|CONSERVATISM: BURKE, NOZICK, BUSH, BLAIR?
by Ted Honderich
What follows here is the first chapter, 'Change and Reform', of a book that inquires into the distinctions and rationale of the political tradition of conservatism. The book, now much enlarged and revised, was originally Conservatism, published in 1989 as a contribution to an election. Now, in particular, each chapter ends with a sizeable section on what replaced the Labour Party in Britain, the New Labour Party. For good measure, the final section of the second chapter, partly on something known as The Third Way, is added to the final section of the first chapter below. To the book's progress towards finding the rationale of the tradition of conservatism, as you will anticipate, is added progress towards deciding on the nature of New Labour. An actual analysis of the ideology and reality of the tradition of conservatism is of use in deciding whether New Labour is in it, and maybe a start towards answering the question of New Labour's place in history. The other chapters, after the first one on change and reform: Theory, Other Thinking, Incentives; Human Nature, Dealing With It; Freedoms; Government; Societies; Equalities; Desert, Conclusions. The book is published by the estimable Pluto Press.
"Our business is interrupted, our repose is troubled, our pleasures are saddened, our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge is rendered worse than ignorance, by the enormous evils of this dreadful innovation...." Edmund Burke
1. A Tradition Against Change?
Conservatism by its name announces that it conserves. It recurrently said of itself, in a tone suitable for an axiom of politics, that it is against change. Some others said unkindly that it believes nothing should be done for the first time. No doubt there is some compendious truth about its opposition to change, but what is it? To understand conservatism, by which I mean a political tradition including many governments, a number of parties, and indeed different conservatisms, and to make a judgement about it, we need a clearer understanding of what it is against. Conservatism as we know it, sometimes aggressive, sometimes in retreat, sometimes seeming to be changing or maybe taking on a disguise, came into existence as a reaction to the French Revolution. It began in disapproval, shock, fear and resistance. Some say, as a result, that conservatism is better identified by what it opposes than what it supports. Are they right?
It would go against one refrain of conservatives, having to do with familiarity, to take them as against only and merely what you can call basic change. That is what does not include within itself our loss of familiarity with a thing. Basic change may cause, but does not include, unfamiliarity and like feelings. Is conservatism better conceived as resistance to change where change importantly does include our no longer being accustomed to things? No doubt, but that leaves several questions open. Conservatism is, we have occasionally been told, the disposition and the politics in favour of the familiar, the old and known, whether in the constitutions of nations and the large ways of society, pinstripe suits, places to fish, or as some say, reflectively and perhaps resolutely, spouses and lovers.
Our subject for analysis, however, as you will have gathered, is not conservatism in a wide sense, where it has to do with more or less anything in addition to society and politics and is more a matter of a personal disposition or indeed personality than principles. Nor is our subject a related conservatism where that is something that can turn up in any political party, and has turned up in liberal, socialist and communist parties. We are not concerned with conservative wings of such parties, so long as those wings remain more or less true to the spirits or principles of such parties.
Rather, our subject is the particular political tradition of belief, feeling, policy, legislation and action exemplified by the Conservative Party in Britain until its election disasters in 1997 and 2001 ended its run of successes, and also a main part of the Republican Party in the United States, certainly that of Mr Bush, and some of the Democratic Party. It is a political tradition that has evolved and contains diversity. The indication of the tradition in terms of only three parties is no adequate account or definition of our subject -- such an account is not something we can start with, but something we intend to end up with. But it is enough to enable us to get under way. Is this politics of the right well conceived as resistance to the kind of change that includes unfamiliarity?
It has among its leading principles, as they are briefly and coolly traced throughout its history by Anthony Quinton (1), the principle of traditionalism, which has to do with attachment to and reverence for established institutions and customs. English Tories true to their lineage, like their American cousins within the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, could for long rely on Peregrine Worsthorne of The Sunday Telegraph to speak their instincts, indeed weekly. He recurred to the proposition that the purpose of sound men must be to keep a country recognizably the same. (2)
Still, if conservatism were at bottom a defence of the unaltered and familiar, in the plain meaning of the phrase, we should have a mystery on our hands, the mystery of how an egregious idiocy could have become a large political tradition. If we do speak in an ordinarily clear way, in saying that conservatism comes down to a defence of all of the unaltered and familiar in society and politics, we also say nothing kind about conservatism. We do not do it justice.
One simple reason is that over quite short periods of time, if conservatism were the mentioned thing, it would in effect have to be repeatedly inconsistent. It would need to defend next year or the year or decade after -- when the thing becomes familiar -- what it opposes today. More absurdly, it would fail to make the most elementary distinction in life: between what is familiar and good and what is familiar and bad -- and hence the distinction between bad and good change. Anything, after all, can become familiar. Confusion, boredom, frustration and solitary confinement can. So can being without a job. Perhaps in the 1980’s and 1990’s there was a logician of the new right who supposed that for consistency he had to agree that there was a good argument for the Anarchists and Communists outside continuing to drive him crazy. He was familiar with that. Let us not make him our exemplar of the conservative.
Does the summary idea, that conservatism recommends the unaltered and familiar in society and politics, founder not just on the truth that this would make it wholly irrational, but on the large proposition that in fact conservatism has often or even always advocated change? One might indeed think so.
Conservatism as we are understanding it begins with what all take to be its greatest piece of writing, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790. But consider the Thatcher years in Britain from 1979, when we were to transform into private property anything upon which the eye of an entrepreneur happened to be directed towards by an evangelical politician. We were to privatize the prisons, think about doing the same with the police and the army, and pay a little attention to the far-sighted economist who wished to privatize the whale as a means to its preservation. In 2004 in America, there was neo-conservatism, a kind of successor to the new right but more international. The neo-cons were also inclined to make things different, mainly other countries that had a mind of their own, by means of war. To pre-emptive war, unprecedented in not being in America's backyard of South America, the Bush presidencies added a break with a remaining consensus that had the New Deal and President Johnson's Great Society in its past. In fact pretty well all conservatism from Burke on, and not just of the Thatcher and Reagan years and since, has advocated what it will be a good idea to call alterations. It has made a lot of them.
If Burke, when he was concerned with England, did not actually want to turn the clock back to an earlier English constitution, the constitution whose 'balance' he so idealized, he certainly did not want just the England he found himself in at the end of the 18th Century -- let alone the way it might naturally develop. To glance at an early American instance of the unbroken line of conservative doom-singers, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts could hardly have wanted to leave alone the American state of things in 1807. 'Our disease,' he said, and gave good signs of believing it, 'is democracy. It is not the skin that festers -- our very bones are carious, and their marrow blackens with gangrene.' (3) Could he have been inclined to anything less than a little alteration or indeed a little transformation?
The poet Coleridge was no doubt sincere in his idea that English society should be civilized. This was to be done -- it is here that the novelty comes in -- through the ministrations of a new national church of culture, superior to the Anglican, and under the guidance of what he called a clerisy. To pass on to Benjamin Disraeli, that prime minister's celebration of the gentlemen of England, and his resistance to the new industrial money, did indeed issue in national alterations. A somewhat less world-historical figure, President Hadley of Yale University, maintained in 1925 that equality was the ideal of backward races, and liberty the ideal of progressive peoples. He was no doubt inclined, as a rational man, to having less of equality in America and more of liberty.
To revert to the new right, and the sample provided by William Buckley Jr, he was inclined nearly to transform all of American society: individualism in place of what he perceived as collectivism, moral absolutism in place of relativism, more presidential power and less Congressional, more liberty and less social security, and so on. The list was no short one. The Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, the philosophical voice for a while of part of the tradition of conservatism, was opposed to anything more than the minimal state, taught that taxation on earnings is a form of forced labour, and elaborated the idea that starving members of a society may have no moral right to food, and so indeed have to starve. Much might have been conjectured about his benevolence or humanity, of whether it would have been prudent to go shooting tigers with him, or, for that matter, picking mushrooms. The present point, however, is that he clearly was no advocate of exactly the status quo.
In Britain, from 1979, as already noted, Thatcher governments set out to reduce much of what others regarded as the decent institutions and practices of the society, things that others took to have made a little contribution to advancing civilization, say the railways. In fact Conservative Party politics, more than Labour Party politics, was the politics of alteration. In one large part it was reactionary politics, which is to say intent on altering things in the direction of a society long since left behind, indeed unfamiliar. The poor were again to become properly independent, and so on. Reagan governments in America, if they had somewhat less scope for privatization, shared this zeal. So with President Bush.
