The horrors and atrocities of history have been edited out of primary and secondary education except where they can be blamed on racism, sexism, and imperialism — toxins embedded in oppressive outside structures that must be smashed and remade. But the real problem resides in human nature, which religion as well as great art sees as eternally torn by a war between the forces of darkness and light.
Liberalism lacks a profound sense of evil.
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.
In which I try and piss off Muslims, liberals, Christians, atheists and people who share Britain First memes
The voice of Islam has grown in strength in my lifetime, even as that of Christianity has waned. Far more halal meat is now produced in this country than there are Muslims to eat it. At the same time, people have felt increasingly free to speak derogatorily about Christians and Christian ideas, to the point where Thought For The Day speakers write in the Guardian about the BBC’s ‘sniggering’ attitude to Christianity. In contrast, as criticism of and sniggering about Christianity has become such easy sport, it has become steadily less acceptable to voice criticisms about Islamic ideology.
Ahis shifting balance of power has not gone unnoticed. At the ‘deplorable’ end of social media, one sees a great deal of hostility toward what is experienced as a steady encroachment of Islam. Look up the #islamification hashtag if you want a taster. This example is typical.
The officially sanctioned response to this kind of sentiment is to dismiss it as bigotry and then censure, censor and move on. But consider for a few moments what it is expressing. Fear, hostility, concern about the encroachment of a way of life that is ‘not how we do things’. Is it justified? Well, the actual proportion of Muslims to the general population within the United Kingdom is pretty small (around 5%). So why the perception that there are so many?
In a chapter of Skin In The Game, Nassim Taleb outlines the means by which small but highly intransigent minorities can end up dictating dietary and even moral codes for a more flexible majority.
Roman pagans were initially tolerant of Christians, as the tradition was to share gods with other members of the empire. But they wondered why these Nazarenes didn’t want to give and take gods and offer that Jesus fellow to the Roman pantheon in exchange for some other gods. What, our gods aren’t good enough for them? But Christians were intolerant of Roman paganism. The “persecutions” of the Christians had vastly more to do with the intolerance of the Christians for the pantheon and local gods, than the reverse.
Today, some seventy percent of New Zealand lamb is slaughtered using halal methods, because while non-Muslims will for the most part tolerate halal slaughter, a high proportion of Muslims will not tolerate non-halal. Thus, by simple commercial expedience, the less tolerant minority ends up disproportionately influencing the available food choices for the majority.
One can extend this insight beyond halal slaughter. A recent YouGov poll illustrates this: most Brits think only six of the Ten Commandments are still important. The commandments that have fallen by the wayside are: worshiping false idols, taking the Lord’s name in vain, worshiping anything other than God and keeping the Sabbath. In other words, the commandments that relate to active piety specific to religious adherence. The rest deal with theft, murder, adultery and the like; things which are clearly bad whatever you think of God. But edicts against blasphemy and the proliferation of gods, and for loyalty to the faith? Those are the rules that sustain the identity of a religion, and the cohesion of a group that follows it. That these are the edicts we have abandoned, in the UK, tells us everything we need to know about the level of religious intransigence in the general population. The commandments that gatekeep a faith, head off any dalliance with other faiths, in a word keep the faith intolerant enough to be influential have all faded to meaninglessness for the majority of Brits. This is not, in the main, a population willing to dig its heels in for the sake of religious beliefs. Indeed, a recent survey suggests that more than half the UK population do not feel themselves to have a religion.
In the midst of this sea of secular laissez-faire, Muslims are the only faith group present in the UK in any number who take their faith seriously enough to make sacrifices for it. This makes them very visible, and – in a tolerant, pluralistic society – makes Islam disproportionately powerful. British Muslims care about stuff the majority isn’t that bothered about, like saying prayers in slaughterhouses, so their secular fellow countrymen shrug and go along with it because what’s the problem? Those that are bothered, the angry traditionalists tweeting about ‘islamification’, are concerned because they sense, instinctively, the asymmetric influence of an intransigent minority and rightly fear for their own cultural norms.
