Tony Blair and Other Tory Notions

By Ofir Haivry

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Nothing better serves to underscore the paradoxical quality of the triumph of conservatism over the past two decades than the electoral victory of the British Labor Party last May. In Britain as in many other democratic countries, right-of-center parties today find themselves languishing in opposition, while conservative ideas—of which they were the lonely champions only a few years ago—have nonetheless become the lingua franca of political discourse. From the contraction of the welfare state and privatization, to budgetary restraint and deregulation, the principles of Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman are today found in the sound bites and policies of Bill Clinton in the United States, Tony Blair in Britain, Romano Prodi in Italy and other left-leaning leaders of the West. Some of them have even initiated full-blown Thatcherite measures that put their conservative political rivals to shame—such as the recent move by Blair’s finance minister, Gordon Brown, to grant full independence to Britain’s central bank, a step which the previous Tory government had been unwilling to take.
Clearly, something is amiss. If the ideologically and politically tattered left nevertheless manages to pull off one pyrrhic electoral victory after another, while the center-right, despite its apparent philosophical hegemony and popularity with the public, finds itself warming the benches of opposition as a matter of course, something must have gone terribly wrong with the conservative movement. And indeed it has. Conservative malaise is nothing more than the flip side of the collapse of ideological socialism: In the face of the dramatic and overwhelming evidence, former socialists the world over have recognized that the ideas for which they fought in the great struggles of yesterday have failed—and have thus adopted a new identity in preparation for future battles. Most conservatives, on the other hand, are still to be found wallowing in the limelight of yesterday’s successes, blind to the meaning of the new campaign unfolding before them, and therefore incapable of offering a coherent message to the public as they did in the past.
Political conservatism’s impotence is largely of its own making. One central characteristic of the movement as its “second generation” took power with the end of the Reagan-Thatcher years was the quiet recasting of its message. While economic concerns now occupy center stage in the conservative consciousness, it was not always so. The economic gospel of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and like-minded leaders was always but a component in a comprehensive worldview which held that individual freedom and a properly functioning society cannot exist over time without being based on other, even more basic concepts—norms of public morality, tradition and the centrality of the family; the idea that education, culture and other aspects of life should not be forced into patterns dictated by the state and its institutions; the idea that foreign despotisms, especially of the Communist variety, must be thwarted. What has happened is that the political center-right has focused on the most successful aspects of its own agenda, taking what appeared to be the “easy” road to continued victory by narrowing the message down to what seemed easiest to sell. Why fight every battle Reagan and Thatcher ever fought, when you can just fight the ones they won most handily?
Conservative foreign and social policies may seem irrelevant to the wonder-drug of conservative economics today, but this is only because we choose to forget just how instrumental the foreign policy and social ideals of the left were in fashioning the destructive economic programs of the 1960s and 1970s. Only twenty years ago, the prevailing view in western politics was that reconciliation with tyrannical regimes and ever-expanding state intervention in the life of the individual were the answer to all the world’s ills. The economic program of the time was merely a shadow of this grand political-cultural paradigm: Not only were industrial monopolies and labor-union tyranny tolerated, they were encouraged—they were, after all, just more of the same appeasement that one found in foreign policy; and just more of the same mistrust of the individual that one found in welfare policy.
The conservative ascendancy of the late 1970s led to such sweeping changes in the public’s political outlook that the Communist menace and the ravages of socialist economics were transformed, seemingly overnight, into a thing of the past. The astonishing speed of this change, however, did not leave much room for deepening an appreciation of the new political concepts that had brought about the change. Today, classical-liberal economics is seen primarily as a technical, utilitarian affair that may be readily divorced from its philosophical underpinnings. National identity, individual freedoms, governmental checks and balances, traditional societal structures, the centrality of the family, and the maintenance of morals—all these have been depicted in recent years as decorative accouterments which you can take or leave, because they are fundamentally irrelevant to what really counts: A thriving economy. And much of the blame for this should be placed on conservatives themselves, many of whom spend their time congratulating themselves for their economic beliefs rather than working to build an appreciation for those conservative ideas that have yet to capture the imagination of western culture.
Such conservatives, however, ignore at their peril the wisdom of their own philosophical heritage. Thinkers from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek endeavored to show how a free, cultured society and a prosperous economy are interdependent—being nurtured by the same values. This relationship may be ignored over the short term, but in the long run, a weakening in one area will inevitably impoverish the other as well.
This, then, is the central failure of conservatism in recent years: The political and ideological unraveling that occurs when moral, political and economic issues are depicted as though they can somehow be isolated from one another. And so we see the emergence of parties promoting only tax cuts and economic reforms, while other conservative groups address church-state issues or social morality; nor is there any lack of politicians like George Bush and John Major, who fly a “conservative” flag while at the same time proclaiming the end of the era of ideology—in the belief that the big battles are behind them, and all that must be done is to offer more efficient governance, without any substantive values.
It seems that many conservatives have forgotten that the great philosophical clashes have never been over the exact number of ICBMs or the precise level of the prime lending rate, but rather around societal ideals and the proper way of life. They seem to have lost touch with the fact that the collapse of Communism and the triumph of market values are but two battles won in a continuing war over the nature of human society—a war which can still easily be lost. It is their abstention from this great struggle that makes the few conservative electoral successes today seem so hollow: They are based on no opinions, values or beliefs that could lend meaning to victory.
The dumbing down of conservatism comes at a time when most of its missions still lie ahead of it. Although the old socialist and Communist tides have been stemmed, the opposition to the traditional values from which those movements drew inspiration is still stunningly alive and well. It has spawned new offspring under a variety of names, most of them sporting the prefix “post” (“-modernism,” “-Zionism,” etc.) as a warning label. But these ideologies are hardly “post”-anything; instead, they merely pick up where the old Marxists left off in undermining every traditional idea still left standing in our society and culture. And this new onslaught is perhaps even more insidious, because it is less visible to the naked eye: Whereas the socialists and Communists offered a sharply competing vision under a bright red banner, the new cultural vandals are colorless in principle, cloaking themselves in the guise of boundless tolerance. Yet while the trappings have changed, the bottom line is still the same. And, outside of the narrow confines of economic policy, it is all too evident that the principles of conservatism have far to go before they can even begin to talk of victory.
In the face of this challenge, the conservative movement finds itself divided and confused. If conservatism is to rejuvenate itself, it must work to rebuild a broad coalition, based on an encompassing and comprehensive cultural and political idea. Above all, it must rediscover the ideas that bound the old coalition together and made possible the impressive political and ideological achievements of the past.
Ofir Haivry, for the Editors
November 1, 1997

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