Cameron will fail in reviving Conservatism


by Carl Packman    
3:55 pm - August 15th 2010

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American columnists speak at the moment of conservative “epistemic closure” to describe the debasing of modern conservatism’s glorious legacy, first used in this context by libertarian writer and Economist blogger Julian Sanchez as short-hand for “ideological intolerance and misinformation”.

The idea is to show that conservatism has hit a wall and is appealing to low, base politics of xenophobia or ad hominem attack, as opposed to its rich, great tradition.

British conservatism has had a fair deal of “epistemic closure” in recent years also, and it’s something for the left to consider when we vent our criticisms on the right wing.

When we think of conservatism today we might erroneously think of Thatcher and Major – but they were merely leaders of the conservative party.

Those in the conservative camp of the Conservative party who believe the primary lie of neo-liberal capitalism – that it opens up a space for us all to become a little bit rich, and turns the fixed triangle shaped class system into a flexible circle of freedoms – would’ve hated what Thatcher was doing by listening to those woolly Austrian and Chicago-school libertarians.

We know now they had little to worry about.

But the Thatcher/Major legacy, truth be told, will be less seen in the scheme of things as expressions of conservatism, and seen more as a new and epochal means to counter working class empowerment and intolerance of the foreign other.

For this reason I had some respect for Respublica and Phillip Blond. Aside from all bloated, first year philosophy course, flower eating nonsense that he talks about on virtue and politicians, what Blond did succeed in doing was to show that conservatism in this country was not the sum of the Thatcher/Major epistemic closure, but something that could be committed to community and civic participation, and not simply at the beck and call of the markets (which is rightly seen as a perversion of conservatism of the type Disraeli would have aligned himself to).

Cameron was keen to pal-up with Blond in the early days, with that timeless gag about voting blue was to go green. Though with Blond to vote blue was to go “red”. With Blond’s hat-tipping to one nation conservatism, and Cameron’s “progressivism” (by which has always meant an emotional relationship with the NHS, and therefore informing the decision to keep it) the Tories had the chance to sweep up the centre ground and remain Europhobic enough to keep the right from joining the UK Independence party.

In short, drop the nasty party image. Cameron had five years to do that before the election – and he failed.

The right wing of his party, Redwood for example, might be silent now, but give it time.

If I was interested in politics to score points then I, as a Labour supporter and socialist, would not care a hoot about conservatism. But this is not the case. Conservatism is not the sum total of xenophobia, big business and nastiness; this is its own expression of epistemic closure. But what almost five years of David Cameron as leader of the opposition and leader of the Conservative party has shown is that the return to real conservatism has botched.

And this does not bade well considering the conditions in which that project was tested – 13 years out of office, a melee of leaders of all shapes and sizes, a global recession, and still they couldn’t exploit this enough – to think everyone in their camp assumed it would be a walkover.

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About the author
Carl is a regular contributor. He is a policy and research analyst and he blogs at Though Cowards Flinch.
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Reader comments


1. alienfromzog

Very interesting.

I think it important for many of my generation (was born the year before Thatcher became Prime Minister) to remember that Thatcherism is not Conservatism, and that true Conservatism has a noble history.

My worry is that democracy is much diluted in the modern-media age and that extreme-free-market-libertarism has a free hand because the vast majority of media outlets promote is shamelessly but never openly.

If true conservatives reclaimed the Conservative party I think it would be better for everyone.

AFZ

‘My worry is that democracy is much diluted in the modern-media age and that extreme-free-market-libertarism has a free hand because the vast majority of media outlets promote is shamelessly but never openly.’

Really,which ones? I could do with a job.

This article is confused because it associates neo liberalism with thismso called ‘epistemically closure’. In fact, neo liberalism is very much a
mainstream and publicly engaged doctrine. It is essentially a set of mechanisms for paying for social democracy (which is why Scandinavian countries are amongst the most marketised in terms of labour markets and open trade). The EU itself is a funny mix of Europe-wide protectionism and neo liberalism.

Sorry for errors. I’m on a hand held.

Vernon Bogdanor (Cameron’s tutor at Oxford) analysed what Cameron did in “decontaminating” the Tories in a review of ‘The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron by Tim Bale

“Three successive Conservative leaders – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard – responded to defeat by seeking to mobilise the Tory “core” vote. They did so by highlighting the “dog-whistle” issues: the so-called “Tebbit trinity” of Europe, immigration and taxes, or what Tim Bale calls “the politics of the 19th tee”.

The trouble was that the Conservative core vote was too narrow, being based on the over-65s and the geographically and socially immobile, to act as a springboard for electoral revival. In 2001, there were actually swings away from the Tories among the professional and managerial classes, 25- to 34-year-olds and ethnic minorities, groups from which they already had low levels of support in 1997. The party seemed defined largely by what and whom it hated – the euro, the European Union, asylum-seekers, gay people and criminals. No wonder that the Conservatives were seen, in the words of the then party chair, Theresa May, as the “nasty party”.

http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/03/conservative-party-cameron

The trouble with Bogdanor’s analysis is he seems to have fallen for Cameron’s “touchy-feely waffle”, and support for the public sector when in opposition, something that disappeared into thin air once he was in government. Then the old, right wing ideologies were wheeled out at top speed and Francis Maude could say the “coalition is more radical than the Thatcher government”

I think many of the electorate twigged something Bogdanor didn’t; that the Tories had not changed their spots. This was one of the reasons they could not gain an overall majority even when faced with what appeared like an open goal. After 2011 when the cuts really kick in the Tories once again are going to be faced with a hell of a “decontaminating” problem again.

