Post-Modern Traditionalism: The Real Conservative Future
Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, is showing uncharacteristic interest in Tory politics. For the retired radical, author of a book called Godless Morality, is impressed by Peter Lilley's call for legalised cannabis. He sees the ex-Cabinet Minister's stance less as an isolated but courageous gesture and more as the harbinger of future change. 'I think it is definitely a good sign' the Bishop told a Guardian journalist. 'I wonder if the Tories are not actually trying to develop a very socially reformist agenda that might include things like the legalising of gay unions. They might try to steal some of the traditional areas of the liberal agenda in the way that Labour stole the economic fire. It would be a seismic change. Can you imagine Lord Tebbit? He would go into orbit?'
And well he might. Only five years ago, such speculations would have seemed as surreal as a Martian's postcard home from Party Conference. Even last year, they might have implied an unusual view of reality. But since the momentous defeat of 1997, the idea of a 'socially liberal' agenda, to augment the economic liberalism of the past twenty years, has become a recurring theme of Tory politics. To become a modern party, it is argued, the Conservatives should be 'inclusive'. They should 'reach out' to 'groups' that have been 'alienated': ethnic minorities, single mothers, homosexuals and pot smokers.
In harsh, almost apocalyptic tones, Tories are warned to become 'softer', to give more time to 'women's issues', less to boring economics or backward-looking nationalism. Conservative candidates must 'reflect diversity' or 'look like multicultural Britain'. Every minority interest should be catered for, apart from follicularly challenged males. Local choice and historic independence are out. 'Gender balance' is in - although it sounds more like a bungled operation in Casablanca than a political device for twenty-first century Britain. The Communists had Democratic Centralism. New Conservatives have its equivalent: Compulsory Niceness. Not surprisingly, a second General Election defeat has induced still more soul searching. It has boosted the Terminally Nice Tendency to an extent that only the most curmudgeonly of party members dare oppose it. Yet 'social liberalism' divides Conservatives at least as much as anything to do with Europe.
Compulsory Niceness is easy to mock. However the social liberals are thoughtful, articulate men and women, many of whose criticisms of the party are accurate enough. As a party, and a philosophy, Conservatism has over the past generation grown more intolerant, more boorish and ever more doctrinaire. The spirit of practical reform and latitudinarian tolerance that once pervaded Tory politics is almost absent from current party thinking. The party lacks an appealing programme, but has acquired a most unappealing psychological state of aggression-submission: aggression towards the poor and the vulnerable, submission towards corporate power. The social liberals have done the party a service by telling some valuable home truths, to which aspiring MPs and activists would do well to listen. Their diagnosis of the Conservative Party's problems is a good one. More's the pity, therefore, that the cure they recommend is sheer hocus-pocus.
Here Bishop Holloway's intervention is indeed ironic. More than most men in public life today, he embodies the dangers of social liberalism. Until 2000, Holloway was primus of the Episcopal Church, the North British branch of the Church of England. Within the Anglican Communion, he was a tireless (and many would say tiresome) advocate of 'modernisation'. This meant adapting to social trends at all theological costs, embracing fashionable political campaigns and placing a superficial relevance before consistency, continuity and trusted tradition. The main effect of this form of 'liberalism' has been to empty the pews. In becoming Political Correctness at Prayer, instead of the Tory Party at Prayer, the Church is disestablishing itself without any help from secularists. For in their desperate desire to be liked, the liberal clergy please nobody, least of all those 'oppressed groups' they cultivate. Homosexuals, it transpires, prefer Anglo-Catholic ritual to happy-clappy 'lesbian and gay outreach' groups. Ethnic minorities prefer exuberant charismatic certainties to recycled Third World Marxism, from which more than a few came to Britain to escape. Women fiercely defend the all-male priesthood. Young people stubbornly stay away, but when they hear the Book of Common Prayer, exclaim: 'Why can't we have this instead of that modern rubbish?'
For the Conservative Party in its present form, the Church of England offers a useful warning. The dilution of core values, the pandering to raucously intolerant pressure groups and the spread of patronising folksiness have between them driven away loyal worshippers, without attracting enough new recruits to compensate. When it made social liberalism an article of faith, the Church was grappling with the rise of agnosticism. Its moral vacillations, however, merely hastened that process, fuelling public distrust and cynicism about organised religion. The decline of Anglicanism has wider implications for British society, especially for those who still write 'C of E' on forms although they rarely if ever worship. A layer of moderate, humane religious practice that protected us against fanatics and bigots is being steadily removed. The resulting spiritual vacuum is quickly being filled by fundamentalists, Muslim as well as Christian, and by a plethora of cults, which are mostly as avaricious as they are unsound. Moreover, clerical political correctness is so widely despised as a retreat from principle that any stand by the Church against crass materialism - or real social injustice - is weakened from the word go.
