- 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.
Bryan Gould, who used to be on the left of the Labour Party and sits for the ‘safe’ constituency of Dagenham (Labour vote 39 per cent, compared with 76 per cent in 1966), asks why his constituents, mostly council tenants, car workers or public sector employees, ‘do not in general regard socialism as the path to their salvation and themselves as socialist’. He answers:
Most Labour voters, if asked to define Socialism, would probably do so in terms of nationalisation, bureaucracy, trade unions and even welfare scroungers – all phenomena which opinion polls and personal observation tell us are unpopular, even with Labour voters.
They probably accept that a socialist government would genuinely try to improve the material conditions and comparative position in society of working people; ... whatever they thought of that objective, many Labour voters might express doubts as to whether their more familiar civil and political freedoms would remain intact under a socialist regime. Many would be likely to identify the state and local government bureaucracies as the major constraints on their liberty.
In part, this is due to enemy propaganda, but ‘it is partly, too, a reflection of the image of socialism which socialists themselves have fostered.’ To all of which one might add the negative example of the Soviet bloc, which looks no more reformable 68 years after the Russian Revolution than at any previous time.
The form that the backlash against socialism has taken is both anti-collectivist and anti-progressive. It is not only individualist in social and economic questions, favouring competition and incentive as a spur to efficiency, the dismantling of privileges and immunities, whether of solicitors, opticians or trade unions, and an expansion of property ownership, in particular of one’s own home. It also re-emphasises patriotism and law and order, and inveighs against ‘permissiveness’ in favour of Victorian values. Those who see in this a coherent syndrome call it populist authoritarianism, and date its rise from the emergence of Enoch Powell as a national hero after his ‘river of blood’ speech in 1968.
I wonder whether it is all as simple as that. The question is not whether there is a logical connection between these attitudes, libertarian in economic and repressive in constitutional matters. The inconsistency between them is less than appears: property rights, it might be argued, flourish best under strict enforcement of the law and the observance of social norms. The question is rather whether the revaluation of public values is equally intense along the whole scale. I should like to argue that in the British counter-revolution the economic element carries more weight than the cultural one. Mrs Thatcher may not have succeeded in her declared aim of ‘killing socialism’, but some at least of her privatisation, de-regulation and demotion of union rights has come to stay. Indeed Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley are making it increasingly plain that many items of ‘Thatcherism’ would not be simply reversed by an incoming Labour government. And while there may be a specific British dimension to this socio-economic lurch to the right, we can see that it is part of a more general tendency in the developed world. Even the Socialist governments of Laurent Fabius, Bettino Craxi and Felipe Gonzalez are retreating, step by step, before the market.
The victor in this ideological re-alignment, however, is not conservatism, but neo-liberalism. In so far as people are moving away from collectivism, socialism or Fabian dirigisme, it is for the reasons Gould gives. True, there has also been a cultural shift, illustrated in the United States by the campaigns of the moral majority, elsewhere by demands for more traditional school syllabuses or by more conventional behaviour on the part of the young. But all of that is happening on a more modest scale. It could become less modest if there was a real threat to the stability of society – for instance, from an escalation of inner-city rioting. But for the moment the shift has been not from Progress to Reaction, but from one point to another within broadly-defined liberal parameters. To anyone familiar with the Liberal origins of the British Labour movement, based on self-help, not collectivism, this is neither surprising nor alarming.
Which brings us back to the place of ideology in British politics. An intelligentsia, a large academic or academically-qualified class that lives by peddling ideas, is new in Britain and so is the ideologisation of politics that is its characteristic gift. New, in particular, is the internationalisation of political discourse in Britain – the references to Gramsci, Habermas, Althusser and Poulantzas that are commonplace in New Left Review and Marxism Today, the rediscovery of Hegel and, to a lesser extent, Nietzsche and de Maistre by the neo-Conservatives. So far, the Marxists have had more success than the Hegelians. In any number of constituency Labour Parties, trade-union back-rooms, council chambers and House of Commons back benches, the dominant figures are far removed from the Methodism, or the cultural critique of Ruskin and Morris, that was once the ethical basis of the Labour movement.
