Debate on the Internet takes the form of a many-tailed temporal worm: many different segments of argument persisting across time and yet standing in relation to a particularly obstreperous character as their starting point. This post is in response to a post by Mark Wallace, which in turn was in response to an article by Owen Jones, which itself was a response to Sunny Hundal.

Sunny made the dreadfully uninteresting argument that people he disagreed with were evil, for a definition of evil so broad as to include any health minister forced to ration healthcare by virtue of not possessing infinite resources. Despite being mind-bogglingly stupid (or, indeed, perhaps because of this) it attracted quite some debate, with Owen Jones responding that Tories weren’t evil but rather rationalisers of policies which defend their own privilege. This is absolutely true: it is entirely possible to ostensibly believe in policies which enable entrepreneurs to produce products which improve the lives of millions while at the same time supporting policies which reduce the amount of tax one personally has to pay. Very often they can be the same policies; simply having good intentions doesn’t grant one altogether altruistic motives.

Mark wrote a response to this which includes the following statement:

“Or maybe Conservatives think what we think because, having interrogated
the logic and the evidence, we honestly believe conservatism holds the
best solutions for the problems the nation faces?”

Mark suffers from an all too rare flaw in contemporary politicians: the need to ensure that what he’s doing is right. As a result, he clearly believes that Conservatism, as an ideology, is based upon a rational assessment of the evidence. This is fascinating, because it’s difficult to square this notion with, well, the evidence. To take a few examples:

  • Osborne’s economic policy appears to be less based upon evidence and more upon throwing darts on a board composed of random fiscal manoeuvres. He’s combined a particularly arbitrary approach to cutting public spending (20% cuts across all departments except politically protected ones without any particular exemption for capital spending) with a few random quasi-Keynesian initiatives. The Help to Buy scheme in particular stands against everything we learned from the credit crunch and even all the arguments made by right-wingers in the States: Government underwriting of mortgages for first-time buyers is a bad thing.
  • Iain Duncan Smith, while starting from the well-intentioned position of wanting to lower the marginal rate of taxation on people transferring from benefits into work, has decided to start ignoring the evidence in favour of his own belief that he is right.
  • The Conservatives’ official position on Europe is to negotiate the repatriation of some powers which they think are better held at the national level. However, the recent report on this subject has caused at least one Tory adviser to complain about the weight it puts on evidence, as the facts appear to run contrary to their position.

I may be being unfair, as Mark appears to want to have this debate at a much more macro level:

“Conservatives believe in doing what works – not holding tight to nice means, and to hell with the ends. We recognise and embrace human fallibility, and seek to sculpt policies that turn it to society’s best advantage. We would rather acknowledge the profit motive and channel its energies towards alleviating ills, than seek to restrain it at the cost of greater human suffering.”

Conservatives, having looked at the evidence, want to use capitalism and the greed of mankind to achieve good. This is entirely reasonable – as a liberal I want the same thing. But crucially, as a liberal, we’ve wanted this for much longer. Opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws and other restrictions on trade in the 19th century came primarily from the Tory benches, and their eventual repeal caused the formation of the Liberal Party. Either conservatism has changed since then to require evidence before making policy, or it continues to be an ideology founded most of all upon retaining particular structures of power.The latter is a more Burkean Conservatism, and it is undeniable that such an approach is still common within the party. Such an ideology is less concerned with what works than what works for oneself.

However, this does not mean that Mark is wrong: as I mentioned above, it is entirely possible for at least some Conservatives (although not, apparently, the ones in the Cabinet) to support a policy on the basis of evidence while that policy simultaneously supports existing power structures. But it does present a problem to his more sweeping claim that Conservatism has some kind of lock on rational evidence-based approaches to policymaking in comparison with other ideologies: this is as obviously nonsensical as the claim that right-wingers are evil. The intellectual tradition and current practice of the Party points to Conservatives being no less and no more likely to rely on evidence than any other political grouping, and rightly so, otherwise all Conservatives would agree on absolutely everything. Only socialists all think the same.