Here, the parallels between the oldest political party and the Established Church become alarming. Over the last four years, the rudderless nature of the party, its public discord and its muttering retreats from policy have alienated many a loyal Tory foot soldier. Those who are conservative by instinct - small 'c' conservatives - form the majority of the electorate, or the plurality at the very least. Most of them, the younger ones especially, no longer see the Conservatives as 'their' party. For just as clerical modernism has diluted the Church's constitutional and spiritual role, so trendy 'liberal' experiments undermine the party and destroy its whole raison d'etre.
The historic strengths of the Conservative Party have been its moderation, its absence of dogma and its support for practical reform, but on a case-by-case basis instead of an ideological vision of the future. Conservatism is about finding 'what works' and making it work better. It is about working with, rather than against, the grain of society and human nature, recognising imperfection and where necessary admitting to being wrong. By dancing with dogma in economics, and flirting with faddishness in culture, the Conservative Party has failed for a generation properly to discharge its functions. It has failed both to conserve good traditions of public service and to act as a humanising force in politics, tasks that its natural supporters look to it to carry out. In this context, it no longer seems absurd that small 'c' conservatives should seek in New Labour a revival of One Nation Toryism. The Conservative Party's increasing dogmatism and growing estrangement from natural supporters have contributed to a more general retreat from politics. They have, in effect, helped 'stir up apathy'. The rhetoric of social liberalism fails to convince the chattering classes, but at same time cuts off a whole tranche of traditional right wing support, especially amongst the working-class. Against his or her better instincts, this type of disillusioned Tory voter is vulnerable to the lure of the Far Right, the political equivalent of religious fundamentalists. Likewise, harsh economic policies tempt moderate and largely middle class Conservatives towards the Liberal Democrats, a party with increasingly cult-like characteristics.
In certain respects, the social liberals' critique of modern Conservatism stands up well. The party is failing both to connect with its instinctive supporters and address the needs of a complex, varied and increasingly diverse nation. However, the agenda of social liberalism fails equally to meet that challenge. The paradox of the new social liberalism is that it is not really 'liberal' at all. Although it sometimes sets out with liberal intentions, it quickly hardens into a rigid political correctness that rides roughshod over individual differences and feelings. This is because the social liberal's starting point is not the individual, and nor is it individual freedom under the rule of law. Instead, it is a sub-Marxist vision of conflict, whereby there is no such thing as 'society', but only a series of conflicting groups, competing for 'rights' conferred by the state. Members of these groups are not autonomous individuals who make their own choices, but mere ciphers, whose needs are defined for them by activists and enforced by a growing army of bureaucrats.
In practice, social liberalism takes power away from people. Like all-group based ideologies, it favours certain groups whilst casting others as villains. This is why social liberals, for all their talk of freedom, are quite ready to erect structures of collective punishment for some sections of the population (usually male and 'white') and collective elevation for others (usually female and 'non-white'). The practices of social liberals are themselves based on institutionalised prejudice. It is, after all, thoroughly 'racist' to suppose that a European man or woman born in the 1960s is responsible for past racial iniquities. It is 'sexist', surely, to seek 'more women' representatives if a candidate of ability and integrity is held back because he is cursed with a 'y' chromosome. These problems arise because social liberals tend not to think of 'whites' and 'ethnic minorities', or men and women, as real individuals, preferring to lump them together as categories. This is expressed in the politically correct theory of representation, by which female MPs are deemed to 'represent women', black MPs to speak for 'ethnic groups' and militant homosexuals for 'gay people'. In a grossly patronising way, this circumscribes the role of women and ethnic minorities in politics, as well as exerting on homosexuals an oppressive moral pressure to 'come out'. Curiously, it also bears a striking resemblance to the theories of representation by race and group that characterised Apartheid and the Italian 'Corporate State' between the wars. Furthermore, the 'diversity' for which social liberals plead turns out not to be diversity at all, but soul-destroying conformity. Already, the pressure for social liberalism within the Conservative Party has brought forth a cadre of scripted minorities and women supplied by Central Casting. They speak in platitudes and cliches worthy of Labour at its darkest hour.
