The Somewheres are beginning to organise

Yesterday I attended the SDP’s party conference. The rump of the party that merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats has enjoyed something of a revival in the last year under William Clouston, who has led the charge to reinvent its social-democratic platform along distinctly post-liberal lines. The party is a minnow compared to the big hitters of conference season, but the conference was important. Here’s why.

With very few exceptions, the party’s leadership do not live in London. Its strongest support base is in Yorkshire, notably around Leeds where the conference was held. Clouston himself lives in a village in the North-East. In his closing remarks, he apologised to delegates for the fact that the next meeting will be in London. Where most of the big parties now talk about the need to take note of the perspective of people outside the capital, within the SDP the reverse is the case.

The party leans centre-right on social issues and centre-left on cultural ones. Broadly speaking, it stands for family, community, nation and a robust welfare state, and bears some similarities to ‘Blue Labour’, Maurice Glasman’s project to bring issues such as family and patriotism back into Labour politics. But whereas Glasman’s project was to a significant degree driven by metropolitan intellectuals, the SDP is not driven by London voices or perspectives. This is also perhaps why the SDP has to date had little cut-through in media terms despite numerous polls that suggest widespread support for a combination of redistributive economic policy with small-c social conservative values.

Movements that articulate concerns or perspectives widespread in the UK population outside major cities have in recent years often been traduced in the media as ‘populist’ or even ‘far right’. But while several speakers at the conference inveighed against identity politics and ‘political correctness’, the SDP is not reactionary. The first motion to carry was one to amend the party policy banning non-stun slaughter to one regulating it, both in the interests of religious tolerance but also to avoid far-right dogwhistles. Clouston himself referred in his speech to a ‘decent populism’ that seeks to return the common concerns of those outside major cities and the liberal consensus to mainstream political discourse.

The watchword was ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’. A key theme emerging from the speakers was: what are the proper limits to individual freedom? Where is it more important to consider the needs of a group? Who pays the price for ‘double liberalism’, and how can we mitigate those costs?

For some considerable time, politics has been something done by Anywheres (Goodhart) and more done to the Somewheres. Efforts to rebalance this have tended to be treated as monstrous aberrations that must be contained, whether with disparaging media coverage or more government funding for some client-state scheme or other.

But looking around on Saturday, my sense is this may change. The Somewheres are beginning to organise.

Weekend long read: in defence of being an arsehole

On Being An Arsehole: A Defence is this weekend’s long read pick, by Jonny Thakkar in The Point. It is a funny and thoughtful discussion of the tension between the author’s wish to fit in socially, and the desire he also feels as a philosopher to ask difficult questions that may push debates – and the social relations within which they take place – into uncomfortable places.

Most people, Thakkar argues, agree with the vast majority of what others say to them, largely in the interests of harmony. But this is unappealing to philosophers, who take active pleasure in argument of a sharpness and persistence most people would find stressful if not downright obnoxious. This, in turn, can have social repercussions for those who approach discussion in this spirit:

For philosophy trains you to presume that genuine listening, and so genuine conversation, involves helping people to clarify their thoughts, and while this might be true in some contexts, it can also have the effect of turning a heart-to-heart into an Oxbridge tutorial. “I know you’re upset, but you’ve said three different things that are in tension with one another” isn’t always the most helpful way to respond to a loved one’s distress, as I have repeatedly discovered.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

The challenge for those who would debate is to assess when it is appropriate to ask difficult questions – and when, especially in the modern world of ‘cancel culture’, the frank expression of views is likely to take significant courage:

It seems natural to conclude that the social role of philosophers is to help people think things through by confronting them with counterarguments to their current views. But since there’s no way to do that in a non-philosophical context without coming off as an arsehole, there’s no way for a philosopher to be a good citizen without having the courage to look like a bad one.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

In a week where the Prime Minister was accused both of being a leader to right-wing extremists and also of dismissing the murder of Jo Cox as ‘humbug’, a reflection on the debate, trolling and when to keep one’s own counsel feels timely, to say the least.

This piece first appeared in Unherd.

On halal, kosher, religious tolerance and having it both ways

Yesterday I live tweeted the SDP conference in Leeds. It was a great day with many interesting speakers, but easily the most controversial discussion – and the one that has generated the most reaction in my Twitter mentions since – was the motion to amend SDP policy on non stun slaughter. Previously, policy was to ban these methods of slaughter, but at the conference a motion was decisively carried to amend this to provisions on strict standards, ensuring supply does not outstrip demand (eg non stun slaughter for export) and proper labelling.

