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Liberty and the Broken Society

Part of me feels that those who have helped to bring the country down — venal politicians, false educators, degraders of the media, thieving privatisers of the public domain — need to be fought to a standstill, here on this battlefield, by those with the energy, strength and clarity of mind to do so. For no one wants to believe that the country of his birth, language, upbringing and way of thinking cannot be redeemed.

So starts an article in the Spectator by David Selbourne, arguing that, all things considered, we have reached tipping point and those who can leave the country should seriously think of doing so. Of course, it is rather more likely that his words are chosen for rhetorical effect than any heartfelt longing for distant shores, since the piece was originally delivered at a Spectator debate entitled ‘Too late to save Britain. It’s time to leave’. Still, the article is well worth a read, not least because its central insight is perfectly sound; that one cannot expect civil and political society to be transformed, unless one also surveys those ideologies and habits that have come to degrade it.

Something which the Conservatives, in that fleeting moment when they dared address the ‘Broken Society’, started to grasp at. Alas, all that stopped the moment they began to realise where their thinking was slowly leading them – the pernicious effects of social and economic liberalism. For so long, the liberals had claimed moral neutrality in their dealings with market, state and civic society, and the ‘modernised’ Tory brand wanted to appropriate this social liberalism as a trendy compliment to their historic economic variety. Yet, the fallaciousness of that claim to neutrality has become clear for all to see – liberalism is being rejected as an particular ideology, not a neutral methodology. And in so enthusiastically embracing it, the Tories have clambered aboard a sinking ship.

Just as the tentacles of that ideology, both social and economic, are to a great extent inter-reltaed, so a denunciation of the one can quite often be linked with a qualified rejection of the other. So it is that we can read ‘Britain has been impoverished by the mismanagement of the national economy, the running down of manufacturing, and the voraciousness of free-market ethics,’ standing cheek by jowl with New Labour’s ‘grand Nonconformist moral inheritance ravaged by Blairism and Mandelsonisation.’  Similarly, Selbourne can write of a ‘free country degraded by its freedoms,’ immediately before attacking the corrosive actions of Goldman Sachs and BP. Or, in Selbourne’s words, ‘The difference between freedom and licence has been unlearned,’ and this is true in both the social and the economic realms.

The irony is that what Selbourne refers to as the ‘self-degrading moral and market free-for-all which has been unleashed upon the land’ is a pretty neat summation of just what the new ‘modernised’ Tories claim to believe, and what its new armies of trendy followers tend to look like. They have kept the worst bit, the unrestrained markets of the Thatcherites, and ditched the socially conservative bit, thereby largely embracing the philosophy of unrestraint in the social realm, too. Which is precisely the wrong way round.

This change has been effected largely to reflect the whims of a happy band of metroliberals who, with their inane philosophies of ‘freedom’, have decided that the new conservatism means a rejection not of unwarrantable power, but of all objective authority whatsoever. As such these ‘phoney philosophers’, to use Roy Hattersley’s phrase, have decided that any form of restraint, ideological or otherwise, must be to some degree an offence to ‘freedom’ – though they rarely stop to ask if it is also the protector of others’ freedom, too. As such, this happy band of libertarian Tories will say that they are economically to the right and socially to the left; which means, roughly speaking, that they reject the possibility of objective external limitations on their liberty. It is this atomistic freedom, based on contractual accounts of liberty,  that gives the authoritative state its warrant.

Which makes the libertarians not only wrong-headed but short-sighted. Or, to leave the final words to Selbourne himself,

For the greater the scope of unregulated moral freedom, of laissez-faire, and of individual rights, the greater the need to manage the chaotic outcomes of their abuse. It applies as much to the City as to the streets. This is a philosophical not a party point. Burke knew it. ‘Liberty,’ he declared in 1774, ‘cannot exist without order and virtue.

Whose ‘freedom’?

This video features over on the OurKingdom website, with resident editor Guy Aitchison asking the Labour leadership candidates about their approach to drug policies, or to use the more inflammatory (yet wrongheaded) language of the website, if they are ‘willing to take drugs out of the hands of criminals and other unregulated capitalists, and bring them under public control.’ Thankfully the Labour candidates all answer in a sensible fashion, but I think the general idea requires a quick response.

