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Yearly Archives: 2011
I remember once having a conversation with a particular faux-radical ‘revolutionary’ bourgeois lefty, who maintained that swearing throughout a conversation was perfectly legitimate since it constituted a rejection of that oppressive regime imposed upon us through a variety of taboos and social norms dictated to us by the bourgeoisie.
Which I found curious. My ‘working-class’ upbringing was and remains as impeccable as anyone else’s, and yet my mother would wash my mouth out with soap the moment I turned potty-mouthed in her presence. Needless to say, it’s not something I did very often. Was my mother a class-traitor? Or was she suffering from that legendary false-consciousness that a great many working-class folk seem, so inconveniently, to suffer from?
Well, I don’t know. But the values she instilled were certainly ones that have helped me get on in life, so neither do I care very much.
Still, it leads to me that phrase that one often hears banded about, in a whole host of contexts, that being the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’
It’s a funny term. One originally coined by Michael Gerson, who served as speechwriter to President George Bush for five years. For some on the left, this fact alone will be enough to deny that there is any wisdom in the words. For others, this pithy phrase gives voice to that frustration felt when anything approaching a debate on the lived realities of the now fabled ‘working-class’ come to the fore.
The issues on which one can detect this soft-bigotry are many and diverse, and the phenomenon is not, strictly speaking, applicable solely to the working-classes. Faux-radicals suffer from much the same deficiency when discussing the upper classes as the middle-class Guardianistas do when discussing the lower.
Still, it was the response in some quarters to the Tottenham riots that got me going on this topic, and so there seems as good a place as any to focus in.
So, what does the ‘soft-bigotry of low expectations’ look like in the context of recent events? Well, put plainly it is the drive toward rationalising behaviour that in all other stratas of society would be considered entirely beyond the pale, to the extent that the wholesale denunciation of such behaviour is often tempered by an appeal to a host of contextual factors. It usually comes dressed up in the guise of ‘understanding’, when in reality it is closer to ‘excusing’, whilst remaining careful to emphasise, of course, that excusing is precisely not what it is trying to do.
So for example, we read Diane Abbott today who, whilst at pains to reject the actions of the thugs who attacked Tottenham as in any sense justified, nonetheless goes on to list a whole host of mitigating factors that, whilst not offered as justification, nonetheless suggests the kind of rationalisation of their actions that at the very least implies it. We hear, for example, of the “canteen culture” of certain sections of the police and of how in some senses they haven’t learned from the riots in 1985 (in which, the implication is, they were solely and wholly to blame); we hear of the shooting of Mark Duggan, with no word whatsoever on the fact that the police were being shot at, by someone in a minicab, in which Mark Duggan was sitting, and whom they thought was firing the shots, something which might very well turn out to be an accurate assessment; we hear of the police disregard for the family of Mark Duggan, of their tardiness in enabling the Duggan family to ‘see the body and pay their last respects’, that some thought Mark Duggan had been killed in cold blood, and that it was (allegedly) the actions of a policeman beating an innocent young girl on a vigil for Mr Duggan that precipitated the rioting; finally, we hear that some parts of the community were a tinderbox waiting to explode because ‘Haringey Council has lost £41m from its budget and has cut youth services by 75 per cent. The abolition of the education maintenance allowance hit Haringey hard, and thousands of young people at college depended on it.’
For someone not seeking to ever justify the violence used by the thugs terrorising Tottenham, Abbott’s lengthy and one-sided attempt at understanding the factors that lead up to the riots could very well be taken, should people so choose, as an implicit justification of the rioters and the legitimacy of the cause over which they were rioting.
But even he, when recalling the not-so-very-distant past, fell into contrasting these riots with the riots of 1985, in which the fractious relationship between police and the public are presented as in some sense sufficient for explaining what happened on those fateful, murderous nights – a comparison that brings with it, as with Abbott, at the very least a suggestion that the police were responsible for how the people of Tottenham rose and reacted that night, that there was sufficient cause for them to turn their discontent into rioting and, eventually, into murder.
Well, I’m sorry, but no.
Poor people are just as capable as anyone else of coping with adversity whilst refraining from violence. Poor people are just as capable as anyone else of tackling hardship through appeal to the channels afforded us by living in a representative democracy. Poor people are just as capable as anyone else of remaining steadfast and dignified in the face of even the most intense provocation.
Indeed, the majority do just this. And speak more harshly than most on the minority that do not. They know that they are not lesser people that ought to be held to lesser standards. They recognise that it is calumny to suggest that we should expect no better because these people are poor, as if poor people have sole recourse to loutish passions and little else. They know that even poor people, even poor people, are moral agents in possession of free will who can choose a particular course of action over any other.
