[Paleopsych] TLS: (John Gray) Oliver Letwin: In defence of the citadel

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Oliver Letwin: In defence of the citadel
The Times Literary Supplement, 97.12.12

    12 December 1997
    WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE TORIES. The Conservative Party since 1945. By
    Ian Gilmour and Mark Garnett. 440pp. Fourth Estate. £25. - 1 85702 475

    IS CONSERVATISM DEAD? By John Gray and David Willetts. 192pp. Profile,
    62 Queen Anne Street, London W1M 9LA. Paperback, £8.99. - 1 86197 042

    Free markets and the legacy of the Thatcher years.

    Ian Gilmour's thesis in Whatever Happened to the Tories is reasonably
    straightforward. As one might expect of one of the most prominent
    "wets" in Mrs Thatcher's early Cabinets, Gilmour believes that the
    Conservative Party has prospered - and has done well by Britain - only
    when it has espoused "One Nation" policies. He does not reach this
    conclusion by way of anything remotely resembling an academic history
    of the Conservative Party. There is no sign, in Whatever Happened to
    the Tories, of an open inquiry, or of balanced judgment drawn out of
    dispassionately assembled evidence. The conclusions do not emerge from
    the study; they are imposed on it with ruthless ferocity.

    Gilmour's is a book with goodies and baddies. The goodies are
    Keynesians, who benefit and liberate mankind: Mindful of the great
    pre-war slump and anxious to provide better conditions for their
    people, all advanced capitalist countries made a deliberate attempt to
    influence the level of effective demand. Their . . . rejection of
    laissez faire produced . . . freedom and growing prosperity . . . . In
    the thirteen years of Conservative government (1951 to 1964) the
    living standards of the British people . . . improved more than in the
    whole of the previous century . . . .

    The baddies are dogmatic Thatcherites, who tyrannize the nation and
    waste its precious assets: Lenin's slogan in 1917, "all power to the
    Soviets", was a precursor of Thatcherite practice: all power to
    Westminster . . . . Still enslaved to privatisation, in 1993 the Major
    Government also authorised the sell-off of British Rail.

    Whatever Happened to the Tories is, in other words, an example of
    polemic thinly disguised as history. But, even when considered as
    polemic, the book suffers from a notable disadvantage: its central
    thesis is vitiated by the vagueness of its central concept. What is
    "One Nation" Conservatism? Gilmour offers a variety of hints. At
    times, the tag seems to denote a brand of politics that favours
    particular aims - the "elimination of poverty" and the avoidance of "a
    too great disproportion among the citizens". At other times, it
    appears to mean a dispostition towards corporatism - a consensus
    omnium between big capital and organized labour - "in the long run and
    for the common good . . . the umpire is better than the duel". At yet
    other times, it seems to signify a programme to create a "mixed
    economy" with public and private ownership in a "pragmatic and
    sensible compromise between the extremes of collectivism and
    individualism". We are, however, given no clues about how these three
    themes are to be made consistent in practice, or which is to be given
    priority in the event of a clash, or (in sum) whether "One Nation"
    Conservatism is meant to be a description of an aim, or of a
    disposition or of a programme.

    Equally unclear is the evidence for the thesis that "One Nation"
    Conservatism - however defined - benefited Britain. Taking the period
    from Churchill's post-war government to the end of Heath's government
    (with the first quasi-Thatcherite part of Heath's administration duly
    omitted), we have the entire span of what Gilmour regards as "One
    Nation" Conservative government. During this period, Britain lost an
    empire; was overtaken economically by Japan, Germany, France and
    Italy, all of which had been defeated and invaded at one point or
    another during the war; ceased to be the scientific powerhouse of the
    world; exhibited the first signs of a cyclical rise in crime and the
    first beginnings of a breakdown in family life, and witnessed the
    nearly wholesale destruction of educational standards, as well as
    standards in the work-place. How is this to be represented as a
    success story?

