A wonderfully written piece here by A. N. Wilson who, whilst not my usual cup of tea, captures the pernicious consequences of dehumanised capitalism, cherished of neo-liberal economists and ‘free-marketeers’ alike, brilliantly well. As I’m sure you’ll agree, he makes a better fist of articulating the wider problem than Douglas Carswell, for whom the commitment to liberty would appear to outrank any commitment to society at large.
Of course, this all chimes very closely with the economic analysis of a certain Red Tory – writing with Will Hutton here – who himself is heavily influenced by the distributism of G K Chesterton (if you’re interested then perhaps the best place to look is Chesterton’s An Outline of Sanity).
It hardly needs pointing out that Chesterton’s analysis took place in a different world, but the underlying principle remains the same; too few own too much, whilst too many own too little.
Whilst the days might be long gone of hoping to provide everyone with a bit of land and a house of their own as a means of offering genuine security, there is yet nothing at all to say that the idea can’t be moulded to fit the contemporary world: why shouldn’t the obstacles to ownership, those hurdles that stop vast swathes of people entering the market as equals rather than as waged slaves, be slowly broken down? Why shouldn’t the oligarchies that squeeze competition and distort the markets according to their own whims be reigned in? Why shouldn’t markets serve people, rather than people serve markets?
This would be the essence of any modern day distributist movement – not to deny the market, but to let more people get at it, whatever the ‘free-marketeers’ might say.
One of the phrases one often hears is that the rapid leap in media and communications technology, amongst other things, has brought the world closer together, has helped create a ‘global village’, and enabled people to overcome those old boundaries that once proved obstacles to unity.
Which is all very true, and to that extent is to be welcomed.
However, there is another side. And that other side is the ease at which a central model can now be thrust upon once disparate peoples, an imperialistic imposition that leads to an absurdly homogenous trans-cultural orthodoxy. The result is a bloc-culture in which people think the same things, say the same things, believe the same things, and do the same things – in short, clones of one another. Yet in so doing, it leaves behind all those who don’t buy into the vision, even though they may be in the majority – and this is the crucial bit.
Now to bring this back down to the parochial, I think this disconnect is very much in evidence in contemporary Britain today. Some have the distinction as being between the ‘political classes’ and the electorate; others prefer the term ‘cultural elite’; others will plump for the ‘social and political classes’; others still use the term ‘liberal elite’; whilst a great many will use all of the above. The point is, all these are attempts to articulate a keenly felt anxiety that there is, in some hard to define manner, a difference between a certain segment of the population, often prominent in the ‘culture industry’, and the rest.
It is, of course, almost impossible to avoid falling into caricature at this stage, but perhaps the best concrete example of this is the BBC. Now, as I have blogged in the past, I am an unapologetic fan of the BBC. And I consider the allegation against the BBC of being intentionally biased as unfair. Because if there is any bias, then it is really just a reflection of the people who largely comprise it, rather than any intentional decision to be so. And, as Andrew Marr has recognised, there is a cultural liberal bias at the BBC, that is largely metropolitan in outlook, socially liberal, middle-class, very much geared toward younger fashions and trends, and often (perhaps unsurprisingly) aimed at the techno-savvy population that many people where I come from would dismiss as yuppies. In this sense the BBC all too often reflects its own internal make-up, which means it only addresses people just like itself, and fails to recognise that there are many people who are not like that at all. As such, it trades on its left-liberal outlook as normative (how on earth could it think it wasn’t?), and thereby it irritates the hell out of a great deal of people.
Which is a useful illustration of the point I’m trying, not wholly successfully, to explore – does the media and communications boon, whilst welcome as a platform for the flourishing of human relationships, not also contain within it the seeds of social discord? After all, has there ever been such an opportunity, as there is today, to so completely dominate the public forum with just one worldview? As the BBC example was intended to show, often it can lead to a re-enforcement of the hegemony, thereby giving a disproportionate eminence to what may well be a minority worldview. Or to butcher a Burkean metaphor, how much louder the grasshoppers in the field, how much more complete the illusion of their dominance, were they to be linked up to electrical loud-speakers and sub-woofer sound systems?
