Thursday, 26 May 2011

Foxes and Hedgehogs

In her column today, The Guardian's Allegra Stratton borrows from Isaiah Berlin's brilliant book 'The Hedgehog and the Fox', to compare pragmatists and ideologues in the coalition Cabinet. According to Berlin, the hedgehog believes in one big thing, whereas the fox pursues many - sometimes competing - ends. Berlin used the paradigm as a warning. He analysed Tolstoy's internal ambivalence, his inability to reconcile his own rationalist and realist instincts - leading to a miserable, self-hating and self-blinding twilight isolation. It reads as a plea for human humility. Principles are precious, but the world is too complex to be perfectly sliced and diced into man-made philosophical blueprints.

Today, Berlin's distinction might be deployed to compare socialists and progressives (hedgehogs) with liberals and conservatives (foxes). The hedgehog is more committed to ideological vision, whereas the fox is a pluralist who recognises the irreconcilability of rigid principles in the real world. It is tempting to suggest that politicians campaign as hedgehogs, but govern as foxes (remember New York mayor, Mario Cuomo's maxim that politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose?).

Yet, many Conservatives are natural foxes - refusing to succumb to dogmatic strait-jackets: libertarian, but pro-family; defenders of personal freedom, but tough on law enforcement; internationalist, but anti-supranationalism; more social justice, but less nanny state. Coalition may tend to accentuate the need for fox-like compromises, although that should be less evident around the Conservatives' core mission written into the coalition deal: deficit reduction, jobs growth, welfare reform, immigration control and reform of schools, NHS and policing.

As for the Prime Minister, I have no doubt that he will resist Ms Stratton's tantalising suggestion to 'attempt the biologically impossible – to cross-breed the two types, presumably ending up with something like a porcupine'. The PM is not looking for ideological purity or intellectual nirvana. He wants to deliver results, and politics is the art of the possible. Or, as Berlin quipped - pinched without a hint of irony from the uber-dogmatist, Immanuel Kant - 'from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made'. And certainly not in coalition.


Anonymous said...

Dominic. Can you please explain to me why you voted AGAINST Mark Reckless's anti-Bailout motion on the 24th May?

I'd really like to know. Particularly considering all your pre-election 'multi-speed Europe' bluster.

Anonymous said...

There were two drafts. One the government made clear it would ignore and did not have nearly enough support to pass. The other the government indicated it would accept, which means Britain will at least put its objections (and no doubt Parliament's) to the next European Council and back any measures to make Euro countries pay for the Euro mess.

In reality, neither courses of action can protect the taxpayer. We are on the hook under the EFSM until 2013, because the last government signed the UK up, and decisions on drawing down on that fund are taken by majority vote. It's a disgrace, but impossible to unpick the last government's folly.

As for my pre-election 'bluster', my HoC record on Europe speaks for itself: refused to support a budget increase for the EU, voted against EU budgetary surveillance and proposed the motion against prisoner voting. Dom

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the response. Please accept my apologies. Your record of opposing Europe is clear and well established, even in this young parliament. I hope that continues.

It is an awful shame that we can't do anything about the EFSM. This government has not been doing enough to fight Europe. The 2.9% budget increase can hardly be called a success. I urge you to keep fighting against this experiment. Euroscepticism or eurorealism is becoming part of the political mainstream. It's a vote winner.

Anonymous said...

Politics as the art of the possible does not restrict what is possible coalition or no; Mrs T did not choose to avoid confrontations with the Unions because they formed part of a pre-existing industrial relations structure. Huge (and necessary) reform of the NHS is not impossible; it is simply avoided politicians choose to sidestep reform of the NHS because it is inconvenient; ditto the license fee that we are paying for a national broadcaster which was designed for a completely different era. Politicians are way too circumspect in addressing these issues - the fiscal problems in the UK are because of the expenditure side of the equation, not the tax side and this is due to a whole range of pre-existing structures in the state that have not been reformed at all in years. In the meantime private businesses and customers are having to put up more money because we put these issues in the impossible category.

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