I gather that debate around the subject prior to conference was heated. I know at least one person who left the party over the subject. I spoke in favour of the motion despite being personally uncomfortable with such methods of slaughter on the grounds that an explicitly communitarian party needs to be willing to demonstrate a recognition that religious practice is immensely important to some groups, and to create space for such practices even if we find them personally unappealing.

But once you start making explicit provision for communitarian considerations, the tension between faith and other ethical frameworks is immediately apparent.

The subsequent discussion – and its links into ‘preserve our culture’ groups such as For Britain and Britain First – put me in mind of two brouhahas a little while ago where politicians tried to articulate a position weighing private faith against public mainstream morality. In April 2017, then Lib Dem leader Tim Farron refused to deny that his personal faith held homosexuality to be a sin. In September the same year, Jacob Rees-Mogg made statements on abortion and homosexuality, consistent with Catholic social teaching, that saw him excoriated as ‘a bigot’ and ‘wildly out of step with public opinion’.

Commentators at the time lined up to defend Farron and Rees-Mogg. There was the usual hum from offstage (ie Twitter) about the right to express views in keeping with traditional Christianity without facing punishment from an illiberal liberal elite.

So I find it interesting to see that when it comes to a religious practice from Islam and Judaism – slaughtering animals by slitting their throats, without stunning them first – some of the voices raised most loudly in agreement about the iniquity of ‘You can’t say that’ culture as it bears on Christians today should be perfectly content to support policies that actively militate the practice of those other faiths. If we are to defend Rees-Mogg and Farron on grounds of religious tolerance, should we not also consider defending halal and kosher slaughter on the same grounds? After all, the core argument of tolerance is not that one tolerates only things that one likes or feels indifferent to but that it is extended to things one actively dislikes.

It feels to me as though there are two things going on here.

Firstly, the Britain First types who wish to support religious exemptions for Christians but not for Jews or Muslims are not, themselves, Christians for the most part. Rather, they are secular inheritors of the Christian tradition who wish to preserve the structure of that tradition for the benefits it has for some time provided – a fairly stable, prosperous, harmonious society with congenial values – without taking on the obligations of the faith itself. To put it a less fashionable way, they wish to be redeemed but without themselves taking up the cross. For that, in a nutshell, is the argument made by those who argue against ‘illiberal liberalism’ but do so from a perspective that rejects the necessity of faith – any faith, perhaps, or Christianity in particular – in creating the society to which they wish to belong.

We might term it ‘religious utilitarianism’ – a worldview that recognises the utility of faith in delivering certain social goods but takes no position on the veracity or otherwise of the tenets of any faith in particular. Liberal relativism is a kind of equal-opportunities religious utilitarianism, that wishes to make space for any and all faiths to provide those goods in a pluralistic way, while the Britain First / Batten-era UKIP version of the same wishes to privilege Christian religious utilitarianism over the more relativistic liberal sort. That is, Britain First types want to keep only the outward forms of Christianity but do not wish anyone else to replace those forms with a more deeply-felt faith of their own.

But if we are to argue for religious tolerance, and for Christianity to play an active rather than a purely decorative role in our society then – the logic dictates – we must either be explicit about repressing other faiths in support of that goal, or else extend the same courtesy to other faiths. The alternative – hiding our hostility to other faiths behind a selectively-applied appeal for religious tolerance only as it pertains to ‘our’ deviations from the liberal consensus – is simply not good enough.

Social justice rent-seeking: Labour Conference edition

Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Dawn Butler has used the Labour Party conference to renew her call for British banks and businesses to pay ‘massive’ reparations for slavery.

The money should be used, she explains, to support the work of the ‘Emancipation Educational Trust’ launched by Labour in October last year. This trust would use education to encourage ‘a deeper understanding of British history’, especially empire and colonialism, with the aim of telling a new national story that would help stem the rise of the far right.

Butler quotes Glasgow University’s decision to make available £20m in reparations to atone for its historic connection to slavery. (Though this money is for scholarships and grants, not Labour’s education initiative.) She asserts that ‘other banks and businesses must follow’. Labour, she says, will encourage this process via ‘consultation hubs’ in Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and London. It is Butler’s view that this is especially urgent at present because ‘for the first time in our country’s history we have a Prime Minister who the far right regard as their leader’.