We have already concluded that conservatism cannot be taken to advocate an undiscriminating defence of all of the unchanged and familiar in society and politics, since that would be absurd, more so than is likely to be true of any sizeable tradition. Given what has been noted of the history of conservatism -- its record of actual alteration and its commitment to it -- are we not able to conclude that any attempt to summarize conservatism as opposition to change would fly in the face of a large fact: that conservatism does produce and advocate change?
2. Reform, Not Change -- Burke
Well, if we do conclude exactly that conservatism advocates and produces change, we go against a dominant idea in its tradition, anyway a refrain, although an idea or refrain not quite so much to the fore in its moments of aggressiveness. The dominant idea, which certainly does not issue in a general and undiscriminating defence of the familiar, is taken to be consistent with its record, with what in anticipation was neutrally called the alteration advocated or made by conservatism. Yes, it is said by conservatives, we have favoured some alteration, but do not confuse two kinds of alteration. Conservatism has never been in favour of the alteration, involving unfamiliarity, that is change. It has been and is for the kind of alteration, no doubt also involving some unfamiliarity, that is reform. If there have been careless musings to the contrary, conservatism has had at its heart, indeed firmly in its head, a claim about a deep difference between change and reform.
Burke set out to make this 'manifest, marked distinction' several times. It was wholly clear, he said, but was one 'which ill men with ill designs, or weak men incapable of any design, will constantly be confounding'. It will be as well to let him speak for a while.
"...change...alters the substance of the objects themselves, and gets rid of all their essential good as well as the accidental evil annexed to them. Change is novelty, and whether it is to operate any one of the effects of reformation at all, or whether it may not contradict the very principle upon which reformation is desired, cannot be certainly known beforehand. Reform is not a change in the substance or in the primary modification of the objects, but a direct application of a remedy to the grievance complained of. So far as that is removed, all is sure. It stops there; and if it fails the substance which underwent the operation, at the very worst, is but where it was.
All this, in effect, I think, but am not sure, I have said elsewhere. It cannot at this time be too often repeated, line upon line, precept upon precept, until it comes into the currency of a proverb -- To innovate is not to reform. The French revolutionists complained of everything; they refused to reform anything; and they left nothing, no nothing at all, unchanged. The consequences are before us -- not in remote history, not in future prognostication: they are about us; they are upon us. They shake the public security; they menace private enjoyment. They dwarf the growth of the young; they break the quiet of the old. If we travel, they stop our way. They infest us in town; they pursue to the country. Our business is interrupted, our repose is troubled, our pleasures are saddened, our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge is rendered worse than ignorance, by the enormous evils of this dreadful innovation...." (4)
Some have bravely said that Burke stands on a level with Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. They are equals in the pantheon of politics. He did for conservatism what Marx did for the particular socialism that bears his name, and what Mill did for liberalism. If his tolerance of suspect financial dealings was considerable, and if there is the persistent suspicion that his varying and somewhat inconsistent opinions had to do with his patrons and money paid to him, he did not, like Marx, father a child on his servant, or, like Mill, never quite achieve the manly. Be all that as it may, he was not, as the passage indicates, very good at holding one idea before the mind long enough to explain it. He was not good at doing one thing at a time.
The most promising thought we can take away from his words is that change is what alters the substance, or the essence, or the primary character, of something. Reform touches only what is extrinsic or accidental to it. Do we by this thought come near to understanding what alteration conservatism opposes and what alteration it supports? Burke was by way of being a philosopher, of more than politics. At any rate he was an aesthetician, which is a little different. But we shall not get far by supposing that what he has in mind can be clarified by reflecting on philosophical distinctions between substance and attribute. We shall not be helped by the distinction between the elusive substratum of something, say of the wine goblet, and that which the substratum supports, which is to say all of the properties of the goblet. His drift is clear enough, and is as well put in this way as any other: change alters what is somehow fundamental, and reform alters what is not fundamental.
However that difference is enlarged upon, we are left with a large difficulty about the first kind of alteration: we cannot take it to convey Burke's intention, or to clarify conservatism. Burke is not against all change, which is to say all alteration to what is fundamental to a thing. A large part of the Reflections on the Revolution in France is given over to damnation of the very nature of a thing, a thing regarded in its most fundamental nature. It is hardly too much to say that Burke mainly owed his fame in his own time, and that he mainly owes his place in history, to the force of his demand for exactly the changing of this thing, as distinct from any mere reforming of it. The thing in question was the constitution and government of France put in place by the French Revolution.
The point is a general one, and does not depend on that one piece of support for change, telling though it is. Burke's life had in it a good deal of passion or feeling for change -- desires that certain things be altered fundamentally. Another example was his championing of the American Revolution, inconsistent or not with his vilification of the French. He could have little hope of success in arguing, as in ways he did, that the American Revolution was mere reform. It may be, too, if Conor Cruise O'Brien is right about Burke's residual Irishness, that Burke in a part of himself was inclined to some change with respect to another large fact, England's grip on Ireland. (5) It would be sad, looking on the fine statue of him in front of Trinity College Dublin, to think otherwise.
About some facts and things, there is room for much dispute as to what part of their nature is fundamental, and hence what alteration of them counts as change. However, if we do not succumb to the brazen stubbornness that turns up so often in political argument, there is not much room for dispute with the French constitution and government, or with the American Revolution. We know that Burke wished to alter the French constitution and government fundamentally, and that what he supported in supporting the American Revolution was also change. We get our conception of fundamental alteration in this neighbourhood from such cases, rather than bring it along to judge them.
No doubt someone will make a different objection about the French Revolution -- that Burke was not supporting change in attacking the new constitution and government of France, but opposing the change that was the establishing of that constitution and government. He was opposing the fundamental alteration that was the Revolution itself. There is more room for disagreement here. One question that arises is that of how long a thing must be in existence before it ceases to be a change, and becomes something settled, to which change can be made.
Let us not struggle with this matter of how long a thing has to exist before it ceases to count as a change. Let us simply give up the idea that Burke was supporting change in trying in the years just after the Revolution to get conservative Europe to go to war against France. That will not affect something else that is indisputable. It is that that many decades later he would still have been in favour of fundamental alteration to the given constitution and government if those things had persisted. He would indubitably have been in favour of altering them fundamentally when they were well and truly settled. To think of certain of his successors for a moment, conservatives opposed to the communist government of Russia were very keen indeed on fundamental alteration of a state of affairs 57 years old.
So much for the distinction between alteration to what is fundamental and to what is not fundamental. In the quoted passage Burke evidently has more in mind. In fact he spends more words on something else. He purports to shed light for us by conveying the different thing that change alters what was good, and reform alters what was bad. As he says, change gets rid of essential good, while reform remedies evil.
It should be unnecessary to say that we learn nothing useful from these magisterial if vigorous sentiments. There is no more here than the triumph of eloquence over argument. Indeed there is not much more than Irish abuse done into a good class of rhetoric. There is more decorum than in the advice given by one Dublin politician to another, that he should go home and shoe asses, but there is not greatly more reflection. Certainly we come to know that Burke takes what he calls change to be bad and what he calls reform to be good. But, to come to the point, that does not tell us in any useful way what either is -- and hence what conservatism is. Burke curses changers wonderfully throughout all his works, and speaks well of reformers. That does not tell us what it is, independently of his passions, that distinguishes changers from reformers. We learn nothing that distinguishes conservatism from any other party by noting that conservatism, exactly like the rest of them, takes some otherwise unspecified alterations of society to be right and others wrong. You do not tell me what to do by not going beyond the words of the instruction to do the right thing – whatever that is.
Of course several notes are sounded by Burke’s words -- change is what shakes 'security' and troubles 'private enjoyment' and 'business'. But they convey no other general propositions save one that is subordinate to or part of the one at which we have just been glancing. It is that change is what has bad effects. That gives us no more understanding of conservatism than the like proposition about liberals, socialists, or any other sane persons, that they are against alterations that they take to have bad effects. We need a clear account of what those effects are, putting aside anyone's condemnation of them, or commendation.
I grant that we all have some sense of what Burke is unstrung by. We get it from the words just quoted. We guess that he is against alteration in connection with the holding and inheritance of property, the course of commerce. We may say after reading other passages that he is against any alteration owed to mere theorizing or theory, as against alteration owed to mute wisdom. However our subject now is neither inheritance nor the wisdom he regularly praises, but some general distinction between change and reform, and we are given no understanding of precisely that distinction.
