Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The British Right-Wing Blogosphere: Anti-Establishment Conservatism

I think that the right wing blogosphere and many other elements of the growing conservative movement are, in several ways, unrepresentative of broader British conservative intellectual and popular traditions.

The first difference is one of degree; the blogs are generally more doctrinaire and hold stronger views than your average conservative. This is hardly surprising. For people to take time out of busy lives something has to have stirred them to action and this will usually be an issue they care passionately about. The exceptions are those like Iain Dale for whom blogging must be considered a part of their career and who are often more moderate. This can affect the broader movement as it undoubtedly has for the Democrats in the US where the netroots have boosted the chances of the hopeless through financial donation and moral support and upset the party's efforts to move towards the centre. However, it does not really appear to have affected the Conservatives as MPs do not depend upon independent funding so the possibility of isolating favoured representatives for support is limited. This difference may become important in the future but for now we appear to have avoided being held in place by netroots.

A second difference is that the blogosphere is more libertarian than popular conservatism. This is largely a result of bloggers being younger, on average, than the right wing voter base. Libertarianism is a lot easier to sell to younger people as any survey of right wing students can confirm. It allows you the fun of outflanking the left on social liberalism, has the whiff of rebellion and is more idealistic. Again, this isn't going to change the character of conservative Britain as this imbalance is not new and used to have better institutional support in the form of organisations like the Federation of Conservative Students which proceeded today's Conservative Future and was at one point truly, fearsomely, libertarian.

The final difference is the one that I consider most interesting. Most of those engaged in right wing blogging consider themselves to be anti-establishment. Whether it is holding up Guy Fawkes as an icon or lambasting fuzzy old Iain Dale for being in the establishment pocket there is a common thread of seeing any institutional link as essentially dirty. Even relatively moderate parts of the conservative movement like ConservativeHome and 18 Doughty Street make use of this meme; 18 Doughty Street "aims to be an anti-establishment channel". The source of this rage at an established other seems to be a sense of persecution by certain institutions which are felt to have either been corrupted or poorly conceived such as the BBC and the European Union. Much of this is, of course, entirely correct criticism of institutions in need of destruction or reform; however I can see several reasons to be very careful of getting too attached to the anti-establishment identity.

Firstly, it is necessarily divisive. Being anti-establishment usually means a distrust of large institutions, Rod Dreher's preference for the "Small, Local, Old, and Particular" over the "Big, Global, New, and Abstract". However, for a movement which aims to govern one nation of sixty million people large institutions will be necessary. If contact with and, in particular, compromise in order to form a part of a large organisation is viewed as dirtying and discrediting these large institutions will be seriously weakened. If these institutions are weakened the movement will descend to the unpleasant fate of socialist movements past which could not see past their differences to what they had in common.

Secondly, it is highly indiscriminate. Big business does not deserve as much scepticism as big government. While big business may, from time to time, be corrupted by its occasional access to the power of the state the large corporation itself is a wonderful institution. Large corporations fulfil a hugely important function in being able to handle the scale and risk of research in fields like pharmaceuticals and have been a force for efficiency and high standards elsewhere. An example of where this inability to discriminate between establishments has been harmful is the right wing attacks on Tescos for hurting small shops. The most credible explanation for the decline in small shops is that it emerges from the same cause as the decline in fertility; the time of women becomes more valuable when gender discrimination at work falls and that encourages the greater time efficiency of shopping at a single store; there is no need for an explanation in terms of anti-competitive behaviour. The big effect of the supermarkets has been cheap food as they rip each other to pieces in price competition, Tescos big profit numbers have come largely from increased volume including international success (hallmark of a competitive industry). Big business is just one example of where anti-establishment fervour can lead the right to endanger an important alliance on the basis of a largely emotional dislike.

Finally, and most importantly, being anti-establishment would lose the core of British conservatism in Oakeshott, Burke or (whisper it) Hayek's distrust of radicalism. Our conservatism has always been rooted in a belief that radical schemes to rationally remake society were doomed to failure and unintended consequences thanks to the limits of human knowledge. This goes not just for the decline of traditions like marriage but also for a lot of the institutions that constitute parts of the British establishment. Institutions like the steady judgement of the Lords which views even global warming with its characteristic calm, a much maligned justice system which is, by comparison with international standards, really rather good. A consensus approach to global issues which is instinctively in favour of fine things like free trade, has little patience with childish sniping at the superpower and is willing to risk military intervention on the right side of international disputes. An establishment that was successful in integrating past waves of immigrants through a calm refusal to see the colour of people's skin combined with not forcing the pace. This is not a bad establishment and it embodies the accumulated wisdom of an old and successful nation.

