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Donal Blaney: Sound Doctrine is Sound Politics

Every week the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the Young Britons' Foundation, Donal Blaney, explains one of Morton Blackwell's Laws of the Public Policy Process. Morton Blackwell is the Founder and President of the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

As will have become pretty obvious to all but the most political illiterate, my views are broadly "Thatcherite" in outlook. I instinctively believe in an independent nation, free markets, a smaller state, lower taxes, traditional values and I stand alongside those who oppose political correctness, multiculturalism and a headlong rush into a European superstate, In the parlance of conservative activists of a certain generation, I am "sound" and "One of Us".

And yet this week's Law of the Public Policy Process does not apply only to Thatcherites. Indeed in today's political discourse, who is NOT a Thatcherite? Last weekend's Sunday Times carried a fascinating article arguing that Gordon Brown - far from being the socialist bogeyman many of us believe him to be - is actually more of a Thatcherite than Tony Blair.

This week's Law - that sound doctrine is sound politics - stresses the centrality in politics of principle. It does not ignore the fact that politics is the art of the possible - that would be naive. But it does stress that a coherent philosophy is essential as the starting point from which any subsequent derogations or deviations may then flow.

The alternative viewpoint espoused by many supporters of New Labour (and even some pimply faced zealots surrounding David Cameron) is that effective politics requires the abdication of a coherent set of policies, principles and values in favour of the pursuit at all costs of the mythical centre ground and the adoption, at whatever cost, of a consensus. It sees the lowest common denominator, a 21st century utilitarianism, as the ideal outcome. This approach is proclaimed as being "modern", "progressive" and even heralding "a new form of politics" and those who oppose such an approach are derided as being traditionalist dinosaurs.

So why does sound doctrine matter so much? I argue that it is important because it is that starting point for the politician. As much as those who share my outlook in life might feel nauseated by consensus politics (and we recall Lady Thatcher's exhortation that consensus is the absence of principle and the presence of expediency) we are intelligent enough to know that compromises must sometimes be reached and that much of the time achieving 50% is better than achieving nothing at all.

What has struck me from my study of politics and politicians, however, is that the most successful politicians in terms of fusing the potent combination of popularity and lasting achievement are doctrinally sound. This doesn’t mean they are unbending in the application of their principles. But it does mean they start from a position of having some principles in the first place.

The likes of Tony Benn, George Galloway and even Gordon Brown are examples of left-wing politicians who I would argue are doctrinally sound, perhaps (in the case of Galloway in particular) excessively so. The Orange Book Liberals likewise are doctrinally sound because they too have a coherent philosophy that is the starting point in their debates and campaigns. On the conservative side of the aisle one can see groups such as the localists (led ably by Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell) who likewise have a clear vision that runs through their thoughts, writings and speeches and which guides their actions and votes.

Sound doctrine particularly matters in an era of cynicism. The remarks of the socialist Hungarian Prime Minister (in which he graphically stated to his parliamentary colleagues that they had consciously and repeatedly lied in order to retain power) were shocking, not so much for the fact that he and his colleagues had deceived the Hungarian electorate but for the fact that he actually said out loud what most voters suspect is the case in their countries too.

I will never forget the dissembling and sophistry of Michael Portillo after the 1992 election when the Major government increased VAT to 17.5% despite the Party's manifesto stating that the Party had no plans to increase VAT. When pressed by an audience of activists as to why, despite this seemingly clear manifesto commitment, VAT had been increased within months of Major being narrowly re-elected, Portillo smugly stated that the manifesto commitment had not been breached at all as it was true that the Party had not had any plans at the time of the election to increase VAT. While this may have been a clever line of argument that I, as a solicitor, should have appreciated, I took and still take the view that such statements do nothing at all to combat the lack of respect that so many voters have for their political leaders.

This week too we have seen an embarrassing episode of sophistry which has done little more than insult the intelligence of voters and Party members. In response to the revelation that there are now fewer members of the Party than there were when David Cameron took power less than 12 months ago (as exclusively revealed on this site), CCHQ blamed local associations (again) for not collating data accurately and then had the temerity to proclaim that the fall in members was for "seasonal reasons" (as if being a conservative is not for people who enjoy the summer but only for those who like long winter nights). Quite why CCHQ has allowed itself to be open to ridicule in this why is beyond me. Far from showing that the Party has changed, it reinforces the impression
that the Party still remains in the hands of those who are more inspired by Machiavelli than Hayek.

Sound doctrine is essential when weighing up alternative courses to pursue. There will inevitably be a variety of occasions when the less doctrinally sound option will need to be pursued, as a temporary measure, as a half-way house or for costs or electoral reasons. The reason it is important to be doctrinally sound is for the politician to know that he is derogating from the true path. In today's cynical, media driven age it increasingly seems to be the case that politicians do not even realise they are derogating from a philosophically sound path at all.

The consequences are that their policies amount to no more than a hotch-potch of random focus-group tested soundbites that do not stand up to intellectual scrutiny and which more often than not contradict each other. Like a child who has to remember dozens of lies in an effort not to get caught out by his parents or friends, such a politician has to juggle a series of policies that bear little relation to each other or to a particular world view or philosophy. And like that lying child grappling with his web of deceit, that politician will (as has happened to Blair) get found out.

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