From doctrine to detail: why conservatism is doomed

Surveying the political field following the local elections - where Labour made gains at the expense of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats  - Ed West confesses gloomily that ‘Being a pessimist by nature, I’m not sure it’s simply a matter of the Conservatives becoming more conservative’. Apparently the brand is not what it used to be.

West surmises that ‘enough small-c conservatives feel disenchanted with the government to such an extent that they are willing to put Labour in power to punish them, for that is the certain outcome of the Right splitting’.

Divining the consequences of strategic voting is a staple of public choice theory. For Gordon Tullock, ‘democracy operates so that politicians who simply want to hold public office end up by doing things the people want. Perhaps the people are badly informed in the choice of policies, but all a democracy can really guarantee is popular control...’ Whereas for Eamonn Butler, such voting is two sides of the same coin:  the rational choice of parties to ‘change their policies in search of the votes that would put them in government’, and the rational ignorance of voters when - apart from special interests who game the system for their advantage - ‘it is simply not worth voters’ time and effort to become well informed.’

Voting Labour to punish Tories may be disparaged as cutting off your nose to spite your face, but it may be well to ask how truly conservative is the average Conservative voter, who is so ‘in theory but not in practice.’ As West observes, ‘For two generations and more people have grown used to the idea that most things are the state’s responsibility, and once this is established it becomes very hard to reverse, especially as so many people are on the state’s payroll.’

Echoes here of Frédéric Bastiat, who noted that, if redistributionist trends were to become established, sooner or later people would organise themselves either as wealth creators or its beneficiaries; when ‘according to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it’ - and where the historical record shows the latter has been the preferred course.

Yet how ‘conservative’ is the Conservative party? West acknowledges that ‘liberalism has had a total moral monopoly in the intellectual sphere for decades, which is why the Conservative Party finally decided that the only way it could win was to abandon conservatism in the same [way] that New Labour abandoned socialism.’

The perils of being ‘hoisted on your own petard’ were central to Friedrich Hayek’s ‘The Intellectuals and Socialism’:

‘With many of the more general preconceptions of socialist thought, the connection of their more practical proposals is by no means at once obvious; in consequence, many men who believe themselves to be determined opponents of that system of thought become in fact effective spreaders of its ideas.’

Sir Ernest Benn foreshadowed this self-deception in The Return to Laisser Faire, noting wryly that ‘Political discussion has degenerated in recent times from doctrine to detail.’

Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute offers an antidotefor West’s reductio ad absurdum of the Welfare State. ‘Biblical exegesis tells us that the Israelites needed to wander for 40 years in the desert after being released from bondage in Egypt because they couldn’t begin to build a new nation until a new generation grew up that hadn’t been raised in bondage’, he writes. ‘Those raised in slavery were not trained to think for themselves; they had become dependent on their masters to provide for them. Indeed, when they encountered hardships, many cried for a return to bondage.’

Many will agree that Britain has entered its own desert years; it is less certain that any period of hardship will restore a vision of the promised land. In policy terms, West looks toward a return of true conservatism, ‘because in the long term conservatism always wins; socialist countries run out of money and liberal societies run out of people.’

The 1980s were fortunate to have Thatcher and Reagan lead their nations by the lights of limited government, but where is today’s visionary Moses?

Though it may be too much to expect the parting of the Red Sea, the revival of the British economy and Conservative fortunes are dependent upon a restoration of sound economic principles and a reversal of current policy: quite simply, a move from detail to doctrine.

Thatcher grew the size of government even if it did decline as a percentage of GDP. She just made government more lean and efficient. I can't recall who said this but it's so true, "Conservatives have always been the enemy of freedom".

@chessnuts: With respect to your first observation on GDP, one would need to offer an alternative quantifiable guide to gauging the size of government — although, of course, ‘lean’ and ‘efficient’ are by no means synonymously conservative.

As to your second observation, I would only dispute the use of the modifier always, and recommend Herbert Spencer’s essay ‘The New Toryism’, where he asserts that ‘if the present drift of things continues, it may by and by really happen that the Tories will be defenders of liberties which the Liberals, in pursuit of what they think popular welfare, trample under foot.’ Though many perhaps prefer adapting Disraeli for the present leadership: ‘The right honourable gentleman caught New Labour bathing, and walked away with the clothes.’

I completely disagree! Just look at who brought us into this mess. A decent amount of conservatism would have help for sure.

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