Meritocracy for thee, a leg-up for me: conservatism and the academy

What right-wingers usually think of positive discrimination

As a general rule people on the right tend not to like so-called ‘positive discrimination’. Take this op-ed from America’s most venerable conservative magazine, the National Review:

Excellence should be celebrated wherever it is found, and affirmative action policies undermine colleges’ ability to search for it.

Or the British conservative columnist Toby Young on getting more working class students from state schools into the UK’s top universities:

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that universities should not lower the bar for state school applicants because that would effectively be sending a message to state schools that they can never be as good as independent schools. Rather, they should have the same expectations of all their applicants, regardless of their educational background, and encourage state schools to compete with private schools on a level playing field.

A double standard

However, there is one group that many right-wingers are comfortable demanding university’s show a special preference towards: themselves.

Take this example from the US:

A bill in the Iowa Senate seeks to achieve greater political diversity among professors at the state’s Board of Regents universities. Senate File 288 would institute a hiring freeze until the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the university faculty fall within 10 percent of each other.

“I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R[epublican]-Ottumwa. “They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise. So this would fall right into category with what existing hiring practices are.

This is an unusually stark proposal, but its subtext has been around for decades. In 1951, the National Review’s founder wrote a book called God and Man at Yale that argued that the curriculum of the famous university was biased in favour of liberalism and atheism. Since then universities have regularly been a been targets of conservative attacks on America’s coastal elites. As far back as 1989, the first President Bush attacked his Democrat opponent for having ‘the views of the Harvard Yard.’

As these things tend to, that idea has now made its way across the Atlantic. And we get outpourings like this:

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Do not mistake discernment for discrimination

The unexamined assumption underlying these accusations of bias is that universities – or rather the staff and students they are constituted from – should be treating all views equally. In fact, the opposite is true. While I deplore attempts to exclude views from universities through coercion, it is a natural part of how academia works that some ideas will first be attacked and then ignored. It would be absurd for universities to, for example, provide balance between mainstream earth scientists and flat earthers.

As Robert C. Post, a Yale Law professor, recently wrotes for Vox, universities exist precisely in order to help society discern which views have merit and those which don’t. As Post notes the people who make up a university simply can’t fulfill that function without giving greater prominence and respect to certain ideas than to others:

…universities can and must engage in content discrimination all the time. subject my students to constant content discrimination. If I am teaching a course on constitutional law, my students had better discuss constitutional law and not the World Series.

Professors are also subject to continual content discrimination in their teaching and their research. If I am hired to teach mathematics, I had better spend my class time talking about my equations and not the behavior of President Donald Trump. If I am being considered for tenure or for a grant, my research will be evaluated for its quality and its potential impact on my discipline. Universities, public or private, could not function if they could not make judgments based on content.

Critically scrutinising an idea like ‘Brexit is a desirable outcome’ fits with that mission. It is definitely the sort of thing university humanities and social science departments should be doing. The purpose of that enquiry is not necessarily to pass a singular judgement on the idea. However, if the majority of academics who look into it, come away unimpressed, then that does reflect poorly on the idea.

The closing of the conservative mind

Now confronted with this judgement, people who hold that idea dear have two basic responses. These are the same options that anyone confronted with criticism has. They can take the criticism on board and try to use it to help improve. Or they can get defensive and begin to deny its validity. Or put more metaphorically, you can either get mad with the bathroom scales, or try to eat better and do more exercise.

Not all right-wingers are of the yelling at the scales variety. For example, the conservative MP David Willetts changed his mind about whether income inequality was a problem in response to a pretty consistent finding by social epidemiologists that it was. And clearly, being reluctant to update your views in the face of contrary evidence is not something only people on the right do. There are examples, of it occurring on the left too. Indeed, it is probably something everyone does at some point. However, at the present moment in the US and the UK, it does seem more prevalent amongst conservatives. Take for example, attitudes to science:

A 54 percent majority of Democrats, compared with just 13 percent of Republicans, say they have “a lot” of trust that what scientists say is accurate and reliable. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans trust scientists at least “a little,” with 5 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans saying they don’t trust them at all.

As Ezra Klein has noted, whilst causes like climate change denial have become mainstream amongst Republicans, Democrats have largely managed to resist buying into anti-science messages – such as on GMOs – that might appeal to left-wing inclined voters.

