It’s a refrain commonly asserted that all politicians are the same, and you couldn’t slide a fag paper between the three main parties. I have sympathy with this view, whilst not wholly endorsing it, simply because on so many social, cultural and moral issues one sees a political uniformity that, it could be suggested, puts the political establishment at odds with the views of the people they serve.
Of course, it is overly-simplistic to suggest complete homogeneity, and so there is no difficulty in acknowledging that there are clear policy differences between the left and right on a whole range of issues. Indeed, the problem with claiming there is no difference whatsoever is that it fails to grasp both the subtlety and the magnitude of the shift that has actually occurred. For what has been ceded is not operational identity – that still exists, though on the rather more superficial level of modus operandi.
Rather, it is the moral and ideological framework of the political establishment as a whole, and the empowered types that reside there, which has metamorphosed. To revert to shorthand, what has been lost by the political and cultural elites, if not by the voters that have become exasperated with them, is a form of social conservatism.
Of course, one must be careful not to allow this label to imply a political or ideological partisanship, as if social conservatism was ever the sole possession of one particular political tradition. To do so would fail to grasp the transcendence of the virtue culture that once guided political action and shaped the centre-ground – as I have argued elsewhere, if the left of 60 years ago were to be resurrected today then they would certainly be denounced by their modern day comrades as rabid right-wingers.
Rather, it has been the cultural erosion of social conservatism wherever it exists that characterises the ideological fashion of today, and this attack has not been the preserve of any one particular party (though the modern day left has perhaps embraced it more enthusiastically than anyone else). This is the principal point to bear in mind: historically both the left and the right offered what has been lost, whilst today neither does.
This has been addressed by Phillip Blond, amongst others, in his Red Tory project, arguing that the ingredients for the erosion of a political virtue culture came about with the ‘post 1945 embrace of the state and the post 1968 embrace of the individual’. Yet, the consequences of this embrace have been disastrous for both political traditions. For the left it has meant a loss of a non-liberal account of its own thinking, an embrace of the individual over the community, and the pursuit of individual gratification (‘freedom’) over and above concerns of the common good – as such, the left no longer has a meaningful account of ‘society’. For the right, traditions of duty, obligation, responsibility and dependability have all been rendered obsolete by a political and cultural hegemony eager to dismiss such belief as moralistic and old-fashioned. As such, the right no longer has confidence in its conservatism, and so risks losing any meaningful account of the individual.
Which all suggests that both the left and right have abandoned what both would claim as their natural ground, and in their collusion have perpetrated precisely that transgression they both outwardly repudiate; the left has lost the social, whilst the right has lost the individual.
Of course, one might naturally look toward the Conservative Party to restore a certain balance, though perhaps more in hope than expectation. And, in recent months, there has certainly been a blossoming, a focussing of the will, as more and more people, emboldened by the left’s evident demise, accept the challenge that has been set. The point remains, however, that the challenge is not solely for the Conservative Party, but rather for the political class a whole – the entire centre-ground requires restoration.
It won’t be easy. The instinct for self-preservation of those whom Peter Hitchens likes to refer to as the ‘liberal elite’ will naturally bray against any such change, even whilst such reticence serves to marginalise and further infuriate an already hostile electorate. Perhaps, though, this is unsurprising, for here one can glimpse the circuitous nature of the status-quo; an emaciated democratic culture that cultivates a disinterested and uninterested electorate is, it might be suggested, the most effective means of preserving the interests of the ruling elite.
Unless, of course, that electorate becomes ever more politically engaged, spurred into action by the woeful performance of their superiors, and beats the political caste at their own game. Which, to my own mind, is where we are going. And we call this localism.
It has been interesting to read Kerry McCarthy getting herself in a frenzied tizz about marriage over the course of four blog posts over the last couple of days (pt1, pt2, pt3 and pt4). It seems she is vexed, and has come up with a slew of objections against the recognition of marriage as a basic good in a healthy society. Amongst her arguments, the most significant are;
1) Lots of people aren’t married anymore, so any championing of the institution of marriage is alienating, that in any case ignores social trends which are moving away from the traditional family structure and away from marriage.
