I thoroughly enjoyed this challenging but very interesting chat with Simeon Burke on faith, motherhood, feminism, why I don’t believe in progress and why the term ‘post-liberal’ doesn’t really make sense because all politics is post-liberal now.
I chaired this Res Publica seminar with Adrian Vermeule, Ryzard Legutko, Patrick Deneen and Phillip Blond discussing the future of post-liberal politics across the world.
Today’s hottest property: young fogeys. Blue Labour hailed Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory as a rebellion by the country’s ‘culturally conservative’ silent majority. A new conservative magazine seems to appear every week. We have even seen a youth movement for the revival of socially conservative values popping up in that bastion of modern double liberalism, the Conservative Party.
What do they all want? At the more wonkish end of the debate, the argument is broadly that the political push throughout the twentieth century for ever greater social and economic freedom has brought many benefits, but that these have been unevenly distributed and are now reaching the point of diminishing returns.
The pursuit of ever greater freedom and individualism, this strand of thought argues, has delivered rising wealth while hollowing out working-class communities; liberated some women while forcing others to work a double shift and abandon the young and old in substandard care, and provided an infinitude of consumer choice but at the cost of mounting ecological damage. Under the sign of radical individualism, the new communitarians argue, we are all becoming more solitary and self-absorbed. Even charitable giving seems to be in unstoppable decline.
But what, in practice, are the new social conservatives seeking to conserve? Calls for a revival of cultural conservatism, many in the name of Christian values, seem often on closer examination oddly insubstantial. In 2017, UKIP’s leader-for-that-week Stephen Crowther said that the UK is a Christian country, “and we intend to stay that way.” But for Crowther, being a Christian country does not seem to impose any obligation to actually be Christian:
including Christian in our list [of principles] does not imply any requirement for individual faith, but it reflects the Judeo-Christian classical and enlightenment origins on which our laws, our social systems and our cultural norms have been built over two millennia.
Elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbàn describes his brand of authoritarian, identity-oriented politics as ‘Christian democracy’. Only a minority of Hungarians go to church every week – 56% of the country identifies as Catholic, though only 12% attends church regularly – but the identifier ‘Christian’ has nonetheless become central to Orbàn’s politics.
Much as Crowther did, the Orban-supporting Bishop of Szeged, László Kiss-Rigó, bridges this gap with a vague, cultural definition of what actually constitutes a ‘Christian’: “In Europe, even an atheist is a Christian”, he said. It turns out that being ‘Christian’ is less about prayer or doctrine than ‘values’: “We are very happy that there are a few politicians like Orbán and Trump who really represent those values which we Christians believe to be important.”
What exactly are these values, then? Attendees at anti-Islam Pegida rallies in Germany carry crosses and sing carols. Italian right-winger Matteo Salvini punctuates anti-immigration rhetoric by brandishing a rosary, drawing criticism from the very Catholic faith whose symbols he invokes. Try to pin down any actual values this form of Christianity might require of its adherents, and matters are much less clear.
Even those whose stated desire is to defend the place of faith in public and political life seem keen that the faith itself stop short of imposing actual obligations. To take a more moderate example of the new cultural conservatism, the Social Democratic Party took a broadly post-liberal, culturally conservative stance in its 2018 relaunch. The New Declaration made an energetic defence of our right to hold even illiberal religious views openly in public life:
Citizens holding a traditional, patriotic or religious outlook are often bullied and marginalised, stifling the open debate upon which a free and democratic society depends.
Then, about a year later, the SDP lost its only donor over a bitter intra-party dispute about whether or not it should be party policy to ban halal slaughter – a position markedly at odds with the party’s previous defence of religious pluralism. And when the Church of England recently reiterated its long-held position on sex and marriage, prominent SDP member Patrick O’Flynn took to the pages of the Daily Express to mock ‘the otherworldliness of these Men of God’. Instead of insisting on ‘out of touch’ doctrine, O’Flynn suggested, in order to attract more young people to weekly worship the Church should adjust its doctrines on sex and marriage to reflect their values.
In this view of faith, theological positions do not reflect any kind of truth-claim but should be emergent properties of the aggregate ethical positions held by the members of that church. Less ‘Christian democracy’ than ‘democratic Christianity’: whatever the congregants believe becomes the doctrine of the church.
From a religious perspective this makes no sense. To the believer, doctrine is handed down from God Himself. The thought of God’s word being subject to plebiscite is absurd, if not outright blasphemous.
This debate reveals the missing piece in today’s would-be conservative revival. Where do our values come from? What is the proper source of political authority? Progressives gesture at natural rights or an imagined future utopia, but for anyone who remains unconvinced that we are all on a journey somewhere wonderful, some other authority is required.
