Why do so many so-called ‘conservatives’ back such a radical upheaval?
The wisdom of Michael Oakeshott
I want to briefly take you back to 1980. This was the point when the deflationary policies of the Thatcher government were beginning to bite. The government had raised the cost of borrowing in an attempt to wring inflation from the economy. So far, it did not appear to being doing that. But it had pushed many firms into bankruptcy and thereby propelled their workers into unemployment. To add cruel irony to the situation this was a government that had got itself elected by declaring that “Labour isn’t working”. In this context Michael Foot, one of the greatest radical MPs in Labour’s history, took aim at Keith Joseph. He was a Conservative MP, Secretary of State for Trade and the Iron Lady’s ideological guru. He had introduced her to the works of the American Economist Milton Friedman and was therefore arguably responsible for what was unfolding. Foot’s weapon against him was to be a simple story:
In my youth, quite a time ago, when I lived in Plymouth, every Saturday night I used to go to the Palace theatre. My favourite act was a magician-conjuror who used to have sitting at the back of the audience a man dressed as a prominent alderman. The magician-conjuror used to say that he wanted a beautiful watch from a member of the audience. He would go up to the alderman and eventually take from him a marvellous gold watch. He would bring it back to the stage, enfold it in a beautiful red handkerchief, place it on the table in front of us, take out his mallet, hit the watch and smash it to smithereens. Then on his countenance would come exactly the puzzled look of the Secretary of State for Industry. He would step to the front of the stage and say “I am very sorry. I have forgotten the rest of the trick.” That is the situation of the Government. They have forgotten the rest of the trick. It does not work. Lest any objector should suggest that the act at the Palace theatre was only a trick, I should assure the House that the magician-conjuror used to come along at the end and say “I am sorry. I have still forgotten the trick.”
It’s a good joke at which Joseph had the last laugh. The economy eventually rebounded and in the General Election that followed Thatcher would crush Foot.
Nonetheless, Foot’s story points at an apparent paradox. He was perhaps the most left-wing leader Labour has ever had. He was not merely a progressive but a radical. By contrast, it would have been hard to find a political figure more conservative than Joseph. He had been instrumental in the transformation of the Conservative Party from an organisation rooted in genteel centrism to one that pushed right-wing policies more assertively than any other in Europe. Arguably more so than any other party in the world.
Yet Foot’s implicit criticism is that Joseph is not being conservative enough. He is experimenting with new economic policies he does not understand and cannot control the impact of. It would have been better, according to Foot, to stick the Keynesian status quo.
I want to suggest that in the EU referendum we are confronted with a loosely analogous situation. A lot of people affiliated with the Conservative Party or who call themselves ‘conservatives’ are advocating a massive and potentially destabilising policy change. And the best hope for containing their dangerous radicalism are people who would normally regard ‘conservative’ as an insult.
Of Conservatives and conservatives
Like most political concepts, conservatism exists in the eye of the beholder. It can mean free market economics, authoritarian politics or a host of other things. But here, I use it to mean a political disposition born of intellectual scepticism. It’s what Michael Oakeshott meant when he said:
To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
These ideas have been on my mind of late because I have been reading Jesse Norman’s biography of Edmund Burke. The great man is best remembered now for a celebrated critique of the French Revolution that provoked Tom Paine into writing A Vindication of the Rights of Man as a response. Burke was also a Whig MP and, Norman argues, a seriously underrated political philosopher.
Norman extracts from Burke an argument that humans are more characterised by interdependence than independence. This fact will frustrate the efforts of social engineers. They want to be able to manipulate societies in a precise, predictable and tidy way. But that demands being able to move humans like Lego bricks and actual people aren’t like that. If you pull them apart and start putting them back together again, the ties between them will become tangled and torn. Therefore, wherever possible the Burke/Norman hybrid argues we should leave things the hell alone. Failing that changes should be small and go with the grain of what already exists.