Will we have a better sense of what change and reform are when we come to see, say, the difference between theory and mute wisdom? Will we have an effective conception of change when we see that it is what is owed to theorizing, and reform is what is owed to wisdom? And that other distinctions to be made -- between the preservation of different kinds of rights and so on -- will give us a further and eventually a full understanding of change and reform? No doubt all that is possible, but it is not all that is possible. It may be that when we come to the subject of theory and wisdom, we will in effect be informed that theory is to be understood as what gives rise to change and wisdom as what gives rise to reform -- which difference between alterations we do not know. Burke is certainly inclined to play that game with the poor confounded reader. Each of two distinctions is in effect taken as explained by the other. Both of them, alas, are left unmanifest and unmarked, and so neither can explain the other.
Taking one thing at a time, what we now have is no clear and general distinction between change and reform. As a result, we remain with the further conclusion that conservatism cannot be characterized even in part as opposition to change. We possess no effective characterization of it, and have no grip on what is different, its fundamental principle. We thus have no possibility either of celebrating or condemning conservatism, no way of coming to a judgement about it.
3. Oakeshott’s and Other Ideas
Shall we get help by looking to the new right? I have in mind a conservatism of about the last quarter of the 20th Century, in the main in Britain and America, but not all of the conservatism of that period. The new right, to pass over the details of its factions, and its dispute as to who was really a conservative and who was not, included doctrine and feeling that just preceded and then accompanied the Thatcher and John Major governments, 1979 to 1997, and Reagan governments, 1981 to 1989, to some extent influencing them and being influenced by them. It also included those governments themselves. The distinctiveness of the governments in question, which I shall not try to define generally, was a matter of such proposals as the running down of the socialism of the National Health Service in Britain, after plangent assurances to the contrary, and the illegal activities of the Reagan administration in arming mercenaries to try to bring down an elected government in Nicaragua.
Thus the new right was rather different from several governments of another conservative kind that came earlier in the century and were, as one might say, less credal. The new right was also unlike traditional conservatism in that the latter, the old right, was perhaps capable of taking a certain summary of itself as a tribute to its plain sense and sound character. I mean John Stuart Mill's summary of it as the Stupid Party. The new right, by contrast, whether or not in fact less benighted than the Old, had in it self-announced thinkers. They paid attention to themselves and, as remarked, had some paid to them by cabinets and Oval Offices.
Shall we get help in connection with the subject of conservatism and change, more precisely, by remembering the doughty and yet inspirational Michael Oakeshott, who did much to save the London School of Economics from the socialism on which it was founded, and to whom a good part of the new right deferred? His views on our subject were indeed to the effect that conservatism is against change, somehow conceived. Not a great deal is said of any kind of alteration it tolerates.
He begins with a theme we have noticed. Conservatism esteems the present, he says, 'not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity'. The conservative, he continues, does not say, with Goethe, Stay with me, you are so beautiful, but rather says Stay with me because I am attached to you.
"Changes are without effect only upon those who notice nothing, who are ignorant of what they possess and apathetic to their circumstances; and they can be welcomed indiscriminately only by those who esteem nothing, whose attachments are fleeting and who are strangers to love and affection. The conservative disposition provokes neither of these conditions: the inclination to enjoy what is present and available is the opposite of ignorance and apathy and it breeds attachment and aflection. Consequently it is averse from change, which appears always, in the first place, as deprivation. A storm which sweeps away a copse and transforms a favourite view, the death of friends, the sleep of friendship, the desuetude of customs of behaviour, the retirement of a favourite clown, involuntary exile, reversals of fortune, the loss of abilities enjoyed and their replacement by others -- these are changes, none perhaps without its compensations, which the man of conservative temperament unavoidably regrets. But he has difficulty in reconciling himself to them, not because what he has lost in them was intrinsically better than any alternative might have been or was incapable of improvement, nor because what takes its place is inherently incapable of being enjoyed, but because what he has lost was something he actually enjoyed and had learned how to enjoy and what takes its place is something to which he has acquired no attachment." (6)
I shall not in general quote so extensively -- as earlier with Burke and now with Oakeshott. It has perhaps been a good idea to give both passages fully, and so quickly to introduce readers with little acquaintance of conservative writing to the nature or rather the natures of it. Very much of it, including very much of the most celebrated, consists not so much in reflective and explicit argument in good order, but rather in the rhetoric that might be called Ongoing Parliamentary or Risen Sophomore -- that is Burke, at least too often -- or else in the delivery of propositions that are a touch oracular, showing a certain weakness for the numinous. We get the latter from Oakeshott. This fact of style is of some importance in itself, and we shall eventually return to it. Quoting the above reflections fully also serves the end of saving sceptical readers from the thought that it is selective reporting on my part that gives rise to what they may feel about them, which is bafflement.
Oakeshott was a man with an admirable awareness of life, and kinds of estimable feeling about it, not bad to have a glass of wine with, but also a man given or driven to something like self-contradiction, which runs through what he says. We are indeed told at the beginning and the end of it that change -- resistance to which thing identifies the conservative -- is what ends the familiar, where the familiar may not be better than what succeeds it. The familiar, which the conservative esteems and defends, may not be more beautiful or admirable than what comes after. In fact the familiar, as seems to be allowed elsewhere in the piece of writing in question, may actually be less good than what comes after it -- the familiar may be the merely convenient as against the perfect. But on the other hand we are as firmly given to understand that change is something quite different: an ending of deep attachments, of love and affection, of enjoyment. It is the ending of the pleasure of a view or of a friendship, or of the satisfaction of being at home. Change for whatever reason, it seems, does take us from good to bad, and indeed is what is welcomed only by the ignorant, the apathetic and the strangers to love and affection.
The inconsistent running-together of change as mere unfamiliarity and change as something near to deprivation or injury may distract one from what is plainly true: that neither idea of change is of use in the enterprise of coming to understand conservatism. That is, one may be led into supposing that there is no objection to be raised to the conception of conservatism as an undiscriminating defence of the familiar because that is not really the conception being proposed. Or, one may be led into supposing that there is no question to be asked about the conception of conservatism as the defence of the enjoyable, because that is not really the conception proposed.
The fact of the matter is that we cannot take any conservatism to be both of these inconsistent things, and that each conception on its own, as we already know, is hopeless. The first reduces a sizeable tradition of political parties and loyalties, a tradition of some considerable rationality, to no more than an absurd defence of all that is familiar. The second is the conception of conservatism as resistance to that change that consists in a loss or destruction of the enjoyable. This cannot distinguish conservatives from socialists, or the National Union of Mine Workers, or for that matter the Pennsylvania Amish, all of whom can say that they are opposed to the loss of the truly enjoyable.
Are we to understand something more useful from Oakeshott to the effect that conservatism is resistance to the loss of a special category of enjoyments, or enjoyments associated with a definable kind of life, or indeed enjoyments of a certain social or economic class of persons? It is notable that no such thought is clarified. If it were, of course, conservatism would cease to be presented as what it is implied to be, something whose description can be given bv way of decorous or uncontentious generalities got from a true view of our common human condition and not much sullied by politics or private property.
That is enough Oakeshott, but we have not come to the end of weak conservative ideas about the change it opposes. It is the change, to go back to Burke, that is quick and easy as against slow and difficult. It is the change that is unnatural. It is the change that threatens or destroys our personal identities and hence our senses of ourselves -- our identities and our senses of ourselves somehow depend on our being in and seeing ourselves in a continuing setting. It is the change that consists in defaulting in a great contract between generations. It is the change that threatens activities that are ends-in-themselves, as distinct from means to other ends. It is the change that is total, which preserves nothing of the past in it. Or, if this is different, it is the change that is not part of growth.
What can be said of all of this medley of ideas, on the assumption that they can be made clear, is that they do not give us distinctive features of conservatism, sometimes because they do not call for serious attention by doing justice to it. Further and more important, they do not reveal its fundamental nature. Let us look at two.
Consider the light idea that conservatism is marked off by its opposition to alterations that endanger our personal identities. These latter things, our identities, are never given much definition by the proponents of the idea. Do we here have a substantial consideration? I fancy, to glance back, that Oakeshott, if he found himself without some of his friends, the copse, customs of behaviour, homeland, good luck, some past abilities, and also the clown, would still be Oakeshott. He himself would also have a pretty good idea of who he was. He'd probably say Michael Oakeshott. No doubt he would be a gloomier man, but our subject is not his morale, but his identity.
Still, let us allow that alterations of the kind in question may somehow affect who we think we are, or better, how we think of ourselves. Does opposition to such alterations, with no more said, distinguish conservatism from other things? I fear that it does not. To take one example, it is a plain fact that a good deal of past ideology of the left, including a Marxist tubful having to do with what is called alienation, opposes change that is said to endanger identities.