Edmund Burke suggested the answer lay in a blend of deference to tradition and God’s grand design, tempered by carefully constrained democratic institutions; his Savoyard contemporary, Joseph de Maistre, argued that the only proper form of authority lay in God’s will, delivered via the Pope and an absolute monarch.
The history of modernity has unfolded in the tensions between these competing understandings of political authority. ‘The will of God’, the will of ‘the People’, and the grand designs of various utopias have variously been used to justify all manner of enterprises, with outcomes from the magnificent to the horrific. But our present political difficulties may be in part down to a growing popular discomfort with accepting the legitimacy of any of the above.
Since the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the EU, there has been a low but persistent rumble from our moral betters that democracy should maybe have its wings clipped a little, to stop stupid proles making bad decisions. A degree of wing-clipping has in fact long since taken place: John Gray has discussed recently in these pages the way the language and legal mechanism of ‘rights’ is used to shift entire areas of public life from democratic debate to the dry realm of unelected lawyers and judges. But if authority does not reside in the will of the people, nor does it reside with God: it is difficult to imagine a mainstream British politician claiming moral authority on the basis of divine will without being roundly pilloried.
Progress and human rights, then? Every young person who passes through a modern university is taught in no uncertain terms that totalising metanarratives are suspect. At best, they are power moves. Whenever you find one you should ask cui bono? In the case of universal human rights, the answer is probably: lawyers.
This leaves would-be conservatives in a bind. If (with a few honourable exceptions still holding out for direct Vatican rule) political authority rests not in tradition (too restrictive on personal liberty) or democracy (probably rigged) or even God (don’t tell ME what to do!) or even in the lawyers, then what is left? Politics professor Matt McManus argues that the result is a postmodernism of the right as well as of the left: a series of nested calls for a return to authority, tradition and culture that all, on closer inspection, turn out to be largely delivery mechanisms for adversarial but hollow identity politics.
Having come unmoored from its roots either in the past, the divine, or the popular will, McManus suggests that this postmodern conservatism has warped a Burkean belief in tradition into a kind of moral cosplay whose main purpose is less seeking the good life than making a noisy defence of whichever identities its sworn enemies attack. As the postmodern liberal-left demonises heterosexual white males, so postmodern conservatism sets out to defend them; and so on.
Seen in this light, the problem with Orbàn and other borrowers of Christian clothing is not that they do not believe their own words. Inasmuch as they can mean anything, they genuinely identify as Christians. It is more that when all sources of authority are suspect, the only legitimate recourse is to the self: to identity, and identification.
And the problem with identification is that it remains separate from whatever it identifies as. Just like the modern dating marketplace, where commitment is radically undermined by the ease of swiping right, modern cultural conservatism is radically undermined by the fear that without a reliable foundation of authority, and with more identity-choice options only a click away, we are never fully the thing we claim as our identity.
Without a sense of confidence in the roots of its political legitimacy, conservative values dissolve from concrete obligations to consumer accessories. This in turn is why Orbànist ‘Christian democracy’ and many of its populist cousins find their most compelling realisation not in religious doctrine or observance, but in defining themselves against their outgroup. If “even an atheist is a Christian” then either no one is a Christian, or everyone is. The only way of defining what a Christian is, is in terms of what it is not: foreigners.
But if this is so, then in a postmodern environment, shorn of recourse to authority, cultural conservatism is a waste of energy. It cannot define what it wants. All is insubstantial; there is no exit from the Matrix, nothing left to conserve.
Does it follow from this that those who long for place, limits, love, family, faith and meaning should just sit in the rubble and watch it all burn? I do not think so. But when there is nothing solid to go back to, anyone attracted to what is left of the ideology that used to be called ‘conservative’ needs to find a new name for their yearning. ‘Constructionists’, perhaps. There is a lot of building to do.
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.
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.
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.
I am pleased to see the Conservative Party has used an arcane bit of filibustering to scotch Labour’s latest attempt to extend the franchise to 16-year-olds.
It is not immediately clear why the Labour Party is making so much of extending the franchise below 18, though a cynic might point to the idealism of youth and the overwhelmingly left-wing politics of the educational establishment which young people are now legally obliged to continue encountering until the age of 18. But it should not be permitted to happen.
If you look at the people who advocate for votes at 16, they are invariably well-insulated from the consequences of bad politics. Teenagers typically live with their parents and do not pay tax (or certainly the kind of teenager who gets het up about the franchise is unlikely to be already in work and living independently) and as such have relatively little stake in the hard consequences that result from a general election, except at one remove via their parents.