Norman – who has traded in academic philosophy for being a Conservative MP – clearly does not think much of the European Union. He has declared himself neutral in the EU referendum in the hopes of ‘holding the ring’. However, he has previously written that:
…this lack of legitimacy…poses the deepest challenge for the EU, deeper even than the economic challenges of debt and competitiveness. Without legitimacy, no government can sustain itself over time by democratic means. Unaccountable government is ineffective, unresponsive government; government which turns inwards on itself and becomes vulnerable to corruption, self-dealing and domination by special interests.
People start to ask: why pay your taxes, why vote, why obey the rules, if you have no power to change things? Resources are allocated for purely political purposes, rather than in response to public need. Resilience, competitiveness and energy are reduced; sclerosis sets in. When change occurs it tends to be convulsive, not gradual.
And in the Burke biography he indicates that his subject would have shared his distaste:
Within the European Union, the new currency of the euro was introduced as an elite project which deliberately ignored, and ignores, longstanding public concerns about the huge differences in the societies involved, and about the legitimacy of the Union’s own institutions. Burke would have reminded those involved that a project which ultimately seeks to abolish national identities and allegiances is likely to fail.
In this reading of the EU it is an unwanted and unwarranted imposition on imperfect but servicable national communities. They had developed ways of making laws, representing their people and providing them with services. They did not need a bunch of Euro-utopians coming along and attempting to displace all of that with their dreams of a pan-continental federation united in a chorus of Ode to Joy.
Norman perhaps imagines Burke would see Eurocrats the way he saw the East India Company’s corporate raiders: complacent outsiders trampling all over societies they did not understand and whose merits they did not appreciate.
All of which is enough to convince me that Burke would have been at least dubious about further European integration. And it is hard to imagine a truly conservative case for a United States of Europe.
Overwhelming benefits or extreme necessity?
Despite this I would like to claim Burke – or at least his arguments – for Remain. Conservatism ought to abhor wrenching discontinuities like Brexit. While attempting to channel Burke, Norman writes that:
The political leader knows in advance that all change, however well intentioned, will disrupt the social fabric, with unforeseeable and potentially serious negative consequences. Still more is this true of sweeping, radical change – what Burke calls ‘innovation’ – which abolishes whole tracts of settled human understanding and social wisdom. For radical change to be genuinely worthwhile, it must bring overwhelming social benefit, or be the product of the most extreme necessity.
It is hard to argue that the EU – as opposed to the Euro – has reached the point where its flaws are so massive that leaving could lead to ‘overwhelming social benefit’ or that our departure would be of “the most extreme necessity”.
If you push leave supporters on this kind of point, the answers tend to be comically inadequate. Asked to cite benefits of leaving they’ll point to things like being able to negotiate a free trade agreement with Australia, lift the tampon tax and even make our own regulations on the size of shipping containers. Neither individually nor collectively do these amount to a compelling case for departure.
Alternatively, there are those who see things on the EU’s horizon that are so ominous they do in fact necessitate an exit. There is the talk of a convulsive crisis of legitimacy, like the one hinted at in the article by Norman I quoted earlier. Alternatively, there is the notion that the EU is a whirlpool from which we much must escape before we are pulled into a Federal Superstate. Take this from Boris Johnson:
The idea of the Single Market has become so capacious that it is a cloak for full-scale political and economic union. We now have up to half our law coming from the EU (some say two thirds); and if the Five Presidents get their way, the process of centralisation will simply continue – much of it in the name of the “Single Market”. It’s time we learnt the lesson. The federalists do mean it when they sketch out these programmes. The ratchet is clicking forwards. When you come to vote, the status quo is not on offer.
This notion is basically rot. For starters, Britain has successfully stayed out of projects it doesn’t like including the euro and Schengen. I would agree there is an unfortunate tendency for the European Court of Justice to take the most integrationist reading possible of the treaties. But it is still constrained by those treaties and a superstate could not built on the basis of them. They would need to be amended to, for example, unify defence and foreign policies. This can only be done with the unanimous agreement of member states and that would allow the UK to veto them.
