Friday 14 August 2009

Taking Hannanism seriously

Jerry Cohen, the Oxford political philosopher who died this month, dedicated a lifetime to the political principle "to each according to need". But he would also have understood very well what motivated Dan Hannan's unpopular attacks this week on the Marxist "NHS".

As Cohen wrote of ideology in politics.

Considered as practical proposals, the theories of Friedman, Hayek and Nozick were crazy, crazy in the strict sense that you would have to be crazy to think that such proposals (eg abolition of all regulation of professional standards and of safety at work, abolition of state money, abolition of all welfare provision) might be implemented in the near, medium or long-term. The theories are in that sense crazy because they are uncompromisingly fundamental: they were not devised with one eye on electoral possibility. And, just for that reason, their serviceability in electoral and other political contest is very great. Politicians and activists can press not-so-crazy right-wing proposals with conviction because they have the strength of commitment that depends upon depth of conviction, and depth comes from theory that is too fundamental to be practicable in a direct sense.

(With thanks to Jonathan Rutherford for the link to Cohen's 1994 New Left Review essay, in the thread discussing Stuart White's tribute to Jerry Cohen's work last weekend).

Yet look at how quickly Dan Hannan's fairweather friends foresake their hero now.

Was it not ConservativeHome which successfully campaigned for Hannan to get a keynote speaking slot at the Tory spring conference. Indeed 87% wanted him to get a keynote slot this Autumn?

And why not, Dave. Why not?

Now one editor Tim Montgomerie notes that Hannan's deriding the NHS as Marxist has "zero relevance" to Tory health policy. His co-editor Jonathan Isaby twitters that he will be on Sky News between 7pm and 7.30pm tonight "wondering how a backbench Tory MEP can provoke such a media storm". With apologies for being sacriligeous, you may well hear the cock crowing three times if you tune in.

Yet Hannan's real model is John the Baptist - also known as Keith Joseph - who acted as an outrider for Margaret Thatcher by maintaining an ideological Hayekian position when it was politically off the agenda. Hannan is equally committed to sticking to the fundamentals of his deeply ideological position in public debate even if, and especially when, it is politically inconvenient.

So let this be said in praise of Dan Hannan. He believes that ideas matter in politics - and he knows what he believes.

Granted, his ideas are often quite mad. Many of us stuck here in the "reality-based community" were bemused when Hannan's advocacy of the complete national and international deregulation which made Iceland a model of freedom and prosperity for us all changed not one iota when that country went bust.

YouGov polling shows that his view that the NHS was a mistake from the start is shared by 1% of the British population. But Hannan is irrepressible in the face of such opposition. I have no doubt he will be thinking that there is a constituency of half a million Hannanites from which to build, right there.

So, of course, the Conservative Party knows that it would be political and electoral suicide to be entirely Hannanite. And David Cameron has been expressing his own support for the NHS today.

Yet here are three reasons why Hannanism matters rather more than some of its slightly more moderate supporters will want to admit this weekend.

1. The big idea: Hannan is both the most strident and the most feted contemporary British advocate of what has been the dominant idea in the Anglo-American right for the last thirty years.

The idea is that "less state equals more freedom".

There is still every reason to think that this remains the dominant ideological belief in the Conservative Party.

Listen carefully to debates on the right and objections to Hannanism are often matters of strategy and tactics. Many Conservatives disagree with the vehemence with which Hannan expresses his views. But these are usually differences of degree, rather than differences of directionality. Few want to go as far as Hannan in taking arguments to their logical conclusion.

So the content of Hannanism - less state, less tax, less regulation, less Europe - remains the content of most Conservative public advocacy.

This is why Hannan does often succeed in framing debates within the Conservative party, and why he has often proved effective in creating ideological space for more moderate right-wingers.

He has not won the argument for getting out of the European Union, but he is confident that he is advancing quickly. And he can point to significant successes in holding his leadership's feet to the fire. When David Cameron finally had to face up to a choice between breaking a pledge to Hannan's Eurosceptics or a deep diplomatic rift with Merkel and Sarkozy, it was not Dan Hannan who ended up disappointed. (I have written before than Hannan is something of a Tory Trot, but you would struggle to find comparable policy successes of Labour's Campaign Group left within their own party in the last twenty years).

2. Generational change:

This generation of Conservatives were deeply influenced by the Thatcher-Reagan counter-revolution of the 1980s. They understand the need to modernise the party's image. But, on the whole, they do not accept that there is a case for a deep shift in the party's underlying ideological and political beliefs.

It is fair to say that this comes across fairly strongly in surveys of the next generation of PPCs, conducted by ConservativeHome and The Guardian.

It is never difficult to hear from "outriders" who believe that Cameron will succeed if he is bold in becoming more right-wing in office. Fraser Nelson, Tim Montgomerie, Iain Dale and all in different ways promote a modern Conservatism as the politically successful rehabilitation of the party's Thatcherite core beliefs. A more Hannanite view still is expressed from outside the party in the populist libertarianism of Guido Fawkes.

By contrast, you may search the blogsophere in vain for prominent Conservative grassroots voices who are "outriders" to the left of the frontbench, upstream of the occasional delphic progressive arguments of Mr Letwin or Mr Willetts. The uber-modernisers are a small group party strategists, journalists and think-tankers. They, so far, lack any significant constituency in the party. The so-called progressive Conservativism has been much more discussed in The Guardian, at Demos, on Liberal Conspiracy or on Next Left than they are in right-of-centre think-tanks and websites.

3. Where is the alternative?

Perhaps the main reason that Hannanism retains its grip because David Cameron has not identified an alternative position of any substantive depth or coherence.

