Friday 1 December 2006

In Praise of Ideology

Maurice Saatchi

Lord Saatchi’s pamphlet, published by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), aims to shake the ‘Anglo-American’ political elite from its centrist stupor. It is an intriguing work, and one which, for all its good intentions, gets worse as it goes along.

Maurice Saatchi’s very understandable disdain for the state of politics today leads him to a correct, albeit simplified, analysis of the death of ideology. It is therefore a useful contribution to contemporary political discourse. Yet after this analysis, one finds a proposal entitled ‘How Conservatism can help’ where Saatchi seems to either misunderstand conservatism, or what beliefs consist of. To clarify: at first read, it seems a misnomer to describe Saatchi’s views as ‘conservative’ - much of it is an endorsement of radical change. But probe a little deeper and one realises Saatchi is true-blue at heart. However this raises a problem: a conservative defence of ideology is somewhat contradictory, for one cannot speak of a ‘conservative ideology’ in the way one can of a Marxist or liberal one. This leaves Lord Saatchi, for all his professions to being an ideologue, in a bit of a predicament.

Of course, Saatchi does know his business. He was the Tories’ joint chairman from 2003 to 2005, where he learned (as much as he did under Thatcher 15 years earlier) that truly to win an election one needs to be ideologically hard-headed. Saatchi said basically this in a previous publication for the CPS (If This Is Conservatism, I Am A Conservative) which was a post-election exercise in self-flagellation. Saatchi assumed responsibility for the party’s failure to win over the electorate, while emphasising free-market economics and an adherence to fundamental principles. Now, with Cameron trying ‘to do a Blair’ to his own party’s sacred cows, Saatchi’s ‘In Praise of Ideology’ seems like a timely intervention to stop his beloved party - to whom this publication is dedicated - from slipping into a morass of valueless pragmatism.

The end result is ‘short, simple, inspiring’. Or at least this is what Saatchi seems to be aiming at. The parsimonious style and unequivocal language resembles radical manifestos of a more than century ago. One such example is the American Declaration of Independence, which the author decided to attach in annex, probably feeling that he couldn’t say it as well himself. Nevertheless, Saatchi’s clipped, direct responses to rhetorical propositions drive home his points of principle. He even manages to be a bit poetic with it all. Surprisingly, the man’s own enthusiasm leads him to close with a call to ‘man the ideological barricades’ and quote Kant and Marx in support of his argument and Burke in opposition to it. But once we move beyond puzzlement at these revolutionary poses, we realise that Saatchi’s initial point was indeed correct: derisory levels of political participation in Britain stem from the parties’ disavowal of ideology. This emerged due to a ‘myth of the centre ground’ conceived of at the end of the Cold War, but also as a response to the 20th century’s supposedly disastrous engagement with Utopianism.

Not a Conservative - an ideologue!

The rudderless nature of politics today thus compels Saatchi, in his effort to kick-start readers’ conviction in politics, to begin the second of five short chapters by lambasting his Tory predecessors’ lacklustre pragmatism. Edmund Burke, the Earl of Derby (Benjamin Disraeli’s Foreign Secretary) and Quentin Hogg all come in for this treatment. Burke’s injunction to focus on ’What is, not what should be’, for instance, is derided as the origin of this philosophy.

Now a normative, as opposed to a ‘realist’, approach from a Conservative is nothing new, but the normal expectation is that the ‘should’ element would recommend a return to traditional morality. Instead we get an ode to freedom of information and the end this put to the working-class’ deference to their ‘betters’. Saatchi also laments that in the opinion of so many, America has changed from ‘benign to malign’ and implores the US to answer with a consistent (and liberal) response. This is most evident in his critique of ‘pre-emption’ (‘claimed as casus belli by practically every dictator in history’) and of US hypocrisy with regard to Israel/Palestine.

Saatchi then even shocks himself by quoting Marx: ‘Ironically, Karl Marx described as well as any Conservative the Anglo-American ideal of self-realisation’. It seems Lord Saatchi either doesn’t understand irony or he doesn’t understand conservatism: of course Marx championed self-realisation; but upholding self-realisation seems a strikingly progressive ideal for a ‘conservative’.

