Tuesday, 13 October 2009

You may have to admit it to yourself...

How many of these propositions do you agree with?

1. Generally speaking, people should be left to live their lives how they wish.

2. Continuities and traditions should be approached with respect and humility.

3. History is deserving of careful study for its own sake.

4. It's right to be sceptical about human nature as mankind is frail and imperfect.

5. Civil institutions are of primary importance in constraining and promoting people's interests from time to time.

6. Incremental change should be preferred over revolution.

7. Processes need more attention than outcomes: get the former right and the latter will look after themselves.

8. The national should come before the international.

9. If something works, don't worry about the theory.

10. We have a duty of care to others on the basis of our being members of the same community rather than for more abstract reasons.

What was your score out of ten? If you found yourself agreeing with quite a few - let's say 7/10 or above - the likelihood is that you are or have become a CONSERVATIVE. This may come as an unpleasant shock. After all, there are plenty of otherwise quite nice and reasonable people who, if they discovered you were a CONSERVATIVE, would instinctively label you as something of a bastard or a cow. Nevertheless, there it is.

By the way, please don't try to pick holes in these propositions by testing whether they'd all be justifiable in all sorts of different times and places. No, I wouldn't approach the longstanding Aztec tradition of human sacrifice with respect and humility either. Like conservatism itself, these propositions don't pretend to universal and axiomatic truth. They might provide useful guidance in other times and places but not necessarily so.

I've derived this quick and easy checklist from the first of Peter Oborne's Radio Four talks on the subject of conservatism, which was concerned with the conservative outlook. The second talk was on the history of the Conservative Party and the third (yet to to be broadcast) is an interview with David Cameron.

Oborne is a journalist who's always worth reading. He takes a highly ethical approach to politics and is keenly aware of historical context. Also, rather like Nick Cohen (who won't be grateful for the comparison), he has the admirable knack of picking up on issues that are important but have been disregarded. Most recently, he very bravely went to the Philippines to report on the vicious Christian-Muslim conflict that threatens to overturn the country and provide a new source of international Islamist terrorism.

He's doing us a service in producing these talks. After all, it looks almost certain that we'll be in for a few years of government by a party that calls itself the Conservative Party. Best remind ourselves of what it's all about, or at least what it's meant to be all about.


Brit said...

I must send this to a friend of mine. He's under the bizarre impression that he's (a) a socialist and (b) that this is a reasonable thing to be at his age.

worm said...

yay! conservatives!

I think the thing I hope for in a fellow conservative is a love and appreciation of the lineage of society and culture, and an interest in 'conserving' (is that why they are called conservatives?) that line for future generations

"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in"

Gadjo Dilo said...

Gaw, I've never voted Conservative in my life but I got 7.5/10 (yeah, typical "wet", thinks half-points are acceptable in such a test).

Anonymous said...

Very comforting for us dinosaurs who remember Oakeshott, Gaw, but I don't see much evidence of these among many who call themselves conservative today. Numbers 2 and 9 are particularly problematic. Perhaps it's not so pronounced in the UK, but over here dogmatic libertarianism is on an alarming ascendancy. I don't think old Eddy Burke would be too comfortable about it all. When I was young, libertarians were weird geeky types who liked to debate the tyranny of public libraries, but now they are fast becoming a mass movement whose attachment to rote, simplistic ideology recalls 1950's marxists. It doesn't matter what the issue is or the actual social and historical context, they dispense with the facts and offer up a juicy quote from Hayek and some cant about freedom in order to give you a solution, and they get cranky very quickly if you demur.

As to "continuites and traditions", perhaps you mean singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" at football matches, but for the entire texture of familial, social and religious conventions, it's almost impossible to get any purchase on these. It isn't just that they reject and disagree, it's that their minds flash "Does Not Compute" when one tries to make an old Lord Devlin style argument about anything to do with morality, family, community, etc. Most of them don't know enough history to even understand what you are talking about. My own view is that this whole subject is filtered through their closely-held unconscious constitutional right to get laid.

But then, I suppose if you added an eleventh principle, it would be suspicion of the young.

Gareth Williams said...

Brit: If just one soul can be rescued it will have been worth it.

Worm: Careful, you're getting a bit enthusiastic there (my eleventh proposition would have been 'Political enthusiasm should be treated with great suspicion"). Lovely quotation.

Gadjo: I think splitting the difference is eminently conservative. As a consequence of giving yourself a 'half', I award you an extra bonus point, taking you to a crusty 8.5.

Peter: I did hedge my bets as to whether the next Conservative government were going to be conservative.

Over here libertarianism is only really to be found in the odd niche in the blogiverse. It has had no political success at all. Your Canadian libertarians however don't seem anything like as scary as the American 'conservatives'.

Also I feel your twelfth (see above) proposition richly deserves inclusion. I've quoted Mr Big from Wayne's World before but he speaks truth: 'kids know shit', and I should know I used to be one.

martpol said...

I'm Brit's bizarre and unreasonable friend (though in my own words a socialist leaner rather than a revolutionary). By which I mean that I lean towards the state having a bigger role, and I think outrageous thoughts about capitalism.

All of which adds up to me scoring around about 5.5 out of 10, with deductions for (amongst others) internationalism, semi-revolutionary tendencies and an interest in the abstract.

Still, ask me again in 3 years, when we're all basking under the sun of Cameron PM, and (as Brit suggests) I reach the age of no return.

Gareth Williams said...

