July 28, 2011

What do British Conservatives now wish to conserve? At different times they have sought to conserve both free trade and protection, the free market and the managed economy, and, in foreign policy, both appeasement and resistance. No wonder that Lord Macaulay once sardonically remarked that Conservatism consisted of little more than a celebration of the Liberal achievements of a previous generation. To this accusation, Lord Hailsham, Lord Chancellor in the governments of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, once replied that while Conservatives often change their front to meet a new danger, they never change the ground that they are defending.

Kieron O'Hara, who is a senior research Fellow in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton and a talented amateur philosopher, believes that there is a genuine ideological content to Conservatism, and that it should be distinguished from libertarianism, neoconservatism and Thatcherism, as well as from the culture warriors and Tea Party adherents in the US. Conservatism is not a merely unreflective appeal to tradition; nor can it be defined in terms of what Conservative governments or governments of the Right actually do. New Labour under Tony Blair proved more sympathetic to markets than the supposedly conservative Christian Democrat governments of the Continent, while Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy pressed for tighter bank regulation against Gordon Brown. In the 1980s, it was, for O'Hara, the despised "wets" rather than Thatcher who were the genuine conservatives. She was too addicted to the dogmatic rationalism of the free market to qualify.

Conservatism, for O'Hara, comprises two principles. The first is the principle of knowledge, as adumbrated by Friedrich Hayek, according to which the complexity of society imposes inherent limits to our understanding of it. Hayek, however, famously declared that he was not a conservative. Precisely because society was so complex, statist philosophies, whether socialist, Fascist or Keynesian, were, so he believed, bound to fail. The free market was the only coordinating mechanism that could take genuine account of the real wishes of consumers and producers. The free market, therefore, would always prove the best means both of allocating resources and of serving individual needs. For O'Hara, this belief is as dogmatic as the ideologies of socialists and neoliberals.

His second principle is the principle of change. For Conservatives, although they should be risk-averse, should not reject change but rather ensure that it is incremental and based on rigorous evidence. O'Hara favours what Karl Popper called "piecemeal social engineering". It is indeed odd that Popper is not mentioned in this book, since Popper's philosophy is much closer to O'Hara's than Hayek's. If, as Popper suggests, knowledge derives from a process of trial and error, then piecemeal social engineering is preferable to holistic experiments.

One such holistic experiment was the move towards comprehensive education in the 1960s, masterminded by Labour's education secretary, Anthony Crosland. This reform has been described by the economist John Kay as not "inherently foolish". What was wrong, Kay has said, "was the scale of the experiment and the absence of honest feedback on progress...the common-sense belief that central co-ordination and direction are bound to improve performance remains ingrained despite the contrary evidence derived from the failure of planning in both government and business organizations around the globe". The move to comprehensive education is a perfect case study of a holistic experiment that any genuine conservative must condemn.

O'Hara has sought to write "a work of philosophy pure and simple" and to "steer clear of day-to-day politics". The philosophy is not particularly original, deriving as it does from Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott as well as Hayek and Popper. But O'Hara does succeed in showing that conservatism, as he defines it, is an attitude of mind that those of all parties would benefit from adopting. Indeed, there is a sense in which, given O'Hara's definition, any sensible attitude to politics must be conservative.

However, O'Hara does not quite succeed in steering clear of day-to-day politics. The book's final section, "What Conservatism Might Be", provides some indications of the policies that would be adopted by genuine conservatives, and includes a stimulating chapter on "Green Conservatism". But, in trying to cover so much ground, the general effect is inevitably somewhat helter-skelter.

The book is, however, enlivened by satire. In his introduction, O'Hara thanks David Willetts, the universities and science minister, for finding time "while rescuing British higher education, to write a Foreword". It is not clear whether this remark is intended ironically. And, as Willetts notes, O'Hara's policy prescriptions include "balancing the budget, resting policy on evidence, going local, making information transparent, and balancing and preserving". "This", Willetts concludes, "bears an uncanny resemblance to David Cameron's Conservatism." These insights alone make the book worth the price.


By Kieron O'Hara. Reaktion, 376pp, £19.95. ISBN 9781861898128. Published 8 June 2011

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