Firstly, it’s worth drawing attention to the fact that whenever people call for an injection of ‘evidence and common sense’, they invariably mean an injection of evidence that reinforces their own approach, and common sense that reflects their own prejudices. As I have written before, ‘evidence’, despite all its connotations of balance and objectivity, all too often merely re-affirms the pre-investigative prejudices of those who produce it. As such, the drugs debate often has little to do with objective evidence, and everything to do with rationalising the priorities of those who have the most to gain by adopting it. You’ll notice, for example, that ‘evidence’ rarely extends to include the lived experiences and opinions of those living on the front line of the drugs war, and is usually confined to research conducted by that very body of people who are either supportive of legalisation from the outset, or are far removed from any future consequences when it all goes wrong.

And that is the key – because it is worth noting that it is nearly always middle-class urban trendies who press the case for legalisation, primarily because they’d like to enjoy jolly drug-fuelled jaunts to Stonehenge without the dreadful inconvenience of having to obey the law of the land. Yet in truth, it is precisely this group of society whom the legalisation of drugs will affect the least; that is, it is not the bourgeois young ‘radicals’ who are likely to suffer the sharpest consequences of what it is they claim would be best for everyone. And this is the ugly face of contemporary liberalism; the tendency to rationalise the whims and fancy of the petit-bourgeoisie, appropriating (or misapproriating) slogans and concepts such as ‘freedom’ in order to do it. And it would be churlish to point out that it is a curious definition of ‘freedom’ that thinks it acceptable for citizens not only to remain perpetually addicted to something so destructive, but also that the state should both control and supply that addiction.

As I like to repeat regularly, mostly because it is absolutely true, it was once said that modern broad-mindedness benefits only the rich, and benefits nobody else. It was also maintained that modern broad-mindedness was meant to benefit only the rich, and meant to benefit nobody else. And in this instance, those who may well find it a dreadful chore to have to go to Amsterdam to indulge their hedonistic desires, are not really the ones whose radically self-centred accounts of ‘freedom’ we should be worrying about – rather, it is those who have never been to Amsterdam, and are confined to seeking their thrills on the estates of Airdrie, or Aberdeen, or Accrington.

For if we do live in an unjust two-tier society, as many now contend, and if we accept that this fact is lamentable, regressive, a slur on our credentials as a civilised nation, then the further question has to be asked:  how would the legalisation of drugs help that situation? After all, if collections of young men on council estates up and down the land have taboos surrounding drugs suddenly dismantled, even have their habits funded and supported through legal and governmentally controlled outlets, then are they more or less likely to be successful in life? Are they more or less likely to be taken into polite society, to achieve at school and go to university, to stick their job and support their family, to succeed in the art of living well? Truth is, I don’t actually know, and nobody definitively can, but I have seen enough to have an opinion – and I do know that it is a question that all too rarely passes the lips of those ‘freedom-fighters’ who make the case for legalisation.

Of course, one is almost guaranteed to be confronted with the riposte that the criminalisation approach has been tried, and look where it is has delivered us. Which only goes to show the extent to which the metropolitan trendies not only disregard those who live on drug-riddled council estates, but also have absolutely no idea it is like to live on drug-riddled council estates, either. Because, as anyone who has grown up on those drug-riddled council estates knows all too well, the idea that drugs are effectively criminalised is complete nonsense – such a reality exists only in the mind of the theorists, and nowhere else. In truth, drugs are traded and used openly at the school gates, in the bus shelter, behind the shops, over the park, on the street corner… in essence, there is an almost complete absence of criminalisation, at least if by that one means the reality of there being predictable, swift and severe legal consequences. Indeed, anyone who gets caught can consider themselves damned unlucky; and anyone who gets caught and issued anything more severe than a warning can consider themselves doubly unlucky.

And this is why, despite all the promises of the legalisation-lobby that a more ‘grown-up’ attitude to drugs will solve the problems of crime and addiction and violence almost overnight (there’s ‘evidence’ for that, y’know), there is yet a noticeable absence of any enthusiasm for such a course from amongst those who suffer at the sharp end of drugs culture. For them, justifiably enough, common sense doesn’t dictate that we decriminalise criminal activity in order to better regulate criminality –  rather, the complete opposite is the case. Their common sense is rather more sensible than that: swifter action, more severe penalties, schemes that help people come off drugs completely and not remain forever enslaved by ‘managing their addiction’, and perhaps more importantly than anything else, the promotion of real alternatives to a life on and/or in drugs.

