One of the marks of a gifted columnist is an ability to surprise the reader with an unexpected argument. Janan Ganesh provides an excellent example in his column for the Financial Times.
In common with many of his colleagues at the FT, Ganesh is a classical liberal who wishes that the Conservative Party wasn’t quite so conservative. However, while others of his point of view might lament what they see as the ‘irrationality’ of conservatism, he regards the Tory right – and by extention the whole party – as overly rational:
“Its electoral agonies flow from too much rationality, not too little. Twenty-one years since the Tories last won an election, eight since they began to ‘modernise’ under David Cameron’s leadership, the party still takes a view of politics that is best described as stupidly logical.”
The idea of ‘stupid logic’ is a useful one. While we habitually describe bad decision-making by intelligent people as ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ most of the time it isn’t – rather it is the product of a constrained, but not disorderly, process of thought.
This is how Ganesh characterises the stupid logic of current Conservative thinking:
“This view, which has spread from the rightwing to contaminate the leadership, runs as follows: parties must find out what people think about the issues of the day, align themselves with those opinions and watch the votes pile up. And so Tories cockily recitetheir polling advantage over the Labour opposition on welfare, immigration and Europe to the last percentage point. Call them rightwing and they brandish a chart showing their views are mainstream.
This appears to be a perfectly reasonable approach – but it conceals a rather basic flaw:
“As a guide to how politics really works, nothing has bettered the research finding that sits halfway through Smell the Coffee, a psephological study of the Conservatives’ third consecutive election defeat in 2005. When a tough immigration policy is read out to voters, they approve. When they are told it is a Tory policy, they recoil. In other words, the party’s reputation is so foul that some people would rather shun an idea they like than endorse its Conservative authors.”
Having smelled the coffee, a number of senior Conservatives, including David Cameron, decided to embrace a different approach, which Ganesh calls ‘impressionism’:
“…Mr Cameron opened his leadership with no great intellectual treatise but vivid and surprising gestures in favour of the environment, delinquent youths and anything else that would disrupt settled impressions of Conservatives…
“Rationalists hold excruciating weekend conferences of the ‘101 policies to win the next election’ variety. Impressionists search for spectacular gestures to remake the party’s reputation at a stroke.”
In recent months we’ve seen the Conservative leadership abandon its impressionist experiment, followed by a retreat into rationalist territory. Ganesh rightly sees this as a retrograde step:
“The swing voter is not a brother of Homo economicus, coldly appraising each party’s manifesto for compatibility with their own interests. They respond to the general aroma emitted by a party. That, modernisation’s central insight, is being forgotten.”
What Ganesh fails to see, however, is that the impressionist approach is also flawed. Tory modernisers are guilty of their own ‘stupid logic’, which goes something like this: ‘Even though our policy positions are popular, they don’t win us votes because people don’t like who we are. Therefore, we have to repudiate our policies.’
It doesn’t take a master logician to work out that the second part of the argument doesn’t actually follow from the first. Indeed, it heads off in the wrong direction entirely because it distracts the Conservative Party from asking the real question, which is this: ‘If our policies popular, but we aren’t, then what is it that people don’t like about us?’
It’s an awkward question, and there’s a lot of people in the party – left, right and centre – who won’t like the answer.