The Two Brexits

Cultural Brexit - Culture Wars - Establishment

Not everything of value can be measured or counted, and Remainers opposing Brexit purely on economic or materialistic terms are doomed to forever misunderstand half the country when they refuse to view Brexit through any other prism

If we are to have any hope of knitting Britain back together after Brexit, Remainers must first acknowledge and seek to understand an entire aspect to Brexit which until now they have tended to ignore or crudely dismiss as xenophobia or nostalgia for Empire.

Brexit is two separate phenomena in one. First there is Economic Brexit, the world of quantifiable (if still largely speculative) prognostications and arguments over just how impoverished Britain will be after Hard Brexit versus the untold riches which will be ours once we have concluded that mega trade deal with New Zealand.

But there is another Brexit, too. I struggle to define it – some days I feel like it is “Constitutional Brexit”, the Brexit which concerns itself with high-minded questions of governance, statecraft and geopolitics. But on other days it feels more visceral, more inchoate, though no less important for that. This is “Cultural Brexit” – sneered at by the Economist but best understood as secession from the EU partly as a reaction against supranational European government, yes, but also an enormous cultural backlash against years of self-serving, centrist, technocratic government within the narrow boundaries of an incredibly restrictive Overton Window.

While many smug or outraged Remainers try to hang Vote Leave’s idiotic “£350 million for the NHS” bus slogan around my neck, I never believed any of that nonsense and did my best to dispel it while other Brexiteers who should have known better were still propagating the idiocy and sowing the seeds for our current impasse. Personally, I always pursued “Constitutional Brexit”. What mattered to me was not immigration numbers or trade deals per se, it was the fact that decisions like these – crucial to the development, prosperity and nature of any nation state – should be made at that national level, not set as an unsatisfactory 28-way supranational compromise in Brussels (at least until a tipping point is reached where majority of us feel more strongly European than British).

But the more I observe the furious establishment backlash against Brexit (and last year’s opportunistic centrist coup against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party) the more I find that Cultural Brexit also resonates quite strongly within me. Ultimately, I cannot separate the constitutional issues from the fact that 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.

Are the numbers important? Absolutely. To the extent that we can actually make meaningful forecasts (and note: nearly every self-professed or well-credentialed economic expert has been wide of the mark, from when they told us that staying outside of the euro would be economic suicide right up to the OECD’s continually shifting forecasts of Brexit doom) of course numbers and the impact of Brexit on the economy matters. An economically weakened Britain is a diminished Britain, even if only in the short term, and we cannot forget that government policy and spending decisions can be measured by their impact on real human lives.

But simultaneously, numbers are often very good at capturing nearly everything besides that which actually makes life worth living. That’s why I never warmed to the Tony Blair / Gordon Brown / Ed Miliband / Jeremy Corbyn view of the world. They all had their own emphases, but to listen to these leaders speak was to imagine a clinical and soulless Britain, impeccably multicultural, endlessly tolerant even as Western values were eroded, with punctual trains, benefits for everyone, a gleaming new NHS hospital on every other street corner filled with identically-uniformed staff – but very little else.

Public Services (and the taxpayer money which needed to be extorted to pay for them) are everything to this type of leftist. Civil society and the idea of individuals coming together to do anything besides consume public services or petition the government for More Stuff barely registers in their mind, because their conception of a Utopian society has little room for anything outside the public sector. Schools, hospitals and trains – absolutely. Churches, the Women’s Institute, innovative start-ups, world-beating corporations, the ambition to strive for anything besides total equality of outcome – not so much. There is (or at least there should be) more to our shared national life than the public services which we consume together.

People of this mindset simply cannot fathom why we might want to leave the European Union, because it represents risk, and to them risk doesn’t mean possibility or potential. It means the fear of less money for public services and a potential reduction in the kind of perks which middle class people like myself are supposed to be beguiled by – free movement, low roaming charges, the European Union Youth Orchestra. The idea of risking material comfort or stability for mere democracy or the chance of further constitutional change seems absurd to them – if it can’t be counted on an Excel spreadsheet and slapped onto a smug infographic to be shared on Twitter, it can’t possibly count as a valid argument about Brexit, goes their thinking.

Such people can only think in terms of Economic Brexit, and will not debate with you in good faith on any other topic – many refuse to even acknowledge the existence of constitutional or cultural concerns other than dismissing them as “xenophobia”, or angrily saying “of COURSE the EU needs further reform!” without ever specifying what this reform should look like. There is, in other words, a huge empathy gap between the two Britains, and since Remainers are often not shy in declaring themselves “better” than us unwashed Brexiteers I would submit that the duty is primarily theirs to close it.

Pete North has for a long time done a great job of dissecting both aspects of Brexit – the Economic Brexit with its need to get to grips with the minutiae of trade agreements and regulatory systems, and also the Constitutional/Cultural Brexit which gets too little attention from most commentators. But he really knocks it out of the park in his latest piece, writing:

I am often told that we Brexiters are pining for long lost glory – fighting for a better yesterday. But what if we are and what if we are not wrong? What if the relentless march of “prosperity” is eradicating the best part of us? No misty-eyed tales will be told of sitting in a Frankie and Benny’s while tapping one’s foot to the generic tones of Shania Twain.