And that is the clincher. Or else, in the name of ‘freedom’, distribute the Soma. And when that happens, our reputation as a ‘civilised’ nation will erode just that little bit more.

Propaganda and history

With the Papal visit just months away many Brits, particularly the ‘cultured’ sort, seem to be slowly working themselves up into a frenzy of anti-Catholic sentiment. For the observer this is mildly humorous, not least because it shows that even in ‘enlightened’ and ‘rational’ times people can yet churn out the most narrow-minded and illogical propaganda. Of course, one mustn’t be too surprised, since many have been bathed in pseudo-history since they were babes, and even the most eloquent debunking is incapable of convincing those so utterly determined to remain hostile.

As a result, the issue that consistently remains neglected is that of why such propaganda was ever needed in the first place. And if it were finally addressed, there can be little doubt that even the most ardent of contemporary apparatchiks would find themselves blushing at the cause they were passionately upholding. For the truth is, these pockmarked histories were manufactured primarily to protect a genocidal King and, later on, those whose consciences had been bought by him. That is not to say that this is a uniquely modern phenomenon, and common folk have been taught to misrepresent history ever since it became clear that history must be written by the winners, not least because those winners were also the ones who literally had the most to lose.

Thus, the folk on the ground passionately screaming silly slogans became the useful idiots that defended the very specimens that had dispossessed them, and who were to continue dispossessing them, over and over, for several hundred years. As such, if one ever wants to know why the Pope was depicted as a foreign enemy assaulting national sovereignty, or why clerical celibacy was denounced as inhumane, or why the Head of State had necessarily to become the Head of the Church, or why shrines were desecrated and pilgrimages condemned, or why veneration of the saints (and of Mary) was denounced as idolatrous, or why the monasteries were depicted as parasitic and regressive insitutitons, or why churches were stripped naked in the name of helping the impoverished, or why Tradition was denied in the name of sola scriptura and sola fide – if you want to know the answer to any of these things, then one need at the outset grasp this simple, central fact: that it best benefitted the desires and fortunes of those who had the most to gain by saying so.

Thus, for the sake of a man who wanted to divorce his Queen, and the honourable refusal of a Church to abandon a lady to the changeable lusts of a tyrant, even at the price of losing one of its most precious jewels – for the sake of this did the plunder commence. And the plunder was shared out among those whose consciences were valued at thirty pieces of silver, bringing with it the creation of a rapacious and institutionally anti-clerical petit-bourgeoisie, whose most distinguishing feature throughout history has been the depths to which it will descend to defend and protect its ill-gotten purse. And so, for those who would understand British history, or at least the past 500 or so years of it, one must keep this in mind: that those in power could only justify their crimes by demonising their victim. The absurd historical revisionism, the numerous character assassinations, the bloody persecution of non-conformists, the depiction of Catholics as traitors, the emergence of whiggism, the embrace of so-called ‘Parliamentary democracy’, the ‘Glorious Revolution’, the recusancy laws, the barbarous treatment of the Irish, and much much more besides; all these things were at root instituted in the name of, and to the benefit of, our alleged ‘liberators’ from the manacles of the Catholic Church.

An acknowledgment of the reality of this history often precedes conversion to the Faith, as several high-profile Anglicans have demonstrated throughout history. And since his name is topical, one might also turn to Cardinal Newman for confirmation of just this. One can read Newman’s thoughts directly here, or alternatively take at face value a neat analysis provided by the author of the blogpost, who writes;

Newman was also a historian. He showed how the historical claims and myths underlying “anti-Catholicism” of his time were inaccurate, false and unjustified. But it is interesting that the same set of myths are still used today to justify many anti-Catholic rants despite their historical inaccuracy. He described such a version of the historical record as “Fables” or Myths. He showed them to be logically inconsistent and grounded in prejudice, sustained by tradition and by many institutions of the British State. People who held to such “fables” required ignorance of the Catholic view as a protection for their own position‘ [my emphasis].