The difference is that conservatism’s mistrust of climate science has taken over the Republican Party — even politicians like Mitt Romney and John McCain have gone wobbly on climate science — while liberalism’s allergy to messing with nature hasn’t had much effect on the Democratic Party. And part of the reason is that the validators liberals look to on scientifically contested issues have refused to tell them what they want to hear.

Klein thinks the emergence of scientists like Bill Nye and Neil De Grasse Tyson as liberal opinion formers is especially important in this regard.

This dynamic is appears less severe in the UK. Perhaps for that reason, it has received less quantitative study. At least that I can find! Nonetheless, you still see signs of it. While prominent scientists and science popularisers, like David Attenborough and Brian Cox have voiced progressive views and opposition to Brexit, climate change denial has become mainstream amongst both Conservative MPs and their allies in the press. Indeed, the power within the British right of tabloid newspapers that combine reactionary politics, a penchant for pseudoscience, and a generally loose attitude to accuracy makes it kind of inevitable.

The mirage of ‘politically correct’ bias

Now it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the possibility that there is real bias in academia and research. Sometimes your bathroom scales are broken, and sometimes universities favour ideas for reasons other than them being more truthful. This issue is probably clearest with regards to funding. For example, we almost certainly think the average medication is more effective than it is, because many clinical trials are funded by the people who make those medicines. Right-wingers have a theory for why academia might be biased against them. Universities are in the grip of a form of ‘politically correct’ groupthink. Academics do not want to voice conservative views, lest they incur the disapproval of their left-wing colleagues and students.

I find this unconvincing because:

  • It does not account for why left-wing ideas would have become dominant in the first place. If right-wing arguments were coherent and well evidenced wouldn’t they have become the dominant ones with which it is risky to disagree.
  • Many academics do produce work with ‘right-wing’ conclusions such as that children typically do better if their parents are married rather than cohabiting, tax increases being bad for economic growth or immigration depressing wages.
  • There is a well-funded ecosystem of media and think tanks promoting right-wing ideas that should not only foster ideas that could make their wake into academia. Plus that same funding could be directly applied to funding academic research.
  • The conservative tendency to pick fights with research applies as much to what are essentially empirical questions as ones that centre on values.
  • In academia as in many fields, being confirmist lowers not only risks, but also rewards. The most celebrated researchers tend to be iconoclasts, who overturn recieved wisdom. Therefore if academia generally ziggs left, there are incentives for individual academics to zag to the right.

All of which makes me think that the reason that right-wing ideas find so little support in academia is that they mostly don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Instead of engaging in the hard, boring work of coming up with proposals that account for uncomfortable information, contemporary conservatism has chosen the easy comforts of conspiracy theories and tribal epistimology. ‘Alternative facts‘ are treated as if they are as good as the real thing. Institutions that raise questions about the movement’s proposals – including but not limited to academia, the media and the judiciary – have their legitimacy questioned. Rather than coming up with a conservative solution to the problem of climate change – probably the gravest one currently facing the world – many conservatives have opted to pretend it isn’t happening. The Brexit campaign was marked by claims that sounded just about plausible to a voter with a modest amount of attention to devote the the subject, but not to anyone able to study it in any kind of depth. We were told that the UK could save itself millions of pounds in budget contributions that had already been remitted back to us. Likewise we were warned that the UK didn’t have a veto on Turkey joining the EU, even though the treaty article governing the accession of new member states explicitly says that it can only happen if exist members including the UK “shall act unanimously” in support of it. Michael Gove’s notorious assertion that “Britons have had enough of experts” may have been true of the country, but it was definitely true of a campaign that had many reasons to face focused scrutiny, including from academia.

Role-models

The sad part about contemporary conservatives developing such disdain for universities, is that they are attacking the very places that previously incubated many of the most important right-wing ideas. Here are some examples:

  • It is hard to imagine the Thatcher revolution, and the monetarist economic policies which accomponied it, without the work of the Nobel Prize winning economists Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Indeed, legend has it that Thatcher once interupted a presentation she felt misrepresented conservative thinking, by slamming one of Hayek’s books on the table and declaring this is what we believe!
  • Michael Oakeshott wrote his philosophical defences of a conservative disposition as a professor at the LSE.
  • Henry Kissinger went from Harvard to being Nixon’s most important foreign policy advisor.
  • The first generation of neoconservatives relied heavily on the work of Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, and his critiques of sixties counter-culture.
  • The concept of Broken Windows policing – espoused most famously by Rudy Giuliani – was first developed by two Harvard criminologists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.
  • Public choice theory, the notion that you could use the tools of microeconomics to study the public sector as well as private markets, is relied on by many scholars from across the political spectrum. However, it was originally developed by conservatives working as academic economists, who were looking for a tool with which to critique the expansion of welfare programs. They included James M. Buchanan who would win a Nobel Prize for his work.

