After Blair…

This looks like it would be an interesting read, and a very good review. I’ve emphasised one important part for me.

Do the right thing
For once, here is some advice that Conservatives might find useful. David Cameron on Kieron O’Hara’s analysis of conservative ideology, After Blair

After Blair: Conservatism Beyond Thatcher
by Kieron O’Hara
320pp, Icon, £12.99

The Conservative party is rarely short of advice. But too much of it sounds like orders shouted by an angry football coach: “Move right … Head for the centre … Create space.”

The strength of this book is that it draws on philosophy and history, rather than discussing strategy and tactics. Indeed Kieron O’Hara begins his quest for an ideological answer to the Conservatives’ difficulties by heading back to ancient Greece. He labours, with some success, to find a golden thread linking Socrates, Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne, Burke, Hume and the modern Conservative party. The core of his message is that Conservatives need to rediscover the importance of scepticism in thought and pragmatism in action. It is a compelling, and often persuasive, read and provides at least part of the road map for a sustained conservative recovery in modern Britain.

O’Hara neatly knocks on the head any idea that Conservative philosophy lacks relevance in today’s fast-changing world. Indeed, because it is about recognising how little we know – “it is a claim about knowledge and about human frailty” – conservatism has even greater relevance in the uncertain world which we inhabit. The author takes a prolonged “Rawlsian turn”, trying to do to conservatism what John Rawls’s Theory of Justice did for liberalism: to show that the ideology appeals to public reason rather than mere self interest. In New Labour speak, to show that it is for the many, and not the few.

After a canter through some important Conservative tenets – sound money, strong defence, the rule of law and the importance of property rights – O’Hara draws up two principles that should form the underlying basis of conservatism. The first is the “change principle”, which states that the concrete benefits of an existing society must be taken more seriously than “potential, abstract benefits that could be gained through applying a social theory”.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t innovate – but that an extra burden of proof should always lie on those proposing change. The second is the “knowledge principle”, which draws on the common-sense observation that “the knowledge required to coordinate and direct a complex, dynamic society” is clearly beyond any individual or bureaucratic machine. Combine the two and you “create an elegant but powerful conservative philosophy”.

These principles certainly help to provide a fairly compelling critique of Labour’s experiment in big government. The vast expansion of central control over public services, the profusion of complex means-tested benefits, and the botched reforms of British institutions, such as the House of Lords, would all fall foul of the two principles, and rightly so. He concludes that: “conservatism can help defend tolerance against prejudice, support pragmatism against dogmatism and provide security in an uncertain and disorienting world”.

Just as philosophy draws useful conclusions for policy, so his interpretation of Conservative history provides beneficial lessons for strategy. The party must combine both “big c” and “small c” conservatives, it should appeal to the mainstream of British politics, and it must be a broad-based coalition, combining (among other things) rural, traditional interests with urban, liberal ones. All of the successful Conservative prime ministers – Disraeli, Salisbury, Baldwin and Thatcher – recognised these facts.

Ironically, for a book about ideology, it also counts lack of ideological fervour as one of the historical strengths of the party: “Many Tories’ self image at least until 1975 was that of a group of sensible and responsible people unconcerned with political ideas, because ideas were the cause of trouble.” While an overstatement, this contains an important grain of truth. For Conservatives, doing the right thing should always be more important than following some doctrine, however persuasive it might seem.

The author’s upbeat, even jaunty, style makes the process of translating the lessons of philosophy and history into policy and approach sound too easy. And in some important respects, with regards to policy, he gets it badly wrong. The essential process of change and renewal in the Conservative party has been difficult. Unlike Labour, which clearly needed to junk policies such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and opposition to trade union reform, there have been few such clear totems for the Tories to discard as an indication of change.

Furthermore, we have faced a Labour party that at least pretends to take up any right-of-centre cause that appears to be gaining ground, whether it is cutting waste in government or granting a referendum on the European constitution.

Partly as a result of these difficulties there has been an excessive focus from some Conservatives on the look and feel of the party – and an unhealthy obsession from others about the need for “clear blue water” between the major parties. Of course modernisation of the party is essential, but it is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for recovery. Drawing up policies simply because they are different to your opponents’ is not a recipe for success. The two tests for good policy are: does it flow from your values – and will it make life better?

This is where O’Hara goes astray. His emphasis on the importance of communities and a pragmatic support for free markets – on the basis that both fit with the Conservative view of limited government and distrust of centralisation – is spot on. However, his proposal that we should freeze the process of reform in the public sector is way off the mark. The reason Labour’s reforms have not worked is because they do not accord with Conservative principles – they have been top-down, centralising, and have assumed that bureaucrats setting targets and measuring performance have perfect knowledge.

In short, scepticism, however important, is not enough. There are three further essential components for successful modern Conservatism. First, we need to reclaim the full set of values that makes conservatism whole. I joined up because the Conservative party combined a message about aspiration – that everyone should be free to do what they could and be what they could – with compassion for the weak, the vulnerable and those left behind. Second, we must look outwards and forwards, not inwards and backwards. Parties should exist to identify and address the modern challenges that our country faces. Finally, and more prosaically, Conservatism is nothing if it is not practical. We need a relentless focus on the things that people care about in their daily lives: the public services they use, the taxes they pay and their hopes and fears about the future.

Together with O’Hara’s timely reminder about grand designs from Blair or indeed anyone else, these should be the tests of the manifesto that we produce this year – and I am confident that we will meet them.

· David Cameron is head of policy coordination for the Conservatives and MP for Witney

Here’s the cover:

Cover of After Blair