Saturday, 5 December 2015

Neoconservatism, by Douglas Murray

Douglas Murray, Neoconservatism: Why we need it, 2005 Social Affairs Unit

Before reading this book, I thought I was a Neocon. Having read this, I am not so sure; at least I am not exactly the kind of Neocon that Douglas Murray is. My understanding was that Neocons advocateda hawkish interventionist foreign policy. Right there and I'm with Douglas Murray on that. If there is talk about military action, I am invariably in favour of it. On the other hand, on the domestic front I believed that Neocons lacked the usual conservative hostility to 'big government' and welfare programs. I saw this exemplified in the 'compassionate conservatism' advocated by pre-office George W Bush and continued in the advocacy of former secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, a woman I very much admire. It turns out that our author does not consider Rice to be a proper Neocon, but a convert to Neoconservatism. While accepting the need for social security, Murray seems to be as hostile to big government as any conservative.

This book was written in those bleak days when the Conservative Party was stuck in seemingly eternal opposition. Murray writes as though his ideas are the salvation of the Conservative Party. He had not yet seen David Cameron's brand of One-Nation Toryism return us to government and gain a glorious majority in the last election. Yet with the recent crisis in Syria, this is an highly relevant book.

Douglas Murray sees the essence in Neoconservatism a willingess to confront the enemies of democracy, a complete rejection of moral relativism and a scepticism of the institutions of global governance. I'm a bit unsure of the heavy emphasis on relativism. It has been said that there are far more books written criticising relativism than there are books advocating it. I am not so sure that this is a helpful tag to place on his opponents. It is very easy to label those whose views are more complex and nuanced than one's own as 'relativists.' Take those who show support to Palestinian terrorists. Are they relativists? I don't think so. They rightly or wrongly believe that the Israeli government's occupation of the Palestinian territories is a moral evil that should be opposed. The person holding this view may not necessarily endorse all the actions of Hamas, but this is not that much different from a pro-Israeli person feeling that Israel is right to defend herself, yet sometimes goes a bit too far in her actions.

I would suggest that when it comes to education, relativism is a fundamental philosophical problem for all who stand in the tradition of Liberalism, including Murray's Neoconservatives. What values do we teach the children? Why should the values that Murray preaches be absolutized? Only Christianity can provide the absolute moral vision that Murray calls for.

Weirdly, enough Murray actually reminds me of Jeremy Corbyn and his hard left supporters. The Corbynistas seem unwilling to accept that a reasonable and decent person could possibly support the Tories, hence they continually make out that Conservatives are selfish or evil. Likewise, Murray makes out that anybody who disagrees with him is either ignorant or a traitor to their country. It seems like he is trying to shut down any debate on the policies he advocates. You are either with him or against him, in the latter case you are a traitor who hates the West. While I enjoyed his dismissal of that irritating bore Noam Chomsky, I don't think it's at all fair to claim that everybody who writes for the Guardian hates Great Britain. One almost imagines Murray setting up a Committee for Un-British Activities. In a way, Murray is actually borrowing the tactics of the liberal-left, who are always quick to shut down debate on anyone who does not share their values, hence the recent 'no-platforming' of feminists like Julie Bindle and Germaine Greer who don't accept the privileges demanded by transgender activists. Murray wants to 'no-platform' anyone he considers to be a traitor to the West.

Regarding the domestic policies advocated by our author, I do not see anything particularly 'neo' about them; they are the sort of policies that most conservatives, with the call for smaller government, more limited welfare programs and the usual depressing complaints about immigration. There is a lot of Daily Mail-type hysteria about Islam. His worst offence, however, is a very offensive comment he makes about 'black culture.' Murray seems to be blind to just how serious a problem racism is in our society. He dismisses 'political correctness' without showing any awareness of how entrenched racist attitudes and assumptions can be.

The problem with Murray is that he is simply too much of an idealist and I would say this puts him at odds with the strong tradition of realism in the Tory party. He does not seem willing to accept that sometimes there are problems that cannot be solved and unsatisfactory situations that have to be accepted. We can accept that there are problems with the UN, the EU and other international organisations, but does that mean we can do without them? Neoconservatism sees foreign policy as central because it recognises the inter-connectedness of our globalized world. That means that international organisations are as vital as ever and we cannot simply dismiss them as irrelevant, however much they may need improvement. Likewise, on the domestic side, immigration may bring with it problems, but does that mean that reducing immigration is the answer. No, because immigrstion brings benefits that outweigh its disadvantages.

Despite my complaints, there are things that I agree with in this book. I very much agree with his claim that conservatism spends too much time lamenting the decline of Britain and tends to look to the past instead of looking forward. I liked his comment about the tendency of young Conservatives to adopt a snobbish and anachronistic posture. I totally agree with his central argument for the necessity of military interventions where necessary. I appreciated his admiration for Tony Blair's foreign policy, though I doubt he will persuade many with his defence of the Iraq War. I would have liked him to spend more time explaining how he would sell his vision of a hawkish-foreign policy to a sceptical public.

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