The other side have got one

Ian Gilmour

  • Ideologies of Conservatism: Conservative Political Ideas in the 20th Century by E.H.H. Green
    Oxford, 309 pp, £25.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 19 820593 7
  • Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World by Margaret Thatcher
    HarperCollins, 486 pp, £25.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 00 710752 8

‘In a progressive country,’ Disraeli told his Edinburgh audience after the passage of the 1867 Reform Bill, ‘change is constant; and the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines.’ At least until recently nearly all Conservatives were similarly opposed to doctrine and ideology. To choose just two examples, John Buchan, like Disraeli a novelist and Conservative MP, maintained in the 1920s that Conservatism was ‘above all things a spirit not an abstract doctrine’. And ten years later, Stanley Baldwin warned a Canadian audience not to change the basis of their constitution from party to ideology, because party was founded on mutual tolerance, while rival ideologies aimed at the extirpation of one another.

Conservative philosophers have said much the same. In the 17th century, Lord Halifax affirmed that there was hardly a single proposition to be made which was ‘not deceitful, and the tying our reason too close to it may in many cases be destructive. Circumstances must come in.’ In the 18th, David Hume believed that ‘parties from principle, especially abstract speculative principle’, were ‘perhaps the most extraordinary and unaccountable phenomenon’ that had yet appeared, and that ‘all general maxims in politics ought to be established with great caution.’ Coming down to our own day, Anthony Quinton wrote in The Politics of Imperfection (1975) of ‘the anti-theoretical tendency of conservatives generally’, stressing their concern with ‘the dangerous unreliability of abstract theoretical constructions in the domain of human affairs’. Lord Hailsham considered Conservatism to be ‘not so much a philosophy as an attitude’. Finally, Michael Oakeshott, the leading Conservative philosopher of the 20th century, wrote of ‘the distorting mirror of an ideology’ and identified the main enemy of limited government as ideological politics and state planning. Above all, Oakeshott laid down in his essay ‘On Being Conservative’ that his theme was ‘not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition’.

But all these distinguished people, it now appears, were mistaken. E.H.H. Green, who is a don at Magdalen College, Oxford, with some highly regarded books to his credit and who is not the first academic to take such a position, tells us in Ideologies of Conservatism that the ‘conception of Conservatism as a form of “non ideology” was strange’, since it assumed that ‘in some way the Conservative Party was fundamentally different in its basic structure to . . . any other political party in Britain or elsewhere.’ I doubt that any such assumption is involved, but in any case Green seems unaware that Oakeshott came near to making it, saying after the war that there was ‘nothing whatever in common between British Conservatism and any of the categories of Continental politics’.

Here I should declare an interest. Green (courteously) criticises me for having said that Conservatism ‘is not an ideology or a doctrine’. He complains that my objection to Thatcherism could have been that ‘its self-consciously “ideological” approach to politics was in itself what made it un-Conservative,’ but my ‘critique was targeted at the kind of ideology Thatcherism embodied.’ That is a fair point, but well before Thatcherism had emerged I had expressed general opposition to ideological politics, saying that the Conservative Party’s refusal to maintain a consistent set of doctrines had long been an intense irritation to all ideologues, and that the Tory Party had ‘emotions but no doctrine’. So, when Thatcherism did materialise, I did not repeat what I had written, but merely expressed opposition to the kind of ideology that it embodied.

Green’s other objection is that, if I thought ‘Thatcherism was not Conservatism,’ then I had to have a view ‘about what was Conservatism, in which case a Conservative doctrine or ideology had to have existed from which Thatcherism had departed’. That surely cannot be right. Obviously I had a view about what Conservatism is, but I did not think that it either was, or had, a doctrine or an ideology. In his book, Quinton pointed out that ‘the kind of theory that Conservatism proscribes can be distinguished from the kind that it exemplifies . . . with the help of the term “abstract”. Conservatism rejects as “abstract” political doctrines about the universal and immutable rights of man or about the universally ideal form of political institutions.’ In addition, if some name-dropping may be forgiven, Karl Popper wrote to me when my book on Conservatism was published in the late 1970s. After saying that there were a few points he did not agree with, the great man wrote: ‘I think one can have a theory which is not ideological, and I think you have such a theory.’

In his Unended Quest Popper stressed that one should never argue about words and their meanings, but it seems worth pointing out that Green usually uses the word ‘ideology’ in a different sense from that used by Oakeshott and others mentioned above. He is using it in the sense of a set of political ideas, whereas those who maintain that the Conservative Party is not ideological are using it in the usually pejorative sense of an overarching scheme of abstract ideas; or as Oakeshott put it, ‘a political ideology purports to be an abstract principle, or a set of related abstract principles, which has been independently premeditated.’