Worries about the EU’s legitimacy and democratic deficit are less easily dismissed. Clearly they are real. But they are hardly unique to the EU. A loss of faith in governing institutions is a global phenomenon which is having an impact well beyond the EU. Indeed, the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom seems to be in as much danger as the one between European nations.
The notion that the EU is a uniquely undemocratic institution is generally rather glib. For most purposes, it is simply a collection of member states each with their own democratically elected governments. It is these governments that choose the Commissioners and cast votes in the Council. In addition, the Union has its own parliament. It is quite capable of responding to pressure from below. As a small example of this, witness the deal to allow the UK to scrap the ‘tampon tax’. Campaigners pressured the UK government for a change, which precipitated the government going to their European partners and advocating for a change in the Union’s rules on what products could have VAT levied on them. The system worked: it allowed for a change to be negotiated and British voters were able to hold their government accountable for whether or not it delivered the change they wanted.
The EU as a means of conservation
Much of the anti-European discourse tends to assume that the natural social order is embodied in the nation state, and that the EU is an artificial imposition upon it.
I would agree that the EU is indeed artificial: it was made by men not discovered in nature. But the same is true of all political groupings. Nationhood is like paper money, it only has power to the extent humans agree among themselves it does.
Human beings have not always been organised into distinct nation states. From tribes through to Colonial Empires for most of history, most of humanity has lived outside the Westphalian System. Indeed one of the signatories to the Treaty of Westephalia was the Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of political units not totally dissimilar to the EU.
Now clearly if you are dealing with societies organised into nation states, the default conservative position should be to stick with that arrangement. But that does not mean it can never be modified.
Norman writes that:
…Burke is not opposed to change as such, only to radical or total change. On the contrary: for him acceptance of change is the indispensible corollary of commitment to a given social order, which will itself be continuously evolving. To recall the words of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’.
And at the time of the founding of the EU’s predecessors, European states were in need of a means of conservation. They had fought not one but two wars that had killed millions. Communism had enveloped parts of the continent already and was menacing much of the remainder. Europeans needed to bind themselves together to avoid falling apart.
Even given that it would have been hard for Europe to immediately jump to a union of 28 member states. So it didn’t. It began as a Coal and Steel Community of 6 states. And from there gradually grew and deepened into the entity that currently exists.
That allowed for the creation of a single market, for resources to be shared between rich and poor areas, and provided an incentive for potential members to adopt free markets, democratic institutions and the rule of the law.
I therefore, submit that far from being an imposition on the European social order, the EU is now an integral part of the order. And a Brexit would be disrupt it.
You see the thing is there are good conservative reasons to condemn not only revolutionaries but also counter-revolutionaries. For example, one of Burke’s intellectual heirs Michael Oakeshott attacked the attempt to restore Irish to its status as a Ireland’s national language. He felt this was an ideological project that was unnecessary and unlikely to succeed when English sufficed perfectly well as a means of communication for Irish people. Given that there may be fewer fluent speakers of Irish than of Polish in the Republic, he seems to have been right. Attempting to push people back into an idyllic past is as foolish as trying to drag them into a utopian future.
And that’s what trying to rebuild a pure Westphalian system in Europe would amount to. It never actually existed and for good reasons we have gradually moved away from it. To destroy that would be to privilege the dubious insights of ideology over the more reliable guide of history.
Norman quotes Burke describing the British constitution as like an old building which:
stands well enough, though part Gothic, part Grecian, part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then it may come down upon our heads altogether, in much uniformity of ruin; and great will be the ruin thereof.
A Burkean therefore should not distressed by the untidy intermingling of national sovereignty and European community that characterises the current British constitution. It is those who fail to appreciate the purpose served by such messiness who should worry us.
I don’t want to rehearse the full arguments about the merits of leaving. Nonetheless, it is worth subjecting a fair number of them to a Burkean analysis.
The essential point here is not to give equal weight to the benefits of arrangements that currently exist and those a proposed alternative set of arrangements. We can have more confidence in the former than the latter.
