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Our Island Story

Martin Kettle writes here about what seems all of a sudden to have become a pressing subject, that being the teaching of history in our schools. And he makes the important point that one might find it difficult to teach a common history within a land that is no longer monocultural. Or, in his own words,

Britain, though, has special difficulties of its own. Not only is there no overarching British narrative, as distinct from English, Scottish, Welsh and at least two sorts of Irish narratives. English culture, in particular, is still disabled by unresolved class differences as well. History from above? History from below? Or a synthesis? And which one?

Which is a central question, and one needing put to those charged with the task of writing any new syllabus with the intention of teaching of a ‘common history’ at its heart. Nonetheless, if the legacy of the liberal left, with its devotion to multiculturalism and cultural relativism, has been a fractured sense of common identity, then perhaps one small way of countering that fracture is to return to a history syllabus that encompasses everyone in the same tale, in the same ‘Island story’.

At the same time, we mustn’t become too simplistic. Truth is, we have never really ever been a monoculture – though we have certainly shared patriotic commonality. Trying to make everyone look and think the same is never the answer – trying to encompass everyone in loyalty for their homeland certainly is.* So when Kettle says ‘Without a common culture, a common history remains out of reach,’ he is going too far. And in so doing, he risks accepting that narrow cultural imperialism that says we must all think and look the same or else we must all be irreconcilably opposed.

It’s worth bringing in here Ana the Imp, commenting on the contemporary refraction of the (relatively recent) idea of the nation state into endless parochial identities, especially in relation to the EU project;

The nation-state, in its modern form, is a largely artificial creation; the child, not of nationalism, as is usually assumed, but of the Age of Enlightenment. The European Union might be said to be a reaction against this, a process by which the nation state will be rendered obsolete. But all the evidence suggests that there is no European identity as such. Rather what can be seen is the liberation of a patch-work of local identities, formerly sublimated within the nation state. What we can see, in other words, is Transylvanian, Basque, Breton, Flemish, Scottish and a host of other fragmentations; what we can see is a revival, it might be said, of the crazy patchwork of the Holy Roman Empire.

Which is true,  and helps explain the flourishing of different nationalisms in our own lands at the moment – they are simply the next step down, so to speak, of the political construct known as United Kingdom, and the local identities that constitute it.  Only, this has problems of its own. As I have tried explaining to certain Scottish nationalists over the years, Scottish independence is essentially the restatement on the local level of precisely that which it seeks ultimately to refute: ‘Scotland’ is every bit the arbitrary political and cultural construct as is ‘Britain’. It contains the same internal contradictions, and tries to unify internal social, cultural and historical identities through appeal to a transcending, though largely artificial, sense of monocultural unity.  In this sense, the nationalists have let the genie out of the bottle, and their logic will consume them; those who deride unionism by appeals to nationalism will eventually succumb to the demands of regionalism. Or, in Ana’s words,

This process of division and subdivision is likely to continue, always looking inwards, towards ever more parochial loyalties. Consider the Scots… once the old ‘oppressive’ English state is factored out, once the sense of historical grievance is removed, what then? How will the Gaelic Highlands see the Saxon Lowlands? How will the east sit with the west? How will Glasgow sit with Edinburgh? I can’t answer these questions; I do not have sufficient prescience. All I can say is that more and more prince-bishops and margraves are likely to emerge in a modern form as we move wider still and wider.

As I have written before, as a northern, working-class Roman Catholic, I will construct my identities and my loyalties, my history and culture differently to a southern middle-class Protestant. The question is, need this mean we must therefore be disparate? I think not, and the idea that difference must be inimical to unity is fallacious – the wealth of local and regional identities add depth and breadth to the national; they are not irreconcilable with it.

Which leads, inevitably, back to the question of ‘what constitutes the national’, or at least, what is the transcendent that unifies? For which I offer no detailed answer here – though my chosen title of this piece is something of a clue. Further, if I tell you I have more sympathy for the monarchist and his realms than I do for the bureaucrat and his regions, then you might get some idea of my own thoughts on the matter.

*I instinctively think here of the brutally persecuted Catholics, living in the time of Bloody Bess, who nonetheless remained loyal to their Queen, and this through wider loyalty to their realm and the desire to not cede it to the French (through Queen Mary’s marriage to that tribe). Clearly, identity through such oppositional conflicts would be largely obsolete these days – at least on a ‘nationalistic’ axis.

Labour needs to read the Sun

It is Labour’s recognition that it has been abandoned by what are now being called ‘C2 voters’, and discussion on how to rectify that uncomfortable fact, that seems to be the narrative taking precedence in the post-election post-mortem. Whilst simplistic caricature needs to be avoided, not least because it risks unleashing the indignant fury of the Guardianistas upon the heads of the caricatured ‘white working class’, nonetheless it is a welcome development – Labour have too long been in thrall to trendy metro-liberalism and dismissive, even disdainful, of the beliefs, culture and needs of the working class communities that once constituted their core-vote.

