Year One of the Coalition saw Conservatives and Liberal Democrats emphasising their similarities. Half way through Year Two, the parties are keen to stress their differences. Nowhere was this more evident than at the LibDems' conference lastweek. As Conservatives prepare to rally in Manchester, they are torn between the desire to look more grown-up than their coalition partners, by appearing gracious about the compromises required of them, and the evident but opposing need topresent a distinctly Conservative agenda. The latter is necessary not only to reassure their own followers but to show thecountry at large that there is an alternative to the present fudge, and that it is worth voting for at the next election.

But what would a 21st century Conservative government look like? Can the Conservative party nowadays define itself in philosophical terms, or must it rely on explaining what it is not? In his new book, ambitiously titled Conservatism, academic and writer Dr Kieron O'Hara attempts to answer that question. In so doing, he examines a huge range of sources, from Plato to Fukuyama, by way of Adam Smith, Wittgenstein, Hayek, John Gray and Nassim Taleb – to name but a few. Most frequently cited are the two thinkers who have most influenced O'Hara's philosophy: Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott.

Pitching himself as a “small-c conservative”, O'Hara makes his own sympathies clear. I do not always share them, but I applaud O'Hara for the breadth of his analysis and his ability to link some important yet complex threads in a persuasive and intelligible way. At times the book feels like a student primer, but it is none the worse for that, and O'Hara not only attempts to distil the essence of conservative philosophy but also to apply it to the biggest political challenge of the age – the banking crisis – as well as one of the noisiest political agendas, that of environmentalism.

O'Hara takes as his starting point the “knowledge principle” and the “change principle.” A true conservative should, in O'Hara's view, respect the accumulation of knowledge – including collective knowledge comprised in institutions – but should recognise that it is never possible to acquire certainty, nor to find the perfect solution. In O'Hara's words, “the conservative is humble in the face of uncertainty and complexity.” Like Rumsfeld, we should have regard to the “unknown unknowns”. The UK and US responded to the banking crisis by spending colossal sums of money, yet no-one in government knew what the outcome would be. (Indeed, as Western economies continue to unravel, we still don't know.) O'Hara doesn't go so far as to say that the response was categorically wrong – but it has certainly proved inconsistent with another principle treasured by conservatives: that of sound money.

Ambitious projects for the reordering of society, or for radical reform of any kind, are inconsistent with the knowledge principle and thus un-conservative. Social science may be helpful, but scepticism is always required. As guided by Burke,we should be mindful of the aggregated wisdom of history; it follows that we should prefer common law to statute and be wary of the power of legislation to reinvent the world. O'Hara is not only a Burkean, he is also a computer scientist, and recently led a review of privacy and transparency for the Cabinet Office. He is therefore keen to exploit the wisdom of crowds and explains why the internet's ability to collect and share information acts as a brake on top-down power. But he's no sucker for crowd-sourcing; not “any old crowd” will do. As he points out, and as my fellow columnist Stephan Shakespeare has recently explained on these pages, crowd-sourcing can easily turn into groupthink. So technology must be used with discernment; sophisticated methods of aggregation are necessary to harness the information or opinion on offer.

If conservatives are wary of ambitious projects, respectful of history and value institutions, how can they effect reform? Should their default position be an Oakeshottian resistance to change; must conservatives always be harking back, clinging to the familiar? O'Hara, being more upbeat than Oakeshott, thinks not. His view of conservatism allows for change, provided it is of the right kind. In other words, it must be organic, bottom-up rather than imposed from above; demand driven rather than supply side. Change must be gradual and incremental. Localism is good, targets and 5-year-plans are bad. Politicians should not tamper wantonly in search of a cheap headline, for they risk destroying delicate organisms, not easily rebuilt. They also risk destroying trust. In weakening professional ethics (a regrettable tendency of both Thatcher and Blair), politicians undermine self-regulation and with it personal responsibility. As much larger examples of the weakening of both trust and responsibility O'Hara cites the expansion of welfarism, health and safety legislation and anti-terror laws.

So far, so good. In characterising and assessing the knowledge principle and the change principle, O'Hara writes to his strengths. It is easy to warm to his philosophy, with its rejection of political grandstanding and his ability to translate the “little platoons” into modern discourse. But he has some surprising lapses, where he seems to depart from his own worldview. He toys with the legalisation of drugs, ignoring his own advice on the dangers of experimental change. And he underestimates the importance of the married family, a stance which is surely inconsistent with his respect for institutions.

Conservatism (the book) is far from perfect. There is a tendency to repetition which could have been avoided by some tighter editing. But it is thought-provoking in the best sense. Anyone seeking a modern definition of conservative (or Conservative)philosophy should read it. And today's politicians would do well to note the author's concluding exhortation against seeking power for its own sake. Power, as every conservative should know, is not the be-all and end-all of politics. Not only is power dangerous when uninformed by principles, the single-minded pursuit of power also blindspoliticians to the usefulness of serving in opposition.

Conservatism is published by Reaktion Books and is available on Amazon.

10 comments for: Jill Kirby: What are Conservatives for? A review of “Conservatism” by Kieron O’Hara

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