David Skelton: Why a lack of dogma is Johnson’s strength, not a weakness

16 Sep

David Skelton is the author of The New Snobbery.

In October 1958, Harold Macmillan gave his second conference speech as Prime Minister and party leader. Here was a man at the peak of his political powers, who would a year later lead his Party to a thumping election win.

Rather unusually for a man of his verve and swagger, Supermac spent part of his speech talking about the nature of his political philosophy.

He differentiated Toryism from liberalism and Socialism with a characteristically fine turn of phrase. Macmillan argued that his opponents were living:

“…either in the past or in a world of make-believe. The pure doctrine of laissez-faire and absolute free trade; the nationalisation of all the means of production, distribution and exchange – these were the cries of my boyhood. What a musty period flavour they have now. How utterly out of touch all this is with the problems and opportunities of today.”

I was reminded of the great man’s speech during the debate that followed the government’s necessary steps to support the NHS and social care last week. One Telegraph columnist even complained that it represented the “total victory of Socialism in Britain” and a “trashing” of “intellectual traditions.” The truth, of course, is much the opposite.

Conservatism – always adapting to meet the challenges of the day

The unifying thread that runs through the entire Tory tradition is a belief that the Party has a patriotic duty to tackle the big issues facing the country today, rather than become trapped by a tight partisan dogma. The Conservatives are the most successful political party of the democratic age because of their ability to adjust to changing circumstances and changing times, just as their opponents become trapped in ideological straightjackets.

When one of the major challenges was the degrading social conditions faced in factories, Disraeli’s Government pushed a radical agenda of social reform. When the state had grown too large, unions too powerful, and business too weak, Margaret Thatcher’s Government set out to restore the balance.

Conservatives have always believed that rigid dogma is the folly of our opponents and that we should do what is necessary to maintain balance and tackle the major issues we face today. We should not pretend that the solutions to the problems of the 1970s are somehow replicable as we face the very different problems of today.

Conservatism isn’t libertarianism

Conservatism has never been a libertarian concept. There’s a good reason why Hayek, the icon of the libertarians, wrote an essay entitled ‘Why I Am Not A Conservative’. In it, he argues that conservatism and liberalism have often been opposites, as conservatism is based on a “fear of change” and liberalism is based on “a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.”

Conservatism can never just be a simplistic championing of the unfettered free market. For Tories other things, such as family, community, nation, and belonging, matter just as much as the market. As Robert Tombs set out in his masterpiece, The English and Their History, the reality of conservatism “is more complex, and more intriguing” than modern liberals would argue. According to Tombs:

“Tory beliefs – state intervention to defend the vulnerable.. Spending on welfare, rejection of deflationary economics – chime more with modern sentiments than those of the progressive Whigs.”

As Conservatives, we understand that the state often has a role to play in solving the difficult problems we face, as long as this is done in a balanced way that doesn’t diminish the role or importance of civil society, the market or families. Rab Butler was emphatic when he argued that, “Conservatives have always been ready to use the power of the state. That has been our tradition since Bolingbroke.”

Lord Hugh Cecil, in his important work on Conservatism, even suggested that modern “Conservatism inherits the traditions of Toryism which are favourable to the activity and authority of the state.”

Tackling today’s challenges

The major challenges that we face as a country today are not going to be solved by a simplistic, dogmatic mantra of “small state, low tax.” Social care, for one, is a policy dilemma that successive governments have dragged their feet over, so last week’s announcement that the government will be prioritising a lasting social care solution has to be welcomed.

Similarly, ‘levelling up’ – reviving the “post-industrial” towns that gave us an 80-seat majority – is not going to happen with a dogmatic attachment to a small state. Ambitious infrastructure projects and an industrial policy committed to reviving manufacturing represent the pragmatic solutions to the problems of the day.

Boris Johnson has always instinctively understood the importance of a balanced conservatism. When he was Mayor of London, he was, for a time, one of the only leading Tories who advocated a Living Wage and used his office to extend and support the concept. The Prime Minister has always seen the value of flagship and important infrastructure projects and this is reflected in the ambition that lies behind the Levelling Up agenda.

To return to Macmillan’s pithy summary of the political divide, Conservatives should neither be living “in the past or in a world of make believe.” Conservatives have always done what is right to tackle the challenges of the day, which sometimes involves utilising the power of the state.

Despite the cries of dogmatists on both left and right, simplistic sloganeering is no substitute for making the hard choices that come with governing.

The Thatcherites condemn Johnson. But it is to his advantage that he has no ideology

10 Sep

What cries of rage, anguish and betrayal Boris Johnson’s announcement of the social care levy has provoked from stern, unbending Thatcherites.

Never before has he come under such impassioned attack from the Right. Here is Allister Heath in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:

“Shame on Boris Johnson, and shame on the Conservative Party. They have disgraced themselves, lied to their voters, repudiated their principles and treated millions of their supporters with utter contempt.”

Heath went on to lament “the moral destruction of the Conservative Party” and “its rejection of Burke, Locke, Hayek, Friedman and Oakeshott”.

The Daily Telegraph today reports that Cabinet ministers face “wrath of party’s grassroots over tax hikes”. The Times says the Tory poll lead has vanished.

