Monday, 5 December 2016

It ain't broke, it just needs some love and attention: the case for more conservatism

I have heard it stated — and I confess with some surprise — as an article of Conservative opinion that paternal Government — that is to say, the use of the machinery of Government for the benefit of the people — is a thing in itself detestable and wicked. I am unable to subscribe to that doctrine, either politically or historically. I do not believe it to have been a doctrine of the Conservative party at any time. On the contrary, if you look back, even to the earlier years of the present century, you will find the opposite state of things; you will find the Conservative party struggling to confer benefits — perhaps ignorantly and unwisely, but still sincerely — through the instrumentality of the State, and resisted by a severe doctrinaire resistance from the professors of Liberal opinions. (Lord Salisbury, Speech to the United Club 15 July, 1891)
The central orthodoxy in European politics is that, while global markets can and do deliver improved lives for everyone, this only happens because of the benign guidance of non-market authorities, which most of the time means government. You can, I guess, call this the 'mixed economy' although this definition would be very different from the one I was taught in 'A' Level economics back in the 1970s. There is a dominant view that markets fail either by not providing for everyone or else through the money not 'trickling down' to the ordinary person (presumably because footballers keep their millions in a huge vault that they fill with golden bling).

Since this economic debate was conducted at the margins - on the basis of degrees of government or central bank interference in markets - the need for distinction in politics sought out other less economic and more social aspects of life. The only challenges to the economic orthodoxy came from the discredited Marxist left and a sort of grumpy old man tendency muttering how it was better when we actually made stuff. As a result the left/right distinction became more about what's now called 'identity' politics - in short the centre-right may have adopted centre-left economics but they're still racist, sexist pigs.

This was the reason for the decontamination that David Cameron commenced (prompted, in case we forget, by the 'nasty party' jibe from our current prime minister). Huskies and hoodies were hugged, ties were loosened, sleeves were rolled-up and Tories started talking about feelings. And it sort of worked as the party's leadership became less wooden, more urbane (and urban) and less obviously inspired by the golf club bore. The result of this was that the 'nasty party' attack could only attack marginal differences in tax rates, welfare policies and government fiscal strategy. In 2015, regardless of noises off, the Labour Party simply offered the same as the Tories but with a nicer paint job.

All of this is something of a roundabout way of saying that the issue with identity politics is that, as several people have observed, it created the strategy used by what's entertainingly and weirdly called the 'alt-right'. Spend five minutes with an open mind looking at 'alt-right' and 'neo-reactionary' comments and you'll see that it is based on grievance. It doesn't really matter whether the 'white working class' (I actually saw this made into the acronym WWC in a sociology journal) is justified in its grievances, they exist and are driving a political shift in politics. The noises say to the centre-right and centre-left - "look, you listen to black grievance, Muslim grievance, gay grievance, trans grievances - to a thousand different cries of pain about discrimination - when do white grievances get a hearing?"

The owners of identify politics - let's call them the 'cultural left' - respond to this voice with 'racist', 'xenophobe', 'mysogynist' (often with some justification) and accuse that voice of creating these feelings. And then stamp on anyone who suggests we might take a pause and look at whether what we're doing in social policy isn't bringing a lot of people with us or, indeed, making much sense. The centre-right, terrified by the return of nasty party allegations, rushes to line up behind the orthodoxy of identity politics with its 'protected characteristics' and strategies for 'inclusion' based on that Fabian mythology of group adherence.

This is the sort of myth-making that tells a black boy from Bradford's Buttershaw estate that he has more in common with a black youth in a Missouri suburb than with the white lads from the same estate. That somehow a false politics of demography matters more than a real economics of place. These myths mean that the white lads (not all of them, any more than it's all the black lads) look around for somewhere that gives them an identity, a group to join, a gang. Crypto-fascism - the "alt-right" provides just such an identity.

So long as this myth of identity - defined by manifest characteristics rather than the person - remains, we will see politics as a contest between identities, as a sort of equalities top trumps. Yet when we turn to the people who claim they study society, what we get is little different from the grievance-mongering that typifies more populist discourse. For sure it's mixed in with the left's favourite words - neoliberalism, capitalism, hegemony and so forth - but the thrust of modern sociology is entirely predicated on the idea of the group as society's building block. The students of society are no longer servants of human knowledge but campaigners promoting that same Fabian myth of identity - the progressive idea that we are defined by the groups we belong to, that we have little or no agency and that advertising, businesses and the media shape who we are.