    There are, however, two great redeeming features of Gilmour's book -
    first, the stretches (sometimes quite long) in which first-rate
    historical narrative, as if by mistake, takes over from the polemic
    and the thesis falls temporarily out of sight - the vivid account of
    the Suez crisis is a poignant example; and second, the moments when
    moral discernment triumphs over ideo-logical prejudice - as in the
    generous and touching accounts of Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph.

    In the end, the greatest interest of the work derives from the light
    it casts, not on its subject, but on its author. An educated patrician
    of Gilmour's taste, talent and refinement, no matter how polemically
    inclined, no matter how conceptually confused, cannot ultimately
    resist either the urge to write good history or the chivalry that
    admits qualities in an opponent. The best (indeed, almost the only)
    advertisement for the thesis lies in the fact that it is propounded by
    this author.

    John Gray's fifty pages can be regarded as the clear-minded,
    articulate and concise version of Gilmour's 500. Like Gilmour, Gray
    provides an attack on Thatcherite Conservatism which is based
    essentially on the proposition that Thatcherism is not conservative.
    His thesis is that "conservative parties and governments throughout
    the Western World" were "captured" by "free market ideology" during
    the 1970s and 80s, and that the resulting globally "unconstrained
    market institutions are bound to undermine social and political
    stability" and accordingly lack "political legitimacy" in "an age of
    low economic growth". Conservative parties thus captured are
    consequently, in Gray's view, left in the late 1990s with a programme
    that is neither acceptable to the public nor in any way consistent
    with the traditional Conservative concerns - inheritance, cultural
    continuity, social stability and an attachment to the familiar.

    As befits a philosopher of distinction, Gray puts his case with
    restrained and elegant vigour. He is making a plea for things that
    matter - and he makes it well. Who - above all, what Conservative -
    can deny the value of inheritance, cultural continuity, social
    stability, or the old and familiar? Who - of any persuasion - can
    pretend to be wholly untouched by the fear that global market forces
    may sweep away much that is old and precious? Who can deny that
    Conservatives in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s talked far more about
    the free market than about the moral and cultural life of mankind?
    Gray touches a nerve that, for Conservatives today, is raw.

    David Willetts's aim is to apply balm to that raw nerve, by arguing
    that "free markets", so far from "undermining social and political
    stability", actively promote such stability. He first establishes
    (what can hardly be denied) that a market does not in the least
    preclude the participants' being guided by motives such as
    "benevolence or altruism". Next, he advances the - not much less
    certain - proposition that, although the free market can break down
    cosy arrangements, it can also encourage some kinds of co-operative
    behaviour (as evidenced for example, by the fact that firms will
    succeed in a free market only if their employees display a high level
    of co-operation and corporate loyalty). The conclusion that Willetts
    draws from these propositions is that "the market order is non-moral
    rather than immoral. It is the background against which individuals
    and institutions must pursue their own purposes".

    This conclusion forms the uncontentious base-camp from which Willetts
    ascends. The ascent itself starts with the observation that the worst
    social problem of our times is the existence of a large set of young
    unemployed males who, while making the transition from childhood to
    adulthood, cause mayhem for the people living around them. But,
    Willetts argues, the schools which should be the great engines of
    progress, guiding these young men through adolescence, cannot achieve
    that purpose if they are reduced to being "outposts of an elaborate
    public sector bureaucracy". And from this reference to the particular,
    Willetts generalizes - drawing evidence from patterns of social life
    in the nineteenth century (as well as from the effect of Social
    Security in our own age) to back the claim that it is big government,
    rather than the free market, that has undermined the "civic"
    institutions which alone can convey from one generation to the next
    the rich panoply of inheritances and personal standards that a
    Conservative wishes to see preserved.

    The importance of the debate between Gray and Willetts is clear. If we
    are to have a society worth living in, we all need to know whether
    free markets are an ally or an enemy of civilization.

