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.

Who cares? A response to Giles Fraser

Giles Fraser writes in Unherd today about how the worldview that extols ‘social mobility’ and ‘free movement of people’ also cuts off at the knees the ability of families to care for their youngest and oldest, encouraging everyone instead to see themselves as free, wage-earning individuals and arse wiping as the responsibility of each individual or failing that the state. He asks: whose responsibility should it be to care for those who can’t wipe their own?

First, let me answer the question. Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. It is the daughter of the elderly gentleman that should be wiping his bottom. This sort of thing is not something to subcontract.
Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.

Now this is all very well and cuts to the heart of the question that more than any other makes me want to wrangle with feminism: the question of who cares. Not as in who gives a stuff, but who wipes the arses of those who can’t wipe their own? Somehow, still, the implicit answer still always seems to be ‘it should be women’. Fraser’s reference to ‘the daughter of the elderly gentlement’ is a reference to an anecdote but I think it goes beyond that: Fraser genuinely thinks that daughters should be wiping their parents’ arses.

I agree with Giles’ assessment insofar as it’s plain to me that the liberal vision of society has some shortcomings on this front. When the vision of the good life says that each of us is (or should be) an individual free of social expectations and obligations, when freedom is seen as a liberation from social obligations (such as arse wiping) that may be boring or unpleasant, then we are left with no happy answers to the question ‘who cares?’.

A feminism that holds this vision of autonomy above all else must necessarily skirt around motherhood and the elderly, because to focus on motherhood and the elderly would be to raise the question of who is wiping those arses, now that we’re all emancipated from domestic drudgery. For wealthier emancipated women, the answer today in practice is: less wealthy women. But who wipes the arses of children and elderly parents for those women who are paid to wipe arses by women who don’t want to wipe arses?

Clearly the blind spot in this discussion is that 50% of the population that Giles also omits to mention in his discussion of our lost bonds of reciprocal caring. Men. The emancipation of (some) women from caring obligations has not been swiftly followed by a stampede of men keen to pick up the shortfall. Men are not clamouring to stay home and look after elderly, incontinent parents. Rather, the assumption seems to be that liberation, liberal-style, means that no-one need wipe arses now unless they’re being paid for it. It’s paid carers all the way down, getting cheaper and more uncaring the further down the economic scale you go, until finally you’re back at women doing it unpaid.

Lost in all of this pass-the-hot-potato attitude to arse wiping is the notion that far from being an infra dig imposition on free individuals, reciprocal caring actually matters – indeed is the glue that binds any functioning society together. So as I wrestle with the question of how we square the evidently painful loss in our society of a valuable set of reciprocal, mutual caretaking obligation with my wish, as a woman, to have at least SOME hours of activity outside domestic drudgery, the only conclusion I can come to is that we – all of us that is, not just women – need to revalorise caring. And that goes for all of us. Those feminists who seem not to want to talk about arse wiping, preferring to focus on workplace sexual mores or female representation in elite career positions or traduce anyone who asks about caring as a fifth columnist for those (presumably closet Nazi) reactionaries who would see us return to the rigidly defined sex-based social roles of days gone by:

E A G E R@ElephantEager

God hates you Giles.

Sarah Ditum

@sarahditum

kinder küche kirche

See Sarah Ditum’s other Tweets

It also goes for Fraser, and everyone like him who wishes we could be more communitarian but seems to assume without a moment’s reflection that he can sign women back up for the role they held 50 years ago, without any kind of discussion about maybe improving on those working conditions or asking men to step up as well. It also goes for the rest of us, every time we take a decision that increases our autonomy at the expense of our ability to care. Regardless of our sex.

Some conservatives are gay – get over it, lefties!

It is not the right that conflates sexual orientation with political matters

In The Guardian today, Arwa Madhawi writes about the ‘troubling rise’ of gay conservatives. Gay people, it appears, have been known to support right-wing parties and even – whodathunkit – not be madly keen on importing homophobia into Europe via Muslim immigration:

Far-right parties have […] realized that strategically dangling a few gay people acts as a sort of fundamentalist Febreze that dilutes the stench of their hatred. For example, last month the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) became the first openly nationalist party to enter the German Bundestag for nearly 60 years. The AfD is co-led by Alice Weidel, who is gay and in a civil partnership with a woman who is reportedly of Sri Lankan descent.