Looking at newspaper readership can usefully highlight this fact. We all remember how New Labour spat feathers when the Sun switched allegiances to the Tories, how Tony Woodley tore a copy of the paper to shreds, how Mandelson talked ambiguously of ‘losers’ choosing the Sun, how Harriet Harman delivered a broadside focussing on their lack of support for her ‘progressive’ agenda. And, in their own way, these responses were entirely legitimate, and undoubtedly played awfully well to the Guardian-reading ‘progressives’ gathered round the feet of their idols. However, the reaction also contained a hint of that same sneering attitude toward ‘C2s’ that was instrumental in driving these people away from Labour in the first place. It was illustrative of a larger dislocation that had already taken place, and laid bare a deep cultural and ideological division, confirming the impression that, for the ‘progressives’ at the head of the Labour Party, the kind of people who read the Sun are not the kind of people who belong with New Labour. Indeed, the Sun and the Daily Mail have largely been co-opted as terms of abuse by the ‘progressive’ left, thrown at anyone who deviates from their orthodoxies.

And this is an all too common condition in the contemporary Labour Party. As I have blogged before, the self-proclaimed ‘progressives’ attack with intense ferocity the very social-conservatism that is often normative amongst the people that, generally speaking, vote them into power; one can hardly feign shock or surprise, then, when these same people choose to walk away. In short, the Labour Party has ceased to show concern about the same things the ‘C2s’ are concerned about, and have ceased even to speak in the same language that ‘C2s’ speak.

To offer some very superficial support of this argument, one can look to a survey carried out the by the NRS, illustrating the socio-economic status, age and gender of the readership of various newspaper titles between January and December 2009. Now I ought to state from the outset that I am generally suspicious of surveys and polls and whatnot, and try not to set much store by them, and I offer this here only to try and glean some vague and broad patterns that might be helpful, rather than garner any detailed conclusions. That caveat inserted, there are some interesting finds;

For example, amongst ‘C2DE’ group, the market share of the Sun (22%) far eclipsed the Daily Mirror (12.2%) and dwarfs the Guardian (0.6%). Amongst the ABC1 voters the figures change a little, though the Sun (10.6%) remains more popular than the Daily Mirror (6.2%) and the Guardian (3.7%) respectively. I have, of course, picked the Sun and the Daily Mirror as broad market equivalents, but for those who think it unreliable to compare the Sun with the Guardian, in light of the socio-economic status of their intended target audience, then it is also worth noting that the Daily Mail also polls significantly higher than the Guardian amongst C2DE voters (7.7% vs 0.6) and ABC1 voters alike (11.8% vs 3.7%) . On Sundays, the News of the World is the stand out newspaper amongst C2DE voters (21.1% vs the 10.4% of the Sunday Mirror), whilst the Mail on Sunday(8.3%) significantly outpolls the Observer (0.7%), a figure that stands at 12.9% vs 4.1% amongst ABC1s.

As I said, a big pinch of salt is required, and one shouldn’t try and draw anything overly deep and meaningful out of the simplistic figures and caricatures I have offered here. That said, the larger pattern that emerges offers some substance to the overall charge; the kind of voters that New Labour are anguished about having lost prefer to read the kind of newspapers for which New Labour, largely speaking, has a barely-concealed disdain. Of course, no readership entirely reflects or agrees with the editorial line of any particular newspaper, but it is not unreasonable to expect at least a measure of confluence. And if that is the case, then this offers some statistical validification for the charge that Labour has for too long lined itself up as the political wing of the Guardian-reading, Fabianist and metropolitan elites, and all too often against the culture, identities, beliefs and even needs of the wider electorate it wishes to represent. Or, as Anthony Painter has it, writing with far more eloquence and clear-sightenedess than I;

‘…what this election has done in a way that hasn’t previously happened- even in the aftermath of the Iraq War- is that the Guardianrati is becoming separated from the Duffyprols. Labourism is becoming severed from liberalism. The strange thing about the curious case of Mrs Duffy is that the Prime Minister expressed a liberal elitist view when he referred to her as a ‘bigot.’ And yet he is not a liberal elitist which leads me to think that he did genuinely mishear or misunderstand her. What was absolutely clear was her shock when she was told that she had been described as a bigot because she was expressing what seems to her a perfectly reasonable set of arguments.’

I actually think that the split is rather more seismic than Painter allows, not least because the contemporary ‘progressive’ brigade are too authoritarian (and illiberal) for any genuinely pluralistic fusion of labourism and liberalism to be a genuine possibility, at least in the near future. Even so, the central insight is accurate, and one wonders if Labour will face down these uncomfortable truths and, even more courageously, take positive steps to address them. Or to express that a little differently, if Labour really want to win back the ‘C2s’ then it needs to put down the Guardian and, as painful as some might find it, start reading the Sun.

Will it happen? I’m not sure. With Cruddas dropping out of the leadership race, the remaining candidates pretty much all espouse precisely that narrow and closed ideology that has proved so alienating for many outside of the (highly vocal and influential though essentially marginal) liberal establishment. As with all things, only time will tell. Though I, for one, don’t hold out too much hope.

