On Britain beyond Brexit and the future of Conservatism
THE END-OF-AUSTERITY message has certainly got through to the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS). On June 10th the CPS launched “Britain Beyond Brexit”, a new collection of essays edited by George Freeman and written for the most part by fellow products of the 2010 intake of MPs. The CPS hired the biggest room in 1 George Street—a vast hall decked out with gilt paint and portraits of bearded Victorians—and provided the guests not just with decent sandwiches but also with champagne and cream-and-strawberry scones. Several leadership candidates, such as Sajid Javid and Dominic Raab, made speeches. Penny Mordaunt clucked around like a mother hen (I wonder if her decision to sit out this leadership election might prove that she’s the most sensible member of the class of 2010). Mr Freeman made great claims that his book provides the party with “a new Conservatism for a new generation” and the intellectual tools that it needs to fight the resurgent hard left.
His enthusiasm is infectious. But he claims too much. His book is more of a curate’s egg than a Viagra pill capable of reviving a flagging conservative philosophy, let alone a hand grenade aimed at the headquarters of Corbynism. In his introduction Mr Freeman rightly argues that the Conservative Party is facing a crisis of the same sort of magnitude that it faced in 1848, 1901 and 1945. The political era that was created by Thatcherism is collapsing thanks most obviously to the financial order but also to the fact that Thatcherism doesn’t offer any obvious solution to pressing problems such as over-crowded commuter trains. The various contributors also tackle issues that Conservatives have shied away from, such as the importance of devolution.
Yet much of the book demonstrates just how difficult it is for a party to refuel intellectually while still in government. The chapter by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is shockingly bad: a predictable paean of praise to technological innovation bereft of interesting examples and written in a succession of clichés. (One well-read Tory commented acidly that the fact that the chapter was so bad proved that it was written by its purported author rather than by an aide.) The book as a whole is notably free of detailed discussion of subjects such as social care (the issue that killed the party in the last election) or corporate reform. The Conservative Party as a whole will have to do a lot better than this if it is to make a compelling case against a resurgent far-left Labour Party.
An excellent cover package in this week’s New Statesman on “The closing of the conservative mind” (with a promise of more to come!). Robert Saunders argues that the Conservative Party has always been much more of a party of ideas than it likes to pretend: its regeneration in the 1940s and particularly in the 1980s came because of its willingness to embrace radical new thinking about the basic building blocks of society. But now in place of ideas the party has nothing but a kamikaze ideology (“Brexit or bust”) and an empty faith in markets and technology (see above). Theresa May was an idea-free zone (compare her to Lord Salisbury or Arthur Balfour). Boris Johnson, her all-but-certain successor, is no more of an intellectual despite his ability to quote Latin tags. There are a few interesting thinkers in the party such as Jesse Norman and Rory Stewart (both, worryingly, Old Etonians) but this is much more the party of Gavin Williamson, the former fireplace salesman who boasts about his lack of interest in political theory, than it is the party of these eccentric “reading men”.
The point is well made. But couldn’t it equally well be applied to the Liberal mind or the Labour mind—or perhaps the Western mind in general? The Blair-Cameron-Clinton liberalism that dominated politics in the 1990s and early 2000s is exhausted. This liberalism rested on a simple formula: simply add social liberalism to economic liberalism and you have the ingredients of a good society. The more acute observers of politics always knew that this was too good to be true: Daniel Bell’s “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” demonstrated that social liberalism had the potential to destroy the moral capital that forms the basis of economic liberalism.
But over the past few years we have learned that if anything Mr Bell underestimated the contradictions of the position. The biggest problems facing most capitalist societies at the moment stem from the excesses of both forms of liberalism. The excesses of economic liberalism have given us giant corporations that are crushing competition and, in the case of internet companies, developing a sinister form of surveillance capitalism. The excesses of social liberalism have given us various forms of social breakdown that can be seen at their most extreme in America: record levels of broken families; an epidemic of drugs, particularly opioids; millions of men who have dropped out of the labour force and taken to a life of petty crime and binge-watching TV. It’s unfair to blame these problems on social liberalism alone. They have a lot to do with the destruction of manufacturing jobs and the legacy of slavery. But social liberalism clearly has something to do with it: the lightening of prohibitions on self-destructive behaviour leads people to make decisions which, in the long-term, can leave them either addicted to drugs or lacking the skills or self-discipline to become productive members of society. The ultimate example of the failure of the double liberalism is San Francisco, where hundreds of homeless drug addicts live on the streets—and where tech billionaires and would-be-billionaires have to dodge piles of human faeces as they walk to the latest trendy sushi joint.
Then there is the Labour mind. The Labour Party has responded to the collapse of neoliberalism not by trying to produce a new progressive synthesis but by re-embracing one of the 20th century’s most blood-stained ideologies. Jeremy Corbyn—a man who makes Theresa May look like an intellectual—has surrounded himself by hard-line Marxists such as Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne who, with their public-school educations, secular fanaticism and appetite for party infighting, come straight out of the pages of David Caute’s “The Fellow-Travellers”. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, is clearly one of the cleverest people in parliament, with an appetite for buttressing his Trotskyism with ideas borrowed from other traditions, particularly the co-operative tradition, and an ability to use new ideas (such as taking 10% of shares into public ownership) to serve old purposes. But the fact that he’s such a vigorous walker should not blind us to the fact that he’s walking in the wrong direction and trying to lead his country over a cliff. While this band is in charge the Labour mind is not so much closed as dead.
The New Statesman cover package coincides, more or less, with the publication of George Will’s new magnum opus, a 640-page study of conservatism called “The Conservative Sensibility” (Mr Will says that he chose “sensibility” rather than “mind” because “mind” was already taken, by Russell Kirk). “The Conservative Sensibility”—a torrent of philosophical musings on the great American and European conservative traditions—is proof that at least one conservative mind is still open. Mr Will still beats all his rivals in his ability to combine high thinking with a shrewd capacity to understand day-to-day American politics. The book’s reception is also proof that it’s not just conservative minds that have closed: when, as a Princeton alumnus, he addressed a group of Princeton students recently, these children of privilege decided to turn their backs on him for various unknown intellectual sins. But Mr Will’s book does also indirectly support the thesis of the closing of the conservative mind: it is hard to think of any of today’s angry young “movement” conservatives surviving in journalism for fifty years, as Mr Will has, and still having enough to say to produce a big book at 78.