It needs adding that if conservatism were characterized as general opposition to alteration of identity, it could not have much to say for itself. It must indeed be no more than alteration of identity that is in question, rather than loss of identity or endangering of identity. The latter two descriptions import the idea not merely of identities, but of good or valuable identities -- including senses of oneself that ought to be preserved. But the intrusion of some idea of good and bad identities makes for difficulties of which we know. That is, we need but certainly are not given an idea of what sense of self and the like is valuable. We are left with no real distinction.
To consider conservatism as opposition just to alteration of identity or self-conception, then, the question must arise of why identities in this sense should not alter or be altered. Suppose the life of a woman or the existence of a class of people is one of putting up with condescension, constraint, being bullied, defeat or suffering. Suppose too, as we are invited to, that some alteration in circumstances will produce something called alteration of this identity. What she or they are likely to say, happily, is that they would not mind a new identity. If conservatism were to be opposition to any change of such identity it would be as absurd as if it were to be, as we know, an undiscriminating defence of all of the familiar.
Consider now one other idea in the medley, that conservatism is the politics that opposes the change that is a kind of defaulting on a great contract between generations. Burke requires that we be mindful of what we have received from our ancestors and of what is due to posterity. He famously continues:
"Society is indeed a contract.... It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society...." (7)
This, like so much in Burke, is a grand mingling of several themes and intimations. Let us for the moment attend only to a principal one, having to do with change. We, of this generation, have a contract with eternal society. This is a contract in virtue of which we have received from eternal society -- or more particularly from its past -- a great benefaction, and in virtue of which we must make a return to it -- or more particularly to its future. Change consists in our defaulting, our not making good on our part of a rather prolonged deal.
Putting aside everything else that must come to mind, which is a lot, consider what it is we are to inherit and transmit. Evidently we are to transmit the good as somehow conceived rather than the bad. But what does this good consist in? Certainly we get no help from the utterance that the good in question is what is transmitted by reform rather than change. We need not an allusion or two, but a decent inventory of this good to be transmitted, or better, a general description. We have not got it.
Does it include those particular goods-for-some, say great profits, that are also evils-for-others? Does it include taxing the poor to encourage the rich? Does it include the best education for those able to pay for it rather than able to use it? Does the good include that particular tradition of sensibility, as with charity it be named, that reaches its apogee in the self-named Creative Departments of advertising agencies? Does it include a wretched press, full either of nipples or pompous respect for a government? Does it include government by toadying place-seekers? Did it include a government led by a prime minister whose habits of thought and feeling and hence her policies were such that not even the university most heavy with tradition could bring itself to follow the precedent of giving her an honorary degree? Could the good include a president of which the bumper-sticker says, in a way truly, that somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot? Does it include another prime minister somehow accustomed to perjury in courts and deception in business and who is not overcome by being caught out as a liar?
Such questions abound, and, as you see, they can raise up a feeling or two in your guide, even a momentary passion, maybe a passion of only distant relevance. Do not let them obscure the point. It is that in the absence of a general description of what we are to inherit and pass on, we have no conception of the defaulting that is the change condemned by conservatism. For all we know, it is a defaulting such that we ought in fact to do some of it, perhaps a lot. For all we know, to turn back for a moment to the new right, we should do some defaulting even when we enter into the further vision of the aesthetician and journalist Roger Scruton in one of his Hegelian moments. He is not abashed by the idea that Burke's eternal society is no speechless organism, but has a personality, and a will too. (8) Eternal society, so far as I can tell, is not speaking very clearly, not through Burke and not through our later interpreter either.
Should we now spend a little time looking for help in neo-conservatism, this being the hawkish American politics that is not in awe of international law or existing international norms? Already in 1997 it was offering the moral clarity of the need for war against Iraq, which would serve the high purpose of the United States and also of such things as neo-Zionism, the latter being the expansion of Israel beyond its 1967 borders into Palestinian land. Although one Kenneth Adelman did penetratingly announce that neo-conservatism was for radical change, the movement was not wonderfully intellectual. It did not baffle the president. Still, should we spend a little time on one of the prophets of the neo-cons, Leo Strauss, a professor of political philosophy in Chicago? I confess that his works have not been studied by me, but I can safely report that he was in favour of immutable moral and social values, and also civilization. (9)
You will anticipate what is to be said of that. If we are to know how change is being understood, as against reform, we will have to know what those immutable moral and social values are, and also civilization. Does civilization, which for Professor Strauss owes an awful lot to ancient Greece, now include hamburgers? How much does it rest on American old-time religion, which gets into neo-conservatism, and maybe a simple idea about Palestine, say getting rid of the Palestinians? It may be, of course, that our best move is to see the values and the civilization and thus the good and bad alterations in terms of, say, democracy somehow conceived. Prof. Strauss had a lot to say of the need for more of it around the globe. We may notice a bit more of this predilection for a war of the worlds later. It may be safe to assume that our neo-conservative prophet did not provide general ideas of change and reform for his students or for political speech-writers.
4. Distinctions and Rationale
What we mainly have so far in sum is that conservatism cannot be identified as opposition to change where change is (i) just any ending of the familiar, (ii) the alteration of the fundamental, (iii) destruction of the good, (iv) the loss of copse, clown, etc., (v) what affects our identities or self-conceptions, (vi) a matter of defaulting on a long contract with society, or, let me just say, (vii) the ending of American civilization.
A larger proposition -- that we get no adequate conception of conservatism by way of any general notion of change on offer -- is in fact agreed in a way by quite a few persons who are of conservative inclination themselves. In beginning his admirable tour of the conservative horizon, the English scholar of politics Noel O'Sullivan allows of what he takes to be most promising, Burke's 'manifest, marked distinction' between change and reform, which we considered earlier, that for a particular reason it is not contentful. In practice, he tells us, what constitutes reform will be different in different situations. He is not the first of his persuasion to say so. Conservatism, we are often told, means different things in different societies and at different times. O'Sullivan remarks that sometimes reform will involve defensive actions, and sometimes it will involve taking the initiative in changing the status quo, as when Disraeli extended the suffrage and so dished the Whigs. The fact of the matter is that 'the meaning of reform cannot be specified in advance of events'. (10)
We can, on the contrary, hope to find the kind of change to which conservatism is opposed, and, quite as important, the kind of continuity it opposes. It cannot be that there is no such thing, no summary description that can be put on it. It cannot be that a fundamental refrain in a large political tradition is without a general content. It cannot be that conservatism, in so far as it has recurrently objected to change, and allowed the need for reform, has not conveyed anything clear to itself and to others. It may be that its thinkers have not really disclosed their thoughts about change, let alone what guides those thoughts and others, but that is another matter.
We shall come to an answer to the question of conservatism and change by degrees, in the course of our inquiry. The answer is to be had by reflection on what else may be thought to identify conservatism. It was remarked above that there is the possibility that getting a grip on the distinction between theory and mute wisdom will give us a satisfactory characterization of change and reform -- change is what comes from theory and reform is what comes from the wisdom. As also remarked above, there are indeed weak games that can be played in such an enterprise. We can none the less be optimistic that by care, and by looking at more things than theory and wisdom, we can come to an answer to the question as to the kind of alteration that conservatism opposes.
To do this may be to find a particular distinction of the tradition of conservatism. It is one of our aims to find all of its distinctions. A second aim is to appraise many particular doctrines and arguments of the tradition. Another is to come to a decision as to the nature of its fundamental and general commitment. The last is to come to a final judgement on the tradition of conservatism.
These are our main aims, but implicit in them are several subordinate ones. We have already looked or glanced at several parts, strains or things in the tradition of official or self-avowed conservatism. One of these, the largest, is what can have the name of being old, historical or orthodox conservatism. In England at least Churchill, Macmillan and Heath were in it, and in America at least Hoover, Eisenhower and Ford. It can be more or less distinguished from the new right and then neo-conservatism. These latter two things, from the point of view even of some historical conservatives, are extremisms, or anyway they go a little too far.
Historical conservatism, the new right and neo-conservatism have already played larger or smaller parts in Britain's Conservative Party and America's Republican and Democratic Parties. Shall we need to add a fourth thing? There may emerge something different that none the less does rightly claim the name of being a conservatism. The landslide victories of the New Labour Party in the British elections of 1997 and 2001 reduced the Conservative Party to a kind of shambles. From the shambles, which had most to do with disagreement about the nation's future in a union of European nations, and such matters as whether the union might call for a higher minimum wage, there emerged a politics said by some to be different, eventually under the leadership of Mr Michael Howard.