I suppose the point I am trying (clumsily) to make is that, when new media networks reach so far into people’s everyday lives, and yet are so often merely reflections of a really quite small and distinct cabal at the head of them, it will begin to chafe. Which might well have the effect of pushing people to those nasty little groups on the margins, those groups who ‘listen’, and who trade on the malaise by claiming to offer a different message.
Interesting to note the relative calm over the story that Nadia Eweida, a check-in worker who was banned by British Airways from wearing a small crucifix round her neck whilst on duty, lost her appeal at an employment tribunal and is beginning proceedings in the appeal courts today.
As might be expected, however, there has been one vocal backer of Eweida, that coming from the inimitable Shami Chakrabarti, director of the pressure group Liberty. She presents a cogent defence, most of which is based upon the opening maxim that it is vitally important to defend ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion from unjustified intrusion and prejudice.’
Which is all very true.
However… I do think things are a little more nuanced than that, and Miss Chakrabarti, in the course of making her case, offers a couple of little nuggets that demonstrate where liberalism often gets its account of ‘freedom’ wrong.
For example, we hear that, as a possible alternative to either ‘elevat[ing] an approved faith to the point of dominant status over all other belief systems‘ (apparently this is what Britain did in its ‘less enlightened times’, and is comparable with the approach of the Taliban), or else denouncing all religions and clamouring for them to be banned from the public sphere, there is a third option, that is ‘based on human rights and resonates well with a society such as Britain’s.‘
Now this sounds innocuous enough, but read between the lines and Miss Chakrabarti’s argument presents itself as wholly secularist, not to mention ideologically imperialist. That is, Miss Chakrabarti posits religion as a lifestyle preference, even whilst acknowledging it as an important one, and then offers an alternative, ‘human rights’, as an objective and universal doctrine that necessarily trumps all historical, religious or cultural particularity. Something so tame as ‘based on human rights and resonates well with a society such as Britain’s,’ reveals the ideological imperialism; Great Britain is the floating subject upon which human rights are imposed, rather than the very lens through which they are understood at all.
Accordingly, I think Shami Chakrabarti has a dogmatic blind spot that leads her to neglect the very social, cultural and ideological contexts that inform her conception of freedom, a chink in the logic that plays out in the rest of the article. And this blind spot, like that of all liberals, might best be summed up as a projection into universal principle of that which is in essence a very atomistic individualism. For example, we hear,
If we really believe in freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this must include the right to the faith or belief of one’s choice, the right to no faith and to be a heretic. Proportionate limits on this precious liberty don’t arise because a minority causes irritation or even offence. We interfere when someone is harming others, or in the workplace when, for instance, their faith or clothing prevents them doing their job.
Well, yes, of course, that is all very true. But then, at the same time, what if one chooses to understand that little phrase ‘harm others’ through anything other than a wholly individualistic and materialistic (causing physical harm) worldview – for example, what if one believes that liberal relativism cultivates conflicting ideologies that cause harm to the social fabric of the country; could this not be conceived as harming others? And is there really no case to be made that, where an ideology or behaviour undermines those common threads and identities that traditionally united the diverse peoples settled in these isles, that there is, in some sense, a harm committed, that being to the common good?
This crops up again, toward the end of the article, with the snide jibe,
But that is very different from BA stubbornly defending past mistakes or UKIP attempting to steal clothes and voters from the BNP
Now, apart from being achingly banal, and carrying prejudiced undertones (with the chattering classes you can generally assume BNP = white working class), Miss Chakrabarti here neatly demonstrates the argument I have been trying to make. Because against her one might argue that ‘freedom’ is inherently bound up, as a concept, in those distinct social conditions, customs, traditions, and beliefs of the culture in which it is resident. The freedom to wear a burqa in this country is simply not the equivalent of the freedom to wear a crucifix, unless you hypothetically strip away any social and cultural conditioning factors that ought properly to inform the comparison. After all, we are culturally and historically a Christian country, so that wearing a crucifix at work will raise the question of ‘freedom’ in a wholly different manner to that raised by those who wish to indulge in a practice or belief entirely alien to the majority of the host culture. This is not to say that anything different should be banned, by any means: rather, it is to say that refusing to recognise the distinction between the two is simply disingenuous.