Immigration and culture

Immigration has all of a sudden become a hot issue for the left. Stung by the mass-abandonment of the Labour Party by ‘C2 voters’, they are grasping around for anything they think could be turned into the totemic issue for the lower socio-economic classes and so, naturally, have stumbled upon immigration. Partly this is to be welcomed; it has brought with it the genuine recognition that the benefits immigration brings for certain sectors of society must not always and necessarily trump the genuine anxiety it can cause amongst others. On the other hand, the danger is that Labour has begun to associate anti-immigration feeling per se with an angry ‘white-working class’, and this only on the basis of resources – predictably, this has enabled the Guardianistas to indulge in their favoured class war, writing off the ‘white-working classes’ as basically racist and bigoted, with nothing more sophisticated than a hunter-gatherer approach to quality of life, whose silence can be bought with a few well-directed resources thrown their way.

Now, I happen to think that the immigration issue is not chiefly about resources, though it is certainly also about that, but primarily concerns something much bigger: the loss of communality, of common concern and common endeavour, of shared identities and shared loyalties, of associative and reciprocal relationships. Aside from the atomistic individualism promoted by social-liberalism, I also think the multiculturalism of the metro-left has contributed to this situation, whilst cultural relativism has created it – after all, one can hardly offer a framework for shared identities if the particularities of the indigenous culture have already been denied as having any sort of authority in these lands. And if ‘British’ (in itself a diverse and multi-layered identity) culture has already had its primacy denigrated thus, so it cannot legitimately claim to be the overarching framework within which the rich and vibrant cultural expressions of various immigrant communities should situate themselves. All that is left is a vacuum, in which self-expression trumps commitment to any larger identity or loyalties – and the creation of endless ‘communities’ with no discernable cultural connection to one another or the place in which they reside.

I was thinking about this yesterday, after having attended Mass. The first thing to say about the Mass in Dundee Cathedral is that it is very beautiful (occasional Kendrickean abuses notwithstanding), but it is also very diverse, multi-aged and especially multi-racial. Yet the diversity and multi-racial element isn’t an end in itself, but rather a wonderful expression of the universality of that which unites us all; in this instance, our common faith, and our common expression of it. Our differences are celebrated under the banner of that which transcends and unites us – and for that reason we embrace the difference, and the genuine value it offers to our collective identity and culture.

Yes yes, all very gushing I know, but I think it illustrates well what I’m trying to articulate. And I’m not sure that the leftist intelligentsia, having debunked patriotic expression for at least a generation, have provided any alternatives that could perform a similar function in uniting diversity under a common banner. Again, cultural relativism has its part to play here, but in my experience this cultural timidity, some would call it self-loathing, is something very much confined to the left-liberal elite – I don’t think it affects the flag-waving working-classes so much (if anything it offends them) and my father-in-law, arriving from Calcutta in his teens, is very proud of this country, his country, what it stands for, and the particularities of its culture and history. And it is that particularity, the concrete expression of shared narratives and ideals (local, regional and national) that vague and fuzzy ideological buzzwords (equality, diversity etc. etc.) have been unable to replicate – as a result, the tribe of one particular ghetto (this in itself a legacy of multiculturalism) too often feel a million miles away from the tribe in the next one.

Of course, this is not easy, and being working-class, northern and Roman Catholic (with an Irish grandfather) means that I will no doubt have a radically different understanding of certain events in British history to, for example, a middle-class, southern Protestant. But this isn’t at all about jingoism, nostalgia, or excessive sentimentalism. It’s about organic connections to, and respect of, the transcending quirks of our culture and history and landscape and myriad other things, not to mention the many-layered identities bestowed through local, regional and national ties.  It seems to me that these things are to be celebrated, not scorned upon, and upon them can commonality be founded – if the immigration debate starts talking more in these terms, of Labour’s record of having sown seeds of division in the name of ‘diversity’, then I think it will inch closer to the nub of the problem.

In defence of Sood

No doubt everyone will have read about Manish Sood today, the Labour Party candidate for North West Norfolk who stuck something of a spoke in the wheels of the election campaign by denouncing Gordon Brown as the worst Prime Minster this country has ever had and maintaining that he ought to apologise to both Queen and country for the mess we find ourselves in.

Now, politically speaking, this chap is clearly bonkers. He has strayed so far from normative procedural practice that he couldn’t realistically expect anything better than to be written off as a hopeless eccentric, or worse. And yet, one cannot help but wonder if this is precisely his strength, even if those increasingly despised robots walking round Westminster rigidly observing the established rules of the political game fail to see it. Undoubtedly, some of the things Sood says appear wholly daft, other things completely absurd, and his proclamation that we should aspire to live back in the 70s, for example, just sounds bizarre. But then, at the same time, by saying such a thing what is Sood really doing but expressing that deep and often buried truth that so many instinctively feel, even if they’re taught from an early age to always think otherwise  – that things were better in the past, even the not-so-distant past, the past of our fathers and grandfathers before us. Perhaps then the man should have been a poet rather than a politician – though it is a shame that a politician can no longer be a poet.

So what did he say? Well, amongst various other things, some of them refreshingly bonkers, and for that reason containing an important nugget of truth, his basic argument seemed to be based on nothing more complicated than this: ‘The loss of social values is the basic problem, and this is not what the Labour Party is about’.