This is just silly. If one diagnoses the social trend as part of the problem, and contends that government policy is a driver of that trend, then embracing it rather than tackling it is both irresponsible and morally supine. Challenge the evidence, and the diagnosis, by all means; but to cling to a perverse determinism whilst the negative consequences of the ‘social trends’ continue to be unleashed (usually affecting the poorest the most) is somewhat akin to fiddling whilst the city burns.
2) It is about outcomes for children, not structures, and so constructing a policy and/or an ideology specifically around the institution of marriage is pointless.
Of course it is about outcomes, and there will always be exceptions to prove the rule, but marriage has been shown, by both evidence and experience, to be (generally speaking) the most stable family structure. In which case, where is the problem in recognising the unique value of it?
3) There are other problems families face, and marriage can sometimes exacerbate them – indeed, sometimes a separation can even be more beneficial for the children, as they tend to get better quality time with the parents.
I’m astonished by this one. To use an anecdote as the basis of a universal policy, in face of all the statistical evidence of the difficulties for those who are unfortunate enough to come from ‘broken families’, really does show an astonishing level of either naivety or arrogance (loads of stuff on this – see for example ch.3 here). Indeed, even government, though admittedly through gritted teeth, will acknowledge the intimate relation between family breakdown and decreased life chances – see here
4) Other problems also affect the life chances of children, such as ‘parental alcohol abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, poverty (emotional as well as material), or parents who are simply too caught up in the unhappy dynamics of their own relationship to pay much attention to the kids?‘
Again, this is pointing out the obvious. But it is a curious argument, and the wrong way round – firstly it ignores the often intimate connections between these harmful experiences (especially the first four) and family breakdown, and secondly, it posits these harmful consequences as precisely the reason for not championing that which, generally speaking, helps stave off such consequences. In essence, it boils down to this: whilst these conditions are a social evil and should be vigorously challenged, it is the case that, generally speaking, children from stable backgrounds are less likely to suffer these harmful consequences, and therefore we should not remain neutral toward that which tends, by and large, to guarantee the most stable backgrounds – marriage. And so the question becomes again, what is the problem with recognising this fact?
Of course marriage is no panacea; there are unhappy marriages, and abusive marriages and marriages that fail, and it is not simply a case of demanding that all couples commit to marital relationships, which would just be daft. But it is also the case that writing it off and undermining it by remaining determinedly value-neutral toward it would be equally absurd, and one is always tempted to dig a little deeper and question the wider agenda of those who favour this approach.
As for Kerry McCarthy, besides speculation that the religious connotations of the institution of marriage might be offensive to the sensibilities of her faith (‘I would, however, like people to respect my atheism too‘), it might be the general liberal dogma of the contemporary left that underlines her approach, or perhaps it is a hyper-sensitive feminism seeking to cast off the shackles of the marital contract: As well as suggesting that the whole debate on marriage and family structures is ‘..sadly and predictably – still very much still a debate about the role of women in society‘, she also says of Social Justice Policy Group,
‘Reading between the lines, it’s obvious that the Social Justice bods are simply dreaming of a traditional marriage where the man goes out to work, and the woman stays at home, looks after the kids, does a bit of voluntary work, pops in to see her elderly relatives, has the dinner on the table when the man gets home. No doubt she also bakes cakes, wears a pinny and waltzes round the kitchen singing songs about the virtues of floor cleaning fluids. Ignore the red herring thrown to the liberals, ‘mother or father’… that is not what they’re on about’
A nerve has clearly been touched, and a frenzy of blog posts is the result. The reason why is up for debate – all I can say is that Ms McCarthy’s arguments are far from convincing.