There is something deepy, unpleasant about a rich and privileged metrpolitan elite telling ordinary people, including the poor that they are going to have to bend over and take it.

I’m not quite sure I see what you’re getting at here. You say you’re not in politics to score points, but then imply that Cameron really deep down wants to abolish the NHS – of course he does, he must do, he’s a Tory right? – but has only decided against doing so because of, hem hem, his “emotional relationship” with it. That’s point-scoring, and it’s cheap point-scoring too.

The Tory Party suffered “epistemic closure” for a nice long part of the 90s and 2000s; that doesn’t mean that any Tory who “gets it” now, any Tory who belongs to the One Nation tradition of earlier years, is in fact just as closed-minded but at least putting on a show of denial. But keep on convincing yourself of this if it makes you feel better.

The tories did not win the last election the Labour govt lost it.

Despite all the fuck ups by Brown, and the free ride for call me Dave in the media , including the BBC. And despite the huge money advantage of the tories they just about managed 36% of the vote, and failed to gain an out right majority.

“If true conservatives reclaimed the Conservative party I think it would be better for everyone.”

Not going to happen. The last 13 years proved that. The base of the tory paty is hard line Thatcher supporters. Call me Dave is really a Thatcher supporter, but he plays it down, just like his wealth.

The conservatives will do what they have always done, they will support the economic elite whether it is by free-market, welfarism or protectionism. Cameron and co will not abolish the NHS but ensure that public funds are redirected into private companies.
History has shown that the tories are past masters in creating a popularist front without changing their core values, they are much more cunning and clever than they are given credit for. And while our economic system supports the basic two class system, where the few have control of the many, the tories will always be the representatives of the few.

I have to admit, I’ve read this piece twice. The first time I assumed that the appalling style and language was masking a genuinely interesting philosophical point. What, for instance, does this mean?

But the Thatcher/Major legacy, truth be told, will be less seen in the scheme of things as expressions of conservatism, and seen more as a new and epochal means to counter working class empowerment and intolerance of the foreign other.

I think what is being said is that in the future the Thatcher/Major era won’t be seen as being conservative, but just as being racist and reactionary.

Which took me back to my old sociology days at university, where the sheer badness of an idea can frequently be determined by the impenetrability of the language.

Conservatism is not the sum total of xenophobia, big business and nastiness; this is its own expression of epistemic closure.

Nastiness? This is the philosophical analysis of the playground. “You smell!”, “Well, you’re suffering from epistemic closure so ner.” “Am not, and anyway, you have a persistent intolerance of the other.”

What is left as the argument of piece? That Cameron didn’t win a majority and therefore has failed to revive Conservatism? And that Thatcher and Major descended into irrelevant navel-gazing. And that Cameron ought to have made the focus of his campaign community and civic participation (hello? Did you read the manifesto? The entire fucking focus of the campaign was civic fucking participation), but that because he hasn’t the right wing of the party will flock to UKIP.

It turns out that the style and language was the best part of the piece.

Good grief, “epistemic closure” is about as meaningless and waffly as “progressive narratives”. I recommend Politics and the English Language by George Orwell as a handbook for anyone writing about politics.

From what I can get out of this article I sort of agree, although “real” conservatism died a long time ago (if you mean the Disraeli kinda thinking) – didn’t Thatcher call herself a ‘classical liberal’?

Wow, I’ve never seen Tim J so riled up. But even in a fury, he makes more sense than you do Carl on this one. ‘Epistemic closure’ was a term applied by Sanchez (who is a conservative and works for the Cato Institute) to some media dorks like Rush Limbaugh and his equivalents at Fox.

The UK equivalent might be, say, someone from Policy Exchange opining that Simon Heffer and Richard Littlejohn have closed minds. Big deal.

This does not represent a significant attack on the philosophy of conservatism. It’s just someone ponting out that some conservative commentators are blunt instruments. David Frum’s been doing that for some time in the US, and with good reason.

Your own analysis of the UK situation will lack sophistication until you get past the sophomoric (actually, grade school) habit of thinking of conservatives as a conspiracy of rich folk convened to do down the poor. There’s rather more to it than that.

10
“…habit of thnking of conservatives as a conspiracy of rich folk convened to do down the poor. There’s rather more to it than that”
Perhaps you can enlighten us all by explaining what the ‘more’ is, hopefully not a rather more sophisticated way of dressing it up.

@ tim J (8)

I rather like your pertinent description of nastiness, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to qualify that to the epistemic closure of Little Richardjohn.

@ Jay (10)

It is not supposed to be an attack on conservatism as a philosophy, but rather the recent manifestation of conservatism – that is rather removed from real conservatism as you rightly recognise.

I choose to qualify the term epistemic closure because I find little Englander far too limiting and not quite what I’m going for. In short, there are positions which we happily characterise today as conservative which are just utterly benign. There were noticeable trace elements present in the Thatcher/Major years, and it is my charge that conservatism in the true sense of the word has had no renaissance since (putting me, for the first time, on par with Peter Hitchens of all people, who has a similar view, but different reasons for holding that view).


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