For this reason, Shami Chakrabati is not really defending a Christian’s right to wear a crucifix at all, but is rather defending her own somewhat sterilised account of what freedom looks like. The defence of the Christian is an upshot of this circumstance, not the aim of it, and it is the ideological foundations of liberalism that are really being zealously guarded.
One thing I have noticed more and more just recently is the tendency of so many to conflate between ‘conservative’ thought and libertarianism.
It is on the blogosphere where the lines are most noticeably blurred, where a close-knit community of conservative and libertarian bloggers tend to find common voice on just about all the defining issues of the day. In general, the format tends to be consistent in its crudeness: an issue crops up, one blogger denounces it as an affront to freedom, other blogs embellish this initial insight, until you have a whole consensus usually premised upon little more than a few swear words and an insult or two thrown at the person deemed to be the villain of the piece.
The consensus is always visible whenever the issue is one of personal gratification: after all, the hedonistic embrace of the individual secured by the ‘revolutionaries’ on the left from the 60’s onwards has been swallowed almost uncritically by many on the right.
But there is a parallel to this, a mirrored image transposed from the private into the public realm, that being the argument that the individual should be free to live their lives unencumbered by anybody else whatsoever, so that the police are all pigs, politicians are all scum, local councils are freedom-hating Hitlers etc etc. Again, the argument is often as crude as ‘they’re all just twats’, and having secured the laughs of the audience, so is the case deemed proven.
Unfortunately, one is often left wondering whether or not it is only this childish rebelliousness that informs the ‘smaller state’ instinct for so many who claim themselves to be conservative: refutation of authority as inherently bad appears to be the only argument, such as it is, ever offered. Having uniformly embraced social liberalism as a waymarker of ‘freedom’, so the difference between the right and left often seem to boil down to only this: the left want to keep the state in order to secure these freedoms, whilst the right wants to radically extend the project, and be done with all structures of authority and restraint whatever.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have a soft spot for Cobbett myself, and I have no great love for an overbearing state – I think it often stifles the flourishing of human relationships, despite its benign intentions. But I do wonder if this cosy consensus between conservatives and libertarians really reflects ‘conservative’ thought at all, or whether it is not rather just a different shade of a radical individualism that has taken root on all sides of the political spectrum.
It was once pointed out to me that it is much harder to build a sandcastle than it is to run around kicking them down.
And it leads me to wonder whether or not, if the battle against statism has been the cause célèbre of the last few decades or so – a battle Thatcher comprehensively lost, by the way – then will a coherent defence against libertarianism be the ideological battle to come?
Reading Next Left’s blog today, I was struck by a passage regarding the problems inherent to any meritocratic structuring of society, and thought I might as well offer a few speculative (and no doubt rather more naive) thoughts of my own.
Now I must confess that, until a few years ago, I could not see any possible objection to the meritocratic ideal. Indeed, I thought it was marvellous – a truly egalitarian system whereby those with talent were no longer held back from achieving what they were capable of achieving. Any opposition would surely be, or so I thought, the desperate cries of an embattled elite trying to defend the terms of their own privilege, intent on securing the ripest fruits for their own harvesting.
Then two things happened, in a relatively short period of time. Firstly, a priest said something to me that put the whole notion in a new perspective – “ah yes, the problem with meritocracy is that those at the top tend to forget who gives and who takes away – humility is lost on them”. Secondly, I stumbled across an article in the Guardian by Michael Young, spelling out what he believed to be the most pernicious consequences of the rise of meritocracy (I must confess that I still haven’t read his full book on the subject yet).
I’ll try and avoid merely regurgitating what Michael Young says (I’m purposely not re-reading the article now in order to try and avoid this happening), not least because you’re all quite capable of reading the thing for yourself and forming your own opinion, but also because I want this blog to be about my own experience of the issue – the consequences as I see them.
Since meritocracy has become the creed of our times, the system has invariably tilted toward those possessed of most ‘merit’ – according solely to the standards set by those who define the system. This entrenches privilege, because ‘merit’ largely becomes a reflection of the things valued by those already at the top, a self-affirming social ladder that merely endorses the priorities of the already empowered. These are the environmental factors Stuart White discusses in the blog post, but the pertinent point is not that meritocracy fails because of a pre-existing lack of ‘equality’, but because it also actively fuels further injustice: those at the top have sufficient power and privilege to tilt the system in their own favour, and hoard opportunities accordingly.