UPDATE: Kerry has added another installment that demonstrates the rather obvious fact that all families are different and sometimes ‘messy’ – still not sure how or why this point is considered an effective argument against the advocacy or marriage. Anyway,here
I do feel for Mr Brown. Watching him grasp frantically as all he ever longed for slowly slips through his fingers can thaw even the iciest heart. At root, I’m sure Mr Brown is not all that bad, and were he to have inherited the job he so dearly covets 12 years earlier then he may well have proved a success. Thing is, even if he might have been the right man for 1997, he is nonetheless the wrong man for 2009 and beyond.
The reason? Because he continues to live in an epoch that has slowly ebbed away, and his political and ideological frameworks look curiously dated in a world slowly waking up to the new possibilities of a post-statist era.
You see Mr Brown’s response to any occurrence is a power grab, either on a national scale by hosing ever more of other people’s money at social problems (which his government has helped exacerbate), or on a global one with his single-handed attempts to ‘save the world’; which he didn’t actually say by the way – well, he did, but it wasn’t intentional. Either way, in so doing, Mr Brown always succeeds in evoking a narrative that is increasingly rejected by a society frustrated at having less and less stake in those things that effect them more and more. In this sense, Mr Brown’s extraordinary feats of ‘heroism’ often succeed only in highlighting that which is his biggest weakness – the lust for centralised power.
In essence, then, it is about big state-thinking, the command and control mindset, the bunker mentality, the them and us, ruler and ruled approach, the insuperable barrier between those who have the power and are entitled to indulge it and those who don’t who are expected to be grateful. It is the psychological impulse toward a politics that seeks to exert itself over the largest possible number, in the fervent belief that change can only come through centralised power, and only centralised power (and those who possess it) knows what particular variety of change is for the best. Whether globally or parochially, it is the endless creation of ever more distant power structures that rule unelected over the masses, and implement the imperial ambitions of the contemporary left – it is all this, and alot more, that grates.
Indeed, to this end Mr Brown has recently been as energetic as ever, busily creating his one-world government, his ‘truly global society’, and every time it is trumpeted by his well-meaning PR brigade, it tends to chafe. Whether it is the global regulatory frameworks for the finance sector, or the ever enthusiastic championing of the UN, or the instinctive lurch toward a global institution to police and impose measures upon people in the name of climate change – the point is that Mr Brown instinctively feels the need to rule over ever more bodies, making those who rule ever more distant and ever more remote from those that are ruled, and whipping up a storm of resentment in the process (don’t even get me started on these daft new light-bulbs).
Of course, perhaps the problem is not just Mr Brown, but the mindset of the political class as a whole, of which Mr Brown might be held as the gate-keeper, the zenith of a particularly virulent power-grabbing elite. Whatever, the truth remains that there exists a palpable mood-swing away from the language and ideology of big government, and toward a more organic and self-dependant account of ‘society’ (the biggest buzzwords lately being ‘mutualism’ and ‘localism’).
Put simply, the tide is turning, and for all the supposed apathy toward the political process, the electorate are actually incredibly engaged, and scent the time is right for change. They long to strip away the power of the centre and disperse it throughout themselves, and they see the flourishing of human relationships and institutions that can result (see this fantastic article by Ed West as an illustration of the point). The reasons for why this might be the case are many and varied, but the important point is that this new impulse undoubtedly exists and it is powerful, and should the political classes fail to seize the moment then things can go one of only two ways; either they will be unceremoniously dumped, or they will have to turn the state against the people in ever more illiberal ways.
I tend to think the political classes will change. The long, slow march of the new generation has already begun. And those who attempt to stand in its way risk going down in history, forever mocked and despised, as 21st century Cnuts*
*(or Canutes, if you prefer).
When asked a couple of weeks back about Martin Amis’s comments that the sexual revolution has been a more difficult transition for women than men, Fay Weldon, that thinking feminist that keeps stepping out of line with the sisterhood for saying things that might actually be true, responded,
‘It wasn’t so much a sexual revolution as the coming of the Pill, really…Sex was suddenly something you could have without babies. Men took great advantage of that. I think with the Pill women did turn into sex objects. The whole thing was rather upsetting.”
