Peter Pulzer

  • The Redefinition of Conservatism: Politics and Doctrine by Charles Covell
    Macmillan, 267 pp, £27.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 333 38463 6
  • Thinkers of the New Left by Roger Scruton
    Longman, 227 pp, £9.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 582 90273 8
  • The Idea of Liberalism: Studies for a New Map of Politics by George Watson
    Macmillan, 172 pp, £22.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 333 38754 6
  • Socialism and Freedom by Bryan Gould
    Macmillan, 109 pp, £25.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 333 40580 3

We have at the moment a Conservative government. It is in some disarray over clashes of personality and questions of political style, but also on matters of political principle. There is a genuine dilemma for an administration dedicated both to the strengthening of national defence and to leaving the future of manufacturing capacity to the sovereignty of the shareholder and the logic of the market. Defence suppliers have only one customer; defence procurers only a handful of suppliers. Their relationship is political and any decision about it is going to be political. There is a Tory solution to such a dilemma: intervene, even if it offends against the sanctity of private property. There is a neo-liberal solution: don’t intervene, even if it means refusing to fly the flag. There is a Peelite solution: do not blink at the inevitable, but call it the national interest. There are many reasons for Mrs Thatcher’s failure to embrace any one of these unambiguously, but one of them is the struggle between pragmatism and dogma that has invaded British political discourse. Are British politics still defined by the old Anglo-Saxon landmarks, or have we ‘joined Europe’?

Three dates dominate the political consciousness of modern Europe and, indirectly, of the modern world: 1789, 1848 and 1917. Each symbolises an attempt to change the world permanently by spectacular and violent means. Each incorporated a political doctrine that had gained considerable intellectual support in advance. Each became, and has remained, a beacon for radicals and revolutionaries. Each engendered a counter-movement, as politically violent and as intellectually ambitious as those of the three revolutions.

Modern Europe, the modern world: does that include Britain? It would be odd to claim that Britain is not a modern country. For about a hundred years, from the third quarter of the 18th to the third quarter of the 19th century, it had the most advanced economy, technology and political system, widely admired and widely imitated. What it did not have was dogmatic politics. What characterised British politics in 1789, 1848 and 1917 is that nothing much happened. True, there were the Corresponding Societies of the 1790s, the Chartist crowd on Kennington Common in 1848, the Clydeside shop stewards in 1917. At the time they frightened some people. But they were never going to take over.

This non-cataclysmic state of British politics was reflected in British political discourse. The writers who have dominated British political thinking are Locke, Hume, Burke and Mill. What distinguishes their arguments and conclusions is that they are easily understood, popularised and accepted. Unlike the political intelligentsia of continental Europe, they do not speak a language that is incomprehensible to the averagely intelligent newspaper reader. They are in the mainstream of public life. They can be safely quoted today as the source of self-evident truths.

Because of these common-sense qualities, their ideas virtually monopolised British political thinking in the modern period. That did not mean that Britain was intellectually isolationist. German scholarship was much admired and emulated in the 19th century, as were French art and literature and Italian music. But political theory: no thank you. Britain had no need of doctrine, revolutionary or anti-revolutionary; nor, since there appeared to be no problem of the state, a doctrine of the state. Those writers who were influenced by Continental ideas – Coleridge, Carlyle or T.H. Green – remained on the margin, at least when it came to politics. Britons gloried in the non-doctrinal nature of their politics. ‘Britain is not governed by logic,’ Disraeli proclaimed, ‘she is governed by parliament.’ And Balfour, no stranger to the life of the mind, praised the British people’s ‘distrust of extreme conclusions which is sometimes misdescribed as want of logic’.

These things are true no more. Doctrine has entered British politics. Or rather, from being a subordinate part of it, it has made a serious bid for a dominant role. The process happened first on the left from the 1960s onwards and evoked, as one might expect, a response on the right. Conservative doctrine being anti-revolutionary, it flourishes only when there is a threat of revolution. Parallel with this development there came a gradual popular shift to the right, culminating in Mrs Thatcher’s re-election in 1983, which was only partly related to the rise of Conservative political theory. We therefore have to note, and try to explain, three separate but interconnected phenomena. The first is the capture of large sections of the Labour Party by an intelligentsia of the Left. The second is the desertion of the Labour Party, and much that it stood for, by a sizable slice of its traditional electorate, a desertion from which the Conservative Party of Mrs Thatcher drew a major benefit. The third is the emergence of an intellectual counter-revolution on the right.

The interconnections are numerous. The ideologisation of Labour and its electoral decline are obviously related: a lot of Labour voters are turned off by the shrill pedantries of bed-sitter Trotskyism. But the two interrelate at other levels, too. Both arise out of disillusionment with the performance of Labour in office and of institutions associated with Labour; both arise out of changes in the social structure – in particular, the diminution of the classical working class and rise of an intelligentsia many of whom are the children of this class. But the connection is also negative. There is among many Labour voters and the doctrinaires in the Party a divergent, indeed an almost totally dissonant, perception of what socialism means.

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