Flicking through Twitter last Sunday, I was prompted to enter an exchange with Nick Timothy, the former special advisor to Theresa May during the time when she was at the Home Office and when she was Prime Minister. Timothy’s Tweet was one of his regular reminders to his followers that the nature of conservatism is changing, and that the role of conservatism, and it’s ideological bedfellow liberalism, has to be thought about as two separate political projects or points of view.
He Tweeted this is “your periodic reminder that one nation conservatism and liberalism are not the same thing. The former is about overcoming division and addressing inequality. The latter often causes division and inequality.”
Well, I couldn’t let this pass by, so I fired off a couple of Tweets suggesting that Timothy might want a refund on his university education fees, as he’d clearly been misinformed about the role of conservatism and liberalism. A couple of links to Wikipedia and my itch had been scratched. I wasn’t expecting any kind of response, so I was surprised when Matt Sleat, a political theory academic at the University of Sheffield pointed me in the direction of Timothy’s book Remaking One Nation – The Future of Conservatism.
Matt’s recommendation was that I might find Nick’s book interesting, so I ordered a copy and I put it at the top of my reading list. I’ve spent the last couple of days taking notes and contemplating the issues that Nick Timothy discusses, and the direction of travel that he indicates. I’ve attempted to capture some observations, so this is only a vague go at coordinating some emergent thoughts in response to what the book covers. I hope my impressions can be taken as not uncritical, nor dismissive.
In places Timothy’s account of the state of the United Kingdom is a rollicking good read. I disagree with many of the principles around which he frames his discussion, but I agree with just as many, though perhaps for different reasons than Timothy would accept. Simply put, Timothy lists and describes many of the issues and challenges that a future-focussed politics here in the UK is going to have to get to grips with, including forms of governance, democracy, public services, identity, and the place we have in the world.
If I have one criticism, it’s that Timothy resorts in a number of places to hurried tick-list of headline policy options, and doesn’t examine any one of them in sufficient detail to show how they might work in practice. These are important issues, and they really do need to be considered and evaluated in more detail.
Timothy spends a lot of time addressing the idea of what it means to be a conservative. Which is fine, as there is a well-established school of thought that he illustrates clearly and succinctly in the fourth chapter. Timothy’s account of the drivers of political change in chapter two, however, in which he lists the major pressure points of modern Britain, could have been written by Ed Miliband, Polly Toynbee, Will Hutton or even Gordon Brown. I take issue with none of these concerns, and would point to any ongoing examination of British politics to suggest that a consensus is emerging around many of these issues.
Discussions about the balance between the state, the market and community are nothing new in political commentary. It’s a conundrum that many have argued around for a long time, and will continue to argue about for as long as we have political differences. What Nick Timothy offers, though, is a reminder that for those of a Conservative disposition – i.e. the Tory tribe, more than the social attitude – that there are established precepts and values that conservative adopted long ago, and that the expression and application of these precepts have consequences. The importance of Timothy’s book, therefore, is to remind members of the Conservative Party that they must take heed of these precentps, understand them as practical principles, and seek to reconfigure them in new ways if they are to play a role in forming legitimate governents in the future.
My initial concern, though, was how Timothy frames this discussion in relation to liberalism, and what he calls Essential Liberalism, Elite Liberalism and Ultra Liberalism. Many sub-currents and sub-processes of social change and political development are brought together by these concepts. My concern is that Timothy often conflates them as essential characteristics, when in fact they are contingent, historical and relative to the circumstances in which they are carried. An empirical examination of these forces and currents might illustrate that they are often derived from different patterns of social development, which themselves are often in opposition, but which are somehow cognitively resolved through an act of preference change in the Tory tribal mindset.
Managerialism, technocracy, globalisation, commodification, de-territorialisation, and the datafication of the economy, for example, should not be conflated with the extreme forms of individualism and social conservativism that are often lumped together within mainstream political reporting, which is lazily called neo-liberalism on the Left. Instead, one must acknowledge that there are many threads to the chord that we call contemporary liberalism. Some of the efects of these forces are negative and deleterious, while others may have positive and progressive effects. Indeed, the same effects in different circumstances may have entirely different outcomes. Hence the need for pragmatic frameworks of examination.
Where I agree with Timothy, however, is the one should consider the effects of these different strands in practice, and based on empirical evidence, rather than just in theory or based on assumption. This is an essentially pragmatic argument, which I would applaud. As John Dewey noted, “general theory might indeed be helpful; but it would serve intelligent decisions only if it were used as an aid to foreseeing factual consequences, not directly per se” (Dewey, 2016, p. 52).