Poverty does not necessarily lead to violence. Poor people are perfectly capable of being civil, too. Neither does poverty lead necessarily to vulgarity, or lack of sophistication*, or boorishness, or simple-mindedness, or thuggery, or gang worship, or crime, or anything else that gives sanctimonious middle-class types the opportunity to wallow in the fall of working-class respectability (a fall they have helped instigate and accelerate) as a means of looking all caring and understanding of the hardships their comrades face. No, poverty does not lead to any of this – it is merely class hatred with a condescending smile to suggest otherwise.
Or better, it is the soft bigotry of low expectations. And it is prominent on the very side that ought to be challenging it.
*Diane Abbott has similar form on this with regards immigration, preferring to suggest that the poorest take a hunter-gatherer approach to immigration (they simply want more resources) rather than a more sophisticated objection focussing on communality, shared norms, reciprocity, identity etc.
Interesting piece here by David Hodges over at LabourList, pointing out that the left need to take the opportunity given by the introduction of the e-petitions in order to bring left-wing ideas and debate into the public forum. Which I think is entirely right.
But if the left are ever to become champions of the people then they really must stop writing off any ideas that do not coincide with the views of its politically engaged core as ‘right-wing’ and thereby somehow opposed to the Labour movement. Hodges does it here, saying
The Right will pursue their campaigns to reinstate capital punishment or rage against green and bin taxes with extreme vigour. We must not let them succeed in dominating this space, masquerading as the public’s voice, defining the narrative.
Well, Mr Hodges, you’re simply going to have to get over the fact that support for capital punishment is not a right-wing issue, but transcends such boundaries and encompasses rather a large chunk of traditional Labour voters too, with working-class folk more likely to support it than middle class. Same is true, I strongly suspect, on opposition to green taxes. To bin taxes. To EU membership. To largescale immigration. To crime and overly-lax punishment. And to much else that too many in the Labour Party would sneer at as right-wing, thereby alienating their own voters and relying on little more than good-will and tribalism to get them out voting again. Good-will and tribalism that, as we have seen, is rapidly diminishing.
I’m not saying there should be capitulation on these issues (I personally am opposed to capital punishment, for example). But deriding those who happen to dissent from contemporary Labourite and New Left orthodoxy as ‘right-wingers’ can only, in the end, be counter-productive. Convince and cajole by all means – alienate? Probably not the greatest idea.
I believe that we sought to act in the best interests – not only of the Church, but of the family and of everybody concerned at that time
This from David Wilcox, Assistant Bishop to the Diocese of Chichester, then Bishop of Dorking, responding to the case of Peter Halliday, ex-choirmaster who abused young boys between the years 1985-1990. Halliday was eventually jailed for two and half years, but the church of England received criticism for not reporting Mr Halliday to the police, choosing instead to ask him to leave quietly and refrain from working with adolescents in future.
Things were very different then. I think that we make the mistake of trying to read back what we now know and how we now do things.
This also from David Wilcox, Assistant Bishop to the Diocese of Chichester, then Bishop of Dorking, responding to the case of Peter Halliday, showing an apparent lack of repentance for his inaction in response to the evidence and information he received about Mr Halliday.
We are completely satisfied that what was done at the time was the way things happened in those days when child protection awareness was on the cusp of serious change. Church officers at every level acted in good faith in accordance with what they perceived to be in the best interests of child and family at that time.
This from Mark Rudall, spokesman for the Diocese of Guildford, responding to the suggestion that the Halliday case was seriously mishandled.
It has been stated that the law was different back then. This is a compete red herring. It was well known even then that serious crimes against children had to be reported to the police. The Church had a clear responsibility to take action.
This from David Pearson, chief executive of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service, responding without too much sympathy to the defences offered by David Wilcox, Assistant Bishop to the Diocese of Chichester, the Bishop of Dorking, and Mark Rudall, spokesman for the Diocese of Guildford.
As far as I am aware there were no consequences for David Wilcox, Assistant Bishop to the Diocese of Chichester, then Bishop of Dorking, for having acted the way he did (as one of a team of people who chose a particular course of action), and it appears the whole affair died down following the incarceration of Mr Halliday. Should anybody have information to the contrary, I should be interested and grateful to receive it.
Why am I bringing these cases up? Well, solely from anecdotal evidence it is not at all unusual to hear of Anglican clergymen having been moved around because of certain unhealthy predilections. And not just anecdote, either, since there does occasionally appear in the news cases that have lead people to suggest the cover-up of child abuse, such as the case of Roy Cotton, a known paedophile ordained by the church of England whom, amongst other details of the case that lead to suspicion, it was suggested by Lambeth Palace should be placed in a ‘carefully selected parish.’ He went on to abuse at least 10 boys during his time in the church. Reviewing the case, Baroness Butler-Sloss suggested the parish, and probably many others, demonstrated ‘a lack of understanding of the seriousness of historic child abuse.’ Not everyone responded positively to the Butler-Sloss report, however, particularly when it was discovered that her report effectively downplayed the access Cotton had to children, leading one of Cotton’s victims to say,
I don’t even know if I can believe any of the Sloss report now.