His statement of his beliefs, his credo, does not make the naming of the possibly different but still conservative entity easy. He announced, among other things, that it is natural for men and women to want wealth, health and happiness for their families and themselves, that people must have every opportunity to fulfil their potential, that politicians must remove obstacles in their way, and that there is to be equality of opportunity, not the injustice that makes him and his colleagues angry.11 Shall we say this is conservatism in favour of opportunity, conservatism for opportunity? That entirely tentative name will do -- whatever the reality of this politics and its relation to the conservatisms already mentioned.
5. New Labour
That is not all we can usefully think about. A fifth thing needs attention, not because it is already clear that it is part of the tradition of conservatism, but because a question arises. This is not Britain's Labour Party of the past, quite comfortably called democratic socialist despite different historical phases, the party that preceded what gradually took its place after about 1994. The latter, the New Labour Party, was given that different name under a forward-looking kind of leaders, still more intent on getting elected than their predecessors. not only for reasons of personal ambition. (12)
There are indeed questions about New Labour like those general ones mentioned about the tradition of conservatism. What are the distinctions of New Labour and how are they related to the distinctions of the conservative tradition and of the official or self-avowed parts of it? What is to be said of New Labour's doctrines and arguments? What is to be said, above all, of the fundamental commitment of this party, and how does this stand to that of the tradition of conservatism? Finally, what can be said for and against the fundamental commitment of New Labour?
Let us make a little start on one or two of these questions. Whether or not this likeness to conservatism is superficial, the very leitmotif or indeed recitative in the emergence of Mr Blair, Mr Brown and their supporting cast was indeed something of which you have been hearing, reform. The first reform was the repealing of that part of the Labour Party's constitution that committed it to some public ownership, the project of democratic socialism. (13) This was actually something other than a real policy change, partly because the clause could be taken as a dead letter, and was by some. The repeal of Clause IV, some said, was symbolic. It had wider ramifications. It was certainly possible that taking the railways and the water boards back into public ownership were not the only things that a New Labour government would not be doing.
This reform of intention was followed by the announcement, before and after the manifesto for the 1997 election, of many other reforms, modernizations and initiatives. There would be reform in politics, including honesty in government and in particular on the part of the prime minister. There would be reform of the economy by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr Brown, including stability rather than boom and bust, the creation of successful and profitable businesses, and more entrepreneurs rather than fewer. There would be reform of class sizes in schools, waiting times for operations in the National Health Service, investment in education and the National Health Service. Reform too of employment and unemployment, new leadership in the whole world, and radical reform of the House of Lords with its unelected members.
There would be, further and very importantly, stakeholding in society instead of an old-fashioned war between bosses and workers. Also a minimum wage, improvement of the railways although no alteration of their privatized state, and the end of the corruption known as sleaze, this having been typified by Conservative MP’s taking cash for asking questions useful to businessmen in the House of Commons. There would be reform, too, of national optimism, family life, lone parents, and 11-year-olds. These and other advances would be consistent with not raising income tax at all, not returning to what were called penal rates of tax, not discouraging free enterprise, not thinking there is a difference to be much respected between public and private provision of health care or anything else.
To people aware that there is not always a lot of agreement about how much of a reform or an improvement you should have, and what a lot of them add up to, and who therefore asked about the broad tendency of the New Labour basinful of reforms, there was a certain answer. All these reforms would be ones accomplished without something else of which you have been hearing, change. That was the answer, whether or not this further likeness to conservatism is superficial, and whether or not all traditions go in for some such distinction. The reforms were to be understood as those consistent with the continuity or persistence not so much of an actual historical past, as in the case of conservatism, but of something else as unchanging, maybe more so.
The unchanging thing was variously celebrated as Labour values, the vision of the movement, values liberated from outdated dogma and doctrine, principles at the core of the struggle. They were also the values of equality of opportunity, and of equality and opportunity, values that could lead us to see the good in Thatcherism and its privatizations, values in the partnership of ambition and compassion, not to mention the value of power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few. Also social justice, social democracy rather than democratic socialism, a radicalism not of the left or the right but of achievement, the faith of the centre left, no time for the politics of envy, something more eternal than Clause IV.
Our main concern at the moment is whether New Labour coming up to the 1997 election could actually be understood in terms of a certain generalization about itself: that it was a party of reform in accordance with fundamental values. Was this the useful sum of the litany of policies? The party or anyway its leaders certainly assumed and often said so. In fact the generalization gave and gives no understanding.
As already noticed, the listed reforms taken by themselves resisted summary, despite the inclusion of very good things, like telling the truth. To get to a summary, you needed a good idea of what each or anyway most of the items came to, and the real size of them, the size of them in comparison with others. Also, what actually was the idea of stakeholding in society, and what was that reform in employment? Further, which reforms would give way or what else would happen when they conflicted with one another -- say no increase in income tax but money for the hospitals and universities? Would the more entrepreneurs rather than fewer, having been encouraged forward by the government, then be kept under the government's eye with respect to paying the minimum wage? How much public and how much private provision would there be in various parts of the society, say the hospitals? In the absence of answers, the listed reforms did not organize themselves into a mission, a settled direction.
As for the permanent values and vision, to turn to them, they did nothing significant to summarize the situation and the prospect – and in particular to summarize the reforms. Was the equality of opportunity the same item as the one with the same name in historical conservatism? About the opportunity and equality, having both of them, there was the question of whether the opportunity was the old opportunity to become unequal. If not, what was it? The permanent values etc. were certainly a problem. If you forgot what paragraph you were in, you couldn’t always tell a value from a reform. The values seemed of about as much use as, or indeed of less use than, Burke's attempt to explain that which conservatism would leave unaltered.
In the case of New Labour, with both the permanent values and the listed reforms, this was the result not so much of pomp and vagueness, as with Burke. It was a matter of a plenitude of stuff amounting to seeming self-contradiction, maybe real self-contradiction, for whatever purpose and however it came about. The vacuity of vagueness, of course, including useful vacuity, can be exceeded by the vacuity of self-contradiction, including useful vacuity and the vacuity, say, that comes from being wordy and not very reflective, maybe not very bright. The reforms and the values would be voted for overwhelmingly by the electorate mainly because, whatever else they came to, which you couldn't tell, they were not the stuff of somebody else, a self-discredited conservative government.
Do you think that better can be said of New Labour in its beginnings, maybe hope that it can? Was there more to it than this? Was there something consistent? Well, there had to be some of what was missing from Thatcherism in the bundle. There had to be some of what had recently bee called compassion, more properly called justice or humanity. New Labour did say in passing, as you have heard, that they were centre left in the political spectrum. If they were reformists or revisionists, they did have a history behind them, and they might do things true to that history if they got elected. They might do more than they were saying now.
And certainly there was a moral ring about the whole thing. Decency in some personal sense was on offer, not exactly or just the old Labour values. Sincere resolution to do good, you could say, maybe with religion under it. New Labour looked straight at you, and surely that wasn't just the result of all the coaching for being on television. There was something a bit different from your ordinary political party's declaration of rectitude. Feeling, and firm feeling. It was a mile away from sleaze.
Still, it is too early even to be contemplating real answers to the question of how New Labour stands to the tradition of conservatism, at bottom the question of the party's own fundamental and general rationale. No doubt it will be possible to find its commitment by lowering our eyes from the elevated plane of general talk of reform and unchange. We do have a sense of the commitment, don't we? No doubt we can look at the right things, over the years after the 1997 election manifesto, as we shall, and come to see New Labour's commitment, and what is to be said for it. Certainly, failing all else, it will have to show up when we look at the party in terms of its thinking and action in terms of freedom, and then equality?
No doubt this will improve our understanding of our main subject, conservatism in general, whether or not these new reformers without change are within that story. You can find out more about something, can't you, by looking around the edges of it? They say contemplating an item near or towards a borderline, on either side of it, may test a definition of conception of what is really inside.
A postscript. To have something definite to look back to for purposes of comparison, will it be a good idea to have a factual summary of the 18 years of official or self-named conservatism that came to an end in 1997? Some numbers? If there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, there are also those excellent views of a large circumstance that are indeed statistics chosen with the aim of general truth.
Our concern is the reality of a political tradition in its several parts, and also a possible part -- New Labour. In the case of New Labour there has not been much time for people to arrive at other more or less considered views of it, including the kind of reflection or loyal reflection which there is a lot on the tradition of self-named conservatism. Some statistics can take the place of theory. Also, New Labour has gone further than previous political parties in the management of information about itself and what it is doing and has done. Figures may turn out to be a bit of an antidote, anyway a safeguard.
