At a time that American “neoconservatives” are under almost daily attacks by a coalition of all those unhappy about the Bush presidency, one might think neo-conservatism is the last product anyone would want to market anywhere else.
And, yet, here we have one of the rising stars of British conservatism offering a whole book to propose precisely such a product.
As the British Conservatives choose a new leader they may also want to have a look at what this book, by Douglas Murray, offers to fill what he sees as the party’s ideological vacuum.
“If the Conservative Party can adopt neo-conservatism (which is the neo-conservatists’ best hope in Britain for achieving party-wide standing) then it may yet return from the political doldrums in which it now resides,” Murray asserts with much conviction.
But what is neo-conservatism and in what way does it differ from the traditional conservative world view that has dominated British politics for much of the past 200 years?
According to Murray “Neo-conservatism is a political viewpoint for dealing with the world.” In the specific case of Britain it provides “moral and practical answers to the malaise of British politics as a whole, not just of the Conservative Party.”
Murray starts by suggesting that the classical political divisions based on notions of Right and Left are now outdated, at least in democratic societies, if only because there is a consensus on the basic rules of the political game and the general economic system of society. The blurring of the distinction between Right and Left, however, has not been entirely positive. For, it has also promoted a moral relativism, itself a child of multiculturalism, in which the very notions of good and evil are frowned upon as medieval relics.
Murray believes that good and evil do exist as distinct categories and could be readily identified by anyone in possession of a system of values. Thus the principal task of politics becomes the identification of good and evil as a prelude to the promotion of the former and the combating of the latter. Neo-conservatism, far from being a conspiracy by extremist right-wingers who wish to conquer and reshape the world, is a political vision based on a hierarchy of values. It was in gestation long before George W Bush entered the White House in 2001 and, as Murray asserts, will be a key player in the international politics long after he has retired.
Murray starts with an exciting survey of the works of the key thinkers who initiated the neo-conservative school in the second half of the last century. He introduces Leo Strauss, the Chicago University’s professor of politics, who trained the first generation of neo-conservatives in the 1950s. We then meet Allan Bloom who first warned against the dangers of relativism in which the worst despotic systems are assigned the same respect as the most advanced democracies- all in the name of multiculturalism. Next we meet Irving Kristol who, perhaps more than anyone else, was responsible for turning neo-conservatism from a philosophical approach into a practical political programme.
As might be expected Murray is a passionate defender of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He believes that the Taliban and the Ba’ath regime were evil and had to be removed for the forces of good in Afghanistan and Iraq to have a chance of building something different. That something different may not correspond exactly to the West’s ideal of a democracy. But one thing would be certain: the new regimes in Kabul and Baghdad would be better than the ones they replaced.
Murray shows that neo-conservatism does not limit itself to issues of foreign policy. In domestic politics, neo-conservatism seeks a return to the fundamental principles of capitalism, the only system in history that has produced long-lasting wealth, both individual and collective, in scores of culturally diverse societies.
Murray asks why has neo-conservatism aroused so much anger and hatred around the world? Some of that anger and hatred has come from despotic rulers and their hangers-on who feel targeted by the idea of regime change. They hate neo-conservatism because they fear it might toppled them as it did with the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, or may force them to eat humble pie as did Libya’s Colonel Kaddhafi, the Sudanese military rulers, and the Ba’athists in Damascus.
But neo-conservatism is also hated by the remnants of the left who have not yet recovered from the shock of the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse. They blame the early neo-conservatives under President Ronald Reagan for policies that made it impossible for the USSR to continue its existence at any level. The vast majority of those who oppose neo-conservatism, however, are liberals in the West who sincerely believe that it is no business of the Western powers to save other nations from their despotic rulers. These liberals argue that different nations have different cultures that are all equally worthy of respect. And since the West has no means of knowing whether or not the people of, say Burma, really wish to be freed from their military regime there is no moral justification for regime change.
Murray says that as far as foreign policy is concerned it is the Labour party in Britain that has adopted much of the neo-conservative world outlook.
He writes: “In Britain, neo-conservatism’s most significant outlet to date has – perhaps surprisingly- been found in the Labour party. But the outlet has been restricted to the government’s foreign policy. It is inconceivable that the Labour party would adopt neoconservative principles on domestic policy, such as lower taxation, reduced state interference and more successful social justice measures.”
This is why, he hopes, it would be the British Conservative party, under its new leader, that will adopt neo-conservatism as a whole, in both foreign and domestic policies.
Murray believes that Britain, under any party, will remain “a steadfast ally” of the United States as far as the war against terrorism is concerned. But he warns that opponents of neo-conservative ideas will continue to fight against it for as long as they can.
He writes: “Our fight should be prosecuted not only by the army and police forces, but by the general public, intellectuals, politicians and all those with any sense of civic responsibility.”
Whether one agrees with him or not Murray has made a valuable contribution to the global battle of ideas.