By Kieron O’Hara
Reaktion Books, $29.95
Political leaders do love books that tell them what a very good job they’re doing. George W Bush, for example, was often seen clutching a copy of Andrew Roberts‘ excellent “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900” because it reassured him that his war on terrorism belonged to a fine historical tradition and was right and noble and good.
British Prime Minister David Cameron will, I’m sure, prove similarly smitten with his pet thinker Kieron O’Hara’s not-so-excellent “Conservatism.” In painfully elaborate scholarly detail, Mr. O’Hara tells Mr. Cameron exactly what he wants to hear: that he really is a proper conservative; that his much-derided green policies are eminently sensible; that as a responsible, pragmatic politician in these difficult times, he can do no other than steer a cautious middle path.
Many British conservatives would disagree with this assessment. No matter how many articles by David L. Brooks we read telling us that Mr. Cameron’s brand of managerial, third-way, don’t-frighten-the-horses “conservatism” is the perfect example for U.S. Republicans to follow, we look at the dismal evidence so far and beg very much to differ. Mr. Cameron, we believe, is a conservative in name only; far from “decontaminating the brand,” as he claims, what he’s doing in fact is poisoning the wells.
It all depends, of course, on what you believe a Conservative is. And whether they’re different from small “c” conservatives. And whether conservatism, contra Russell Kirk, is an ideology. And whether you think it has anything to do with the market-based philosophy of Friedrich Hayek. And so on. All this is subject matter for a potentially very interesting book - one that, unfortunately, Mr. O’Hara hasn’t written.
Part of the problem lies with his style. Take his use of “she” instead of the more conventional “he” for the generic third person. For sure, this is refreshingly, even admirably, post-sexist and now. But does it make sense in a book about so conservative a subject as conservatism? And in one about fields - politics and political theory - in which, for better or worse, by far the majority of those notional third-person characters are going to be male rather than female?
Too often it reads very much like something written by an academic for review by other academics in order to end up in university libraries and studied by mildly uncomprehending students as a set text. Of course, there’s nothing wrong per se with scholarly books that are dense, supersophisticated, discursive, clever, lavish with see-I’ve-done-my-background-reading references to other scholarly books, and that use difficult words like “heuristic” at every opportunity. But surely if they’re going to make life that hard for the reader, the very least they owe him in return is to come up with something genuinely new and insightful.
Strip away all the verbiage, though, and what you end up with is a rather feeble conclusion more or less on the lines that conservatism - as Bismarck once said of politics - is the “art of the possible.” Sure, Mr. O’Hara does go to the trouble of nailing down his philosophy to five principles: balancing the budget; evidence-based policy; localism and cosmopolitanism; transparency; balance and preserve. But I’m pretty sure most conservatives could come up with something a lot more credible than that given just five minutes and a cigarette packet to scribble on.
If you’re going to pontificate in the way Mr. O’Hara does, surely you owe it to the reader to know what you’re talking about. In his section on green conservatism he quite clearly doesn’t. Some of his statements are just plain untrue: “Many supposed climate-change ‘skeptics’ are not skeptics at all - they dogmatically deny its possibility.” (Er, no actually, Kieron. There’s not a skeptic on earth who denies that climate changes; the debate is over whether, or how far, the process is natural or man-made). Some are milquetoast platitudes: “Balance is the key.” And some betray a woeful lack of insight or thorough research.
Consider, for example, his airy pronouncement on the Stern review, the 2006 report calling for 1 percent of global gross domestic product (later revised to 2 percent) to be set aside every year to deal with climate change. The review, Mr. O’Hara tells us, “is to be commended for its ingenuity in addressing the bottom line.” Yet most serious analyses of the Stern review draw precisely the opposite conclusion: that essentially it is economically illiterate because it fails properly to discount for economic growth, thus imposing on current generations an unnecessary burden that future generations could more easily afford.
In moments like these it looks worryingly as if Mr. O’Hara’s idea of pragmatic conservatism is not about principle or doing what is right or sensible, but about surrendering to the “clamor of the times.” If this is modern conservatism, count me out.
• James Delingpole is the author of “Watermelons: The Green Movement’s True Colors” (Publius, 2011).
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