And this is where that priest’s comment comes in – because a self-affirming social structure allows those at the top to write off those at the bottom, a kind of Nietzschean complex whereby those who lose have deserved to lose, and those who win have deserved to win. The issue of governance thus becomes the inheritance of the meritocratic classes, whose job is to uphold the status-quo (what else could they do – let the losers be in control?), and manage the tension between, to use Ferdinand Mount’s language, the Uppers and the Downers. Here the misanthropic impulse emerges – that unmistakable conceit buried at the heart of so many of the social elite, particularly on the intellectual left, who see themselves as enlightened, elevated above ‘the crowd’, a fundamental mistrust of the plebiate that leaves them genuinely disdainful of representative democracy.
Yet it is the flip-side of this particular coin that is most disastrous. For it pools the ‘losers’ of the race together, stripping their number of anybody that might be deemed ‘successful’, and consigning all those ‘without merit’ to communes where perceived failure blots out the last remnants of ambition or aspiration – they attend the same schools, live in the same streets, compete for the same mundane jobs, apply for the same benefits, all similarly rejected by society as failures in the meritocratic race. Society is split in two, and we end up with an underclass that is basically abandoned to itself, where the measure of good governance is the effective management of this dispossessed segment of society. They are written off, socially and intellectually and economically, and so long as nobody starves to death or freezes for want of state assistance then that is all that can be reasonably expected.
This downward spiral of lost ambition and low aspiration is replicated in the state’s approach – after all, being a loser in the meritocratic race is a desperately hard barrier to overcome, and so why demand any different? Accordingly, instead of providing the conditions, environment and opportunities conducive to self-advancement (a much more diverse job market, better education, welfare that incentivises good life choices) it instead merely embraces the social trends, and seeks to alleviate the worst consequences of it, in so doing facilitating more of the same. Consigned to the inevitably of the losers always being losers, the aim instead becomes to mitigate the downfall – and in so doing those at the top exacerbate the problems.
So where does meritocracy sit in all this? Well, we have a perfect storm of conditions that, as society is more and more dominated by the interests of those who tend to be in charge of it, so it continues to be structured along lines incapable of recognising the talents of those ill-suited to the meritocratic race. The role of meritocracy here is, to my mind, to provide the deterministic underpinning that sees no hope of redemption for a group fundamentally ill-at-ease in a society that no longer values their potential contribution. These people are angry, and so they should be, because they are patronised and left to wallow in their own failure by a group of people who have already given up on them.
Things will change, I’m sure; they always do. And in a time of crisis it is always those at the bottom that pull those at the top away from the flames and into safety. Maybe there will always be poor people, losers in the race of life – I only hope there is not always a social philosophy that provides the subliminal justification for it.
Well well. All of a sudden the chattering classes have discovered that group of people known as the ‘white working class’. It would seem that, jolted into action no doubt by the rise of the racist BNP, the political classes have started reflecting on some of the things that might have made people so angry in the first place. And John Denham has found (part of) an answer: ‘We must avoid a one-dimensional debate that assumes all minority ethnic people are disadvantaged.’
Now, before those of you who take offence for a living start blathering on, this is not to say that ethnic minorities do not suffer from their own, very serious problems. Rather, it is to say that helping these groups should no longer be a convenient cover for ignoring the concerns and socio-economic problems of the white working class.
Mr Denham’s words are refreshing, and following on from James Purnell’s article the other day, one does wonder if we are beginning to see a the outlines of an internal conflict regarding the future social and ideological direction of the Labour Party. After all, telling a party with a fetish for the minority rights agenda, largely composed along lines of race or sexual orientation, that sometimes there are non-minority groups that are discriminated against too, might well just earn John Denham a cold shoulder or two the next time he troops the halls of Westminster.
Even so, it is a welcome recognition. It’ll be too late for Labour, not least because the problem is larger than a bit of policy tinkering, and is actually part of a wider attack on the normative thoughts, beliefs, culture and customs of the ‘working class’ – a cultural harassment which the illiberal social liberals that dominate the Labour Party have been particularly zealous about implementing. The Tories, for my money, have yet to truly find their voice on this issue, though I do think they recognise the problem. The fact that they are now being joined by some on the left is encouraging – and might well lead to a much needed reconfiguration of the way the issues are understood.