The kind of teenager who gets passionately het up about politics and wants to vote
Along with the kind of teenager who gets passionately het up about politics as a kind of abstract and vehicle for high-minded ideals (see illustrative example above), and who has little skin in the game as he or she does not yet pay tax or incur adult responsibilities, the other kind of voice calling to extend the franchise is a certain kind of career politician. Such people are insulated from the consequences of bad politics by an influential network, a good salary and plenty of job opportunities should he or she be voted out. For career politicians advocating the policy, extending the franchise is either a kind of grandstanding (you could call it attempting to cling to the coattails of the Pankhursts perhaps) or (whisper it) perhaps a cynical attempt to recruit an extra 1.5 million voters with little life experience and, it is presumed, in the main quite left-wing ideals.
The problem is that these two groups busy trying to tamper with the franchise, at little personal cost to themselves, are trivialising it in the process. Voting seems trivial to them, because the outcome of general elections don’t change much for them. But regular adult voters, who pay tax or receive benefits, drive on the roads, have to navigate the healthcare etc etc, voting is one of the few real and substantive levers available to make a meaningful impact on the direction of the country. Extending the franchise to children too young to drive, to end their education legally or to live independently without their parents’ permission would confirm the already pervasive suspicion that no serious decision is ever put to the electorate in case they make the wrong choice. (The EU referendum is the single, wonderful, accidental exception to that rule, for which the political class will never forgive David Cameron.)
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote we have a chance to return politics to the people and away from the stifling consensus that has deadened political engagement since the end of the Cold War. As Sam Hooper puts it
for too long Britain has been run by cautious, unambitious identikit drones who nominally belong to Team Red or Team Blue but ultimately hold the same basic worldview and seek to inch us incrementally toward their shared vision of the future, without even thinking to meaningfully consult with the people or explain their actions.
The electorate rejected that consensus, decisively. In Robert Peston’s words, the electorate threw all the cards up in the air because it was our only chance to do so. We have a chance now to return democracy to something in which voters have an impact – an end to consensus politics, a chance to put all the options back on the table, to return to politics red in tooth and claw. But for that to happen, politics has to be the preserve of grownups. I don’t buy this idea that minors should have a say too, because they will live with the consequences longer. If that were the case, my 14-month-old toddler should also have a vote, and hers should count more than the teenager’s since after all she is going to live with the consequences longer. Right?
No. You have to draw a line, and anyone who has spent any time talking to 16-year-olds (the normal sort, not the sort that makes speeches at Labour Party conferences) knows that even 18 is pushing it and 16 is just silly. Unless, that is, you intend for voting to be a kind of decorative ritual on top of a technocratic politics that continues along the path its mandarins consider best regardless of which team is notionally in power. In that case, it makes very little difference whether teenagers vote or not, because it makes very little difference if any of us do. But if we want to preserve voting as something that can obtain a meaningful result, on topics that matter, it should not be the preserve of children.
Inclusivity is a word often heard in today’s political discourse. In the latest brouhaha, the UK government asked for the phrase ‘pregnant women’ in a the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to be replaced by ‘pregnant people’, in order to be inclusive of women who identify as transgender men, and subsequently become pregnant. Following an outcry, Theresa May has hastened to insist that ‘pregnant women’ is ‘acceptable‘ (oh, really, how very kind of you to say so) but the pressure to be ‘inclusive’ is powerful, and now deep-rooted in the culture.
Feminists are plagued with demands that they be inclusive. Indeed, an entire website, with the presumptuous title Everyday Feminism, is devoted to spooling out clickbait articles hectoring would-be feminists on all the different identity groups they are obliged to include, and the ways in which they are constantly failing to do so. So wonderful is inclusivity, that even men must be included in feminism – provided they identify as women. In fact, intersectional feminism should include everyone.
But why should this be? Inclusivity is presented as ipso facto a good thing, but I never hear anyone making the argument for why this is the case. One way to unpack that is to look at the way the words ‘judgement’ and ‘discrimination’ have evolved over the last couple of centuries. In Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem An Essay on Criticismhe writes:
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm’ring light;
The lines, tho’ touch’d but faintly, are drawn right.
What begins as a disquisition on the proper uses of literary criticism develops into a manifesto for taste. Judgement is at its core, and is clearly a positive thing. Where prior to the Enlightenment, judgement was reserved for God alone, with the Enlightenment that spark of divinity descends – potentially at least – into each indi vidual. It is one of the ways in which the Enlightenment view of humanity morphed from something substantially at the mercy of the divine into something substantially autonomous, rational, capable of clear thought and action on that basis.
Now consider the way the word ‘judgement’ is used today. To judge someone is a hostile act, something done to me by people with a full set of prejudices and a weak grasp of the facts of my situation. It is an unacceptable incursion into my freedom to live as I please. Who are you to judge my actions, you who know so little about me? As for ‘discrimination’, which once meant ‘the ability to make finely calibrated distinctions based on a moral framework’, these days as we all know it’s illegal.
