Forget policy: to survive, conservatism must fight for Western civilisation

It is clear that the left is enjoying something of a moment, not just in the UK but across most of the West. It has reduced universities to censorious leftist monocultures, is busy imposing its ever more deranged zombie religion of political correctness in public debate and is so effusively full of confidence in its command of the cultural moment that ‘Acid Corbynism’ has caused quite a stir at this year’s Labour Party conference (fringe). Meanwhile the right-leaning press is full of gloomy arguments discussing the Tories’ oncoming demographic Armageddon and crisis of political confidence.

Mulling this over, it strikes me as strange that conservatives should feel thus on the back foot, when there is so much to preserve, so much to care for and pass on to the next generation. The whole of Western civilisation, in fact. Why, then, are conservatives so embarrassed about wishing to conserve?

The doctrine of postmodernism, which advances a wedge of dilettante erudition ahead of its jackhammer of angry philistinism, has used its assault on the concept of canon to leave the best part of three decades’ worth of Western university graduates with barely a piecemeal grasp of their cultural heritage. Even this is filtered for them by their tutors through a lens of guilty identity politics, that reduces everything it touches, no matter how sublime or beautiful, to an ugly scrum for power under ‘cisheteropatriarchy’.

The result is three decades of graduates that simply do not see anything worth conserving. Where conservatism sees our culture as a collective endeavour worth contributing to and continuing, a flame that we all help to carry, the graduates of postmodernism see it as a monolithic engine of marginalisation. A pervasive, miasmic, indestructible force for perpetuating in-groups and injustice, to which the only legitimate reaction is resistance and subversion, and the amplification of voices deemed marginalised. It is in this fundamental perception that much of the ‘snowflake’ stereotype resides, for today’s university students naturally wish to align themselves with the marginalised rather than their imaginary plutocratic oppressors. This leads in turn to the strange phenomenon of Ivy League students, arguably some of the most privileged young people on the planet, throwing public tantrums when their pain and oppression is not validated.

But I digress. My argument is that conservatism’s crisis of confidence lies in the fact that even conservatives have been infected with postmodernism’s anxiety about whether Western civilisation really is worth saving. How could it be otherwise, when we study at the same universities, participate in (to an extent) the same public discourse, live and work with those who would take a hammer to our past? And if it isn’t worth saving, what are are conservatives but a bunch of intransigent junk-hoarders? Or perhaps conservatives just really dig the cisheteropatriarchy? Perhaps they just get off on shitting on marginalised groups and exploiting the poor?

You can see where the current leftist narrative about conservatism originates, and perhaps you begin to see why conservatives struggle to articulate counter-narrative. Because a counter-narrative to this nihilistic, pomo 21st-century mutation of leftism would require saying: I reject your basic premise. Western civilisation is a remarkable collective achievement of some five thousand years and deserves our humble appreciation and positive contribution, not this childish window-smashing. Everything I believe in stems from this premise, while you seem to believe progress can only come about when we tear it all down: the statues, the literature, the music, the architecture, the very notion of high culture itself. And as long as conservatives have even the shadow of a fear that the pomo nihilists might have a point, there is nothing to defend. Nothing to conserve. And if that is true, conservatism really does degrade merely to cheerleading for free-market capitalism or else embittered white nationalism, frothing on Twitter about Islam.

There is something worth conserving. We must say it. Own it. What is Acid Corbynism to the Parthenon, to Rilke, to the sweep of English literature from Beowulf to The Waste Land? To Beethoven’s Ninth? Chartres cathedral? We must fight for our heritage, speak proudly of it, put effort into knowing and sharing it. Don’t let it be destroyed by petty, envious philistinism disguised as radical egalitarianism. In embracing and loving our cultural heritage, and arguing without shame for its continuation, we anchor conservatism in something greater than market capitalism or nativism: in the astonishing sweep of many thousands of years of cultural achievement. A flame worth our helping to carry it on.

notes: identity politics is not compatible with democracy

a few quick notes on something that has been troubling me for a while.

some basic premises of democracy:

