Saturday, August 14, 2010

Myths of Toryism and class society

Following on from a theme in The Meaning of David Cameron on the myth of conservatism as a pragmatic, traditionalist ideology (also see this and this):

"[T]he Conservative Party has held a steady commitment to the principle of ‘inequality’. Often this does not appear like an ideological commitment at all since there has been a varying degree of inequality present in British society – in terms of social stratifi cation and income and wealth distribution – since 1945. Therefore what could be seen as an objective of the Conservative Party has often been interpreted as pragmatism, the maintenance of the status quo or a rebuttal of the Labour Party’s (at times shaky) commitment to greater equality. However ... there has been a principled defence of inequality by the Conservative Party. This has taken various forms, from theological or ‘natural’ arguments for inequality to an argument that individual freedom and social and economic equality are incompatible objectives. Therefore, the Conservative Party has sought at different times and in different ways since 1945 to limit the impact of egalitarian policies or even to reverse them.

"One further point should be made at this point which is that if we see the Conservative Party as having a central commitment to inequality, that Conservative politics is about inequality, then it would be possible to see a greater degree of continuity in Conservative Party politics since 1945 than is often asserted. What would appear to be the very different stances taken by ‘One Nation’ and ‘New Right’ Conservatives towards economic and social policy broadly could in fact be similar in that they both have a commitment to ‘inequality’.


"Several Conservative politicians have described the non-ideological nature of their Party’s politics. ... This emphasis on pragmatism has led to a concern with power. This view has been stated by Francis Pym: ‘by combining a strong motive for unity with a fi rm refusal to let ideology threaten it … the Conservative Party has a strong instinct for power’. The most sophisticated statement of this approach has been made by Michael Oakeshott, who characterised Conservative politics as being ‘anti-rationalist’. Rationalism was an ideologically based politics. It was a politics based on an abstract concept such as equality or liberty. Instead, Oakeshott argued that since this approach was not capable of capturing the full complexity of the organic society and could not be understood outside of the tradition in which these ideas were formulated a more desirable approach to politics would be one rooted within a recognisable tradition, which would entail operating within national identities. Such an approach has led to a distinction between ‘ideological’ politics and ‘realist’ politics.


"[K]ey figures within the ‘One Nation’ approach to Conservatism were united in their opposition of equality as a political principle. They remained committed to hierarchical social and economic structures and saw ‘equality’ as something to which the Labour Party were committed. Hence, although it may be possible to see a broad-based consensus of policy after 1951, with the Conservatives accepting much of what the previous Labour administration had done, there remained no ideological consensus with the idea of ‘equality’ showing a fundamental dividing line between the two major parties. Hence, while the Labour Party ‘revisionists’ such as Hugh Gaitskell and Tony Crosland were busy arguing that socialism was about equality, several of those seen as being on the ‘left’ of the Conservative Party were rejecting the idea of equality as being fundamentally against the principles of Conservatism. Hence David Clark, a leading member of the post-war Research Department and a key ‘moderniser’ along ‘One Nation’ lines, argued that inequality was natural: ‘inequality of natural ability results in class. Some men will always rise superior to others. In a group of men pursuing common purpose, whether it be a nation or a family, a factory or a farm, there must always be those who exercise authority and those who obey.’ For post-war Conservatives therefore there was to be an acceptance of the state, much enlarged during the Second World War and by the Labour Government of 1945–51, but an explicit rejection of ‘equality’. This can be seen in the stance taken on policy by leading Conservative thinkers, so for example, Hogg made a categorical distinction between poverty and inequality much similar to those associated with the New Right during the 1970s and argued that equality should not be a factor in education reform, where Hogg defended both public schools and grammar schools.

"A similar stance towards equality can be seen in the writing of a later prominent Conservative ‘One Nation’ thinker, Ian Gilmour. Gilmour argued that a belief in inequality is a core tenet of Conservatism. He argues that since a basic Conservative belief is freedom and since equality is a threat to freedom then Conservatives must reject equality. Equality is an ideological abstraction and since it lacks precise meaning must be something which is arbitrarily imposed. Although Gilmour sees the elimination of poverty as a Conservative objective, equality is dismissed as something which is the concern of socialists. Gilmour also sees inequality as desirable and natural as an underpinning for the family and for economic activity. There is much in Gilmour’s view of equality that could be found in a traditionalist or New Right approach, although he would be accepting of much greater government involvement in the economy and society. Similarly, contemporary politicians who hold to the ‘One Nation’ position reject the idea of equality. For example, Alistair Burt argues that Conservative politics is concerned with freedom, markets, enterprise and choice, and so even those on the ‘left’ of the Party do not commit themselves to the value of equality.


The more populist approach also sees the need to defend economic and social inequalities explicitly. In so doing, the traditionalist approach uses all political arguments available to defend such inequalities. So Powell and the so-called Peterhouse Group associated with Maurice Cowling, John Casey and Edward Norman, drew on the neo-liberal arguments of Friedrich von Hayek in order to defend inequalities. This led to them being described as a ‘Conservative New Right’ since they combined traditionalist approaches with economic liberalism. ... This points to a further element of traditionalist Toryism, which is the ‘anti-rationalist’ nature of politics. Politics based on abstract principles should be rejected in favour of a politics derived from and respectful of political traditions. There were anti-rationalist arguments put forward in favour of English national identity, as seen in the anti-immigration
stances adopted during the 1960s and respect for traditional political institutions as seen in Powell’s rejection of House of Lords reform. For some this marked a major distinction between traditional Toryism and the politics of the New Right, which was seen as being based on abstract (liberal) principles.

"...Inequalities are not just sought by those who would ‘benefit from inequalities of wealth, rank and education but also by enormous numbers who, while not partaking in the benefi ts, recognise that inequalities exist and, in some obscure sense, assume that they ought to’. They assume that they ought to because ‘they are accustomed to inequalities, inequalities are things they associate with a properly functioning society and they do not need an ideological proclamation in order to accept them’. It was this appeal to custom, ‘common sense’ and natural order that should be at the heart of the Conservative appeal in its defence of inequality. Inequality and privilege did not need to be based on abstract principles and could not be refuted by rational politics since they were the natural way of things." (Kevin Hickson, 'Inequality', in Kevin Hickson ed., The Political Thought of the Conservative Party since 1945, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)