Now, who said this?*
It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer his respected and beloved companion.
If only that hideous pillar of patriarchy would speak for the interests of women once in a while.
*Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae
A blog post over on the Demos website by liberal-in-chief Richard Reeves caught my eye today, entitled ‘Ditch the Alpha Male’ (isn’t this a rather alpha-male way of putting it? I mean, where’s the please?).
Anyway, in the article Mr Reeves persists with his attempts to level society into a homogenous mass of indistinguishable atoms (as liberals are rather wont to do), essentially by suggesting that the best way for us all to be free (and especially for feminists to be free), is to ditch any and all of those roles that might suggest some kind of difference between people, or distinguish one from another. You see, it would appear that for Mr Reeves fixed roles are oppressive, and the only way to become free is to deny them and have everyone do a little bit of everything. In short, homogeneity is what guarantees freedom, and ‘equality’ can only be achieved by making everybody the same.
Hence the testosterone-soaked command to ‘Ditch the Alpha Male’.
Because you see,
Right now, too many men remain stuck with an outdated, breadwinner-based model of masculinity. Until we break this tyrannical custom, men will continue to lead half-lives.
So there we have it. For all you men who greet your role as provider with a feeling of pride, the devotion to which garners an immense amount of satisfaction, for all you men that consider traditional accounts of duty to your family to be no bad thing, and who take immense pleasure in working so your family don’t have to, for all you men that work like a dog because that is what you’ve been wickedly lead to believe is the ‘right’ thing to do – to all of you, Mr Reeves has an announcement, and it is that you’re all the unwitting dupes of a tyrannical custom that shapes your servitude, not defines your freedom.
If this sounds batty then don’t worry, it really is. But not wholly surprising either. Because the liberal these days hates society (and the customs and traditions therein), because the individualism upon which it is built sees society as asserting claims that violate his or her essential freedom. The ‘bread-winner’ is not a role that empowers, that confers authority and respect upon the individual, but is instead a ‘tyrannical custom’, precisely because for the liberal any custom is a chain that binds, and in that sense tyrannical. Indeed, that little phrase sums it up: not just this particular custom, but customs in general.
Mr Reeves also assures us that,
‘Given the rise in life expectancy, we can in fact ‘have it all’ – career, kids, friends, good relationships, voluntary work – and a full life includes all of these things’.
I was always taught to be weary of anybody who tells you that you can have it all – you usually can’t, and the person that promises it usually asks that you give up everything first.
So, just as Mr Balls attempts to give the impression that he has listened to the public outcry against his Vetting and Barring Scheme (aka the paedophile-presumption scheme), and adjusted criteria so that now only 9 million well-meaning individuals have to clear their names before they work with children, it appears today that the Equalities Bill that caused such friction between Miss Harman and Mr Mandelson has been similarly ‘watered down’.
Is this a Damascene moment, you might wonder, a realisation that institutionalising racism and/or gender discrimination does not combat racism and/or gender discrimination? Well, err, not exactly. You see, it appears that Miss Harman’s scheme will still go ahead, but will apply mostly to big businesses, corporations and the like, the City and finance sectors.
As first glance this sounds great – how generous, giving smaller businesses (a species under threat) a break from having to prove to bureaucrats hundreds of miles away that they’re not either racist of chauvinist. Except…
Well, nowadays it seems that all we have is big business. London and its finance sector is quite demonstrably the prized asset of the national economy, the engine that keeps the supplicant provinces above the poverty line, whilst multinational corporations dominate our local townscapes, turning them into clone towns and ghost towns. So-called free marketeers campaign endlessly for the right of big business to distort markets for their own benefit, free from government interference, and by and large they have found friends within the socialist New Labour Party. All the while, small local businesses drown in a sea of debt, paying taxes to keep afloat banks who refuse to lend back to them, whilst well-meaning idiots in SW1 dream up ever more costly and time-consuming red tape and regulation to eat into their profit margins.
