On Parkfield School and Tory individualism

Conservative Muslim parents and LGBT activists continue in open conflict over the teaching of gay and trans rights in Birmingham schools. Conservative leadership candidate Esther McVey fanned the flames today by coming down on the side of the protesting parents:

Elsewhere, teenage Tory activist Soutiam Goodarzi, herself of Muslim origin, expressed outrage at McVey’s alignment with the forces of religious conservatism on this most uncomfortable clash of minority rights:

Though it’s tempting to laugh and point at the contortions and cognitive dissonance the left must endure in order to be on the same side as both groups in this clash of rights, it is the conservative predicament which is more acute, in part because it is not out in the open like conservative Muslim homophobia.

McVey here expresses the common conservative viewpoint that holds moral instruction to be the preserve of private families, not of the state. In this worldview, it is simply not the place of government to meddle in the mores parents convey to their children, and in fact schools should concentrate on teaching subjects such as history, science and maths rather than making pronouncements on what is socially acceptable.

Goodarzi expresses the equally common conservative view that religious minorities – especially Muslim ones – should not be permitted to effect a reverse takeover of the public square simply through a mixture of intransigence and leveraged victim politics. To put it another way, Muslims should not be permitted, by virtue of the specially favoured place they hold in the system of diversity (Cobley) to force sweeping changes to what is commonly taught, said or deemed acceptable.

McVey’s stance would leave families – including religious conservative ones – in sole charge of the moral instruction of the young. But Goodarzi’s stance cannot afford to, lest the moral instruction of the young be subject to infiltration and takeover by values alien to a functioning free society.

Goodarzi’s position is more akin to classical liberalism than conservatism proper. In this context, conservative religion – whether Christian or Muslim or something else – is self-evidently an obstacle on the way to individual freedom and self-realisation. Allied to a free-market position that seeks to reduce, remove (or at least disguise) the role of the state in the operation of markets, this is a type of ‘conservatism’ (perhaps more properly called progressive free-market liberalism) typified by George Osborne. Morality, inasmuch as it is discussed at all, is in a sense negative, consisting mainly of strictures designed to maximise individual freedom and self-fulfilment – such as injunctions to eschew homophobic bullying. These, though, may be enforced by the state as it is assumed to be in the best interests of the good society that individual freedom be allowed to flourish as fully as possible.

McVey’s position is a version of this stance, modified by the proviso that some forms of shared morality are desirable. These, however, should be transmitted not by the state, whose role should be limited to activities such as keeping the peace and maintaining roads, but left as the purview of individual families.

The trouble with both these as models for society, though, is that they both depend for their existence on something they also work to undermine: that is, public mores. Moral instruction is, in a sense, both public and private: it concerns our private behaviour, but it also bears on society as a whole. If the moral instruction of children is nonexistent or badly done, those children are less likely to make a positive contribution to society as adults. It is everyone’s business how families educate their children. Our radically individualist society may not like this, but it’s true.

To illustrate.

Some choices parents make impact literally no-one but the parents and child in question. Cosleeping with babies and young children is a good example. It makes zero difference to anyone outside the family whether my toddler sleeps in my bed or her own. Who cares? Potty training, on the other hand, is a different matter. I will annoy no-one outside the family if I wave my hands in a liberal fashion and say airily that my child will sleep in her own bed ‘when she’s ready’. But if I declare that my child ‘refuses to wear a nappy’ and will learn to pee and poo in a potty ‘when she’s ready’ I will quickly incur widespread dislike, hefty dry cleaning bills and a sudden lack of playdate invitations.

Moral instruction is more like potty training than co-sleeping, and this is where McVey’s position falls down. You can say ‘families know best’ when it comes to moral instruction, but would you say that of a parent who was teaching a toddler that it was fine to take a shit on the pavement? Morals are about how we live together as a society; we can’t pretend that they can be atomised to the family level and still work as morals. You have to be confident that all or most families are on the same page about where it’s acceptable to take a crap before you say breezily ‘families know best’. Otherwise you’re just ducking the issue.