A few days ago, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote of his concerns with rent-seeking in capitalism, and its corrosive effects on liberal democracy. Rent-seeking is any behaviour that involves seeking to increase an actor’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. Rent-seeking tactics include using a dominant market position to control prices or prevent new entrants to the market, or converting economic to political power in order to shape public policy in line with business interests.

We can draw a parallel here with Butler’s proposal, which is in effect a form of social justice rent-seeking. She wishes to use political power (the Labour Party) to convert an increasingly dominant ideology (critical race and post-colonial theories) into a share of existing wealth. Butler is full of conviction as she argues for the vital role her trust will play in combating the far right. But there is some slippage between ‘reparations’ – a satisfyingly just-sounding idea considering the horrific history of slavery – and the question ‘to whom should reparations be paid?’. After all, the victims of slavery are long dead. Which of their descendants should benefit?

By way of parallel, consider who benefits from Amazon, and how. The general population enjoys the convenience of one-day delivery via Amazon Prime, while Bezos and his shareholders reap the rewards of Amazon’s hegemonic market position, manipulating the company’s tax obligations and hammering salaries and employee productivity in grim distribution centres. In much the same way, Butler’s social rent-seeking proposes to provide, as a general social good, more people who share her values and view of history. Meanwhile, the Trust she has founded will benefit directly from reparation payments, which will presumably fund well-remunerated positions dedicated to perpetuating the worldview that justifies the next round of fundraising.

This article was first published in Unherd

Political Runaround: Live Edition

One in ten MPs no longer represents the party with which they stood at election. The stampede back and forth across the Commons floor put me in mind of 70s children’s game show Runaround, where contestants run to a quiz answer then have a chance to run to a different one if they change their mind.

We are in the midst of something just as chaotic, considerably less entertaining and with no guarantee of a prize at the end.

Political parties notionally represent stable coalitions of views, allowing scope for internal disagreement but broadly cohesive. But how are we to vote when viewpoint clusters once foundational to entire sociocultural identities turn out to be fluid along strange new lines?

From a politician’s point of view, the party joined is supposed to represent a platform they can stand behind, or at least live with. But Brexit continues to drive hitherto workable if not always comfortable compromises into the buffers. One such is Labour Party’s acceptance of labour market liberalisation and a ban on state aid via the EU, in exchange for transnational workers’ protections, large-scale environmentalism and a means of promoting internationalism. Tory patriotism and social conservatism, meanwhile, are at war (sometimes confusingly) with Thatcherite economic pragmatism. Something has to give, is beginning to do so.

A number of commentators have been writing about this great realignment for some time. It remains to be seen whether predictions to date for the outcome turn out accurate but it is safe to say we are now witnessing Political Runaround in real time.

One key line of fracture that cuts across current parties is the nation state: at what scale is it appropriate to draw a line around a group of people and say ‘these are the people we serve’? What unites a group? Is it possible to facilitate democratic ‘losers’ consent’ with any given group of people, or is some higher form of unity required? Existing coalitions of interests cannot agree.

Another fracture is the question of what matters are best governed by inter- or supranational institutions and treaties, and what should be subject to democratic veto by a given electorate. For most of the twentieth century, the direction of travel was – with little explicit discussion – in the direction of international institutions and away from accountability to electorates. There were good reasons for this, but electorates are now pushing back, and in turn being dismissively labelled ‘populist’. This argument is playing out, in slow motion, all across the democratic West but has been notable in Greece during the eurozone crisis, Italy under Salvini and of course in the slow motion detonation of Brexit.

Expect it to get worse before it gets better. ‘Political Runaround’ makes for an entertaining game of speculation but turns out be much less comfortable live.

Masala spiced roast lamb, or: politicians are rubbish at culture

Looking for a keema matar recipe online yesterday for dinner, I stumbled across Afelia’s Kitchen. A British Bangladeshi Londoner and mum of 4, she cooks what I can only describe as Anglo-Bangla fusion family grub, and has – deservedly – 82,000 Instagram followers for her simply photographed, clearly explained and tempting-looking recipes.