To which I would heartily agree. As would many working-class voters who Labour presume to think it still has a moral right to represent, despite it largely despising them nowadays. Of course, such utterances are enough to have one thrown out of the contemporary Labour establishment as a dangerous heretic; the modern Labour Party is no broad church, and anybody who thinks its social programme to be anything other than wholly enlightened must clearly be either a) a Tory dinosaur or b) a bigoted monster, which in New Labour minds is roughly the same thing.

Accordingly, all those people who might have historically been Labour voters have suddenly found themselves unceremoniously dumped, told that they’re dreadfully right wing, most laughably by a cabal of charlatans whose right-wing individualism underpins their social doctrines and whose right-wing Thatcherism underpins their economic doctrines. Mr Sood, as one would expect, immediately suffered precisely this fate, with Sunder Katwala tweeting that he’s a muppet (what, not a ‘bigot’?), and Peter Mandelson describing him as a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. All in all a good response, I would say.

Sood, however is unrepentant, and if anything his views are becoming more robust. He says in the Independent,

‘I will stand by what I say because I know it’s the truth and nothing but the truth… If they are not going to listen, I’m going to carry on saying what I’m saying because they are damaging the country… My motive is to clean up the system, to make Great Britain the best country in the world… People have lost respect for being British and being part of this system and part of this country… What I am saying is the right truth and nothing but the truth and as a result people have become too spoiled, too used to the system and too used to the bureaucracy, the corruption. I’m trying to improve the system… I am a true staunch Labour Party member, my policies fit in very well with the party, it’s just they can’t accept it because they have been too used to the modern-day thinking… I have still got an uphill battle ahead of me but I never give up. I’m a freedom fighter and I will continue because I am proud of being British and I want my country to be the best country in the world.’

‘Proud of being British and I want my country to be the best country in the world.’ For all his evident eccentricity this man has been courageous enough to say those things the political classes absolutely refuse to countenance, even if the public at large speak of little else. From out of nowehere, two days before what could be an era-defining election, one man, claiming to be the true possessor of the Labour ideal, an Asian man, the son of immigrants, standing in Norfolk of all counties, offering a social conservatism that would have been perfectly orthodox only a generation ago, oozing patriotism and a royalist to boot; this man, this Labour man, attacked his metro-masters and did it in the name of his country and his party. He might be a fool, but he’s a patriot. He might be wrongheaded, but he is undoubtedly right-hearted. He may be hated by those in Westminster; but then so was Cobbett.

Or maybe I’m creating a myth of a man. Think of him what you will. Disagree with his ideas (and some of them I really do). Ridicule him, slander him, mock him and despise him. But don’t think he will pass wholly unnoticed. Even if his name never appears again, his influence will already have had an impact, thrusting yet another wedge into an already breached hull, emboldening others to pick up their tools and tear apart this rotting wreckage of a ship, so that another one might be built in its place, a much better one, one more in keeping with the mind of its creators. I mentioned in a previous blog post that maybe, just maybe, this election will prove the high-tide of the pernicious ‘progressive’ influence on the Labour party, and that perhaps a heavy defeat will encourage a return to those roots that have been so systematically abandoned. If it does, then it will win more than it loses. If it does not, it will sink, holed beneath the water line, fatally missing those once loyal and resilient crewmen who would have got below deck, plugged the holes and manned the buckets, all the while cursing the name of their prancing Captain, abandoning them as he did for a passing ship called ‘the LibDem’.

Like our parents and grandparents before us…

After Mass in Dundee Cathedral yesterday we were given two handouts. The first was from the SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) and the second was a Scottish Bishops’ Election Statement. The SPUC handout was at pains to underline that they had no intention of telling anyone which way to cast their vote, before outlining with admirable sobriety the position of the leading candidates for both Dundee East and Dundee West on the issues of abortion, abortion on minors without parental consent, human-animal hybrid embryos used for research, euthanasia, assisted suicide and ‘living wills’. The Bishops’ Statement was also at pains to underline that they did not seek to tell anybody which way to cast their vote, but were hoping to encourage people to ‘let your faith count at the ballot box’. Which all adds further evidence to the increasingly obvious truth that, under sustained attack, Christians are mobilising in a way that I for one have certainly never experienced before.

Perhaps the most explicitly written section of the Bishops’ Statement came with these words;

The political choices we face today are not the choices your parents and grandparents faced. They would never have voted for any candidate who refused to protect unborn human life, who supported experimentation on human embryos, or planned to assist unfortunate people to commit suicide. They would never have voted for a candidate who would undermine marriage and family in the way that has happened in recent years with cross-party support. They would never have voted for candidates who rejoiced in same-sex unions. They would never have voted for candidates who would stop the Church offering adoption services. They would never have voted for candidates who were clearly hostile to the values they held dear. Your parents and grandparents voted for those they believed shared the fundamental Christian values as they did. It is for us to do likewise to shape a society where they dignity of each individual and life itself is respected.

