The wisest conservative


I don’t want Conservative Week to pass without me acknowledging that it’s not a tradition devoid of merit. In particular, I want to commend its most significant philosopher: Michael Oakeshott. A thinker with as much to say to the left as the right.

In his essay On Being Conservative, Oakeshott explained that he believed conservatism to be grounded in a preference for the known over the unknown. He argued that the key traits that followed from this were:

First, innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator. Secondly, he believes that the more closely an innovation resembles growth (that is, the more clearly it is intimated in and not merely imposed upon the situation) the less likely it is to result in a preponderance of loss. Thirdly, he thinks that the innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection. Consequently, he prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. Fourthly, he favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments. And lastly, he believes the occasion to be important; and, other things being equal, he considers the most favourable occasion for innovation to be when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.

So why does Oakeshott appeal to me? Part of the reason is doubtless that his vision of government is arguably more liberal than conservative:

The spring of this [conservative disposition]…in respect of governing and the instruments of government….is to be found in the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances as I have described it: the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensable. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.

And it is true that his real identity might actually be an anti-utopian liberal like Isaiah Berlin. However, if he articulated liberal ideas, he did so within the Conservative tradition. He identified himself as such and is much more of a touchstone in Conservative circles than Liberal ones.

The real strength of his conservatism is that it is rooted in the present not the past. He’s warning about the drawbacks of dramatic change not extolling the benefits of a lost past. Therefore, his writings can cut against the right as much as the left.

In fact, it is principally as a critic of conservatives that I have come across Oakeshott. I first (unwittingly) imbibed his ideas through their reflection in Francis Fukuyama’s critique of the invasion of Iraq as a hopelessly utopian project, designed to produce change more rapid than any society could absorb. Then I started reading Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog. Sullivan wrote his PhD on Oakeshott and frequently used him to lash the Republican party. For Sullivan, the American Right is not about preserving but about destroying the New Deal and America’s tradition of tolerance.

While British conservatism is more Oakeshottian than its American counterpart, an Oakeshottian critique of it is still possible. The bungling mess that was Health and Social Care was a leap into the unknown that appeared to be less about ‘redressing some specific disequilibrium’ than a mania for change. Michael Gove often seems to be trying to drag education out of the present and into the past. And tearing Britain out of the European Union would be a disruptive change, whose proponents are nowhere near meeting ‘the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial.’

I find Oakeshott interesting because his brand of conservatism is not reactionary or counter-revolutionary. It allows space for gradual reform and therefore can be more pragmatic. Oakeshott is at pains to point out that he is advocating a ‘disposition’ rather than an ideology. Therefore, it provides a resource by for critiquing any ideology including those of conservative parties.

The Conservative’s northern problem


Boris Johnson in Liverpool to apologise for a Spectator article describing the city as “mawkishly sentimental”

Conservative Week continues with YouGov president Peter Kellner’s analysis of why the Conservative Party struggles in the North of England.

The Tories’ problems did not start with Cameron, but neither have they lessened under his leadership. Rather, he reminds many northerners just why they dislike the Tory Party. It’s not because they are poorer, or more pessimistic, or further Left or more reliant on the state for their job: they aren’t – or, at any rate, not enough to explain their reluctance to vote Conservative. Nor is it because of what the coalition has actually done in the past three years – at most, this explains a fraction of the difference.

In the end, the Tories’ problem is not what they do; it’s what they are. Their trouble is their brand. They lost Scotland because they lost their reputation as a unionist party and came to be seen as an English party. They are losing the North because they are seen increasingly as a Southern party. This need not stop them winning a future election: there are enough constituencies in the Midlands and the South which, when added to the Tories’ isolated seats in the North, can give them a parliamentary majority. But few, even on the Conservative benches, would regard that as a wholly healthy prospect.

Leading Conservatives often admit they need more women and non-white faces on their benches. This analysis suggests that they also need many more people with regional accents. On its own, this won’t suddenly make the Tories popular on Merseyside or Tyneside; but as part of a long-term strategy to revive the Tory brand north of the Wash, it would be a start.

The Economist also has an interesting take on the North-South divide

The Conservative Party is not about free markets

We kick off Conservative week with a post exploring what it divergences free market doctrines tell us about the party.