  • a demos: group of people with enough shared culture, aims, sense of solidarity
  • enables both voting on issues of interest to whole group AND acceptance of majority rule when it goes against them
  • presumption of equality, rationality and common humanity

identity politics:

  • national groupings seen as arbitrary or harmful
  • replaces these with demographic ‘identity’ groupings – sex, age, race etc
  • plays down importance of class (lip service in theory, little in practice)
  • demographic ‘identity’ groupings associated with a predetermined hierarchy of victimhood
  • this hierarchy is presumed to warp or wholly supplant political priorities as stated by any given demos
  • objections to this represent either oppression (if coming from someone ‘higher’ up the HoV) or false consciousness if from someone with more oppressed characteristics
  • solidarity for common political cause is rendered difficult or impossible because
    • no-one can speak for someone with different victim characteristics
    • hence large coalitions fragment into fractious special pleading by competing splinter groups
  • common humanity – or even enough cohesive group identity – as basis for overall unity of a demos is problematised  to the point where majority voting is no longer tolerated

identity politics often uses a deadening form of ‘tolerance’ to obscure the fact that the interests of different groups may be fundamentally opposed – see for example the conflict between the rights claims of transgender activists and those of radical feminists

this is not a zero sum game necessarily but it is not enough simply to ignore it, or resolve it by using the victim hierarchy to render one side of the argument morally unmentionable

we are in danger of throwing the baby of rational debate on a (presumed) level playing field out with the bathwater of enlightenment universalism

and without a social convention of rational debate, in which all are presumed equal and in which all speech is permissible an all positions up for discussion, we have lost a fundamental premise of democracy for we cannot discuss the issues

and without a presumption of some cohesion and commonality, however contingent (accidents of birth, geography, culture) we cannot presume enough solidarity to vote on them

and without debate, and a vote which all can accept, we have no democracy.

is that really where we are going?

notes: it’s not enough to mither on about tolerance in the face of terrorism

What are British values

Freedom, tolerance, gender equality?

Compared to the power of a theocratic Game of Thrones drama, it’s laughably weak

But the Euro elites’ response to each Islamist atrocity is the same – no passion or pride for country because that’s just what the enemy wants.

Obsessive clinging to a bloodless ideal of what Europe is, underpinned by a generalised fear of nationalism and pervasive guilt about our past deeds and present wealth; everyone wants to come here, but we ourselves are forbidden to be proud of it.

Americans recite the oath of allegiance, salute the flag, hang flags everywhere. In Britain the same level of patriotism would be seen as incitement to racism, a foible of the working classes to be tolerated with a shudder.

No wonder radicalism is able to flourish here: the intelligentsia of the country of Shakespeare, Austen and Wordsworth, Watson and Crick, Darwin, Sir Christopher Wren and indeed Sir Norman Foster is ashamed of its past and culture.

The Leave result: a fightback for political diversity

The Guardian has an interesting piece on the how the Stronger In campaign saw the referendum. Along with the campaign’s evident, amazingly hubristic assumption that the result was a done deal, there are a couple of bits that I think deserve more comment than they get in the article:

“The starting premise of the remain campaign was that elections in Britain are settled in a centre-ground defined by aversion to economic risk and swung by a core of liberal middle-class voters who are allergic to radical lurches towards political uncertainty. They could be identified, profiled and targeted by the technical wizardry of professional pollsters. Their anxieties, hopes and priorities could be plotted on charts that would then be translated into simple messages. EU membership might thus be established in the minds of this audience as a proxy for security and continuity – the natural preference of the sensible majority, as reinforced by every institution that carried cultural authority; the experts would be heeded. […] No one on the remain side fully anticipated an emotional groundswell of contempt for the very idea of political authority as dispensed from a liberal citadel in Westminster. The remain politicians found themselves besieged by an angry insurrection, channelling grievances that were well known. They stood for a cause that became emblematic of a system that was alien, arrogant and remote – and they had no answer.

