>Vision versus Pragmatism

>Many of us are used to the word ‘vision’ meaning something good. But the UK Conservative Party seem to be suggesting the opposite.

Throughout the election campaign, and continuing into Government both Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have been saying something along the lines of this:

Paraphrased from an answer to a journalist by George Osborne: “You could either say that we have all the answers and all the vision to solve every problem. Or you could say that we accept we do not have every answer, and will instead launch reviews to correctly evaluate each task as it comes.”

In answer to this the journalist highlighted how long they’d been in opposition (13 years), supposedly to think of issues like this; and questioned why they had not got the answers after so long.

What do you think? Is a healthy dose of pragmatism all we need in government? Is vision merely a sign of excessive personal ambition as Cameron frequently suggests? Or do you think the Conservatives’ attack on visionary ideals is hypocritical, or even suggestive of a lack of forward planning?


  • >What was Osborne's response ?Definitely you would hope that they had figured a few methods of attack out.Launching a review doesn't have a great ring to it. It's usually some kind of blame game and then amounts to no discernable changes.

  • >I think they do have 'vision', at least as much as any other party. There was a lot wrong with the Conservative manifesto, but a lack of vision wasn't part of that. The plan for a 'big society' was cohesive – I think it was anti-social and ill-considered at times, but the post-Thatcherite idea of devolving power away from central government and into communities runs through many headline policy areas (education stands out) like a watermark. 'There is such a thing as society, it is just not the same as the state' Cameron said a while back and I think that little aphorism neatly captures the thinking of Philip Blond and others at the cutting edge of conservative political theory in this country right now. I genuinely consider Cameron to be, despite even his own protestations, the most ideologically-driven Conservative leader since Thatcher, with Blond and Oliver Letwin playing his Keith Joseph. You are quite right to point, though, out the glut of pragmatism – 28 reviews in total, I think, have been scheduled for this parliament which, as Sean implies, usually amount to an expensive kick into the long grass – so, why so? The answer is, I think, the Lib Dems and the need for a high degree of pragmatic compromise brought about by coalition government. Would a Tory majority government of even, say, 15 seats, have put so much out to pasture in committee and review? Not a chance.Is pragmatism in politics a good thing? Yes, it is certainly better than dogma, which can lead to moral and political catastrophe. However, there needs to be a dose of vision to act as a guiding compass and I think that, gernerally, the coalition do share a commitment to a smaller state and greater individual autonomy, seasoned with social and economic liberalism, which is why, not withstanding the stormy times, I'm cautiously optimistic about it; I think it has fundamentally good and complementary common groundings. (At least that's the case for the front benches, the backbenchers are a different issue entirely).

  • >Sean, I think his response was something similar to that i.e. "well we have got answers…" It was a bit of an unsure answer.Ross, vision as much as any other party..yes. But actual vision, definitely not! The idea of devolving power is fine. But was that really what the Conservatives were talking about? The main aspect of the 'Big Society' is allowing parents to found their own schools. That's not that visionary, especially as it's a copy of Sweden and also a policy that not many voters are keen on."There is such a thing as society, it is just not the same as the state". Put this on a test for 3 year olds and ask them to say true or false. Most of them would know it's true. For the 'best' our country has to offer to use the line to promote the best they have to offer, is simply depressing!"Would a Tory majority government of even, say, 15 seats, have put so much out to pasture in committee and review? Not a chance." Perhaps not. But that does not mean the Conservatives had given a great amount of thought to their policies before entering office. Cameron believes in pragmatism far too strongly. Look into the history of the world's great leaders and you will see that all those leaders praised for their pragmatism had clear and effective plan As. The simple fact is that the Conservatives often do not.I do however agree with your optimism about the coalition. But this is only because they are the best of the worst. There is no better alternative, and those who voted for such an outcome deserve to see a democratic result.

