Monday, August 28, 2006

Fraternity and Conservatism

Top Cameroon Danny Kruger has an important article in Prospect magazine (hat tip: Conservative Home). The heart of the piece is an excellent discussion of "fraternity" or "community" and how it realtes to the other core modern values of liberty and equality. This is something that all Liberals (with a small l or a capital one) and Conservatives (likewise) should read and will probably learn from - my criticism should be taken in that context.

To me, the most surprising thing about this article is that Kruger thinks that an emphasis on "fraternity" or "community" in Conservative rhetoric is something new. Though the detail would be different, I find it hard to believe that any of Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, or John Major would have disagreed with it - indeed Kruger cites Burke in his support.

Kruger's big mistake is to assume that the two-party, left-right model of British politics is an useful model for political ideas. He describes politics as a battle between a right that believes in liberty and a left that believes in equality. In fact, the two-party system lasted less than 30 years, from the collapse of the Liberals in Labour's 1945 landslide to the 6 million Liberal votes of 1974. In any case, the Tories of this era accepted Labour's statist "equality is fraternity" ideas that Kruger rightly criticises. Advances in liberty (notably the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion) tended to involve free votes or private members' bills.

In fact, there is a Liberal tradition in British politics that is neither "left" nor "right" except in so far as we have formed tactical alliances from time to time with one side or the other. If the Left owns equality, and the Liberals own liberty, it should come as no surprise that the Conservative tradition owns fraternity. Kruger identifies several institutions which promote fraternity: unions, churches, families, small shops, Army regiments, professional associations, traditional pubs (complete with warm beer), and sports teams. Apart from unions, these are all things which traditional Conservatism sought to defend, and most have been bastions of one-nation Tory voting. Kruger also points out the link between fraternity and the small-c conservative mindset - community institutions depend far more on things like respect for tradition, tolerance of institutional eccentricity, and a sense of duty than either the free market or the welfare state.

So if Cameronism is all about a return to Conservative values of time immemorial, why is it so controversial? The first reason is that it is not Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher was not, by any means, a small-c conservative. Her rhetoric dealt far more with liberty than fraternity - and by and large her policies reflected this. A young Conservative friend of mine used to talk about three factions in the Conservative party: "wets" (One Nation Tories), "dries" (Thatcherites) and "s**ts" (extreme social conservatives who supported groups like the Monday Club). Thatcher the PM was a dry. Thatcher the legend was a s**t. The natural state of British Conservatism is wet - and Cameron reflects this.

The other reason is the tendency to look to America. The Scotsman, approvingly linked by Conservative Home, criticises Cameron for failing to emulate the "world's two most successful conservative politicians" - George W. Bush and John Howard. The Bush administration is clearly an attractive model to Conservatives - but it is a foreign one. Small-c conservatism is traditionally sceptical of copying foreign ideas wholesale when perfectly good British ones are available. It is also unclear that Bush is particularly successful (he lost the 2000 election, and only won by a whisker in 2004 despite winning a war), or that his approach to politics is a good one. Most of the votes that get Bush to 50.5% come from Southern racists and religious nutcases - i.e. people who don't need to think about liberty, equality and fraternity becuase they want to bring back the ancien regime. Being British doesn't make Cameron's brand of Conservatism any less Conservative.

Returning to Britain, what should our response as Liberals be? Firstly, we should carry on being Liberals. If the Conservative party is downgrading the politics of Thatcher the PM, then there is all the more need for us to be willing to make the case for liberty - because nobody else will. There are plenty of votes to be had in being the party of limited government, and nobody else seems to be after them. Even more importantly, there is a political need for politicians who are willing to challenge the natural tendency of the government to waste our money and tell us what to do.

Secondly, we need to remember the mistake that Thatcher made - namely forgetting about equality and fraternity altogether. Liberalism is about liberty, equality and fraternity (although the preamble calls it "community"). So, at its best, is Conservatism (though it interprets all three in a different way). So, too, is the traditional Labour movement of unions, co-operatives, friendly societies, and a political party to represent their interests. That is not surprising, given that we are all heirs to the values of the French revolution, which are also the values of the American and British revolutions. While I belong to a tradition that places liberty first and Kruger to one that places fraternity first, we all need to remember that unless you cherish all three very bad things can happen.

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