Oliver Letwin on Modern Conservatism

A fascinating piece by Oliver Letwin in today’s Times:

Is Cameron Conservatism just a set of attitudes, or is it a political theory? This is the unspoken question behind quite a lot of the more intellectual commentary over the past 18 months of Conservative revival.

The question therefore deserves an answer. And the answer is that Cameron Conservatism, so far from being merely a set of attitudes, has a specific theoretical agenda. It aims to achieve two significant paradigm-shifts.

First, a shift from an econocentric paradigm to a sociocentric paradigm. Secondly, a shift in the theory of the State from a provision-based paradigm to a framework-based paradigm.

It all goes back to Marx. Before Marx, politics was multidimensional – constitutional, social, environmental as well as economic. Marx changed all that. After Marx, socialists defended socialism and free marketeers defended capitalism. For both sides, the centrepiece of the debate was the system of economic management. Politics became econocentric.

But, as we begin the 21st century, things have changed. Since Margaret Thatcher, and despite recurrences of something like full-blooded socialism in Latin America, the capitalist/ socialist debate has in general ceased to dominate modern politics. From Beijing to Brussels, the free market has won the battle of economic ideas.

Tim at ConservativeHome thinks Oliver’s a bit wordy. He says:

I think there’s a lot of truth in what Oliver says but his article is really hard work. It reminds me of a Rowan Williams sermon. I get the impression that big words and clunky phrases have been employed to give pretty simple and uncontroversial ideas the appearance of being more interesting than they are.

Hmmmm…… I don’t think Tim gets Rowan or Oliver. They don’t use big words and clunky phrases to make things more interesting. Rather, they use technically specific words and phrases to exactly define what they mean. I for one love 99% of what Rowan writes and I’m sure like others I understand it, even if it is only after looking up a word or two. But that’s no bad thing.

Anyway, back to Letwin. The most significant thing he highlights is the 21st century rejection of economic utilitarianism as an explanation of socio-relational interactions (see, I just did a Rowan / Oliver – just get out a dictionary and you’ll be fine). Oliver says:

The first theoretical advance (the first paradigm shift) of Cameron Conservatism is to see that fact clearly – to refocus the debate, to change the terms of political trade, to ask a different set of questions. Politics – once econocentric – must now become sociocentric.

and in doing so he highlights that the work of Duncan-Smith and Cameron has been to understand that human beings interact with each other NOT simply out of an economic need but rather simply out of a deep ontological need to relate. As a Christian of course I understand that because our theology, unlike unitarian faiths like Islam, begins with a statement of doctrine about God that is deeply relational – the Trinity. God created human beings to reflect him, and because he is eternally a relationship, then as humans we are created to be in relationship, not to achieve some economic end but simply to be.

While the Thatcher revolution achieved some remarkable things, a decade or two on we are starting to see that utilitarianism does not explain well the ultimate meaning behind human existence. In essence, human beings simply want to be, and to be with others. A political party that recognises that and makes it a priority, by encouraging humans beings to be with each other (especially through promoting marriage and family and community stability), will be the one that in the next decade connects with the electorate in the same way that Thatcher almost thirty years ago realised that economically men and women wanted freedom and opportunity.

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