“If a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom, then he had better become a socialist and have done with it.” Margaret Thatcher

The Conservative Party is about free markets right? Actually I’d argue not.

I’m not trying to make a purist case you’ll sometimes hear from the right that the Tories are not truly free marketeers because they don’t pursue the agenda with sufficient gusto. Rather I’d suggest that under certain circumstances you can predict that it is the  Conservatives rather than people on the left who will take on the statist position.

Here are some examples:

The easiest allegation to construct here would be one of inconsistency but I for one don’t really care about that. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and it is unlikely that something as complicated as our society could be explained by a single idea. Rather, my complaint is what these apparent inconsistencies reveal about the underlying ideology of the Tories.

They all benefit what Margaret Thatcher called “Our People.” Planning pits the young, poor and urban against their elder, wealthier and more rural and suburban compatriots. Road pricing benefits those who use public transport rather than (presumably more Tory) drivers. And immigration is perceived to be about the competing interests of Britons and foreigners.

Thus while the Tories are prepared to be free marketeers when it means say cutting housing benefit because – in their minds at least – that’s something paid for by their “people.” By contrast, they’ll come out in favour of state spending or regulation for if they think their “people” will benefit. This may well explain why the party is so reluctant to cut benefits for pensioners: they are not perceived as scroungers like others who claim benefits.

I don’t know to what extent this bias is shaped by psychology, how far by electoral self interest and how far by the kind of areas Tories represent. However, where it leads is not pretty. It is not possible for governments to split people into hardworking, decent, older, British ‘sheep’ and feckless, metropolitan, disrespectful, foreign ‘goats.’ So the effort to look after “our people” winds up hurting people acting in a ‘respectable’ way.For example, they try to cut the benefits for ‘scroungers’ but those cuts also bite those recieving in work benefits or who are simply unable to find work.

I would therefore suggest the Conservative party should be categorised not as an ideological outfit but a sectarian one, albeit one fighting on behalf of an imagined tribe.

The Whigs Strike Back

As Salon reports:

On Tuesday, the party of Lincoln notched a big win. No, not the GOP, but the Whig Party, the original party of Lincoln. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Robert Bucholz defeated Democrat Lorretta Probasco to become the judge of election for the Fifth Division of the 56th Ward by a margin of 36-24 to become the first elected Whig in Philadelphia, if not the entire country, in roughly 150 years.

Bucholz is a member of the centrist Modern Whig Party, which was founded in 2007 and claims to be successor to the Whig Party, which was one of the two major parties in the United States during the early 19th century. (The Modern Whigs are not to be confused with the True Whig Party, which ran Liberia as a one-party state for over a century until a military coup in 1980.) The original Whig Party elected two presidents, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor and was led by such notable statesmen as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. However, it broke up in the 1850s as the issue of slavery came to the fore in American politics.

The original Whigs focused on issues that now seem somewhat dated. The party was strongly in favor of restoring the Bank of the United States, higher tariffs and federal involvement in building internal improvements, like canals. In an email to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bucholz described the party as focused on “pragmatism.” He wrote that the Modern Whigs “believe that politics is all about compromise instead of getting everything you want and giving up nothing. The recent gridlock in Washington could not have happened under Modern Whigs.


“A Sensitive Beast”

Research suggesting that the problem with pornography is not that it ‘objectifies’ its subjects but reduces them to the ‘beasts’

The Dish

Matthew Hutson describes the work of psychologist Kurt Gray, whose research into how people objectify each other has yielded intriguing findings:

In one experiment, subjects saw a photograph and a short description of a man or a woman. The photo showed either just the head or also the shirtless torso. When presented shirtless, targets were seen as having less competence. This is just what you might expect from research on objectification: we’re easily induced to see others as mere objects, pieces of meat without thoughts of their own. But it wasn’t that simple. Shirtless targets weren’t seen as devoid of all thought. They were actually seen as being more capable of emotions and sensations than their less exposed selves. They didn’t have less mental life but a different mental life. Objectification is apparently a misnomer.