As we’ve already discussed societies are unimaginably complex. So when we draw up plans for a new improved version, we only be making the roughest of sketches. We therefore have little idea how the finished product will look. It is thus probable that we will like it less than we imagined.
In the case of Brexit such disappointment is basically guaranteed because Leaverers are working from multiple sketches. One of the peculiar features of the Out campaign is that it draws a disproportionate amount of its support from the further edges of the political spectrum. Rather than left facing off against right, it’s often the far left and far right taking on the centre-left and centre-right. The fact that a single ‘remain’ campaign was opposed by a series of rival ‘leave’ groups is not all that surprising. Their views are not only different, they are contradictory. The EU can’t simultaneously be ‘a capitalist club’ and be chaining down British capitalism. Brexit could theoretically result in freer trade or more protectionism but not both. In the years following departure either Daniel Hannan or George Galloway would be likely to wish we’d stayed in.
More likely is that both of them would be disappointed. A common feature of radicalism is condescension towards the past. The only way we could have wound up with such dumb policies and institutions is if our predecessors were themselves a bit dumb. Take for example, the common assertion that the UK entered the then European Community under false pretences, believing it was a free trade area only to see it mutate into a political union. In fact, a large part of the 1975 referendum campaign was a debate about national sovereignty rather similar to the one we are having today. Witness, for example, the Yes campaign reassuring voters that: “membership of the Common Market also imposes new rights and duties on Britain, but does not deprive us of our national identity.”
Notwithstanding the ideology of radicals, people usually had pragmatic reasons for the decisions they made. Those reasons generally still at least partially apply. Therefore, it’s generally hard to completely change course. Witness, for example, the way that the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland has transmogrified into an EU member country with sterling as it currency and the Queen as its head of state.
In the European case that would likely mean having to rebuild some kind of trade relationship with the remaining members of the European Union. Not having easy access to our immediate neighbours – who also happen to collectively be the world’s largest economy – is not really an option. Not doing so would put close to half our trade at risk. Vote Leave reassures us that this will be no big deal:
The UK is the EU’s largest export partner. It is overwhelmingly in the EU’s – particularly Germany’s – interests to agree a friendly UK-EU free trade deal.
But their complacency is misjudged. The EU would indeed have an interest in free trade with the UK and in all likelihood such a deal would be concluded. But it does not follow that this would be a good deal for the UK. We are an island, they are a continent. They would want a deal, we would need one. It is easier to gamble with a modest fraction of your trade, than it is with half of it. They could therefore credibly threaten to walk away from a deal they found unsatisfactory, while we would have to swallow it. Emotion would play a role too. The rest of the continent would likely take a dim view of our departure and the disruption that resulted. They would therefore be unlikely to be feeling charitable. And we’d need to consider how a British civil service that has not negotiated a trade deal since the 1970s would fair dealing with an EU bureaucracy that exists in large part to make such deals. There is therefore a real possibility, perhaps even a probability, that we would wind up with some combination of access to fewer markets than we’d hoped, still paying into the EU budget and something like Norway’s ‘government by fax’ whereby we’d have to follow EU rules but have no role in making them.
Set against this we must consider the argument put forward by free trading Brexiteers that leaving the EU would give us more opportunities to trade beyond it. Douglas Carswell has argued that “staying in the EU means confining ourselves inside the world’s only declining trading bloc. That means a future of shrinking markets, and diminishing opportunities” and that we should look for “light regulation, free markets, and free trade with the whole world” on the outside.
A conservative should have nothing nice to say about this argument.
For starters, it invites disruption. My reference point for understanding why this is a problem is someone I briefly encountered in my days as a local councillor. I was at a public meeting about plans to pedestrianise the centre of Oxford. A corollary of this idea would be rerouting the coaches to London. One of the members of the public who spoke was worried by this. She didn’t think one route or the other was inherently better. Nonetheless, she commuted into London and had bought a house specifically to be near the existing route. Had the route been different she’d have bought a different house. But having made her choice, if the route changed there would be no easy way for her to get back to a position as desirable as the one she was currently in.