Now, there’s two interesting things about that. Firstly, the last two sentences, and the general exhortation to ‘make faith count’, illustrates a wider and gradual detachment of the ‘faith vote’ from party tribalism and toward, as with the ‘progressive vote’, a body of floating voters who will vote for anyone who stands for, upholds and defends their moral and/or social values and beliefs (though not always – I know many who still refuse to vote Conservative, though I think even they could be winnable were there a Conservative Party that chose to engage them). This is both encouraging and problematic – as I have noted before, the result could well be the polarisation of society and a pernicious culture war in which only naked power, and those with the most of it, will in the end be victorious.

Secondly, apart from those extreme and reactionary social-liberals who will denounce this statement as being extreme and reactionary, there is plenty in that snippet which will be closer to the opinions of many than are the doctrines of the metro-bourgeoisie. And since Labour has become the political progeny of the ‘social revolution’, and since the Conservatives have historically and successfully offered some sort of counter-balance to the Left’s embrace of post-60s liberalism, then one might expect that the Tories would be willing, nay enthusiastic, about representing, as far as is expedient, precisely those opinions. Interesting, then, that when questionnaires were sent out to candidates in order that they might make clear their own position on a variety of controversial issues, all the main parties agreed to allow their candidates to speak for themselves. Except for one. The Tories.

The Bishops’ Statement ends with words that would have been perfectly well at ease across the political spectrum a generation or so ago.

‘It is our duty to encourage you to engage with the political process and to vote for the candidate who best represents the values we, like our parents and grandparents before us, hold dear’.

Only the political parties of today, all three of them, mock and despise the values our parents and grandparents held dear. As such, this voter remains undecided.

LibDems find conscience in Westminster

A few times over the past couple of weeks I have mentioned the Westminster Declaration of Christian Conscience. Based on a similar manifesto first created in the United States (the Manhattan Declaration), the declaration seeks to offer an ecumenical statement of orthodox Christian belief, re-affirming particularly those issues that often bring orthodox Christians (and Muslims, and Jews, and Hindus, and Sikhs, and many of no faith at all) into conflict with the metro-liberalism of the contemporary political and cultural ‘progressives’.

Of course, it would be facile to argue that anyone who refused to sign the pledge must therefore be a non-Christian, and there is always something a little crude in that which seeks to distil faith in the Redeemer into the affirmation of a few moral laws that happen to be under attack in contemporary society. Even so, the document is interesting enough, particularly in its robust and unflinching assessment of certain contemporary flashpoints. To offer a few examples (with my emphasis added in bold),

As UK citizens we affirm our Christian commitment both to exercise social responsibility in working for the common good and also to be subject to all governing authorities and obey them except when they require us to act unjustly.

Well, that’s quite some statement, not least because it suggests that there can be divergence between the law and that which is morally just – a direct challenge not only to the legitimacy of the law, but also to the authority of those who create and implement it.

We pledge to support marriage – the lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife. We believe it is divinely ordained, the only context for sexual intercourse, and the most important unit for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all. We call on government to honour, promote and protect marriage and we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage.

An obvious conflict then with the Education Bill that Ed Balls tried to get through the House, a Bill which David Cameron supports, as he has affimed numerous times, and an inititiatve which the LibDems are enthusiastic about.

We will not be intimidated by any cultural or political power into silence or acquiescence and we will reject measures that seek to over-rule our Christian consciences or to restrict our freedoms to express Christian beliefs, or to worship and obey God.

Well, that’s a call to a ruckus if ever there was one.

Even so, where’s the problem, one might ask, if a bunch of loons get together and assert some stone-age morality amongst one another? It’s not as if they’ll ever make a difference after all, as they won’t get anywhere near power, and they’re an extreme and reactionary minority anyway (this statement, along with liberal and carefree use of the word ‘bigot’, is a favourite defensive thrust of the social liberal).

Well, that’s where it gets intriguing. Because the most interesting part of this website is the extent to which it has become politically engaged, providing information as to which candidates do or do not support the Declaration, and giving contact details of said candidates with the encouragement (and a draft letter) that people contact their local MP and ask them to support the Declaration. One can then search the database, and see where one’s local MP (or constituency PPCs) stand in relation to the Declaration. And it’s on having a quick head count of those who had come out and actually signed the Declaration that some interesting numbers emerge. As a quick tally, I had the numbers as;

Conservative – 58

Liberal Democrats – 62

Labour – 17

Others (inc. UKIP, SNP etc.) – 60

And it’s that LibDem tally I found most surprising – that the party which preens itself as the apotheosis of secular humanism, of metropolitan ‘progressivism’, the party of Doctor Death and Nick ‘I’m an atheist’ Clegg; that such a party should have so many PPCs willing to pop their head above the parapet and sign a Declaration that, it would seem, is not only at odds with the direction and orthodoxies of their party, but which commits them to disobey certain of its key policies – well, it’s hardly what one might expect. Of course, the political landscape being largely homogenous in its social liberalism, this apparent commitment to defy the party line is essentially true of all those who choose to sign the Declaration – even so, one might be forgiven for having expected that the LibDem total would be closer the Labour tally than outstripping the Conservative one.

Obviously this is not in any sense rigorous scientific analysis, and the numbers are fairly small beer really, and besides the candidates could all be no hopers for all I know, saying whatever they think expedient. Even so, it’s an interesting find; it gives the smallest hint that perhaps Cameron isn’t the only one whose slavish devotion to the diktats of the ‘progressive’ liberati is at odds with a fairly significant chunk of the rank-and-file of his own party.