Now someone more cynical than myself (they do exist!) might suggest that this is not really surprising. After all, socialism not only craves big-business, it positively depends on it. The left love big business, and they love it because big business is the vehicle through which the doctrines and agendas of the state are most effectively delivered. The apparent paradox of a modern socialist Party employing a neo-liberal economic model is in reality no such thing, for the two actually reflect each other; if neo-liberal economic systems tend toward monopoly (and, granted, there is debate on this), then this dominance sits well with the modern-day left because it mirrors the state authoritarianism with which it has already become comfortable. As such, the small businesses that cannot be relied upon to effectively deliver such things as maternity leave or holiday pay are a festering thorn in the skins of the left, and its desperate attempt to negotiate more favourable terms of surrender for the increasing body of workers now forced into waged servitude thanks to the state’s ongoing infatuation with… that’s right, big business.
So when Miss Harman announces that smaller business will be spared such legislation, pernicious as it is, don’t be tempted to think she’s had a change of heart, and sympathises with the plight of the small business owner doing his or her best to keep things afloat – ask instead why small business is finding things so tough in the first place.
Very occasionally I wake up and suspect that it must all be a dream. Or at least a mass-perpetrated fiction, designed so an outside world can observe with curiosity at how an individual reacts as reality around him descends into the absurd.
I had a similar moment today, after having read this. It’s not so much the climb-down, which is welcome enough, even if it is just a tinkering at the edges that doesn’t really engage with the central objection that the whole piece of legislation stinks, and merely reinforces the state-sponsored suspicion of adults (particularly men) and strangers (particularly men).
No, what leaves me genuinely perplexed is that anybody ever came up with such rubbish in the first place. And more, that others then went about boldly defending it, as if it was perfectly rational and self-evidently good. In essence, I just don’t understand how something so obviously opposed to common sense, so evidently counter-productive, so clearly alienating and pernicious to society as a whole, could ever have been dreamt up, written down, agreed upon, published, briefed about, and then publicly defended. And this by a group of people who, one imagines, represent the most talented and capable among us. Evidently I am not alone in this thinking; the retreat was hardly voluntary.
Which had me thinking that the same is true about a whole host of other issues. Such as the useful idiots on the local councils who, in the name of social harmony, come up with names like ‘Winterval’ and ‘Winter Light Night‘ at Christmas time. Or the government advisers who think children should be taught about sex at 5 years old, or that condoms should be given to schoolboys, or that senior school girls should be given abortion advice without their parents knowledge. Or the strange clique that think the family is an outdated and oppressive institution, that if a victim perceives a crime to be racist then it must necessarily be so, that it is a woman’s right to choose prostitution and it is chauvinistic and oppressive not to let her do so, or that a mother should be CRB cleared to accompany her own child to school.
It’s also dafter things, not as serious, but equally as vexing, like the head teachers who ban parents from photographing or videoing their child’s first nativity play, or the other head teachers who ban competition on sports day, or the other head teachers that suggest all Enid Blyton books be removed from the library because of their racist content. It’s the policemen warned not to use the term ‘nitty-gritty’ because of its slavery-era racist implications, and it’s the constantly shifting fashions of the PC brigade so that you never know when you’re being offensive or not (is it elderly or aged? crippled or disabled? gypsy or traveller?).
The people who get uppity about these things, who hold these views, no doubt exist. Indeed, I have, on occasion, met them. What confuses me is that they exist not as a lunatic fringe, but often right at the very heart of things, their hands firmly on the levers of power, their whispers floating straight into the ears of those who legislate our lives and rule over us.
Why this is so, I have no idea. Will it ever change? Probably not. Is this all a mass fiction? Chance would be a fine thing.