They’re at it again. The Russell Group of leading universities can once again be found prophesying doom if they fail to receive the generous subsidies to which their industry has become accustomed over the past few years.
Apparently, if funding drops, we’re likely to see a ‘devastating effect not only on students and staff, but also on our international competitiveness, national economy and ability to recover from recession’. And why is that? you might ask. Because, ‘We are an absolute cornerstone of British society; the part of the engine that drives the economy of the nation. We supply highly-skilled graduates to the knowledge economy [there are plenty that would hotly dispute this particular claim] and we provide ideas, research and innovation. We do have a special case to make.”
Now clearly, getting beyond mere mischief, there is a perfectly rational case to be made for promoting, and funding, excellence within the university system. It’s just that its advocates might well find a more responsive audience if it weren’t for the fact that the funding which they claim is vital to uphold the excellence of the higher education system is the same money that goes to subsidise students through undergraduate courses such as Surf Science and Technology, or Celebrity Journalism, or Brewing and Distilling.
And no doubt every student and former student in the country would have his or her own unique story to tell about university largesse – whether it be expensive fleets of cars, or little-used and highly expensive media suites, or even just the vast revenue ploughed into recruiting future students in order to secure future funding streams.
The Russell group would, I suspect, try to absolve themselves of such charges, and hint toward the provincial universities as being the main culprits, those doing the same job, though less well, as the old polytechnics used to do. Even so, I’d still be tempted to say: Tough – break up the cosy-consensus and get your own house in order.
Only they won’t. Because like so many other sectors that have become addicted to the no strings attached easy-love of the state, there is now a serious sense of entitlement. And this sense of entitlement appears to be chronically detached from any notion of mutuality, the recognition that this money belongs to the taxpayer, that it comes both with the responsibility to use it thriftily and wisely, and the demand for certain minimum standards. Universities are all too often run as businesses, a cold managerialism quite detached from the notions of social responsibility and service that once pulsed through them.
Some will claim, rightly, that the universities are indeed doing an important job, furnishing the economy with the kind of workforce that will spur the country forward into the new age, that will help the country prosper in difficult times. And in many cases the humble taxpayer will no doubt see the truth of this argument.
But the value of surf scientists and celebrity journalists? I suspect not. Universities will have to cut their cloth along with everybody else.
So James Purnell has joined the list of Ministers and ex-Ministers ‘setting out a vision’ for what will soon become the post-Brown political landscape. In a remarkably frank article, Purnell offered a bold vision that, were it to gain serious traction, would undoubtedly prove divisive, particularly amongst the metropolitan left that has become so dominant in the Labour Party over recent years.
In his analysis of contemporary left-wing thought and practice, Purnell urged the Party to ‘go back to the values of the early Labour movement’, and in so doing find the inspiration, not to mention the ideological resources, for a revivification of the Labour’s flagging fortunes. Indeed, going further, and openly deriding the cold utilitarianism of New Labour governance, Purnell decries the fact that the ‘The words are managerial, the values administrative and the vision technocratic.’
Now, for many on the left, particularly those that might take Purnell’s words to be a barbed analysis of their own political meanderings, the instant response will no doubt be to dismiss him as a closet-conservative, as if this alone is enough to pour scorn on the wisdom of his proclamations. And, in his cautious rejection of authoritarian statism, and his consistent appeals to tradition, to historic values, and to the lessons of history, the charge may well have some justification. The error, however, is surely in thinking that these characteristics make Purnell a foreigner to the cause. What the metropolitan cabal at the head of the Party fail to recognise, as Purnell clearly does, is that there are genuine socially conservative roots at the heart of traditional Labour thinking, and of those communities that have traditionally voted for the Labour Party.
In essence, then, Purnell is dusting off a form of social conservatism that has fallen into disuse on the left in recent years, whilst simultaneously remaining committed to key left-wing critiques of social and economic inequalities, seeking to demonstrate that the two need not be wholly alien from one another. Purnell is clearly confident that such a move would bring the Party back toward the beliefs and expectations of the nation beyond the cultural cloisters of Islington and Westminster.
