We are all Neocons Now

‘We are all neocons now, if one is to judge by the general euphoria at the prospect of democracy in Egypt’

Manchester Square Obama

It was in 1888, under an earlier Conservative-Liberal coalition government, that Sir William Harcourt is supposed to have said: “We are all socialists now.” Well, we are all neocons now, if one is to judge by the general euphoria at the prospect of democracy in Egypt. The arbiters of liberal opinion had hitherto treated the “Bush Doctrine”, which promoted the spread of democracy in the Middle East, as the abomination of desolation. An unholy alliance of the “Realists”, the Islamists and the Left had consigned neoconservatism to the dustbin of history. They had watched with indifference as the gains of the years immediately after 2001 were reversed across the Muslim world, symbolised by the failure to offer even moral support to the Green Movement that was brutally suppressed in Iran two years ago. Yet suddenly the bien pensants were all for the overthrow of Mubarak, regardless of the consequences — which in practice meant (at least temporarily) the Muslim world’s usual fallback: military rule. Even before Mubarak had packed his bags, the Obama Administration was putting out feelers to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the BBC insists is now “moderate”. Egypt may indeed evolve into a genuine democracy, rather than a greater Gaza. But if it does, the credit should belong not to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but to George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and the neoconservatives.

Democracy is not the same thing as “people power”. A nation that demands to be welcomed into the democratic fold must expect to satisfy certain conditions besides simply holding elections. Before the West commits itself to support any new Egyptian regime, it should insist as a bare minimum on the following: Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims to be protected from persecution and propaganda; women to enjoy full legal equality in all spheres of public and private life; unqualified recognition of and permanent peace with Israel.

Neoconservatism is not reactionary. The late Irving Kristol wrote: “I had no patience with the old conservatism that confronted the tides of history by shouting ‘Stop!'” As George W. Bush might have said, David Cameron misunderestimated neoconservatism when he caricatured it thus: “We should accept that we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun; that we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet and we shouldn’t try. Put crudely, that was what was wrong with the ‘neocon’ approach and why I am a liberal Conservative, not a neoconservative.” No neocon ever thought like that, much less acted as if they did. But neither do they shy away from what Kristol called “manliness” in foreign policy, as Europe — enfeebled by its safety-first social democratic mentality — invariably does. Before he snipes at neocons again, Mr Cameron should read The Neoconservative Persuasion, a new posthumous collection of Irving Kristol’s essays from 1942 to 2009, edited by his widow Gertrude Himmelfarb.

The principles that have enabled this “neocon persuasion” to reinvigorate American conservatism are at least as much concerned with domestic as with foreign policy, firmly opposed to the illiberal consequences of a false egalitarianism that denied the spirit of enterprise. Our “Liberal-Conservative” coalition would do well to reconsider the deeply illiberal effects of the policy with which it is now threatening our great universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge. The withdrawal of state funding for the humanities could be justified, and in the long run should even be beneficial, provided that these universities are allowed to charge tuition fees at a market rate. But the government has now decreed that they may only charge up to a maximum of £9,000, and even this inadequate figure is dependent on a discriminatory admissions policy that would give parental poverty more weight than academic achievement, reward bad schools at the expense of good ones, and elevate social engineering above national greatness.

We may still hope that the ancient universities will resist this use of arbitrary state power. Macaulay, in his History of England, recalled the struggle between James II and Magdalen College, Oxford: “The nature of the academical system of England is such that no event which seriously affects the interests and honour of either university [Oxford or Cambridge] can fail to excite a strong feeling throughout the country.” But he who pays the piper calls the tune. Andrew Hamilton, the present vice-chancellor of Oxford, is paid £382,000, plus a £3.5 million house. I doubt that he and others like him will wish to put all this at risk by defying the government, if necessary to the point where, like the fellows of Magdalen, he is forced out of office. 

Rather than bully our best universities the government should listen to admissions tutors, who say that many of their successful state school applicants have ignored teachers who told them they stood no chance against privately educated students. State schools that encourage their best pupils to apply should be rewarded financially, while those that discourage them should be penalised. There are plenty of good role models. Last year Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, an inner-city London comprehensive, got twelve pupils into Oxbridge. If the Vaughan, which is also under threat from its own Diocesan education authority, is allowed to continue to achieve such excellence, there is no reason why other schools should not emulate it.