So -- some Conservative Party facts for later comparison. The poor by one useful definition are one-fifth of the population, the one with the smallest incomes after paying taxes and getting benefits from the state. (14) This one-fifth had their share of the total or national income reduced during the Thatcher years from 1979 to 1990. Their share of income went down from 10% to the smaller 6%. The individuals in question lacked things we all want and value, things of which income is one excellent if not invariable measure. The rich by a related useful definition are the one-fifth of the population with the largest incomes. This one-fifth's share went up in the Thatcher years from 37% to towards half of the total, 45%. (15)
This rise and the poor fifth's loss made for a great fall in the poor fifth's weekly money. Such an increasing income gap between rich and poor is perhaps what is best meant by saying that in the Thatcher years the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. It is sometimes taken as the best summary of these years, the best summary of their inhumanity. In 1990-97, by the way, when John Major was prime minister, the two shares became a touch less unequal, 7% and 43%. This was at least partly because of a depressed economy rather than any government action.
There are also figures not for all of the bottom fifth of population but for particular people who were also in other and different states of poverty. They had less than about half the average income, maybe a lot less. More particularly, take the average as the median national income -- the income of someone in the middle with equal numbers of people above and below him. Also, take income as what people have to spend after having made any payment for a roof over their heads. Those in poverty are those with less than about half the national average, say less than 60% of it. The latter fraction is much used.
So -- there are figures for this poverty in the conservative period we have in mind. When Mr Major was still in office, in 1995-96, many of the British were in this poverty. There were 13,000,000 in his second last term, and 13,900,000 in his last. (16) An awful lot of people. They were lacking more of what we all want and value, certainly if we are not in ignorance. Decent food and some independence for a start. Many of them, on account of such facts as having no clothes of the advertised and made-wanted sorts now wanted by their children, maybe no warm clothes, were also short on respect from their betters. They knew something about the experience of condescension.
Children are not alone in suffering poverty, and perhaps they do not suffer it in a unique way. They cannot be concentrated on to the exclusion of others. Still, a child's poverty will almost certainly have consequences for longer. The harm is certainly not just to investment in a nation's future, as managerial governments can seem to suppose. In 1979, when Thatcherism started, about one in seven children were poor. In the 1990's, when it was ending, more than one in three children were poor. (17) In 1995-96 there were 4,000,000 children in poverty by the mentioned definition -- being in households with less than 60% of the average national income. (18) It was, you may and should think, as many voters did, a terrible fact about a society.
Two more records of income will be useful for later comparisons. They have to do with two more categories of individuals.
In 1995-96, a number of working-age adults were in the defined poverty. No doubt they included some of what we used to call work-shy. They also included disabled women, members of other minority groups, intelligent young men who had not really had a chance of getting educated, and others who had the misfortune of being a little dim and without effective parents, maybe pushy. They all had hopes, like children, and more burdens. Unlike children, they knew almost all of what they were missing. There were 6,400,000 of them. In the same year of 1995-96, there were pensioners in this poverty -- 2,500,000. (19) On account of their poverty some were in discomfort, pain, distress, states of disease that might have been alleviated, sometimes terror. Some, for want of money, were being mistreated.
To turn to another way of being badly-off, in terms of wealth as against income, you will not need reminding that it too makes for very different kinds of lives. It is at least as important as income. In 1997, the richest one-tenth of the population had 54% of the total. The richest one-hundredth by itself of the population, about 587,800 people, had no less than 22% of the total. The top half of the population taken together had 93% of the total wealth.
As against this, the bottom half had 7 %. The bottom one-tenth, about 5,900,000 people, had none to speak of. They quite often less than none because of debt. (20) They could leave nothing to their children.
There is another matter -- life-expectancies, average lifetimes for groups of people. These numbers of years were published for our five social or occupational classes. Roughly speaking, the top class was professionals and the bottom class unskilled manual workers. Back in the years 1972-76, before Thatcherism, the professional men would live on average 5.5 years longer.
For the years 1992-96, after Thatcher and under Major, the gap became no less than 9.5 years. Given its human content, it is reasonable to regard the figure as horrific. In 1997-99 the gap had decreased. Professional men would live 7.5 years longer. The gap was great, but things were getting better for those on the bottom. The fifth class had in it about 6,500,200 men. (21)
There is, too, the rest of the world. We have had and do have a lot to do with it, whatever our kinds and degrees of obligation to it. The African part of it was very short of the great goods we all desire, starting with lifetimes of a decent length. Take an example -- the populations of the countries of Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Sierra Leone. Coming up to 1997, they had average lifetimes of about 40 years. Take another example, those of us in the the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark and Japan. We were living, on average, about 78 years. (22) The Africans of the four countries, certainly those of them who pulled their average down to 40 years, rather than lifted it up to that figure, had half-lives.
The short story of all this is that before the election in 1997, in Britain and between Britain and other places in the world, there were overwhelming inequalities, with the people on the bottom, very many of them, not only having less good or worse lives but also not good or bad or awful lives. Was there more hope before the election in 1997 for the poor in England, Scotland and Wales, and those dying early there and elsewhere? New Labour could win.
Was there hope in the fact that the leader of the party was on good terms with Rupert Murdoch? That media magnate's ignorant and degrading newspaper The Sun had made a difference in an election victory for the Conservative Party before then. You could say this perfection and flower of the gutter press had won the election for them. He owned The Times too. You couldn't tell now, for several kinds of reason, if New Labour's being on good terms with Rupert Murdoch was hopeful.
The above section, as remarked in the beginning, is at the end of the first chapter of the book. The following section is at the end of the second chapter. That chapter is on 'Theory, Other Thinking, Incentives'.
6. New Government
Do these thoughts on the official or self-named tradition of conservatism, about grasshoppers, about propositions about necessity and the nature of such propositions, about incentives, the test of time, empiricism and morality, lead to thoughts about New Labour and conservatism? We can have in mind these issues that we have been looking at about theoretical and other ways of thinking, but also the new government's progress in the second half of 1997 after the glorious election, and then in 1998. Having found myself dealing with a thing or subject that does not make itself clear, and resists organizing, I will help myself to these two ways of dealing with New Labour -- one in terms of conservatism's distinctions and supposed distinctions, the other an historical way, year by year.
The conclusions we have just drawn about official conservatism are not dramatic ones, not the substantial ones that it draws about itself. Despite its declarations, conservatism cannot really avoid going in for pieces of theoretical reasoning about facts, say about incentives of a certain size, and it does not avoid this reasoning. So it does have theories in it, and so it does not have the real distinction, as against other political traditions and indeed the rest of the world, of not going in for them.
It will occur to you that New Labour made a point of abandoning what it did indeed call ideology, dogma and so on, starting with Clause IV. And, thereafter, it went on talking about itself as unideological and undogmatic. Its spokesmen with proper university degrees no doubt spoke of its empiricism, using the very word. Certainly the news was delivered to us by its lawyers that what counts is what works. But, being a movement with some moderately intelligent personnel in it, New Labour could not give up standard inquiry, reasoning as to necessities and the like, and it did not do so.
In its first term, for a start, it came to and acted on Mr Brown's proposition that making the Bank of England more independent of the government, mainly in connection with interest rates, would have a certain good effect on the economy. You may want to add, certainly, that Mr Brown and New Labour certainly did not set their face against another important piece of theory. Rather they smiled on it, or if necessary looked the other way. It is in fact a far more important and consequential piece of theory than anything about a central bank. It is the conservative incentive proposition itself -- to the neighbourhood of which we shall be returning quite soon.
We did not accept official conservatism's self-image in another matter, having to do not with facts but with moral principles and the like. We did not take seriously its idea that conservatism has a unique source of these as well, in the test of time or whatever. More important we did not suppose, or suppose in advance, that conservatism makes its principles and so on clear. We did take seriously that the tradition does indeed rest on some organizing commitment, whether or not moral, but that is different from making it clear.
New Labour, despite a good deal of sincerity and the announcement of it in speeches, seemed much the same as it began its career as a government. There was much obscurity as to what ought to happen in general. This obscurity was not ended by more declarations of purposes -- indeed more declarations of reform, modernization and reinvention true to the abiding values and the vision. Not much more was heard in the speeches about the stakeholder-society. It went the sad way of other big political ideas, useful as news but not much connected to ongoing reality. No single overriding principle for a society was actually made explicit and unveiled.
