According to a soubriquet originally awarded by John Stuart Mill, but which has stuck, the British Conservative Party is “the stupid party”. Conservatives have themselves often invoked their anti-intellectualism with pride. Edmund Burke, the great 18th century Tory and the founding father of conservatism, who stood for the wisdom of unspoken tradition against rationalism and ideology which he associated with the dangers of revolution, lauded precisely the conservative’s aversion to thought when he praised the rights of the silent (and stupid) majority over the annoying chatter of the intellectual classes. He even likened the former to cows:
Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make a field ring with their importunate chink, while thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course they are many in number; or that they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.
In the last three decades, however, the Conservative Party in Britain has abandoned its traditional aversion to ideology. Under Margaret Thatcher, it embraced it wholeheartedly, becoming not only an ideological party but also a revolutionary one. The ideology went by the name of “free trade” and “the Thatcher revolution” involved mainly the privatisation of state assets.
These ideologies have long since become degraded into mere shibboleths for the Tories – i.e. words which members of a tribe must pronounce to demonstrate that they belong to it. This has had a devastating effect on the Tories’ ability to behave with common sense, and it led directly to the public perception of them as elitist, corrupt and out of touch. It is only because the memory of the Conservative years has faded and been replaced by similar perceptions of Labour that the Tories are now high in the polls.
Even under Thatcher herself, the basically laudable attachment to free trade quickly declined into mere support for huge corporations, especially banks: as Jacques Sapir rightly points out in Le nouveau XXIe siècle, companies are in fact command structures dedicated to capturing market share: they are, in fact, anti-markets themselves. People sense this and therefore resent political cosiness to big companies which precisely squeeze out the little man as much as powerful states do. The absurdities of the Conservative position have still not really become clear to the party’s leaders, for although the party has started to make some anti-capitalist noises, its leaders are even now joining the Labour government and the Republican administration in the US in its calls for a state bail-out of their rich banker friends.
The effect of the Thatcherite ideology on the political culture of the Tory party can hardly been overstated. It gave Conservatives for the first time the ability to seem progressive rather than reactionary, modern rather than old-fashioned, liberal rather than conservative. This is why it was and remains so intoxicating for them: most of them do not, in fact, regard themselves as conservatives at all.
As a result, it was with some scepticism that I approached The Plan, Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell’s new book on “localism”. Localism is their name for their doctrine that the powers of the centralised state should be unbundled and devolved to local communities themselves subjected to proper democratic control. It involves the election of police sheriffs, independence for state schools, a system of savings accounts to replace the current state-funded National Health Service, and a broad repeal of numerous legislative acts which have created what the authors rightly call “the quango state” (a state in which life is widely regulated by unelected bodies created for the purpose).
My scepticism derived from two sources. First, I sensed that they wanted to find a replacement for that “free trade” ideology which at first so invigorated the Tories for years before stultifying their brains, and which first brought them the fruits of power before condemning them to a decade in opposition. Second, I think that there are serious difficulties associated with greater democratisation in a state where the demos itself may well not have the requisite level of political culture. I know from first-hand experience how active the Swiss are in attending public meetings about matters of topical importance. Can one imagine the same thing in Britain? More to the point, is there a danger that more democracy will simply lead to more socialism: in the London Borough of Hammersmith, for instance, the Tories managed to win control of the Council only by promising all those living in council houses that they would get new kitchens. People who live off the state are so numerous that their votes are decisive. Is it any coincidence that the age of universal suffrage, the twentieth century, is also the age of socialism? Should we consider restricting the right to vote to those who produce something for society, whether by working or bringing up children, and not awarding it to people who live off the state?
Having read the book, I have to say that my scepticism was misplaced. It is a superb work. Exquisitely written in that lucid style which comes only when people’s ideas are themselves very clear, the book is a bracing and exciting read. I was definitely carried away by the optimism of the two authors (who, incidentally, are good friends of mine). They are right about the need for radical reform of local government in Britain (currently one of the worst in the world); their suggestions for reform of the health service are excellent and plausible; their plans for reform of the school system are eminently sensible (even very socialist countries like France have much more freedom of choice, and far better service, in their health and education systems, than Britain does); and of course they are a thousand times right about the need for Britain to disentangle herself from the European Union. The widespread use of statutory instruments to pass laws is an outrage, while the centralisation of social benefit and other key state functions in the hands of a Parliament which is in fact directly controlled by the government is corrupt and disgraceful.
One has a sense, when reading the book, of that old Irish joke about the man who asks the way to Dublin and is told, “If I were you, I would not start from here.” The defects of the current British state are so enormous that one certainly does not want to start from here. But it is precisely the merit of this book that it does lay out a plan for getting from here to there, and the key lies in constitutional reform. As a natural pessimist, I am not sure that it will work; but if, as I assume the authors hope, their creed becomes adopted by their political party, and if they therefore become prophets of a new political order in Britain, then I think that the change, for once, can only be for the better. They are to be warmly congratulated on a political manifesto which can only be described as brilliant.
The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, by Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, available from www.lulu.com ID 3704883