Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The forces of conservatism strike back

Tony Blair's sally into the world of Euston certainly has all the hallmarks of a classic, using the techniques that Jamie Whyte mercilessly pilloried. There are instances when banality poses as profundity - what on earth does "We are a much older people than we were" actually mean? These are supported by generalisations asserted without empirical foundation - I am sorry Tony, but being employed in the public sector feels more like being a participant in a continuous revolution than working in institutions that "were established in something like their current form in the 1940s".

However, the heart of his appeal for the support of the left in his programme of public sector reform is more important and is contained in the following statement.

"There is always a progressive case for reform. What progressive case is there for the status quo, except in utopia?"

The obvious question that arises is what reform? The introduction of compulsory human sacrifice to propitiate the Gods would certainly be a reform, but hardly a progressive one. The debate is not about reform versus stasis; it is over which out of a range of reforms are preferred. Trying to make a case for reform per se is not enough to convince.

There is more though. There is a progressive case to be made against change. This was beautifully put by Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook:

We began to wonder if the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed, who had been compelled to change, too much. … In this context the desire to conserve, to protect, to safeguard, to rescue, to resist becomes the heart of a radical project. A form of conservatism – to be most sharply distinguished from its multitude of imitations, its travesties and caricatures, and scarcely know to those who carry the banners of conservatism in the modern world – becomes indispensable to this work of resistance. This conservatism leads us to search for all those valuable resources that have been thrown away in the process of eager industrialisation. For the greatest casualties in this version of development have been human, perhaps even more than material, resources.
(The Revolt Against Change. Towards a Conserving Radicalism. Vintage, London. 1993. pp.3-4)

Part of the reason for the decline in Labour support does not lie in those issues that the media obsesses over, notably Iraq, but in an inchoate desire for a more stable and kinder future. Blackwell and Seabrook saw these 'forces of conservatism' being the centrepiece of a left project. They were ignored. Instead, they are David Cameron's secret weapon. Labour take note.

No comments: