Conservatism is the leading force in British politics today and one that is anxiously awaiting resuscitation in America. But what does modern Conservatism consist of, after George Bush's flirtation with the neocons and Margaret Thatcher's small-state catechism?
This is the Snark that the author sets out to hunt in an investigation into what Anglo-Saxon Conservatism might be. Kieron O'Hara, a British academic, has published several guides to modern Conservative thinking. His latest survey is rich in examples of how its ideas and instincts wax and wane in practice.
One of the odder distinctions within Conservatism is the disagreement about whether it is an ideology at all, worthy of a capital C, or simply a disposition or identity, with a small c, which can tolerate an awful lot of difference. One of the phrases David Cameron (a cautious admirer of the author's previous work) embraced in his audacious leadership bid was "change to win" a notion that plays on the ambiguity at the heart of Conservative thinking, namely that change is welcome only for a particular purpose.
Like many modern British Conservatives, O'Hara is influenced by Friedrich Hayek in his critique of the state's efficiency while offering a reminder that the author of the Road to Serfdom was given to hyperbole.
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O'Hara sees the job of the modern believer as "asking hard questions about well-meaning schemes" and evinces distrust in grand projects such as the present coalition's attempt to influence social mobility. His other judgments have the ring of hindsight, especially the prescription that Conservatives should oppose complex innovative financial arrangements lest they turn out to be dangerous to national economic wellbeing.
The difference between innovation and recklessness is rarely as apparent as this account suggests. Excitable neocons are treated with disdain "a case of the social engineering that the doctrine [of Conservatism] is supposed to deplore". This is not wholly true. Conservatism is not defined by a tendency to stand by while people's aspirations for more democratic societies are crushed: that is isolationism, a doctrine with an even more accident-prone history. "Democracy seems to have been a fleeting fad in the America-influenced parts of the Middle East," O'Hara concludes. Not so fast, sir.
Moderate Conservatives, such as Cameron, have also found themselves drawn to the support of the Libyan opposition, despite an innate suspicion of neo-connery. The evolving foreign policy of a new generation on the right deserves more thoughtful coverage.
An intriguing aspect of this survey is that the instincts of its author suspicious of untested schemes, ambivalent about the management of change, in favour of what Willy Brandt, the most venerated SPD German chancellor, termed the "policy of small steps" is exactly where many natural Conservatives feel comfortable. Alas, this underestimates the driving force of political life and the need to maintain momentum against opponents. That is as old a challenge to the politician as the art itself, and not easily cast aside.
The general reader might welcome more discussion of what individual practitioners bring to the party.
What, for example, would Thatcherism have been without the forcefulness of the woman who relished upsetting the crockery in the grand dining room of her Tory rivals? How would Reaganism be remembered if it hadn't had that dose of schmoozy charm blended with tough guile?
Conservatism captures the essence of a creed that decries change but has proved adept at surviving it. Life under a government run by the author would be fastidious, incremental and pragmatic: a sort of John Major for the 21st century. Fine in theory, but modern Conservatism can't afford to be quite so dull.