Stronger In became the holding company for a liberal centrist political concept that had been transmitted in varying forms through the rise of New Labour and the ascent of Cameron. This had been the bastion of political orthodoxy for a generation, but its foundations had been corroded. […] The unique opportunity of a referendum was to give voters the option of punishing a generation of politics, regardless of party allegiance.

What jumps out at me is the way no-one really seems yet to be questioning the moral bankruptcy of this entire worldview. How did we end up in a situation where it was considered absolutely okay to run election campaigns calibrated purely towards tiny groups of centrist voters? Not only that, but to invoke a complicit media establishment to paint any views that diverge (right, left or elsewhere) from that consensus as mad, swivel-eyed and dangerous? Did no-one ever stop to wonder what the people who were excluded from the focus groups and policy calibration might think of it all?”

The whole schtick of the Westminster discussion has for years been ‘Oh we need to get more ordinary people involved in politics’, while busily disregarding the interests and political priorities of vast swathes of ordinary people. Then they made a mistake of offering two choices with distinctly different outcomes, with the result that ordinary people just got involved in politics. And the aftermath was a lot of centrists screaming ‘WHO THE FUCK ARE THESE NASTY IGNORANT VENGEFUL RACIST THICKOS????!!!!!1111’.

Much is being made among the bien-pensant of how simply ghastly Leave voters are. But I really, honestly think not nearly enough is being made of how simply ghastly the worldview is that has depicted more than half the country as at best electorally irrelevant, and at worst something ideologically to be kettled, neutralised or (ideally) eradicated.

It’s a major bugbear of mine that a lot gets said about diversity in gender, race etc but no-one has much to say about political/viewpoint diversity. This is an issue that Jonathan Haidt tackles in academia, but which is percolating relentlessly into many other arenas. In my view the referendum result was a fightback for political diversity, and it is a fight that is well overdue.

For ultimately, what kind of democracy can we have if the window of acceptable debate is policed? And it has been, for as long as I have been eligible to vote: not with batons or threat of imprisonment, but with social pressure, Facebook shaming, awkward silences if a view is expressed that diverges from the small, pale palette of acceptable ones. This silence has helped to reinforce the cultural divide that our liberal press has suddenly, belatedly woken up to: that between the ‘speak as I find’ culture of the backward, ignorant provinces and the carefully tone-policed one of the metropolis.

And this cultural divide, in turn, has helped to conceal a more serious economic one, indeed even to justify it, somewhat after the fashion of British colonialists using the backwardness of the tribes they conquered as justification for their exploitation and abuse. After all, how could it be the fault of we enlightened ones if the proles are too ignorant, malignant and morally retrograde to take advantage of our brave new world? Surely it must be our job to bring them into the light and, if they cannot be thus educated, to ensure they are placated with handouts and kept well away from the levers of power.

Dear American friends: Don’t mistake Brexit for Anglo-Trumpism

Dear friends and associates across the pond.

I’ve noticed a great interest in Brexit among you in recent days. It’s a momentous event, so of course people who take an interest in current affairs should be interested. But it’s becoming evident to me from the tone of discussion, as well as in the articles that I see repeatedly shared as explanations of what is going on, that the subtext for at least some of your discussion is an attempt to read the tea leaves for your own presidential race, in particular where it concerns Trumpism.

I would like to suggest that Brexit is less useful as an analogy in this respect than might seem superficially the case. There are some commonalities, which I will discuss later, but at the risk of repaying your assumptions with some of my own about an American political context I am less than well-versed in I would like to suggest some of the ways in which the campaign for Britain to leave the EU emerges from and reflects a very different cultural and political context.

Argument

It is popular among the commentariat to characterise the vote for Brexit as an incoherent, logic-free howl of protest by ‘the left-behind’ against the elite. It is simply assumed that the EU is by definition a good thing, and that objections to it must therefore represent a nihilistic, under-educated anti-politics stance oriented more towards backlash than positive political change. It is hence less popular, at least among that substantial section of the media that is in favour of the EU, to explore the possibility that many of those objecting to the EU might actually have a case – let alone to explore what that case actually is.

