Epistemic Closure and the End of Conservatism

David Cameron had his chance last night to show why he would be a good prime minister for this country; to show that in the four and a half years he has been leader of opposition he has the intellectual pounce, the stomach to lead and to tackle the oncoming stresses and strains that this country will have to cope with in the coming years.

And again he fluffed it.

The immediate polls put him in the lead by a two points (and I’m not simply being partisan when I say I really cannot see how he came off best) but he was unable to answer many of the questions put to him (particularly on the question of tax cuts for the richest 3,000 estates), he was unable to swipe away criticism from both the Labour and liberal camp, and constantly appealed to “the last 13 years” as an answer in-itself, to score political points against Gordon Brown’s substantial and perceptive analysis of what has been good in the last few years under a Labour government, and what can be done to ensure nobody needlessly suffers in the future on the frontline.

It is still quite amazing that the Conservative party has not been able to secure the kind of punch that one would naturally assume after 13 years of being out of office – after all this is the safest place to play politics, criticising the incumbent. Cameron’s appeal to “the last 13 years” is obviously his weapon of choice, but he surely ought to be asking himself about the last (nearly) five years on the other side; it ought to be remembered that the most trustworthy polls put Cameron on at 34% – as the Mirror puts it: “almost exactly the vote for the deeply unpopular Michael Howard at the last general election.”

In America at the moment a current turn of phrase, “epistemic closure”, is trending by conservatives to describe the debasing of modern conservatism’s glorious legacy, first used in this context by libertarian writer and Economist blogger Julian Sanchez as short-hand for “ideological intolerance and misinformation”. The idea is to show that conservatism has hit a wall and is appealing to low, base politics of xenophobia or ad hominem attack, as opposed to its rich, great tradition.

British conservatism has had a fair deal of “epistemic closure” in recent years also, and it’s something for the left to consider when we vent our criticisms on the right wing. When we think of conservatism today we might erroneously think of Thatcher and Major – but they were merely leaders of the conservative party. For those that believe the lie of neo-liberal capitalism (that it opens up a space for us all to become a little bit rich, and turns the fixed triangle shaped class system into a flexible circle of freedoms) in the conservative camp would’ve surely hated what Thatcher was doing by listening to those woolly Austrian and Chicago-school libertarians.

We know now they had little to worry about.

But the Thatcher/Major legacy, truth be told, will be less seen in the scheme of things as expressions of conservatism, and seen more as a new and epochal means to counter working class empowerment and intolerance of the foreign other.

For this reason I had some respect for Respublica and Phillip Blond. Aside from all bloated, first year philosophy course, flower eating nonsense that he talks about on virtue and politicians (see Mr. Sagar’s cutting analysis), what Blond did succeed in doing was to show that conservatism in this country was not the sum of the Thatcher/Major epistemic closure, but something that could be committed to community and civic participation, and not simply at the beck and call of the markets (which is rightly seen as a perversion of conservatism of the type Disraeli would have aligned himself to).

Cameron was keen to pal-up with Blond in the early days, with that timeless gag about voting blue was to go green though with Blond to vote blue was to go red. With Blond’s hat-tipping to one nation conservatism, and Cameron’s “progressivism” (by which has always meant an emotional relationship with the NHS, and therefore informing the decision to keep it) the Tories had the chance to sweep up the centre ground and remain Europhobic enough to keep the right from joining the UK Independence party. In short, drop the nasty party image.  Cameron had five years to do that – and he failed. He now sits at same lonely table as the unpopular Michael Howard who may or may not be thinking what we’re all thinking.

If I was interested in politics to score points then I, as a Labour supporter and socialist, would not care a hoot about conservatism. But this is not the case. Conservatism is not the sum total of xenophobia, big business and nastiness; this is its own expression of epistemic closure. But what almost five years of David Cameron as leader of the opposition and leader of the Conservative party has shown is that the return to real conservatism has botched. And this does not bade well considering the conditions in which that project was tested – 13 years out of office, a melee of leaders of all shapes and sizes, a global recession, and still they couldn’t exploit this enough – to think everyone in their camp assumed it would be a walkover.

Cameron himself is the embodiment of conservative closure; and if he is allowed anywhere near office after May 6th, we can only expect stagnancy and immaturity.

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2 Responses to Epistemic Closure and the End of Conservatism

  1. Matt says:

    The main problem underlying the Conservative Party message is that ‘Change’ and ‘conservatism’ are completely incompatible with each other. One cannot be conservative while changing their party with more progressive values.

    Also, the recent messages such as a ‘contract for change’ destroys the roots of the conservative message, and employs more liberal values such as the social contract. With anyone with a brain cell, it just comes across as completely confused and popularist. It seems like the tory party will say whatever they like to get elected, regardless of what their values actually are.

    Regarding the debates, it just seemed like the media were determined that Cameron should win one debate. The great narrative of this election is ‘change’, and it wouldn’t be going with that narrative if anyone other than Cameron ‘won’ that debate.

    • it holds true that the tory party to appear electable needed to dip in from ‘social contract’ values of justice, representation and so on, which is a betrayal of their recent history, and judging by the fact that they are at the same voting % now as Michael Howard was in 2005 shows that their project of so-called “progressive conservatism” has failed, whether or not they get a foot in the door on May 7th.

      And you’re quite right about the media determined to put Cam on top – it was as plain as day

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