This is the fourth interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (following Onora O’Neill, Marc Stears and Jonathan Wolff). In February, Aveek Bhattacharya spoke to Rebecca Lowe about her efforts to increase the level of philosophical discussion on the political right.
Rebecca Lowe was founding director of FREER, a think tank dedicated to promoting social and economic liberalism. She was the Conservative party candidate for the City of Durham in the 2015 general election, and for several years wrote a regular column for the ConservativeHome website, where she was an assistant editor. She is currently working as research director at an investment company, while studying for a PhD at King’s College London, researching Lockean justifications of private property.
Aveek Bhattacharya (AB): Could you tell me a bit about your background? How have philosophy and politics entwined themselves in your career to this point?
Rebecca Lowe (RL): Back in 2015, I ran as a parliamentary candidate in my home seat, City of Durham. It’s not something I’d ever do again, and now I’m not a member of any party, but it was a valuable experience. I’d been a researcher for an MP back in 2007/08 in London and then got more involved in party politics. There was a policy forum I was quite heavily involved in, alongside some political journalism. I worked for various think tanks, including Policy Exchange for a few years, doing their ‘state and society’ brief, then also leading their stuff on political thought – I managed to persuade them to do some quite theoretical things. For example, I ran a work stream on questions arising from the Reformation, which is quite unusual for a technocratic think tank. I remember we had a lunch discussion with academics and politicians – Nigel Biggar was there, Roger Scruton was there.
But there was still a bit of frustration. Working in a think tank, I got a lot of ‘well, that’s very nice Rebecca, but you need to settle down and think about phonics in pre-primary education or train gauges’. Those things are important and interesting, but I was really keen to look at the more foundational stuff like freedom and democracy. So when I left PX and was approached by a couple of people about running this new think tank FREER, I was very excited about that. It’s literally predicated on one of those basic concepts. And I thought it fit the moment well. With Brexit, there was a chance to talk about the big issues again. And specifically with freedom, we’d seen increasing state intervention at home and authoritarianism abroad, so it seemed needed.
I’d also felt for a long time, particularly from my experience in practical politics, that there’d been a lack particularly on the right, centre right, whatever you call it, of clarification and justification. I think Cameron was quite conservative with a small c, quite reactionary. There was never very much explicit reasoning about why policies were being formed. So I thought FREER was a chance to engage in a more theoretically grounded way.
That also fit my academic interests. I grew up in a family of philosophers: my dad was a pretty well-known metaphysician, and my mother does medical ethics. I was the ultimate middle-class rebel and went to Cambridge and read music, but the only bit I really enjoyed was aesthetics. Then I did an MA on twentieth-century literature – basically on modernism and postmodernism, which fed my hatred of the latter. And I’d always read lots of philosophy. When I was at PX, I felt my role doing political thought justified me reading a couple of hours a day of political philosophy books. But eventually I gave in and decided I needed to do it more formally. So I’m doing this part-time doctorate in political economy, which is a great home because it’s philosophy, politics and economics – and I also took the opportunity to audit a load of postgrad modules in the philosophy department.
The need for philosophical thinking in political discourse
AB: It seems like a kind of constant theme is really trying to bring things back to first principles, bring things back to philosophy. To what extent have you been working off your own initiative and to what extent were you responding to or working with others?
RL: While there were always people around me in the think tank world I could have great conversations with, I did feel there was a frustrating lack of opportunity to bring that into specific work. I was always sneaking Rawls in, or whatever it was. I had lots conversations about this prior to FREER. I think there was a feeling that people wouldn’t be keen to fund stuff like that. I felt that was short-sighted, and I think what’s happened since has proven me right. I think part of the reason everything is disrupted is because there’s been a lack of clarification and justification within policy thinking and within politics.
To my mind, political philosophy and political theory are crucial to policy formation for two reasons. One, because they offer a rigorous, analytical way of thinking. An aim of adhering to, and searching out, the truth and a recognition of the big moral questions. And secondly, the kinds of issue that have been dealt with over the centuries – justice, fairness, equality, freedom, and their relation to institutions, with how we behave with each other – there’s a vast wealth of thinking out there about that. If you’re not engaging with good ways of clarifying, justifying the ideas you’re setting forth, which are going to be having a vast impact on people in your shared society, then I think a trick is being missed. I think there’s been an overly technocratic approach to policy formation.
AB: There’s a critique of Cameron there, and I guess you’re also applying that to the New Labour era as well. What do you think went wrong there? And what do you think the consequences have been?