The campaign for Britain to keep its distance from the European Union is as old as the European Union itself. Though it has often been painted as such by the prevailing consensus, it is not merely a hobby-horse for ideologues and eccentrics but (admittedly along with a share of eccentrics) a serious campaign with coherent arguments and a lengthy, thoughtful tradition, covering economic, cultural and constitutional issues. I will not attempt to sum these arguments up here, except to provide some links to places where the case is stated better than I could myself.

Brexit: The Movie is a 90-minute documentary created to put the case for leaving during the referendum campaign. It was crowdfunded and created outwith the official Vote Leave campaign by a coalition of long-term Brexit campaigners, and documents some of these well-established arguments for leaving the European Union. It makes the case for an open, globally-oriented free-market Britain trading not with the EU’s protectionist customs union but with the world as a whole.

Lexit: The Movie was less well-publicised, because created and released later in the campaign, but does a similar job reviewing and putting forward the left-wing case for leaving the European Union.

Elsewhere, this extended essay from the civil society think tank Civitas does a good job of setting out the history and development of the UK constitution, and the extent to which this settlement has been eroded by the radically different assumptions and priorities of the EU mode of government.

Finally, this campaign is not without proposals for the future. The long-running Brexit campaign has a well-developed proposal for a phased withdrawal from the institutions and acquis of the European Union – with the slightly ungainly name Flexcit –  that sets out a pragmatic, de-risked and market-oriented process that, far from being a grand rupture, would see a staged separation between the UK and the European Union that optimised stability and positive relations on all sides.

While I am here at risk of myself projecting my own assumptions onto a political context with which I am not deeply familiar, it is not my impression that Trumpism has any equivalent long-term campaigning history, core arguments, political objectives or worked strategy for getting there. If I am wrong I would be grateful to learn more from you all about how and in what ways.

History

It scarcely bears repeating, but the islands that make up the British Isles have an ambivalent history with the European continent that stretches back some 2,000 years. From the Roman conquest of England to the Anglo-Saxon invasions that drove the Celts into the hills of Wales and Scotland, to the Anglo-Saxon fight under Alfred against the counter-invasion from Scandinavia, to the Norman conquest that added a Scandinavian/French aristocratic superstructure to a Saxon peasantry. The incursions of the English Crown into France in the Middle Ages, the combative race against other European nations to colonise the world through the early modern period, and the eventual English defeat of Napoleon’s attempt at a unified Europe. And of course the role played by Britain in ending another attempt to create a unified Europe, a century later, in the carnage of World War II – a continent-wide catastrophe that itself forms the backdrop for the creation of the European Union.

This essay is not interested in passing moral judgement on the events and interactions that form this narrative. But it is clear that the history of British relations with the countries of Europe is a complex, sometimes explosive blend of cultural interchange, invasion and counter-invasion, intermarriage, interaction, intervention and immigration. The guilt-ridden post-colonial narrative of this being ‘a mongrel island’ comprising influences from all these pasts chooses to highlight the cultural interchanges that have shaped the British Isles but tends to omit the conflicts that annealed that shape. It is at best perversely ahistorical, if not downright irresponsible, to attempt to understand the British cultural reaction to the steady encroachment of European Union governance onto these islands without reference to this deep history of interchange and ambivalence.

(It should be emphasised of course that the UK is not unique in this deep history, though our position as both culturally interwoven with but geographically distinct from Europe does give our perspective a particular tilt. But the presence of equally complex stories in nations across the continent helps to account both for the elite enthusiasm for the European project, and also the ambivalence of many ordinary Europeans to the same project.)

Returning to our theme of parallels (or their lack) between Trumpism and the Brexit movement, I struggle to see how equivalent issues of deep history and cultural memory might inform Trumpism, though again I would be grateful to be corrected on this front.

What the EU actually is, does, and aims to achieve. (The democratic case.)