Where I would remind Timothy to tread with more care, however, is in giving the impression that this territory has never been covered before. Many commentators, writers and political groups have been warning of the inherent dangers of the essential/elite/ultra-liberal policies of the last forty years. These elitist ideologies have not gone unchallenged, nor have they been unspoken off. A good example of which are the warnings of the rise of inequality by Richard Willson and Kate Picket in their book The Spirit Level, as well as the damming reports of Sir Michael Marmot, who eloquently and powerfully directed Gordon Brown’s attention to the link between poverty and health inequality.
It might just be that Conservatives tuned-out of these discussions, and stopped listening because they thought they knew better. George Osborne and David Cameron’s disastrous austerity policies are an example of ideological conceit and arrogance, as they failed to appreciate the warnings that were made about the rise of inequality, the dissatisfaction of many communities which led to Brexit, and the sheer incomprehensibility that government policy would redistribute from the poor to the wealthy. Any complaints where shrugged off throughout the 2010’s by many in government, their supporters in the media, and the think-tanks that lend credibility to them. They were memorably described by Michael Gove as the howling of ‘the blob.’
It is a watershed moment, then, that Timothy dares to address these issues with the full force of empirical evidence. It is heartening to read that Timothy believes that the function of conservativism should be to ensure that society is just, evenly representative, and prepared to discuss how our social framework can be made more inclusive and less exclusive. A lot of what Timothy advocates would find common ground across many political traditions, many civic and social advocacy movements, and within many progressive forms of government around the world.
A couple of points that Timothy might consider addressing in the future, however, incluide his scepticism about identity politics, and his inability to use mixed or gender-neutral pronouns. Is this indicative of a lack of shared understanding of what it means to be a person who has been marginalised from mainstream policy and decision-making conversations? Its an important point, but always describing conservatives as ‘he’, and never ‘she,’ or ‘they,’ hints at a blindspot in relation to the experiences of fifty-percent of the population.
Moreover, much of what Timothy refers to as the grounding of cultural politics has itself simply been a ‘levelling up’ and equalisation of collective voices and experiences in public administration and citizenship. To be representative our civic organisations and political processes must be inclusive, but even today many voices and experiences are ignored and marginalised. We should not admonish this as virtue signalling in a culture war, but recognise it as a legitimate question of citizenship and accountability. I agree with Timothy, though, that these issues are best addressed through an activist form of advocacy and participative citizenship, which implies responsibilities, contribution and rights in equal measure. I wouldn’t junk the human rights model though, and any conservative should be wary of dismantelling any framework for adjudicating our social rules, especially as it is just being embedding and establishing itself.
One thing not to forget is that Timothy spent over ten years at the heart of the British government. This point is made on the book’s dust jacket. So this is very much an insiders account of the policy and political thinking process. What would be interesting is if it could also be related to accounts of ordinary citizens working to effect political change, especially through open and accountable social organisations. It would be welcome if more time could be given to learning and experiencing how those organisations and groups, who are often on the outside of the policy networks, are able to effect change and are heard at all levels of government.
Timothy advocates for reform of the democratic process, which I whole heartedly agree with, but I suspect that we need to go further and change to a proportional system of elections. Let’s start with local government. If our cities and our counties are diametrically locked￼￼ into forms of near one part rule, and don’t enable balanced and fair representation, then no party will learn from the experience of representing citizens in areas they don’t feel culturally familiar with.
For example, here in Leicester fifty-three out of fifty-four council seats are Labour held, on a vote share of about forty-five percent. That means Conservatives, Greens and Liberals aren’t represented in the council chamber. Likewise in Leicestershire, the majority of seats are Conservative. These ratios never seem to change, and it’s bad for the parties involved. We end up with so-called ‘heartlands’ where assumptions are embedded and differences￼ of viewpoint ignored. Everyone’s vote should matter, and all parties should be accountable, in all places, through the ballot box.
It’s welcoming to read that Timothy supports a rebalancing of power between employers and Trade Unions. I would go further, and even as a member of the Labour Party I would support the separation of Trade Unions from the Labour Party, so that they can act as independent civic institutions. It’s been remarkable that a social tradition as rich as trade unionism has been so demonised and devalued as happened here in the UK. It’s akin to taking away one of the shock absorbers from the car. When you hit a pothole, you can’t compensate for the shock in the way that you would otherwise. I would caution Timothy, however, from setting up government-led industrial councils, for the same reason that he argues that community and civic institutions should have a greater role in the running of society and the economy. If trade unions are defined in law as civic society organisations, then they should be free to collectively bargin for improvements to workers conditions, pay and rights.