But Goodarzi’s conservative-flavoured liberalism doesn’t have much to offer either on the subject of which moral precepts should be adhered to by everyone – except inasmuch as they are enforced by the state. It’s simply assumed that individuals will somehow naturally come to the conclusion that we use the potty. How they get there, it is implied, is not a matter for politics. And if they don’t, we pass a law saying they have to. Anything intermediate is an incursion onto individual liberty.

But the truth is that both these viewpoints take a set of shared moral references so profoundly for granted they are able to pretend they don’t exist. Everyone just knows we don’t shit on the floor; that’s why (McVey) we can trust families to convey that and don’t need to teach it at school or else (Goodarzi) all we need to do is stamp out regressive viewpoints that might limit our freedom to come naturally to the right conclusion about where we take a crap. But that set of shared values is precisely the target of Goodarzi’s individualism. It is the regressive swamp of benighted reactionary muck from which individual freedom is painstakingly extricated. And once this broad framing of our moral past and present is in place, we can’t really trust families to convey the right stuff either.

Goodarzi’s position is more honest than McVey’s, in that it acknowledges more or less explicitly that if we’re accepting radical individualism as a basic social good, then the state needs to step in as coercive arbiter of some moral matters, in order to prevent wholesale anarchy (and shitty pavements). In the terms of my metaphor, Goodarzi’s position suggests that everyone can do as they like but allows for some kind of authority which is empowered to ensure people teach their toddlers to crap in the potty. It at least has a stance on some moral matters, and accepts the need to enforce them.

McVey’s ‘families know best’, on the other hand, avoids making any moral pronouncements about the social good and simply implies that ‘families’ will come up with the right answers about moral instruction on their own. It assumes a shared value set that might once, in a monocultural society, have existed, but which in our post-religious, post-imperial, multicultural, radically-individualist Britain simply cannot be taken for granted. If ‘best’ is taken to mean ‘fitting most harmoniously and beneficially into society as a whole’, it is not at all obvious any more that families do know best. But McVey cannot define ‘best’, any more than Goodarzi can, because both have accepted the basic liberal-individualist premise that even in matters that explicitly concern society as a whole rather than us as individuals or even as families, no-one has any right to tell anyone else what to do.

Left unmodified, these two stances point at two possible futures. Goodarzi’s future is one in which we are all free individuals, and the only agent with a right to tell us what to do is the state, which exists as a kind of medium in which radically unencumbered individuals interact and which intervenes only to maximise individual freedom. McVey’s future is one in which shared values still exist, but not at the level of the nation state – only at the level of individual families or ‘communities’. These ‘communities’ are, in a fashion similar to Goodarzi’s future, the subjects of a total state which exists as the sole arbiter of clashing freedoms and community ‘rights’. In this future, moral values are outsourced to religious, ethnic and sexual minorities and (to a lesser extent) individual families, administrated by an explicitly amoral state whose remit is to hold and defuse tensions between moral standpoints or in extremis to rule in favour of one or another position in an irreconcilable clash.

In neither of these futures is there much to conserve, which leaves conservatism in something of a bind. Its modern proponents have, in different ways, accepted the broad premise that the pursuit of individualism and markets is the highest public good. This in turn means individual freedom should at every turn be prioritised over a shared cultural and moral framework, which is depicted as the dark force of the past and enemy of progress. After some 50 years of this process, we are left with not a great deal except individuals (or, as McVey would have it, individuals and families). Even those pockets of reactionaries who protest are like US Marines stuck in the jungle still fighting the Korean War: it’s over, the pieces are being swept up, we are where we are. Conservatives now face a difficult choice between agreeing that, absent shared mores, the state needs to take a role as moral arbiter, or else watching as a national community disintegrates into ever more balkanised ‘communities’, whose moral frameworks compete and, as at Parkview School, clash irreconcilably. Or (and this is so difficult to imagine in practice as to be very unlikely) conservatives need to consider whether there are shared values worth fighting for as a society, rather than legislating as a government or clutching to our bosoms as individuals and atomised families.

Transform the Lords to save us from Faragism

(This article was originally published on Reaction.life.)