Same difference

It is becoming increasingly clear that, in an era when all three parties claim to offer change from the old politics, all three of them want to do little more than continue with the very orthodoxies that have brought the political system to its present wretchedness. Economically, there is little evidence that any party intends to genuinely challenge the dogmatic idolisation of the markets and their distortion by money and power. Socially, there is little evidence that any party is willing to challenge the stale dogmas of the (always middle-class) social liberals, and their distortion of society toward the benefit of money and power. Social conservatism is a dirty phrase – economic equality dirtier still. The liberals of both sides are drunk on power, and they won’t raise a finger against the ideology that delivered it.

For those traditionally on the left, this has lead to a genuine political homelessness. For in contemporary times, any critique of metropolitan liberalism has one dismissed as an extreme right-winger, usually by a cabal on the left who, with perfectly straight faces, embrace individualism far more fanatically than any traditional Conservative movement has ever done. Thus, the social conservatism that once stood at the heart of the Labour movement (and often still does) is blotted out of history, whilst the radical right-wing individualism of liberal thought is offered as the default stance of authentic left-wing thinking. Which is bonkers, really. Indeed, if one were to accept the account of a certain Red Tory, one might even call it a little perverse: if left-wing politics was traditionally concerned with the liberty of the dispossessed, then liberalism frustrates precisely that empowerment, and indeed militates against it. Or expressed differently, liberalism is an authentic enemy of the left, not an enlightened expression of it.

Of course, there are plenty on the left, those guilty of this conflation of liberalism and Labour, who will reject this suggestion in the most strident of terms, mostly because their Fabian mates tell them to and they must be right because they’re, like, so modern and caring and everything. They will think social conservatism an authentic enemy of left-wing thought, betraying either a ignorance of or an arrogant indifference to the very roots of the political tradition they claim as their own. Middle-class people sitting in think-tanks in London, despising the social conservatism of the poor as an aberration in a modern world (you’ll always find the most vicious class prejudices expressed in the Guardian), when really it is quite often the only thing that offers them a level of protection from the dangers of this world the liberals have created, chiefly for themselves.

It would be wrong to think this is confined to Labour mind, and if there is one amusing theatrical performance to be viewed in London town at this moment in time, it is the attempt of the modern Tories to magically transform themselves into a more economically and socially ‘progressive’ party. Fortunately for them, they’ve been given much of the vocabulary ready to hand, and talk of such things as ‘moralised markets’ and ‘the mutualised state’ has offered them the opportunity to counter the dogmatic devotion to Thatcherite economics, whilst simultaneously enabling them to develop  their own version of the small state economy, expressed through the somewhat cumbersome title of the ‘the Big Society’.

The irony is that the chap who, arguably, helped bring around this change in consciousness, is both socially conservative and economically left-of-centre, and this is because his critique is of liberalism per se, not just one particular strain of it. For example, cherry-picking the critique of neo-liberal economics and leaving aside the critique of the social liberalism is to kind of miss the point, which will in the end lead to a certain incoherence. For example, according to Blond ‘society’ is fundamentally rejected by social liberalism, meaning that any attempted resuscitation of the civic space that did not deal with this underlying ideology will, in the end, have to be generated not by society itself, but by the state. Apposite, then, that David Cameron’s recent vision of the Big Society includes an Alinksy-esque ‘army’ of state-trained and state-maintained community organisers.

That said, all is not at a loss. It’s a common refrain that before a thing dies it must issue its last breath, and I do happen to think that this is what we’re witnessing with liberalism. The creeping consensus of the political class will be the end of them; the more they have tried frantically to distinguish themselves on the superficialities, the more the electorate have called them out for being essentially the same, and they are entirely right to do so. Yet political disenfranchisement can’t go on forever, not whilst the state has so much power to influence the minutiae of people’s lives, and I have the sneaking suspicion that one day soon there will be a provocation too far, and there will come a robust response. The ‘long march’ of the social conservatives is on its way.

Red Tory: liberalism and liberty

For this blog post I thought I’d give a quick review of the book Red Tory, which has thus far been quite a success, and elicited many reviews either side of the pond. To my mind, the American response has been much more thoughtful than the reception received here in the United Kingdom, where reviews have quite often centred on challenging the bolder claims with a raft of statistical porn, rather than engaging with the real meat of the argument. Of course, there is an irony in this: the socio-cultural elite that Blond claims profits most disproportionately from liberalism seem to have responded by saying that things can’t be all that bad because their life is quite nice actually, thank you very much, before hurrying off to find excel charts to prove it. Which, in its own way, neatly demonstrates the point

Anyway, to get on to what I think is the central issue Red Tory seeks to address (this account will necessarily leave certain things out, for which I apologise)…

For Blond, the contemporary embrace of liberalism has brought with it the slow erosion of authentic liberty, both socially and economically. In the social sphere, Blond maintains that it is the left that have been the most zealous of converts, pursuing a private libertarianism based, perhaps paradoxically, upon a radically right-wing account of the individual. The intellectual grounding for this move comes in the form of Rousseau and the liberal tradition that descended from him: Rousseauian liberalism is charged with cultivating an atomised individualism that mitigates the claims of the social in the name of personal liberty. As such, those external influences that once situated and directed individual behaviour and lifestyle became depicted as unwarrantable limitations on the freedom of the individual, the repudiation of which has lead to the hedonism of centre-left accounts of ‘freedom’.

