Scott Kelly lectures in British Politics at New York University.
I recently gave a lecture to the whole student body at New York University’s London campus on the subject of the forthcoming election. Hoping that a blunt statement would spark the students interest, I began by noting that an election that has been described as the most unpredictable for a hundred years, taking place against a back drop of economic uncertainty, the rise of IS and renewed Russian aggression had, so far, been immensely dull.
Some Tory-supporting commentators seem to believe that if the campaign has failed to fire up much enthusiasm, all the better. As Janan Ganesh never seems to tire of arguing in the Financial Times, this should favour the Conservatives. Pragmatism based on economic realism and rejection of the strictures of false utopianism is viewed by many commentators and contemporary historians as the secret of the Tories’ success in the post-war period.
As Ganesh writes: ‘This is generally how Conservatives win and keep power. They do not rally voters to a positive programme, they step in when economic troubles break an overreaching Labour government; 1951, 1979, 2010 conform to this pattern. They then extend their stay in office, less because the nation warms to them than because it fears a recidivist Labour. The Tories are more like troubleshooters, hired on contract, than a great cause or a political movement.’ That this simplistic account amounts to little more than a caricature of modern history does not mean it lacks currency.
The idea that conservativism is essentially reactive was cogently expressed by Hayek in his famous critique ‘Why I am not a Conservative’ from The Constitution of Liberty. Hayek was wise enough to understand that conservatism did not simply equate to prudent pragmatism, arguing that ‘conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.’
But for Hayek, the ‘decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such’ is ‘that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies to slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance.’
On the face of it, this account of Conservatives as buffeted by conditions that are not of their making, would appear to be corroborated by Michael Oakeshott’s metaphor of the state as a ship sailing an unforgiving ocean with no final destination in sight. ‘In political activity’ Oakeshott wrote ‘men sail a bondless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.’
But Oakeshott was not advocating simple pragmatism as a riposte to socialism and its promise of a ‘New Jerusalem’. Oakeshott’s comparison of statecraft with seafaring was more than a convenient metaphor. For Oakeshott, both activities involve a type of knowledge that is specific and extensive and can only be learnt through practice. Statecraft, like seafaring, and any craft for that matter, can only be learnt by doing.
This knowledge also extends beyond, say, practical matters such as the handling of sails and ropes – for a good captain must also know how to get the most from his crew, to give them a sense of purpose. It is this mix of practical knowledge and an understanding of the best and the worst of which humans are capable that is the defining characteristic of conservatism.
A pragmatism uninformed by such knowledge is in reality a form of liberalism. Not only because, as Ganesh and others clearly assume, the winds will inevitably blow the ship of state in the direction of more open markets and individualism, but also, as Lewis Munford once argued of those pragmatists who favoured isolation in response to the rise of totalitarianism, because it is disconnected from true understanding of humanity.
“This pragmatic liberalism,” Mumford wrote, “was vastly preoccupied with the machinery of life. It was characteristic of this creed to overemphasize the part played by political and mechanical invention, by abstract thought and practical contrivance. And, accordingly, it minimized the role of instinct, tradition, history; it was unaware of the dark forces of the unconscious; it was suspicious of either the capricious or the incalculable, for the only universe it could rule was a measured one, and the only type of human character it could understand was the utilitarian one.”
In The Corruption of Liberalism, Mumford exposed the dangers of a purely practical approach to politics. A politics devoid of passion is not just bloodless but incapable of mobilising a people; it is principles and values that give purpose and meaning to both life and political discourse.
‘Safety first’ was the Conservative Party’s slogan in 1929. This cautious message didn’t prevent the party losing power and a minority Labour Government propped up by the Liberals taking its place. Two years, later a financial crisis led to the formation of a National Government. Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?