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Can the 'four wise persons' pass the Hitchens test?

    In his Sunday Telegraph column, Matthew d’Ancona argues that David Cameron needs to pass what he calls the Christopher Hitchens test.

    Hitchens was conspicuously uninterested in the PM and all his works, regarding him, it seemed, as one of the less engaging characters his beloved Bertie Wooster might have bumped into at the Drones. “[Cameron] seems content-free to me,” he said in an interview with the New Statesman in May 2010. “Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, ‘What do you think of him?’ And my answer is: ‘He doesn’t make me think.’”

    To be sure, it was never the job of the Prime Minister to make Christopher Hitchens think, even while that great polemicist was still with us. There are some of us who rather enjoy Cameron’s focus on the pragmatics of getting things done and making progress in small steps. Indeed, that quite often requires bold actions, such as switching virtually all policy to the purpose of deficit reduction, providing significant support to anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya, and resisting the EU’s misguided proposals for treaty reform.

    These steps are not bold enough for d’Ancona (or Hitchens), as they do not provide a ‘clear route map for the nation’. Let us not cavil that a nation is greater and somewhat more diverse than a retirees’ rambling club, and so may not need a route map, for apparently a little committee has been formed to produce one.

    To address this, the PM has commissioned a group of his closest lieutenants – Craig Oliver, his director of communications, Steve Hilton, his senior adviser, Andrew Cooper, his director of strategy, and Kate Fall, his deputy chief of staff – to meet and develop a creative strategy for 2012 and beyond. The principal task of the “Four Wise Persons” is to press home the point that the Cameron Coalition is about much more than deficit reduction – indispensable as that mission undoubtedly is. They will try to knit together the strands of the PM’s social vision in education policy, welfare reform, adoption, the broken families initiative launched last week, and the myriad projects that Cameron was referring to when he talked about the “Big Society”. That umbrella term never gained much traction, and invited a fair amount of ridicule. Back to the drawing board.

    Is a new politics needed? In the CPS’s 2012 UK Policy Resolutions project, some specific policy ideas will be floated, but that’s not the same thing as is being suggested here. Let’s hope the four wise persons are wise enough not to try to reinvent Cameron in the form of one of Weber’s charismatic leaders, but the world has changed since DC came to lead the Conservative Party, and it might be well to reflect that.

    Actually, the world has not changed – the governments and citizens of the rich Western democracies have been spending beyond their means for decades now – but rather perceptions have altered as the markets have revealed the extent of our collective unwisdom. The problem is that these perceptions have become gloomier and more correct; is it possible to craft a politics of decline and austerity, when democracy tends to reward chirpy optimism?

    A tough call for the wise ones. Yet the outline of a new politics is pretty clear by now. It must encompass the following issues, which I’ve illustrated with a little reading list for Messrs Oliver et al to while away their Christmas holidays as they munch their turkey sandwiches.

    1. The Big Society. This is currently misunderstood as a mad plan to replace professional social and welfare institutions with volunteers from the PDSA. Actually, it should be made to stand for the myriad of strong and weak links that connect us in all sorts of ways to all sorts of people. Our interests are neither wholly national, nor wholly local. We have private interests, local interests, regional interests, national interests, international interests and community interests. Links can be face-to-face, institutional or virtual; they can be enduring, or restricted to a single transaction; they can be enhanced by proximity, or geography may play no part. Connections can involve varying degrees of risk, and require varying degrees of trust.

      This variety cannot be addressed by a single mode of governance. In many circumstances, power needs to be devolved downward, to individuals or smaller groups of people. In other circumstances, we need multinational action – but multinational cooperation should not be ossified in inflexible institutions or treaties which may solve today’s problems but which will leave tomorrow’s issues unaddressed.

      Traditional nation-state government has a key role, to coordinate this dispersal of power. To do that, it cannot give power away permanently. The state should remain a vital player, but cannot and should not represent itself as able to solve all, or even the majority of, problems. Instead, empower people, for example through the transparency programme, by giving them the space, skills and information they need to do things for themselves. And be prepared to function constructively in international organisations for specific purposes. Required reading: Shakespeare, King Lear.
    2. Austerity. The signs are that growth cannot and will not return to the unsustainable levels of previous years without similar self-defeating risk-taking. If well-being continues to be connected in politicians’ and citizens’ minds with economic growth, then any party will have a problem. The link was not always so strong – time was when even very right wing politicians were quite sniffy about growth. In 1969 Angus Maude, in his The Common Problem, lamented that “the vote of an elector who wants more money is not to be won by telling him to go out and earn it; it is tempting to promise the benefit, and then pay the bill by mulcting those who would never vote for you anyway.”