If there’s errors, mistakes, cover-ups, whatever you want to call them, just one, do I believe the rest? I really don’t know.
To their credit certain Bishops welcomed the review, with the Bishop of Chichester, John Hind, saying ‘I feel deep and profound sorrow for the pain caused to all victims and for the institutional failings of the Church in this Diocese.’
This being said, it would nonetheless be unwise, not to mention irresponsible, to construct any sort of case or offer any sort of allegations based on anecdote or seemingly isolated news stories alone. It does plant the seed of a perfectly legitimate question, though: how widespread was child abuse and cover-up of child abuse in the church of England?
To its unending credit, the church initiated a review to investigate, it would seem at first glance, precisely these questions. It compiled a comprehensive report based on its own files and data systems in order to ensure there were no clergy or other affiliated persons working with children when there was sufficient cause or evidence to suggest they should not be doing so. The (admittedly comprehensive) review was completed, and the church of England responded that
The Review indicates that there are no outstanding issues of which the Church has previously been made aware relating to any clergy or other office holders’ suitability to work with children that have not now been investigated by the police or other relevant professional authority.
As a result of this Review, we are now able to say that nobody representing the Church in a formal capacity has allegations on file that have not been thoroughly re-examined in the light of current best practice, and any appropriate action taken.
Which is admirable. But it does lead to the question: what about before the review? Whilst the church has finally reviewed its historic cases and updated its protocols, does this not also suggest that historically cases of abuse were not dealt with in an acceptable manner? Does it not suggest that some cases remained in the system, inadequately responded to, until 2008-9 when such cases were reviewed, with the relevant people working with children, when they should not have been doing so, and for which all evidence was there to prevent them from doing so, right up until 2008-09?
And not trifling cases neither. According to the review:
As a result of the diocesan reviews of 40,747 files, 13 cases were identified requiring formal action. Eleven cases were referred to the statutory authorities, eight of which involved a member of the clergy and three of which involved a non-ordained person holding some form of church office. Five of these cases relate to past allegations that originally involved police investigation and some of which resulted in convictions, but in the light of the latest developments in the safeguarding field, the Independent Reviewers have now recommended that details of the individuals involved should be referred to the Independent Safeguarding Authority for consideration for inclusion on their barred list**. The other six cases were referred to the police for advice or investigation over the review period and the police have since indicated they are unable to take further action. In three of these cases, a risk management strategy has been put in place by the diocese’s multi-agency child protection management group. There are no cases where a police investigation is still on-going.
A further two cases where action by the statutory authorities was not possible, each relating to members of the clergy, were deemed by the independent Reviewers to warrant formal disciplinary actions by the Church.
Which must be considered A Good Thing. And again, all credit to the church of England for their actions in this regard. But the question remains: what had happened to allow such people to be working in the first place? Presumably, since their misdemeanours were on file and known about, this must have involved shockingly poor judgment at best, or something more collaborative at worst? And what about the Bishops? Since these cases were known about, since some of them involved historic documented abuses, why had the Bishops under whose authority such persons were working not reported such people much earlier? Presumably they must have known of the existence of these cases – why wait until a church of England review has taken place before any reporting to external authorities had taken place? Or even before dismissing them from service?
Which leads us to the protocols for the review, available here. Again, the church of England is to be commended for the range and depth of its study and intentions, but significant questions remain. According to the protocols, cases that did not require further review include, for example,
Some cases where the alleged abuser is known to be deceased, and therefore presents no current risk. However the needs of victims will still need to be considered sensitively, and the case still needs to be listed, where information is discovered. There may also be a need to review the matter in order for lessons to be learnt, or in the light of new information.
Which strikes me as inadequate primarily because, whilst earthly justice might be difficult to dispense, thorough review of the case might well be beneficial to discover any potentially alarming details about a) the response of the Bishops and their decision-making, and b) the response of church authorities more widely.
And it seems to me that this is the blindspot in the whole review – the ability, or indeed intention, to root out cases of intentional cover-up or the incidents of such poor responses to allegations and evidence that one might reasonably suspect a cover-up, even if it turns out that the inadequate response was more rooted in incompetency and/or ignorance than the intent to wilfully mislead. The report protocols demonstrate a notable lack of focus specifically on the issue of how issues were dealt with and, more specifically, when, where and whether there were instances of intentional cover-up and/or inadequate responses to those who had abused. Indeed, the very terms upon which the report proceeds demonstrates a certain weakness for allowing for the possibility of such an exploration. This is not to say the report does not (very briefly) talk the talk. For example, we read that,
We need to reflect on past decisions, in particular on those matters that were not always dealt with by the church in accordance with best practice of the time or of today.
