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.
On Being An Arsehole: A Defence is this weekend’s long read pick, by Jonny Thakkar in The Point. It is a funny and thoughtful discussion of the tension between the author’s wish to fit in socially, and the desire he also feels as a philosopher to ask difficult questions that may push debates – and the social relations within which they take place – into uncomfortable places.
Most people, Thakkar argues, agree with the vast majority of what others say to them, largely in the interests of harmony. But this is unappealing to philosophers, who take active pleasure in argument of a sharpness and persistence most people would find stressful if not downright obnoxious. This, in turn, can have social repercussions for those who approach discussion in this spirit:
For philosophy trains you to presume that genuine listening, and so genuine conversation, involves helping people to clarify their thoughts, and while this might be true in some contexts, it can also have the effect of turning a heart-to-heart into an Oxbridge tutorial. “I know you’re upset, but you’ve said three different things that are in tension with one another” isn’t always the most helpful way to respond to a loved one’s distress, as I have repeatedly discovered.– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT
The challenge for those who would debate is to assess when it is appropriate to ask difficult questions – and when, especially in the modern world of ‘cancel culture’, the frank expression of views is likely to take significant courage:
It seems natural to conclude that the social role of philosophers is to help people think things through by confronting them with counterarguments to their current views. But since there’s no way to do that in a non-philosophical context without coming off as an arsehole, there’s no way for a philosopher to be a good citizen without having the courage to look like a bad one.– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT
In a week where the Prime Minister was accused both of being a leader to right-wing extremists and also of dismissing the murder of Jo Cox as ‘humbug’, a reflection on the debate, trolling and when to keep one’s own counsel feels timely, to say the least.
Yesterday I live tweeted the SDP conference in Leeds. It was a great day with many interesting speakers, but easily the most controversial discussion – and the one that has generated the most reaction in my Twitter mentions since – was the motion to amend SDP policy on non stun slaughter. Previously, policy was to ban these methods of slaughter, but at the conference a motion was decisively carried to amend this to provisions on strict standards, ensuring supply does not outstrip demand (eg non stun slaughter for export) and proper labelling.
I gather that debate around the subject prior to conference was heated. I know at least one person who left the party over the subject. I spoke in favour of the motion despite being personally uncomfortable with such methods of slaughter on the grounds that an explicitly communitarian party needs to be willing to demonstrate a recognition that religious practice is immensely important to some groups, and to create space for such practices even if we find them personally unappealing.
But once you start making explicit provision for communitarian considerations, the tension between faith and other ethical frameworks is immediately apparent.
The subsequent discussion – and its links into ‘preserve our culture’ groups such as For Britain and Britain First – put me in mind of two brouhahas a little while ago where politicians tried to articulate a position weighing private faith against public mainstream morality. In April 2017, then Lib Dem leader Tim Farron refused to deny that his personal faith held homosexuality to be a sin. In September the same year, Jacob Rees-Mogg made statements on abortion and homosexuality, consistent with Catholic social teaching, that saw him excoriated as ‘a bigot’ and ‘wildly out of step with public opinion’.
Commentators at the time lined up to defend Farron and Rees-Mogg. There was the usual hum from offstage (ie Twitter) about the right to express views in keeping with traditional Christianity without facing punishment from an illiberal liberal elite.
So I find it interesting to see that when it comes to a religious practice from Islam and Judaism – slaughtering animals by slitting their throats, without stunning them first – some of the voices raised most loudly in agreement about the iniquity of ‘You can’t say that’ culture as it bears on Christians today should be perfectly content to support policies that actively militate the practice of those other faiths. If we are to defend Rees-Mogg and Farron on grounds of religious tolerance, should we not also consider defending halal and kosher slaughter on the same grounds? After all, the core argument of tolerance is not that one tolerates only things that one likes or feels indifferent to but that it is extended to things one actively dislikes.
It feels to me as though there are two things going on here.