The nine essays between the introduction and the conclusion in Ideologies of Conservatism exhibit a vast knowledge of the minutiae of Conservative politics over the last 120 years. They are based on intensive original research, are easy to read and well worth reading. Wherever he ranks as a philosopher, Green is a first-rate historian. But his essays do not, I think, confirm his claim that all through the 20th century before 1975 the Conservative Party was ‘steeped in ideological dispute’. They show, rather, that the Party was ‘steeped’ in pragmatism and was dominated by the desire to win elections and to be in power. Of course they also demonstrate that within the Party there always were differences of opinion. Not all Conservatives were of the same mind. Had they been, the Party would indeed have been unique.

Perhaps the best essay in the book is on Arthur Balfour and the controversy over tariff reform in the first decade of the 20th century, when Britain had lost what the economist Alfred Marshall called its ‘industrial leadership’, and when the Conservative Party came nearer Green’s vision of it being continually riven by disputes over ideas than at any other time. While Balfour’s overriding objective was to prevent his party from splitting into tariff reformers and free-traders, Green convincingly shows that he did not just hover indecisively between the two wings but had a coherent view of his own. Balfour had long been against the imposition and acceptance of an economic orthodoxy (or ideology). To him, economics was not a matter of ‘eternal and unchanging principles’. Circumstances had changed since Cobden’s day; other countries now imposed protective duties on British goods. Hence notions like free trade and laissez-faire were ‘maxims’ not ‘truths’. Balfour’s solution to the problem was ‘retaliation’, a policy he had favoured in the 1880s and 1890s. Retaliation meant that foreign nations who attempted ‘to screw up their duties on British manufactured goods’ should be brought ‘to a better state of mind’ by Britain in its turn ‘placing duties upon their manufactures’. This admirable policy, which thus sought to secure free trade by imposing a measure of protection, was far too subtle and sensible for most of Balfour’s followers. All the same, the Conservative Party did not split.

In another excellent essay, on the fall of the Lloyd George Coalition, Green lists the main policy reasons why Conservatives turned against the Coalition. These were the Government’s policies on Ireland, India, the Empire and agriculture; there was also considerable hostility to Lloyd George himself, partly because he was thought to have been overly concerned with his own interests together with those of his friends and partly because of his ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909, which was still widely regarded in Conservative circles as ‘socialist’. For most Conservatives, however, the key issue had little to do with policies; it was whether the interests of the Party and themselves would be better served by remaining in the Coalition or by coming out. The Party’s leader, Austen Chamberlain, and his closest colleagues were strongly of the opinion that an all-party coalition was needed to defeat socialism, which, it was generally accepted, was the Party’s and the country’s enemy. But the rank and file did not share that view. They were too hostile to the Coalition to tolerate its continuance; they wanted to fight socialism on their own under a Conservative Prime Minister, not Lloyd George. Hence the Carlton Club meeting, the vote against the Coalition and the consequent resignation of the Prime Minister and the Government. W.C. Bridgeman, who became Home Secretary in the succeeding Conservative Cabinet, noted in his diary: ‘one thing is certain about the crisis [which] is that it certainly was not the result of a Carlton Club plot, but came up from below with great force from the constituencies.’

In contrast, the entirely voluntary resignations in 1958 of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Peter Thorneycroft, and his two junior ministers, Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell, came down from above not ‘up from below’. The quarrel was a Cabinet one. In his resignation speech Thorneycroft claimed that he ‘alone in the Cabinet stood against inflation’. Green shows that to be nonsense. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and the rest of the Cabinet were all worried about the impact of inflation. The Cabinet’s disagreement with the Treasury team, he believes, was not over inflation or spending cuts but ‘over questions of degree and timing’. Similarly, to see the differences between the Treasury team and Macmillan and his colleagues as ‘a dispute between monetarist anti-inflationists and Keynesian supporters of full employment would be simplistic’. It follows that there is no ‘direct link’ in economic ideas and policy between the events of 1958 and those in the Thatcher era.

Despite what Green says, Margaret Thatcher was herself in no doubt that before her advent the Conservative Party lacked an ideology. ‘We must have an ideology,’ she declared in 1975. ‘The other side have got an ideology . . . we must have one too.’ There are a number of good personal touches in Statecraft, the publication of which almost coincided with the sad announcement that because of ill health she could make no more public speeches. But much of it has no personal feel and reads like an extended Telegraph leading article. The book, which is ‘dedicated to Ronald Reagan, to whom the world owes so much’, seems to be designed – not that there is much design to it – for a very unsophisticated and very right-wing audience in the United States.