But the populist reaction – hostility to Muslims and Islam – is misguided. Sharing memes on Twitter decrying the intolerant minority won’t lessen its influence and just makes the meme-sharers look nasty. If those complaining about Islamification are themselves secular, atheist or otherwise indifferent to serious, practising Christianity, they are helping to create the conditions for the Islamification they so detest.
It is no good saying the Muslims should be more tolerant. That’s not how religions work. No: the only force that can counter religious intransigence is religious intransigence. Anyone who is seriously concerned about Islam becoming the dominant religion in the United Kingdom should stop sharing Britain First memes and start going to church. And making sure their family does the same.
I can hear serious Christians protesting that running cultural interference is not a proper reason to attend church and indeed might itself qualify as worshiping graven idols. But is religious oractice not always as much about tribe and belonging and sociocultural norms as a mystical connection with the divine? Meanwhile atheists might protest that their problem is with religions as such, so embracing one imaginary sky fairy in order to see off another imaginary sky fairy is no solution at all. But newsflash, Mr Atheist: your rationalist medicine is weak. People die for religions: no-one would burn at the stake for Richard Dawkins. In the medium to long term, the prognosis does not look good for your freedom to be an atheist unless you pick a sky fairy with a reasonable track record of tolerating dissent. (Spoiler: that’s probably not Islam.)
As for the EDL meme sharers, if you can’t be arsed to educate yourself on your country’s religion, and get yourself out to church once a week, and take it seriously, then you are contributing to a dissolution of your culture that you are unjustly blaming on Muslims, and deserve to see its norms replaced by those of a religion whose adherents can.
Elsewhere I can hear Muslims protesting that this is nasty conspiracy-nutter #islamification clash of civilisations stuff and that I’m a bigot. Joining the chorus, I hear liberal secularists protesting that religion has been responsible for most of the wrongs in human civilisation and having moved mostly away from it in this country it’s barbarous to suggest resiling back into intolerance, especially if one is doing so out of intolerance towards a newer faith. But I am not a bigot. There isn’t a plot to Islamify the UK. There is just Islam, which is a confident faith whose adherents have plenty of intransigence about blasphemy, false gods et cetera, and it is influential because there is nothing substantial in its way. Secularism just doesn’t have the guns to stand against a strongly asserted faith.
In this country we have forgotten the power of faith to move mountains, and thus we do not yet take seriously the potential of a newly arrived faith to move – and replace – the entire post-Christian secular humanist edifice. The greatest error of our secular, pluralistic society has been to assume that the advantages of secular pluralism are both self-evident and historically inevitable (there’s a trace of religiosity right there: it’s all around, if you’re looking). But this is not at all self-evident to me. It seems far more likely to me, considering other civilisations that have gone before, that it is an anomaly and will be succeeded by the advent of a new religious age. We should stop trying to convince ourselves that our much-vaunted secular pluralism is anything but a transitional state for the culture of these islands, and ask ourselves what religion we would like that to be.
“Being “trans” is too easy. It’s an identity picked off a shelf and inside the packaging, there’s a list of other necessary components one must procure before reaching authentic selfhood. “Being trans” to girls like my daughter is like a quest in a video game with each “affirming’ “medical procedure acquired is an “epic win” bringing you one step closer to having all your problems solved. Except no video game exists that suppresses development or leads to the removal of healthy body parts. Being trans isn’t a video game, it’s real life. Real, painful, confusing, life and being trans was the defining aspect not only of identity but also the root of all her suffering.
I supported my child in her journey. What I didn’t do was accept the first and easiest answer. I helped my daughter know that disagreement or unacceptance of any gendered norm was more than okay. I fully supported what my generation quaintly called ‘gender bending” in all ways, but I didn’t agree to let her subject herself to significant bodily harm in an attempt to treat her dysphoria. From the very first announcement, I let her know that she could cut her hair however she wanted, wear whatever clothing she wanted, and use whatever name she chose.
I supported her in her discomfort, to the best of my ability, and I also let her know that discomfort and confusion are legitimate aspects of a meaningful, deeply explored life.”
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.
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?
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.