Newman diagnosed then what remains true now, and if anything is becoming ever more acute. But the central fact remains that the Fables are grounded in fantasy, not reality. Or, in the pithy words of Newman: ‘To be deep in history is to cease to be protestant.’

Banning the face veil

French MPs have finally taken steps to ban the full veil meaning that, in the name of defending the Republican principles of ‘secularism’ and ‘equality’, the state should determine how certain Muslim females shall dress.

One justification that the French have given, and it is a reasoning that seems to be rapidly gaining common currency, is that the face-veil ‘is the symbol of the repression of women, and… of extremist fundamentalism’.

But I wonder if that is a little simplistic.

To start with, it is important to dispense with two myths. Firstly that the wearing of a veil is a uniquely Muslim phenomena. It’s not. It has its place in the Christian religion, and I dare say other religions too. For example, one thing I notice more and more in my own Church is the rising numbers of (usually young) women who are electing to wear the mantilla to Mass. Partly, this is because there is a long established tradition of doing so, but also it is because (I suspect) more and more young women wish to make a statement of some kind; be it on their devotion to faith, or against the liberalisation of the Church they are in, or indeed against the society in which they reside. Whereas, admittedly, this veiling is within the context of worship, nonetheless I think Madeleine Bunting gets it right when she rejects the possibility that all women who wear the face-veil are necessarily victims of patriarchy, and concludes instead that some ‘young women are choosing to wear the full veil, seeing it as a powerful statement of identity’ (there is also an argument one could get into about where worship ends and ‘normal’ life begins – but I won’t).

The second myth is that such practice is chracteristic of Middle-Eastern, and not Western, culture. Which is perhaps true on the very superficial level of this particular kind of veiling, but the act of veiling oneself per se is not at all alien, be it in public places or religious. Visit a Cathedral or monastery in France or Spain or pretty much any country in Europe, and one would be expected to ‘dress modestly’ (this often includes the covering of legs and arms – ie/ no shorts or t-shirts, and it is not at all unusual for monasteries to insist that women wear a veil). Indeed, to bring it closer to home, I remember at my confirmation listening to two elderly ladies loudly horrified (they thought they were whispering) at the state of dress (or undress) of some confirmants, and unwittingly informing the whole Church that in their day it would never have been allowed and that ‘Father would have had us marched out the Church and sent right back home to put some clothes on’. Equally, calls for modesty have not always been confined to designated religious spaces; the public space also historically demanded certain minimum standards of modesty, and even if those standards appear to be increasingly redundant it is still not true to say they do not still exist, or that they never existed in the first place.

As such, the question of the veil is as much one of degree as anything else, and indeed the extent to which offers a very vocal rejection of the society in which it is situated (read Raedwald’s take on the powerful statement made by covering the face, here). And I think this is the key. Not only is the covering of the face a deeply anti-social act, it also constitutes a very visible rejection of the society in which the wearer resides. Just as wearing the mantilla has come, in my mind, to have both positive expressions (expressing a particular devotion) and negative expressions (establishing an identity over and against overriding trends), so the same is true of the face-veil; an expression which attracts all the more ire because it rejects contact with precisely that society that offered those wearers, at some point or another, a place they could call home.

Which is where I come to the novel position of agreeing with Mehdi Hasan, who quotes Fareena Alam in saying that ‘the controversy over the veil “has more to do with Europe’s own identity crisis than with the presence of some ‘dangerous other’. At a time when post-communist, secular, democratic Europe was supposed to have been ascendant, playing its decisive role at the end of history, Islam came and spoiled the party.” Now I disagree with the air of triumphalism, because Islam hasn’t at all spoiled the party; rather, Europe has sought for centuries to spoil its own party, and is looking for someone to point the finger at now that it needs someone to blame. But the central point is surely accurate – Europe has spent so long dismantling its own roots that it no longer knows who or what it is, and lies prostrate before a religious community very sure of who and what it is. In its defence, it must resort to the only weapon left in its armoury, one that it has become increasingly dependent on; the awesome power of the long idolised state.