That does not mean that Cameron is not aware of the dangers and limits of Hannanism. One Tory frontbencher David Willetts cleverly described himself as a libertarian who had had children; other Tory frontbenchers might be described as Thatcherites who have looked at the opinion polls. Boris Johnson's London Mayoralty, with its equality strategy and centrist noises, demonstrate the difficulties of Hannanism in power.

So Cameron has attempted a more pluralist Toryism. He has tried to sponsor delicate blooms of Green and Red Toryism which would barely exist without his patronage. But nothing has yet put down any significant roots in the party iself.

This is why Cameronism has often looked like a media strategy in search of a big idea. As one Tory frontbencher told John Harris recently, David Cameron "wants to find a view of the world which is right-wing and Tory yet which explains why he doesn't want village post offices to shut". Cameron is something of a dispositional Conservative: he doesn't want his party to become narrowly libertarian, fearing that a Toryism "that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing" is inadequate.

Cameron gets "mood music" on this from Phillip Blond. But even the party leadership recognises this is work in progress at best, and freely admits that the 'progressive' Cameron agenda at the top is a very elitist, top down project, involving perhaps a dozen people at most.

This lack of any coherent alternative also helps to explain why the Tory frontbench's response to the recession saw it so quickly return to the comfort zone of Margaret Thatcher's household economics, eschewing the Tory progressive tradition of Macmillan's Keynesianism.

So Dan Hannan has dug in for the long-game. He surely knows that he will never entirely prevail. But that may be to miss the point.

He can already claim to be the party's most influential backbench voice, all the more impressive when billeted between Brussels and Strasbourg and not in Westminster.

And, beneath the sound and fury of Fox TV, Hannan may already be having rather more of an uncharacteristically quiet influence than many recognise.


Unknown said...

I've been reading Next Left for a while now, and this is absolutely one of the best articles I've ever seen on this site.

I'm sort of surprised there's no other comments...but often the best articles get the fewest comments, because they leave nothing more to be said.

Nick said...

Yes, this is a very good piece.

Those who are near-contemporaries of Hannan, and remember his political baby-steps, are likely to have somewhat visceral reactions to his approach to politics. It's worth stepping back from all that.

Bruce Anderson made a comparison between Hannan and Enoch Powell today. Given Anderson's background, and looking at Powell in his 'Who governs Britain?' phase, in 1974 and beyond, you have to wonder.

Soho Politico said...

I agree, not much left to add. Perhaps because of this, I picked up on something fairly minor in the piece: the quote from the Conservative 'insider' about Cameron's ambition to find 'a view of the world which is right-wing and Tory yet which explains why he doesn't want village post offices to shut'. This is what they are calling 'progressive conservatism now'. But there's nothing progressive about it: this is just being rightwing and a pie-eyed optimist about what will happen when you implement rightwing policies. As I've said on my own blog today, after reading your piece, someone needs to ask the 'progressive' Tories what their priorities will be in the event that all goods things do not coincide - smaller state and free market, or helping the poor and saving post offices.

Anonymous said...

Very nice breakdown. This notion of Hannanism will surely be the backbone of much criticism pertaining the Tory right. Incidentally, should, in the first paragraph, the word Marxist be in quotes, not NHS? Unless I'm wrong, in which case I've got some thinking to do.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thank you all for your v.kind positive comments. There is now a fair amount of (slightly less convinced) discussion of this at Liberal Conspiracy.

holgate - would be interested in further reminisciences of political baby steps

I thought SohoPolitico's point in the linked post - and the quote from the Demos researcher - was well made. I felt there was a real sense in those comments of how limited any ProgCon mobilisation is; if you compare what Hannan has written about the ability of Hannanites to win constituency selections (this is about Mark Reckless who was his best man, and organised a Eurosceptic stag night) by being clear that they do not back the leadership line.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Paul. This is one of the most important, well written and incisive insights into unreconstructed Tory thinking I've read in a long long time.

Thanks Sunder. I'll link to this article as much as a I can. I'm already finding that most the Tory Trolls on Labourlist support him, with a majority saying "The NHS is a mistake".

Guido Fawkes said...

Good piece of analysis. Though I think it is a bit poor to call Hannan mad just because he is radical.

There are a few Tory outriders on the Tory left - the Platform 10 crowd of modernising wets and the TRG (of which Cameron is a patron). That Red Tory Blond is a bit out there, though he is all over the place on the left-right spectrum.

Sunder Katwala said...


That is a fair point. "Mad" was probably a bit much, if we are taking ideology seriously. The Hannan argument on Iceland was intended to give ideological directionality to a public argument rather than being proposed as practical politics or policy, so may be "crazy" in the sense Cohen is using it in that quote.

Sunday's Observer Focus did seem to me to highlight an extraordinary political/organisational weakness of the ProgCons. I will now look up Platform 10 as they were not on my radar.

Nick said...

re: Hannan's baby steps -- the Cherwell archives (which were bound and shelved in the Oxford Union, last time I checked) from the early 90s offer probably the best contemporary narrative of Hannan's rise up the OUCA ranks.

Doubting Richard said...

"...Tim Montgomerie notes that Hannan's deriding the NHS as Marxist has "zero relevance" to Tory health policy" is strictly true. It is irrelevant how supportive Conservative Home is of Mr Hannan, they cannot offer him influence on Tory policy.

Libertarian said...

This is one of the poorest pieces I've seen on the blogoshere.

You wouldn't know the real world if it bit you on the backside.

Lefty bollox spouted by the intelligensia in order to keep the little people of the working class in our place and grateful.

Wake up an experience the real, real world