So, extremist policies or not, how on Earth could the AfD be neo-Nazis if they’ve got a gay woman with an ethnically impure wife in charge? In France, the Front National is using similar tactics. According to a February BuzzFeed report, “the [French] National Front now has more high-ranking gay figures than any major party in France, including the Socialists, the center-left party that passed a marriage equality law in 2013”.

Note the phrasing here. The right-wing gay politicians in question have not formed their own views and chosen of their own volition to join AfD or the Front National. No: devoid of autonomy and agency, they are being ‘strategically dangled’ by Machiavellian neo-Nazis, their ascent to high-ranking positions or even leadership within those parties purely a function of the tokenism required to ‘pinkwash’ the otherwise rebarbative doctrines of those parties. (That this is viewed by the article’s left-wing author as self-evident prompts this blog to wonder to what extent the Labour Party simply takes for granted the inability of minorities to succeed without tokenism of this kind. If so, how must that feel to minorities wishing to make an impact on their own merits?)

The phrasing is also illustrative of another rarely questioned left-wing assumption: that left-liberalism is an all-or-nothing game. That is, that if you are untroubled by the existence of gay people, this amiable attitude should by definition extend to all other minorities, including ones we haven’t even thought of yet. Conservative writer Graeme Archer skewers this neatly in Capx:

I worry when any political assertion is used to instruct gay people what to believe. Those who claim transgender identity — the “T” in “LGBT+” — should be treated with dignity. But it is a category error, surely, to place transgenderism and homosexuality in the same bucket. They’re self-evidently not the same thing, and one’s attitude to the former can’t be a function of one’s status regarding the latter.

Consequences flow from this error. By eliding homosexuality with “any sexual minority, regardless of whether or not they’re gay” we allow the Left to own the very definition of gay people’s being. We turn a personal act of liberation (gay pride) into just another prescriptive set of Left-wing policies (commitment to “diversity”).

I wrote the other day about how the ever-expanding umbrella of minorities embraced by left-wing ‘diversity’ has gradually inched the acceptable field of minority campaign demands from focused civil rights matters to something more like a plaintive clamour for narcissistic strokes:

The unspoken rationale for the ever-widening membership categories for identity subsets within the political process is that it gives members access to what Joshua Mitchell in his outstanding essay The Identity Politics Death Grip calls ‘debt points’. That is, within identity politics, political campaign groups are not simply political campaign groups: they are identities, and membership of an identity confers privileges.

The left-wing assumption is that minorities will desire this state. That, purely by virtue of belonging to a minority, gay people (or any other kind of minority) must of course hanker for ‘debt points’, and wish to enter the economy and hierarchy of guilt and debt that Mitchell’s essay captures so neatly. Identity, he writes

carries a determination about guilt or innocence that nothing can appreciably alter. Its guilt is guilt without atonement; its innocence is innocence without fault. No redemption is possible, but only a schema of never-ending debts and payments. Second, this schema is made possible because identity politics is, tacitly or expressly, a relationship—something quite different from sorting (and self-sorting) by kinds. In the identity-politics world, the further your distance from the epicenter of guilt, the more debt points you receive.

The outrage Madhawi expresses at the notion that some gay people might disagree with her bright assumption that she can dictate their political views based on their minority status is, at root, not grounded in sorrow at the unpalatability of their dissenting views but anger at these individuals’ refusal to play the game. Cash in your debt points, dammit! And if you won’t, we will excommunicate you as white, male and wealthy, and re-site you close enough to the epicenter of guilt and thus free ourselves from worrying about your minority status.

 

This is an error. For once you disaggregate the happy rainbow of minorities under the diversity umbrella, it is plain as a pikestaff that the interests of different groups do not necessarily align and, in many cases, are actively in conflict. Nowhere in the article, for example, does she address the (to me pretty self-evident) probability that gay people are joining anti-immigration parties across Europe in high numbers not because they are helpless to resist the siren call of pink-washing neo-Nazis, but because they are concerned (justifiably, as Douglas Murray frequently points out) at the large-scale importation of sometimes violent homophobia from the Muslim world.