Take your own medicine

That the right has largely disengaged itself from that kind of serious academic work has hurt it. I don’t think it is a co-incidence that Thatcher and Reagan came in with a clear program they could implement, whilst the Brexiteers and Trumpians are flailing incoherently. Had either group engaged seriously with academics who work on public policy, they would almost certainly have been better prepared for the challenges they faced.

Thus the conservative movement would not benefit from positive discrimination in academia. Quotas for right leaning academics and attempts to root out imaginary ‘liberal’ bias, would just make the right even more intellectually lazy than it currently is. Instead it must practice itself, the message of tough love it preaches to others. Rather than asserting that they have a right to the respect of academia, right-wingers should set out to earn it. The way to do that is with good ideas backed up by convincing evidence and cogent arguments. The likes of Hayek, Oakeshott and Kissinger did that in the past. If their heirs cannot do that in the present, the fault is their own, not academia’s.

 

Would Edmund Burke be for Leave or Remain?

Why do so many so-called ‘conservatives’ back such a radical upheaval?

 

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The wisdom of Michael Oakeshott

 

The watchbreakers

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.

Burkean Euroscepticism

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.

Into uncertainty

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.

The gamblers

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.

American conservatives: not quite that stupid

No, they don’t actually want to bomb the country from Aladdin nor do they believe that solar panels will drain the sun.

cletus__the_slack_jawed_yokel_by_leeroberts-d3ht7iq

Don’t imagine Republicans are like this

Recently the American anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist tweeted that:

The fact that it’s not very funny shouldn’t obscure the obvious: it’s a joke. Nonetheless, some people with politics different from Norquist’s have a low enough opinion of him that they seemed to think he was serious.

This is a very small example of the tendency among people who are on the left and/or European to underestimate American conservatives. That’s admittedly difficult to do. It uses conspiracy theories to dismiss awkward science on matters like climate change and evolution. Its alarmism often reveals its insularity: one can only really believe that a small expansion of the welfare state will lead to a socialist dystopia if you don’t know much about countries that have larger welfare states. And as Donald Trump is revealing its ideology is underlined by some unpleasant prejudices.

But too often its opponents reveal prejudices of their own. Take, for example, the claim that “30% of GOP voters support bombing Agrabah, the city from Aladdin”.  This was gleefully shared on social media but probably didn’t merit the snarking it provoked. For starters it’s not from a very reliable source. It originates from a poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic leaning outfit with a poor reputation. Nate Silver has accused them of manipulating their results to match the results of other more effective pollsters. Their reputation for asking questions that produce amusing results that get a lot of media attention has earned it the nickname ‘the troll pollster’.

On this particular occasion, they got a stupid answer by asking a stupid question. The respondents to the poll filled it out online and therefore had no chance to ask for clarification. Plus there wasn’t an option for “that’s a stupid question why are you asking me about bombing a fictional place”. And most voters reasonably infer that if they are asked something by a pollster then it’s a reasonable question. So it’s not surprising that a fair proportion wound up being led to a nonsensical answer. It’s not just Republicans: 20% of Democrats also chose the yes answer. This is a story that says less about politics than it does polling.

A more blatant misrepresentation came when it was reported “a town in the U.S. has…blocked construction of a solar farm, in part due to fears it would drain the Sun’s energy”. Predictably that turned out to be a substantial embellishment. The claims about the Sun being drained of its energy came from two members of the public at a public meeting rather than from an official source. When the story was followed up by a reporter from Vox he found that the real concerns lay elsewhere. The town in question was extremely poor, felt it had been exploited by commercial interests and believed the company responsible for the solar farm would continue this exploitation. They appear to have been justified in that belief. They would not have received any financial benefit. It would, however, have used up land on which residents hoped to see developments that might help regenerate their town. Bizarre ideas about how solar energy work seem peripheral to the story and it appears tragic rather than funny.

