29 May 2007

To debate or not

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries an article by Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University that makes me sigh with longing. Those darn stupid Yanks, I snarl. What do they mean by writing and publishing articles in an ordinary broadsheet that discuss political philosophy, concentrating on what it means to be on the right in politics? Aren’t they supposed to be too dumb to know what political philosophy is about?

Can you imagine any of our newspapers devoting space to the subject of “The Conservative Mind” (famously the title of Russell Kirk’s seminal book)? Then again, can you imagine anybody actually discussing the history of conservative thought in Britain where much of it originated?

The starting point of Mr Berkowitz’s article is one that seems to be self-evident but is rarely so. Political debate within a party is a good thing. How often have we heard from the Conservatives that they do not want to discuss “Europe” because it will tear them apart?

Under the Boy-King they have reached the stage of not wanting to discuss anything that is at all controversial because there might be disagreements in the ranks. The ongoing row about grammar schools and education in general is a very fine example of that attitude.

In fact, the Conservative Party under the Cameroons seems to have espoused Lenin’s theory of democratic centralism. It did not lead to anything particularly good in the world.

Disagreement, discussions, debates are signs of strength not weakness because they show that there is life and vitality in a party or, as is the case, in the United States, on one side of the political spectrum.
For, as Peter Berkowitz points out:
On a variety of issues that currently divide the nation, those to the left of center seem to be converging, their ranks increasingly untroubled by debate or dissent, except on daily tactics and long-term strategy. Meanwhile, those to the right of center are engaged in an intense intra-party struggle to balance competing principles and goods.
He then lists some of those issues: the war in Iraq, abortion rights and wrongs, same-sex marriages. Curiously, he does not mention illegal immigration and the proposed amnesty that really is tearing the country and the right apart.
The left, of course, assures all and sundry but mostly itself that it is the side of the intellect. There can be no thinking on the right, they proclaim magniloquently, ignoring such people as Jonathan Swift, Dr Johnson, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, T. S. Eliot, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk and many, many others. (Those names came to me in the space of 30 seconds. Had I spent more time I could have come up with plenty more.)

The left also assures all and sundry but mostly itself that it, alone, can understand the reality and complexity of the modern world and its political systems, then proceeds to display the sort of ignorance of anything outside its own cosy little billet that ought to shame a secondary school pupil. If it understands so much of the world’s complexity, how is it that there are no debates, no discussions in its ranks? How is it that anyone who disagrees – Senator Lieberman, for instance – immediately gets drummed out?
This absence on the left of debate or dissent about moral and political ends has been aided and abetted by many of the party's foremost intellectuals, who have reveled in denouncing George W. Bush as a dictator, in declaring democracy in 21st-century America all but illegitimate, and in diagnosing conservatism in America as in the grips of fascist sentiments and opinions.

A few months ago, Hoover Institution research fellow Dinesh D'Souza published a highly polemical book, "The Enemy at Home," which held the cultural left responsible for causing 9/11 and contended that American conservatives should repudiate fellow citizens on the left and instead form alliances with traditional Muslims around the world. Conservatives of many stripes leapt into the fray to criticize it. But rare is the voice on the left that has criticized Boston College professor and New Republic contributing editor Alan Wolfe, former secretary of labor and Berkeley professor Robert Reich, New Republic editor-at-large and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Peter Beinart, Berkeley professor George Lakoff, and New York University law professor Ronald Dworkin--all of whom have publicly argued in the last several years that conservatives form an enemy at home.

One explanation of the unity on the left is its belief that today's divisive political questions have easy answers--but because of their illiberal opinions and aims, conservatives are unable to see this and, in a mere six years, have brought democracy in America to the brink. This explanation, however, contradicts the vital lesson of John Stuart Mill's liberalism that political questions, as opposed to mathematical questions, tend by their very nature to be many-sided. Indeed, it contradicts the left's celebration of its own appreciation of the complexity and depth of politics.
Mr Berkowitz then spends some time analyzing the thinking of three important conservative writers: Hayek, Kirk and Leo Strauss, each of whom placed a different emphasis on the competing ideas that the right discusses: individual liberty and the retention of tradition.
In contrast to much European conservatism, which harks back to premodern times and the political preeminence of religion and royalty, in America--which lacked a feudal past to preserve or recover--conservatism has always revolved around the preservation of individual liberty. Of course modern conservatism generally admires virtues embodied in religious faith and the aristocratic devotion to excellence. It also tends to emphasize the weaknesses of human nature, the ironies and tragedies of history, and the limitations of reason and politics. At the same time, it wishes to put these virtues and this knowledge in liberty's service.

Balancing the claims of liberty and tradition, or showing how liberty depends on tradition, is the very essence of modern conservatism, the founding text for which was provided by Whig orator and statesman Edmund Burke in his 1790 polemic, "Reflections on the Revolution in France." The divisions within contemporary American conservatism--social conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives--arise from differences over which goods most urgently need to be preserved, to what extent, and with what role for government.
I shall not bother to paraphrase Mr Berkowitz’s more detailed analysis. The article is available and it is best if people read it themselves.

There is, however, a sad little lesson to be drawn here. It is true that much European conservatism is very different from the discussion of how to balance individual liberty and social tradition that American conservatism is. I am reminded of a German student who was in London working on his thesis about British eurosceptics, who was absolutely astonished when he heard that I considered myself to be on the right of the political spectrum. The traditional German right is very different though that, too, is changing.

However, American ideas did not spring fully armed out of Alexander Hamilton’s or James Madison’s brow. They were, before that, English and Scottish ideas. Which, inevitably, brings me to the question of why is it we do not have debates of this kind on either side of the political spectrum in this country.
Looking to the right of the spectrum, we see either conformity or discussions about such itsy-bitsy topics as to make one despair about the future of the conservative ideology.
All big topics are taboo except on blogs like this one or a few others that are really on the edges of the British political scene.
To take a few examples of subjects that we, on this blog, find interesting. There is a complete and unargued assumption whichever way one turns that involvement in Iraq has been a complete disaster; the war is unwinnable; everything is getting worse on a daily basis. When did we last have a real discussion, based on different kinds of information, about what is really going on in Iraq?

Moving on easily, one has to note a certain absence of any discussion of what defence is about and how it should develop in Britain. A good many Conservatives announce rather pompously that, of course, we must not get involved in the European defence structures, disregarding the fact that we already are involved. They then continue by pointing out that we must not follow America either or, at least, we must be “candid friends” to that country.

Then what? How are we to square the circle? Nothing. There seems to be no need to define what the aims of the defence should be.

And Europe. Now there is an issue that should set everybody’s minds and tongues working as it is linked closely with the question of what kind of state we want to live in. Sadly, all one gets is the odd platitude along the lines of being in Europe but not ruled by Europe and let’s not go beyond it as that will split the party.
Or, alternatively, there is the slight interest that is evinced in the subject by the odd journalist or blogger, concentrating mostly on some minor issue.

The biggest problem remains the obvious one: if conservatism is a question of debating the balance between individual liberty and the necessary social structures then there is precious little conservatism on our political scene. Whether we are talking about the war against terror (oh yes, it is very real, indeed) or where we employ our soldiers, or what sort of education we give our children or how we ensure that our streets are safe, we need to understand the underlying issues.

There is, as I said before, nothing wrong about disagreeing on these subjects and the relative importance of various factors: small government, individual liberty and how it affects other people’s liberty, low taxes, social mobility, defence of the realm. Debate, underpinned by ideas is a sign of health not of sickness. If, on the other hand, we really do think that a party discussing policies and ideas, tears itself apart and makes itself unelectable then there is little hope for our political life.