Monday, March 29, 2010

What do we believe? Why? Where are we heading?

At the present moment politics and by extension, political blogging in the US, bores me; not so much the issues, more the black/white, no room for debate, partisanship. There are very few indeed standing back, using critical analysis on their "own" side as well as putting the boot into the "other", very few prepared to stand out and say "Yes, well, I do believe a), b) and c) but…"

One exception is The Daily Dish, which joined my daily essential reading list several months ago. "Exception" is the perfect description for its editor, Andrew Sullivan, for a whole host of reasons you can read here, but what I have found particularly interesting over the last week or so, is his reiteration of his own personal brand of conservatism (here and here) and how far away that description lies from the Palinist "the only good liberal is a dead’un" loons who are presently dominating the discourse on the American Right.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to measure my own beliefs and thoughts against that definition of Sullivan's "conservatism". I think it is also time that Unionism, both here and in the wider UK, engaged in the same kind of self-analysis and following on from that, long-term strategic planning.

In brief point form, Sullivan believes:

1 "the two deepest impulses in Western political thought – the individualist and the collectivist – need each other to keep our politics coherent."

I agree, although, like Sullivan, I believe the balance should be much more towards the individualist than the collectivist. I don’t follow the "communal" brand either in N.Ireland or in the wider UK – why? Because by doing so, too many of my own beliefs regarding politics, not to mention social morality and responsibility, would be sacrificed for the "greater" collective "good". On a parochial level, the whole topic of "Unionist Unity" is a perfect example of the collectivist mindset destroying the right of the individual citizen to decide how best he can express his political opinion at the ballot box.

2. In society and the state – both essential, obviously, but with the tip very much towards society.

Agree 100%; something I wrote, in collaboration with Beano (anyone remember him?!) many moons ago:

The traditional Ulster character was individualistic, non-conformist and suspicious of government interference in their lives. Over the years many (witness for example, the great migrations of the 17th and 18th centuries) left the province because they felt that they would be prevented from achieving their full potential by the ruling government or social/moral climate of the day. We believe that within Northern Ireland there is an over-involvement of government in our everyday lives, evidenced by a number of laws that exist to impose conformity to one standard interpretation of a particular set of beliefs.
The state’s job is merely to delineate the widest of boundaries in terms of social provision and legislation. Within those legal boundaries, it should be up to society and its individuals to do, spend and believe what they want. The obvious next point then is what happens when there is the inevitable bust-up that will occur on occasions between the wider society norms and those of the individual non-conformist. The state ensures, again within those previously mentioned boundaries, the right of the individual.

3. "Pragmatism: "coherence and balance and practical prudential openness to change and reform"

The one point I fall down on, I suppose, when I’m blogging on here! However, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the books which has influenced me the most over the last year is Karl Popper’s "The Poverty of Historicism". Once you accept our (political) future isn’t predetermined, then it’s up to you to think constantly, respond constantly to changing circumstances in order that your beliefs are given the future space to prevail. Unionism, generally in the UK, over the last 10 years has been incoherent. Within N.Irish Unionism there has traditionally existed a knee-jerk approach towards even the discussion of "openess to change and reform". As Sullivan suggests, such openess doesn’t signify defeat, it’s merely "practical" and "prudential" strategy to deal with the inevitable challenges and threats ahead.

4."Conservatism, if it means anything, is a resistance to ideology and the world of ideas ideology represents, whether that ideology is a function of the left or right"

Well, yes, sort of. Conservatism, like any other political belief, needs, as already mentioned, the flexibility to cope with changing circumstances. But it does also need strong roots from which the plant can move in resposnse to the changing direction of the sunlight. That’s the problem at the minute with the Conservative Party of Cameron: people don’t really know what they stand for, what makes them different from New Labour. Five core beliefs are all that’s required.


One thing I pull from Sullivan’s writings generally is the thought and self-analysis which have gone into the creation and establishment of his political stance. How many of us have put the same effort in before arriving at our final destination? More pertinently, how many of the political parties that we support know why and how they are transporting us to that terminus?

Over a year ago, it was suggested by the DUP that a Unionist Academy, purportedly to explore and examine Unionism’s present role and future, should be set up. Due to numerous reasons, it looks very unlikely now to see the light of day - the issues it could have addressed haven't gone away. I think N.Irish and wider UK Unionism needs this kind of critical thinking employed by Sullivan in order to prosper much more than it is at the minute; whether that would be best achieved through the formality of Academies, think-tanks or through a few like-minded souls hammering out ideas over a coffee, I don’t know...but I’d be interested to hear or read what other Unionists (whatever part of the UK you’re from) think.

Cross posted at Open Unionism.

4 comments:

kensei said...

The problem with US politics at the moment is that the Right is batshit insane, and those who aren't batshit insane or are either cowed or hounded out. See what happened to David Frum.

On individual versus communalist, I'm not sure it is necessarily so simple as saying you must compromise your rights. Ultimately people are social creatures, and have required to cooperate and spread risk since they were chasing game on the plains. While communal action can sacrifice somethings to the group, it can open up others. Think of how hard it would be to plan or make decisions without some unemployment uninsurance or health insurance, or how worse off society would be without a universal schooling. But those are all things that were not taken for granted at some point. Obviously, there are dangers in going to fall, but Government can and should take action. We don't get to elect business, for example/

So I'd guess I'd fall somewhere on the left side of the centre. I think ultimately things fucntion when people focus on outcome rather than ideology rather than warring economic tribes. That seems lost in the US at the moment.

O'Neill said...

The problem with US politics at the moment is that the Right is batshit insane, and those who aren't batshit insane or are either cowed or hounded out

Both sides have their loons in the blogosphere (Daily Kos reads like a copy of Socialist Worker circa 1982 sometimes), I'll agree that the Right in the overall picture is less accomodating of dissent even from within its own nominal ranks.

On individual versus communalist, I'm not sure it is necessarily so simple as saying you must compromise your rights.

I'm happy with compromise within the social sphere (health, education provision etc). I (and my family) get benefits from our citizenship, it's only right that we also bear the financial responsibilities. Where I guess we'd differ is on the scope and size of those responsibilities. On the more political question, compromise on your own individual beliefs also must happen whatever party you belong to or even vote for. It's measuring that up against what you wish to achieve from that membership or vote which leaves you the question of how far you are prepared to compromise your own principles.

kensei said...

Both sides have their loons in the blogosphere (Daily Kos reads like a copy of Socialist Worker circa 1982 sometimes), I'll agree that the Right in the overall picture is less accomodating of dissent even from within its own nominal ranks.

Perhaps in the comments but there is no equivalence between Daily Kos and the batshit mental Tea Party stuff that is being parroted in some cases by Republican *leaders*. You'll find a lot of nasty stuff about Bush from the Left but you'll go a long way to find a member of Congress who ran with Facist accusations and the like from Democratics members of Congress. Or Governors. Or major media outlets.

The Republican Party needs broken and remade, just as the Dems did in the early 70s.

. On the more political question, compromise on your own individual beliefs also must happen whatever party you belong to or even vote for.

Voting is pushing I think; no one will ever match up exactly and you can tactically change your vote. But ha! Knew there was an advantage to not belonging to a political party.

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