Which leads to the bizarre position of a French government making it illegal to wear too many clothes, rather than (as has been more customary throughout the ages) the wearing of too little. For the French, the bogus principle of secularism is the shield behind which the attack on the face-veil has been advanced, even when the alternative they enforce, a secular space and culture marked by hedonism and immodesty, is precisely what the face-veil fundamentally seeks to reject. As such, the French follow a dangerous path, drifting toward proscription of that which defies or denies secularity and/or the character of the secular public space, even when some might feel such defiance and denial to be wholly justified. This is dangerous because is risks criminalising friend as well as foe: if secularism becomes seriously ill and is in need of medicine, then one would be ill-advised to criminalise the chap who might just bring it medicine.

I am not a fan of the face-veil, and think it is alien to our culture and history. But then I am not a fan of the path down which contemporary society is walking, either. And I think it unlikely that any state power that felt compelled to outlaw the face-veil would stop at just the face-veil; it would very soon find other dissenting voices, too.

Lefties and Monarchy

‘What is truth?’ asked Pilate, before sacrificing Him as a King, complete with crown of thorns, under the words ‘Jesus, King of the Jews’. Pilate questioned Truth, and without waiting for an answer positioned himself above it, the Roman governor with the temporal power to crucify an innocent man for the sake of a baying crowd of perjurers. Christ, crucified as King, because earthly power chose to believe in the absoluteness of only itself.

Something of a theological beginning, and for such anti-social manoeuvres I hereby apologise most wholeheartedly. Now, before I go on, I ought to say that I am absolutely not arguing that the Bible suggests one particular form of government or social ordering is any better than any other. I’m not saying it doesn’t, either; more that I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough to pronounce one way or the other. Rather, I think that passage in the Bible speaks about power in a way that still resonates today, that in a society reconciled with relativisms the only response to the question ‘What is truth?’, will be one similar to Pilate’s; ‘whatever the powerful decide it to be.’

And now, to jump off at a tangent, the relevance of which will (I hope) become clear, I’ve been thinking more and more just recently about monarchy, and lefties, and whether the two can peacefully co-exist. And in truth, I’ve still not decided on an answer, primarily because I can’t quite decide on what might be understood by the term ‘leftie’, even if I have a small idea what I might mean when I say ‘monarchy’. I suppose the question then becomes, ‘is there any argument that can be made, from within the broad context of a leftist account of the social sphere, that might be comfortable with the idea of monarchy?’ And I think there is – which the following disjointed mumblings will hopefully begin to show.

The reason I ask the question at all is because Labour, now in the absurd position of having to ask itself what it means by terms such as ‘national identity’ and ‘Englishness’ (largely because it is widely perceived as being constitutionally opposed to both), is churning through the standard student-radicalisms which, nearly always, end in unthinking appeals for republicanism as if it is self-evidently a required tenet of any authentically left-wing thought. I’m not quite sure why left-wing thought ought to be any more fertile ground for republican sentiments than right-wing thought, and I suspect that the answer has more to do with our unique social history than anything else, but it nonetheless seems to be – and I don’t think it need be.

Having said that, the cause célèbre on all sides of the increasingly whiggish House seems to be constitutional vandalism for the sake of… well, constitutional vandalism. A crooked Commons increasingly urges ‘reform’ of a rather less crooked House of Lords, and an even less crooked Monarchy, for the sake of making the system less crooked. Thus will the ideologues strain at gnats whilst swallowing camels; and all in the name of making the gnats look more like camels.

Yet, there are a variety of reasons why this is problematic, and the most potent of them in modern society is to do with power, the possession of it and, much more importantly, the limitation of it. This is only one side of the argument that can be made, another being that old chestnut ‘virtue’ (and ‘truth’), and yet another being plurality as expressed through inter-linking hierarchies. And, though to some extent all inter-connect with one another, it is only the ‘power’ element that I will talk about here (I have written elsewhere how social liberalism has been embraced because it re-enforces the status-quo, founded upon a relativism that it is to the benefit of the already powerful).