Do you now remember hearing of something to which we have not paid attention? Something that did not get laid out in speeches, but was alluded to and indeed written down elsewhere? The Third Way? Quite right, it did seem to be a theory in the middle of the empiricism, something larger than the item about a central bank, larger even than the large incentive or reward proposition. Indeed The Third Way in politics was referred to as something like a whole political philosophy, and somehow it had values in it. Under another designation it was Social Democracy Renewed After the Falls of Communism, Nationalization and Thatcherism. Let us pause for a while to have a look at it.
The Third Way or Social Democracy Renewed had to do in part with equality, and mistakes about equality. We will be turning over that large subject later in connection with official conservatism, but let us pause now to see something of New Labour's thinking. It was explained by the official thinker of the party, Professor Anthony Giddens, Director of the London School of Economics. He let us know in an annual lecture of the Economic and Social Research Council why the old left and of course Old Labour was wrong on equality. He subsequently put the news into one of the special essays of the redoutable publication The New Statesman. (31)
He explained that The Third Way has a dynamic concept of equality, one that stresses equality of opportunity but co-exists with life-style diversity. The latter turned out not to be a matter of bidets and homosexual marriages co-existing with more ordinary arrangements. Rather, life-style diversity is what equality of opportunity results in in the next generation. This is inequality of outcome, also known as an unequal distributions of things -- some being richer for a start. And, as the Director noted in his fifth paragraph, this unequal distribution of money, books and what-not in turn could reduce our equality of opportunity. Too true, as you heard mentioned earlier.
I remember beginning the sixth paragraph of the essay in anticipation, keen to see how this possible contradiction in the thinking of Social Democracy Renewed would be resolved, keen to see how the active and energetic concept of equality of opportunity would get on. Explanation there was none, not a whiff. Nothing general at all about the actual terms of the coexistence of the equality of opportunity with life-style diversity. Nothing at all about equal opportunity and its effects. The sixth paragraph of the essay and the ones afterwards contained implied good hopes, reassuring thoughts on globalization, data of this sort and that, the proposition that the welfare state was part of the problem, and so on, but nothing on the possible contradiction.
Maybe I was missing something. Well, he would have told us in his whole book The Third Way, and in particular in the dozen or so scattered pages on the subject of equality. True enough, the problem was posed there, on p. 101. Equality of opportunity, some sort of meritocracy, leads to inequality of income, and that leads to less equality of opportunity. So did New Labour actually propose to end up with less of what it set out to get more of? To deal with this problem of understanding, there was announced some fundamental rethinking of equality itself. We would go back to square one.
Equality itself, something generic and different from both opportunity and outcome, was now defined as social inclusion. This turned out to be citizenship, civil and political rights and responsibilities, involvement in public space -- and, alas, that very same opportunity we were going to get straight about by thinking about equality. As for exclusion, you're excluded by poverty, but also by getting annual bonuses of a hundred grand for trading stocks and shares and living behind security gates. This upper-end exclusion, the result of too much meritocracy, was somehow bad, but more elusively bad than the lower-end exclusion.
Well, you could talk that way if you had to, but the problem was still there of whether equality of opportunity would lead to another inequality, maybe more fundamental, whether or not known as exclusion, and then that would lead to less equality of opportunity. You didn't get in sight of dealing with this real problem by the bumble of including the opportunity in the other equality by definition. You were left with the problem that one part or side of this equality fights with other parts, and you have to say what's to be done.
These evidently were the pages of a good-hearted fellow, but sociological. Partly because of being attracted to society in its infinite variety, and to what is called communicating, he did not in this fundamental rethinking manage to say what equality of opportunity we are to have, by any definition, and what equality of outcome or other equality. Just some of both, not too much of either. But every political party that has recently graced the face of the earth, indeed everybody, at least says it wants some of both, indeed the right amount. We needed to hear some more from the director.
Speaking of sociology, by the way, there was also a theme in The Third Way, and indeed all of New Labour's intellectual and other activity, that had to do with what was politically possible in terms of our society's attitudes. The theme was that we as a society were now against the state as provider of things and did not want to pay taxes for this. So it was necessary that New Labour go in for private provision of things, privatization in at least some form and degree. It was odd, to me, that sociology did not come forward to prove or support this supposed fact. That official work, British Social Attitudes: the 16th Report, said more or less the opposite. (32)
Could it be that New Labour was so human as to confuse what it itself wanted with what was necessary, and confuse what it itself did not want with what was impossible, or maybe what Mr Murdoch wanted and did not want? Could it be that it was so human as to confuse prescriptions of some ideology with what was necessary, and confuse some other way of doing things with the factually impossible?
But this is to digress from my problem about The Third Way's equality of opportunity leading to an inequality that leads to less equality of opportunity. Maybe you object, maybe loyally, that this incomprehension on my part is the petty intransigence of a pedant who will not understand. That if we try harder to make an entry into the mind and rethinking of Social Democracy Renewed, look elsewhere in it, we will get the drift? Could be, but isn't this matter about opportunity just one example of being left in the dark by Soc Dem Ren? It's not as if a lot of light were shed in it somewhere else, is it?
We learn from Director Giddens' book and other contributions (33) that the thinking and feeling of Soc Dem Ren is for both sides with respect to pretty well everything under the social and political sun, as we noticed earlier. Both of equality and liberty, welfare state and every man for himself, public and private financing of things, public and private financing of the same thing, left and right, not-left and not-right, markets and society, enterprise and environment, and so on. That list is a start. In connection with the having-it-both-ways, a hundred dynamic notions make momentary appearances in the pages of The Third Way, but it seems they do not and cannot tell us how much of the opposed things we are to have and what sort.
One thing that could tell us, of course, is some kind of principle, anyway some kind of literal and explicit summation. If it were said, which indeed it is not, that the principle is that we should always look at things from the point of view of the working class -- or of course the business class -- we would be somewhere on the way to seeing how much of what sort of equality of opportunity there is to be. But you couldn't get a principle, could you, to revert to the dynamic notions, from the little boxes of check-lists set into the flow of all the rethinking in The Third Way, and containing all those information-bullets? I concentrated for a while on Low Ecological Consciousness, The Radical Centre, Philosophic Conservatism, Cosmopolitan Pluralism, Co-Parenting, Double Democratization, Negotiated Authority Over Children, but they didn't really help a lot.
There was the same problem in another work under the title The Third Way, in a way more promising. This was the newly reprinted Fabian Society pamphlet by Mr. Blair himself, the new father of the moment in the newspapers, and seemingly the father of our age. Some said he had taken time to make a good start on the 30 books of Director Giddens. As before, he was wonderfully attracted to conjunctions of seeming opposites. He was for equality of opportunity and no dull uniformity in provision, for democratic socialism and liberalism, justice and efficiency, and so with rights and responsibilities, the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty, values and pragmatism, wealth and sharing, cooperation and competition, public and private. A reader's small voice might again be heard to ask question or two. How much of each? Since we can have them both together, what kind of each? What is the difference between abstract and dynamic equality? Where are we, Father?
We were taught by Mr Blair that since The Third Way is about traditional values in a changed world, it therefore is not a boring old attempt to split the difference between left and right, not a compromise at all, certainly not a compromise weighted one way, but something brand-new. The conclusion, if you think about it, doesn't follow from the premise, does it? But that is not the main point. What is the brand-new thing? Light isn't shed by the refrain on the traditional values, etc. For guidance with respect to a motley of impulses about opposites, and also for clarity and consistency and fairness, you need some kind of principle. Dynamic sincerity isn't enough, is it?
You will remember that a question arose for us as to whether official conservatism does have an actual distinction -- the distinction of actually intending to keep its mission to itself. Let us hope otherwise. Let us trust that we will find the thing disclosed as we go forward, looking at such matters as the next one, which is human nature. The same question arises with New Labour, as remarked earlier. But presumably, despite disappointments, the project will come into real focus. We will find out that it is not distinguished by covertness, coyness or mystery.
To those few reflections on theory and the like, and The Third Way, can be added some behavioural evidence of the nature of New Labour when it was first in government in 1997 and 1998. There were projects started on, humane and human, some of them among the reforms noted at the end of our inquiry into conservatism and change. Some were carried forward, like a minimum wage. Somehow there was more money for the health and education of us all, and of course it was going straight to the nurses and teachers, not their new managers and administrators, of whom there were more and more.
