Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Cuddly Conservatism: After Blair.

Craving a more thorough understanding of Cameron Conservatism, a desire sharpened by recent moves toward realigning the Ulster Unionists with the Tory party, I recently ordered a copy of Kieron O’Hara’s book ‘After Blair: David Cameron and the Conservative Tradition’. Rather than offering merely an exposition and critique of the Conservative leader’s strategy, which I had expected, this book is a rather more subtle affair, attempting to define conservatism (small C) in ideological and philosophical terms, before arguing that the ideology outlined offers both electoral rejuvenation for the Conservative Party and a suitable response to particular policy issues which impact British politics at the present time.

O’Hara’s contention is that individualistic neo-liberalism, although it can claim responsibility for modernising the UK’s economy, does not offer an accurate reflection of Conservative thinking. Whilst he does not repudiate markets, O’Hara’s conservatism is much more firmly rooted in belief in society. He believes that strong societies transmit values, knowledge and stability, which have a worth that should not be underestimated. He offers a vision of Conservatives as the surest custodians of society and its mores, not opposed to change, but favouring evolution rather than revolution. Furthermore, he makes it clear that in an inclusive, secular and tolerant society, it should be an inclusive, secular and tolerant set of values which conservatives seek to protect.

Although it is written with a light touch, O’Hara’s book is not facile analysis. In the opening section he seeks to place conservatism in a grand philosophical framework stretching from the sceptics of antiquity, through Burke and Hume. Scepticism, O’Hara presents as the core of the conservative philosophy as he understands it. Conservatives are inherently sceptical of the merits of grand schemes, as well as the effects of all manner of tinkering. The conservative imputes that the burden of proof always lies upon the person arguing for change, rather than the person arguing for the status quo. This is because he values stable societies and fears that change can have unintended destabilising effects. This O’Hara characterises as ‘the change principle’.

The second tenet which underpins O’Hara’s vision of conservatism is ‘the knowledge principle’. To summarise very briefly, this is the notion that knowledge can transcend the individual who originally holds it and become institutionalised. By the workings of this principle, knowledge is transmitted through tradition and the mechanisms of society encompass elements of knowledge and rationales, which although their original basis may have been forgotten or distorted, nevertheless carry an intrinsic value. When you start to haul down institutions and reorder parts of society there may be a collateral effect in terms of lost knowledge. No individual or bureaucracy can possess sufficient knowledge to ‘coordinate and direct a dynamic, complex society’, so an attempt to do so is ultimately futile. Allowing the organic transmission of society’s knowledge is generally the healthiest option, unless strong evidence can be adduced to support innovation.

Paradoxically, O’Hara argues that, precisely because we live in a rapidly changing world, conservatism is particularly relevant. The philosophy is not railing against change, rather it is an admission that our knowledge and resources are limited and that we cannot conceive or understand in their entirety, the workings either of the world we live in, or the societies within it. The author sequesters for conservatism the Rawlsian liberal notion that the individual’s rights must be balanced against the interests of society. The interest of the public as a whole cannot be compromised by individual freedom, an idea which again pedals backward from unalloyed free market philosophy.

O’Hara carries this philosophical analysis forward into the arena of policy and simultaneously examines extant issues and assesses Cameron’s performance so far in light of his arguments. Often he finds himself broadly in agreement with Conservative Party policy as it is being developed. However he remains sceptical about the ability of the ‘third sector’ to supplant public services and indeed argues against the need to continue sweeping public sector reform.

Unfortunately the author neglects to examine in detail an area where his formulation of conservatism should be particularly relevant. Constitutional changes are briefly touched upon, but surely Labour’s disastrous experiment in asymmetric devolution, is a classic example of embarking upon grand schemes without properly examining the likely consequences and collateral effects. Launching devolution must represent the Labour government’s greatest failure to discharge the burden of proof required for change.

‘After Blair’ is a compelling and ambitious book. It is also a considerable exposition of a thread of conservative thinking. I began to wonder though, if the book was not simply critiquing new Labour rather than expounding a philosophy distinct to the Conservative Party. Certainly O’Hara is persuasive and does a fine job of weaving strands of conservative history and philosophy into a narrative basketwork which exposes the hubris of Blair’s government. He cleverly identifies the worst aspects of Blairism and presents conservatism as its natural opponent.

Of course the author is ultimately offering an assessment of the ground which the Tory party should occupy, and therein lies the force of his critique, but whether this position is such a coherent extension of Conservative history and tradition as O’Hara argues, well I’m sceptical. Which I’m sure he would argue makes me a classic conservative.

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