Once upon a time, to campaign for gay rights more or less forced individuals into the arms of the Left, as the Right often took a socially conservative stance that was not welcoming to gay people. Times have changed, thank goodness. Gay people have protections in law from discrimination and UK society at large is not hostile to same-sex relationships as was once the case. We should be celebrating the participation of gay people across the political spectrum as evidence of this thoroughgoing change. But the left, jealous of the territory it has annexed and reluctant to free people it considers ‘rightfully ours’ to exercise their own judgement in political matters, still persists in muddling sexual orientation with political orientation, and stubbornly refuses to get over the fact that gay people are individuals, not ciphers for tokenism – and yes, some of them are conservative.

Tories: Stop using Brexit as a proxy war

The Daily Mail today reports that judges may prevent Britain deporting immigrants sleeping rough on the streets of London. A legal challenge is being brought against a Home Office policy that deports immigrants sleeping rough, on the basis that by failing to support themselves after moving to the UK their rights under freedom of movement are forfeit.

Leaving aside the merits of either side of that argument, the story is emblematic of a schism within conservatism. On one side sit social conservatives, who believe that tradition, established cultural norms and a sense of continuity with the past are of value. On the other, free marketeers believe that the greatest good can be achieved by permitting the market to develop solutions to people’s needs, with minimal government interference.

Consider a social conservative and a free market conservative take on this story. The free marketeer might say: let them sleep rough – winter will drive them into rentals, the market will find a solution at a suitable price point for them, and in the meantime who am I to criticise someone seeking to reduce his overheads while getting started in a new country?

The social conservative, though, might say: no, that’s not how we do things in this country. It’s not the done thing to save money on housing by creating a tent city in Central London. It’s not on. Mass rough sleeping is squalid, threatening, unhealthy and potentially dangerous. If they cannot live as we live, then they should not be permitted to stay here fouling up the city for people who are doing the right thing.

The social conservative is willing to use the power of social and moral pressure, and if necessary the state, to enforce social norms some of which may run counter to the needs or pressures of the market. From the free-market conservative point of view, the social conservative risks impeding the fluidity of the market, restraining its marvellous problem-solving powers, and does so in the name of social values that may be arbitrary, often seem to have little basis in reason, and yet are clung to with a devotion quite at odds with the free market view of man as a rational actor.

Conversely, the free-market conservative may consider disrupting established social norms or ways of life to be a price worth paying for allowing market forces to flow and find equilibrium. From the social conservative point of view, this might be viewed as a kind of crass vandalism, that reduces all of life to its commercial or economic value and remains wilfully blind to those aspects of life that cannot readily be assigned a number.

For the most part, in party political terms, the natural home of both social conservatives and free marketeers has for some time been the Conservative Party. But these two types of conservative are at odds with one another, or at least not obviously in alignment, on most of the hot-button issues currently in play: from globalisation, immigration, multiculturalism and housebuilding to social questions such as gender issues and the rise of Islam. I am not seeing any sort of intra-conservative debate that recognises the existence of such an ideological fault line. (If I just need a better reading list, I would be grateful to anyone who can improve mine.)

For a number of years, these two kinds of conservatives have maintained a truce and semblance of unity based on the fact that both sides can agree – for different and sometimes contradictory reasons – that state spending should be restrained and ideally reduced. The remainder of Tory policies have been hashed out between the two sides as various kinds of compromise  – or, as in the case of Iain Duncan Smith at the DWP versus George Osborne at the Treasury, an increasingly bitter turf war. But trying to sweep it under the carpet is not good enough any more. When one of the few clear positive points of agreement is ‘government should spend less on stuff’ is it any wonder the Conservatives are so easily caricatured by the Left as heartless stealers of the meagre crumbs from the tables of the poor?

Besides, if Osborne vs Duncan Smith was a minor skirmish in the ongoing tussle between social and free market conservatism, the Brexit vote has triggered conservative ideological Armageddon. Conservatives from both sides of the schism wanted to leave the European Union for profoundly different reasons, and in the narratives of – say – Daniel Hannan and Andrea Leadsom you can see the two sides, both passionate and both in search of entirely different and in many ways mutually contradictory outcomes.