Michael Gove famously said during the EU referendum campaign: “People have had enough of experts”. His words, though much-derided, reflect a popular sense that our politics has moved away from democratically-accountable government, driven largely by supranational institutions and treaties, and populated by appointed ‘experts’ to whom we must defer without any means of influencing their decisions.

To this transnational class of epistocrats has been added, at the domestic level, a parallel species of quangocrat touted as ‘independent’ and similarly unresponsive to electoral pressure. Resentment toward this ecosystem of insiders has been growing for years, if not decades. In our country, Farage and his Brexit Party have now made it their mission to burn this whole edifice down.

This may be politically resonant, but is it wise? One persuasive argument for remaining in the EU is that the complexity and interdependence of modern nation states cannot be mastered at speed by elected non-specialists. That the effective management of the modern world needs a grasp of often highly technical matters that takes years to acquire, and some policy areas need serious expertise as well as a degree of insulation from MPs who believe, Boris-like, that any issue can be adequately grasped with a few hours of cramming and a bon mot or two.

Some areas of government are too abstruse to make it into the general political discourse – the scandal of hygiene standards in manufacturing, say, or rules governing the import of consumer goods – while remaining immensely important overall. The failure of UK MPs to get to grips with the detail of pretty much all such areas since the EU referendum has been painfully obvious.

This is the core of the pro-EU view that it is better to agree this stuff together with the rest of the club, then leave the system in the hands of experienced professional civil servants while we get on with our daily lives. It’s an argument that has some merit, especially when compared to the blundering attempts of our MPs to cram technical subjects in a few hours in order to make decisions that will affect the lives of millions.

In this view, public resentment of experts is self-evidently foolish and destructive and should simply be ignored. But this view is only half right. The public as a whole welcomes expertise, serious statesmanship and long-term thinking in public life and is unhappy not with experts but with their lack of accountability. No-one really disputes that if we do ever leave the EU we will need our institutional memory, and our experts, more than ever. A Faragist destruction of our governing institutions would cause a loss of this institutional memory that we can ill afford, given its already etiolated state after decades of outsourcing policy to Brussels. So, given that we need them, how can we make our experts more accountable, and prevent populism from throwing experience, expertise, long-term thinking and other important babies out with the ‘metropolitan elite’ bathwater? My proposal is that this should be the role of the House of Lords.

Whatever its faults, the hereditary House of Lords did supply some long-term thinking in our public life. But since Blair’s reforms it has become both an extension of party politics and a form of reward for good behaviour in the ecology of ‘experts’ that populates public life. Both these developments are to the detriment both of democratic accountability and long-term thinking.

We should abolish the system of appointed hereditary peers that so typifies the ‘insiders’ club’ feeling of modern politics and instead invite experts to run for election to the Lords. This would be on a long electoral cycle (let’s say ten years) with a recall mechanism in extremis and specific responsibility for taking the long view on key policy areas where expertise is needed and party politics a source of harm.

Areas of policy that might benefit from being managed in this way include (in no particular order) healthcare, education, consumer standards and international trade. Education and healthcare in particular suffer from being treated by all sides as a political football. They are subjected to interminable ‘reforms’ by MPs thinking in electoral cycles rather than the long term, and desperate for impact with no regard for the millions whose daily jobs are turned upside down by the latest eye-catching initiative. And international trade and product standards are (as the Brexit negotiations have amply demonstrated) too technical for the brief to be grasped on a short timescale by elected non-experts.

Under this system, rather than having (for example) an education secretary in situ for a year or two, fiddling with policy for the sake of looking busy, we could have subject experts with hands-on experience, such as Katherine Birbalsingh or Amanda Spielman, standing for the Lords on a ten-year education ticket, long enough to see the results of any decisions taken and be held accountable for them. We could see a Lords education candidate for child-centred ‘skills’ education debate a Lords candidate keen on knowledge-and-discipline-first, with the electorate able to make the decision. Alongside this critical function of managing areas of policy for the long term, our elected expert Lords could then continue their role scrutinising legislation, as at present.