And it is that ‘limitation of power’ bit that is increasingly important. On the most basic level, I think this is why working-class communities tend, generally speaking, to have great sympathy for the monarchy, and the Queen in particular. To many, the Queen is somehow above the Machiavellian machinations of the power-hungry political classes, representative of something greater than the crudeness of the Commons, a (sometimes failing) paragon of virtue that represents to the world all that we hope is best about ourselves. The Queen, unlike those who nominally serve her, is never deemed to be ‘in it for herself’, and her reign is characterised as dutiful more than megalomaniacal. Thus do her subjects line the avenues on the great occasions, wave their flags and sing their anthems, all to the vociferous irritation of the displaced Guardianistas, who rather conceitedly think  that meritocratic society ought rightfully to be honouring them instead.

As such Labour, when it proposes republicanism as the antidote to institutional inequality is primarily giving voice to a largely middle-class chippiness, resentful of the fact that there could be an institutional and ideological barrier to its own (imagined) upward mobility. It doesn’t like the idea that, in a society largely tilted toward its own interests, there yet exists a level to which it cannot ultimately ascend. Bourgeois sensibilities bristle at the thought, and so under such comically misused terms as ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ they continue to vandalise those very structures that level the playing field and act as a constraint on the accumulation of power by an otherwise all-consuming oligarchy.

I think republican thinking is as much a sign of the gentrification of left-wing thought as anything else. Accordingly, the left that in the name of ‘freedom’ once rallied against the capitalist system, now seeks merely to lessen the effects of that system upon its victims, and construes ‘equality’ instead along lines that best reflect its own priorities and prejudices. The ordinary worker has been cast aside, bribed to keep his counsel, whilst the chippy bourgeoisie sharpen their knives in search of that much less insidious enemy to ‘equality’ (and indeed potential ally of the commoner), that being the monarch.

And that’s just the point. The monarch can legitimately be seen as the last line of defence against an all-out victory of the plutocracy, one of the few possessions of the people that the rich man cannot buy precisely because the position is forever beyond his private ownership (unless it is stolen in the interests of the oligarchical elite as in 1688 – from whence some would situate the now dying battle against capitalistic ideology). In that sense, the monarch is an embodiment of the commonality that the left should comfortably embrace – she both belongs exclusively to, and thereby attracts the loyalty of, her people. In a world in which the rich are the powerful and can possess all they desire, the position of monarch they do not and cannot: it would be a cowardly act of surrender to offer up to the plutocracy the very thing they cannot possess, for no other reason than we no longer see any need to uphold the existence of things they cannot possess.

Now of course, the new metropolitan left, the ‘liberal-left’ won’t see things in these terms, having become drunk on a doctrine that exists primarily to dismantle all opposition to their own advancement. But those at the bottom needn’t confuse friend with foe just because their uppity ‘comrades’ tell them to. The reality is that the common man does still need to react against unwarranted and unwarrantable power interests; but those interests do not reside in the position of the monarch. The tables that have been tilted have certainly not been tilted by the monarch, they have not been designed and constructed from within the debating chambers of Buckingham Palace. Rather they increasingly reside and emanate from within precisely that circle that shouts so vociferously for, amongst various other self-interested things, the disestablishment of monarchy. And it is the restraint of these that should concentrate the mind.

In that sense, the monarch can be viewed a genuine friend and ally, an albeit increasingly anachronistic stick in the mud that nonetheless cannot succumb to the will and whims of a rapacious petit-bourgeoisie. And a monarch who realises this central ethic of service, who knows his or her role in defending the people from those that would seek ultimate control, whose very power consists in the limitation of power  – it is this vision of monarchy that lefties can surely share common ground with (on that score, the post-Hanoverian preference for dispensing monies on Maundy is a less authentic reflection of the call to service that was demonstrated in the pre-Hanoverian tradition of the washing of feet on Maundy).

In short it comes down to this; if left-wing thinking at its most basic level includes the defence of the vulnerable against the powerful, then the focus of ire certainly should not be the monarch, who at any rate could without much difficulty be understood as a defence against precisely this domination. Because in truth, it is not the Queen that dispossess and dispossessed, but her tribunes.

As such, it is a strange leftie that has given up the fight against capitalism but has taken up arms against the monarch; it seems to me that either their sense is deficient or else their sight. Whichever one it is, it certainly wouldn’t be wise to follow them; one might end up walking off a cliff.

N.B. Not all lefties necessarily think like this…