    The reasons for thinking of free markets as the enemy are clear.
    Civilization depends on (to a great degree, consists of) continuities,
    traditions, inheritances, dependabilities of expectation and of
    meaning; the free market, by contrast, depends on and encourages flux,
    dynamism, rapid reversals, ever-changing patterns of life.
    Civilization arises when men first raise their eyes above the
    immediate necessities of a merely bestial subsistence; free markets
    reward those who devote themselves wholeheartedly to the pursuit of

    The reasons for thinking of free markets as the friend of civilization
    are equally clear. Civilization depends to an extent on prosperity and
    the leisure that prosperity alone permits; free markets
    (notwithstanding the "work ethic" inculcated in some of their
    participants) deliver both more prosperity and more leisure than
    peasant or planned economies. Civilization depends also on vitality,
    freedom of thought, intellectual and artistic evolution; free markets
    encourage such vitality and pluralism - both directly, by permitting
    diverse individuals of differing views to support differing forms of
    cultural life, and in-directly through the encouragement of a general
    attitude of enterprise and vitality rather than the attitude of
    subservience encouraged by peasant and planned economics.

    Any rational and dispassionate observer must surely conclude that free
    markets are neither the blood-brothers nor the deadly foes of
    civilization; markets are in some respects dangerous for civilization,
    and in other respects advantageous. Accordingly, to resolve the
    dispute, we have to ask a different set of questions. We have to ask
    what is the alternative to a free market? What kind of political
    regime is implied by the application of that alternative? And how will
    civilization be likely to fare under that regime?

    The first step towards answering these questions is to recognize (as
    both Gray and Willetts do) the naturalness of a free market. A free
    market is not something that has to be created artificially - if a
    collection of people are left to their own devices, they will soon
    begin to trade (or, at the most primitive level, barter) with one
    another. It takes a government to stifle this human propensity to
    exchange; it takes, in particular, an authoritarian government either
    of the occult authoritarian variety (as in Marxism) or of the numinous
    authoritarian variety (as in militant Islam). But such governments
    stifle more than just the exchange of the market; they stifle also the
    free exchange of ideas. In so doing, they do inestimable damage to

    In short, the compelling argument in favour of Willetts and against
    Gray is not an argument about the intrinsic effects of differing
    economic systems. It is, rather, an argument about the kinds of
    political regimes implied by differing economic systems - and about
    the effect of those regimes. It is the argument that free societies
    will inevitably give rise to free markets.

    This is exactly why the Thatcherite programme that Gray elegantly
    misrepresents was not a programme intending to revolutionize society
    by favouring the free market. Rather, it was a programme designed to
    change the nature of government, drawing the State back from the
    authoritarian interventions (both in the economic and in the social
    sphere) that threatened - or seemed at least to its proponents to
    threaten - the liberty, plurality and vitality properly associated
    both with an open society and (as a consequence) with a flourishing

    In seeking that end, the Thatcherite programme was, of course,
    thoroughly conservative in character. It was conservative in that it
    sought to restore and preserve an age-old liberty. It was conservative
    in that it sought to work "with the grain" of human nature, by
    acknowledging the tendency of humankind to engage in free exchange.
    And it was conservative in that (so far from being a species of
    visionary millenarianism) it was addressing a problem associated with
    a particular time and place - a problem of over-government in the
    post-war "western" world.

    For the very same reason, the reports of the imminent death of
    Conservative politics brought to us breathlessly by Gray are
    distinctly pre-mature. Having successfully undertaken a programme to
    pull the State back from authoritarian intervention, Conservative
    parties around the "western" world are now turning their attention to
    other threats and problems. The work of a conservative (precisely
    because conservatism is not visionary) is never done. As the political
    equivalent of nature's patient, ceaseless eremite, the conservative
    (in his ever-vigilant desire to protect the fabric of civilization)
    turns, often somewhat stiffly and battle-weary, from the successful
    defence of one redoubt to the defence of the next point at which the
    barbarian enemy is threatening to enter the citadel.

    Oliver Letwin is Conservative Member of Parliament for Dorset West.

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