it to in November 1989 when the communist wall came down. Mostly, of course, this is because, despite the dark days being over, this damnable ideology persists - not least because of the refusal of those who dream of man's perfection and true communism (like Chris) to accept that their faith - the secular religion of socialism - is wholly misplaced.

In the 1980s British Conservatives managed to connect traditional Tory values - family, community, personal responsibility - with the core of liberalism deserted by those who claimed to be liberals. It was less about Popper, Hayek and Friedman and more that the thing to be conserved was the neoliberal consensus about to deliver the most sustained period of economic betterment in human history.

This being said, Chris Dillow is right, conservatives have to reconnect with the middle class bedrock of their support and this can only happen when the process of leaving the EU is concluded. And the starting point is for us to rediscover sociology as a means of understanding our world and to set aside the dry, metric-dominated economics that dominates elite political discourse. It is possible to want strong, cohesive communities and to support an open, buccaneering, free-trading world.

Chris is right that there's no canon of economists on which to build a modern conservatism but this might not be such a deal (even for an economist like Dillow) - as I wrote a week or so ago:
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, Tolkien 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.
It seems to me that this is a starting point for a conservative future, one that values personal liberty and supports community, encourages enterprise and respects service, and sees the building blocks of a good society in the actions of good people who love the place they live not in a vain search for perfection, for a 21st century Utopia.


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