It is far from clear to me what impression Americans in general have of the European Union. Indeed it is far from clear to me that many in the United Kingdom have more than the most superficial understanding of its operations, ambitions or relation to individual member states. The popular perception among many who support it seems to me to be of a sort of benign superstructure that guarantees certain rights, in some indefinable way makes foreign holidays cheaper and which generally encourages everyone to travel and be nice to one another. The slightly more detailed view perceives it as a trading bloc, permitting tariff-free commerce and harmonising regulations across a continent in order to ensure prosperity and mutual benefit all round.

But one need only read the European treaties to realise that the EU is none of these things – or at least to describe the EU as any of those things is a little like holding an elephant by the tail and describing it as being somewhat like a pencil. As trenchantly set out by Ben Kelly, the EU is not just a trading bloc and was never intended to be a democracy. Its ambition is to become a single federal state, and the slow accretion of treaties pushes each time inexorably in this direction: extending beyond trade into justice, foreign policy, law enforcement and immigration with the Maastricht Treaty, expanding to new territories with the Treaty of Amsterdam, further geographical expansion with the Treaty of Nice and effectively introducing a state constitution by the back door with the Treaty of Lisbon. The Five Presidents’ Report, the 2015 white paper that sets out the broad objectives for the next EU treaty, proposes in the interests of saving the eurozone from further crises to introduce further integration in areas as diverse as banking, tax, social security, company law and property rights, and replacing individual nations’ representation in key international bodies with a single EU representative.

Each of these changes requires what is described in the EU as ‘pooling sovereignty’. This euphemism in fact means the surrender of key national competencies to the supranational jurisdiction of the EU Institutions.

By analogy, the formation of the European Union is equivalent to inviting the United States to support the creation of a Pan-American Union, with a parliament situated – say – in Mexico City, and a stated ambition of creating a federal Americas bringing together the entire continent. This political construct could then grant freedom of movement for all the peoples from Canada through the United States to the nations of South America, to live and work wherever they liked in the Americas. These nations could then begin the process of harmonising tax, labour, property, social security and criminal justice practices under a single system, and like the other member states the USA would be required to give up the supremacy of its Supreme Court for a Pan-American Court whose job would be to enforce the terms of the Pan-American Treaties and any laws or directives emanating from the government in Mexico City.

Should someone suggest such a project, it is likely that objections would be widespread in the USA. It is also unlikely that those doing the objecting would be solely dispossessed blue-collar Americans. Indeed, should an observer from another continent seek to present the project as wholly benign, and those objecting as the illiberal, under-educated, backward-looking losers of globalisation’s great leap forward, it is likely that the mildest possible response to this interpretation would be that it might be worth considering the situation from a few different perspectives before drawing this conclusion.

Common ground

Having said all of this, it cannot be denied that there is common ground between some aspects of the EU referendum moment and the rise of Trumpism. While the issues I have outlined briefly above represent a political and cultural context with (to my eye at least) no clear parallels across the Atlantic, it is also true that the long-running campaign to detach the UK from the European Union has been amplified by a growing gulf between the political elites that continue to drive European integration, and the populations of the countries they seek to integrate.

This has found its clearest outlet in protests against European freedom of movement, which for a minority has fanned the flames of xenophobia but which for many more represents a proxy issue for the loss of democratic control implied by ‘pooling sovereignty’,  as well as impacting materially on the earning capacity of those at the unskilled end of the labour market. Additionally it has raised questions of identity, belonging and cultural cohesion that the elites who benefit most from freedom of movement, wedded as they are to a decontextualised New Left model of identity, are simply without the conceptual framework to address. In this highly contested field of globalisation, international trade, migration, community and identity there may well be some parallels between the angry proletariat that has mobilised for Brexit, and the angry American proletariat mobilising for Trump.