We have got to stop misrepresenting American conservatives. The obvious reasons are accuracy and fairness. But there’s a more subtle one: it may lead us to underestimate our own proclivity for making mistakes. If Republicans make mistakes because they are uneducated hicks, then we can imagine that as well educated cosmopolitans we are immune to such dangers. If only that we true.

Instead, I suspect that the problem is selective blindness. It’s not that they don’t have information available or evidence a blanket rejection of rational thinking. For example, they are quite content with the majority of scientific findings: it is only those like climate change and evolution that contradict their ideology that meet resistance. I would suggest that a useful concept here is ‘rational irrationality’. This was devised by Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter:

“In standard neoclassical economics, people are assumed to be rational; the notion of systematic bias is considered to be a sloppy assumption. In many ways, Caplan agrees with this: most people are rational when it comes to choosing a job, buying milk, hiring employees, and selecting a business strategy. They can be wrong, of course, but a systematic bias rarely, if ever, occurs.

But the author argues they are only rational because it is costly to be wrong. A racist will still hire a qualified black person because going to the second best option will be expensive to the company. A protectionist will still outsource because he has to achieve as many advantages over his competitors as he can to stay in business. Someone who thinks a discount store is haunted will seriously question their conclusions when they find their budget to be tight.

Sometimes, however, it is virtually costless for the individual person to hold on to their preconceived beliefs, and people like those beliefs. Rational irrationality simply states that when it is cheap to believe something (even when it is wrong) it is rational to believe it. They refuse to retrace their logic and seriously ask themselves if what they believe is true. For some people, thinking hurts and they will avoid it if they can. This often appears in politics. Caplan argues that, “Since delusional political beliefs are free, the voter consumes until he reaches his ‘satiation point,’ believing whatever makes him feel best. When a person puts on his voting hat, he does not have to give up practical efficacy in exchange for self-image, because he has no practical efficacy to give up in the first place.”

So, for example, I think that deep down many Republicans know that more guns leads to more gun violence. I posit that they have banned federal research into gun control because they (at least subconsciously) know what it’s going to wind up saying. But it’s psychologically easier to avoid confronting that information than it is to change your belief system or admit that it has a cost. If they have to come at the problem from an unusual angle then their underlying rational beliefs can emerge. Take the NRA backed Texas legislator who warned that the US could not take Syrian refugees because it would be too easy for one of them to buy a gun and commit a terrorist attack. Or in the video below at 4:20 you can see a gun advocate argue that it’s not fair to compare rates of gun violence in the US and Australia because “the US has a very high number of guns, therefore, there are going to be more chances for people to get killed with a gun”.

The problem is that this kind of “confirmation bias” is a universal human tendency. It’s not peculiarly American or conservative. For an illustration of this, I would recommend a recent article by Jesse Singal in New York magazine on how there have been some egregious examples of people on the left trying to suppress research in fields like psychology and anthropology that contradicts their political beliefs. And why wouldn’t they? They are people and people like things simple and dislike changing their mind. So if you meet a Republican don’t expect someone who has just climbed out of a hole, expect someone fundamentally like you.

Praising Magna Carta, burying the Human Rights Act

How a mythical version of Magna Carta is being used to undermine real human rights.

Magna Carta – more often invoked than understood

The Onion, with its typical brilliance, once concocted the headline “Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be” for the satirical story of

self-described American patriot Kyle Mortensen, 47,….whose understanding of the Constitution derives not from a close reading of the document but from talk-show pundits, books by television personalities, and the limitless expanse of his own colorful imagination. “It’s time for true Americans to stand up and protect the values that make us who we are.

And thinks:

…the most serious threat to his fanciful version of the 222-year-old Constitution is the attempt by far-left “traitors” to strip it of its religious foundation.

“Right there in the preamble, the authors make their priorities clear: ‘one nation under God,'” said Mortensen, attributing to the Constitution a line from the Pledge of Allegiance, which itself did not include any reference to a deity until 1954. “Well, there’s a reason they put that right at the top.

In Britain, we don’t have a codified constitution to reimagine in line with our ideological prejudices. But we do have Magna Carta. And instead of Kyle Mortensen, we have David Cameron, who will say:

… the world was changed for ever when King John put his seal to Magna Carta. “The limits of executive power, guaranteed access to justice, the belief that there should be something called the rule of law, that there shouldn’t be imprisonment without trial – Magna Carta introduced the idea that we should write these things down and live by them.

