Peter Franklin: In defence of Danny Kruger
On Monday, Guido Fawkes picked up on Sean Gabb’s fisk of Danny Kruger’s book ‘On Fraternity’ published by Civitas. In this Platform, Peter Franklin comes to Danny's defence. Peter Franklin is a Conservative policy advisor and speechwriter specialising in environmental and social issues.
Danny Kruger is a friend of mine and a former colleague. He was kind enough to mention me in the author’s acknowledgements, even though I disagreed with some of his arguments. For these reasons you may wish to dismiss the following attempt to fisk the fisk as a back scratching exercise, but here goes anyway:
Gabb’s onslaught consists of four main attacks: on the “fraudulent nature of [Kruger’s] analysis”; on the Conservative leadership who apparently “put Dr Kruger up to write [the book]”; on the book’s “pretentious and obscure” language; and on the author for “executing his commission so incompetently”.
Let’s look at each of these charges – firstly, that of intellectual fraud: It seems that Kruger’s crime was to make “a return to market liberty under Margaret Thatcher” a premise of his argument. This might seem a fairly uncontroversial assumption. But apparently not. It seems that far from being a free marketeer, Margaret Thatcher was in reality a ruthless corporatist. “I was one of the earliest conservatives to understand the real nature of the Thatcher project,” says Mr Gabb modestly, “it was to reconcile the fact of an extended and meddling state apparatus, plus big business privilege, with the need to generate enough wealth to pay for it all.”
Golly. In contrast to Gabb, I must be one of the last conservatives to understand the real nature of the Thatcher project. Fortunately, our hero is on hand to reveal all:
“There was no reduction in tax for the middle classes. There was no overall cutting of regulations. Instead, the taxes and regulations were revised so that we could, by immense hard work, reverse the long term relative decline of the British economy.”
So, Thatcher managed to maintain the burden of statism, but disguised it in such a way that the country somehow forgot it was there and transformed Britain into Europe’s most dynamic economy in a fit of absence of mind. Cunning, eh?
Then there’s some stuff about “creating a general environment within which disobedience to the expressed will of the authorities became unwise.” Yes, I recall the Great Terror of the Thatcher years. The way her critics were silenced and not in any way paid a lot of money by the BBC to slag her off at every opportunity. That Ben Elton, still rotting in Strangeways, I’m told. And what about that terrible day when the Army machine-gunned the Poll Tax protesters? Oh hang on, that was Tiananmen Square – my mistake.
To be fair, Thatcher didn’t achieve the libertarian utopia Sean Gabb would wish for – who could? But surely we can agree that the Lady moved things some distance in that general direction? The rest of the world (of which Danny Kruger is a member) certainly would, and so it seems a trifle unfair to single him out for failing to expose the statist conspiracy that is Thatcherism.
In any case, Kruger’s argument isn’t centrally concerned with the record of any particular Government. His main contentions are that the principles of liberty and equality are in tension; and that fraternity is the way forward. Does Gabb show that these ideas are fraudulent? No, he merely disposes of the idea that liberty and equality are in tension by maintaining that both have been diminished by successive Labour and Conservative Governments. As for fraternity, he has nothing to say. Given that the book is called ‘On Fraternity’ and is on the subject of fraternity, one would have thought that any attempt to demonstrate its “intellectual bankruptcy” would have more to say on, er, fraternity.
On to the second charge – that this whole business is nothing more than a sneaky Cameroonian dodge:
“…this brings me to the apparent purpose of the book… It is still expected that political debate in this country should proceed from an intellectual basis. The Conservatives have no intellectual basis that they dare honestly explain to us. They must at the same time convey the impression of one. They have, therefore, put Dr Kruger up to write a whole book about Conservative principle…”
By way of supporting evidence, Sean Gabb observes that “Dr Kruger is a special adviser to David Cameron.” Indeed he is. But what Gabb obviously doesn’t know is that Kruger not only finished most of the book before he joined the Leader’s Office, but started it well before David Cameron became party leader. Still I’m sure Dave’s gang are grateful for Danny’s intellectual input – such a refreshing change after all that rabble rousing from those crude populists David Willetts and Oliver Letwin.
On to the third charge, that of “pretentious and obscure” language. Gabb helps his case by continually referring to the author as “Dr Kruger”. As every Englishman knows, it is not, outside of a university campus, the done thing to refer to oneself as a Doctor unless one is capable of performing an emergency appendectomy. I have never known Danny to use his academic title and it is not used anywhere in the book.