In summary, then: the case for Brexit is complex, well-established and coherent and – whatever you think of its merits – should not be mistaken for Anglo-Trumpism. However this is not to say that the British Isles is not also experiencing a revolt similar to the one that has propelled Trump so far into the presidential race. That said, I would be cautious about extrapolating this common ground too far, beyond saying that globalisation is (to be trite) a global phenomenon and it is probable that the proletarian pushback against its downsides has only just begun. It is my view that the European Union is one of many ways in which the global political order has been steadily adjusted over the last five decades or so, in the interests of an elite that benefits hugely from globalisation while externalising its many downsides, and that this adjustment has occurred in many ways at the expense of popular sovereignty. Those in countries with a tradition of democracy, but without any recourse to the corridors of power other than their vote, are rapidly waking up to the attenuation of that vote and are beginning to clamour for their franchise back. This is likely to lead to further upsets over the coming years.

 

The state of democracy in this country is worse than I thought.

I know I should stop screenshotting the metro-lib tantrum happening all over Facebook, but this image – with multiple shares among my acquaintance – genuinely appalled me.

referendum

Though I don’t know the source, the table is clearly taken from a book critical of the EU, as it shows the number of times referenda in EU nations have been ignored by the EU institutions, or routed round by other means.

And yet it is being shared excitedly, hopefully, by Remain voters delighted to see that the EU institutions they love so much have form for ignoring referenda. This is a good thing! The people know not what they do! Wiser, more powerful heads will prevail. Teacher will step in and adjudicate. Everything will go back to normal.

These are normal, decent middle-class people, with whom I thought I shared basic values, among which was an appreciation of the importance and power of democracy. You win some, you lose some, but you engage and campaign and argue your case. And the majority wins, and if that’s not your side then you campaign again and maybe you carry the day next time. That’s how democratic politics is supposed to work. And its power is supposed to lie, ultimately, with the electorate.

Are these people really, truly, not the slightest bit troubled by the idea of a set of political institutions willing blithely to ignore the will of the people if it returns the wrong result? To keep holding referenda until they return the right one? Is their understanding of what democracy is, how it functions, its importance truly so debased that this track record of indifference to fundamental democratic principles is actually seen as a sign of hope?

For decades now, our elites have increasingly sought ways to insulate their decision-making processes from democratic scrutiny. Though it is not the root, the EU has been a paragon of this process. While retaining the formal appearance of democracy, it has used treaties and bureaucratic rulemaking progressively to narrow the Overton window across its territory, until national governments are so constrained in the policy options they are permitted to put to the people that our electorates have, rightly, lost interest in democratic participation as ‘They’re all the same’ and ‘nothing ever changes’. In so doing, it has debased the popular, public appreciation of the power and importance of democratic participation to the point where it is estimated that only 36% of young people bothered to vote in this epoch-defining referendum. (Though those that did reportedly plumped 3 to 1 for Remain, while even those that did not are now howling with rage at the awful oldies who did bother, and whose votes for Leave carried the day).

oldies

These young people learned a harsh lesson today: when you’re doing democracy properly, everyone’s voice really does count. When real, serious, important issues are up for discussion and a democratic vote,, instead of being locked away in smoky back rooms as the subject of horse-trading between unelected technocrats, then voting really can change the world. This is how it’s supposed to work – scrappy, argumentative, passionate, engaged, powerful, world-changing – not the etiolated simulacrum of ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’ we’ve been increasingly fed since long before I voted in my first General Election, the year Blair swept to power.

And yet, rather than seeing the excitement, the power and potential of this transformative event that has seen democracy enacted in the United Kingdom for the first time in decades, people of my acquaintance are pointing to examples of the European Union’s disregard of similar such events as a beacon of hope. Hope that the stifling centrist consensus can once again be re-imposed, hope that choice can once again be narrowed to a consequence-free wavering between mobile phone contract types or holiday destinations. Hope that teacher will come back in, stop the children rioting and set us all a pre-prepared worksheet. Put us back in our boxes.

This might have been an aberration, posted in haste and without critical thinking by someone in a haze of emotion following a momentous political event. But if it wasn’t, and those hoping for an end to this brief democratic excursus genuinely think it’d be better all round for us to get a pat on the head before business as usual resumes, then we do after all not deserve the democracy I believe our country is capable of. We should hang our heads in shame, apologise for messing up the lesson for everyone else, pick up our pencils and resume colouring within the lines.