Firstly, the Britain First types who wish to support religious exemptions for Christians but not for Jews or Muslims are not, themselves, Christians for the most part. Rather, they are secular inheritors of the Christian tradition who wish to preserve the structure of that tradition for the benefits it has for some time provided – a fairly stable, prosperous, harmonious society with congenial values – without taking on the obligations of the faith itself. To put it a less fashionable way, they wish to be redeemed but without themselves taking up the cross. For that, in a nutshell, is the argument made by those who argue against ‘illiberal liberalism’ but do so from a perspective that rejects the necessity of faith – any faith, perhaps, or Christianity in particular – in creating the society to which they wish to belong.
We might term it ‘religious utilitarianism’ – a worldview that recognises the utility of faith in delivering certain social goods but takes no position on the veracity or otherwise of the tenets of any faith in particular. Liberal relativism is a kind of equal-opportunities religious utilitarianism, that wishes to make space for any and all faiths to provide those goods in a pluralistic way, while the Britain First / Batten-era UKIP version of the same wishes to privilege Christian religious utilitarianism over the more relativistic liberal sort. That is, Britain First types want to keep only the outward forms of Christianity but do not wish anyone else to replace those forms with a more deeply-felt faith of their own.
But if we are to argue for religious tolerance, and for Christianity to play an active rather than a purely decorative role in our society then – the logic dictates – we must either be explicit about repressing other faiths in support of that goal, or else extend the same courtesy to other faiths. The alternative – hiding our hostility to other faiths behind a selectively-applied appeal for religious tolerance only as it pertains to ‘our’ deviations from the liberal consensus – is simply not good enough.
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.
Young people don’t get married. Young people are covered in tattoos. Now that I’m middle-aged, this is the kind of thing it would be tempting to see as evidence that the world is going to the dogs, that we’re facing some sort of terrible moral decline and that the solution is for everyone to buck up and improve their attitude.
I think we are indeed facing a growing cultural crisis, but I’m increasingly of the view that telling young people to buck up wholly misses the point, and that what we are seeing isn’t a deterioration of attitude but an emanation of something more like despair. Two things I’ve read recently prompted this line of thought.
This rather wonderful article from the Institute for Family Studies is worth a read in its own right for a wealth of beautifully phrased observations on marriage. But one paragraph, on the decline of marriage among the young and/or less wealthy, pulled me right up short:
I think the problem that the less wealthy are having [in regards to marriage] is this kind of achievement attitude that we have about marriage—that I can’t get married because I don’t have a stable job; I can’t get married because one of the partners is not employed, and I don’t want to be on the hook for them or a drag on them. I think that the American government, for all that it loves marriage, does not support families very well. The minimum wage here is a joke; people would have to work 25/8 on that to support a family. There’s so little family leave. It’s brutal, especially at the lower end of the wage spectrum. If you don’t work in a knowledge industry, if you’re sort of an hourly employee, it’s incredibly hard to have a family and have children. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin writes a lot about how the working classes have abandoned marriage partly because it’s an achievement and partly because getting married suggests a plan for the future; it’s an optimistic thing to do. And I think that often people find that they just don’t have enough hope in the future to be able to make that statement…
That is to say, maybe it is not the deliquescing effect of corrupting liberal values that are causing this breakdown in willingness to commit long-term among the young and/or poor. Maybe these demographics are not getting married because they don’t have enough hope for the future to make long-term decisions seem like a good use of energy and resources. Let that sink in. How utterly screwed are we as a society if we’re so inapable of solidarity across generations that anyone young, or less wealthy is sinking into a kind of future-free despair?
On a similar note, consider tattoos. A recent study reports that
according to numerous measures, those with tattoos, especially visible ones, are more short-sighted and impulsive than the non-tattooed. Almost nothing mitigates these results, neither the motive for the tattoo, the time contemplated before getting tattooed nor the time elapsed since the last tattoo. Even the expressed intention to get a(nother) tattoo predicts increased short-sightedness and helps establish the direction of causality between tattoos and short-sightedness.
Conservatives such as Dalrymple write about tattoos as cultural degradation, with the clear inference that what it evidences is a collective moral decline. But if this study is correct, that is only half right: rather, it points to a rise in short-termism. That could be read as moral decline of a sort. After all, an inability to plan for the future is a serious inhibitor if anyone’s ability to think and act socially, or with any of the ability to defer gratification we associate with civilised achievements of all kinds. But could it not also be read as a failure of optimism?
