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Wednesday April 11 2007

On the strength of one little joke, here at this blog, I will today be participating in a BBC World Service discussion of Conservatism, Conservatives etc., and by way of homework for this, I have actually been reading the pamphlet I earlier merely alluded to.

I share Sean Gabb‘s irritation about aufhebung-ing, but there is rather more to Kruger’s pamphlet than Sean implies.  It certainly has its moments.  For instance, I liked this bit (pp. 35-6):

But we see now that there can also be a less fruitful alliance between the individual and the state. When the state steps out of its proper bounds, and attempts to deliver not only objective individual justice, but subjective, social justice too, the change brings the individual out of his life of law-regulated rectitude and spurs him to embark on a quite different career. He becomes the object not of protection, but of solicitation by the state; he is encouraged to believe – is even legally required to act on the belief - that he has certain ‘rights’ vis-a-vis his fellows which it is his duty (his only one) to exact the performance of. He is encouraged to look to the state not purely for the guarantee of his basic rights but for the satisfaction of all his wants. Of course, this necessitates the sacrifice of much liberty. But the liberty is in areas (education, healthcare, income) where the accompanying responsibility weighs heavily, and the reward of the sacrifice is an immediate ‘entitlement’ to those things formerly only gained by the sweat of his brow; it is an easy sacrifice, and one justified, moreover, under the pious heading of ‘equality’. Finally, the deal is concluded with an extension of liberty into areas which, under the old dispensation of self-responsibility, suffered the strictest curtailment by law and public opinion: the boundless areas of ‘self-expression’.

Of course, belief in self-determination and personal autonomy - in ‘being your own person’, ‘taking orders from no-one’, ‘not caring what people think’ - is a particularly English characteristic, remarked on by foreigners throughout our modern history as the glory of a country which had freedom under the law. But it was, until recently, a characteristic with a corollary. The staples of the national caricature, the rumbustious English sailor, the eccentric English gentlemen, the iconoclastic English aesthete, all understood what they were rebelling against. Self-determination was qualified by self-restraint; the autonomy exercised in the name of private liberty deferred to the prevailing culture. No longer. Self-expression has become something much nastier and more assertive. Many consider liberty to be in implacable enmity with the very notion of a prevailing culture; to defer to anything is entirely out of the question. Contempt for bourgeois morality is becoming the prevailing atmosphere of bourgeois society.

I think that summarises rather well the potentially malign influence on a statist society of libertarian rhetoric, unaccompanied by any actual libertarianising.

Which is why many Conservatives, who misunderstand libertarianism as the claim that you have to choose between liberty and bourgeois morality and that you should choose liberty, choose to abandon “liberty”.  They say things like “with liberty comes responsibility”, and you don’t know what they mean.  Often they don’t know themselves.  Phrases like that paper over the cracks between Conservatives like Danny Kruger who would like the state to retreat, and those who want it to advance. In practice, what gets done is whatever the Leader decides.

In general, there is an air of piety and vagueness about this pamphlet that I find grating.  A lot of it is an exercise in mood music, in preparing for power while leaving all options open.  Many of its sentences cause me to see rooms of Conservatives nodding their bourgeoisly moral heads, in agreement not with each other but with each of their wildly different interpretations of the piety in question.  But politics was ever thus.  As political tracts go, this one is says a lot, that is to say: a few actual things.

The central claim is that British politics is not so much a dialogue between the two parties in contention with each other, as the two parties taking it in turns to contend with British society.  (This Prospect piece sums the argument up quite well.) That makes sense to me.  And one of the characteristic ways in which governments run out of puff is that they become ever more exasperated with British society, and more and more rude about it, which British society notes and dislikes, registering its dislike in by-elections and opinion polls.  This depresses the government, and eventually they just say to hell with it, you other bastards have a go.  We’re fed up with this.

Kruger describes very well the still deeply statist reflexes of our current batch of rulers.  They have stopped saying Clause Four but have absolutely not stopped nationalising things.  He is far less convincing when he claims that the Conservatives have ever been or ever will be so very different.  Conservatives do not even start as doctrinaire classical liberals.  They are undoctrinaire getters of and hangers-on to power.  To these ends they’ll do whatever it takes.  They don’t start with the axiom of liberty, as Kruger claims.  They start with the axiom of wanting to become and to remain the government.

As to what Kruger’s now boss, David Cameron, is doing to get power, well, the main thing he is doing is to present himself as nicer than the other lot.  “Tone of voice” is just as important to Cameron as the mere matter of what is being said.  The present government is now fixed in the public mind as a Scottish sociopath bellowing obscenities down a telephone, as portrayed in the TV show The Thick of It.  Cameron’s most insistent demand of his followers now is to convince us that his government will be different.  (Which means that my little joke about Kruger inviting Sean Gabb out to lunch rather than arranging for a sociopath to scream at him down a telephone is no mere side-issue in all this.  Imagine the Gabb-Kruger one-two, reproduced a thousand times, between, say, a hundred moaning journos and the charming Cameroonies, chuckling back charmingly by email, taking it all on the chin, and offering to try to explain it some more, over a nice lunch.)

But, it won’t be that different.  For a while the Conservatives will put the knife into each other and into their enemies with the cryptic charm of senior surgeons inserting their scalpels rather than in the manner of medieval axe warriors, but the effect will be the same.  Politics is a nasty business, a negative sum game, and David Cameron knows this.  Ask any senior Conservative who has recently been caught using the wrong tone of voice.

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