There’d be a real risk of something comparable happening with regard to European and non-European markets. Businesses will have made plans and investments on the assumption of having access to the European single market. Even if they get greater access to markets outside the EU in compensation that’s still not what they’ve been preparing for and they would therefore be less able to exploit it.
More baffling still from a Burkean point of view is that getting to some nirvana of global free trade would involve the UK sacrificing its existing free trade agreements. It would go from having treaties with 50 countries to none. The Leave camp would probably dismiss this concern: surely negotiating replacement deals would just be a formality? Well not necessarily. The UK’s economy is substantial and access to its market is a big prize for any country. But it is an order of magnitude smaller than the EU and therefore our government would go into any negotiation with far less clout. And let us not forget that that government has not negotiated a trade deal in 40 years. So it seems reckless to assume that everything would go according to plan. That forces us to confront the prospect that exiting the EU could restrict Britain’s trade not only with Europe but beyond it. Brexit thus becomes a classic case of the folly of sacrificing the known benefits of the present for the speculative ones of some imagined future.
Stepping back from the issue of trade, we can observe a host of other areas where leaving the EU would unleash disruption and uncertainty. How would the lives of British citizens living in other EU countries be affected? How about EU citizens living in the UK? What would be the impact on the friends, neighbours and employers of both groups? How would we decide which of legal precedents established since accession, all of which were supposed to be compliant with EU law, would still apply? Will dealing with a Brexit distract the EU and make it harder for it resolve the refugee and Eurozone crisis? Would we alienate allies like the US and Germany by leaving? Would we embolden enemies like Putin? Would the EU evolve in a direction we don’t like without us there to advocate for the alternative? Would there be a second referendum on Scottish independence?
And those are just the first few questions that came to my mind. There will be myriad repercussions I can’t predict. Probably no one can predict them. European integration is a ‘game’ which dozens of states and hundreds of millions of citizens are playing, and that the rest of the world are engaged spectators of. Its complexity is so vast that making predictions is very hard. Caution is therefore the only responsible position.
There has been criticism of the Remain campaign for being uninspiring. It is claimed that it focuses too much on arguing against Brexit. It apparently needs to do more to make the case for the EU. This may or may not be a good point as regard political tactics. I’m personally sceptical. But when it comes to the substance of the policy debate, it’s definitely wrong. If Britain were not currently a member of the EU, I would want to join. But even if you don’t like the EU, you should still recognise that the very process of leaving would have real costs. They theoretically might be justified by “overwhelming social benefit” or “the most extreme necessity.” But as we’ve seen they simply aren’t.
That makes Brexit an unjustified gamble, which in turn makes it a profoundly unconservative thing to do. It is therefore be surprising that so many members of the Conservative Party back it. And furthermore that they do it in such a thoroughly unconservative way. Rather than wisdom and caution they offer bravado. Rather than warning of the dangers, they ridicule those who do as “merchants of doom” who can be ignored because…uhh…Britain. You will search Burke and Oakeshott’s writings in vain for a passage explaining how exclamations of national machismo can substitute for the hard work of policy making and institution building. Yet that is what many self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ are in fact doing.
The Leavers want you to believe Brexit will be simple; that the details will fall into place; and all kinds of benefits will arrive without costs. But it won’t be easy. You only need to be slightly convinced by conservative ideas to realise that a change this big can never be easy and is seldom wise.
But the likes of Johnson, Hannan and Carswell do not deal in such ideas. They are not pragmatists or sceptics but ideologues. Rather than cherishing institutions they seek to eliminate any that stand in the way of the realisation of their vision of pure Thatcherism.
Brexit is not an act of conservation but of destruction. Its proponents casually assume it will be the creative kind. But they have given us little reason to believe that. Their arrogance strongly suggests they have little hope of putting the watch back together again, and given the chance they will sacrifice our trade relationships and international alliances in pursuit of a blissful utopia of national sovereignty.
You can be a conservative or you can be for Brexit. You cannot be both.
P.S. If you are interested in how right-wing ideas went from conservative to radical, I wrote a more general post about this topic which you can find here.