Thus, Blond contends that the social vision of the left is premised upon little more than the absolute sovereignty of individual agency, in pursuit of which traditional social, cultural and moral constraints have been dissolved, a private libertarianism that requires an authoritarian state to police it. The need for such an overbearing external authority is simple: if there exists no legitimate source of authority beyond the individual will, then the maintenance of order has to come from an authority contracted out specifically for this purpose, an authority that has an absolute monopoly on social control. For Blond, the irony is that this authority, as with the Rousseauian notion of the ‘general will’, does not for the social liberal appear oppressive because in truth it is little more than a macro-level reflection of the social liberal himself: its mandate is simply to uphold the absoluteness of liberal accounts of individual freedom. Thus, in a time of frenzied commitment to personal ‘freedom’, liberalism has delivered an almighty state apparatus that rigidly and robustly upholds the primacy of liberal thought itself, and acts rigorously against those who counsel against it. This is a trade-off that social-liberals think worthwhile: after all it is state authoritarianism that delivers their agenda, and state authoritarianism that scrupulously preserves it.

However, it is not just in the persecution of dissenting voices that the intimate relationship between social liberalism and state authoritarianism has eroded genuine liberty, and here we move on to the second aspect of Blond’s critique of social liberalism. For Blond, the consequences of social liberalism have most dramatically affected the life chances of the poorest, who are least capable of absorbing the pernicious consequences of the widespread familial, marital and social breakdown that the ‘social revolution’ has brought with it. Rather, it is those already in a position of strength who are better able to mitigate the side-effects of their new found ‘freedom’, by calling on reserves of wealth and social position simply unavailable to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. As such, the social underclasses can no longer compete with their more empowered counterparts, as the complex social fabric that once provided both safety net and ladder has been rent apart by the sterile individualism of social liberal thought. Here, Blond is drawing upon a rich vein of conservative thought, from Burke, to Belloc, to Chesterton, with the latter perhaps putting it most pithily: ‘Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else.’

The dramatic inability of the poorest to compete on equal terms in contemporary society, and the gradual dissolution of those social and filial ties that cultivated a certain socio-economic resilience in the poorest communities, provides the link to the flip-side of Blond’s critique, that being the economic neo-liberalism that has destroyed genuine economic autonomy. Following in the footsteps of Hilaire Belloc, Blond maintains that the poorest have become fodder to capitalist interests, who in return for locked-in labour agree to provide the welfare support demanded as part of the exchange. Thus, welfare and waged labour are two manifestations of contemporary servitude,  and help cement the power of the capitalist classes over the contracted labouring classes. The intimate relationship that has flourished between statist governance and big business is in reality little more than an expression of this status quo: the latter can deliver the social agenda of the former, whilst the former can in return structure the social to better service the interests of the latter. Here, the market apes the state, and vice-versa.

So it is that, for Blond, neo-liberal economics has become little more than the demand of the plutocracy to dissolve those regulatory constraints that seek to protect a plurality of interests. ‘Free-marketeers’ thus campaign vigorously for the freedom of the powerful to distort the markets according to their own whim and fancy, and maintain, having already accepted the economic servitude of the multitude as normative, that this is in the best interests of the many. Accordingly, it is the charge that neo-liberal economic systems have entrenched a monopolist economy that, having purchased its power through its contract with the state, demands that market freedom be oriented to the interests of only itself. The result is not freedom, but continuing disenfranchisement in the name of freedom, as more and more lose their economic autonomy and approach the market as waged consumers rather than as genuine producers.

As I hope that very quick whistle-stop tour demonstrates, what we have on both sides of this critique is nothing more complex than this: liberalism erodes liberty. It destroys it in the social realm, because it embraces state authoritarianism as the upholder of its account of freedom, a freedom which institutes a bourgeois individualism the consequences of which are most harmful for the poorest – leading to a loss of both social and economic liberty. Equally it destroys liberty in the economic realm, because it defines freedom as the unencumbered sovereignty of the powerful to dominate the markets as they see fit. The endless alternation we see today between market and state (or by the false caricatures of right and left) is thus the false illusion of difference: on Blond’s account, both disenfranchise, and both are complimenting sides of the same stifling burden.

At root, then, Blond’s account of liberalism appears to be as much a statement on the unjust appropriation of power as it is about the erosion of liberty, with the suggestion that liberalism orders society toward the benefit of the powerful, dismantling those social safeguards that once constrained power and in so doing leaving the weakest acutely vulnerable. That is, liberalism draws power vertically upwards, and places it in the hands of those at the top of either the state or the market (or, quite frequently, both).  As such, Blond’s dual analysis of both economic and social liberalism implicates the plutocracy as much as the socio-cultural oligarchy, and accuses both of employing emaciated accounts of ‘freedom’ as a means of fashioning a world that more completely reflects and serves their own interests. And they’re both willing to push on to more and more domination of others in order to achieve it.