It’s a thought that lands like a ton of bricks in the middle of any temptation I might feel to wag a moralising finger at someone just starting out now on adult life. Maybe each of these tattooed, unmarried, commitment-shy young people is less a weak-chinned scion of all that is good, pissing his or her cultural inheritance up the wall on frivolities, than a despairing soul fallen out the other end of of a cultural moment and stuck in their own personal Weimar Republic with no meaningful event horizon and no desire to do anything but dance, drink, fuck and draw on themselves with Biro. If this is the case, then older generations truly have a duty to try and help in some way. What ‘help’ looks like in that context I am less sure, but it is surely on anyone over 35 or so to consider where hope resides, and what duty we have to ensure it is not, like home ownership or a stable job, simply something that people used to have before we all gave up and danced ourselves to a childless, tattooed death.
Conservative Muslim parents and LGBT activists continue in open conflict over the teaching of gay and trans rights in Birmingham schools. Conservative leadership candidate Esther McVey fanned the flames today by coming down on the side of the protesting parents:
Elsewhere, teenage Tory activist Soutiam Goodarzi, herself of Muslim origin, expressed outrage at McVey’s alignment with the forces of religious conservatism on this most uncomfortable clash of minority rights:
Though it’s tempting to laugh and point at the contortions and cognitive dissonance the left must endure in order to be on the same side as both groups in this clash of rights, it is the conservative predicament which is more acute, in part because it is not out in the open like conservative Muslim homophobia.
McVey here expresses the common conservative viewpoint that holds moral instruction to be the preserve of private families, not of the state. In this worldview, it is simply not the place of government to meddle in the mores parents convey to their children, and in fact schools should concentrate on teaching subjects such as history, science and maths rather than making pronouncements on what is socially acceptable.
Goodarzi expresses the equally common conservative view that religious minorities – especially Muslim ones – should not be permitted to effect a reverse takeover of the public square simply through a mixture of intransigence and leveraged victim politics. To put it another way, Muslims should not be permitted, by virtue of the specially favoured place they hold in the system of diversity (Cobley) to force sweeping changes to what is commonly taught, said or deemed acceptable.
McVey’s stance would leave families – including religious conservative ones – in sole charge of the moral instruction of the young. But Goodarzi’s stance cannot afford to, lest the moral instruction of the young be subject to infiltration and takeover by values alien to a functioning free society.
Goodarzi’s position is more akin to classical liberalism than conservatism proper. In this context, conservative religion – whether Christian or Muslim or something else – is self-evidently an obstacle on the way to individual freedom and self-realisation. Allied to a free-market position that seeks to reduce, remove (or at least disguise) the role of the state in the operation of markets, this is a type of ‘conservatism’ (perhaps more properly called progressive free-market liberalism) typified by George Osborne. Morality, inasmuch as it is discussed at all, is in a sense negative, consisting mainly of strictures designed to maximise individual freedom and self-fulfilment – such as injunctions to eschew homophobic bullying. These, though, may be enforced by the state as it is assumed to be in the best interests of the good society that individual freedom be allowed to flourish as fully as possible.
McVey’s position is a version of this stance, modified by the proviso that some forms of shared morality are desirable. These, however, should be transmitted not by the state, whose role should be limited to activities such as keeping the peace and maintaining roads, but left as the purview of individual families.
The trouble with both these as models for society, though, is that they both depend for their existence on something they also work to undermine: that is, public mores. Moral instruction is, in a sense, both public and private: it concerns our private behaviour, but it also bears on society as a whole. If the moral instruction of children is nonexistent or badly done, those children are less likely to make a positive contribution to society as adults. It is everyone’s business how families educate their children. Our radically individualist society may not like this, but it’s true.
Some choices parents make impact literally no-one but the parents and child in question. Cosleeping with babies and young children is a good example. It makes zero difference to anyone outside the family whether my toddler sleeps in my bed or her own. Who cares? Potty training, on the other hand, is a different matter. I will annoy no-one outside the family if I wave my hands in a liberal fashion and say airily that my child will sleep in her own bed ‘when she’s ready’. But if I declare that my child ‘refuses to wear a nappy’ and will learn to pee and poo in a potty ‘when she’s ready’ I will quickly incur widespread dislike, hefty dry cleaning bills and a sudden lack of playdate invitations.
