Reaktion, £19.99, 375pp. £17.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Conservatism, By Kieron O'Hara

Conservatism is par excellence the ideology of modernity. It reacted against Enlightenment efforts to engineer social change almost before they started. That conservatism is an ideology, Kieron O'Hara leaves little doubt, despite the (highly ideological) disavowals of some conservatives. Though Conservatism carries encomia from the Prime Minister and David Willetts, O'Hara underlines that his subject is "small-c" conservatism, rather than the credo of the Tory party.

His conservatism combines scepticism about social blueprints with suspicion of change. Society is too big and complex to understand, and for this Burkean reason, drawing-board French Revolution-style social engineering is ill-advised. In fact, the suspicion of change seemingly derives from scepticism. However, O'Hara favours a politics of low change rather than no change. His bugaboo is change without strong grounds for thinking it an improvement, and social complexity deprives us of such grounds.

So much for St-Just. But O'Hara doesn't think France would be better off under Bourbon absolutism. Here, as elsewhere, he deftly skirts round some obvious neo- or palaeo-Con dinosaur traps. He jibs at abstraction and eschews the overwritten style of conservatives like Oakeshott; he's also unimpressed by Peter Hitchens-esque hankerings for a better yesterday, the Mad Hatter tendency of today's US Republican party, and free-market ideologues generally. This last leaves him in two minds about Hayek, whose scepticism about social engineering drove him to the rugged libertarianism we all know about.

O'Hara accepts the critique of state dirigisme from which Hayek's free-marketeering sprang. This conjures up a shade which should darken the pages of Conservatism more than it does. What if its two conservative principles clash? One might think, with Hayek, that central planning fails because it calls for omniscience, but on the same grounds also doubt whether step-change must be worse than incrementalism. As sceptics urge, we don't know squat. So why assume that change is liable to gum up the works? How bad does the status quo have to get before this assumption is ditched?

Sometimes O'Hara claims those seeking change should bear the onus of proof, but one could be sceptical about that, too. Those who say with him that large-scale change is usually ill-advised are making an inductive generalisation, as open as any other to sceptical challenge. Relative weights of risks usually defy calculation. To think otherwise is a "rationalist" error; and O'Hara succumbs at times to misplaced enthuasiasm for reducing judgment to algorithms. Evaluating risk is a political matter, and people's opinions may reasonably differ – depending, among other things, on how much they stand to lose from change. As Humpty Dumpty puts it, the question is who's to be master, that's all.

It's not just a theoretical point. Take the 2008 crash, which for O'Hara exemplifies the failings of "rationalist" attempts to model financial risk. Conservatism has much to say about "black swan" events – outliers that evade the usual actuarial models, but pitch the whole system up the Swannee. Few before the crash descried the seeds of disaster in banks' reliance on highly leveraged instruments.

Still, a rational calculus of risk matters for those, like O'Hara's conservative, who would base policy on risk-aversion. His claim that outliers can blow rational calculation away poses two problems. First, a good rationalist would try to take rampant outliers into account, or to allow for the fact that they couldn't be. Second, such outliers can send incrementalists up the Swannee as surely as chancers.

There may well be no good way out. All we know is that we don't know. But in that case, all bets are off, including hedged ones. Institutions play a key part here: O'Hara suggests their persistence shows that they "work". This bids fair to weld platitude to circularity: institutions survive because they work, and work because they survive.

But the platitude seems in general to lack the saving grace of truisms, namely truth. Does the Church of England work, or quangos like the Health & Safety Executive? O'Hara's liking for institutions follows what he treats as Burke's doctrine of pooled knowledge, though Enlightenment "rationalists" like Condorcet had this thought before Burke gave it a mystical twist.

The updated version of this idea is wiki-style interactivity. O'Hara notes, credibly, that this only proves politically beneficial if the voices are genuinely plural, not a chorus of parrots or sheep. But global plurality can stand alongside local monocultures.

Since conservatism is biased towards the status quo irrespective of its content, it's strongly relativistic, for all the anti-relativist diatribes of soap-boxers like Melanie Phillips. In one habitat a conservative may be a Willie Whitelaw; in another, a Yuri Andropov or Robert Mugabe. O'Hara acknowledges the relativism bogey. But he assumes the problem faces societies elsewhere, or marginal groups here, rather than that the rulers' own norms may be egregiously off-piste.

O'Hara has nothing to say about Toryism as contrasted with conservatism, a distinction that has mattered to conservatives like Enoch Powell. Phillip Blond's Red Toryism is also notably absent. But the elephant, nay brontosaurus, in the room is the "Big Society", wholly blanked in O'Hara's otherwise strenuously up-to-the-minute text. Why? Perhaps because it's another exercise in social engineering, whose outcome is unknowable.

Maybe the promised switch to a shell state, and a civil society of Munchkinesque vibrancy, is too big to swallow; though O'Hara approvingly quotes de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America might be read as the BS's founding screed. Or maybe it threatens to expose the least digestible ingredient of conservatism – that insofar as it opposes change, it aims on principle to keep wealth and power for those who have them, and keep them from those who don't.

Glen Newey is professor of international relations and politics at Keele University

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