I’d been expecting the website to deliver just South Asian recipes so, on delving around, was surprised to find pakoras and make-ahead Ramadan ideas mixed with pasta dishes, coleslaw and one for masala spiced roast lamb with roast potatoes and – intriguingly – a spicy gravy that combines naga pickle (which I’d never heard of but looks hot enough to strip paint) with sriracha sauce and (wait for it) Bisto. I’m sold.

I share Afelia’s Kitchen not just because you really should try the keema matar, but because food is often used as a proxy for the benefits multiculturalism brings and I can’t think of a more iconic fusion recipe than a classic Sunday roast with a South Asian spice rub and savagely chilli’d-up Bisto. It made me think about cultural integration, and how bad politicians are at approaching it.

Here’s what fusion looks like when attempted from the top down. European Union politicos across Europe and Africa submitted recipes for a collection celebrating the cultural diversity of Africa and Europe. It was billed in a press release as ‘the ultimate diplomatic tool to bring two continents to the table’, but I suspect its impact was probably confined to bringing the people who produced it to the table of a no doubt tasty but impact-free dinner, before disappearing largely without trace.

Politicians being rubbish at approaching cultural integration is a problem, because politicians also push immigration, diversity and the movement of people. There’s a piece missing. I humbly suggest that Afelia’s Kitchen gives us a clue as to what that piece is.

The missing piece is mothers. Coming at it from another angle, Mary Wakefield discusses here the below-the-line chat of mothers debating whether or not it is okay for Muslim mothers to stop their children socialising with non-Muslims. I can see why a devoutly Muslim mum would do it: you live surrounded by people who profoundly do not share your values, and you want your children to grow up with the right values. So you try and control their environment. All mothers do it, in different ways, all the time: whether it’s managing screen time or screening their social circles.

Going by the photo on her website, Afelia is a hijabi, but you can see by the food she cooks that her life, and the life of her children, is not held apart in this way, because neither is her food. I’m willing to bet her kids will grow up with a mix of friends from a range of cultures, plus a high tolerance for very hot chilli. Good for them. There is no going back now to the overwhelmingly white Britain of decades gone by, even if we wanted to; the only way forward is integration. But politicians don’t seem to know how to approach this.

The EU’s celebration of culinary diversity will, I humbly suggest, achieve precisely nothing to forge bonds between people of different backgrounds because it was not created by mothers, nor even with mothers in mind. Frankly if politicos did try and create a fusion recipe book for mothers with the aim of forging links across different cultures, it would almost certainly be so cringe-inducing as to sink without trace as well.

But if the kaleidoscope of cultures that now makes up modern Britain is ever to settle more comfortably than at present into a new iteration of a more widely-shared national culture, my hunch is that it will take several generations, and it will be driven by mothers. Looking up recipes from a style of cooking they aren’t familiar with, so as to make something for a kid who’s coming to play. Allowing space for those playdates to even happen. Seeing that process move forward glacially as their own children grow up and do the same. If you want to help the process along, give mothers the space to do what they do. The problem for politicians is that this aspect of culture isn’t easily amenable to top-down interventions. If it were to be approached at all, it might be done obliquely, for example by supporting the existence of more and better spaces where mothers from different cultures might find themselves rubbing shoulders while getting on with their lives. That’s how it starts.

Politicians are rubbish at culture, and cultural integration, because they have nothing really to offer mothers. Because politicians rarely if ever think about family life except as something to meddle in. But if it’s not a stretch to quote Steve Bannon in a discussion of cultural integration, politics is downstream of culture, and all culture starts, ultimately, with mothers. If we are to leave this uncomfortable and fragmented cultural moment for the sunlit uplands of some more harmonious national culture, our politicos will have to put a bit more thought into how public policy can support giving mothers with different backgrounds the space to come together, and to let their children do the same.

 

 

Weekend long read pick: the real problem at Yale is not free speech

If you’re looking for something long-form this weekend, and are tired of culture war takes on student ‘wokeness’, this lucid piece by Natalia Dashan in Palladium may even give you some measure of compassion for the lost children of America’s super-elite.

A class-inflected personal account of the author’s experience at Yale, the piece argues that the Great Awokening is less a free speech issue than a byproduct of a loss of moral purpose in America’s upper class. Her view is that America’s young elite has so far lost the desire to rule that for the most part it now prefers to give away its power, either via careers that effectively render them middle class, or else throwing themselves into ‘social justice’ activities whose purpose is less social justice than social bonding, or what she calls ‘coordination by ideology’.