And here is Iain Martin in yesterday’s Times:

At this rate the Conservative Party might as well rename itself the Labour Party…this Government doesn’t understand wealth creation, enterprise or business.”

Johnson’s many critics on the Right are so busy convicting him that they have neither the time nor inclination to wonder whether, despite ignoring their prescriptions, he might in fact be a deeply Conservative figure.

They generally ignore the nation as it is and keep their eyes fixed on the nation as it ought to be, a Gladstonian or at least Thatcherite idyll where taxes are cut and money fructifies in the pockets of the people.

And they soon work round (as do Johnson’s critics on the Left) to hurling moral condemnations at him: this dreadful Prime Minister has lied to the voters, betrayed his party’s principles (or manifesto promises), and deserves to be cast out of public life.

Behind these anathemas can be glimpsed a naive idea of politics: first discover the one true set of principles, or ideology, then stick to it through thick and thin with unwavering honesty, while denouncing anyone who departs from it as a traitor.

This arrogant and intolerant mindset is more often found on the Left. English Conservatives used from earliest youth to be guarded against it:

“Above all, we were taught to despise and distrust all forms of utopianism, socialist liberal or any other. It was presumption to believe that there was some single principle or simple body of principles on which human society could be reconstructed and sheer wickedness to be prepared to use massive public force for the sake of imposing such principles. I vividly remember the venom with which Kenneth Pickthorn used to protest against the attempt of the Left to capture the [second world] war, to imply that we were fighting not for the defence of our country but for a whole variety of social and moral purposes which could not be achieved by war, which it would, in any case, be immoral to pursue by war and thoroughly repugnant to many who were fighting it.”

So wrote T.E.Utley (1921-88) in The Daily Telegraph on 9th February 1981 (reprinted in A Tory Seer: The Selected Journalism of T.E.Utley, edited by Charles Moore and Simon Heffer).

Utley remarked in the same piece on the emergence of the “new Right”, which included “a variety of converts from several types of Left-wing radicalism” who had “attached themselves to the bandwagons of Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan” and were “radical in the sense of wanting a total transformation of society”.

Johnson is obviously not a member of the new Right. His critics say he has no ideology, and in this at least they are correct.

What they fail to understand is that it is an advantage to have no ideology. Johnson has not allowed himself to be imprisoned in a straitjacket which would prevent him from adapting his ideas in the light of events in the outside world, and would instead oblige him to fit those events into a pre-existing structure, an endeavour which would soon lead to grotesque intellectual dishonesty, requiring as it does the denial of the world as it is.

On Tuesday 23rd July 2019, after his victory over Jeremy Hunt in the Conservative leadership election had been announced, Johnson said:

“no one party, no one person, has a monopoly of wisdom, but if you look at the history of the last 200 years of this party’s existence you will see that it is we Conservatives who have had the best insights, I think, into human nature and the best insights into how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart, and time and again it is to us that the people of this country have turned to get that balance right, between the instincts to own your own house, your own home, to earn and spend your own money, to look after your own family, good instincts, proper instincts, noble instincts, and the equally noble instinct to share and to give everyone a fair chance in life and to look after the poorest and the neediest and to build a great society.”

Ideologists will shudder at such language, for they suppose they have a monopoly of wisdom. How they despise a leader who merely sets out, in the light of history, to manage jostling sets of instincts.

What sort of a guide to action is that? It lacks the glorious certainty, simplicity and self-righteousness of ideological politics.

There is a kind of Thatcherite who believes that economic policy can be reduced to a few rules – cut spending, cut taxes, liberate enterprise – regardless of what else is going on.

Johnson sought to reassure such Thatcherites when he told Conservative MPs on Wednesday evening,

“We should never forget, after all we’ve been through, that we are the party of free enterprise, the private sector and low taxation.”

This assurance was greeted by his critics with ridicule. But in the real world, it is normal enough to have aspirations one can’t immediately fulfil.

The plan hammered out by Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid may or may not survive contact with reality, but the various problems they set out to tackle are so difficult that there is still a marked lack of alternative proposals.

I have a socialist friend who possesses a valuable house. How pale he turned on hearing a few years ago that Labour was contemplating the introduction of a mansion tax.

He informed me in a sombre tone that until this reckless plan had been abandoned, he could no longer vote Labour.

Fraser Nelson sets out, in his cover piece for this week’s Spectator, how Johnson has favoured the “assetocracy” over the working poor.

He reports in passing  that Johnson tried to persuade backbenchers that his plan “stands for something very conservative”, namely “the right to pass on money”.

Some will scoff at this, but Johnson has taken into account an important instinct. We want to be able to pass on our property to our children.

And if this is to be allowed, it is impossible to draw a satisfactory distinction between the deserving and the undeserving rich.

The former may have created jobs and wealth by setting up new businesses, while the latter may have done nothing except sit tight in houses which have become absurdly valuable.

In order to incentivise the former, it is necessary also to allow the latter to pass on their wealth.

When the dust has settled, it is more than possible that Johnson’s recognition of the hereditary principle will bring about a reaction in his favour.