Enough of this fudge. The Conservatives need to have it out. One might ask the free market conservatives: how much social and cultural disruption is acceptable in the name of opening up markets? If (say) robotisation decimates employment across entire sectors, are we cool with that? And if so, and you still call yourself a conservative, what precisely do you consider yourself to be conserving?

To the social conservatives, one might ask: to what extent is it important and necessary to restrain markets in order to preserve social goods? Is it worth – for example – deploying protectionist measures to shore up industries that are part of the fabric of the country and culture, even if in doing so we actually damp down innovation and growth overall? Or: you may talk about clamping down on immigration, out of a concern that the native culture is at risk of being overwhelmed. But the Tories have always been for pragmatism over woolly idealism; how then can you call yourself a Tory when you are pushing for a poorer and less dynamic country, all in the name of something nebulous called ‘a way of life’?

What is worth conserving? Do we care about traditions? Does that extend to traditional social or moral views? How much social disruption is acceptable in the name of the markets? When it happens, who bears it, and is that distribution of social cost politically sustainable? Conservatives need to be having these arguments out in the open. And don’t give me that guff about preserving unity while in government. Backstabbing one another over Brexit and cribbing policy from Ed Miliband is not preserving unity.

Social and free market conservatives have rubbed along well enough for some time, mostly by horse-trading or ignoring one another. But Brexit has ended that: there’s suddenly just too much at stake. The ideological fudge has become a bitter paralysis, and it is actively harming the national interest. So for the Tories the choice is stark: carry on treating our departure from the EU as party political psychodrama or, y’know, actually debate the principles informing your vision. Air the differences that have been swept under the rug for so long. Who knows, a good healthy argument might even result in some fresh ideas, and God knows the Tories could do with a few of those.

This post was originally published at Semi-Partisan Politics.

Why have both left and right abandoned the working class? Simple – they don’t need them any more

In a Quillette article about universal basic income and the risk of tyranny, Shai Shapira makes a highly plausible case that political participation develops in direct proportion to the need a state has for its citizens:

We don’t have to go back to ancient history to see this trend – these days we have many countries in the world whose incomes are based on extracting resources from the ground, requiring little to no participation from the common people. Which countries are functioning democracies, and which are autocracies? The World Bank gives us a list of countries ordered by what percentage of their merchandise exports comes from fuels. At 50% or more we find, in this order: Iraq, Angola, Algeria, Brunei, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Oman, Norway, Colombia, Bolivia and Bahrain. Can we notice a trend? How many of these countries provide a good set of political rights for their citizens?

This should not be surprising. This pattern is not often discussed, as it conflicts the image we like to have of political rights as being the result of enlightenment and struggle, of the heroes of our past who overthrew despotic regimes and created a better world for everyone. But reality, unfortunately, seems more cynical than that. We do not get our rights because we deserve them, or even because we fight for them – we get our rights because the government needs us. It is a common hope that countries that escape poverty will move on to adopt democracy, and this indeed happened in some notable cases, like South Korea or Taiwan. But South Korea and Taiwan became rich from industry, which means their wealth came from the work of their citizens; meanwhile, Qatar or Angola became rich from natural resources, and their political situation became no better. A country that generates its wealth from its citizens has no choice but to keep those citizens happy, at least to some degree; a country that generates its wealth from oil wells, only needs to keep a handful of mercenaries happy as they guard the access to those wells.

The article is well worth a read. But for me it sparked off a connection with the strange phenomenon we live with nowadays, that of a Labour Party that gives voice to pretty much anyone except the labouring classes. Put simply, the working classes no longer have a major party giving them political representation because the state no longer needs them, and arguably has been working for some decades to ensure that continues to be the case.

Applying Shapira’s insights to the development of mass political participation in the UK, the hypothesis remains plausible. Despite some decades of suffragette agitation, it was not until 1918, when women began to be needed as participants in civic life to replace the men being shipped off to die en masse in the trenches of Europe, that the first women were enfranchised. What is less often remembered is that the same Act also enfranchised some 5 million non-property-owning men. The state needed these men and women – hey presto, improved political participation was the sweetener demanded by the masses in exchange.