Wokeness, she suggests, is really a convoluted and guilt-ridden form of class signalling that serves both to police the boundaries of an elite in-group while also deflecting any genuine responsibility for leadership that membership of a franker and more self-confident elite might entail. As it is not rooted in any clear objectives or shared political interests, the psychodrama of wokeness also relentlessly devours itself, creating a negative elite feedback loop in the process:

It doesn’t matter that the ideology is abusive to its own constituents and allies, or that it doesn’t really even serve its formal beneficiaries. All that matters is this: for everyone who gets purged for a slight infraction, there are dozens who learn from this example never to stand up to the ideology, dozens who learn that they can attack with impunity if they use the ideology to do it, and dozens who are vaguely convinced by its rhetoric to be supportive of the next purge. So, on it goes.

She asks: who benefits? In her view, those who wish to duck responsibility, to obscure their class status, or to build power bases in the chaos it creates. The price of this evasion of leadership is no less than  ‘the standards of reality itself’, alongside a cumulative decay of institutions whose purpose would once have been to channel the idealism and noblesse oblige of a young elite into public service.

And this matters, because what is now well-established at Yale will trickle down not just across America but across the world:

And what’s happening at Yale reflects a crisis in America’s broader governing class. Unable to effectively respond to the challenges facing them, they instead try to bail out of their own class. The result is an ideology which acts as an escape raft, allowing some of the most privileged young people in the country to present themselves as devoid of power. Institutions like Yale, once meant to direct people in how to use their position for the greater good, are systematically undermined—a vicious cycle which ultimately erodes the country as a whole.
Segments of this class engage in risk-averse managerialism, while others take advantage of the glut to disrupt things and expand personal power. The broader population becomes caught up in these conflicts as these actors attempt to build power bases and mobilize against each other. And like Yale, it seems a safe bet that things will continue and even accelerate until some new vision and stable, non-ideological set of coordination mechanisms are able to establish hegemony and become a new ground for real cooperation.

As to what that ‘new vision’ looks like? The author has less to offer here. But the piece is a persuasive first-hand analysis by someone in a position – by virtue of her background – to reflect critically not just on the content but also the social form of the contemporary US campus wars.

This piece was first published at Unherd

You can’t outsource family life

As if schools did not have enough to do, the Children’s Society charity now wants teachers to monitor pupils’ wellbeing. 

UK children are among the unhappiest in the world and it is no wonder. Everyone has to work to make ends meet so children routinely spend 40-plus hours a week in often noisy, chaotic institutional childcare, outdoor play time is heavily supervised and constrained or simply nonexistent, and parents are too exhausted even to gather the family for dinner. 

Add to that a social life that skips real-life contact for the narcissistic filter of social media, confusing messages about sexuality that blend extreme permissiveness with anxious prurience, doom-laden prognostications about the environment, a shaky economic climate and a dearth of adult role models who wish to behave like adults, and it is no wonder children and young people are confused and unhappy.

But what on earth does anyone imagine will be improved by asking schools to measure this? A child’s wellbeing originates, first and foremost, with his or her family. Certainly a school can contribute to wellbeing but if home life is miserable there is not a great deal teachers can do about it.

The only way this suggestion makes sense is if you accept the premise that the proper place of family life is not with families but within institutions – that in fact families are no longer up to the job and schools should, wherever possible, make up for that shortfall. But loading ever more responsibility on to schools for offsetting the disintegration of family life is to compound the problem. It says to parents: this situation is fine, pray continue doing as you please, and never mind how it affects your children because it is the job of schools to pick up the pieces. Send them to reception class in nappies because you cannot be bothered to potty train them. Don’t bother teaching them to use a knife and fork: they’ll learn it at school. You don’t need to teach them to read an analogue clock – they’re taking them all down from exam halls anyway.

Every additional report suggesting more ways to outsource the duties of family life to state provision encourages adults to abdicate responsibility. It reassures parents that ‘adulting’ is optional, because there are institutions that will make up the shortfall.

Yet more insidiously, with that superficially attractive freedom from adult responsibility comes an ever more profound loss of freedom to conduct family life in the private sphere, or indeed in any way other than that sanctioned by the state. Perhaps that might be to the benefit of a few children with genuinely awful parents. But what of those of us who wish simply for the freedom of conscience to diverge from the official morality of the therapeutic state, and raise children according to our own values?

This article was first published in The Conservative Woman