Thursday, 5 February 2009

Letwin's curious confusion between his Fabian and neo-con critics

Oliver Letwin may have the biggest brain on the Conservative frontbench - especially if we exclude David "two brains" Willetts for cheating - but he seems to be struggling to tell the difference between his Fabian left with his TradCon or neo-con critics on the right.

Letwin has a lengthy piece on the New Statesman about the progressive conservatism. It is a curious piece because he makes much of defending himself against an argument which he thinks the Fabians made at the recent Demos seminar. But I did not make the point he reports: it was a point rather sharply put by Daniel Johnson of Standpoint magazine (a TradCon journal, some say neo-con) to David Cameron, who slapped it down as a liberal but not conservative perspective.

Letwin writes:

Interestingly, it became clear at the seminar which followed David Cameron’s speech that one such experimental critique – coming, at that seminar, from the Fabians – is the allegation that progressive Conservatism is illiberal because it emphasises the community rather than the liberty of the individual.

One could almost hear the intellectual machinery clanking to produce the argument that Thatcherism was market liberalism which elevated the individual, whereas the more social focus of today’s progressive Conservatism meant elevating the community above the individual.

Letwin is either misremembering the event, or politically wishes to make this the objection which he must address from the left: that being communitarian must be illiberal. Some on the liberal left, centre and right would identify some danger there, but social democrats must surely think it an avoidable one: this would surely be a more unlikely objection from a left, which does not reify liberal individualism to the extent that the Hayekian right does: indeed my question headed in the opposite direction, was whether or not conservativism could publicly break with Keith Joseph's elevation of Hayek (famously not a conservative) and with its defining mission and big idea of the last thirty years - "less state equals more freedom" - or whether it could not quite do either of these things, because the politics of post-Thatcherism made this too neuralgic for the current Conservative Party.

I think my critique of the Red Toryism is a different, and more nuanced one, and one which Letwin sidestepped politically at the event. I reported the event - including Johnson's and my own critiques - in a piece on LiberalConspiracy published the following day.

Here is a summary which I have posted on Letwin's article

I made two different points: if "the intellectual machinery was clanking", this was the challenge

1. That for progressive conservativism to own its own tradition (which, being conservative, it might want to do), it needed to deal with the great rupture of Thatcherism: Keith Joseph's claim that he had not been a conservative before 1974. By extension, that the tradition of Baldwin, Macmillan and Heath was a betrayal of conservatism. David Marquand places Cameron in the tradition - but that would require Cameron and Letwin to own this, and repudiate Joseph's 'ratchet effect' analysis

2. The substantive, related point is that the right's big idea of the last thirty years has been "less state equals more freedom", and that this continues to animate most think-tank activity on the right.

Can progressive conservatism say that "the era of minimal government is over" and win that argument on the right?

Letwin responded with agnosticism about the state, on "what works" ground, sceptical that the national state could offer protection against the winds of global change, and local communities could.

Letwin wants a debate about means, but this led both Will Hutton and John Gray argued that he had nothing substantive to say about means, because progressive conservatism to date offers a straw man caricature of both the state and the left

Progressive Conservatism would be a welcome shift if it was substantive. We surely await the evidence. (It is somewhat welcome even while it remains rhetorical).

Still, I have very consistently taken a (Fabian, gradualist, pro-permeation and the entrenching of political change) 'two cheers' approach to David Cameron, since 2005, arguing that the party needed to deepen the Cameron project not abandon it. (There may though be a very good case, given the Tory response to the crisis, for cutting back to one and a half cheers). The evidence to date demands much scepticism of this progressive Conservative turn. Still, I would much prefer it to be true.

Indeed, I recall a March 2006 seminar at Civitas with Oliver Letwin himself (which I wrote about on Comment is Free at the time) where Larry Elliott of The Guardian and myself were the only people there to defend his wish to engage with the idea that poverty was relative, against the vocal opposition of the assembled right. (Take this from Prospect just before his election in 2005, or this from Autumn 2007, or my review of David Marquand's book).

But Cameron's central political problem has been that there has been nobody publicly upstream of the leadership itself, leading him to make substantive concessions almost always to the right inside the party if any public argument breaks out - grammar schools, spending plans, inheritance tax, the EPP, opposing a fiscal stimulus - while playing footsie with various Guardianista progressive forces outside it (but with little substantial to show for it, to date at least), and winning plaudits for embracing social liberalism (which is good, but it is fairly cost free to say 'we got apartheid wrong' or seek to change the face of a party with more women and non-white candidates, while a substantive agenda on asset and wealth distribution involves real politics).

Still, I do not find in Cameron an unreconstructed Thatcherite (rather a High Tory making much creative use of ambiguity. An openness to engage in discussing political ideas is attractive - while there is a slipperiness about doing so substantively, this will be more about the politics of positioning than engagement. And we have all been there before.

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