Throughout the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, the United Kingdom derived much of its wealth from manufacturing; the workers who staffed the factories were needed. The same period traces a trajectory of ever-growing mass political participation, and is often narrated as a moral development, a steady march towards enlightenment in the form of the universal franchise. But was it as much about the need to acknowledge reciprocity between the working masses and the political class? The extent to which workers were increasingly able to use the leverage their labour in industry collectively gave them, to demand political concessions from a previously patrician governing class, forms the history of the trade union movement and, from 1900 onwards, the Labour Party.

What followed from the end of World War II until the Winter of Discontent and subsequent election of Margaret Thatcher is, arguably, a tale of this leverage developing first into its strength, then beyond strength to complacency, hubris and stagnation. We all know the denouement, as rolling blackouts left swathes of the country reading by candlelight, rubbish lay uncollected in the streets and the Iron Lady declared ‘There is no alternative’ and deployed all the resources at her disposal to smash the unions. In her grim determination to rein in the unfettered power of trade unionism to bring the country to a standstill, she shuttered entire industries and impoverished vast swathes of the United Kingdom, changes still palpable (and, in parts of the country, unforgiven) today.

Thatcher moved deliberately to tilt the UK’s economy away from manufacturing and towards knowledge and services – notably financial services, the behemoth that now sits astride London, sucking in all cultural capital from the surrounding 300 miles as well as much of the world. That is, she restructured the entire British economy so that the state no longer needed the working classes as it had in the 19th and 20th centuries. Who knows whether she did this intentionally to reduce the workers’ leverage over the state, but that was the effect of the changes she wrought.

The consequence, nearly 40 years on from her first election victory, is that as the political classes’ dependence on a mass industrial workforce has waned, political parties on both left and right are increasingly indifferent to their needs.

Indeed, Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to open the UK borders to Eastern European EU accession countries meant that the working classes were needed even less than before. Where, a century previously, the supply of labour was relatively static and if the state wanted to ask something significant of the working masses then political sweeteners were needed in exchange, now in the days of free movement it didn’t even matter if the indigenous working classes withheld their labour, as employers would just import replacements from the EU!

Thus was the bond of reciprocity broken between the state and the working classes. Commentators on both right and left now agree – as do the statistics and Labour’s own data – that Labour is now firmly a party of the middle class. Indeed, there is a distinct whiff around much of the left these days of disgust at the working class, as Brendan O’Neill never tires of pointing out.

It is no wonder that Labour ceased to see its role as representing the interests of those workers: they had nowhere else to go and would probably continue to vote Labour, so could be taken for granted. The result has been a hollowed-out Labour Party, reduced from a grand coalition of middle-class socialists and working-class firebrands to a kind of well-off clerisy, shy of talking about class but ever so keen to tell you what to think. Ultimately, it has led us to Jeremy Corbyn, a man who speaks entirely to and for the middle classes (free university tuition fees is the sort of outrageous middle-class bung that the Tories would be pilloried for) but does so in a strange, stylised parody of the 1970s, the last days of the trade union Raj.

The only difference between left and right on this front, today, is the consensus on how large the welfare-state bung should be to buy off now politically-irrelevant class. Stereotypically, the Conservatives believe the working masses should be handed free money, buck up, get jobs, pay taxes and become needed by the state so they can participate politically; this view is indifferent to any barriers to doing so. In contrast, Labour believes this class should be treated with patrician generosity, and handed as much free money as necessary to keep them quiescent. In practice, both sides operate the same welfare system, with minor tweaks at the edges blown up by the Westminster bubble into giant ideological differences.

So what is to become of the working masses now? What chance of reclaiming representation? Movements come and go that seek to represent working-class interests: Britain First, the EDL, the Football Lads’ Alliance. Such movements are generally demonised as ‘far-right’ by the chattering classes; and (with the exception of the mass working-class vote to leave the European Union) these movements are largely cultural rather than political, pushing back less against contemporary politics than incursions by foreigners, or political correctness, or other manifestations of the elite’s vision of the good life. If Shapira’s formulation holds good, the masses will have little success in reclaiming political representation until they are actually needed again by the state that governs them. And in a world of increasing robotisation which, instead, proposes to make an ever-greater proportion of the population unnecessary to a state’s prosperity, that seems a prospect both distant and, in its profound implications for the health of our democracy, deeply worrying.