RL: There’s a great sense of a lack of purchase, I think, that people have been feeling very fairly. I’d say partly that’s owing to the extreme centralisation we have in this country – I could talk about that all day. And then there’s a point about technocracy and the lack of explicit reasoning. The example that always comes into my head is the Coalition government’s policies around welfare. There are lots of reasons why you might seek to reduce welfare spending. But I don’t think saving money is a good reason at all – yet that’s effectively what they said. There was actually a lot of thinking in the Conservative party, particularly around people like IDS [Iain Duncan Smith], about the risks of dependency, crowding out individual fulfilment, incentives for people to work and provide for their family, and so on. And I think those are exactly the kinds of thing you might want to think about, whether you agree substantively with them or not. But I think even the most hardcore small statist is going to think that cutting welfare spending in order to save money is not really an argument, never mind a good argument. I felt that lack there was something that severely damaged not only that government in terms of its popularity, but also, maybe even the institutions themselves.
I think that the people we put our faith and trust in to represent us in making decisions about these important matters let us down by failing to justify the important decisions that they make, and I think that leads to a kind of degradation of the political discourse.
AB: And why do you think that happens?
RL: There’s a superficial answer, which is something like politicians are interested in soundbites, and maybe they’re too caught up with bureaucracy to have much time to think deeply. There’s maybe not much time for politicians to answer questions in ways which give them a sufficient opportunity to explain their reasoning. If you go on one of the political programmes – I refuse to do any of them these days – they’re looking for a single line, ideally massively oppositional to the other person they brought in to fight with you.
So we could be charitable and say they don’t have much time and opportunity to do it. Or we could perhaps be cynical and look at their intentions for being in politics in the first place and say they just want the power. They’re not really interested in bringing about the good. Back when I was more engaged in practical politics I had an idealistic view that most people went into politics for good reasons. I certainly don’t think most people become MPs because they think it’s the best way to make money, or at least not directly. But I do think I underestimated people’s desire for power.
The appetite for philosophical thinking in political discourse
AB: It’s hard enough for an MP to go to ConservativeHome or the Telegraph and write ‘Aristotle said this, Plato said that’, but you did it. How did you find the response? Do you think there’s more of an audience than they might think? Was there much pushback?
RL: I’m endlessly grateful to Paul Goodman at ConservativeHome for allowing me for years to write every couple of weeks on what were ostensibly philosophical questions. I think I did get a good response. There were always endless people commenting, some people hating the things I was saying, some people liking the way I approached it. And yeah, for sure some people saying ‘what on earth is this? This is not what we’re used to’.
On some level I don’t think what I was doing was that unusual, because I think good political commentary or journalism will do that. It will be rigorous and it will engage with fundamental ideas. I was probably more unusual in mentioning philosophers here and there.
AB: Do you think there are other people doing public debate in a way that is more or less philosophical?
RL: I should say how delighted I was with the way in which politicians engaged with FREER. We had a lot of private discussion dinners, big debates around the table, with secretaries of state, or whomever, engaging on moral questions about tax, or Adam Smith and the purpose of education, or the place of consequentialist reasoning in policy formation. I think a great way to engage with politicians is to let them have a chance to think and talk about stuff when they’re not just having their head stuck in their red box.
And in journalism, there’s the New Statesman, LRB, TLS, Aeon, Project Syndicate. Look at Peter Singer and the articles he’s always writing. So I don’t think this is unusual. I think maybe somebody might suggest it was unusual on the right. There’s a strong conservative tradition, non-ideological and very situational. And perhaps there’s been less engagement with theoretical approaches. Personally, I don’t think that’s true. Think about the impact of Scruton-type environmentalism or Oakeshott and the role of rationality in practical thinking. On free speech, the first thing anybody is going to say to you is Mill and the harm principle. I think just people on the right, if that’s the word, don’t wear it on their sleeve quite so much.
FREER: A think tank dedicated to promoting freedom
AB: Where did the impetus for FREER come from? What was it trying to achieve?
RL: The idea came from a mix of people, some at the IEA [Institute of Economic Affairs], where it was housed, and some Conservative politicians. We had two co-chairs, Lee Rowley and Luke Graham, and both were driving forces. One of my aims, as director, was to try and involve people from other parties, but it turned out it’s hard enough to get Conservative politicians to commit to classical liberalism, never mind the others. There was a Labour MP who was helpful and spoke at one of our events, and some Lib Dems as well. But that unfortunately was probably a bit of a task too far.