Bishops, together with their Diocesan Child Protection Management Groups (DCPMG) and Child Protection Adviser(s) (CPA), should ensure that any cases which were known of in the past but not adequately responded to, should be the subject of urgent review, reported to the statutory authorities wherever appropriate, and that follow-up action is taken.
But that is about as far as it goes, and the rest of the document certainly does not give the impression that this is either the main aim or the principal intention of the report. For example, we read that
The CPA will compile and maintain the Known Cases List, but ultimately the responsibility for ensuring that no cases or any suspected risk are omitted remain with the diocesan Bishop, as he may have access to information not previously provided to others.
Some records may have been lost or damaged. Some may have been received in the form of confidential reports from a psychologist or others, and these may have been returned to the author without a copy having been retained. In such cases Bishops, together with the appropriate officers, must ensure that concerns, if they exist, are re-documented, and that the status of the information – fact, opinion or unsubstantiated information – is clearly recorded.
Bishops and other responsible people in the Diocese may be aware of such non-recorded cases themselves, and they will also need to consult predecessors and relevant Diocesan senior colleagues, including those retired, for information which may exist only in their or their colleagues’ memories.
It remains dubious whether one could argue with full confidence that such protocols offer the opportunity for unfettered investigation into potential incidents of cover-up and/or serious incompetence at the level of Bishop, for example.
With this in mind, we must also acknowledge that this is a fine line to walk. Was Bishop Wilcox guilty of a cover-up? He certainly does not think so, and firmly argued as such. His reasons are clear and, to try and remain even-handed, his defence is probably well-founded, even if ultimately inadequate. Nonetheless, people reviewing such cases in light of contemporary standards (something which Bishop Wilcox explicitly counsels against) could be forgiven for attaching the word ‘cover-up’ when they read of such cases.
Having not seen the final report and findings, and currently unable to find it, it is important to admit that many of these questions remain essentially unanswerable (should anybody have the report, I would be grateful to receive it). Which also means that they are there to be answered, certainly for this observer. Whilst the church of England has reacted admirably in certain respects, significant questions remain, the principal one being the scope of its review and investigation into the potential and possibility of serious and sustained cover-up of abuse by members associated with or employed by the church of England.
Whilst not seeking to retreat to the trenches that some would occupy, and try to construct out of this any overarching narrative regarding the character and composition of Canterbury, nonetheless there remains sufficient space to ask the question whether the Church has been submitted to the kind of scrutiny it should rightly receive, and whether incidents of cover-up and/or serious incompetence were restricted to isolated incidents affecting a very small minority, or were parts of a wider church problem.
And if it turns out, as it may or may not do, that the church of England has not received that scrutiny, then one might legitimately proceed to ask the question: why not?
Time has revealed to us that, for whatever reason, our forbears were rather less diligent in recognising and reporting paedophilia and child abuse, as Ann Widdecombe, amongst many others, has forcefully argued. In this sense, Bishop David Wilcox was talking with accuracy, even if with hindsight we can find the moral reasoning almost entirely alien. The bigger problem was and to some extent still remains societal, and is certainly not confined to any one institution. As such, unanswered questions remain and part of our response as a society must include the recognition of where we got things wrong, wherever this impulse might lead us. This is precisely in order to avoid fooling ourselves that the perpetrators were monsters confined to one sector or one segment of society, a willful ignorance that brings with it the attendant risk that we minimise the danger and thereby unwittingly approach the same moral precipices once more. This lack of honesty, of transparency, of a wholesale mea culpa characterises the approach of some that would turn this issue into some kind of sectarian powerplay. As a society we should refuse to play such outmoded games: the stakes are simply too high.
As a brief follow-on from the previous post, a few words on Michael Gove’s decision not to include RE on the list of humanities subjects that students wishing to gain the EBacc accreditation will have to study.
Now, the issue of RE is a vexed one, and as I have blogged before, and as I hope to blog again in future, there are very real tensions concerning what RE is for and what it should look like. Expectations and demands surrounding RE can differ hugely, affected as much by educational philosophy as by demands of particular establishments (faith schools tend to take a rather different approach from community schools, for example). Whilst it is excessive to call this an identity crisis, which would presume that the lack of uniformity is a bad thing, it is nonetheless true to say that views differ to a degree significant enough to lead some to think that RE is not, and cannot be, a ‘proper’ humanities subject like, say, History. I, of course, would beg to differ, and in the strongest possible terms, agreeing with the CES that (when delivered well) RE “…has a strong claim to be the humanity, par excellence as it demands knowledge and skills in history, textual criticism, anthropology, ethics, philosophy and theology.”
Interestingly, however, this question of academic rigour is not one that Gove seeks to present when addressing the concerns of those who question its expulsion from the EBacc system. Gove states that, firstly, RE is a compulsory subject, and has been ever since 1944, meaning that it does not warrant inclusion in a system which requires students to choose a particular humanities subject to study in greater depth. This (somewhat curious) defence leads directly on to the second, that since the aim of the EBacc is to increase dwindling participation in humanities subjects, therefore RE is not, for this reason, a candidate for inclusion in the EBacc.