Despite not raising income taxes, there was what was called a windfall tax, one-off and not to be repeated, on great profits made from privatisations under the Conservative Party of public services or utilities – water, electricity, gas and the like. The New Labour government and the rest of us took pride in the progress in the Northern Ireland struggle and in the setting up of a real inquiry into a racist killing. The reform of the unelected and therefore undemocratic House of Lords was going ahead. There would be more autonomy in government for Scotland and Wales.
If it was not yet behaviour itself, there was also a declaration that promised new behaviour of great significance. Mr. Robin Cooke, the Foreign Secretary, announced that every modern business starts with a mission statement. Since New Labour was bringing a businesslike approach to government, here was a mission statement with respect to our foreign policy, our relations with other states. It would be an ethical foreign policy. It would have human rights at its heart. Of course this policy would have to be consistent with our very large arms sales, a strategic part of our industrial base, and with whatever else, maybe being prudent about our aid to other countries, and remembering that charity begins at home, but this consistency could be achieved.
None of that, from the human projects to the ethical foreign policy, sounded much like conservatism, but it was not all of the story. Mr Brown, who might one day lead the party and was occasionally said to be in charge of its soul, set about managing the economy in such a way as to secure and keep the support of business and finance. Whatever further aims his prudence might have had, it had that one. Another smaller part of the story was that there was no increase in the welfare grants to single parents, despite the feelings of Labour MP's, of whom there were quite a lot in the same party among the New Labour MP’s.
There was also the impression that the party that had the Levellers in its prehistory, and trade unions and the Jarrow hunger marchers in its own history, was strong in what it took to be a realism of great significance. This was the realism that enterprising businessmen and corporations were better at doing very many things than public servants and bodies, in fact the realism that competitition was better than the outmoded ideas of cooperation and some planning.
The prime minister was on good terms with the gent in the dark glasses who was organizing world car racing. The gent made a donation of £1,000,000 to New Labour. Of course it was given back when the unspeakable suggestion was made that it was connected to a dispensation by the government allowing cigarette advertising to continue at the races, thereby safeguarding profits of the gent. It was subsequently revealed, by the way, that everybody concerned was not just whiter than snow -- the very idea of the dispensation, and thus the increasing of the incidence of lung cancer, had come not from Mr. Blair or Mr Brown, or the gent, but from the Department of Health itself. Would things regularly turn out that way? The news of course was a great relief to all. It was further evidence of what was never far from the mind of the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was their own and their government's moral decency. (34)
A year and half in government presumably was not long enough for New Labour to have done a great deal about those statistics on the shares of total income for the lower and upper fifths of population. Nor had there been time to do much about the other poverty figures, or the wealth figures, let alone the average lifetimes. Certainly there had been no great change. You will remember that when the Conservative Party was last in office, 13,000,000 people were in poverty. After the end of about New Labour's first year and a half, in 1998-99, there were 13,400,000 in poverty. (35)
The figures, delayed about a year as always, were released by the government on a day when there was a distraction. Still, there was a little wondering by people about whether something might have been done in a year and a half. A newspaper as independent as they come, although generally supportive of New Labour, made something of the figures. (36) It said in effect that 24% of the population being poor was a lot. The newspaper also noted that in New Labour's first year in government, the number of children in poverty rose. It went from 4,000,000 to 4,200,000 in 1998-99. (37) Somebody else noted, whether or not unfairly, about the time it takes to do things, that relatively small governmental actions, say tax changes announced in annual budgets, can and do have quick statistical effects, including effects on nutrition, even life and death.
A social exclusion unit, better at facts than theories, pointed out what perhaps was necessary to point out, that death goes with poverty. Mortality rates were also 30% higher in certain impoverished neighbourhoods and housing estates than in the rest of the country. (38)
1. Anthony Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection, ( Faber, 1978).
2. Peregrine Worsthorne's political column illuminated conservatism more than quite a number of books on the subject. See his autobiography Tricks of Memory (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993) as well.
3. Quoted by Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America, (Knopf, 1982) p. 116.
4. Edmund Burke, Letter to a Noble Lord, in L. I. Bredvold and R. G. Ross, eds., The Philosophy of Edmund Burke (University of Michigan Press, 1960).
5. Conor Cruise O'Brien, introduction to his edition of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (Penguin, 1968). The introduction, although sympathetic, is to my knowledge the best short account of Burke's thinking.
6. Michael Oakeshott, 'On Being Conservative', in his Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1962), pp. 168-70.
7. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, pp. 194-5.
8. Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (Penguin, 1980) p. 21.
9. On Tyranny (University of Chicago Press, 1991). I have been unable to persuade myself that the neo-cons, so good at getting people killed, have been equally good at adding to the intellectual content of conservatism. Readers may want to check this by looking at a critical and workmanlike account of neo-conservatism by several more traditional conservatives, not fond of the cuckoo in the American conservative nest or anyway the White House. See Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and Global Order (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
10. Noel O'Sullivan, Conservatism (Dent, 1983), p. 12.
11. The Guardian, 2 February 2004.
12. There is a good history of New Labour by Steven Fielding, a history with a commitment indicated by its title, The Labour Party: Continuity and Change in the Making of 'New' Labour. Also valuable, and also in the genre of contemporary political studies of the academic kind, are the essays in Governing as New Labour: Policy and Politics Under Blair (Palgrave, 2004) edited by Steve Ludlam and Martin J. Smith. Some of the same questions are well handled by Colin Hay in The Political Economy of New Labour: Labouring Under False Pretences? (Manchester University Press, 1999). Rather more wide-ranging and also good are pieces in The Moderniser's Dilemma: Radical Politics in the Age of Blair (Lawrence & Wishart, 1998), edited by Anne Coddington and Mark Perryman.
13. Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution had specified this aim: 'To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service'. What was put in the place of the clause was the affirmation that 'by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone...a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few'. There was movement in this direction in the Labour Party before Blair, Brown et al., of course.
14. Some readers will be aware of habits among some economists and others to use the term 'poverty' in a way that makes, for example, fifths of population having very different income-shares not a matter of poverty but of something else, say 'income inequality'. I do not join them in the terminology, partly because of wanting not to imply by a name that something is less serious than it is.
15. Michael Meacher, 'Worse Than Under Thatcher', The Guardian, 15 July 2003.
16. Households Below Average Income Statistics, Simon Lunn and team, Department for Work and Pensions, 30 March 2004. For further comment, see also Larry Elliott, Charlotte Denny and Michael White, 'Poverty Gap Hits Labour Boasts', The Guardian, 14 July 2000.
17. J. Flaherty, J. Veit-Wilson, and P. Dornan, Poverty: The Facts, 5th edition (Child Poverty Action Group, 2004).
18. Households Below Average Income Statistics, 30 March, 2004
19. Households Below Average Income Statistics, 30 March, 2004
20. Table 13.5, 'Personal Wealth: Distribution Among the Adult Population of Marketable Wealth', Inland Revenue: Distribution of Personal Wealth. Available at
21. Trends in Life Expectancy by Social Class, 1972-1999, National Statistics, 28 January 2002. For comments see 'Our Unjust Society: The Poor Have Fallen Further Behind', The Guardian, 3 December 1999.
22. The World Guide, 2001-2, based on various sources. For a summary see Honderich, After the Terror, (Edinburgh University Press, 2002), p. 6.
31. 'Why the Old Left Is Wrong on Equality', New Statesman, 25 October 1999. It is on the world side web at several locations.
32. Roger Jowell, John Curtice, Alison Park, Katarina Thomson, Lindsey Jarvis, Catherine Bromley, Nina Stratford, British Social Attitudes: the 16th Report (Ashgate, 1999).
33. 1999. See also 'There is No Alternative -- The Third Way is the Only Way Forward', The Guardian, 8 January 2002.
34. Mr Blair said of the episode: 'I hope that people know me well enough and realise the type of person I am... I would never do anything to harm the country or improper. I never have. I think that most people who have dealt with me think that I am a pretty straight sort of guy.' Quoted by Nick Cohen, on forepage of his sceptical Pretty Straight Guys (Faber & Faber, 2003).
35. Households Below Average Income Statistics, Simon Lunn and team, Department for Work and Pensions, 30 March 2004.
36. Larry Elliott, Charlotte Denny and Michael White, 'Poverty Gap Hits Labour Boasts', The Guardian, 14 July 2000. Data from Department of Social Security. See also Households Below Average Income Statistics, 30 March 2004.
37. Households Below Average Income Statistics, 30 March 2004.
38. Diane Coyle and Andrew Grice, 'Poverty Gap Widens Under Blair', in The Independent, as trustworthy a newspaper, for 13 April 2000. Data from Office of National Statistics.
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