Friday, 17 May 2019

Some questions to get conservatives thinking

 I've repeatedly warned conservatives that, if defining who is or isn't a conservative and what is or isn't conservatism is left to socialists, liberals and reactionaries, we will become irrelevant to politics and policy-making. Historian Robert Saunders, in criticising Roger Scruton's call for defunding of university departments lacking in intellectual diversity, set this out in a Twitter thread:
In its early years, Thatcherism teemed with ideas. The party became a magnet for historians, philosophers and economists - some converts from the radical Left - who hammered out their ideas in think tanks, discussion groups and Scruton's own journal, The Salisbury Review
Saunders asks whether the current reaction from conservatives to left-wing dominance of academia - ban it, stop it, take its money away - simply covers over the paucity of conservative thinking, especially in or near to the Conservative Party itself. Saunders isn't a conservative so my warning is relevant but his (admitted a tad jaundiced) analysis of David Cameron is very telling:
From this perspective, Cameron seems guilty not of ‘scepticism’ but of what his biographers call a ‘heroic incuriosity’. He takes no interest in the arts; has only the haziest grasp of history; and cheerfully admits that he ‘doesn’t really read novels’. Far from liberating himself from ‘ideology’, he has simply ceased to ask meaningful questions of it.
This is, without question, the defining characteristic of many modern politicians - Cameron is not unique in being spectacularly bright but incredibly shallow, just look at Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, Leo Varadkar and, of course, the godfather of 'image is everything' political positioning, Tony Blair.

A while ago - when slightly angry voices on the right of politics were saying that Cameron was a 'conservative in name only' or similar, I wrote that this was far from the truth, he is absolutely a conservative:
But for Cameron – and we see this in his enthusiasm for “social action” – such an obligation to act nobly is essential to conservatism. We are defined by what we do rather than what we support. Passing laws to help the poor in Africa or to care for communities in England is not sufficient; we must act ourselves to help society. A central tenet of Cameron’s conservatism is the idea of “giving back” – we are fortunate so it behoves us to put some of that fortune back into society.

The second concept is the idea of administration. Some people see the purpose of securing political power as the way to effect change, to direct the forces of government so as to improve mankind. In Cameron’s conservatism this is not the case; the purpose of power is administration – the running of good government.
The problem is that this outlook - action and managerialism - doesn't leave a great deal of space for thought and rather focuses our preference on doers rather than thinkers - Rory Stewart rather than Jesse Norman. As Blair once put it "what matters is what works" and, in most cases, "what works" is defined as what wins us elections rather than a genuinely technocratic evidence-based polity. Our modern government looks technocratic but is far more concerned with what might be called "feels" than with substantive thinking about policy.

An illustration of this came from Will Tanner (who runs the brand new Tory think tank, Onward) in response to Liz Truss MP's suggestion that we need to reform planning and build a million new homes on what is now 'green belt' around London:

You've got to admire @trussliz' chutzpah, but our 10,000 sample megapoll last month suggested allowing development on the Green Belt would be the most unpopular housing pledge the Conservatives could take into an election, even with young people
Truss responds with a very telling comment:

We've got to move away from focus-group paralysis and deliver what will improve people's opportunities and life chances. We have to start making arguments again and not just follow.
Tanner's comment is in line with the Conservative Party of Cameron - no thinking ("how do we craft a planning system that protects, enhances even, the beauty, heritage and environment of England while allowing the housing development we need") just 'we can't do that, it isn't popular'. You don't have to agree with Truss's argument about housing development to see that setting policy by opinion poll denies the requirement to think seriously about the sort of places we want in our society. It is also a little ironic to see a politician slapping down a think-tank chief for not doing any actual thinking.

As to that conservative thinking, it is out there but not quite where you'd expect to find it. Firstly, the sort of issues that really bother people are now far less about economics than they are about sociology:
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.
So if you want to get some substance about family, community, identity and the loss of institutions, you're better off reading US sociologist Robert Putnam's "Our Kids" or Dutch geographer Harm de Blij's "The Power of Place" than dabbing your eyes at reactionary paeans to a lost bucolic England or thudding your way through "The Road to Serfdom". And taking a look at non-conservative voices at the fringes of what's usually called 'populism' like Ben Cobley, David Goodhart and Matthew Goodwin.

The questions - challenges we could call them - that emerge include:

1. How do we restore trust to society - in things like marriage, education, justice, business and finance as well as government?

2. How, in an age of individualism, LGBT rights, gay marriage and identity wars, do we rebuild families as the central building block of society?

3. How do we balance the undoubted power of free markets and new technology in promoting betterment with the human desire to sustain community?

4. How do we promote local autonomy in a world filled with outcries about 'postcode lotteries'?

5. How does personal responsibility square with the popular idea that our agency is compromised by modern marketing methods?

6. Is there still a concept of duty - to family, friends, neighbourhood and nation?

7. Can we meet the aspiration for security without compromising civil liberties, and where is the boundary beyond which acceptable social control become autocracy?

8. What are the institutions we need to meet the aspirations for secure families and strong communities?

Too much of our thinking is, as Lizz Truss noted, dominated by opinion polling and focus groups resulting in policy-making that, to use an ad man's term, "just films the brief" - we get lists of initiatives each crafted so as to ping a positive in polling or research but these lists are, taken as a whole, unsatisfying. From tweaks, up or down, to taxes through grants or incentives to tinkering bits of regulatory change, what we have doesn't present any sort of picture of what we want tomorrow's families, communities and neighbourhoods to look like - they are bereft of a vision and wholly without the sort of mission Disraeli set us, 'improve the condition of the working man'.

You don't need university departments, think tanks or learned societies to consider what a 21st century conservatism might look like and there's no point in (given the left wing bias of academia) trying to push water uphill - so feel free to take those eight questions above, add to them if you like, and start thinking about what kind of place you want to live in and how we get there.


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