But that:

“…here in Britain ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of human rights has sometimes been distorted and devalued. It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights – and their critical underpinning of our legal system. It is our duty to safeguard the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons. And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm that commitment than on an anniversary like this.”

The legal journalist David Allen Green dissects this peculiar British habit of praising Magna Carta whilst disdaining the human right instruments that are actually in effect. Drawing on a speech by Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption he observes that the document itself was toothless, irrelevant and short-lived. It was essentially forgotten until propagandists in the age of the Stuarts began using it as a basis for their contemporary claims:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”.

It is heady stuff, and it should be read aloud, perhaps to Purcell or Elgar.

But read it again carefully, and you will see it says little which is concrete at all. For as Sumption and others have pointed out, its meaning is essentially circular: you shall only be treated by the law under the “law of the land”.  it tells you nothing about what that law should be.  And if the “law of the land” includes, say, an unfettered royal prerogative or other unlimited executive powers, then it offers no protection whatsover; and it didn’t.  It was – and remains – a platitude, a slogan.

And so, the advances in “liberal” protections for the individual in English legal history – the writs of habeas corpus or the rulings against unrestricted warrants – came in unrelated legal developments, none of which depended on Magna Carta.

In fact, for a supposedly fundamental document, there is little to see of its “fundamental” effect: few, if any, cases have ever turned on it.  Although it is often invoked in passing, it lacks the live and real effect of an actual constitutional instrument.  Compare this impotence with the entitlements in the US Bill of Rights, which make actual differences to US citizens every day.

But, but….

But, so what?  Magna Carta is symbolic, isn’t it? And isn’t symbolism important?

So used are many people to thinking Magna Carta is a Good Thing they are displeased at hearing anything about it other than praise.  Don’t you understand, they will ask, that Magna Carta is symbolic?

Symbolism is important. And what Magna Carta is symbolic of is not a great English constitutional principle, but the lack of one.  It symbolises the capacity of people to nod-along at being told they have fictional and non-existent rights instead of having rights which can actually be enforced.  It symbolises that people are content with believing in fairy tales.

Those with political and legal power know this.  It is safe for the government to want you to celebrate Magna Carta, which you cannot rely on in court, whilst it – for example – seeks to repeal the Human Rights Act, which you can.

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you, asked Tony Hancock.  Sadly, to the extent it matters, Magna Carta means almost nothing at all.

Now, one could be cynical about Cameron wrapping himself in Magna Carta; he has to talk about Magna Carta for the same reason communist East Germany had to call itself ‘the German Democratic Republic’. I’m inclined to be more generous and see it instead as an example of widespread naivety on the right. They think liberty is intrinsic to Britishness: just look at our history of respecting  freedoms that stretches all the way back to Magna Carta!

One can see this assumption that the British of all people don’t need need onerous human rights standards in the regularity with which opponents of the ECHR observe that it was originally intended to stop the rise of another Hitler and therefore should not possibly be affecting a country like Britain. Indeed, I once heard a Conservative friend argue that it was safe to scrap the Human Rights Act because “it wasn’t like we weren’t free before it passed”.

This is a supremely complacent reading of history. It arises from the conservative proclivity for reducing the word to simplistic binaries: there are free nations and then there are tyrannies. In fact, free nations can act most tyrannically. For example, the US Senate’s report on the use of torture found that amongst other atrocities, detainees had pureed food pumped it into their anuses.

Some of the victims of these cruelties found themselves in Black Sites due to collusion by British authorities. And lest we forget we used torture ourselves in Northern Ireland, in our colonies and even during our proudest moment: WWII.

Sadly, this is not an exception. Britain has a long history not only of freedom but also of oppression. We were the nation that invented concentration camps. British soldiers massacred hundreds of peaceful protestors on a single day in India. The victim’s relatives did not have the option that Baha Moussa’s family did of taking Britain to the ECHR. Or closer to home, we might note that marital rape only became a crime in Britain in 1991. There is thus nothing about being British that makes us impervious to the temptation to abuse and degrade.

That means we need those instruments that entrench a culture of human rights. It is good that we that through the ECHR, we are part of a community of nations that challenge each other to uphold human rights. And it is desirable that the Human Rights Act makes it easier to bring challenges by allowing them to be heard in British courts rather than a massively backlogged one in Strasbourg. Neither Magna Carta specifically nor our history generally gives us any right to imagine we are above such things.