Which strikes me as a complete sack of not-particularly-sweet-smelling-substance. If Gove’s vision is to supply students with a thorough and wide-ranging liberal education then quite how many students have ever taken any particular subject, and its current compulsory status on the curriculum or otherwise, is wholly beside the point. The question is simply this: can RE provide an element of that well-rounded and rigorous education? If it can, which is the real debate to be had, then its inclusion in the system is beyond debate.
Gove’s defence is a curious one, and to further the debate some point to the undesirable consequences such a decision might have on, for example, those very faith schools that the government have long made a song and dance about supporting. To quote from the document:
There is, however, concern that faith schools—to which the Government has said it is “committed” are indirectly discriminated against by the EBac’s exclusion of religious studies. The Church of England Board of Education explained the dilemma to us:
Church of England schools, many of which maintain a commitment to full course GCSE RS for all students, are now faced with an impossible choice. Keeping RE as part of the core for all students may well be seen as too risky. At the very least there will be extreme pressure on the timetable if RE is to be maintained alongside the acceptable English Baccalaureate subjects.
A survey of nearly 800 schools, conducted by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE), recently found that almost one in three secondary schools plans cuts to RE teaching. [my emphasis]
This is a key issue, since it will force the hand of Heads in faith schools, who have a commitment to their own founding ethos as well as one eye on the league tables that have the ability to make or break a career, not to mention a school. And beyond faith schools too, since if one essentially incentivises against RE then schools will increasingly choose not to offer it in the same depth and detail as they may have historically chosen to do. Quite apart from the question of whether this is an acceptable preparation for our children as they enter into a world that continues to be so hugely influenced by religion (on the level of sociology as well as philosophy and ethics), the question also remains of whether this allows students to explore and engage with seams of thought that might assist their own development, both personally and as conscientious citizens. As Ben Thomas, a Headmaster from Battersea, put it (drawing upon similar sentiments to those I explored yesterday),
Tolerance will surely come only through understanding of each other’s religions, and understanding through education
Non-faith schools, without the downward pressure of diocesan commitments and governors to protect RE in their schools, could quite easily shelve RE as any sort of mainstream subject, and in so doing create blindspots in the intellectual and moral development of our children that no amount of Citizenship lessons are ever likely to fill, and this in precisely those schools where commitment to explorations of faith and religion might already be weakest*. Again, from the report:
Others have argued that the absence of religious education in the EBac will encourage schools — despite its standing as a compulsory subject — to treat the subject less seriously, which could have a detrimental effect on students’ wider education. Headteacher Hugh O’Neill predicted that “for a non-faith school” religious education will become “an extremely rare choice, if the EBac stays as it is”, despite being—in the words of another Headteacher — “as rigorous academically at GCSE as history and geography.”
And that last comment is key, since it seems to me that, for all that he is doing his level best to avoid saying it, the real reason why Gove has chosen to exlcude RE from the EBacc is because he doubts its academic rigour and would prefer the emphasis to fall on History and/or Geography instead. The clue comes with Gove’s suggestion that some poorly performing schools (it is not worded thus, but the implication is clear) might use RE as a ‘tick-box’ for the humanities subject in order for their students to achieve the EBacc – the language heavily implying that, for Gove, RE can be seen as an easy option.
Which is perfectly fine and, in truth, is a sentiment that I myself once signed up to. But if this is so then Gove should just come out and say it and let the debate be had on those terms. However, by refusing to engage with the discussion on these terms, Gove denies RE the space to improve its standing in the curriculum and develop (where needed) its academic credentials, and in so doing denies children the opportunity to gain their EBacc accreditation through a route that can combine intellectual challenge with opportunities for social, spiritual and moral development – opportunities that might simply not be available in quite the same manner throughout the rest of the curriculum.
Quite apart from being ill-suited to the EBacc vision, RE, it seems to me, ought to be the very foundation of a broad-based, wide-ranging, and academically challenging classical liberal education. Quite why Michael Gove does not think so remains, even now, far from clear.
*I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, more that the conditions have been created for it to be so.
People who take out of the pot should have to put something in. Seems fair enough to me. I mean, there has to be the flexibility to accommodate those who, without fault, find themselves on the sharp edge of that rule of thumb, of course, but the root sentiment is laudable: we’re all in this together. We all contribute, then we are all justified in taking something out, when the need presents itself.
This, though put more plainly than the sophisticates in the thinktanks would like to put it, is essentially the contributory principle. And the contributory principle has become central to so many new political oeuvres of late that one can be sure that it is here to stay. We’re told that it was a mode of thought that informed the creation of the first welfare state, that it is the transgression of this principle that has led to people falling out of love with the welfare state, and that it is at the very root of much opposition to immigration, with people seeing immigrants using ‘our services’ without ever having contributed much, either economically or socially, to the creation of that system. The reasoning is plain enough: you haven’t put in; you have no right to take out.