  • >Nah, to be fair I think there's more to it than you're giving credit for. His speech at the manifesto was his most impassioned to date and to be fair he did set out a quite clear vision and most would agree that it put clear blue water between the Conservatives and labour, a fundamental ideological clash about the role and consequence of state action. On regional devolution, education, law and order, communities, decentralisation runs through that manifesto. Except it isn't Thatcherite decentralisation, it is a gamble (what the Economist called 'the longest betting slip in history') that the role the state, which performs too much too clumsily with often undesirable consequences, will be replaced by community and social action? What do I think of that? Not a lot, for a variety of reasons, the main being that I am too pessimistic – it's alright for the Mrs Pardiggles and aspirant middle classes, but the vulnerable who most rely on these services cannot and should not have to rely on what is essentially philanthropy, whether that be for schools or what were once council services. Nonetheless, it is a more cohesive ideological document than either of the other two main parties' manifestos.On your lesser points, where the free schools come from is irrelevant. I don't like them, personally, but they do form a big (not the only) part of the Tories' ideological package. Marxism is Germanic and first applied to government in Russia, but it surely doesn't make Maoism a 'copy'. It's a cheap and glib analogy, but it is also the logical extension of your argument.You must also know some astonishingly precocious three year olds who not only find a definition of at least two words in that statement surplus to their requirements but who can actually appreciate the differences between 'state' and 'society'.On your third paragraph, I disagree. I think they do have a clear vision. Cameron is nowhere near as big a pragmatist as he has, in the past, made himself out to be. Whether such vision is effective is debateable, but in any case compromise is a product of coalition. I'm not a Tory by any means, as I'm sure you're aware, and I don't appreciate dogma either, but for better or for worse I do genuinely think that the Tories have more of a vision than they have had at any time since the 1990s. It might be hazy occasionally, it might now be often unfulfilled, but its there.

  • >You seem to have slightly changed your viewpoint to bring it more closely in line with the Economist I think."but it is also the logical extension of your argument." I know you kind of accept this but Maoism is a lot different to Marxism-Leninism than Swedish ideas for giving parents greater power is to the Conservative's ideas for giving parents greater power.As for whether Cameron and the Conservatives at large have vision, well this is obviously a matter of opinion. We have to accept that they have some degree of vision. We should probably accept they have more vision than Brown's Labour had. But this does not mean they are a visionary party. By Cameron's own mouth they are the party of pragmatism. You say that Cameron can sound passionate and envisioned, yet I can't see it. I see him as a very clever person who has always achieved where he has tried, but is driven more by his own desire to succeed than a passion for helping people. He can sometimes be annoyed about the way things are. But at the end of the day Cameron practically idolised Blair. He praised Labour's achievements when he came into office. And he is not really frustrated about Britain's path. He just wants to take it further up the same one, albeit with a slightly different route to the one Brown would take. The vision that Cameron wants to emulate is in things like the 1997 devolution act, Surestart, the introduction of the academies etc. But any ideas proposed by the Conservatives so far simply don't compare.

  • >I won't really continue the argument as I do recognise that there are arguments on both sides, particularly re: some of Cameron's past comments (allegedly) on being the 'heir to Blair' and (verifiably) being a 'big Thatcher fan' but not a Thatcherite. I would (and I know I didn't) move a little away from Cameron and look at Letwin and those behind the manifesto, but as I said this is a moot debate and I can see plenty of ammunition for both sides.What I will refute is that my views are being altered based on what I might have read in the Economist.I wrote, on this site, on 15th April, the day after the Con manifesto was published and the day before even the London print of the next Economist:'That said, the Conservative manifesto is a lot of things but it isn't without a sense of ideological drive and vision re: the 'big society'. Whether it is unworkable, unfair and incompatible with how humans actually are (my view) is another matter.'Now, I might be right or wrong on the ratio of ideology to PR (see above), but I emphatically did not change my tune once I read the Economist.It's under the To Vote or Not to Vote thread if you want to check.Finally, ' We have to accept that they have some degree of vision. We should probably accept they have more vision than Brown's Labour had. But this does not mean they are a visionary party' that, to me, suggests that, as ever, we're essentially on the same lines. I have more faith in the actual ideology behind rhetoric than you do, but I can completely see your argument and the examples you use to support it are correct, valid and the exact ones I'd use in your shoes. I think, to be honest, it's a case of wait and see…

  • >Sorry, the quote is not from the 'To Vote or Not to Vote' thread but from the (slightly related) 'Should there be any control over voting?' thread – still April 15.