May’s retail offer disappoints on all levels

Theresa May’s big conference announcement for the day was…wait for it…extra dosh for Help to Buy.

Great. Fantastic. Muted applause.

The announcement disappoints, on so many levels.

Level one: it’s a stupid policy that will make the situation it proposes to ameliorate worse. Why is there a crisis in the first place? Housing prices are too high. What happens when you increase demand (give more young people the means to buy) without increasing supply accordingly? Prices go up. It’s barely even a sticking plaster on an endemic problem that will take a degree of political boldness undetectable in this government.

Level two: it’s weak and calculating, and trying not to look that way. The Tories are in a bind, because no-one young votes Tory. To entice more young voters their way, they need to do something to help more young people become the property-owning middle classes that traditionally vote Tory. That means building enough houses to keep prices stable or encourage them to fall. But on the other hand, housebuilding on that scale will annoy the older people who like the countryside as it is, and who see the rising value of their home as a nest egg. These are people who already reliably vote Tory. So, May must choose whether to protect the interests of the Tories’ core vote or risk alienating this core vote in order to appeal to another demographic that may or may not be swayed by her efforts. She has tried to square this circle, with a policy that will enable more young people to get a toe on the housing ladder, while ignoring the need to increase supply; her policy will thus avoid too much desecration of the sacred Green Belt and continue to drive up house prices, hopefully keeping the core Tory vote on board. Everyone wins, right? Except it’s a stupid policy that just defers the fundamental problem, which is either too few houses or too many people. She must know well that this is the case but lacks the clout, the boldness or perhaps the vision to do more than paper over the cracks and try to keep these competing interests onside.

Level three, and fundamentally, this policy disappoints because it’s such a sad capitulation to the bland, vision-less, tinkering-with-the-dials modern politics of ‘me, me, me’. What will the government do for me? What about my interests? Sod the country, I’m voting for whoever has the best deal for me. Forget having a vision and trying to govern in the national interest. Forget trying to carry the people with you when you do so. Ignore the big questions, fiddle with this tax or that incentive, try and triangulate for as many selfish subsets of the demos as you can isolate.

Whatever what your views on Brexit, it is clear that many people voted Leave knowing full well it was likely to result in an economically bumpy ride but believing that leaving was in the national interest regardless. By and large it was a vote that rejected the selfish nest-feathering insularity of retail politics in favour of a bigger vision. In uncertain times, faced with many competing narratives to explain ever more unpredictable outcomes, the Brexit vote spoke of a people – 52% of them, anyway – looking for a politics that is more about vision than retail offers. Arguably the popularity of Corbyn’s unaffordable promises speaks to the same impulse. But has May sensed the national hunger for vision and boldness in politics? Has she fuck. After her disastrous attempt at grasping nettles in the national interest – the so-called ‘dementia tax’, a genuinely bold and progressive effort to stop kicking the pretty troubling can of elderly care down the road – she has retreated from the big picture into the horse-trading politics of buying off this or that demographic.

What the Conservatives need is a leader with the courage and vision to make a clear case for tackling the country’s vested interests and getting the political consent for this by inspiring political solidarity. In the case of housing that means getting the NIMBYs to accept that they have to choose between keeping their pretty view at the expense of a thriving community, or letting development happen so their children can afford to buy in the area. We need someone who can speak to the whole country and draw out a sense of solidarity, of being willing to compromise so that the country overall can thrive.

The Conservatives were once able to find the kind of language to capture that kind of purpose and collective endeavour. Sadly, though, Mrs May has shrunk from the task in hand and I don’t see any likely successor who strike me as more plausible. So instead we get a shit policy that aims to buy off one group while keeping another pacified. A policy, and a party, that utterly fails to meet the mood of the times but instead harks back to the selfish, narcissistic politics of the ‘End of History’ post-Cold War era. A policy and party that resolutely refuses to acknowledge the fact that history has come roaring back, and that our current elected representatives are painfully, woefully not up to the job of dealing with it.