And it is this principle that the lies at the root of much Tory rhetoric on welfare, with its ever-present slogans of ‘welfare scroungers’, ‘welfare junkies’, ‘ending the free ride’ and ‘dependency culture’.
The tone of debate has proven popular, of course, and though the label has been long dropped, it all forms what was once diagnosed as the ‘Broken Society’, an illness to which the Tories never really prescribed a cure. The success is understandable, since in trading in such logic the Tories connect at the most basic level with the frustrations the general public feel toward the welfare system and the way it is, at times, abused. (This is a good thing by the way, since frustration suggests people still care, and is therefore much more preferable to indifference).
In the face of such rhetoric, the left often does one of two things; it wrings its hands, knowing it cannot possibly argue with such reasoning, before making a goalpost-shifting response about people who dodge tax (such as the Guardian, for example), or else they deny the problem really exists and revert to calling the Tories the nasty party, coming up with some suitably emotional anecdotal evidence to drive the point home. With such responses the left aren’t exactly wrong, but they’re not exactly right either, and people will generally have enough capacity to reason or experience to recall to tell them that each of these responses are far from convincing. Thus, the issue has become a stick with which the Tory party can hit the Labour Party – and the Labour Party are either forced to play along with Tory rules, or to accept their beating and appear out of touch.
Of course, some on the left may feel that these responses are entirely legitimate, since the issue of ‘tax-dodging’ is far more substantial to the Exchequer than any sum taken out by welfare ‘scroungers’ or benefits fraud.
But such a response is ultimately unconvincing because for many people it falls on the wrong side of the dichotomy between those who do not contribute and those who take out unfairly, a moral miscalculation that puts the left at odds with the general sway of public opinion. For whatever reason, the act of dishonestly making claims upon the system simply irritates more than the act of tax avoidance, a practice which, let us not forget, finds a home in state accredited savings schemes. For reasons not entirely clear, the moral code underpinning the system simply appears for most people to be more under threat by the dishonest claimant than it is by the people who shift their money around in order to avoid having to put so much in. Some on the left may not like that, but that’s just the way it is.
But it leaves one with the question: does the contributory principle, and all attendant notions of fairness and justice, not offer an alternative playing field upon which the left could mount their own charge and turn the tables on the Tories?
Well, I think so. After all, the nub of the contributory principle is this: if you put in, you’re well justified in being able to ask for some back. The challenge is zooming out from the micro level of specific welfare systems on to the societal level, spanning the horizon of lifetimes rather than those specific bouts of joblessness and need. Labour should be acknowledging that fraudulently claiming on the welfare system is wrong, but with it offer the corollary to that very same logic, that those who have put a good shift in should be entitled to ask for a little something back. It should readily accept that relying on the welfare system when other options are available is an abuse of the system, but it should also use the same language to make the point that those who have avoided such reliance, who have worked a lifetime and paid their dues, shouldn’t have to die in poverty worrying about end of life care. It should concede that taking out of the system without genuine need is wrong, but it should maintain that by the same logic those who work hard shouldn’t have to live with constant insecurity, wondering how they will find the money to cover the rise in fuel and food prices.
In short, the ideals of fairness and justice that the Tories have come to own, couched in terms of contribution the system, should be the stick with which Labour hit the Tories, not the other way round. The very same language and logic that has Labour floundering on the back foot when Tories make populist (and entirely legitimate) political points about benefits ‘scroungers’, can also provide Labour with an opportunity to broaden out the horizons and say: ‘well if true with welfare, then true in society at large’. The Tories like the contributory principle because it provides a narrative that allows them to appear morally literate in the eyes of the public, able to connect with common understandings of fairness and justice, yet without unduly affecting their own natural constituency. Labour should grasp that principle and use it make much larger demands on the Tories, on the way they are managing the economic situation, and on the consequences their decisions are having for people who have put into the system.
The days are gone when smug young lefties could just screech slogans at trendy rallies about social justice and expect everybody to sign up without thought or question. Labour, for whatever reason, is often seen at odds with the priorities, concerns, desires and expectations of ordinary people. To reverse this, Labour needs to root its response to Tory cuts firmly within the ideas and moral norms of ordinary people. Labour, therefore needs to grasp those narratives that have proved so popular for the Tories and begin to use their tools against them.
So, Finland has gone the way of much of the rest of Europe and delivered an election result that is decidedly counter to the political and social zeitgeist that our leaders would have us believe they should have rightly endorsed. Unsurprisingly, the ‘progressive’ brigade have spluttered into action, and wild prophesies proliferate of the inexorable rise of the Far-Right and the certain doom of our enlightened European project.