Accordingly, in a neat demonstration of precisely this, Purnell says, ‘While there are deep conservative elements in the Labour tradition, and we should honour them – particularly in relation to the ethics of work, loyalty and love of place, family solidarity and a respect for the moral contribution of faith – we do not accept the distribution of assets as they are, we do not accept that inherited mega-wealth is deserved, and we do not accept that our rulers are always other people.’
This first half of this statement will, of course, send shocks of horror surging through the vociferous left-liberal metropolitan classes that see in social conservatism the distillation of all that is regressive and uncivilised in contemporary society. I suspect that Purnell calculates this as a risk worth taking, in order to broaden the appeal of the Party beyond the Guardian reading bien-pensants and the rapidly diminishing tribal voters so disillusioned with cultural and social achievements of the New Labour project. In essence, Purnell is seeking to redress the cultural deficit, to bring back in from the wilderness that much neglected traditional voice, and in so doing he is hoping to start speaking the language of the ordinary people Labour need to vote for them.
When looking at the conservative elements Purnell lists as core to the Labour tradition, the unflinching honesty of his article, and indeed the potentially divisive nature of it, becomes clear. On the ethics of work, for example, Labour are finding it a struggle to find a coherent path through the increasing body of evidence and opinion that the welfare system has played its part in dis-incentivising work. Generational worklessness has blighted communities up and down the country, and whilst it would be overly simplistic to pin this entirely on welfare, there yet remains a noticeable silence in the face of the excellent work done by figures such as Iain Duncan Smith MP at the Centre for Social Justice. Certain bolder characters on the left, such as Frank Field, have been willing to grasp this nettle, though beyond individuals there are few signs of any stomach for this particular fight.
On loyalty and love of place, it would hardly be controversial to suggest that this administration has brought with it a culture disdain toward patriotic expression, in which national and civic pride is looked down upon as vaguely anti-social and potentially divisive. Equally, the uncritical embrace of multiculturalism is proving a hindrance, as it comes under unprecedented attack on both a social and an intellectual level. For many, the mere elevation of ‘diversity’ as a transcending characteristic is in reality no more than a demonstration of the unpatriotic temperament of many on the intellectual left, a ‘progressive’ way of saying ‘we don’t really believe in anything at all’.
On family solidarity, in addition to the unintended yet pernicious effects the welfare system has had on family structures, one might evidence the disproportionate fury of many on the left at the suggestion that the couples’ penalty be removed from the tax system. The left all too often seek only to react to the consequences of damaging social trends, without ever offering a convincing response to the charge that these trends can be socially harmful and ought therefore to be addressed. On this note, as Tristram Hunt has convincingly argued, the metropolitan left have pursued an ideological approach to family that has had profoundly unprogressive consequences, and if the promotion of people like Dr Katherine Rake is anything to go by, then one would be forgiven for thinking that this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Finally, on the moral contribution of faith, one could scarcely deny the proliferation of an aggressively secular civic space that, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, treats faith as an eccentricity rather than a core aspect of peoples’ lives. Whether it be Harriet Harman’s divisive Equalities Bill, or the inability of Jewish communities to define their own membership over and above the definitions of the secular state, one can hardly dispute the charge that religion has proved a difficult conversation partner for a government so committed to social liberalism. Indeed, involving different faith communities has often become a PR exercise concerned with demonstrating ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’, even whilst these very terms are the watchwords under which orthodox religious practice and belief is legislated against. This government has managed to gain a reputation, fair or otherwise, of being anti-Christian, and of having created a ‘Catholic vote’ – tags like these will take a long time to shake loose, and the effects will no doubt be felt at the ballot-box.
All of which demonstrates either Mr Purnell’s courage or else his witlessness. However, one is tempted to assume that, as this is a barely disguised rallying cry, Purnell recognises the deficiencies in these areas and is seeking to alleviate them. The question is, will others follow his lead?
An interesting article here briefly discussing the potential of the new Harmanite ‘Equalities Bill’ to severely restrict the ability of religious communities to uphold the distinctive character of their organisational and pastoral make-up. The Bill is due to come up before the House of Lords, having had potential amendments in the House of Commons dismissed by ministers imposing a ‘guillotine’ on discussion, and the Christian charity CARE has issued a report (not available until the 14th) maintaining that, as things stand, religious communities, in particular the Catholic Church, will no longer be able to discriminate according to the principles of their faith.