Fraternal greetings Martpol! As you can imagine, it's with no pleasure that I say I believe Brit's right.

When I was just a little bit younger than you I almost certainly believed pretty much what you do now. (Sorry if I'm coming across as a patronising oldish git - I'm 42). There was no particular moment when I realised I'd become, gulp, conservative. Looking back, my left leaning beliefs perished rather like the frog in the very slowly heating water who never actually realises its being boiled to death.

Nevertheless, it's a tough transition, especially if you have that ingrained, visceral Celtic dislike of Tories. I have the added problems of living in Islington and having a wife who scores 5/10 (but then she is still in her thirties).

Hey Skipper said...

I didn't get past 7.5 only due to excessive quibbling.

Speaking as someone with libertarian tendencies.

Gareth Williams said...

Skip: With the greatest affection, quibbling I can believe. But at such cursory length? Are you entirely well?

Brit said...

Funny you should say 'fraternal greetings' to Martpol. I got Nick Cohen to sign a book for his fellow lefty, and he put "Fraternally yours, Nick Cohen."

Gareth Williams said...

I'm a great admirer of Nick Cohen - I think he's a very good thing. Great eye for a disregarded but important story.

Hey Skipper said...

But at such cursory length? Are you entirely well?

There is one indispensable proposition not on the list:

11. Government should focus on equality of opportunity, and ignore equality of outcome.

Gareth Williams said...

I would argue that...

'7. Processes need more attention than outcomes: get the former right and the latter will look after themselves.'

...covers that one.

martpol said...


The Celt in me is not yet ingrained, having lived in Wales a mere 14 years. But it's hard not to enjoy living in a nation of lofty mountains, free prescriptions for all and a proper test-free, long-sighted education system.

And they're still talking about that "clear red water".

Hey Skipper said...


Except that equality of opportunity is not a process, it is an axiom; in fact, it is often the elimination of an existing process (viz, Jim Crow laws, Title IX).

More centrally, though, is the notion of arriving at a position by deduction from an austere set of basic principles: "processes need more attention than outcomes" is derivative.

Look at your list of propositions from a different angle. What is the minimal set from which everything else follows?

1. All humans come into existence identically.

2. Human nature is not amenable to the whims of the chattering classes.

3. Humans have a very wide spectrum of desires and aptitudes.

4. Equality of opportunity trumps equality of outcome.

The first three are obvious by inspection. Number two is where the left hits the rocks hard.

Number four is the primary derivative, in that it is a consequence of the first three.

My assertion is that you can reason to any conservative position from these four, and, at the same time, be on firm ground in criticizing conservative positions (viz, Jim Crow laws; female subjugation). I see no need to approach the continuities or traditions for either of those with anything approaching respect.

Speaking as someone who, 40 years ago, took both for granted.

Gareth Williams said...

Skipper: I think equality of opportunity is a process as it's an ongoing journey to a variety of outcomes. A focus on this process would include, for instance, guaranteeing a decent minimum level of education. However, this isn't necessarily and exclusively a conservative position, though it is one that could be, and has been, justified by conservatives.

Your list of 'basic principles' I find problematic. The first three could easily be accepted by a Marxist:

1. All humans come into existence identically.

[Marx would have agreed with this as would Lysenko - environment is all]

2. Human nature is not amenable to the whims of the chattering classes.

[Marx would say human nature is a product of the material basis of human life. Later Marxists, admittedly, would go on to argue that something like the 'chattering classes' could create a cultural hegemony that could create a 'false consciousness' - but this was special pleading to try to explain why there hadn't been a revolution already, in my view]

3. Humans have a very wide spectrum of desires and aptitudes.

[Acknowledged by Marx: for instance, "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs"]

How these basic principles (Marxist, as much as anything) lead onto what you call their 'primary derivative' - that is, equality of opportunity, not necessarily a conservative principle anyway - I fail to see. It seems a non-sequitur.

Hey Skipper said...


That humans come into existence identically, are not blank slates, and have an extremely wide spectrum of desires and aptitudes are brute, irrevocable, biological facts. Taken together, they completely refute Marxism in particular, and left-wing thinking in general.

It is from these three primary facts from which all other conservative positions derive.

Including the notion that equality of opportunity is a state of affairs, not a process.

For example, here in the US, Title IX is a law with the intent of making scholastic athletic opportunities equally available to women as men.

Now, if Title IX stopped at saying that barriers to participation must not be gender based, there would be equality of opportunity, no process whatsoever, and the outcome would be whatever human nature (i.e., Generally speaking, people should be left to live their lives how they wish) allowed.

Instead, Title IX imposed a process based on the a priori assumption that male and female students have an identical affinity for athletics. The process driven result has been to eliminate male sports opportunities because, as it happens, female students are not nearly as inclined towards athletics as their male counterparts.

All group-identity based processes have as their goal equality of outcome. Left wing thinking is all about process and outcome, not opportunity and freedom of choice.

In contrast, insisting that schools in poor neighborhoods are funded identically to those in rich neighborhoods is provide equality of opportunity through a state of affairs.

Gareth Williams said...

We'll have to differ on your 'primary facts'. They seem to me to provide a basis for all sorts of political positions.

On state of affairs vs process vs outcome, I think we're disagreeing simply because of differences in definition. I agree with the position you take on the example you provide. It's just what I would call putting in place a process without assuming a priori an outcome, you would describe as putting in place a state of affairs without assuming a priori an outcome. Same thing, different words.

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