Of course our establishment makes mistakes. It has already taken far too long to adjust to the idea that Islamism cannot be smoothed over in the passive manner that worked for the problems of past groups of immigrants, Thatcher had to rescue it from a chronic lack of ambition and such a pessimism over Britain's post-imperial role in the world may reassert itself if we are not careful. However, these are reasons to change the mind of the establishment, to ensure that modern right wing insights are more thoroughly enshrined in the great British common sense. They are not reasons to define ourselves as outsiders.


Gracchi said...

Matt a sane and sensible post. Can I offer one ammendment- that big government like big business is a good thing in the fields where it operates well. None of us for example wants to see government stint on its operation of the armed forces- though all of us would not wish it to control the coal industry. Its a matter of where government applies its energy not how much energy it applies often that conservatives object to. Obviously conservatives are in favour of shrinking the size of government but that's because they are in favour of shrinking its competencies- where they leave it competent they want it strong.

Incidentally just as a sidenote its interesting that Hayek refused throughout his life to be described as a conservative- in teh Constitution of Liberty he even has an essay on Why I am not a Conservative- I can't remember the detail, I leant it to someone who never gave it back- but its definitely there.

Mr Eugenides said...

Worth commenting on at greater length if I have the time later.

As one of those who falls into the doctrinaire, libertarian bracket - albeit one whose shrillness is to some extent a choice based on style of writing as much as innate rage at the world - I recognise a lot of myself in some of your observations (and criticisms).

I don't speak for anyone else, but I don't think of myself as "anti-establishment" as such, and I suspect most libertarians and right-wingers would say the same. We don't distrust authority per se: for the most part, we have been brought up to have great faith in institutions like the police, the law, armed forces, monarchy and so forth like any good right-wingers.

I think for the most part our faith in those institutions remains strong; where we are critical of them, it is because we feel government has meddled with them, stopped them doing their jobs, promoted PC placemen rather than good leaders and so on.

Sometimes we have to go through mental gymnastics to reconcile our inherited faith in these institutions with our criticism of their current incarnation, but we normally manage it in the end.

I suppose I would prefer to say that we are anti-consensus, rather than anti-establishment, no matter what Doughty Street may say to the contrary. We're anti this establishment - but unlike anarchists or Trots we do believe that strong institutions are important to British life, so long as they respect the boundaries of the individual.

Mr Eugenides said...

I'm still planning to comment on this, Matt, when I have a moment.

The Pedant-General said...

"However, for a movement which aims to govern one nation of sixty million people large institutions will be necessary. "

That's the whole point: large institutions are not necessary if you are not trying to govern the whole nation from the centre.

Libertarians of all degrees simply do not agree that your assumption here holds.

There is no doubt that the state has to provide certain key services, notably defence and an impartial courts system, but even there it would wrong to say that these are "large institutions", because Control is devolved to a very low level.

It is when this control is not delegated - as Hayek tells us - that we get the problems.

Anonymous said...

Mr E "I don't speak for anyone else...." If you don't mind an inarticulate ignorant hitchhiker, you speak for me. Every para, every sentance, every word. Plucked the lot from my psyche. Me.

Hitching Pedant General ...defence, judicial system and the currency. All we need.

Guido Fawkes said...

My kind of libertarianism is mistrustful of big government and big business to a degree - particularly where big business works in cahoots with big government.

Big business can't screw me without the government's help by and large. So I am an enemy of the state first and foremost.

I'm pleased that bloggers are self-describing themselves as libertarian - clearly it is seen as a positive label.

Just hope that they realise what liberty means.

Anonymous said...

'I think for the most part our faith in those institutions remains strong; where we are critical of them, it is because we feel government has meddled with them, stopped them doing their jobs, promoted PC placemen rather than good leaders and so on.' ;every word but one absolutely right.

THIS government, not government per se. This government has declared that its project is so to disturb the constitution and institutions of the uk state that there will never be a return to democratically responsive power by any party; and this vile objective rides on labour voters under the pretence that it is anti-conservative.

Political categories don't fit properly any more; listening for moral, plitical and even economic sense, honestly argued, is the touchstone of decency now, not right or left, liberal or Correct.