And to be honest, not really knowing Finnish politics, I’m not really qualified to comment one way or another. The prophesies might be true, for all I hope they’re not. But then, a wise man once said that you learn a lot about a man from the calibre of his enemies, and the Finnish election has certain shaken to life that small and sanctimonious mob who like to view themselves as the guardians of ‘progressive’ thought and action.
Needless to say Left Foot Forward, that hub of ‘evidence-based’ blogging, have been amongst the first to activate their screech-box, and the old semantic stabs of the ‘progressive’ left are out in force, taken from the mouth of a university Professor (so they must be true), to include nationalism, xenophobia, disturbing, fear, anxiety, Nazi, ‘pure Finnish children’, and much else besides.
Of course, and as one has come to expect, the ‘evidence’ offered by the ‘progressives’ for this decidedly worrying assessment seem to be rather, well, shaky, and more confirms their convictions than their case. Indeed, in their determination to inject their own progressive brand of divisive and hate-filled rhetoric into the debate, they rather over-play their hand.
To choose one example of several, what is the evidence that True Finns are, in the rather robust words of Left Foot Forward, a ‘homophobic party’?
A quick look at their manifesto reveals other disturbing aspects to their platform:
“True Finns do not accept same-sex marriage ceremony, because marriage is intended to (be) between man and woman…[their emphasis]
Huh? This is a disturbing element? Belief that marriage is between one man and woman is homophobic now? But hang on a minute, that’s the same as what the laws of our land say. And the same as our national religion says. And the same as all mainstream religions say. And the same as rather a large amount of people with no religious affiliation say. And because they say that, that’s how people understand the term ‘marriage’. It is tautologous to say that marriage is between a man and a woman; there’s no other sort.
That’s rather a lot of unwitting homophobes.
Still, there was more ‘evidence’;
The right to adoption do not give the same sex couples. [sic]
Ahhh, gay adoption, that festering thorn in the side of Call Me Dave’s Big Society idea, which calls out desperately for more people to become involved in civic society whilst closing down adoption agencies and Christians trying to do just that.
Still, even this piece of ‘evidence’ requires a sleight of hand, and rather depends upon a caricature, that of a slathering goon hauling existential insults at those in same-sex relationships, that was almost entirely absent from the gay adoption debate, and was never taken seriously by either side on that odd occasion when it did rear its head, usually at the behest of journalists and broadcasters determined to spice things up a little.
No, most (if not all) of the opposition that I ever remember being presented tended to be rather different indeed, and focussed on a positive vision of parenthood, and a sincere belief that a vulnerable individual would do best with the love of a mother and a father (which lots of people will agree with), rather than on maintaining that gay people are without any parenting skills (which lots of people will disagree with). Or to put it differently, for many this was about childrens’ welfare, not gay rights, and a different vision of what it is that vulnerable children require when entering into an adoptive family.
To blithely dismiss this opposition as mere homophobia is emblematic of the arrogant and cloth-eared approach for which the ‘progressive’ left have become rightly renowned (and increasingly excoriated). They might disagree, and on principled grounds, but is the very argument homophobic? Not if one bothers to use that word with any shred of accuracy or honesty.
True Finns have not accepted either of infertility adoption for single women or female couples…
Which, if one dealt with this on the level of sober and rational reflection, is the entirely logical and rational extension of a previous position. If a party believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that people can be excluded from that on account of their sexuality (as the laws of this country maintain, incidentally), then the same logic can clearly and consistently be extended to the provision of fertility treatment, since it would be strange reasoning that would deny same-sex marriage whilst funding same-sex biological parenting (even whilst opposing same-sex adoptive parenting). Indeed, saying anything else would lead us all to scratch our heads and say ‘how on earth do they square that one?’, and might be a better indication of the kind of irrational thought one generally associates with the various -isms that the ‘progressive’ left like to throw at anyone who would gainsay their own deeply inflexible moral worldview.
So much for ‘evidence’ of that True Finn are a ‘homophobic party’, then.
Though it doesn’t stop there. Other ‘disturbing aspects’ of the True Finn manifesto include an approach to culture and immigration that most people in this country would agree with, being itself a rejection of the multiculturalism that segregates society with all that entails, as well as a demand for ‘cultural aid’ state funding to be directed toward the strengthening of Finnish identity, which whilst with sinister potential is also vague enough to be entirely harmless, as well as something that will find expression in this country, and often has, usually at or around the time of St. George’s Day, amongst other times.
To be clear, this isn’t me defending True Finns or anybody else, and if they turn out to be guilty of all those vices prematurely ascribed to them then it really is no skin off my nose. But seriously, the divisive and rancorous diatribe we get from the ‘progressive’ wing every time someone or something pops up that challenges their distinctly inflexible, and evidently extreme, doctrines and dogmas, is more than simple good patience can bear.