To explore the issue further, the researchers turned to the book XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits

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Saturday suggestions – Diana, yelling at kids, British and American friendships, and Star Wars conspiracy theories

Our weekly series sharing some of the more interesting things I’ve read this week

This week we have extracts from posts or articles about: Diana, yelling at kids, British and American friendships, and Star Wars conspiracy theories.

Naomi Watts Takes On the Insufferable Cult of Diana by Victoria Beale (New Republic)

Part of what is so interesting and infuriating about the British royalty, and those who marry into it, is that they must pantomime being ordinary while also being gifted exceptional circumstances. Take the media frenzy over Prince William’s comment, outside the hospital after the birth of his son: “He’s got a good pair of lungs on ’im, that’s for sure. He’s a big boy, he’s quite heavy.’’ He has to do a winning impression of an ordinary, beleaguered father, while also tacitly acknowledging the global fanfare. And then when Kate Middleton, in her blue polka dots, quietly confessed, ‘‘I think any parent will know what this feeling feels like,” the same papers that faithfully reported her scrambling social machinations cooed over her normalcy. Attitudes toward royalty in Britain are brutal, fawning, and prurient all at once.

But Diana captures none of that. Instead of a troubled, complicated woman thrust into the role of international icon, this Diana is an otherworldly ingénue. Diana Spencer was engaged to the Prince of Wales when she was nineteen, married a month after she turned twenty, while Charles was thirty-two. She was subject to a pre-wedding inspection by a royally appointed gynecologist to affirm that she was untrammelled for the future King. This kind of institutional severity would be enough to unbalance any teenager, and a script that took into account her darknesses, flaws, and the downright strangeness of the modern monarchy could be fascinating, as it was in Stephen Frears’s The Queen. But instead of interrogating the cult of Diana, this is a weak, airbrushed melodrama that tells us nothing about contemporary royalty at all.

Stop YELLING AT YOUR KIDS. It’s Bad for Them by Katy Waldman (Slate)

While discipline is supposed to be about education, it’s often more about punishment—a punishment to produce adult catharsis.

How should you discipline your infuriating spawn when conflict arises? NOT BY YELLING. A study out in the September issue of the Journal of Child Psychology suggests that yelling is really bad for spawn. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found that “harsh verbal discipline”—cursing, insults, and shouting—can be as harmful to kids as hitting or spanking. The scientists tracked 967 middle-schoolers for two years. The students attended 10 public schools in eastern Pennsylvania and came from middle-class families that were not considered “high risk.” Sifting through surveys these kids and their families completed on “their mental health, child-rearing practices, the quality of the parent-child relationship and general demographics,” researchers concluded that 1) yelling and bratty behavior reinforced each other, 2) yelling increased the likelihood that a child would become depressed, and 3) even kids in homes that were otherwise “warm and loving” were not immune to a raised voice’s damaging effects.


But what’s wrong with yelling, exactly? “If you yell at your child, you either create somebody who yells back at you or somebody who is shamed and retreats,” Meghan Leahy, a mother of three and a local parenting coach, told the Washington Post. “You’re either growing aggression or growing shame. Those are not characteristics that any parents want in their kids.”

US Expat Describes The Best And Worst Things About England by Dawn Rutherford Marchant (Business Insider)

People jump to conclusions about Brits being unfriendly but this is simply an American reaction to the British cultural norm of avoiding relationships that are superficial.  Once you are a friend, it is sincere and has a depth and permanence that outlasts many of those I had in the U.S.


Luke’s Change: an Inside Job

Landing a Sock on Hitler’s Jaw: Superman and American Judaism’s journey to acceptance

Continuing our look at superheros, we see how Superman has evolved from his Jewish origins in the 1930s to his most recent onscreen outing being marketed to churches as a Christian allegory.

While Clarke Kent/Superman/Kal-El have always been nominally a Christian his roots are really Jewish:

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created their iconic comic book hero Superman in 1938, their character wasn’t just a representation of “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” but for many, a metaphor for Jewish immigrants in 1930s America. Created by two young Jewish men, Superman was an allusion to the Jewish faith and history, from his baby Moses-like origins to his golem-esque invincibility, to his outcast status and his ultimate struggle to assimilate in a new land.