Winning the lottery makes you more conservative

As the Guardian reports:

A joint Australian and British study has found that lottery winners tend to switch their political allegiances to rightwing parties after their windfalls. They also appear to become less egalitarian and less concerned by the challenges faced by people on low incomes.

The research analysed more than 4,000 British citizens who won up to £200,000 ($365,000) on the country’s national lottery. Most of these wins were of relatively small amounts, with only 541 people winning over £500 ($910). In all, there were around 11,000 observations of winners, due to the fact that many people won money more than once.

Even among those who won small amounts of money, researchers found a clear trend of lottery winners switching support from the Labour party, traditionally a leftwing party, to the rightwing Conservatives.

Existing Conservative voters who won lottery money said their support for the party had strengthened after the lucky break, while winners from all political persuasions were more likely to say that ordinary people already had a fair share of wealth, compared with before their win.

Nearly 18% of winners immediately switched support to the Conservatives after their wins over the course of the study, which was based on household panel surveys taken each year from 1996 to 2009.

Overall, 45% of people who won more than £500 on the lottery said they supported rightwing parties, compared with 38% of non-winners throughout the course of the studies.

The lurch to the right was more pronounced for those who won large amounts of money and was more common among men than women.

Researchers – from the University of Melbourne and the University of Warwick – said that studying lottery winners “isn’t perfect” due to unknown biases such as the personality traits of people who play the lottery in the first place.

But they point out that more than 50% of the British population plays the lottery on a regular basis.

I have not read the original study so can’t comment on how solid it is. However, it would not surprise me if it were to be true. After all, this is something that happens all the time. From the moment we were born, all of us have been entered into multiple ‘lotteries.’ We saw last week that people descended from Norman conquerors still enjoy significant advantages over the general population almost a millennium after the Battle of Hastings. It speaks to our narcissism as humans that so many people attribute their good fortune not to such pieces of good luck but to their own supposed virtue.

Rescuing Hayek from the Hayekians (and himself)

Friedrich-August-Hayek

We (belatedly) finish Conservative Week with a look at Margaret Thatcher’s favourite economist and philosopher: Friedrich Hayek.

The Austrian economist FA Hayek has long been a staple of free market thinking. Margaret Thatcher read him as an undergraduate and cited him as a major influence on her premiership. And in 2010, professional right-wing scaremonger Glenn Beck devoted a whole episode of his TV show to Hayek’s book the ‘the Road to Serfdom’ and in the process launched it to the top of the US bestseller charts.

Given Beck’s use of Hayek as a tool for creating hysteria, it’s worth reflecting on what kind of free market thinker Hayek really was.

In order to argue that the (purported) expansion of the state under Obama threatens American democracy, Beck focuses exclusively on a single work of Hayek’s: ‘the Road to Serfdom.’ It’s a polemic about how economic planning leads to tyranny and it’s an excellent book. Hayek shows with chilling precision that there is no clean division between the economy and the rest of life, hence the state cannot takeover one and not the other.

Hayek and Beck both argue that combining liberal democracy and socialism is impossible. But they are talking about different socialisms. Beck’s scarcely deserves the name; at one point it extends to the government hiring people to conduct the census. By the contrast Hayek was writing Serfdom in the 1940s as Stalin’s Soviet Union was devouring Eastern Europe and many people in Britain were advocating keeping wartime planning in place even after hostilities had ceased. Hayek had more sinister things on his mind than Obamacare.

In fact it seems quite possible that Hayek would have been ok with a welfare state. In Serfdom Hayek wrote that:

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance, where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks, the case for the state helping to organise a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong. There are many points of detail where those wishing to preserve the competitive system and those wishing to supersede it by something different will disagree on the details of such schemes; and it is possible under the name of social insurance to introduce measures which tend to make competition more or less ineffective. But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom.

It is a pity that Beck does not go beyond Serfdom and look at the rest of Hayek’s work. His macroeconomics are mostly junk but his political theory is enlightening. Of particular benefit to Beck might be The Constitution of Liberty. It’s an argument that prosperity rests on the rule of law, and it might teach Beck that it’s not just the size of the state that matters. Whether it is accountable to the public and courts matters too. This is why despite Sweden and Venezuela both have economically interventionist governments, life in these two countries couldn’t be more different.

Progressives too often forget that freedom includes free markets. People who call themselves Hayekians need to remember that there is more to freedom than free markets.

The wisest conservative

Oakeshott

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.