And I’ll leave it at that for now, though I might well return to it again soon – there’s plenty to explore.

Burke, Chesterton, Belloc, Tacitus and… Hitchens

This from the Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens,

A new elite, wealthy and comfortable beyond the fantasies of any previous generation, abandons penal codes (especially against the possession of narcotics) and abolishes marital fidelity so as to licence its own comfortable indulgence. And so it permits the same freedoms to the poor, who suffer far more from this dangerous liberty than do the rich.

Compare this with Chesterton, writing in Utopia of Usurers,

Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else.

Also, see Edmund Burke, who in A Vindication of Natural Society wrote,

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.

And then Hilaire Belloc, writing in Europe and the Faith,

For it is always to the advantage of the wealthy to deny general conceptions of right and wrong, to question a popular philosophy and to weaken the drastic and immediate power of the human will, organised throughout the whole community. It is always in the nature of great wealth… to push on to more and more domination over the bodies of men – and they do so best by attacking fixed social constraints’

And lastly Tacitus, writing in the Agricola (Book 1:21)

Inde etiam habitus nostri honor et frequens toga; paulatimque discessum ad delenimenta vitiorum, porticus et balinea et conviviorum elegantiam. Idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset.  [ Step by step they (the native Britons) were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude.]

And to think, modern day ‘liberals’ claim it is only they who are the champions of ‘freedom’. If you set much store by any of these words, then you might be inclined to think this a complete inversion of the truth.

Smoking and capitalism – or Chesterton revisited

I’ve been meaning to blog for a couple of days now on the absurd suggestion by the Royal College of Physicians that people should be banned from smoking in their own cars, regardless of whether they have anyone in the car with them or not. As usual, the protective shield under which the argument advances is an exhortation for people to ‘think about the children’, (as if all parents that smoke are de facto indifferent to their child’s welfare), which gives the room for the physicians to call for a complete ban, accompanied by a sheepish shrug of apology to those without children who might quite like to have a fag in their own car on the way home from a stressful day at work, thank you very much.

One need hardly dwell on the idiocies of such pronouncements – anyone with even half an instinct for liberty could articulate them. One can leave aside, also, the sometimes dubious basis upon which the risks are articulated (there is dispute aplenty on this, from the extent of the danger of passive smoking to the far greater risks faced by other air pollutants, such as car fumes). Lastly, one can also leave aside the economic and cultural arguments: the money smokers put into the Exchequer relative to what they take out (via NHS); the pubs closing as smokers sit at home with a cheap supermarket beer rather than traipse outside and freeze whilst having the odd fag; the gangs of boozed up punters stood outside pubs having a smoke, getting cold and miserable, and invariably ending up intimidating passers-by or slogging it out with each other.

No, aside from all that what really had me irked was the way smokers are persecuted by health authorities far more vigorously than is really warranted, as ‘health experts’ take it upon themselves to direct our lifestyles, rather than treat our maladies. At root this is a new Puritanism, and at the heart of this Puritanism is social snobbery; the young man having a pint of ale and cigarette at his local is scorned upon as irresponsible and uncouth, whilst the metropole having a glass of champers and a cigar is somehow considered chic and sophisticated. The outright ban on smoking in public places is an example, if nothing else, of precisely this snobbery: people in bingo halls and working men’s clubs up and down the land are banned from having a smoke (even if the vast majority of them want to) because some café-dwelling urbanites would like to have a frappuccino free from cigarette smoke.

At this point it is worth bringing in G K Chesterton, who had his own theories about such matters (and talked of the ‘diabolical idiocy that can regard beer or tobacco as in some way evil and unseemly in themselves’). In his book Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays, he writes…

Every religion, apart from open devil worship, must appeal to a virtue or the pretence of a virtue. But a virtue, generally speaking, does some good to everybody. It is therefore necessary to distinguish among the people it was meant to benefit those whom it does benefit. Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else. And if you think this unwarranted, I will put before you one plain question. There are some pleasures of the poor that may also mean profits for the rich: there are other pleasures of the poor which cannot mean profits for the rich? Watch this one contrast, and you will watch the whole creation of a careful slavery.

In the last resort the two things called Beer and Soap end only in a froth. They are both below the high notice of a real religion. But there is just this difference: that the soap makes the factory more satisfactory, while the beer only makes the workman more satisfied. Wait and see if the Soap does not increase and the Beer decrease. Wait and see whether the religion of the Servile State is not in every case what I say: the encouragement of small virtues supporting capitalism, the discouragement of the huge virtues that defy it. Many great religions, Pagan and Christian, have insisted on wine. Only one, I think, has insisted on Soap. You will find it in the New Testament attributed to the Pharisees.

Now, imagine that: Puritanism underpinned by a capitalist class driven primarily by concern for the health and productivity of its (current and future) workforce. Perhaps then, if one was cynical and a touch imaginative, one might be inclined to see in the endless costs/benefits analyses of the anti-smoking junta certain strange parallels with Chesterton’s explanation…