      The government should press for growth, but should provide outlets for alternative sources of value. Changes to planning regulations should be revisited, and education reforms should be pushed forward. We cannot continue to make expensive promises to be paid for by economic growth in the future. Required reading: Oliver Letwin, The Purpose of Politics, David Willetts, The Pinch.
    3. Finance. We have to move from an economy fuelled by debt. Some people can live beyond their means, but we all cannot. The Modigliani-Miller theorem may tell us that equity finance and debt finance are equivalent, and so they may be in a technical sense, but there is a massive difference in how vulnerable they make you to unforeseeable shocks. We need to shift our financial system away from routinised number-crunching and seeking out fleeting arbitrage opportunities, and back towards careful scrutiny of investment for long-term value. Required reading: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, Amar Bhidé, A Call For Judgment, Gervais Williams, Slow Finance.
    4. Markets. Let us move away from the detached view of free markets as optimal resource-allocators, because the word ‘optimal’ is radically misplaced here. Free markets are embedded in human activity, and are a dramatic force for good. They teach us to think of others, the better to meet their needs. They spread trust. They foster self-reliance. But let’s not reify them, and assume they are always ‘right’. Markets, like the Sabbath, were made for man, not the other way round; it will be far easier to defend them against the David Harveys of this world if we accept that fact. Required reading: Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments.
    5. Immigration. It is impossible for politicians to stand in the way of the largest movements of peoples in human history. Think of the Big Society – we are connected not only with the people down the road, but also with the people who provide our goods and services who may be located anywhere. Globalisation has created methods of transporting people, goods and capital across the world, and it is not only impossible but also severely distorting to try to stand in their way. Britain has its own national character, but one only has to move in our major cities, or airports, or places of business, or great universities, to understand the inextricable relationships that have been woven with the world outside.

      This does not mean treating everyone as if they were a British citizen. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher received a good deal of opprobrium for charging foreign students higher fees than British ones; many complained that this would destroy the international character of our universities. Of course, the opposite happened; nowadays, a Russell Group university might draw up to a quarter of its students from outside the EU. A British citizen should have rights (and responsibilities) beyond those of visitors.

      The phrase ‘economic migrant’ should cease to be a dirty word. Someone who wants to work hard, and in many cases send a proportion of that money back to his or her family, is to be cherished, not reviled. After all, worldwide remittances dwarf international aid. And if barriers to the free movements of people were reduced, people would be much less likely to become permanent residents; they would be able to move away from places where work was scarce, to those where it was plentiful. Required reading: Ian Goldin et al, Exceptional People.
    6. Climate change. The science tells us with increasing (not total) certainty that man-made climate change will be an important factor throughout the twenty-first century. Yet the methods of trying to deal with it – meaningless targets, unenforceable cap-and-trade markets, promises of future good behaviour, coordinated international action – are all doomed to fail. This is a highly complex problem for which no-one has a ready-made solution, but Cameron –to his eternal credit – is the only leader of a major UK party who has shown himself willing to recognise the problem and try to address it within the bounds of human possibility (the Green Party sees the problem, but has absolutely no understanding of how the world works, and therefore how it might conceivably be solved). Communicating the issue will become harder as the economy worsens, and this is a place where creative thinking is essential. Required reading: David G. Victor, Global Warming Gridlock, Roger Pielke, The Climate Fix. I’m also a bit tempted to include the very preliminary chapter in my own book Conservatism, which is available as a sample chapter on my website. And I’m looking forward to the soon-to-be-released Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy.
    7. New Labour. There’s a tendency to conflate Cameron’s Conservatives with Blair’s New Labour project, perhaps because of their shared PR savvy. The wise persons should emphasise the vast difference between the two. New Labour was an intellectual heir to Rousseau and his ideas of the General Will – a lineage betrayed by Blair’s comment that New Labour was ‘the political wing of the British people’, and Brown’s attempt to create a Government Of All the Talents. Politics entails hard choices, is characterised by conflict over goods, and comes into play where interests are not shared or common; pretending otherwise is counterproductive and damaging. Required reading: could the persons do any better than compare and contrast Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years with Tony Blair, A Journey?

    Would a philosophy driven by these concerns meet the Hitchens test? Would it help make Cameron more popular, or more likely to win the next General Election? Maybe, maybe not.

    More importantly, it would be an appropriate response to a complex, dynamic world which has stretched the powers of our institutions, economic and political theories, and policy instruments. This is a world which we can neither fully understand nor control – and more importantly we are now fully aware that we are in this invidious epistemological position. Our politics should reflect that.


    Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and has a DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford. His latest book, 'Conservatism', was published in May 2011 by Reaktion Books.

    Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and has a DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford. His research interests are:
    the politics and philosophy of technology, particularly the World Wide Web; transparency and open data; privacy; memory; and conservative philosophy.

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