  • >Aw… You killed the debate! I wouldn't have opened up the debate if there weren't arguments on both sides! Nevertheless it does seem that we're not too far apart from agreement.Sorry about saying you were changing your opinion. That was perhaps more spoken from knowledge of your more non-Conservative political leanings. It just seems like you've warmed to the Conservative arguments a little, that's all.I'll leave it on a summary of my viewpoint if anyone else wants to pick the debate up. Ross says "it's a case of wait and see". Yet I would argue that this is exactly Cameron's 'Pragmatic' argument. A vision is a foresight and hence is visible before something takes place. The more hazy and unclear something is the less visionary it is.

  • >Oh no, I don't want to kill a debate. I think we should 'wait and see' exactly what this coalition puts in to practice, though I do think that elected police commissioners, recall elections, free schools and so on, all outlined in last week's Queen's Speech, give plenty of ammunition to my argument that there is a real theme of the 'big society' in Cameron's party. I didn't mean 'wait and see' what the Conservative 'vision' is, just see how far they feel able to implement it in coalition, though, as you see, even this is a hallmark of pragmatism.To extend the debate somewhat, having temporarily snuffed it out, by bringing it back to its theoretical roots, is pragmatism more suited to particular forms of government? Is it easier to be as relentlessly ideological as Asquith/Lloyd George, Attlee and Thatcher were with thumping big majorities? Rob and I agree that there has been some sort of move away from whatever ideology Cameron had (we disagree on the extent of this) towards compromise: how far is this a necessary and desirable requisite of coalition? On the other hand, Blair's Third Way was essentially post-ideological pragmatism turned into a big tent election winning machine, all on the back of two landslide majorities.Further, is pragmatism more politically successful? The most successful election winning prime ministers – Thatcher aside – were not ideologues (Gladstone, at least until Ireland hamstrung his last two ministries, Salisbury, Baldwin, Churchill, Blair) while those more ideologically driven (Peel, Asquith and Lloyd George, Attlee) struggle to win more than one majority and/or seriously damage their parties. Just to re-awaken the debate and generalise it a bit more, moving away from the modern Tories who, I must finally add, I don't particularly admire. Simply because I tend to think that they have a more coherent ideology than at any time since Thatcher doesn't mean I agree with any more of it than I do Thatcherism. On the pragmatic level of government administration though, I do respect their (and the Lib Dems') conduct in forming and getting this coalition off the ground in a menner far more efficient than could be dreamed of in places where coalitions have been the norm for generations.No debate killer, me!

  • >I just thought of what Cameron and/or Blair would say: they have/had a vision of pragmatism i.e. they have both. The thing is though that there is a difference between Blair and Cameron. Throughout the past five years Cameron has been caught in numerous situations looking slightly unsure about his party's, and indeed his own personal position. Now this may be his personal approach and/or my misinterpretations. But nevertheless reforms like devolution are far bigger than anything the Conservatives are likely to bring to the table. Of course I could be proven wrong, but neither free schools nor elected police commissioners seem likely reforms to get put in the history books; and the right to recall MPs can't be called visionary for everybody agrees on it!Are pragmatic parties more succesful? That's an interesting question. No truly succesful candidate can be without a degree of pragmatism. Without it people would be pursuing policies that simply weren't practical. However, does pragmatism have to replace vision? Both Cameron and Blair would probably say it does not. Yet you only need to listen to Cameron talk about the subject to hear how it has to him. The ultimate in pragmatism to my mind would be to hold a vision as plan a, and be pragmatic about its implementation, with a willingness to fall back onto plan bs and cs. Of course this is all speculation and opinion as I can't back up my point. But next time you get an opportunity to listen to Cameron talking about vision and pragmatism see if you don't agree with me.Pure pragmatism doesn't always win the day, just as pure ideologies don't. You said Churchill was a great example of a pragmatist, and yet it was the vision of Attlee and Bevin who won the day in 1945, straight after Churchill had succesfully led Britain to victory!

  • >In other words a pragmatic vision is better than a vision of pragmatism.

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