What of the anti-revolutionaries? Neo-liberals are not particularly concerned to beat down the legacies of 1789 and 1848, and they view even 1917 with equanimity, given their faith in the power of reason. Neo-conservatives, however, are united in a crusade against all three, even if they are not united on much else. They are explicit in the rejection of conventional liberalism. They are concerned to re-establish the connections between law, morality, political power and the state. They are in search of the bases of authority in social and political life, of which the most important is religion. All of this comes out well in Charles Covell’s scholarly, discriminating and curiously detached study of the Cambridge fogeys – Michael Oakeshott, John Casey, Maurice Cowling and Roger Scruton – with side-glances at Shirley Robin Letwin and the conservative potential in Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot. Other than that, some of the conservatives are closer to liberalism than others; some accept, other reject, ideas of a social contract and of natural law; all, to a greater or lesser extent, exalt custom, intuitive morality and civil association over rationality and the instrumental state. Though all are doctrinaires, they are united not by doctrine, but by a mood.
As a rule, it is better to read a man’s books than a book about his books, but anyone wishing to find out what distinguishes the New Right from the New or Old Left would be puzzled by the anthology of Roger Scruton’s squibs. It is evident what Professor Scruton does not like: the tyranny of the Enlightenment and 1789 and all its works. It is equally evident that anyone possessing even half his verve and wit has some choice targets. There are few inhumanities that have not found some defender on the left, from the liquidation of the kulaks and the Chinese Cultural Revolution to genocide in Cambodia, Afghanistan or Ethiopia. There is no shortage of defenders of the indefensible on that as on other points of the political spectrum and they deserve to be pilloried. But the function of the scholar is to discriminate, not to massacre. Professor Scruton prefers the second activity.
His main thesis is that whatever detail may distinguish one guru of the Left from another, deep down they are all bad and for the same reason. What emerges most strikingly from his indictment is what Freudians call projectivity: the capacity to attribute one’s own faults to others.
One of the sins of the Left, Scruton argues, is its manichaeanism, its belief in a world divided into light and darkness and, therefore, in a ‘unity of evil’. But he himself thinks in precisely these terms. Differences between one thinker and another are superficial, even misleading: guilt is universal, even if only by association. Leninists tell us that rights which seem to obstruct the new social order are not genuine; Dworkin tells us this, too. Therefore ... The Nazis looked to youth for redemption; Perry Anderson looks to youth for redemption. Therefore ... The Stalinist György Lukacs despised his Habsburgian inheritance; so did Arnold Schoenberg, Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos. Therefore ... Marxists believe that the nature of a society is determined by its economic base; John Kenneth Galbraith believes this. Therefore ... One could turn this game round, if one wanted to. Roger Scruton does not like flat roofs; Joseph Goebbels did not like flat roofs ... But why bother?
He makes much of the intellectual intolerance of his Leftists, of their tendency to ‘mark out areas where discussion is closed’, yet he is very free with his own facts and his own truths. Althusser is in fact a charlatan; Althusser’s tone of voice is in truth the only transparent feature of his writing. one knows where he gets it from: it is a favourite Oakeshottian trick. Read the last paragraph of Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics: the Rationalist’s morality ‘is, in fact, merely morality reduced to a technique’; the moral ideology that inspires him ‘is, in fact, the desiccated relic’ of ‘the moral tradition of an aristocracy’. No ‘in fact’ or ‘in truth’ about it: nothing but assertions of opinion. But if they are mere opinions, what are they worth?
There are similarities, too, with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, for whom he reserves so many thunderbolts. According to Frankfurt (i.e. Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas), we know what people ought to think; we know what they would think if their circumstances permitted it. Therefore, if they do not think it, this has to be explained away, as false consciousness or ‘ideology’, brought about by manipulation or indoctrination. Similarly Scruton with the beliefs of the Left. Since Marxism has been ‘refuted’ many times, i.e. is not true (though he is careful not to tangle refutations with Marxist heavyweights like G.A. Cohen), its persistence has to be explained away. Marxism, he diagnoses, is not a system of rationally-held beliefs. Its structure is that of myth, designed to satisfy ‘the human desire for beliefs which are at the same time scientific and unquestionable’. But the physician has been infected by the patient. Just as a fact and a truth is any opinion that supports the original opinion, so he knows what social reality is: it is any phenomenon that can be used to validate the belief system. Let us go back to the twilight of the Habsburg Monarchy, to ‘the contempt for existing social reality’ as shown ‘in the nihilistic satire of Karl Kraus, the vampiric screaming of Schoenberg, the cold architecture of Loos’. It is just possible that what Kraus, Schoenberg and Loos – and Freud and Schnitzler and Schiele – were engaged in was not a rejection of social reality but a search for it, having decided that the ornateness of the Ringstrasse, the lush harmonies of official entertainment, the jargon and bombast of the daily press, the sexual repressions and the ritualistic etiquette of public and private life – that these, far from revealing social reality, denied it. But that would mean defining reality inductively and the concept would lose its propaganda value.