And be in no doubt, those who hold that perfectly normal people with perfectly mainstream beliefs, on marriage for example, are all actually homophobic, are the extreme ones. We should not let them forget it.
Blue Labour has followed hot on the heels of Red Toryism as the latest intellectual craze that the commentariat are pretending to be sympathetic to, primarily because, they say, it is giving voice to the kind of outlook they have always secretly subscribed to but never bothered to admit. Quite why it has taken certain amongst their number so long to open their mouths and utter concern at the old zeitgeist is, I suspect, a question to which we are not likely to receive an answer. Even so, the debate is moving and, one hopes, so does the centre-ground move with it.
Now it is important to note, amidst the to-and-fro of primary colour currently shaping our political landscape, that Blue Labourites are not the same as Red Tories, even whilst both are economically to the left and socially to the right. And the chief distinction between them comes down to the very thing that both movements have had greatest success in critiquing: the role, influence and make-up of the state.
Quite why this is so shall be the focus of what follows, but for now suffice it to say simply this: post-cuts politics needs to be much more robust in making a positive case for the legitimate and necessary role of the state in creating and sustaining that very society that both traditions outwardly claim to be seeking.
As such, both Blue Reds and Red Blues should feel able to unite on the point, precisely because both movements, however they differ in detail, fundamentally require a positive vision of the state to underpin their analysis and provide a platform upon which to advance their agenda, be it Blondian distributism or Glasmanite conservative socialism.
And the reason why such a case is not currently being robustly made is, I think, partly due to the success of the case that is being made.
To give a brief overview, when the Red Tory hit the scene David Cameron gobbled up his critique of market liberalism as the template through which he would detoxify his party from its Thatcherite associations. Of course, the economic crash did not help in that ambition, and the installation of George Osborne in No. 11 will always lead one to question the sincerity of Cameron’s conversion, but the important point was this: Team Cameron bought the economic argument whilst leaving Blond’s social analysis of liberalism well alone (which is why the Tory diagnosis of Broken Britain never really came with a cure).
And yet, not entirely alone. You see, Blond’s account of social liberalism, which itself included a convincing critique of the liberal authoritarian State, dovetailed rather nicely with his (socially conservative) civic communitarianism, and in so doing provided a rather handy template for those whose concern was not with the perniciousness of social liberalism as such, but with the role of the state in particular. Alas, the accusation that the Big Society vibe has provided the intellectual cover for an ideological attack on the role of the state is accurate, if not for all then certainly for all those who matter.
Blue Labour, on the other hand, has been pushing against the same door from the opposite direction, and is concentrating its effort rather more on the social argument, precisely because its economic argument was always likely to go down well (save the odd ridiculous misreading – take a bow, Billy). It is essentially a reverse process of what Blond has been ateempting with the Tories, and its success is not unrelated to the fact that its prime target is a clique and a philosophy which, many would argue, is and never has been mainstream in the Labour movement anyway. To put it in (overly) simple terms, Glasman has had to convince a party to return to its natural roots on economics and look more closely at its social doctrines (the two intertwine, though the latter in particular has included an analysis of the role of the state), whilst Blond has had to move the Conservatives on two fronts, that being the party on economics, and the leadership on social conservatism.
Which brings us back to that issue of the state, an ideal and an institution that has been picked at for its myriad cumulative deficiencies in the later-part of the twentieth -century, without currently receiving much by way of positive endorsement and/or legitimation.
For you see, it often seems there is a gaping hole where a confident Labour movement should be (and indeed, from a different angle, where a confident small ‘c’ conservative movement should be too). In surging forth with its robust analysis of the statism the Labour movement had come to embrace, drawing upon much Red Tory analysis and language in the process, Blue Labour has thus far failed to make a convincing and positive case for the state, at least in any serious and sustained manner – thereby neglecting what Anthony Painter has termed the trump card the left has to play against the apparently anti-state coalition.
And in offering an exciting vision of the reciprocal, mutualist, co-operative and associative society, and the ways in which mechanistic, technocratic and bureaucratic systems can stifle that organic flourishing of human relationships, both Red Tory and Blue Labour have neglected to seriously consider the way in which the state underpins, facilitates and enables exactly the kind of society that both would recognise as consistent with the ‘good society’ we ought to be aiming for.
Neglecting to offer this positive vision, however, will eventually prove detrimental, not only because the mood at the moment is so anti-state and therefore needs countering precisely in the name of Blue Labour/Red Tory, but also because the Tories and (in a much more refined sense) both Blond and Glasman have provided such convincing and damning accounts of statism that unless one is attentive to the risk then the baby might just find itself thrown out with the bathwater.
Let’s hope, then, that the emphasis will begin to change, and we will soon hear why these two thinkers think the state is A Good Thing, to be cultivated and ultimately defended, against both apathy and the attacks of those whose only positive word for the state is the extent to which it can deliver their own anti-state agenda.