This week, I was glad to hear David Cameron say "I'd rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown" but what does that mean for policy and society?
Famously, Lady Thatcher settled a discussion by taking a book from her handbag and banging it on the table, declaring,
"This is what we believe."
The book was F A Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty. What is less well known is that the book's postscript is titled "Why I am Not a Conservative". The whole essay repays close reading but this section speaks volumes:
"Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called "liberalism" was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character. And some time before this, American radicals and socialists began calling themselves "liberals." I will nevertheless continue for the moment to describe as liberal the position which I hold and which I believe differs as much from true conservatism as from socialism. Let me say at once, however, that I do so with increasing misgivings, and I shall later have to consider what would be the appropriate name for the party of liberty. The reason for this is not only that the term "liberal" in the United States is the cause of constant misunderstandings today, but also that in Europe the predominant type of rationalistic liberalism has long been one of the pacemakers of socialism."
Rather surprising is what Hayek wrote in his foreword to Ludwig von Mises' Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Hayek confessed he was one of the young idealists returning to university after World War I, looking to build a better world, who believed socialism would fulfil their hopes for a more rational and just society. Mises dashed those hopes. Hayek wrote of Mises' book:
"Socialism told us that we had been looking for improvement in the wrong direction."
So the young socialist became a classical liberal and later set out the agenda that became a radical Conservatism.
Society, human life – a dynamic process of social cooperation and discovery – can only go forward and our choice is as simple as it is ancient. State power or the power of responsible, cooperating individuals. To live under the authority of other people or to live in liberty, adjusting your behaviour voluntarily to others. Social responsibility, not state control. A Big Society, not Big Government.
Beyond the events of the day, I believe this Parliament will be about something of longer-term interest: the evolution of ideas amongst members of the two parties which have long been in retreat under the onslaught of those who would use state power to construct a more rational and just world. Will the Liberal Democrats rediscover their historic faith in freedom, in individuals cooperating to mutual advantage? Will Conservatives merely oppose change, or will we fulfil our commitment to liberty, responsibility, property and enterprise? Together, will we muddle through a series of moderate inconveniences or will events of historic proportion drive us towards principle?
There must always be pragmatism and compromise, and I hope you would expect an engineer to say so, but, as an engineer, I am convinced that action without ideas and definite ends in mind can be quite dangerous. As I said in the Commons:
"If the hon. Gentleman uses the word "ideological" to accuse me of having thought about how society works and what the law ought to be, of course I plead guilty."
The Constitution of Liberty is a fairly weighty read and to extract its argument is a challenge. Enter Eugene F, Miller's book Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty – An Account of Its Argument from the IEA. I thoroughly recommend it, much as I prefer the work of his mentor. Ludwig von Mises emphasised the nature of the individual in society and the mechanisms of social cooperation. I very much regret that his work is not more widely read: some truths are waiting to be rediscovered.
To that end, the IEA published Dr Eamonn Butler's Ludwig von Mises – A Primer.
Mises is exceptionally quotable, but my favourite is this:
"Society is cooperation; it is community in action."
That is what I believe. If only Lady Thatcher had said it, instead of that much misquoted section of her interview for Woman's Own…