In fact, there is a strong argument that superheros emerge as wish fulfillment for Jewish Americans. Not only Superman but also Captain America were devised by young Jewish authors as America weighed up entering WWII, and frequently fought Nazi enemies. As they watched apparently helplessly at the atrocities their coreligionists suffered, there must have been something cathartic about watching a real superman taking on the wannabe Aryan supermen of the Third Reich.

Superman confronts Hitler

Superman confronts Hitler

Incidentally, this was noticed by the Nazis. Goebbels announced that “Superman ist ein Jude!” and the character was the subject of an editorial in the SS’s paper.

However over time Superman seems to have become progressively more Christian. This culminated into the most recent superman film – Man of Steel – in which Superman becomes an allegory for Jesus:

While there isn’t a miraculous birth per se, Kal-El’s (Henry Cavill) father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) claims that his son is the first “natural” birth in centuries. All children on Krypton are genetically engineered to a pre-determined purpose and thus artificially inseminated. Not Kal-El. Jor-El and his wife Lara had some legitimate baby making going on.There is some Christ-like imagery planted throughout “Man of Steel.” One blaring symbol occurs during a climactic battle: Superman jumps from General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) ship and hovers in the sky with his arms out-stretched like the crucifix. Freeze-frame it and you can have your own Superman prayer card.

Kal-El says he is 33, a not-too-subtle reference to the same age as Jesus Christ when he was crucified.

In fact, the film was explicitly marketed to congregations as a Christian allegory. The marketing firm tasked with selling the film to Christians went as far as writing a model sermon called “Superman: The Original Superhero” that preachers could download.

If we hold Superman’s Jewish roots in mind, Man of Steel is actually quite telling. Our hero faces  figurative rather than literal Nazis. The villains are fellow refugees from the planet Krypton led by the megalomaniac General Zod, who intends to eradicate humanity so the earth can be transformed into a new Krypton. The people of Krypton thus go from being Jews to lebensraum seeking genocidal Nazis. And humanity – as the potential victims of a holocaust – is now in role of the Jewish people.

While making Superman Christian might at first glance seem like erasing Jews from American culture, it actually signifies the extent to which Americans have come to accept Jews. Their service in World War II served to remove doubts about their patriotism – as did Soviet oppression of its Jewish minority. The community’s traditional emphasis on education served it well and its members became increasingly prosperous. And with prosperity came suburbanisation and absorption into the American mainstream.

Thus rather than seeing them as sinister outsiders, Americans can embrace a film that requires them to put themselves in the position of Jews in the Third Reich.

Don’t conflate the desire for peace with pacifism


With Remembrance Day approaching and the red poppy-white poppy debate undergoing it’s annual re-emergence – pacifism has been on my mind lately.

While my entry into active politics was via campaigning against the Iraq War, it’s never been an idea that’s appealed. My ingrained suspicion of inflexible doctrines made it seem rather off. It’s appropriation of the term ‘peace’ seemed platitudinous: we all prefer war to peace. The question is how to bring it about. And being aware of the conflicts in the Balkans and Sierra Leone – and the failure to intervene in Rwanda – I was acutely aware that sometimes peace required defeating those determined to wage war.

This point is ably made in an article by James Bloodworth about the inherently political nature of Remembrance. It contains this scathing potted history of the pacifist white poppy:

Said to symbolise ‘an end to all wars’, the problem with the white poppy is similar to that of the peace movement in general: ‘peace’ often translates as little more than a desire to keep one’s hands clean and retreat into childish certainties. This was demonstrated by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in the 1930s, where the white poppy originates. So keen were the PPU on ‘peace’ that they remained neutral during the Spanish civil war as General Franco’s fascists slaughtered working class anarchists and socialists. They also remarked in an official pamphlet of 1938 that there was “…no reason why Germany should not have colonies”.

I’m afraid this has contemporary resonance because of a ‘peace movement’ clustered around the ‘Stop the War’ coalition which concluded the US was a greater danger to Libyans than Gaddafi and that military intervention to stop Assad massacring his own people was a ‘stepping stone’ to the US’s ‘ultimate goal’ of attacking Iran. These positions speak less to a concern for peace than a paranoid anti-Americanism.

