FLC068, Return to Sanity? More on the Tory Recovery, 2nd July 2002

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment

published on the Internet
Issue Number 68
2nd July 2002

Return to Sanity?
More on the Tory Recovery
by Sean Gabb

Last night, Oliver Letwin, who is the Conservative home affairs spokesman, gave a lecture to the Adam Smith Institute in central London. I went along to it reluctantly, only there because I had promised to accompany one of my students and to introduce him to a few people. I had in my mind the recollection of a speech given there, I think in 2000, by Francis Maude. This had been a performance of mind-rotting dullness—an hour of weasily posturing, read in a monotone and with no questions allowed from the audience. This, however, was a performance of an entirely different kind. For sincerity and originality of thinking, and for its radical challenge to the consensus, there has been nothing like this from a Conservative politician since the great days of the 1970s. I have said some cutting things about Dr Letwin. Having paid close attention to him for an hour last night, I now believe that I have misjudged him. If this is not part of a Conservative recovery, I have learnt nothing from the past 25 years of fringe political activity.

Before moving to a proper analysis, though, let me repeat as much as I can recall of his lecture. He began with a defence of Margaret Thatcher's alleged claim in 1988 that there was "no such thing as society". This was misrepresented—probably knowingly —by the left as a statement of atomistic individualism. In fact, it was an attack on the habit of ascribing moral agency to an abstract noun. There was no such thing as Society, she said—there were simply individuals and families, and these were the real agents of moral responsibility and the real source of strength or weakness in a nation. Given this limitation, Dr Letwin explained, conservatives do believe that society exists. What makes it so hard for non-conservatives to understand this belief is that when conservatives talk about society, they do not mean—as does New Labour—the State, but the millions of individuals in a nation and the complex web of customs and institutions that bind each individual to the others.

The State, he continued, has a role. But this is to support the institutions of society, not to manage or to try to replace them. Here is the new threat, he said. Before 1979, governments had tried to replace the complexity of the market, and had brought the country close to economic ruin. The Conservative reforms of the next 18 years did much to restore the self-correcting harmony of the market. New Labour has accepted most of these reforms, and has avoided the cruder interventions of the past. But it is still crudely interventionist in its social policies, believing that central control is better than self-determination. The Conservative task now, he said, is to produce a new consensus on social policy that supplements the consensus on economic policy produced by Margaret Thatcher. This Conservative thinking on society can be explained in terms of four propositions familiar from environmental science. These are:

1. The real world is irreducibly complex. Illustrating this, Dr Letwin took scientific arrogance about genetic research. Scientists have identified 30,000 genes in the human body. This is a very large number. But the number is indefinitely magnified by the complex interactions between these genes. It does not seem to be true, as some claim, that each gene has one function, and can be modified to change only that one function. Any one change may bring an unpredictable number of changes in other functions. So it is with society. There are 60 million people in this country, and the interactions between these people are immensely complex. Just as we have legitimate worries about genetic engineering, should we not still more worry about the effects of social engineering?

2. Simplistic targets can be exceptionally destructive. The illustration here was the "Great Leap Forward" imposed by the Chinese Communists in the late 1950s. They noticed that the rice harvest was being reduced by the predations of sparrows. So they announced targets for the eradication of sparrows from China. Over the next year, millions were killed. The immediate result was a larger rice harvest. The Communists had not noticed, however, that sparrows ate insects as well as rice. Without the sparrows, the insects multiplied without limit, and the next rice harvest was eaten by great clouds of locusts. New Labour targets are not so destructive, but have, even so, caused deaths. He gave the example of the waiting list targets in the National Health Service, where an obsession with reducing overall waiting times for treatment had led to an emphasis on treating simple complaints at the expense of the more difficult.

3. Crude intervention damages natural regeneration. A society, like any other organic structure, is a self-sustaining web of interactions. Intervene, and the balance may be destroyed. My recollection here is uncertain, but I think the illustration was welfare policies that destroy family structures and communities, thereby turning individuals into despairing clients of a distant and uncaring state.

4. Natural systems are able to absorb limited disruption, then degrade irreversibly. They can take many interventions without apparent damage to the whole. Eventually, however, there is a "tipping point", where just a few more—apparently unexceptional—interventions bring about a general collapse. The illustration here was soil erosion in the Amazon basin—where cutting down forests had created giant deserts.

