Every week the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the Young Britons’ Foundation,
Donal Blaney, explains one of Morton Blackwell’s Laws of the Public
Policy Process. Morton Blackwell is the Founder and President of the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
As will have become pretty obvious to all but the most political illiterate, my
views are broadly "Thatcherite" in outlook. I instinctively believe
in an independent nation, free markets, a smaller state, lower taxes, traditional
values and I stand alongside those who oppose political correctness, multiculturalism and a headlong rush into a
European superstate, In the parlance of conservative activists of a certain
generation, I am "sound" and "One of Us".
And yet this week’s Law of the Public Policy Process does not apply only to
Thatcherites. Indeed in today’s political discourse, who is NOT a Thatcherite?
Last weekend’s Sunday Times carried a
fascinating article arguing that Gordon Brown – far from being the
socialist bogeyman many of us believe him to be – is actually more of a Thatcherite
than Tony Blair.
This week’s Law – that sound doctrine is sound politics – stresses the centrality
in politics of principle. It does not ignore the fact that politics is the art
of the possible – that would be naive. But it does stress that a coherent
philosophy is essential as the starting point from which any subsequent derogations or deviations may then flow.
The alternative viewpoint espoused by many supporters of New Labour (and even
some pimply faced zealots surrounding David Cameron) is that effective politics
requires the abdication of a coherent set of policies, principles and values in
favour of the pursuit at all costs of the mythical centre ground and the
adoption, at whatever cost, of a consensus. It sees the lowest common
denominator, a 21st century utilitarianism, as the ideal outcome. This approach
is proclaimed as being "modern", "progressive" and even
heralding "a new form of politics" and those who oppose such an approach
are derided as being traditionalist dinosaurs.
So why does sound doctrine matter so much? I argue that it is important because
it is that starting point for the politician. As much as those who share my
outlook in life might feel nauseated by consensus politics (and we recall Lady
Thatcher’s exhortation that consensus is the absence of principle and the
presence of expediency) we are intelligent enough to know that compromises must sometimes be reached and that much of the
time achieving 50% is better than achieving nothing at all.
What has struck me from my study of politics and politicians, however, is that
the most successful politicians in terms of fusing the potent combination of
popularity and lasting achievement are doctrinally sound. This doesn’t mean
they are unbending in the application of their principles. But it does mean
they start from a position of having some principles in the first place.
The likes of Tony Benn, George Galloway and even Gordon Brown are examples of
left-wing politicians who I would argue are doctrinally sound, perhaps (in the
case of Galloway in particular) excessively so. The Orange Book Liberals
likewise are doctrinally sound because they too have a coherent philosophy that
is the starting point in their debates and campaigns. On the conservative side
of the aisle one can see groups such as the localists (led ably by Daniel
Hannan and Douglas Carswell) who likewise have a clear vision that runs through
their thoughts, writings and speeches and which guides their actions and votes.
Sound doctrine particularly matters in an era of cynicism. The remarks of the
socialist Hungarian Prime Minister (in which he graphically stated to his
parliamentary colleagues that they had consciously and repeatedly lied in order
to retain power) were shocking, not so much for the fact that he and his
colleagues had deceived the Hungarian electorate but for the fact that he
actually said out loud what most voters suspect is the case in their countries
I will never forget the dissembling and sophistry of Michael Portillo after the
1992 election when the Major government increased VAT to 17.5% despite the
Party’s manifesto stating that the Party had no plans to increase VAT. When
pressed by an audience of activists as to why, despite this seemingly clear
manifesto commitment, VAT had been increased within months of Major being
narrowly re-elected, Portillo smugly stated that the manifesto commitment
had not been breached at all as it was true that the Party had not had any
plans at the time of the election to increase VAT. While this may have been a
clever line of argument that I, as a solicitor, should have appreciated, I took
and still take the view that such statements do nothing at all to combat the
lack of respect that so many voters have for their political leaders.
This week too we have seen an embarrassing episode of sophistry which has done
little more than insult the intelligence of voters and Party members. In
response to the revelation that there are now fewer members of the Party than
there were when David Cameron took power less than 12 months ago (as
exclusively revealed on this site), CCHQ blamed local associations (again)
for not collating data accurately and then had the temerity to proclaim that
the fall in members was for "seasonal reasons" (as if being a
conservative is not for people who enjoy the summer but only for those who like
long winter nights). Quite why CCHQ has allowed itself to be open to ridicule
in this why is beyond me. Far from showing that the Party has changed, it
reinforces the impression
that the Party still remains in the hands of those who are more inspired by
Machiavelli than Hayek.
Sound doctrine is essential when weighing up alternative courses to pursue.
There will inevitably be a variety of occasions when the less doctrinally sound
option will need to be pursued, as a temporary measure, as a half-way house or
for costs or electoral reasons. The reason it is important to be doctrinally
sound is for the politician to know that he is derogating from the true path.
In today’s cynical, media driven age it increasingly seems to be the case that
politicians do not even realise they are derogating from a philosophically
sound path at all.
The consequences are that their policies amount to no more than a hotch-potch
of random focus-group tested soundbites that do not stand up to intellectual
scrutiny and which more often than not contradict each other. Like a child who
has to remember dozens of lies in an effort not to get caught out by his
parents or friends, such a politician has to juggle a series of policies that
bear little relation to each other or to a particular world view or philosophy.
And like that lying child grappling with his web of deceit, that politician
will (as has happened to Blair) get found out.
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