Now of course, to remain level-headed, freedom of association for religious groups should not de facto trump state and societal commitments to certain basic expressions of a civilised society, and were there to be a religion that sacrificed virgins or butchered young children in worship of a sun god then there may well be a case for arguing the limits of religious immunity from such legislation.
However, clearly this is not what we’re up against – however much Catholic tradition and practice may induce bouts of hysteria from the atheists crowded disproportionately on the liberal-left, it yet remains comfortably and creatively part of civilised society.
The interesting question this raises, however, is whether this Bill is yet another step in the direction of creating a ‘Catholic vote’, a phenomenon on which Damian Thompson has written convincingly in the past. Or, to express it the other way round, has the relentless attack on the moral and religious norms of the Catholic faith created a situation whereby the instinct of many Catholic communities to vote for Labour as the ‘Party of the poor’ has been abandoned, superseded by a collective desire to assert Catholic social and moral teaching over and above the aggressive and, dare one say it, persecutionary approach of the nihilists on the metropolitan left?
I have a certain amount of sympathy for Damian’s argument, and in those areas where there remains large Catholic communities it will no doubt give Labour some pause for thought.
However, I do wonder if this analysis goes far enough. Because if we allow for the possibility of a Catholic vote, then might there not also be a case for a broader ‘Christian’ vote? Whilst, for example, the social gospel of the C of E has come under sustained attack from the left-liberal who thinks sociology, rather than theology, should dictate Church direction*, there nonetheless still exists a significant pool of Anglicans who may well decide that the rabid secularism (for which read atheism) and social liberalism of much contemporary liberal thought has become a significant enough problem.
And we needn’t stop there.
For one is bound to wonder about mainstream Muslims, or indeed orthodox Jews, the latter of which have had their right to define membership of their own religion curtailed by so-called ‘equality’ laws.
Yet even this might not go far enough. For having considered the religious dimension, one is compelled to further speculate about those without any particular faith at all, the ordinary working man or woman, whose moral and social compass may well have been shaped in a cultural landscape wholly different to that of those metropolitan elites from whom the majority of so-called ‘progressive thought’ emanates. One could even bring class in here – to my mind, and in my experience, the ‘working-classes’, or what remains of them, are socially conservative, even if on economic issues large swathes of them drift toward socialist ideals.
For this reason, I think there is a broader case to be made. Damian is right, in the sense that if the Roman Catholic Church is the most obvious and most outspoken bastion of socially conservative thought in this country then the atheistic impulses of this government might well be interpreted by Catholic communities as purposely discriminatory, and lead them to consider their vote accordingly. Yet, at the same time, I wonder if the Catholics are not merely the highest profile group suffering at the hands of a systematic attack on social conservatism wherever it exists, the inevitable clash between two competing world-views, an ideological battle that is taking place both within and beyond the traditions and practice of one particular faith.
This, then, is the dividing line New Labour has drawn. Which would explain why the pernicious doctrines of left-liberalism are facing such widespread rejection, from believer and non-believer alike.
*This is, according to George Weigel, the grounds upon which John Paul II dismissed Archbishop Runcie’s defence of the ordination of women.
It really is half-comical to see the liberal-left jolted from its cosy slumber as it slowly realises that its supremacy is finally having to face a serious and sustained challenge. Albeit cautiously, and without any unified direction, commentators are starting to ask awkward questions of the social liberal hegemony. The piercing ad hominem attacks that once silenced potential resistance have become blunt in recent times, as more and more accept what many outside the chattering and political classes have always thought obvious: that social liberalism is on the wrong side of good-sense on so many issues.
The absurdity of the whole project is breaking like a slow dawn, whilst the spittle-flecked fury of its fanatics descends into farce, relentlessly attacking those truths that many have always thought self-evident – that marriage is a good thing, or that single-parenthood is not an ideal to which mothers or fathers should aspire, or that criminals are possessed of free-will, or that drug-addicts should stop taking drugs.
In short, social liberalism is slowly being rejected even by the minority that were the only ones to ever really accept it, its destructive and illogical premises deemed as socially pernicious, despite its utopian promise.
