Brotherly love ends at home

On Fraternity
August 3, 2007

The prominence of unelected special advisers can be seen in itself as a sad comment on contemporary British politics. In opposition, senior figures should be able to rely on candid, well-meaning advice from close colleagues; in government, ministers can draw on the assistance of highly qualified public servants. But nowadays no self-respecting politician operates without at least one person of unquestioning loyalty to suggest policy ideas, help with speeches and keep an eye on dissidents.

The present Conservative leader was himself a special adviser; according to Labour propaganda, he was personally responsible for the conduct of economic policy at the time of Black Wednesday (at 25 years old). It is therefore reasonable to suppose that David Cameron has been careful in choosing his own assistants. Danny Kruger currently advises the Opposition leader, which gives additional interest to this pamphlet.

In one respect, Cameron has obviously made a good choice. Kruger is an excellent phrase-maker, and this essay is a pleasure to read. The content has less direct political relevance than the style because the author stresses that he does not speak for the Conservative Party. Even so, if his boss shares the views expressed here, there is some cause for disquiet.

Kruger musters many of the greatest names in the history of political thought, from Plato to John Rawls. This would imply that Cameron takes ideas more seriously than Tony Blair; however, politicians are notorious for distorting the messages of illustrious thinkers. Contrary to Thatcherite rhetoric, for example, Adam Smith would have been uncomfortable with many Conservative policies between 1979 and 1997. But in Kruger's pamphlet, Smith hardly features, and the new Tory totem appears to be G. W. Hegel. For Kruger, Hegel is important as an advocate of a strong civil society, independent of the state. Kruger also uses Hegel's dialectical understanding of historical development to argue that there is still a sharp distinction between "Left" and "Right". Yet this is risky: students of Hegel may be more inclined to see the dialectic at work in the growing similarities between the two main UK parties. Moreover, readers may remember that Hegel was an uncritical admirer of the Prussian state, contrary to the modern Tory view that bureaucracy only makes matters worse.

In this respect, Kruger's pamphlet is a depressing repetition of Thatcherite themes. Far from being the embodiment of eternal principles, the state in his view is a nuisance that ought to be abated. Citing Hegel in the course of such an argument is an act of eye-popping audacity. As well as distorting Hegel's arguments, the dialectical approach has induced amnesia in Kruger's depiction of contemporary UK society. Many trends that he rightly deplores are products of the Thatcher years. Yet Baroness Thatcher has been airbrushed out of this account.

Arguably none of this matters. It is possible to have an eccentric understanding of Hegel, and even to rewrite history, yet still generate ideas that address Britain's deep-rooted difficulties. From this perspective Kruger's pamphlet reinforces the impression that Cameron's Conservatives will reclaim the One Nation banner. No Thatcherite could share Kruger's view that "social justice is certainly absent where inequality is chronic and persistent". The theme of "fraternity" is also attractive, marking a shift from the Thatcherite cult of the individual. Yet some prejudices are harder to shift. Thus, says Kruger, the European Union "poses a serious threat to liberty", with a constitution "written in Brussels, no less, under the supervision of a Frenchman". For the new Tories as for the old, "fraternity" evidently ends at the cliffs of Dover.

Mark Garnett is lecturer in politics, Lancaster University.

First Impressions

This week's competition, in which you have to identify a book from its opening sentence, is from an violent epic of the Wild West:

"See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt."

* Entries, including postal address, should be sent to First Impressions, The Times Higher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, faxed to 020 7782 3300 or e-mailed to theschat@thes.co.uk

The winner receives a £25 book voucher. The closing date is August 6.

The winner of last week's competition, who identified Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis, was Mark Doherty of Thornton Cleveleys, Lancs.

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On Fraternity: Politics beyond Liberty and Equality

Author - Danny Kruger
Publisher - Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society
Pages - 95
Price - £7.50
ISBN - 9781903386576

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