The 'alt-right', the Trump campaign, UKIP, Marine Le Pen - these people aren't (as they claim) kicking out at identity politics but trying to sign the right up to that progressive myth of the group being more important than the person. And, in Fascism (proper Fascism not the left's preferred cartoon of Fascism), these people have a model - "everything within the state, nothing without the state" cried Benito Mussolini as he nationalised and protected industry, brought trade unions into government and championed the idea of a triumphant Italy. The central principles of Fascism - action not ideology and the corporate state - depend on the idea of society as a collection of groups not as a happy coincidence of individual interests.

If we want to combat this insidious repetition of early twentieth century progressive politics then we need more conservatives and more emphasis on the core ideas of conservatism in our examination of society. The idea of personal responsibility, the importance of family and community, and a belief in real voluntary action are the characteristics that define a response to crypto-fascism and the myth of progressivism. Sadly much official response to the racism and white supremicism of the 'alt-right' is to double down on multicultarism, to call for restrictions on speech or to try and get all those nasty voices safely banged up in jail. And this just won't work - just look at how doing this to Geert Wilders in Holland is fuelling his politics.

One criticism (especially from those who want the centre-right to be aggressive, interventionist or radical) of conservatism is that it's too accommodating, too malleable - 'Butkellism' they sneeringly called it, managed decline. But right now what's needed is to get the eggs to market unbroken rather than to get the eggs there quickly. Believing that sad little reactionaries with an internet connection represent an existential threat may inject a profound urgency to politics - especially if your progressive utopia seems shaky as a result - but a mature politics would see that the world isn't really threatened by a few folk with unpleasant ideas and snazzy flags. And the only mature politics on offer right now (at least in the form that meets the needs of the time) is conservatism meaning that, here in Britain, the Conservative Party needs to stick right with that idea, to keep it front of mind and not get sidetracked into protectionism, intervention and micromanaging the economy.

Voices from left and right try to tell us that the old model is dead - neoliberalism, globalisation, call it what you will. This argument is made without justification or much evidence and wider heads need to point out that this terrible policy platform has delivered rising wealth, increasing incomes and a billion fewer people in absolute poverty. The bus is in good order - what's needed is a little repair here and there, some fine tuning, a tweak or two, perhaps some bits of new upholstery and more polish, but it doesn't need a new engine or a new transmission. Doing this job is what conservatism does best - carefully adding small improvements while preserving the best of what's already there and recognising that people value, even love, the old tried-and-tested ways.


1 comment:

MJW said...

A major problem with identity politics is that it has become a commercial enterprise for its major proponents. Claims of grievance and oppression are everywhere and the solution invariably involves the purchase of services from professionals and their associates. But the analysis is always superficial and the expected outcomes of these services are vague or unable to demonstrate positive cost benefits. Attempts to bring transparency are more likely to result in further claims of grievance e.g. "you're a racist/oppressing me if you ask me what I'm doing with the money I was given for that community project/initiative/quango/workshop/training/consultancy I sold you that doesn't seem to deliver any actual benefit other than employing my friends, you better give me some more money and stop asking questions, and then I won't call you a racist or say you're oppressing me until I need some more money from you, when same rules will apply".

Grievance and entitlement are perpetual, which is convenient if you're selling identity politics, and even if the situation does get better, that's just an opportunity to find new interpretations of what constitutes grievance and entitlement.

This is not to say that certain groups don't have legitimate grievances or things shouldn't be done to address them, just that what we have today looks more like a racket. A good example are the periodic reports (like recent one from EHRC) that lead to accusations of racism in education because boys from black Afro-Caribbean ancestry do poorly; those studies invariably fail to unpack why boys from black-African or Asian ancestry do better, or why poor white boys do even worse. They just focus on superficial but emotive claims that will sell the next set of services with similar conclusions that will also diligently avoid unpacking the results, a cycle that repeats over and over without ever digging into those key differences and contradictions that might lead to meaningful but possibly controversial insights.