Some will debate this, of course, and maintain that social liberalism is the default mindset of the country at large, that we live in a new world, that the forces of social conservatism are mere evil and have been rightfully despatched to the wilderness of a less-civilised past. To which I could only reply with the question; if this were so, then why is the strong arm of the state needed to legislate the prejudices of social liberalism into existence? If it had general appeal then society would organically embrace it, outwith the necessity for constant legislation. Of course, the opposite is ordinarily the case, and so social liberalism must appeal to the state – in so doing, the liberal-left* is confirmed in its misanthropic suspicions, of its own enlightened superiority and the baseness of those they govern.
All of which suggests that social liberalism requires a strong state in order to legislate into existence its own priorities over and against ‘the crowd’. This is the flip-side to a blog I wrote a while back, suggesting that the contemporary left loves big-business because it mirrors in the economic realm that state authoritarianism it already depends upon in the political realm – both big-business and big-state offer the most effective delivery of the social agenda. Thus, just as it is no surprise that the contemporary left have snuggled up to neo-liberal economics, neither is it a surprise that they have heartily embraced statism as the ultimate dispenser of ‘freedom’.
Now a certain Red Tory depicts this relationship broadly thus; the radical individualism at the heart of liberal dogma requires an authoritarian state to police its now atomistic social realm.
Which I think is true. But I would add further nuance to this, perhaps best summed up in the question, ‘Why does social liberalism, ordinarily so sensitive to the ‘freedom’ of the individual, turn a blind eye to an authoritarian state?’ After all, if freedom were the only issue, then the quid pro quo exchange would be worthless, merely exchanging one form of ‘oppression’ for another. The social liberals on the left would need, instead, to be libertarians, which they rarely are.
And therein lies the rub. Truth is, it all turns on the account of freedom itself; in short, social liberalism tends to construct freedom along radically individualistic lines, whilst neglecting those corporate accounts of freedom that traditionally defined the status of an individual within that body of relationships known as the civic realm. Freedom is a private issue, such that identity and liberty are no longer placed within the overarching framework of society, of ‘the common good’. Or to express it a little differently, freedom is all about individual practice, rigorously policed by an overbearing state, because talk of ‘society’ and corporate identities are instinctively rejected as already bordering on subjugation.
Thus, the left-liberal wing can get incredibly vexed on issues regarding personal liberty and life choices, and yet get noticeably less agitated about the creeping statism that has come to blight all our everyday interactions. Libertarians, always social liberals too, do indeed offer some resistance; but social liberals on the left are often less vocal, primarily because of their ingrained dependence on the state to guarantee their ‘freedom’ so defined.
And so, in the end, it all revolves around what you think constitutes ‘freedom’. Is it solely a matter of individual agency, which often breaks down into the unfettered indulgence of the now commodified body, or does this narrow definition lead to a form of political and civic subjugation, evolving out of both neglect and necessity?
I think Edmund Burke has something to say on this, in writing,
‘so heavy is the Aristocratick Yoke, that the Nobles have been obliged to enervate the Spirit of their Subjects by every Sort of Debauchery; they have denied them the Liberty of Reason, and they have made them amends, by what a base Soul will think a more valuable Liberty, by not only allowing, but encouraging them to corrupt themselves in the most scandalous Manner. They consider their Subjects, as the Farmer does the Hog he keeps to feast upon. He holds him fast in his Stye, but allows him to wallow as much as he pleases in his beloved Filth and Gluttony.’**
Now of course, the crude moralistic tone here grates, and the suggestion that the governing elites encourage the identification of freedom with ‘fleshly desires’ as a conscious means of securing power is too conspiratorial to be of much real value.
But then, at the same time, it is not wholly useless to point out the correlation between social liberalism and state authoritarianism – a situation that, to my mind, is no mere accident of history.
*I realise that I have jumped here from speaking of social liberalism to talking of the contemporary left. I do this only because, by and large, the left has embraced social liberalism more heartily than anyone else, and in many cases the two often become synonymous. I think the connection is causal rather than necessary, however – the social and political dogmas of the contemporary left would be, to my mind, foreign to the social and moral beliefs of its forebears.
**A Vindication of Natural Society. If you have the Liberty Fund edition, it’s p.52.