E.M. Forster once famously quipped that the English do not understand human nature. He was referring to puritan attitudes to sex that still prevailed in his day. Social liberals, whose zeal for reform is reminiscent of Puritanism, fail similarly to understand how people really behave. They are, therefore, just as baffled as clerical modernists by the reactions of those they seek to emancipate. During the last General Election campaign, a friend who was canvassing for the Conservatives in the Midlands used the phrase 'Afro-Caribbean community'. 'Don't talk such bloody rubbish, man,' a young chap of Jamaican origin shot back. He regarded the 'Afro-Caribbean community' as merely another white imperialist stereotype of his people. A good number of women express a preference for male over female candidates. Some voice an open distaste for feminism. Others are 'equity feminists' instead of 'gender feminists' , that is to say they believe in fairness and opportunity for women (and men), but reject the divisive stereotypes of sexual politics. Of all socially liberal propositions, the most absurd is the idea that male and female homosexuals are somehow allied. The notion of a 'lesbian and gay community' (always in that order to be politically correct) makes as much sense as a cookery club for cannibals and vegans, merely because neither of them are conventional meat-eaters.
Social liberalism, therefore, quickly translates into a system that oppresses and patronises. It produces a narrow 'identity politics' that places the group before the individual. Social liberals have little tolerance of opposition, whether from members of favoured groups or those they blame for historic wrongs. Their Pharisaic obsession with laws and structures makes them unable to respond flexibly to human needs. Ironically, the strongest advocates of identity politics for ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“oppressed groupsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ tend to be white, male and heterosexual ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ the categories least favoured by the politically correct. This arises partly out of misplaced guilt, much of which is really crocodile tears. It also arises, ironically, through ignorance and prejudice. Who but a white, heterosexual male, after all, could be simple enough to suppose that all black people think the same, that 'gay men' should want to have anything to do with lesbians, or that all women relish the sound of glass ceilings shattering?
The socially liberal agenda takes too little account of human diversity and so becomes an authoritarian pseudo-liberalism. In this, it matches well the liberal - or neo-liberal economics - to which Conservatives of late have shown an unnatural affection. The dogma of 'market forces' is as rigid and inflexible as the state socialist dogma it supplanted. Economic liberalism is a largely unreconstructed nineteenth century ideology, like Marxism, that views the individual as a unit of production and consumption more than a living, breathing being. Like Marxists, economic liberals adopt a deterministic view of history. They believe that society evolves in a straight line of inevitable 'progress', away from backward customs and traditions, which 'inhibit wealth creation', towards more rational laws and institutions, and greater prosperity as measured by material possessions, instead of a rich inner life or a thriving culture.
In its attacks on tradition, its zealous secularism and its quest for 'level playing field' uniformity, the liberal economic agenda complements the political correctness of social liberalism. Much as social liberalism divides the population arbitrarily into groups, without reference to the way people really identify themselves, economic liberalism sees 'marketing niches' before real nations, real communities and real people. Social liberalism produces authoritarian bureaucracies. Economic liberalism stifles the competition and variety it claims to foster, because it permits the rise of corporate monopolies as restrictive of choice as the worst of all nationalised concerns. Under economic liberalism, small businesses and family farms go the wall, regions are impoverished and insecurity becomes a permanent feature of working life. Despite their professed rationalism, economic liberals are strangely superstitious, professing blind faith in the 'Hidden Hand' that guides all things. This is why George Soros, who knows rather a lot about free enterprise, refers to economic liberal ideology as 'market fundamentalism' and believes that it now threatens human well-being.
Liberalism, economic and social, is a flawed, mechanistic doctrine, as self-defeating as it is spiritually barren. In its simplicities, its generalisations about human behaviour and how society works, it is also outdated - far more outdated than the traditionalism associated with conservatives. The impact of green politics has taught our 'post-modern' generation to think about the limits of 'progressive' doctrines and the destructive consequences of unbridled economic growth for humanity and the planet. This ecological approach values cultural diversity as much as it values biodiversity. It acknowledges the importance of history and tradition in shaping the character of individuals and the communities in which they live. Ecologists adopt an organic, as opposed to a structural, view of human society, regarding it as a complex organism, all of whose parts are crucial. This holistic view of society is supported by recent scientific developments, which challenge old-fashioned, materialistic 'rationalism'. Amongst other things, the insights of psychology and neurology are showing us that differences between the sexes are biological after all, not 'socially conditioned' as liberals would have us believe. To both women and men, these differences are vital: they confirm, rather than undermine, the equal value of both. Physicists, too, affirm that mechanistic explanations will no longer suffice. Increasingly, they study the nature religions of indigenous peoples - systems of belief dismissed as 'primitive' by generations of liberals.