Moral instruction is more like potty training than co-sleeping, and this is where McVey’s position falls down. You can say ‘families know best’ when it comes to moral instruction, but would you say that of a parent who was teaching a toddler that it was fine to take a shit on the pavement? Morals are about how we live together as a society; we can’t pretend that they can be atomised to the family level and still work as morals. You have to be confident that all or most families are on the same page about where it’s acceptable to take a crap before you say breezily ‘families know best’. Otherwise you’re just ducking the issue.
But Goodarzi’s conservative-flavoured liberalism doesn’t have much to offer either on the subject of which moral precepts should be adhered to by everyone – except inasmuch as they are enforced by the state. It’s simply assumed that individuals will somehow naturally come to the conclusion that we use the potty. How they get there, it is implied, is not a matter for politics. And if they don’t, we pass a law saying they have to. Anything intermediate is an incursion onto individual liberty.
But the truth is that both these viewpoints take a set of shared moral references so profoundly for granted they are able to pretend they don’t exist. Everyone just knows we don’t shit on the floor; that’s why (McVey) we can trust families to convey that and don’t need to teach it at school or else (Goodarzi) all we need to do is stamp out regressive viewpoints that might limit our freedom to come naturally to the right conclusion about where we take a crap. But that set of shared values is precisely the target of Goodarzi’s individualism. It is the regressive swamp of benighted reactionary muck from which individual freedom is painstakingly extricated. And once this broad framing of our moral past and present is in place, we can’t really trust families to convey the right stuff either.
Goodarzi’s position is more honest than McVey’s, in that it acknowledges more or less explicitly that if we’re accepting radical individualism as a basic social good, then the state needs to step in as coercive arbiter of some moral matters, in order to prevent wholesale anarchy (and shitty pavements). In the terms of my metaphor, Goodarzi’s position suggests that everyone can do as they like but allows for some kind of authority which is empowered to ensure people teach their toddlers to crap in the potty. It at least has a stance on some moral matters, and accepts the need to enforce them.
McVey’s ‘families know best’, on the other hand, avoids making any moral pronouncements about the social good and simply implies that ‘families’ will come up with the right answers about moral instruction on their own. It assumes a shared value set that might once, in a monocultural society, have existed, but which in our post-religious, post-imperial, multicultural, radically-individualist Britain simply cannot be taken for granted. If ‘best’ is taken to mean ‘fitting most harmoniously and beneficially into society as a whole’, it is not at all obvious any more that families do know best. But McVey cannot define ‘best’, any more than Goodarzi can, because both have accepted the basic liberal-individualist premise that even in matters that explicitly concern society as a whole rather than us as individuals or even as families, no-one has any right to tell anyone else what to do.
Left unmodified, these two stances point at two possible futures. Goodarzi’s future is one in which we are all free individuals, and the only agent with a right to tell us what to do is the state, which exists as a kind of medium in which radically unencumbered individuals interact and which intervenes only to maximise individual freedom. McVey’s future is one in which shared values still exist, but not at the level of the nation state – only at the level of individual families or ‘communities’. These ‘communities’ are, in a fashion similar to Goodarzi’s future, the subjects of a total state which exists as the sole arbiter of clashing freedoms and community ‘rights’. In this future, moral values are outsourced to religious, ethnic and sexual minorities and (to a lesser extent) individual families, administrated by an explicitly amoral state whose remit is to hold and defuse tensions between moral standpoints or in extremis to rule in favour of one or another position in an irreconcilable clash.
In neither of these futures is there much to conserve, which leaves conservatism in something of a bind. Its modern proponents have, in different ways, accepted the broad premise that the pursuit of individualism and markets is the highest public good. This in turn means individual freedom should at every turn be prioritised over a shared cultural and moral framework, which is depicted as the dark force of the past and enemy of progress. After some 50 years of this process, we are left with not a great deal except individuals (or, as McVey would have it, individuals and families). Even those pockets of reactionaries who protest are like US Marines stuck in the jungle still fighting the Korean War: it’s over, the pieces are being swept up, we are where we are. Conservatives now face a difficult choice between agreeing that, absent shared mores, the state needs to take a role as moral arbiter, or else watching as a national community disintegrates into ever more balkanised ‘communities’, whose moral frameworks compete and, as at Parkview School, clash irreconcilably. Or (and this is so difficult to imagine in practice as to be very unlikely) conservatives need to consider whether there are shared values worth fighting for as a society, rather than legislating as a government or clutching to our bosoms as individuals and atomised families.