Its author tells us that she has a ‘sense of belonging to America’. Indeed, she seems to be bound hand and foot to the United States. ‘Margaret was mesmerised by power,’ Nigel Lawson wrote in his memoirs; and now that the US has grown even more powerful than it was when she and Reagan were in office her mesmerisation seems also to have grown. ‘America alone,’ she pronounces, ‘has the moral as well as the material capacity for world leadership. America’s destiny is bound up with global expression of the values of freedom. America’s closest allies, particularly allies in the English-speaking world, must regard America’s mission as encompassing their own.’ Those dicta would probably have sounded extravagant at any time, but after 18 months of the Presidency of George W. Bush during which the United States has exhibited little ‘moral capacity’ or ‘values of freedom’ and its politics, policies and governance have been particularly notable for an intoxication with military power and the domination of special interest groups, her hymn of praise seems embarrassingly obsequious. In accordance with it, Lady Thatcher adopts the full American line on Iraq and the Middle East. She even calls Israel ‘our ally’, although Israel is America’s ally but not Britain’s. Syria is deemed ‘obdurate’ for insisting on regaining all her territory that Israel has occupied since 1967, while Israel’s insistence on retaining some of that territory is apparently not obdurate. In her book’s potted, inaccurate history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel’s illegal apartheid settlements on Palestinian land, which are the main cause of the current conflict, are not even mentioned.

Lady Thatcher’s adulation of America is combined with demonisation and hatred of ‘mainland Europe’. ‘During my lifetime,’ she tells us, ‘most of the problems the world has faced have come . . . from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it.’ That is no more sensible than Napoleon’s claim two hundred years ago that ‘all the ills and curses which can afflict mankind come from London.’ Napoleon at least had the excuse that France was then fighting Britain, whereas today Britain is not fighting Europe; only Lady Thatcher is. When she was Prime Minister, Britain signed the Single European Act, and in her memoirs she welcomed that achievement. ‘Advantages will indeed flow from [it] well into the future,’ she wrote. A decade later, however, she deplores it.

Europe, she informs us, ‘is government by bureaucracy for bureaucracy – to which one might add “to”, “from” and “with” bureaucracy if one were so minded . . . what makes Europe the ultimate bureaucracy is that it is ultimately sustained by nothing else’ (her italics). Clearly she would like to see Britain out of the European Union, which would of course make us much more of an American satellite even than we are now. Mario Vargas Llosa, who used to be Margaret Thatcher’s admirer, now fears that ‘she will be remembered more as a very bitter Conservative fighting against Europe, and saying absurd things about Europe.’ That fits her diatribe in this book, especially as almost the only Europeans for whom she has a good word are Silvio Berlusconi and his unprepossessing coalition partners. Yet she is penetrating and fair on Russia and Asia, and excellent on the Balkans, where her record is impressive and where she has wisely relied on the best of the Balkans commentators, Noel Malcolm.

‘Throughout my political life I have usually sought to avoid compromise,’ the former Prime Minister characteristically says, ‘because it more often than not turns out to involve an abdication of principle.’ One does not have to wonder what Peel, Salisbury, Churchill, Balfour, Macmillan or indeed any other Conservative leader would have thought of that very un-Conservative remark. In his conclusion Green briefly considers the implications of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite years. He seems to have realised, perhaps rather belatedly, that his own thesis on ideology in the Party is at variance with Oakeshott’s views and tries to show that the philosopher was really on his side. He quotes some good sentences from Quinton, but omits the important passage quoted above about the kind of theory that Conservatism proscribes being different from the kind that it exemplifies. However valiant his attempt to recruit Oakeshott to his side, it is doomed. After all, if you can have a theory without having an ideology, you can unquestionably have a ‘disposition’ without having an ideology.

Green concedes that 20th-century Conservatives showed a strong adherence to the tenets of intellectual imperfection and political scepticism, which leads him to question whether by espousing Thatcherism the Conservative Party abandoned Conservatism. He doubts the view of those (including this reviewer) who thought that the key Thatcherite departure from Conservatism was the Party’s embrace of ‘a free-market antagonism to state intervention that was characteristic of 19th-century liberalism’, since, as he says, late 20th-century Conservative Governments did not fully embrace ‘neo-liberal economics in its purest forms’. That is true but not a telling argument. All governments want re-election and all of them, however dogmatic, come up against political impossibilities. Complete ideological consistency is therefore never feasible. To quote Oakeshott again: ‘a genuinely laissez-faire society has never existed anywhere on earth at any time.’

Enoch Powell strongly favoured the economic aspects of Thatcherite ideology but objected to their being extended to other spheres. When in 1989 he attacked ‘the Philistine barbarism inaugurated in 1979’, he was referring to the Thatcher Government’s attempt ‘to establish that economic utility is to be the criterion of all organised human behaviour’. To Powell this was ‘the new Prussia’ and spelled ‘an end to the university’. Surprisingly, Green does not mention Powell or the universities in this context, but he seems to accept that Thatcherism was not Conservatism. The last sentence of his stimulating book reads: ‘As the Conservative Century came to an end, it seemed that even if the Conservative Party had survived, Conservatism had not.’