We put out a nice set of rigorous policy papers, mostly by MPs, on things like housing and tech and education and immigration. But we also put out a more philosophical set of papers, and articles – including a piece by David Oderberg on conscientious objection in healthcare. We had a paper on free speech, a paper on capitalism, a paper I wrote on democracy. I think those are quite unusual, you don’t get most think tanks putting out papers about that stuff. And then we had podcasts – with visting economists, and so on, though I think the best one was Matt Ridley on AI and ethics – and lots of events. We had a little tour of universities discussing free speech, and there was great engagement. One thing which was really cheering throughout was the level of engagement from young people. They wrote to us and said they were really interested in what we’re doing. They liked our way of approaching things – they liked our kind of theoretical bent.
AB: Obviously that’s a lot of output. Do you have any sense of the impact it had?
RL: A lot of the things we pushed for have now come into place. Free ports are top of the agenda. We published lots on that topic. That said, so did other think tanks, and correlation isn’t causation. Similarly, changes around the apprenticeship levy, a focus on localism, and increased focus on the North are all things we explicitly called for.
AB: It’s interesting, the way you answered that question is with a typical think tank laundry list of policies. But to what extent was the objective to change political discourse and framing, and to what extent do you think you’ve won that battle?
RL: I think the jury’s out on whether the government we currently have is any kind of freedom government. But certainly, Theresa May set a low bar on these matters and I think probably there’s going to be more of an adherence to some of the kinds of things we were pushing. I was cheered particularly by the then new 2017 intake of Tory MPs who were involved with FREER. They were very interested in thinking about how they engaged on policy matters. I have great hopes that they’ll go on and provide a welcome voice against those technocratic instincts we’ve seen for a long time.
AB: The last few governments seem to have lacked a clear governing philosophy, whereas Thatcher reputedly carried around Hayek and told people ‘this is what we believe’. Is there any possibility of political theorists having that sort of influence again?
RL: I think Theresa May and Cameron made it easy for the other side to paint them as cruel, mean people who want to help the rich and greedy, because they weren’t setting out an argument for their approach.
In the Cameron years, Jesse Norman set out some ideas on compassionate conservatism, kind of a communitarian type approach. So you could say there was some thinking there, but the party didn’t put that forward in any practical sense. And aside from the Nick Timothy flirtation with Joseph Chamberlain, I didn’t really see any of that in the May years.
AB: And Johnson?
RL: It’s hard to know, isn’t it? My impression is he’s just trying to deal with things on a one-by-one basis, which again, I guess you could say is pretty conservative, it’s quite reactionary, it’s quite piecemeal. It’s not really ideological.
AB: You directed FREER, your PhD is on freedom. What do you think is the biggest threat to, or opportunity for, freedom in British society today?
RL: I think, for all we have a bit of a cultural tendency to catastrophism and also to a sense of modesty in the UK, we’re incredibly fortunate to live here. We do have a relatively tolerant approach to matters. I think the greatest threat to freedom probably lies from outside, and in not being brave enough to speak out about explicit restrictions of freedom abroad. I’ve been astonished by the surprise that people have displayed to the Chinese government’s response to coronavirus – in terms of how they’ve suppressed information, punished whistleblowers, and so on. I think if you’ve had your eyes open it’s clear the Chinese people are oppressed by evil authoritarian dictators.
I worry increasingly that the way in which people, politicians, seem able to ignore those kinds of atrocity – alongside an adherence, in some circles, to a kind of epistocratic approach to decision-making – implies a trend towards not treating people with basic equal respect, and that concerns me greatly. More than any worry around, say, taxation, or big policy things.
The role of political theorists in political debate
AB: Do you think political theorists should do anything differently in terms of trying to influence policy?
RL: I think there’s an important role for theorists to play in determining what kinds of questions we can answer through a policy lens. I was reading recently, for instance, Dark Ghettos by Tommie Shelby, where he makes this great argument that some things are an issue of justice rather than a policy problem. I think this is right. There are some things which, if you deal with them as a policy problem, then policy people become complicit in injustice. And I think that philosophers and political theorists have an important role to play in helping to make the distinction there.
AB: What sort of questions do you have in mind there?
RL: Going back to the Shelby example, he argues that legal order has no authority against the oppressed. So for instance, that dealing with teenage pregnancy in a ghetto where people are missing out on basic demands of justice, dealing with that as a policy problem, and saying ‘let’s educate the women more’ or ‘let’s give them a supply of contraception’ is not just incorrect, it’s basely wrong. And there definitely are some things that are to do with basic issues of justice. But then there are also some issues which definitely are policy problems.
To be involved in policy debates, you have to be complicit, to some extent, by accepting the status quo and trying to tinker around the edges. But there’s also an important question of saying, what can we hold constant? And sometimes people in the policy world are too blinkered. But I think also sometimes people from outside don’t play the role that they could in terms of helping to distinguish, what this domain should be and the ways in which we should address it. And I guess that comes back to my central point about the need for clarification and justification.