The New Politics: Liberal Conservatism or Same Old Tories?
by Peter King,
Policy Press (Bristol UK), 2011,
156pp, paper, $35.

Peter King of De Montfort University is a Conservative-supporting academic who has advised the government on welfare reform. He is besides the author of numerous books on such subjects as housing and conservative social thought, and a frequent contributor to online discussion groups. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his university webpage lists “arguing” among his interests.

The New Politics is lucid and highly focused, so much so that occasionally it reminded me of the advice apocryphally given to preachers—“tell them you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them you’ve told them.” Yet such a didactic approach is probably necessary because of what the author rightly decries as academics’ “shallow ignorance” of conservative ideas.

The first half of the book seeks to define conservatism, while the second looks at more superficial questions—the formation of the coalition, comparing Cameron and Thatcher, and a summation of the author’s thesis that the Conservatives have changed, but that these changes are within a long tradition of pragmatism that is one of conservatism’s strengths. They are simultaneously “the same old Tories” and something new.

King makes an unanswerable case that the Conservatives had to enter into coalition. The alternative minority Conservative administration would have been constantly stymied by the combined opposition parties, whereas the unified Conservative/Liberal Democrat vote share was almost 60 percent, making their alliance as democratically legitimate as possible. Governing with the leftish Liberal Democrats also means that Labour’s criticisms of policy are blunted by the appearance (or reality) of government bipartisanship. The government can be portrayed as one of “national unity”; King incidentally reminds us that the Conservatives were in coalition with liberals between the 1880s and the 1920s. A further salient consideration for Conservative strategists is that smaller parties in coalitions usually suffer, and whatever happens between now and 2015 the Liberal Democrats are likely to lose heavily at the next election.

The author maintains that there are in fact certain similarities between Cameron and Thatcher, although the first is widely disliked and the second widely venerated by the right. Cameron’s adopted label of “progressive Conservative” grates on many nerves, but Thatcher called herself “radical” and even “revolutionary,” and classical liberalism and conservatism are after all not necessarily coterminous. It is even possible to argue that Cameron’s interests in localism, the “Big Society,” environmental protection, and domestic manufacturing are more Conservative than Thatcherism was.

“Progressive Conservative” is an oxymoron, but labels don’t have to be logical so long as they are as useful as this one. Progress is always more exciting than practicality, because it offers perennial hope to a world of perennial gullibility. Blair’s 1997 slogan “Things Can Only Get Better” or Obama’s ungrammatical variations on “being the change” were vacuous to the point of insulting the electorate, yet they worked, and they will work again. This is why Cameron has sought to co-opt “progress,” and if it remained a mere tactical device there would be no problem.

The problem for the right is that in many ways Cameron appears genuinely progressive, even seeking confrontation with the Tory old guard—for example, by attacking columnists like Simon Heffer or publicly supporting “gay marriage.” On the other hand, his use of the British veto in Brussels last December has reassured and temporarily pacified the right, and stolen the thunder from the United Kingdom Independence Party, the usual first port of call for disgruntled Tories. The question is how long the right will remain quiet, and whether they can organize themselves more successfully in the future than they have ever done in the past.

But this seems unlikely, because what does “right-wing” mean these days? Indeed, what does “conservatism” mean? King observes that it is difficult to define conservatism, because everywhere the impulse is contingent—an attitude rather than a stance, a reflection of personality type as much as principle. But he is surely on firm ground when he approbates traditionalism, skepticism, and organicism and notes the necessity of “a sense of ancestry, allegiance, and affiliation” to bolster “self-evident” values and institutions.

Another defining characteristic is reaction. King has a book of that title coming out this year, but for now The New Politics provides a skilful and sympathetic survey of this tendency, which has been traduced ever since Epimetheus was compared unfavourably with the more glamorous Prometheus. King reminds us that it is not only natural but wise to react to events, as antibodies in the blood converge on malignant cells. The point of conservatism, he notes, is to halt, slow, or modify problematic developments until they become harmless. Change is inevitable, but it can and should be managed—sometimes through Lord Salisbury-style “masterly inactivity”.

The problem with identifying conservatism as a purely reactive force is that it leaves it both unfocused and in a perpetually defensive position—and armies that never take the initiative usually lose. Managing change can too easily become managing decline—and if decline is permitted to continue eventually there may be nothing left to conserve. The Conservative Party has dominated the last century of British politics—yet the Britain of 2012 is markedly less traditional, less skeptical, less organic, less British, less independent and less stable than the Britain of 1912, 1952, or even 1992. For that the Conservatives must take much of the blame. They were elected to clean up after the children, but instead they have often opted to perpetuate Labour policies (if less enthusiastically). Conservatism has become more of a speed-bump than a barrier across the avenue to Avernus.

It is not enough to rely on “self-evident” values if this “self-evidence” is not reinforced constantly. Things that are taken for granted ultimately get taken. The assumptions on which conservatism depends stem from very particular roots, and these roots must be watered copiously and often—regardless of the terrified squeaking of some Liberal Democrats. Higher educational standards, the excision of political correctness, and the near-ending of immigration would both secure the loyalty of the right and be of signal service to the country. In the long term, Cameron’s claims to be a Conservative of whatever kind will be judged by such criteria. In the meantime, Peter King has provided much for us to ponder while history’s jury is out.  

Derek Turner is editor of the Quarterly Review.