The temptation must be excruciating, it really must. Imagine: you’re the leader of a political party that, historically at least, has been on the side of the workers, of the poorest in society, of the dispossessed and the downtrodden. And facing you, on the other side of the chamber, is the clean-cut Tory leader, with his easy aristocratic manner, his multi-million pound fortune, and a close cabal of similarly well-heeled and, to your own mind, plum-mouthed friends. You’re desperate to land a blow, to finally walk out of PMQ’s as the undisputed winner by way of unanimous verdict, so when you glimpse a weak spot in your opponents guard, you go for it… ‘I have to say, that with him and Mr Goldsmith, their inheritance tax policy seems to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.’
One can only hope that such an approach was spur of the moment, an exuberance permitted to a Prime Minister who has had it so tough for so long, but which will not set the tone for upcoming election campaigns. Unfortunately, I suspect this won’t be the case. Those with little else to lose seem to be willing to go tribal and in so doing will, like Samson, bring the whole edifice down with them. Reverting to the ‘class war’ mindset will backfire, and harm parliamentarians as a whole.
Of course, this is quite a bold claim, but it is a real danger. The reason? Because in the minds of many of the voting public the real class divisions are drawn not between Labour and the Tories, but between politicians and everybody else. The language of us and them undoubtedly still has traction, but New Labour have rapidly become an intimate part of the ‘them’ against which they now cry foul. The expenses scandal, if anything, merely crystallised the widespread malaise; in seeking to offer such dividing lines, Labour risks stoking those very fires that Parliament has tried so very hard these last few months to put out.
In essence, the whole narrative is lose-lose for Labour, and indeed for Parliament as a whole, because every time it tries to depict the Party opposite as particularly ruthless and uncaring, as only looking out for its own interests, they will be countered with the inevitable ‘yeah, but…’. And this will be followed by a string of difficult to answer objections, from the 10p tax debacle to the EU referendum, from Damian McBride to Cash-for-Peerages, that will only serve to undermine the Labour Party’s credibility in the ‘we’re on your side’ stakes. In the mêlée, it will be the fringe parties that profit disproportionately, as the only ones appearing untarnished by the toxic associations of Westminster politics.
For this reason, Labour would do best to avoid such language altogether, not least because the number of privately educated and grammar-school educated members upon their own benches hardly lends legitimacy to the argument. Indeed, it might even smack of hypocrisy, and for those grassroots campaigners struggling to explain to a cynical voter why they should vote Labour instead of Tory, it might well prove one more headache they could well do without.
Politicians as a whole are, in the eyes of many, in the dock; they would do better to present their own case clearly, rather than trashing their co-defendants. Otherwise, the verdict pronounced will inevitably be ‘you’re all as bad as each other’, and this would benefit precisely no-one.
This article was published on LabourList on December 6, 2009.
Now that the temporary euphoria surrounding the ‘rogue-poll’ has ceded, Labour must have the courage to continue asking itself the uncomfortable questions; why are people deserting us? And what can we do to get them back?
Often, the response is that the party needs to reconnect with its core vote, that it needs to reach out to those who feel abandoned. I absolutely agree. The problem is that any return to the ‘core vote’ is only ever conceived in economic terms. Whilst there is undoubtedly value in this strategy, it can only ever have limited impact, because it only ever addresses a limited part of the problem. For the truth is that for those who feel alienated, pushed to the outside of public life, the dispossession is cultural every bit as much as it is economic. The establishment has embraced a bourgeois social ethic, and those at the bottom are fatigued, exhausted at having to defend themselves against the relentless onslaught of the sneering classes.
