Sunday, 10 April 2011

No, It Isn't: Fisking David Cowan

 Although it is a practise I greatly enjoy, I don't fisk very often on this blog. This is mainly because regular fisking is really the proper domain of an attack blog, and it doesn't encourage one to develop flexibility as a writer. However, the odd one here and there can't hurt, and this piece on ConHome contrived to put me in a suitable mood.

 I'm still trying to figure out what exactly about this article has me so wound up. Am I simply in tune with Clegg, and filled with rage at the author's enviable internship? Perhaps I'm simply jealous that my own submissions to ConHome (on both sides of the Atlantic) have yet to see the light of day whilst this sort of thing gets published. Maybe I just can't stand the sight of a poor argument being badly presented. Regardless of motive, let us proceed with our dissection:

The current division inside the Conservative Party is between the “Old Whigs” and the “High Tories”

 This title inspired my own above. To its credit, it does serve as fair warning of what awaits.
David Cowan is an intern at the Institute for Economic Affairs and will be going to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the autumn to read History.
 Just some information about the author.
There has been a public debate over the divide between “liberal conservatism” and “mainstream conservatism”. The focus has been on policy differences rather than the philosophy of the Party. If we choose to look at the philosophical outlook of the Conservative Party then a dividing line between the “Old Whigs” and the “High Tories” becomes clear.
 By "public debate" I'm going to assume he means "a debate on ConHome". Whilst we're on it, I'd just like to express my contempt for 'mainstream conservatism' as a label. Like 'progressive', its a label that seeks to cast any opposition to it as instantly negative or outlandish by default, a habit I strongly dislike. Furthermore, it defines 'mainstream' as a majority opinion of Conservative activists on ConHome, which is not only a deeply unscientific sample but also smacks of a tendency to play to the party base, which is what cost us so dearly in 01 and 05.

 Back on topic: the second line introduces the first flat-out mistake of the article. The idea that the debate between liberal, modernist, one nation, Thatcherite and traditional Conservatives has been about much else than the philosophy of the party is ridiculous. Policy debates have nearly always been drawn back to what faction a particular poster or Cabinet minister appeared to be from. The third line then proceeds to spell out the articles line of argument, which shall be addressed below. Suffice to say, such a dividing line does not become clear. From a writers perspective, I think the paragraph could have done with being a little longer, in order to help it flow better. 
Conservative strands of thinking are firmly rooted in “love”. That is not just romantic love, but also love of companionship, love of family, love of community, love of nation, and love of God. They are the bonds between us and give meaning to our lives. It is not a view which embraces the harsh utilitarianism, brutal modernism, and rampant libertarianism of modern society. It is a view based on trust and cooperation. The state is an intruder as it denies freedom and coerces us.
Adam Smith recognised that we are not just motivated by “self interest”, but also by “sympathy” for one another. We emotionally invest ourselves in others by trying to make them happy, consoling them, or sharing their sorrow. Roger Scruton argued that Conservatism understands the human condition and recognises humanity's evolutionary nature as we develop traditions, values, and a culture which passes from one generation to the next.
 These two paragraphs amount to a florid testament to traditional Conservatism and not much more, and bear little relevance to the actual argument other than letting you know which side the author is on.
 The Conservative Statesman must seek to protect and articulate what the Conservative Philosopher values by focusing on family, education, and work. Of these the most important is family. It is the best social institution in which an individual can develop and be loved. For without love in our lives we cannot grow as individuals. Education also acts as a key part of our emotional development. It is the means of passing down knowledge, the appreciation of beauty, and self expression. At school we are elevated beyond our base instincts and learn about our history, culture, and morality. That is why it is essential that everyone has access to a decent education.
 I debated whether it was even worth splitting this paragraph off. It is just a rather wordy exposition of the traditional Tory approach to education and the family. Four paragraphs and over three hundred words into the article, and there's no sign of Mr Cowan's argument. This is proving a dull fisk. 
Once we leave education, it is important that we find a vocation which can be an act of emotional fulfilment and can give us purpose. The welfare system must allow work to pay, reward enterprise, and give independence. David Cameron has managed to abide by these principles.
 I sense the David Cameron thing is the start of the actual argument, although it is presented in a novel way by opening with the supporting evidence rather than the thesis, which presumably is to follow.
The “Big Society” is at the heart of David Cameron's Conservatism. It is about cutting back the state in order to allow the voluntary bonds of community to thrive. The overbearing nature of the state has caused Britain to become a consumer society dominated by a focus on the individual's needs, alienated from our neighbours as communities become atomised, and a lack of clear meaning in our own lives. This has happened because the state coerces us into being charitable by taxing us in order to redistribute wealth and provide services.
I had been going to lump this in with the above paragraph and handwave it through, but I did spot something I took issue with. Whilst it is certainly true that the statist left destroyed many of the voluntary, mutual and co-operative bodies that were the bedrock of pre-war society, I think David is wrong to try to absolve Margaret Thatcher (who he describes as a 'High Tory', see below) and the consumer revolution of the Eighties of any blame. 

