The New Politics
Liberal Conservatism or same old Tories?
Bristol: Policy Press, 2011
Paperback. ix-156 pp. ISBN: 9781847428547. £21.99
Reviewed by Nicholas Deakin
London School of Economics & Political Science
It is difficult to resist the impression that this is not the book that its author expected—or wished—to be writing when he first signed up with Policy Press in 2009. A new account of twenty-first century Conservatism should have culminated in a smooth ascent by David Cameron and his newly electable, detoxified Conservatives to power at the expense of a discredited Labour regime.
Instead, King’s narrative was presumably sharply readjusted to take account of the outcome of the inconclusive election of 2010, the creation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and the agreement hammered out between those two parties. And the explicit task that he must have set himself, of portraying a triumphant Cameron, clearly following within the traditional pattern of past Conservative Prime Ministers, became an altogether more challenging undertaking.
In Peter King’s portrayal, Cameron exemplifies three distinctive values—compassion, social justice and progress. He is socially liberal as part of his modernising mission. But in what sense can these values properly be described as truly Conservative? Is Cameron’s new brand (the term is unavoidable) something new and distinctive, a kind of “red Tory” approach, to employ another currently fashionable description?
King opts for continuity rather than change as his main theme; and embarks on a number of different attempts to justify his conclusion. First he returns to the philosophical roots of Conservatism, drawing heavily on Burke and de Maistre as he does so, but also incorporating material from some standard American sources. This section of the book does not seek to be original—it is essentially Conservative Political Theory 101. But he runs into some difficulties in trying to assimilate some of the recent developments on the American right into his scheme; the neo-Cons and the Tea Party activists, true reactionaries though they may be, make uncomfortable bedfellows for English Tories.
Then King goes on to a general review of Conservative attitudes towards progress as a policy objective and offers a considered defence of reaction as a rational form of political behaviour. Here, the shadow of Burke falls heavily across the argument. Moving from the general characteristics of Conservatism to recent political events, he now seeks to reconcile the principles he has laid out with the practice of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, during its first year. A final detour lays the initial policy statements of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives when in still Opposition alongside those of Cameron’s Conservatives before the election, showing both as apparently pragmatic, non-ideologically driven attempts to address the practical issues arising from specific economic and social conditions. And thus, QED, both cut from the same conservative cloth.
Does all this make up a coherent package? There are certainly problems with some of the individual sections. For example, the reliance on Burke requires that general principles be derived from arguments that are responses to specific events and particular institutions. As C.B. Macpherson has pointed out, Burke’s devotion to the virtues of hierarchy and landed property means that his conclusions are only distantly relevant to current political issues. But the more serious weakness lies in the omissions. There is very little sense in King’s account of Conservatism of the post-Second World War evolution of thinking within the party, notably R.A. Butler’s New Conservatism, the importance of which has recently been reaffirmed by Peter Dorey’s British Conservatism. Harold Macmillan, the coiner of the term “Middle Way”, has only a single misleading reference to his “paternalism”. Ted Heath’s experiments (as “Selsdon man”) in modernism and structural reform driven by a wholehearted embrace of the European project figure merely as a brief prologue to Thatcher’s regime. Thatcher herself is presented almost completely uncritically, though there is some saving recognition that her version of neo-liberalism contained elements that were inimical to Conservative values. But she figures also as the bridge to Tony Blair’s New Labour—and it is here that the obvious model for Cameron’s new improved Conservatism can be found (Blair is second only to Cameron himself in the number of references in the text to contemporary politicians).
The account, such as it is, of latter-day Conservative political philosophy, leans heavily on the sentimentalities of Roger Scruton. It would have been helpful to have some reference to others—to take only two examples, the thoughtful account of relations between the individual and the state in William Waldegrave’s Binding Leviathan or Keith Joseph and Jonathan Sumption’s Equality (or as it should really have been titled, Against Equality). This might have enabled him to make a more considered response to the suggestion that Conservatism as a philosophy eventually rests on the assumption that inequality is a necessary condition, not just for economic success but also for social stability. The promotion of inequality was indeed triumphantly successful under Thatcher (King is seriously misleading on this point) and of course continued under Blair. But how can this dramatic increase in disparities in wealth and incomes coexist with the civic Conservatism based on intermediate institutions now being marketed by Cameron under the label “Big Society”? King’s answer is to send Burke’s “little platoons” to resolve any difficulties—they come round and round in his text like fairground horses on a carousel. How they can address deep-seated structural problems in a depressed economy or deal effectively with the social consequences is not made clear.
In addition, there is a striking failure in King’s text to recognise the diversity of the UK—which is odd, when you consider Burke’s own origins. The idea of a Conservative tradition drawing on the enduring strength of the appeal to old loyalties entirely fails to explain the dramatic collapse of the party in Scotland, going from largest party north of the Border in the Commons to a single seat and a marginal presence in Scottish politics, sustained only by the PR voting system that their national leadership repudiates.
A final weakness is the virtual absence of Cameron’s coalition partners, the Lib Dems, from both the analysis of philosophies and the narrative of the events since the coalition was formed. They figure merely as the means by which Cameron obtained power, not as actors in their own right with their own beliefs and traditions. By aggregating their vote with that of the Conservatives, King seeks to acquire some electoral legitimacy for the coalition. However, those voters did not have any foreknowledge of the possibility of coalition or any input into the agreement between the parties—as the Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly pointed out, nobody voted for the policies the coalition are now introducing.
King also tempts fate by offering a provisional account of recent developments—it is his bad luck that the NHS and social care debacle, which exposed fundamental differences between the two ruling parties, took place after he went to press. The failure of the Lib Dems to secure public approval for electoral reform in the AV referendum that was the price of their participation is also absent—and so is the resentment of his partners in government at Cameron’s active involvement in the campaign against reform. But such gaps are an inevitable consequence of any attempt to write contemporary history.
To summarise. King answers his own question by asserting that... “of course the Conservatives in 2010 are the same old Tories, and new politics of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats merely proves this” . The case for seeing David Cameron as the representative of a truly Conservative tradition was certainly worth making but not made wholly convincingly—Simon Heffer, a long-term critic, takes the opposite view, although he provides an endorsement of King’s book on the cover. The argument also suffers from selectivity and omissions in the source material. Nonetheless, as an account of David Cameron the Conservative leader it has some merit. About David Cameron as leader of a coalition Government, I am not so sure. The journalist Philip Stephens’ comments, written before the Murdoch affair came to the boil, that Cameron is “good at being Prime Minister” —but not a good PM (Financial Times, 5 July 2011) seems close to the mark, though of course “events, dear boy” may overturn that judgement. As a source for teaching purposes, The New Politics could certainly be useful, setting out a position not always fairly represented in undergraduate teaching curricula. If it is used in this way, I would recommend that it should be read alongside the late Tony Judt’s Ill fares the Land, which states a parallel case for social democracy in terms that few social democratic politicians now have the nerve to make it. The resulting debate could be lively.
Cercles © 2011