This transformation would at a stroke rid us of our increasingly unpopular ‘crony’ Lords, create more space for long-term thinking in key policy areas, and make the experts we need more democratically accountable. It would move some areas of policymaking away from short-term party politics and more toward a blend of long-termism and direct democracy. In doing so it could balance the need for experts in modern government with the equally pressing need to respond to a general public sense of democratic deficit, and thus maybe yet save us all from Faragism.

House price fetishism: the Tory paradox in a nutshell

Ever since Thatcher introduced Right to Buy, and then Blair super-heated the housing market with a combination of cheap loans and mass immigration, home ownership has become ever more of a sticky wicket for the Tories. On the one hand, Tory voting has historically been associated with home ownership: people with something to lose are typically more conservative. On the other hand though, in order to sustain the pleasantly rising house prices that keep the core Tory base contented (and the cheap money flowing, as people remortgage to pay for extensions, kids’ university fees or whatever) it becomes ever harder for younger generations to join the home-owning ranks of the putatively Tory.

Mulling this over, it struck me that there’s a second, more profound way that the late twentieth-century transformation of homes into part loan collateral, part asset class, part status symbol has left conservatism with a dilemma. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about the way Brexit was functioning as a proxy war within the Tory Party over which the party valued more: free market dogma or social conservatism. I think my analysis still holds, and indeed that the only thing that has changed is that social conservatives are now losing, and leaving the Tory Party in droves. The housing issue, it seems to me, encapsulates the nature of this conflict in a nutshell.

Here’s why: if you see your house purchase primarily as an asset class, you’re not buying with the intent to settle and make a home there. You’ll do the place up, sell it on and move. No need to get to know the neighbours, form networks, get involved in community activities. Probably best if your kids don’t put down too many local roots or it’ll be a wrench for them to leave their friends. Homes-as-asset-class is the quintessential Anywhere (Goodhart) mindset, that treats a place as a set of resources to be consumed, developed, improved, but which are ultimately that: resources. Not networks, not reciprocal obligations, not really a home. Conversely, if you buy somewhere as a Somewhere, with the intent to put down roots and make a home there – to be there for the rest of your life or at least the foreseeable future – you can’t really treat your home as an asset class because it’s about the least liquid asset imaginable. OK, if house prices rise you’ll benefit a bit in theory, because maybe you can take out a loan against the imagined gain in value of your house but again, that’s only really meaningful if you’re planning to sell.

Now, I’m   being a bit reductive but returning to the Conservatives, your Anywheres are all for free market liberalism – and your Somewheres are all for social conservatism. For many years, the two managed to coexist well enough within the same party, united – perhaps – by a broad consensus (for different reasons) that taxation and public spending should be restrained. But if the issue of European Union membership has been the most visible evidence of that truce collapsing, the breakdown both predates and is more profound than ‘banging on about Europe’ would suggest.

We’ve reached a point now where the demands of the free market are becoming ever more inimical to the needs of the kind of settled community that nurtures and values social conservatism. The kind of worldview that values the free market understands a house as primarily an investment, and invests him or herself in the local community in proportion to that understanding – ie lightly if at all. This is profoundly at odds with the kind of worldview that places value on continuity, community, a sense of place and tradition. Thus while both these groups may place a value on home ownership, it is for radically different reasons: and these two strands of conservatism are increasingly at odds.

Fundamentally, the Conservative Party has acted for some decades as though free market ideology were compatible with a belief in patriotism, conservative social values and a healthy civic society. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is no longer the case. The profound sociocultural conflict and difference in outlook – and hence spending behaviour, political assumptions and fundamental approach to life – emblematic in the difference between a Somewhere who wishes to buy a house as a home, to live in and care for within the context of a rooted and socially-engaged local existence, and an Anywhere who wishes to buy a house as an investment, with the aim of moving on once it is financially viable, encapsulates this irreducible fracture. It is increasingly apparent that the Conservative Party cannot serve both. It is also increasingly apparent that, if one group has to go, it will not be the Anywheres. So the question is: who will speak for lower middle class Somewheres, when – as is now inevitable – they begin to flex their political muscles somewhere other than the Tory Party?