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Dumping pragmatism on pragmatic grounds

This is interesting. It is Maurice Saatchi, in the Telegraph, ruminating upon the Conservative electoral defeat:

It will come as a surprise to my Conservative colleagues, as they absorb the lessons of last week’s defeat, to learn that the Tory Party lost the 2005 election in 1790. That was the year Edmund Burke first advised Conservatives to concentrate on: What is not What should be.

With that single fatal distinction, pragmatism became the hallmark of Conservatism. Absence of idealism became its invisible badge of honour. And aimlessness became the pinnacle of its morality. There would never be a romantic bone in a Conservative body – or so Burke hoped.

Two hundred years later, Conservatism has fallen into an electoral slump, because it remains captive to his bleak instruction. At the 2005 election, the authentic voice of 18th-century Tory pragmatism spoke through the medium of the Conservative spokesman who said: “If you want philosophy, read Descartes.” He meant that the function of the Conservative Party is to make the trains run on time. That may be so, or at least partly right. But the lesson of the campaign we have just fought is that the mere promise of efficiency is not enough to persuade people that you would be an efficient Government. Mere anger at the problems of the world we live in is not enough to convince the voters that the Conservative Party is fit to solve them.

Read the whole thing. And while you are about it, read this Paul Marks paper to see what a misreading of Burke much of the above is. The usual Conservative practice where Edmund Burke is concerned is to misread him to be an unthinking, anti-principled pragmatist, and agree with that misreading. Saatchi misreads in the usual manner, but at least disagrees with the misreading. With the flair of the advertising man that he is, he signals his argument for principle by being a Conservative and opposing Burke. Good grief!! Would Burke himself have been pleased or infuriated? A bit of both, probably.

But never mind about such scholarly digressions. The point about this piece is not just what is being said but who is saying it. This is a world-renowned advertising guru speaking, not some aging loony libbo policy wonk. Here is a man who knows about how elections are won and lost – and more to the point who is widely believed by your average Conservative Party heavyweight/hack to know about how elections are won and lost – who is saying that pragmatism, purely on pragmatic grounds, must be dumped, and replaced, on equally pragmatic grounds, with things like ideas, principles, abstractions, and even a dash or two of utopian dreaming.

What this could mean is that the sort of ideas which Conservatives have been carefully distancing themselves from for the last decade, ideas like the ones peddled here at Samizdata.net, might just start making some kind of comeback within Conservative ranks. After all, their vote pretty much stagnated in the election just concluded. Whatever shreds of success that Conservatives can now point to came because Labour’s vote fell, somewhat. The Conservatives are going to have to put on a far better show if they ever want to win. Being somewhat more disciplined, complaining about immigration, and promising tax cuts without spending cuts does not add up to a winning message. What are they for? What should be?

Much of the drop in the Labour vote can be explained by a war which many Labour voters detested. So if the leading spirit of this war, Tony Blair, is pushed aside, the Labour vote may then go up again. Seriously, Labour could win the next election with a substantially increased majority. If Tony Blair’s successor has learnt the lesson of Blairism (as much government as the country can afford but no more), then the Conservatives could be facing their worst result ever (because as numerically sickening as ever and their fourth loss in a row) next time around.

I expect many Conservatives to work all this out in due course. Some may even have worked it out already. Now that pragmatism has been tried and has failed, maybe, next time, they will try something else.

I do not want to exaggerate this. Nothing could possibly persuade me to waste any of what remains of my life urging people to vote Conservative, still less urging them to waste all of what remains of their lives trying to infiltrate the Conservatives, on the off chance that such optimism as the above may turn out to be a little bit justified, and that some of the ideas that the Conservatives resort to prove to be of the sort that I favour.

Many Conservatives will prefer simply to bet that Tony Blair and his successor are screwing up the British economy now and will screw up the British economy more, and that the steady pair of hands that they think they are offering, and that David Carr alluded to in his post-election posting, will suffice to get them back into power. And what is more, they could be right.

I merely note an interesting article, by an interesting man, suggestive of what is at least an interesting possibility.

13 comments to Dumping pragmatism on pragmatic grounds

  • Bernie

    A good ad-man would know that great advertising alone will not sell a shoddy product. The problem I have with his piece is that he is telling this to Telegraph readers after the event but obviously he did not ram it home to the Tory leadership before the event

  • Alan Duncan for leader! He’s got everything the Conservative Party needs.

  • Julian Morrison

    Bernie: electoral strategy is set in stone long ahead of time. In terms of momentum, it was probably fully fixed (in abstract) from when M.H. came to be leader. No party can afford to run a campaign from different premises than they ran their opposition. Really the Tory premise in the previous electoral term has been “renewed discipline”. Principle would have been a distraction or (when it constituted a breach of discipline) absolutely contrary to the plan. Howard Flight was slapped down hard as a warning to others not to make off-message personally principled comments. However with discipline in place, principle becomes possible, and now would be the time to introduce it.

  • I doubt it that pragmatism is the culprit here. It alone can’t form an entire politics ideology. It’s merely an epistemological perspective (at best) and a rationalization for mindlessness and whimsical behaviour (at worst).