These insights all challenge the assumptions of liberal ideology. At the same time, they reinforce the conservative world-view. The greatest strengths of conservative thought are found in a flexible, non-dogmatic approach that looks at problems on an individual basis, rather than attempting to impose the 'one size fits all' solutions of liberals and socialists. This means that a range of issues, including decriminalising cannabis and recognising same-sex relationships, can be considered on their own merits, instead of being reduced to ideological totems. To conservatives, change should take place with reference to local conditions and historical circumstances: awareness of the past should inform our judgements about the future. In keeping with their organic view of politics, conservatives distrust over-sized institutions that lack strong cultural roots, preferring those that have evolved from 'below' rather than been imposed from above. They favour local over centralised approaches to economic and social questions. They value the individual and oppose attempts to impose on him or her unwanted or inhumane ideologies.
Conservatism is better equipped than liberalism to address the problems and paradoxes of the post-modern world. The growing tyranny of globalisation, with its threat of economic and cultural homogeneity, requires a conservative response. This would champion genuine free trade against bullying transnational monopolies, defend the nation-state against moves towards 'liberal' world government and emphasise historic personal liberties over abstract, collective 'rights'. It would be for the localisation - as opposed to globalisation - of economics and politics, promoting fairness and choice for the individual instead of a bureaucratic, group-based egalitarianism. The 'conserving' aspect of conservatism might find expression, also, in protecting and cherishing local environments and resources, placing quality of life before the mania for growth.
If there is to be a new Conservative century, outmoded liberal influences must be forgotten. One Nation Tories should start thinking of themselves as Post-Modern Traditionalists and frame their policies accordingly.
Aidan Rankin's book, The Politics of the Forked Tongue: Authoritarian Liberalism, will be published by New European Publications in 2002.
THE POLITICS OF THE FORKED TONGUE
Over the past thirty years, a shift has taken place in liberal thought and practice - from a belief in individual freedom to the enforcement of 'group rights'. The new form of authoritarian liberalism that results is forked-tongued because it uses the language of freedom whilst seeking to extend control over people's lives. Central to this process is the rise of pressure groups that make exaggerated claims to represent oppressed groups. Thus feminists claim to speak for all women, 'anti-racist' campaigners for all ethnic minorities and gay rights groups for all homosexuals. Such activists are especially intolerant of members of 'their' groups who dare to challenge their authority. The result is an increasingly uncivil society, balkanised along lines of gender and sexual orientation as well as ethnicity. Group rights have become a bureaucratic industry that claims to be fighting prejudice but has an interest in keeping it alive.
In The Politics of the Forked Tongue, Aidan Rankin traces the rise of authoritarian liberalism to the decline of socialist economics and the left's compensatory obsession with cultural issues, especially race and sex. However he also finds surprising connections between group rights ideology and the development of free-market fundamentalism that undermines tradition and custom because there is 'no such thing as society'. Political Correctness and globalised capitalism are not opposite ends of the spectrum, he concludes, but two sides of the same coin.
Aidan Rankin is Deputy Editor of New European. He is a graduate in Modern History from Oxford University and holds a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economics, where he has lectured in the Department of Government and worked as Research Officer for the LSE Argentina Programme. Rankin has contributed to five previous books and produced policy papers for New Europe and the Bow Group. His articles have appeared in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Statesman, The Spectator and The Ecologist. He lives in London and the Yorkshire Dales.
'Rankin's conclusions might be controversial, but they raise important, unsettling questions about the nature of liberal democracy and how idealistic movements can take wrong turnings.'
Diana Schumacher, The Schumacher Society
'The definitive study of a new threat to individual liberty and freedom of thought; far more insidious than previous threats because it is presented under the false banner of liberalism.'
Michael Gove, Assistant Editor, The Times
'Rankin cuts through with razor-sharp clarity the dishonest cant we call 'political correctness'. He provides a defence of freedom and tolerance that is both welcome and overdue.'
Zac Goldsmith, Editor, The Ecologist