Let me conclude with words written in 1941 by the American clergyman and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned his countrymen who wanted to stay aloof from the war in Europe that:

The Social Consequences of Driverless Cars


Driverless cars appear to be on the Horizon. The economist predicts that “by the 2020s some cars that drive themselves most or all of the time could well be in volume production.”

Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack argues this will have big consequences for public policy

the speed with which driverless cars are advancing means the transport world by the time a big project like Crossrail2 or HS2 is completed is likely to be very different.

Already driverless busses look set to make a serious debut in the UK by 2015, thanks to the Milton Keynes initiative.

They may therefore start appearing as a regular feature on those city’s roads before the next set of general election manifestos for the main parties even go to print.

Given the speed of their development on the one hand and the long development times for big transport projects on the other, I fear not just the party but those interested in transport more widely are trying to shape a future which, by the time it arrives, will be quite different from the one they are planning for.


Some of the benefits like to accrue from this are brilliant – but do not require policy changes. A further improvement in road safety is likely for, as we have seen in other areas where automated machinery replaces humans in repetitive tasks, computers are more reliable, less sleepy and never drunk. Brilliant news for humanity (road deaths killed more people than genocides during the twentieth century after all), a useful saving for the NHS but not something which much knock-on policy impacts.

Other changes are likely to be more troubling. Think what a significant part of the local economy of some ethnic minority communities in some areas is provided by the minicab trade, for example. As mechanisation (driverless cars) drives out low-skilled workers (minicab drivers) there is no guarantee that the economic transition for those most affected will be smooth or quickly. The long-run benefits to us all may be immense, but as previous such mechanisations have shown, the short-run pain for some can be great.

I’d suggest that these costs may be more lasting. New jobs will indeed be created to replace the old ones. But they will not be the same as the old jobs. As this article from Slate explains improvements in technology have meant more opportunities for skilled workers and fewer for everyone, and this has meant an increase in inequality.

Our story begins in the 1950s, at the dawn of the computer age, when homo sapiens first began to worry that automation would bring about mass unemployment. Economic theory dating back to the 19th century said this couldn’t happen, because the number of jobs isn’t fixed; a new machine might eliminate jobs in one part of the economy, but it would also create jobs in another part. For example, someone had to be employed to make these new machines. But as the economists Frank Levy of MIT and Richard J. Murnane of Harvard have noted, computers represented an entirely different sort of new machine. Previously, technology had performed physical tasks. (Think of John Henry‘s nemesis, the steam-powered hammer.) Computers were designed to perform cognitive tasks. (Think of Garry * Kasparov’s nemesis, IBM’s Deep Blue.) Theoretically, there was no limit to the kinds of work computers might eventually perform. In 1964 several eminent Americans, including past and future Nobel laureates Linus Pauling and Gunnar Myrdal, wrote President Lyndon Johnson to warn him about “a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor.”

Such a dystopia may yet one day emerge. But thus far traditional economic theory is holding up reasonably well. Computers are eliminating jobs, but they’re also creating jobs. The trouble, Levy and Murnane argue, is that the kinds of jobs computers tend to eliminate are those that require some thinking but not a lot—precisely the niche previously occupied by moderately skilled middle-class laborers.

Consider the sad tale of the bank teller. When is the last time you saw one? In the 1970s, the number of bank tellers grew by more than 85 percent. It was one of the nation’s fastest-growing occupations, and it required only a high school degree. In 1970, bank tellers averaged about $90 a week, which in 2010 dollars translates into an annual wage of about $26,000. But over the last 30 years, people pretty much stopped ever stepping into the lobby of their bank; instead, they started using the automatic teller machine outside and eventually learned to manage their accounts from their personal computers or mobile phones.

Today, the job category “bank teller” is one of the nation’s slowest-growing occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a paltry 6 percent growth rate during the next decade. The job now pays slightly less than it did in 1970, averaging about $25,000 a year.

As this story plays out in similar occupations—cashiers, typists, welders, farmers, appliance repairmen (this last already so obsolete that no one bothers to substitute a plausible ungendered noun)—the moderately skilled workforce is hollowing out.

Because of this, the area of policy where driverless cars may demand the biggest change might be education. A further contraction in semi-skilled jobs as work driving taxis, lorries and the like disappears will make it even less sustainable for our education system to continue producing a long tail of functionally illiterate school leavers.