The vision Saatchi is proposing here is a bourgeois-revolutionary one. This radicalism (that Saatchi finds in Kant, as elsewhere) is hardly what used to be called conservative. But then, why dwell on labels? If Saatchi wishes to call his ideology ‘conservative’, who am I to complain? He should be judged on his beliefs (and, as this is what the pamphlet is about, on his belief in belief), and not on what label he attaches to his political philosophy.

A Conservative… so not an ideologue.

So is Lord Saatchi really the revolutionary liberal he appears to be? The implicit assumptions he makes throughout the pamphlet are the most revealing of his true colours. Saatchi uses an appropriate strategy to demonstrate political disengagement - the extent to which people respond ‘neither’ when asked which party has the best policy on a given issue. Yet the questions Saatchi asks belie his fundamentally conservative preoccupations - government bureaucracy and waste, prisons, and so on. Secondly, in another rhetorical turn, he asks the reader to ascribe two opposed sets of descriptions to ‘Anglo-American society’ and to ‘our enemies’. That the Anglophone West is pitted in some struggle against a foreign enemy is taken for granted; this point is explored no further. The identity of this enemy is revealed only in the subsequent chapter.

Here Saatchi reveals his fixation on Islam. In critiquing American inconsistency and lack of principle in the Middle East, Saatchi mentions ‘three Islamic wars’ (my italics) in which the US has become entangled. If only America was able to “articulate its ideological purpose,” then it could either defend its policies, or escape the accusations put to it. Before advancing the ‘Conservative solution’, Saatchi very briefly points out a second challenge: the enemy ‘proudly flying the Red Flag in their boardrooms’; the enemy who is confounding neoclassical economists everywhere with its ‘State Capitalism or Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics’; the Chinese.

Having started so constructively, Saatchi exposes his reactionary inclinations, seeing an enemy in Islam (though he is not forthcoming on whether it is Islam or terrorism that poses the real threat) and in China’s rapid development. It quickly becomes apparent that Saatchi’s defence of ideology is not so much a positive vision for the future, as a construct built in opposition to largely imagined enemies. This is stated clearly, when referring to Labour’s culture of dependence: ‘It is always helpful for a political movement, when expressing its ideology, to have an ideological opponent…’ Whilst I wouldn’t dispute this last point, taken together, Saatchi’s ‘enemies’ seem to serve the sole purpose of giving him something to fight against. If Saatchi’s ideology is built purely in opposition to Others, his beliefs are not an ‘ideology’, they are ‘reaction’.

The earlier claim about a contradiction in Saatchi’s beliefs and the predicament in which it places him is evident here. Saatchi wants a political system in which debates are framed on the basis of competing ideologies. He starts well down this path, and finishes with that brilliant revolutionary document, the American Declaration of Independence. Yet in between he negates this radical position by exposing a deeper conservatism. Which leads us to the crux of it: conservatism has classically been reaction. Conservatives advocate tradition, common-sense, stability and order in the face of agitation from more dynamic movements. For much of the 20th century in Europe, the moderate Right’s raison d’être and foundation for electoral success was based on being a broad church, welcoming those whose primary political objective was providing a bulwark against Communism.

Today, in response to this defence of ideology from a Conservative, we can ask ourselves two questions: is it more telling that this argument should come from the political Right, rather than the Left? Or is it more remarkable that this ode to principled politics must ape a traditional sort of left-wing radicalism to make its point? In fact, both these questions presuppose the same thing - the Left isn’t doing ‘the radical thing’ anymore, and the Right traditionally doesn’t know how to. Conservatives such as Lord Saatchi have therefore been robbed of their purpose - with no consistent ideological critique coming from the Left, those of a more idealistic disposition on the Right, such as himself, have had to take up the mantle. It is for this reason that the past two decades have seen the Right becoming the prime movers on the intellectual front.

Saatchi’s contribution is nevertheless a worthwhile one, for two reasons. Firstly, anything which serves to alert people to the profound cultural shift occurring in the West is a worthwhile endeavour. Secondly, by seizing the political initiative, and in particular by claiming terms such as ‘independence’ and ‘self-determination’, Saatchi’s intervention may just spur on political debate. Whether someone steps up the plate and gives the old man something to react against remains to be seen.

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