Similarly, Timothy calls for only a limited reform of our media, and he needs to go much further in recognising the damaging framing that is forced around contentious issues, usually by a highly partisan press and media. I can’t think of any group of people who are more Ultra Liberal than the people and corporations who own the majority of the news and entertainment media here in the UK. Surely, if we want to reform our social systems, and make them more accountable and relevant to the lives of people in our communities and neighbourhoods, then we have to do something about the concentration and abuse of power in our news and media?
One radical solution that would fit well with Timothy’s conservative and reforming impulses, would be to support and invest in alternative, civic, cooperative and community media platforms and media. I agree with Timothy’s call for greater investment in local and community driven institutions. It is through these institutions that we can draw a common sense of solidarity and culture. Beveridge argued this in the 1940s. I find Timothy’s list of cultural events and activities, however, to be parochial and bourgeois. But taste isn’t really what this is about. The ability to shape and tell our own stories, based on the multiple experiences and expectation of our actual lives, and not some nostalgic imagining of them, is more important. Cultural institutions should be reflections our lives and concerns, as they are, not as they are mythically and nostalgically imagined to be.
I don’t doubt Nick Timothy’s sincerity when he says that we need to restore the role of community in practice, but I would suggest that in order to gain the trust of those who may remain reticent about engaging in this renewal process, that a moment of honesty and self-reflection is necessary. Conservatives must be honest about the shadow side of their politics, and the damage that conservatism has caused, intentionally or unintentionally, by forcing destitution on many. To answer Timothy’s moral conundrum on rewarding hard work and enterprise over and above slovenliness, when does one persons parsimony become hording, and when does another person’s largess become frivolity? Keynes taught us the importance of seperating economic decision making from moralism. It should be a lesson well remembered as we pull back from the bancrupcy of moneterism.
At the core of English conservativism, in practice, is a solid protestant moral judgementalism. Conservatives, in my experience, will maintain until their dying breath that they have the right to judge others for their misfortune, and absolve themselves of any sin in the acquisition of their own wealth. De-industrialisation in the 1980s didn’t happen by accident. It was exacerbated by policies which excluded people and dismissed their concerns. Likewise, the failure to challenge bigotry and hatred, which has long been associated with many in the conservative political establishment, such as Section Twenty Eight, or those who wilfully created ‘hostile environments.’ The effects of these was real, damaging and ought to be acknowledged as such.
Timothy’s account of conservatism, moreover, makes the mistake that many social commentators have made in the past. That conservativism is somehow free from ideology. It isn’t. It may not be defined by ideology in principle, but it certainly is in practice. If ideology is a set of dominant assumptions about the nature of human interaction, then Conservatives are some of the most ideological people around. My experience of conservativism in practice in Borough Council meetings, is that Conservatives like to project themselves as being ‘non-political,’ as many practicing Conservatives profess to be. This is no get out of jail card. Alegiance to the conservative faith does not absolves anyone from their duty to explain the motives and the reasons for making decisions and choices in the public domain.
Naturalising political choices as somehow common-sense and beyond politics, is the fundamental definition of dominant ideology. It is the delusion of all ideologues. It’s just that Conservatives are really good at doing this, and are particularly good at evading questions about the process by which they do this. Abandoning policies as if ‘nothing has changed’ is a common refrain associated with policy u-turns.
I would suggest that conservativism, at heart, is the reform of the weak for the benefit of the dominant. Whereas social democracy is the reform of the dominant for the benefit of the weak. What is pleasing to read in Timothy’s account, however, is that he is tacking more to the social democratic role of conservativism, and away from the reactionary. He is certainly putting clear blue water between himself and the ultra-liberal forms of conservativism.
There is a meta-modern dictum that goes ‘after the deconstruction must come the reconstruction.’ Hanzi Freinacht in his book The Listening Society suggests that Western Liberal Democracies are inevitably moving towards an embrace of pluralistic, green, and social democratic models of governance, as is presently espoused in the Nordic countries. This includes higher levels of taxation on wealth. This taxation can then be redistributed to support social wellbeing, responsive healthcare, life-long social security, life-long education, and investment in free enterprise and democratic markets. The Nordic model is associated with a strong sense of community (weltanschauung), a sense of belonging (bildung) and a strong sense of social justice and responsibility, combined with a sense of civic empowerment and internationalism.
Redefining established political concepts is difficult, and at some point, we have to decide if we should put new labels on old bottles. I would encourage Nick Timothy, and those who agree with him and want to expand the scope of conservativism, to stake an early claim to the new bottles that need new labels. Start by describing and thinking of yourselves as conservative Social Democrats, for that is what you are. You may find that there is common cause with progressive Social Democrats, not just in theory, but in practice as well.