The Wild Wild Wind

July 16, 2013

About a year ago Chris Townsend wrote a defence of his opposition to wind farms in the wilderness, a defence notable for its lack of venom and the mindless shrieking about imagined technical issues that infects too much of the opposition to wind power. I unfortunately did not read the article at the time, but came to it late via a tweet last week.

It is so different from much of the bile that pumps from the spout of the Telegraph and the like that it deserves a proper response, even now. To summarise, Townsend argues from a position that has a long history within the environmental movement, dating back to Thoreau and the Transcendalists: that of wilderness being essential for human flourishing. By imposing our own practicalities on the wild – to whit, by concreting it over – we conceal something potentially grander and hence impoverish ourselves. The viewpoint of man is necessarily limited, and by assuming our needs are primary we miss out on manifold other forms of interpretation. An example that Thoreau uses is that of squirrels, which around here are frequently dismissed as tree rats, but from another perspective can be seen as the ‘planters of forests’.

The wilderness allows man to have access to this manifold of interpretation and in contemplating it we are free to grow both intellectually and aesthetically. This approach could be seen as having much in common with Kantian aesthetics, albeit on a much broader scale. By introducing symbols of man’s practicality within the demesne of the wild we break this manifold: an interpretation is forced upon us and shocks us out of our contemplation. Townsend claims that wind turbines play this role, and are an intrusion into the wild.

I wish to argue the opposite, but before I do so we must better understand why the wild is able to play the role that it does. Firstly, it is ostensibly impractical. The wild has no easily perceived use, and only through contemplation and investigation can we see the role it can play. Secondly, it is chaotic. It is not constructed according to a single coherent design, but rather the complex interaction of many forms of life, and forces much larger than life itself. Thirdly, this impractical chaos lends it beauty. The aesthetic of the wild as outlined above is an aesthetic of happenstance and of engagement: beauty lies in the capability of the wild to open new ways of seeing the world.

With the above in tow, it is not clear that man made objects are necessarily excluded from the wild if it can be shown they can manifest the features given above. I claim that wind turbines can. It is frequently claimed by opponents of wind power that they are impractical, being less controllable than the huge coal furnaces they’re more used to getting electricity from. This is true: compared to fossil fuels, wind turbines represent a surrender to nature. But in that surrender there is mystery: they force the user to consider new ways of powering civilisation, ones which are more in line with the forces that determine the shape of the wild. They are chaotic – certainly in output – but in interaction across the country bring a unity of output not of a single design, but of many. In the contemplation of this new world in which the wild moves into civilisation, rather than the other way round, they are certainly beautiful.

The train journey between Carlisle and Edinburgh now goes through what can only be described as a wind farm landscape. It is beautiful. When passing through it, one cannot help but contemplate how our world is changing, and how our very understanding of the previously hermetic worlds of the Wild and the Civilised are changing with it. Thoreau believed that man, through art and literature, could create the wild itself. In placing more of our civilisation in the hands of natural forces, we are bringing the wild home.

Imagine, if you can bear it, that you’re Ed Milliband. You inherited a party that had reclaimed its sense of moral purpose, however misguided, in opposition to cuts to a managerial state that it had spent thirteen years building, a state that provided many benefits and services to a population grown accustomed to its largesse. The economy was foundering in the wake of international money market pandemonium, and appeared to be being made worse by the muddled policies of a Chancellor of aristocratic descent. Opinion polls put you in the lead by a country mile.

And yet somehow you’ve found yourself in conflict with your most significant source of funding and are on course to voluntarily allow your opponents to outspend you at the next election. You’ve allowed the source of your party’s traditional strength to become a weakness, to allow organisations representing the working public to be vilified by a party made up of self-interested millionaires. You’re frantically trying to manage over-mighty bosses that should be coming to you in supplication for a hint of power, and are on course to somehow lose the next election.

In short, you’ve managed to ruin your own party, your election prospects, and any hope for class identity the British left may once have had. You’re literally your own worst enemy, and the bosom ally of the Conservatives. You’ve made this Liberal Democrat feel that even his party isn’t quite so bad in comparison. How did you come to this?