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.
Ever since Thatcher introduced Right to Buy, and then Blair super-heated the housing market with a combination of cheap loans and mass immigration, home ownership has become ever more of a sticky wicket for the Tories. On the one hand, Tory voting has historically been associated with home ownership: people with something to lose are typically more conservative. On the other hand though, in order to sustain the pleasantly rising house prices that keep the core Tory base contented (and the cheap money flowing, as people remortgage to pay for extensions, kids’ university fees or whatever) it becomes ever harder for younger generations to join the home-owning ranks of the putatively Tory.
Mulling this over, it struck me that there’s a second, more profound way that the late twentieth-century transformation of homes into part loan collateral, part asset class, part status symbol has left conservatism with a dilemma. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about the way Brexit was functioning as a proxy war within the Tory Party over which the party valued more: free market dogma or social conservatism. I think my analysis still holds, and indeed that the only thing that has changed is that social conservatives are now losing, and leaving the Tory Party in droves. The housing issue, it seems to me, encapsulates the nature of this conflict in a nutshell.
Here’s why: if you see your house purchase primarily as an asset class, you’re not buying with the intent to settle and make a home there. You’ll do the place up, sell it on and move. No need to get to know the neighbours, form networks, get involved in community activities. Probably best if your kids don’t put down too many local roots or it’ll be a wrench for them to leave their friends. Homes-as-asset-class is the quintessential Anywhere (Goodhart) mindset, that treats a place as a set of resources to be consumed, developed, improved, but which are ultimately that: resources. Not networks, not reciprocal obligations, not really a home. Conversely, if you buy somewhere as a Somewhere, with the intent to put down roots and make a home there – to be there for the rest of your life or at least the foreseeable future – you can’t really treat your home as an asset class because it’s about the least liquid asset imaginable. OK, if house prices rise you’ll benefit a bit in theory, because maybe you can take out a loan against the imagined gain in value of your house but again, that’s only really meaningful if you’re planning to sell.
Now, I’m being a bit reductive but returning to the Conservatives, your Anywheres are all for free market liberalism – and your Somewheres are all for social conservatism. For many years, the two managed to coexist well enough within the same party, united – perhaps – by a broad consensus (for different reasons) that taxation and public spending should be restrained. But if the issue of European Union membership has been the most visible evidence of that truce collapsing, the breakdown both predates and is more profound than ‘banging on about Europe’ would suggest.
We’ve reached a point now where the demands of the free market are becoming ever more inimical to the needs of the kind of settled community that nurtures and values social conservatism. The kind of worldview that values the free market understands a house as primarily an investment, and invests him or herself in the local community in proportion to that understanding – ie lightly if at all. This is profoundly at odds with the kind of worldview that places value on continuity, community, a sense of place and tradition. Thus while both these groups may place a value on home ownership, it is for radically different reasons: and these two strands of conservatism are increasingly at odds.
Fundamentally, the Conservative Party has acted for some decades as though free market ideology were compatible with a belief in patriotism, conservative social values and a healthy civic society. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is no longer the case. The profound sociocultural conflict and difference in outlook – and hence spending behaviour, political assumptions and fundamental approach to life – emblematic in the difference between a Somewhere who wishes to buy a house as a home, to live in and care for within the context of a rooted and socially-engaged local existence, and an Anywhere who wishes to buy a house as an investment, with the aim of moving on once it is financially viable, encapsulates this irreducible fracture. It is increasingly apparent that the Conservative Party cannot serve both. It is also increasingly apparent that, if one group has to go, it will not be the Anywheres. So the question is: who will speak for lower middle class Somewheres, when – as is now inevitable – they begin to flex their political muscles somewhere other than the Tory Party?