Which raises the question: for whom is this book intended? The essays in it first appeared in something called the Salisbury Review, the name of which implies that it is intended for circulation in Barsetshire. Who needs this stuff? Surely not Cambridge common rooms, unless standards have plummeted since I was taught History there. Perhaps some lonely tweedy, pipe-smoking schoolmaster, isolated in a common room overrun by jeans-wearing Sixty-Eighters. Or some embattled country clergyman, sandbagging the last ditch to stop the Church of England from becoming the Fourth International at prayer. But the book is not without its value. It tells us, in Covell’s words, why the neo-conservatives’ Hegelianism cannot ‘be absorbed by an English conservatism still inspired by the post-war ideology of anti-totalitarianism’. Small wonder there is not much of a queue for the shuttle from the frying pan to the fire.
If there is a viable alternative to collectivism, it lies somewhere within liberalism. Liberalism has the weakness of being programmatically eclectic. You can have liberalism with a welfare state and without one; with a graduated income tax and without one; with a small public sector or a medium-sized one (but not, I think, with a very large one). It can comprehend Nozick, who thinks anything other than a minimum state is a recipe for tyranny, and Rawls, who is prepared to advocate a fair amount of redistributive intervention. But the flexibility of liberalism is also its strength. It is, as George Watson argues, a way of making choices, something that is not possible in either Marxist or Hegelian utopias. It prescribes a set of institutions, a framework for action to ensure what Rawls calls ‘justice as regularity’. But there is one respect, as Watson reminds us, in which liberalism is unambiguous and uncompromising, even, if you like, dogmatic: ‘the claim to objective moral knowledge is essential to the liberal view.’ For what happens if we abandon moral objectivity? If we concede that witches were burnt only because the age was cruel or that Machiavelli advocated assassination only because the age was cynical, that crusaders crusaded only because the age was fanatical? If we accept that the Great Purge – or the stoning of a Nottinghamshire miner’s house – is necessary for the triumph of a great idea? On what grounds do we then condemn Auschwitz?
Watson condemns socialism for its moral relativism, Scruton for its intellectual arrogance. Gould tries to define a socialism immune to these charges. He no doubt does so because he is as concerned about freedom as he is about equality and is aware of the difficult trade-off between them. But he also knows that very few people will now vote for a Labour Party that fails to come to clean about this trade-off. Gould’s socialism is individualistic and moralistic: that is to say, intervention by the state is justified if it makes individuals happier and more contented – hence his discovery of Rawls as a philosophical guide for the new Labour Party. For, as Rawls argues, a desirable feature of a conception of justice is that it should publicly express men’s respect for one another.
Rawls is not an egalitarian, except in political and legal rights. But then, argues Gould, the modern socialist ‘is not concerned with any concept of total or final equality, which is neither practicable nor desirable’. What Rawls is concerned with is defining the points at which inequality becomes incompatible with justice and at which measures to eliminate inequality also become incompatible with it. One can draw, as Gould does, socialist or semi-socialist conclusions from Rawls’s premises, but in his assertion of an objective morality Rawls is a liberal. It is here that the difficulties arise – not necessarily for socialists, who come in many hues, but for the Labour Party as at present constituted. For at the heart of Rawls’s argument lies a simple proposition: ‘Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.’ You can no doubt persuade Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley of this. Indeed, their recent speeches sound as though they are largely convinced of it already. But can you persuade a Party Conference or the TUC of it, and can it prevail against the ingrained Labour habits of partiality, favouritism and sectional privilege? There is, in any case, another problem. Rawls has already been pinched by the Alliance – implicitly by David Owen in A Future that will Work, explicitly by the SDP’s Tawney Society. Talk like that, whether on social justice or on electoral reform, and you are already stamped as a defector.
The neo-conservatives have made the most noise in recent years, just as the New Left did a decade earlier. They are not without influence, but their distance from the mainstream of Anglo-Saxon political thought, compared with Rawls, puts them at a hopeless disadvantage. There has been a shift in the epicentre of British political preferences, but it has happened within the wide, accommodating and untidy world of liberalism, from Keynes, Beveridge and Crosland towards Hayek, Friedman and Nozick. Present public discontent with Mrs Thatcher is not notably Tory or Socialist. It has to do with her style and the arbitrary, authoritarian, interfering and egocentric way she deals with her colleagues and conducts business. The objection is less to her neo-liberal principles than to her illiberal practice. This makes it all the more likely that, unless some catastrophe hits us, the next shift of opinion will be within the same limits as the previous one.