Sunday, May 08, 2005


Now that Tony Blair will be in charge of Britain for a few more years, perhaps it behooves us to see where he fits into political history. His situation certainly seems a curious one: His party seems as Leftist as ever but he has always been to the Right of his party. So to what extent is he a conservative?

Many people have pointed to pragmatism and compromise as characteristic of conservatives and that is undoubtedly true as a statement about British political history (Norton & Aughey, 1981; Gilmour, 1978; Feiling, 1953; Standish, 1990) but it would seem to lead to the view that democracy is inherently conservative -- in that any political party wishing to gain power in a democracy has to keep pretty close to the centre.

And a man who hews very much to the centre in his rhetoric is the electorally very successful Tony Blair. So much so, that the chief opposition to many of his policies seems to come from his own Labour party rather than from the opposition Conservatives. This has led some people to describe him as the best Conservative Prime Minister that Britain never had. And that, in a way is the point: A pragmatic centrist is rightly seen as conservative. But the reason why he is in fact the leader of a historically very Leftist political party is instructive. Note his own summary of his thinking here:

"At the heart of my politics has always been the value of community, the belief that we are not merely individuals struggling in isolation from each other, but members of a community who depend on each other, who benefit from each other's help, who owe obligations to each other. From that everything stems: solidarity, social justice, equality, freedom. We are what we are, in part, because of the other. I apply that idea here in Britain. I try to apply it abroad."

I cannot help compare that statement with a similar statement by a very different Socialist:

"The activities of the individual may not clash with the interests of the whole, but must proceed within the frame of the community and be for the general good."

And contrast both statements with this summary of historic British Conservative party thinking:

"They distrust general notions such as "the community" and would argue that the despotism of reason may cloak as much sinister self-interest and self-deception as any other tyranny."

The summary of Conservative thinking is by Feiling, an historian of the British Conservative party. The second quote above is from Adolf Hitler.

I have no doubt that Mr Blair is a genuinely compassionate man (something I would say of few Leftist leaders, though it is true of many Leftist followers) but, in good Leftist fashion, he is in love with the community rather than with the individual and that endears him to his party. From the rest of his speech we also note that, also in good Leftist fashion, he sees government as the best way to accomplish his goals, though he also acknowledges the limitations of government -- a rare thing on the Left and something again that marks him out as unusually conservative for a leader of his party.

That a Leftist party can give birth to conservative thinking is probably most clearly seen in the Australian case. Neville Wran, a Queen's Counsel of working class origins, was Labor party Premier of Australia's most populous state (New South Wales) from 1976 to 1986 and during his tenure introduced his party to conservatism (though not under that name of course). The electoral success of his approach was noted on the Federal level and was put into practice on the Federal level with the accession to power of Bob Hawke. Prior to his career in Parliament, Hawke was known as the king of compromises in the field of disputes between unions and business. As Prime Minster (1983-1981) he of course continued that approach and was in addition remarkably pragmatic on economic matters -- largely traceable, no doubt, to his degree in economics. It was he who initiated large scale privatizations of government enterprises in Australia -- very much akin to what Margaret Thatcher did in England.

So whether any given government can be identified as conservative or not is clearly a matter of degree -- a matter of how much the individual person is respected, a matter of how much government is trusted and a matter of how much compromise and pragmatism is resorted to -- but broadly conservative government can clearly arise from parties that are either nominally Leftist or nominally Rightist. In the Australian case matters have progressed to the point where the major choice on offer is between two conservative parties -- though there are of course also various minor parties (Greens, Democrats) that lean well to the Left. In the case of Tony Blair one would have to say that his conservative inclinations have generally led to little in the way of conservative results because of his trust in bureaucracy as a way of achieving his goals.

Feiling, K. (1953) Principles of conservatism. Political Quarterly, 24, 129-133.
Gilmour, I.H.J.L. (1978) Inside right. London: Quartet.
Norton, P. & Aughey, A. (1981) Conservatives and conservatism. London: Temple Smith
Standish, J.F. (1990) Whither conservatism? Contemporary Review 256, 299-301.


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