    Conservatorism _is_ claiming something, that it wants to conserve several things. That’s an idealist affirmation all of its own.

  • Tim Sturm


    The problem is that the Tories don’t actually have any passion or conviction. They don’t believe in the power of ideas, or ideals.

    How contemptible that they should need some marketing guru to tell them that they should have ideals because it’s politically pragmatic.

    They are beyond the pale.

  • Richard Garner

    H’m, maybe it is time to start re-circulating the final chapter of Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. It is possible to campaign for radicalism, knowing that gradualism is what you will get – and it is important not to reject those gradual changes. But if one campaigns for gradualism, all one gets is the status quo.

  • Verity

    And here’s Mathew Ancona in The Telegraph, by way of Clive Davis’s blog:

    “Mr Davis’s best claim to the top job is that he does not look or sound like a Conservative. His biography – raised by a single mother on a council estate – would undoubtedly translate into an appealing political narrative. It has also already put him at odds with the well-bred “Notting Hill Tories”, one of whom, astonishingly, called him a “frightful oik” in my hearing: stand by for a bout of ill-disguised class war in the Conservative Party.”

    More “me-tooism” – which doesn’t bloody work! Our leader’s more disadvantaged than your leader, which means he’s better qualified to lead middle England to the sunny uplands. Since when did being brought up on a council estate become a qualification for leading a political party? Since when did being brought up by a “single mother” qualify one for leadership of the Tories? Half the people in Britain must be qualified, then. Give me a bleedin’ break!

  • Bernie


    I understand your point but still think it is a poor excuse. Perhaps it is a symptom of our dumbed down culture that a party can go to election without enumerating the principles it stands for.

    I saw an interview in which Charles Kenedy boldly stated that he would deal with new issues on a case by case basis. This seems to be the norm among politicians. “Ideology” is to be avoided leaving voters without any clue as to how any particular party would respond to an unexpected situation.

  • Verity

    Well, Howard’s just announced the Shadow Cabinet and I think it looks pretty good. Letwin’s gone to Agriculture and long may he graze. I am not familiar with George Osborne (enlightenment, anybody?) but he’s the new Shadow Chancellor.

    Rifkind’s shadowing the weepy adolescent girl aka David Blunkett. Liam Fox moves over to foreign affairs, so he’ll have grey, personality-free Trot Jack Straw to bash up, which should be entertaining in a ghoulish sort of way.

    The one really, really bad move: Frances Maude as party chairman. Why, oh why, oh why?

  • John East

    What an absolute load of rubbish.

    Tony Blair has clearly demonstrated over the last 8 years that all you need is a good set of teeth, charisma, and the ability to promise each group in society what they want to hear. One doesn’t have to deliver much, just spin and spin again.
    It would be nice if electors were able to intelligently assess policy options backed by a clear ideology, but as soon as one crystallises a philosophy half of the voters will drift away. All the great unwashed desire is someone to promise them something for nothing. Whether it’s deliverable or sustainable is usually beyond the voters intellect to assess.

  • Pete_London


    I heard George Osborne in the 5 Live studio for a 30 minute interview a few months ago and was very impressed. As you can imagine, with 5 Live being liberal to its core and with a Tory in the studio, they gave him the full treatment but he wasn’t having any of it and seemed to enjoy knocking back the barbs insults with intelligence and some steel.

    Did you know he’s only 33 years old? For some to put him forward as a potential leader is absurd but his time will come.

  • Verity

    Well, Pete_London, that is encouraging. Yes, 33 seems a bit young, but if he’s mature, level headed and quick of wit, in 10 years he would be the right age for an energetic leader.

    (I am opposed to his view, which I have just read, that safe seats should be offered to “women and minorities”. This infuriates me. Why should good, solid, safe Conservative seats have to put up with individuals who don’t have what it takes to put up a good fight for an unsafe seat?)

    However, I think Howard may have been quite clever here. Blair has harped on and on and on and on about his “youthfulness” – and promotes himself as a “young dad” – at 51 years of age! – and all those photos on the BBC and the papers over the last few days holding that kid – but then, we know he’s a fantasist. If Howard brings in to prominence someone genuinely young and clever – and who really is a young dad – this kind of pulls the rug right out from under our Tone’s prancing about like Mick Jagger, talking about “young ideas”.

    Osborne’s a new generation. Also, it makes the Tories look in touch. Young families will relate to him and they will think he will take care of their interests at the Exchequer.

    I am quite pleased with this move. (But no women or ethnic minorities being sought, please.)

  • John K

    Tony Blair has clearly demonstrated over the last 8 years that all you need is a good set of teeth

    Actually, although he grins a lot, TB’s teeth are rubbish. Have you seen his front lower teeth? A horrible snaggly collection of gnashers. I suppose his irregular dentition at least means his parents used an NHS dentist when he was a child. He’d never get elected in the USA with teeth like that.

    Mind you, he married a woman whose mouth looks like a letterbox, so oral matters are clearly not important to him.