 Furthermore, society in general has become more individually-oriented as advances in science and communication technology broaden the scope of individual agency and lessen mutual interdependence. Tight-knit communities often lie within narrow horizons, and we simply aren't as geographically or materially restricted as previous generations were. Although without doubt a significant malefactor, sole blame for this process cannot be laid at the feet of the state.
We then conclude that we have done our bit for society and can thus focus our energies on the pursuit of our own happiness rather than the happiness of others. The “Big Society” is the means by which we can cooperate voluntarily for the public good without coercion from the state. That is not to say “self interest” is a bad thing. Adam Smith's example of the woollen coat is a classic example of how “self interest” results in mutual benefit. But, the principle of “sympathy” has been eroded away by the state.
 The first sentence, presenting the argument that the philanthropic instincts and charitable mechanisms of pre-war Britain have ossified as the state usurps their functions (as argued by James Bartholomew amongst others) is solid, but the second one is puzzling. The big society (the constant scare quotes get vexing) is a means for cooperation? I always thought that a big society was the end, in pursuit of which Cameron will pass actual policies to encourage voluntarism and charitable giving. I can't see how the big society functions as a specific enabling mechanism.

 The paragraph itself could also use a few improvements. First, the second and fifth sentences should be swapped (the latter losing the 'but' obviously), and the fifth sentence could perhaps even be added to the first one. As it stands, the paragraph is something of a non sequitur, as it shifts from problem to solution to counter-point within problem to problem again at the end. Re-arranging to address the problem, then the counter-example, and finally the solution is more sequacious and reads better. Also, when writing for a popular audience always explain examples, otherwise referencing Adam Smith amounts to little more than intellectual name dropping - a practise that university lecturers have no time for, apropos of nothing. Briefly summarising the woollen coat example to someone who hasn't heard of it would have taken about half a sentence.

 550 words in, only three hundred to go, and still no sign of an argument. This article is resisting my fisk by studiously avoiding getting to the point.
However, David Cameron has not protected traditional Tory values. Ken Clarke's “Rehabilitation Revolution”, deep defence cuts, Constitutional vandalism, and increased European integration are the key examples. It is the erosion of the British concept of the nation state, and it is the Liberal Democrats who have forced this assault on Tory principles, thus allowing cover for ministers, like Ken Clarke, to pursue Liberal policies.
 And lo! The point... has not arrived yet. That would involve Mr Cowan defining his terms and laying out his thesis, which he has completely avoided doing thus far. Nonetheless, we do now have some meat to get to grips with. It seems almost superfluous to say it, given that I imagine most of my readers are at least passingly familiar with the paleo-Conservative right, but there is little acknowledgement in this paragraph of attacks that we're in either a coalition or a recession, two things that seriously impede Mr Cameron's ability to govern as he pleases. Where the Liberal Democrats are mentioned, they are simply cover for nefarious liberals like Ken Clarke and Cameron to get away with doing nasty left-wing things. The idea that some of these might be the consequence of the necessary compromises of coalition government appear to be beyond the scope of our subject.

 In terms of the actual arguments, the second sentence is a pretty standard shopping list of right-wing complaints, some of which (such as opposition to defence cuts) I share. However, I would dearly like to know how Mr Cameron - who has arguably the strongest Unionist credentials of any Conservative leader since Bonar Law took the salute of the Ulster Volunteers - is eroding the conception of the British nation-state. Setting aside the fact that I consider Britain to be a Union, not a nation (and better for it), devolution was enacted under Labour. Like many Conservatives, I would dearly like to return to the uniform rule of law across the United Kingdom - but it would be electoral suicide to pursue such a course, even if the way our regional parties have become cheerleaders for essentially nationalist projects is distasteful. Other than engaging with the devolved parliaments (which is counter-balanced at least by his commitment to the Northern Irish Conservatives) how is Cameron eroding the UK? I don't know, Cowan doesn't tell me.
However, the tide may start to turn as the recent motion on prisoners' right to vote and other Tory rebellions have proved. The “High Tories” are seeking to reassert the Tory principles of the Rule of Law, National Security, and Parliamentary Sovereignty. They have their roots in the reactionary wing of the Party which has produced a minority of the Conservative Party’s leaders, though its most prominent alumni are Lord Salisbury, Lord Curzon, and, arguably, Margaret Thatcher.
 There are so many things going wrong in this paragraph, its hard to know where to begin. Lets start with the most glaringly obvious: Margaret Thatcher was not a High Tory, and was anything but a "reactionary". It was her election, supported by the 'Peasant's Revolt' of the backbenchers, that finally finished what Heath had started in killing off what little remained of the old High Tory tradition within the party mainstream. I'd be interested to see who else Mr Cowan considers a High Tory leader of the party, because as it stands he seems to simply use the term to mean 'right wing' and 'unyielding'.

