UKIP, Neo-Conservatism, and Douglas Murray
“Neonservatism – whether or not it is called as such – is the route back to the right path by which true liberalism returns, strengthened and defended”
Douglas Murray's book, Neoconservatism and Why We Need It, was a best-seller when it was published back in 2006. Despite that it had very little influence on British politics.
Indeed, 2006 was very early in David Cameron's leadership of the Conservative Party and the start of his project of moving the Tory Party firmly towards the centre ground. Murray saw British Conservatism at a crossroad: it could either “regain its natural path – the path of conservative survival where the good was preserved and the bad discarded”, or simply follow “down the Labour route”.
What is striking about Murray's claim back in 2006 is not so much his argument that adopting neoconservatism is morally right and provides the right solutions to Britain's problems, but rather his claim that neoconservatism will bring the Conservatives back to power. Neoconservatism is a “grand idea” the kind of idea “that gets people not just voting for politicians, but actually proselytising politics”.
This challenged the orthodox political position that the battle was to be fought on the centre ground. It was thought only if the battle took place here would swing voters be willing to make the all-important leap.
Yet the growth of certain political movements in Britain, and across the pond, appear to be giving credence to Murray's argument that neoconservatism can be the intellectual driving force of popular right-wing political movements.
First, take the rise of UKIP in Britain. Neoconservatism is famed for its particular approach to foreign policy, but, in the second half of Neconservatism and Why We Need It, Murray outlines the neoconservative approach to a broad number of other policy areas.
It is incredible just how many of the policy positions Murray implores the Conservatives to take-up were ignored by Camerom but adopted by UKIP. These include: cutting the unnecessarily high number of university places, slashing taxes by at least 10 percent (an idea inspired by Irving Kristol), opposing multiculturalism, restoring national sovereignty and opposing human rights jurisprudence.
But the fundamental principle rejected by the Conservative Party and upheld by UKIP is the idea that personal freedom must not damage the well-being of society. As Murray explains “the wars of rights are won, but the war to keep 'rights' within the acceptable limits of civilised society remains very much alive.”
By contrast, many on the left, and many libertarians, support a kind of moral relativism – the idea that in a liberal society no lifestyle can be looked upon by government to be objectively better than any other. For libertarians this leads to the strict value pluralism of Isiah Berlin. For the left, it has led to support for state-sponsored multiculturalism. Murray challenges these ideas by stating that government must engage with society to nudge it in the right direction for the common good.
Interestingly, back in the mid-2000s, Murray was not the only political writer advocating this notion of conservative freedom. Just one year earlier, Rick Santorum, a former member of the US Senate, published his book It Takes a Family in which he critiques American social policy over the last few decades.
In defining freedom Santorum asks: “what is the conservative view of freedom? ... Properly defined, liberty is freedom coupled with responsibility to something bigger or higher than the self.”
Santorum and Murray pick up on many of the same themes when explaining and defining their versions of freedom. They both rally against the current attitude of governments towards single mothers; they advocate an increase in the number of schools providing a religious education and explain why society should be routed in Judeo-Christian values.
Both authors admire freedom but both are wary that there must be limits to stop society degenerating. This evokes Irving Kristol's much-quoted dictum: “a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality”.
And just as the success of UKIP appears to support Murray's claim that neoconservative-inspired policies could provide a politically successful platform, Santorum's ideas seem to be increasingly appealing to the American electorate.
In 2012, Santorum ran for President. He took part in the Republican Presidential Primaries from a weak starting position – with little funding – and he soon became the main Republican challenger to Mitt Romney. He won several important caucuses and primaries in spite of being heavily outspent by his fellow candidates.
If Mitt Romney was the more centrist, and arguably more electable, candidate, Santorum was the radical conservative. The failure of the former may well lead Republican stratergists to reconsider the future success of a candidate like Santorum. Besides, Santorum himself has not ruled out running again in 2016. In the meantime he is increasing support for his ideas through a national movement called Patriot Voices.
We may well be able to make rough calculations of the number of swing voters who will switch to a right wing party if it comes to the centre-ground. But no one can calculate the gains which might be made by a candidate of conviction who inspires his generation with radical, yet well-founded, ideas.
Finally, it is true that populist conservative movements such as UKIP and Patriot Voices don't themselves use the phrase “neoconservative” – a phrase that has become dirty and widely associated with unpopular military intervention overseas. But this may be of little importance. Indeed, as one of the final sentences of Murray's book reads: “Neonservatism – whether or not it is called as such – is the route back to the right path by which true liberalism returns, strengthened and defended”.
Julian Conway is the Director of Friends of Israel in UKIP
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