These, said Dr Letwin, are a summary of Conservative thinking on social issues. He was not willing to talk about specific policies. These would be developed over the next few months and years, and would be announced when the details were able to stand hostile analysis and attack. But, when announced, they would be clearly based on the principles just outlined. They would require a dismantling of "one-dimensional interventions by big government". They would enable the recreation of "self-sustaining relationships within communities". They would be about decentralisation, about trusting the judgement of individuals and local communities. The State would be there, but would not try to be omnipresent and omnicompetent.

I hope the full text of the lecture will be published on the Internet. My own summary, though fairly accurate, is a very dim reflection of the most sophisticated and clever performance I have heard from any politician, with only the possible exception of Enoch Powell. There are two reasons that make it so important.

First, there is the content. The Conservative Party spent the whole of the last Parliament waiting for Labour to start copying the economic policies of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. This done, the economy would collapse, and the Conservatives could come back having learnt and forgotten nothing from their previous time in government, and without having to make any policy commitments. The strategy failed. In economic issues, Labour has been broadly competent. On those issues where it has most obviously failed—social and legal and constitutional—the Conservatives spent four years saying nothing of any interest. This failure is now being addressed. Of course, I would like to see a fully detailed manifesto. But this is not something to be pulled out of a hat. The William Hague approach of making up policy on the spur of the moment—without principled thought or even political coordination—has been abandoned. In its place, we have a slow but perhaps steady advance.

Second, there is the manner of presentation. What Dr Letwin said last night was pure English conservatism. There was nothing that would have raised objections from Burke or Hayek or Enoch Powell. But it was all dressed in the language of environmentalism and communitarianism. There are two ways to challenge a consensus. One is to reject both it and its language, and to put something else in its place. The other is to adopt its language and turn it against the consensus. The first, I confess, is my own preferred approach. However, we are dealing with an enormously powerful consensus that will not easily be beaten down by a frontal attack. This approach could take years, and we probably do not have years. Certainly, the approach is worth trying, but the other is not thereby ruled out if others want to try it. Assimilating the language of the consensus involves a certain risk. In unskilled hands, it can simply amount to accepting all the assumptions of an opponent, and then arguing over the details. The result is a set of compromises each one of which is a further surrender. In skilled hands, though, it can bring about large changes of opinion. It can confuse opponents by turning their own principles against them. It can even convert opponents by persuading them that the applications of principle for which they have been arguing are not the right ones.

Now, Dr Letwin does not seem unskilled. Much environmentalism strikes me as nothing more than a dislike of modern civilisation dressed in the language of bad science. Equally, much communitarianism strikes me as socialism in camouflage. But some of it is about preferring evolved, self-sustaining orders to orders imposed from outside. What was said last night will not just be reported in the plodding, ever-faithful Daily Telegraph. It will also have to be discussed in The Independent or even in The Guardian.

What I will also say about Dr Letwin is how impressed I was by his apparent sincerity. For years, I have been listening to politicians as they read their speeches from an autocue. The speeches have been written by others, and all content has been carefully drained from them, leaving a more or less connected set of sound bites when can then be explained through unattributed and often inconsistent media briefings. What I heard last night was a real speech—the sort of thing I last heard from Conservatives in the early 1980s, or from Labour before the rise of Tony Blair. Dr Letwin made a statement of principle, and then answered questions from the audience. It is not necessary that I should be happy with all that he said. For instance, he opposed the legalisation of drugs during the question and answer session. I think his grounds for doing so were silly. But, again, he plainly believed what he was saying. In an age when drug legalisation is being urged by judges and police chiefs, and when increasing numbers of ordinary people no longer believe in prohibition, it would have been easy to work the usual political trick of giving five minutes to saying nothing at all. Instead, he said what he thought. He seems, by the way, always to have thought this. In 1990, I asked him at some Conservative youth gathering what he thought about drug legalisation, and he raised a big laugh against me by accusing me of wanting to "make England into one vast Malay opium den". I mention this not with any bitterness—twelve years is a long time – but only to show his consistency even in being wrong.

So, the Conservatives are on the road to recovery, and the recovery is of a kind that will be more friendly to liberty than Labour has been—or than the last Conservative government was: I will not more than mention that most of what Dr Letwin said about New Labour's centralising mania also applies to the Thatcher and Major governments. This recovery is to be welcomed. The only problem I now face is what to do next. I have made myself moderately famous over the past ten years by denouncing the Conservative Party and all its works. The Candidlist was only the most successful of my efforts. That phase of my career may now be over—though do note the "may" in my statement: anything can happen between now and the next election—and I shall need to think what else to do. Doubtless, I shall find something. In any event, I would not be unhappy if I were to become a redundant critic.

© 2002 – 2017, seangabb.

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