However, it has to be said that Mr Kruger does use an awful lot of big words – some of them foreign for pity’s sake. This is not to Mr Gabb’s taste:
“There are many subjects, I grant, discussion of which requires a specialised language. There is music. There is the law. There are the natural sciences. But this is so only for the most elaborate discussions. For basic presentations, plain English has always been found sufficient. And it is not so for discussing political philosophy. For this, plain English is ideally suited.”
Those last two sentences seem to owe more to John Prescott than plain English, but never mind – simple words will do for simplistic arguments. For instance, Gabb is able to express the opinion that all German philosophy is rubbish in the following way:
“German philosophy is notoriously a learned gibberish. For nearly two centuries, it has been used to justify every imaginable lapse from humanity and common sense.”
Not blessed with such wisdom, Kruger grapples with Kant and Hegel, and thus ends up using some of their technical terms in his description of some rather abstract concepts. Had Kruger published his work under the Ladybird imprint this would be unforgivable, but should Civitas be condemned for occasionally requiring readers to reach for a dictionary? One notes that even the plain spoken Mr Gabb resorts to such adjectives as “Oakshottian”.
On to the fourth and final charge – that of incompetent execution. In this regard, Gabb scores a point, Kruger has indeed attributed a quotation to Augustine that should have gone to Tacitus. For some reason this provides Gabb with an opportunity to point out that he went to a South London comprehensive, while Kruger went to “an expensive public school”. I went to one of the last Technical High schools where there was no Latin or Greek, but plenty of metalwork; as a result I’ve no idea whether the misattribution makes the slightest difference to the force of Kruger’s argument. In this I am ashamed because, as Gabb points out, “the quotation should be familiar to everyone of moderate education – even to people who do not know Latin.” But hang on if every schoolboy is expected to know his Tacitus, then surely those who grow up to read Civitas pamphlets ought to cope with a spot of philosophical jargon. And I think we can all be philosophical about the odd misattributed quote. We all make mistakes don't we? But does Kruger make quite as many as Gabb suggests? He quibbles over quotations from Aristotle and St Paul, without actually concluding that Kruger had quoted incorrectly. He insists that a landscape cannot be defoliated, only a tree – as if trees have nothing to do with landscapes. He upbraids the author for describing Bastiat as an anarchist rather than a liberal, but didn’t Bastiat recognise Gustave de Molinari as his intellectual heir, and wasn’t the latter gentleman the father of anarcho-capitalism?
When Kruger alludes to something Hegel said about the position of slaves in imperial Rome, Gabb explodes in rage:
“…no playing with words can possibly obliterate the factual difference between freeman and slave. If Dr Kruger doubts this, I only wish I could oblige by chaining him to an oar for a few days, or putting him in one of those disgusting underground prisons…”
Mr Gabb is clearly not a man to be trifled with. But Kruger wasn’t actually defending slavery, or even what Hegel said about it – as Kruger spells out in the very next paragraph. Needless to say, Gabb did not quote the very next paragraph – only the “three sentences” that “simply make me angry.”
Gabb has some anger left over for his closing remarks, a splendid peroration rivalling ‘J’Accuse’ (by the eminent Belgian writer Zola Budd, I believe). Here it is in full:
“Of course, I blame the Conservative leadership for trying to make us believe it intends to do other than continue the work of turning England into the sort of despotism that would have made James II gasp and stare. But I also blame Dr Kruger for executing his commission so incompetently. And I must blame many of my friends for having let their names be used as an endorsement of his efforts - and for having brought themselves into disrepute by not objecting to so many scandalous blunders.
“Above all, I blame Civitas - otherwise the most authoritative and radical of modern policy institutes. It has published the longest petition of intellectual bankruptcy I have read in years. I do most strongly urge David Green to withdraw this book at once and remove it from the Civitas catalogue.”
Blimey! It is just as well that Gabb hopes his readers “will not take my comments as personal.” Unfortunately, a lot of his comments not only come across as deeply personal, but are utterly without foundation. It is one thing to disagree with author’s ideas or to dispute a statement of fact, but it is quite another to accuse him of intellectual fraud.
Ultimately the main reason Gabb's attack fails is that he doesn't engage with the premise of Danny's book at all. On Fraternity is an argument for the small, variable, local, private institutions and associations in which individuals flourish - and to which the concepts of equality and liberty have only marginal relevance. To a libertarian, of course, for whom individual freedom under the rule of law is the sum total of political theory, the fraternal idea is incomprehensible. Which goes a long way in explaining Sean Gabb's extraordinary review.
Related link: Dan Hannan MEP has also blogged in defence of Danny Kruger and what he describes as the "most thoughtful political pamphlet of 2007."