It is perhaps best, in order to illustrate the point, to take the vexatious issue of the racist BNP. Communities that have been staunch Labour strongholds for generations appear to have suddenly transformed into ‘far-right’ groupings overnight. The terminology is misleading though, because in reality there has been no such fundamental shift in political ideology from centre-left to far-right; rather, the very same people who once voted Labour chose to hold their noses and vote for a racist party because it alone attempted to articulate their anxieties in a way that no other mainstream party attempted to do. Whole communities feel dispossessed, trapped in a country that is changing at a rapid pace – a transformation that affects the poorest communities more than anyone else, but over which they feel they have had less of a say than anybody else. The predictable reaction of the metropolitan classes, to mourn the rise of racism as if all the voters were simply racist, to imply the electorate are too foolish to use their vote wisely (‘and this is why we shouldn’t have PR’), does little but demonstrate with crystal clarity precisely what it is people are angry about – ‘these are our concerns, but none of you will listen’.
And of course they won’t. Because at root this is a clash of cultures. What causes concern amongst the poorest can often be the same thing that is succour to the not-so-poor. What is new is that today’s ruling classes now feel it is their duty to eradicate all that does not adhere to their own manner of seeing things, precisely in order to protect their own interests.
What I’m suggesting is that the disillusionment of the electorate is at least partly down to the fact the Labour Party has embraced an ideology that actively undermines the beliefs and culture of ordinary working people. Immigration, whilst the most topical, isn’t the only battleground. One by one, it seems that the social and cultural outlook of many is scorned upon by an elite who, whilst laughably painting themselves as on the side of the ‘oppressed’, choose to studiously ignore this particular subjugation. On issues ranging from school/parental discipline (‘child abuse’), to capital punishment (‘barbaric’), to patriotism (‘Little Englander’), to euro-scepticism (‘xenophobic’), to immigration (‘racist’), to morality (‘bigoted’) – across all these issues and more, the general beliefs of vast swathes of the electorate are demonised and ridiculed by an elite interested only in securing the dominance of their own particular worldview.
In essence, it often appears that the Labour Party has chosen to sacrifice its traditional roots in defence of a shiny new social creed it likes to call ‘liberalism’. Truth is, the cultural underpinnings of this creed, originating in the post-1968 student ‘resistance’ movements, are thoroughly middle-class, individualistic and bourgeois – and except for those that are already ‘free’, it delivers anything but ‘liberty’. Thus, one can only look on with sadness at the relentless vilification of what Ferdinand Mount has called ‘the Downers’, their beliefs, their habits, their customs, their social codes. The tragedy is that, were those in power to open their eyes for just one moment, they would see in the faces of the demonised those with whom they once stood shoulder to shoulder in pursuit of a better world.
This article first appeared on LabourList, with a different heading, on November 26, 2009.
The Labour Party is facing wipe-out. Politically, a defeat looms every bit as significant as that inflicted upon the Conservative Party in 1997. The potential damage, however, extends well beyond projected numbers of seats the Labour Party may come to hold post-election. More worryingly, Labour is losing the battle of ideas, not against the Conservatives, but against the people at large. In short, Labour has ceased to believe in those things that once defined it, and that still defines large swathes of those it has ceased to represent.
If there is any truth in the old rule-of-thumb that the British people are economically left-wing and socially conservative, then the left nowadays is always halfway short. Of course, this has not always been the case, and were the founders of the Labour movement to be magically transported into the present day then they would no doubt be ferociously denounced as rabidly right-wing. The militant modernisers, it would seem, must portray their heritage as an uncomfortable aberration from a less civilised past, so fanatical are they in pursuit of what they arbitrarily term the ‘progressive’ agenda. The unease, however, speaks of a transformation of the ideological underpinnings of the Labour movement: what is now pejoratively dismissed as ‘social conservatism’ was once authentically expressive of left-of-centre accounts of the social sphere. Emphasising communal unity and well-being over individual desire, left-of-centre thinking offered strongly relational accounts of the social that sought not to enshrine the particular rights of the individual over against society, but rather contextualised individual identity through shared bonds of kinship, community and social custom.