Judgement leads to discrimination, which groups people according to a moral framework and excludes them from access to power or resources on the basis of those judgements. This has in the past produced some brutal injustices: examples that spring readily to mind include South African apartheid, or the disenfranchisement of women and the working class. But it is one thing to protest against the exclusion of entire groups from participation in the general political process, and to protest against the exclusion of groups from political subsets within that process. To put it more simply: the devil is in the detail. Who is being excluded, and from what?
I wrote the other day about the way in which the addition of a neverending alphabet soup of additional identities to the lesbian, bisexual and gay rights campaign has not expanded but neutered that campaign, and silenced some of its members:
[O]nce you buy into the idea that the alphabet soup needs to be ‘inclusive’ of the needs of all these people, most of whom have sod all in common and some of whom are actually just straight people who want to feel a bit special, you can’t really, actually, campaign for anything much. And if you try, the reality starts to bite, which is that you’ve created an umbrella group whose members, far from having shared interests, in fact have such mutually contradictory interests in many ways that the only way to be inclusive is for some or all of the letters to STFU. […] It’s like what would happen if you decided in the name of inclusivity to open up the Olympics to competitive sewing, darts, poetry reading, cookery, dance and spelling bees. Suddenly you don’t have an athletics competition any more, you just have a vaguely feelgood sort of village show.
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. But while it claims the supposedly laudable goal of inclusivity and political participation, this ever-widening net of victimhood is in fact stifling the capacity of such groups to function as campaigns. To put it another way: while universal inclusion in the political process is something we should all strive to achieve, in the context of political campaigns its effect is suffocating.
The essence of politics, of political campaigns, is this: you define a group, with shared interests, and you use your collective voice to amplify those interests and pressure for their fulfilment. In order to define a group, you have to be able to define what it is not. And you also have to be able to exclude individuals or subgroups whose interests do not align with those of the group overall.
So in order to be politically effective, feminists should be able to exclude those whose interests do not align with those of women, as they perceive them. From the radical feminist perspective, it is not unreasonable to want to exclude men. By the same token, why should a campaign created to advocate for greater acceptance for same-sex relationships feel obliged to fly the flag for those who feel no sexual desire? Their interests have no obvious alignment apart from a vague general rejection of normative heterosexuality. It is difficult to think of a campaign statement that both reflects their common interests and is anything but limply anodyne.
Identity politics has used the genuine injustices and exclusions of the past to turn inclusivity into a battering ram that hacks away at the capacity of any political campaign group to focus, define its goals and interests and campaign for them. The self-righteous warriors for inclusion, progress and social justice are, once you strip away the kumbayas, a remarkably effective set of fetters on effective political action. Is it possible that postmodern identity politics is not, in fact, a force for progress but its opposite? By that I don’t mean reactionary nostalgia or conservatism but stasis, nihilism, stagnation. Jordan B. Peterson thinks so:
“The best you can do with postmodern philosophy is emerge nihilistic, at best. The worst case is that you’re a kind of anarchical social revolutionary who is directionless apart from that you want to tear things down. Or you end up depressed, which I see happening to students all the time because the postmodernists take out the remaining structures of their ethical foundation.
Inclusivity is the death of politics, as competing interests are papered over in favour of ever blander general statements designed to avoid offending ever more unfocused and incoherent sets of priorities. (It also murders serious journalism, as Nick Cohen blisteringly argues this month in Standpoint.) goes without saying that the franchise should be universal for adults within a democratic nation, but that is as far as inclusivity need go. To achieve anything beyond a grim staggering on with the status quo, or a chronic submission to the loudest voices, politics requires groups to be able to self-define, to judge and to exclude if necessary. (It also requires a vision capable of inspiring and uniting so as to prevent ever greater balkanisation in the manner of the Judean People’s Front, but that’s another discussion.) In essence, that’s what a democratic nation state is: a group of people, united by geography, tradition, history, shared habits, culture, usually to a degree ethnicity and so on, who have agreed that they share sufficient interests overall that all are collectively willing to abide by the decisions of elected representatives in government even if some did not vote for that party and disagree with their views. The covenant, the overarching agreement to abide by the result until the next election, is key to the coherence and stability of the nation state. It requires a sense of who is defined within our group – and also who we may legitimately exclude.
It is in this sense that advocates for mass immigration know not what they do. While they may be right that encouraging large-scale flows of people into a democratic nation state can benefit that receiving nation economically, there is an attendant risk to the democratic covenant in operation within the country. If three million people arrive in a country of fifty million, and I don’t know what their interests, priorities, histories, allegiances or loyalties are, does the democratic covenant still hold? What about ten million? Twenty? At what point does the web of tradition, expectation, mutual obligation, habit and collective solidarity fray into a sense of anomie? And what happens to that nation’s practice of democracy then?
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.