 Which brings me on to the second point. The contrast between the 'Old Whigs' and the 'High Tories' is supposed to have been the main thrust of this article. The paragraph above this one began with 'However' and then proceeded to outline Mr Cowan's case against Cameron and other liberally-inclined Conservatives. This should have been developed, and the use of the label 'Whig' justified. Instead, after one short paragraph of criticism, we have another sentence starting with 'However' and the narrative chicanes, bringing us to the second half of a criminally under-developed argument and a description of the 'reactionary' counter-attack. Given the author's obvious sympathies, we can hope that this side gets a little more meat on the bones.
They believe in the moral values expostulated by David Cameron but their loyalties to British tradition, culture, and patriotism are much deeper. They vehemently reject the modern Liberal consensus that David Cameron and the modernizers have sought to accommodate. This struggle between the “Old Whigs” and the “High Tories” may well define the course of this Parliament.
 Right, I'll be brief to spare repetition. The traits described in the first sentence are not equivalent to High Toryism as it is commonly understood, being more in line with the 'Faith, Flag and Family' mantra of the Cornerstone Group. Mr Cowan continues to provide no justification for his appropriation of the label. No analysis is given for why the struggle between his two mislabelled groups may define the future of this parliament or the party, although this is what the article is supposed to be about according to its own title.

 As for the 'liberal consensus' thing, I have two serious problems with it. The more immediate one is that we didn't win a majority. Maybe if we'd won a few more seats we could have been cutting deals with the Democratic Unionists and it would have produced a more socially conservative - although decidedly less stable - coalition, but Cameron had to play the hand he'd been dealt and he did so brilliantly. There is nothing particularly admirable about a platoon of die-hard true believers in very safe seats undermining the first government we've formed in thirteen years, jeopardising the careers of their more marginally-seated colleagues and the future of the party.

 More importantly, the people who resist this 'liberal consensus' have already accepted the last one, and all the ones before that. Furthermore, they represent the sort of party faction whose defeat is always necessary for the party to survive. The great, enduring genius of the Conservative Party has been to continue as an electoral force through reforms and social changes that the left assumed would kill it. The Great Reform Act 1932, the defeat of the Lords in 1911, universal male suffrage and female suffrage, all were forecast as the death knell of our party. We survived by adapting, by accommodating change and continuing to reflect the wishes of the British people. When we abandon this policy for dogmatism - as Labour did in the Eighties - the result is certain disaster.

 Referring back to Cowan's short paragraph on Cameron's 'Whig' betrayal, how far back to you take 'traditional Tory values'? In its long history the Conservative Party has supported homosexuality being criminal, the disenfranchisement of women and the poor, placed the interests of the land-owning few above the lives of millions starving in Ireland, and various other policies ranging from the distasteful to the detestable. Were they not once 'traditional Tory values' too?
David Cameron is very much an “Old Whig” Conservative in the tradition of Burke, rather than a “High Tory” Conservative in the tradition of Lord Salisbury. He has sought to take Conservative values into the 21st century by placing the focus on family and community, and by reforming education and welfare.
However, we have also witnessed his willingness to allow the erosion of Tory principles in order to appease the tensions of coalition politics. This is where the dividing line lies. The “Old Whigs” who wish to protect traditional values but also to accommodate with the Liberal consensus, and the “High Tories” who wish to conserve the British Nation State and a traditional way of life.
 Finally, in the final two paragraphs, we get some form of explanation paid to what the title talks about. Fascinatingly, we see that Cowan appears to simply equate 'Whig' - sorry, always 'Old Whig' for some reason, as if there were new Whigs - with liberal. Let's take a quick look at what Whig ideology actually consisted off. Wikipedia lists their core ideological tenets as: classical liberalism, constitutional monarchism, rule of law and 'radicalism' (which equates to such things as demanding freedom of the press and the universal franchise). By those standards I, along with the vast bulk of the Thatcherite wing of the party, are 'Whigs'. Given that whatever definition of Whig Cowan is using covers Burke, that group extends to the vast majority of the party. The rest are social conservatives and perhaps those with authoritarian tendencies. I doubt we have any High Tories outside the Lords.

 In summary, this is at best an inconsequential piece. What argument there is is presented backwards, as the reader encounters evidence to support points that aren't made until the end of the article. The core thesis is under-developed, with a substantial body of the article dedicated to an homage to traditional conservatism entirely beside the supposed point. Cowan frames his entire argument around the appropriation of Eighteenth Century political labels without ever taking the time to update them to a Twenty-First Century context, leaving them worthless if not flat-out inaccurate. The attempt to create a niche for the article by claiming that nobody has yet discussed the philosophical differences between liberal and traditional conservatism betrays either ignorance of the broader debate the author presumes to comment upon, or breathtaking hubris.

 If we pare this article down to its core argument, all it says is 'traditional and liberal conservatives don't get on', 'Cameron has compromised for power' and 'I am a traditional conservative'. None of the other arguments are substantiated enough to warrant inclusion in such a summary. Thus this article manages to spend eight hundred words contributing next to nothing to the debate on the future of the Conservative Party.

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