This is an insight explored for some time now by Phillip Blond in his Red Tory project. To crudely characterise, the post-1968 embrace of social liberalism has inculcated an atomistic individualism that, policed by an authoritarian state, undermines genuinely social society. The question becomes, then, whether one constructs the individual through the social, as a relational being, or derives the social from the individual, as a large-scale version of a (particular kind) of individual: authentic left-of-centre thought ought to pursue the former, whilst the individualism of contemporary liberal thought does the latter. Of course, such a charge is painful to the ears of the contemporary elite, who would prefer to read into communality the oppression of the individual. This is because, as Blond has suggested, the cherished liberalism of the elite descends from an account of societas that must homogenise the social as a means of protecting individual ‘freedom’. The individual, then, comes prior to society, and the latter is really just a loose collection of the former – and where difference exists, and values clash, it is the autonomy of the individual that must be championed by the state.
Of course things are different now, we are told, we live in an individualistic world, this is ‘progress’: except for many it really isn’t, and insofar as the consequences often denigrate precisely those beliefs which many still hold dear, so does this mode of thought refuse to sit comfortably with large segments of the population, wise enough to see the sinister side of this particular utopia. By destabilising those foundational joists still cherished by those who see the oppressive nature of the individualist ruse, joists that have for so long have been the preserving agent of the most vulnerable, it really is the case that Labour is pursuing the path of its own annihilation; to quote Blond once more, ‘the Labour Party is being rejected by society because it has repudiated and vilified the very structure and basis of society itself’. The culture clash is not just coming; it has already arrived, and it is causing chaos.
For those that sneeringly dismiss such thinking as dark and oppressive conservative forces, who recoil in disgust at the lingering presence of it within what might be considered their core vote, who elect merely to turn their heads when the disastrous consequences of their cultic adoration of the ‘I’ wreaks havoc amongst the most vulnerable; all they really do is elevate their own ideological prejudices above the chorus of cries emanating from the dispossessed, and diagnose the ‘regressive’ parochialism of the barbarous lower classes as a thing to be persecuted, not understood. The vilification of the plebiscite does little more than reassure those at the top of their own superiority, and harass those at the bottom into silence lest their ill-articulated yet heartfelt concerns are used as evidence to demonise and even criminalise them all the more. ‘We’re all in this together’ is the slogan they would have us cling to; truth is, some of us are in it more than others, and some are not really in it at all.
Of course, for the more philosophically inclined, the liberal project is underpinned by visions of a complex society united on the macro level through common adherence to a fixed set of overarching values. The problem remains that these values, or rather the manner in which they are understood, are overwhelmingly a manifestation of the way in which the already-empowered would wish to live, rather than an organic vision of society that equally empowers and protects all. For those that do not submit to the aggressive individualism of the liberal vision, who resist distorted accounts of ‘freedom’ and dare to cling to their outdated social customs that so offend the sensibilities of the liberals, there can only ever be extermination, or, to use Orwell’s words, ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’.
Whilst this continues, intimate relational accounts of society will be subsumed under an individualistic account of common good, whereby what is good for society must be synonymous with the liberty of the individual over and against society. Accordingly, the more provocative questions are rarely asked: Does the common-good have more legitimacy than individual desire? To what extent are ‘rights’ constructive or destructive of responsibility? When do the interests or beliefs of the community trump the universal ‘right’ of an individual? What should happen when the ‘rights’ of an individual is corrosive to social harmony?
In short, has the post-1968 embrace of hedonistic liberalism not caused the left to unwittingly surrender its ancestral heartland, and with it those insights that were historically its greatest strength, and indeed its greatest contribution, to post-industrial political culture? The empowered elite will, of course, shriek with all the shrillness of an anxious oligarchy that such thinking is oppressive, undemocratic, authoritarian, bigoted, regressive, and endless other desperate accusations. And well they might. But the point remains that it is at least more authentically representative of left-of-centre thought, and indeed of those they have ceased to represent, and if it offends the palette, then maybe the ‘libertarians’ ought to cross the floor. Thus far, Red Toryism has become a lucky charm of the right; one wonders whether or not it has crucial insights for the left also.
This article first appeared on LabourList on November 15, 2009.