[..] One thing one notes about modern British cultural history is that every recession is marked by a musical revolution. We had 70’s punk, 80’s metal, 90’s rave and ever since, especially since the smoking ban, culture has gone into hibernation. The place you would have booked for your face melting techno all nighter is now a Debenhams complex. If there is one defining quality of modern progressive Britain then it is the relentless commercialised tedium of it.

As we have gradually sanitised our living spaces we have also sanitised our culture and one cannot help thinking we are now sanitising thought. This is clear from the onslaught of safe space culture so that our delicate metrosexual hipster children are protected from ideas that that may lead them to stray from the path of bovine leftist conformity.

I can’t really speak to rave culture, so I’ll have to take Pete’s word for that. But there is much truth in what he says. Nobody can deny that we live in an age of technological miracles. People of my age, who experienced the early internet in our teenage years and just about remember a life before it, have to concede that much. And as a country – as the West – we are undoubtedly more prosperous. I am continually astonished walking through London, thinking back to how much scruffier and run down everything looked in the 1990s when I came on daytrips from Harlow as a boy, how dramatically the skyline has changed, how few restaurants there were compared to now, how much less variety and choice there was in all things only a decade ago.

By nearly every measurable metric we are better off and our prospects are brighter, and yet something intangible has been lost. The economic heart has been ripped out of my hometown of Harlow, Essex, with many of the prestigious large employers now gone and replaced with vast distribution centres offering only minimum wage work. The town centre is decayed and scruffy; a town of nearly 100,000 people that can no longer sustain a Marks & Spencer’s department store; charity shops and temporary seasonal stores occupying the places where more permanent, upmarket businesses once were.

Meanwhile, when my wife and I go shopping at the upmarket Westfield mall in White City everything is polished and perfect, but you could be anywhere – Houston, Paris, Dubai, Melbourne, Hong Kong. Globalisation and economic growth have brought gleaming homogeneity to the places frequented by globe-hoppers like me, but slow decay to towns like the one where I was raised.

By no means can all of this be laid at the foot of the European Union. But stories like these need to be repeated over and over again because there are still many people who fail to understand that the months and years prior to the EU referendum were in fact not Golden Years for many people.

And “Golden Years” brings me on to David Bowie, and back to the point Pete North was making. When Bowie died early in 2016, writer Neil Davenport lamented that our current youth culture could never create anything like him again:

It’s worth remembering that Bowie slogged on the margins for ages, in two-bit bands, recording very minor songs, before finally finding his voice. Back then, British society created a kind of free space in which young people who were willing to take the unpredictable route of cultural experimentation could do so.

This, too has been lost, which I think is what Pete means when he says that our culture has “gone into hibernation”. As I remarked at the time:

Who would have thought that calls to outlaw clapping and booing, tearful temper tantrums about dress codes, stifling ideas by labelling them ‘problematic’, the insistence on safe spaces and mandatory sexual consent workshops for students would have such a repressive, suffocating effect on our society?

That’s not to say that there is no great new talent emerging seven decades after the birth of David Bowie – clearly there is. But time and again, we see the biggest acts and pop stars of today are more eager to ostentatiously embrace prevailing social values as an act of public virtue-signalling rather than court controversy by cutting across today’s strictly policed social norms.

Lady Gaga took no risk when she sang “I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way” – indeed it opened the door to stadiums full of even more lucrative fans. That’s not to say that she was wrong to do so; but how often do you see an emerging pop star court real controversy or confound society’s expectations these days? You can blame some of this on commercialisation, sure, but not all of it. Something deeper is at work.

When emerging artists see ordinary people shamed and ostracised for saying the “wrong” thing or even just adopting the wrong tone on social media, how many will have the courage to incorporate anything truly daring or potentially “offensive” in their acts, or create spontaneously from the heart without first processing everything through the paranoid filter of societal acceptability?

The societal changes we have undergone in the last three decades are not insignificant, and they have not been to the benefit of all people. I think I feel this keenly and am able to empathise with Cultural Brexiteers because I have a foot in both worlds.

I have a pretty nice middle class life in North London surrounded by fellow “citizens of the world”, but I was born and raised in a Brexit town. To me, the inhabitants of Brexitland are not abstracts or nasty composite caricatures painted by the Guardian – they are fundamentally decent human beings, real people of flesh and blood who want the best for their families and children. They are friends and former work colleagues for whom voting Tory or Labour made very little difference over the past twenty years because both main parties represented the same basic consensus (of which support for the EU was emblematic).

Pete concludes with what passes for a message of hope:

In effect I see the natural consequence of Brexit being what Cameron imagined as the Big Society, where ideas like free schools and “CareBnB” can take root. In the absence of state provision people can and do fill the void. All these ideas have been tested but not allowed to take root because they are a threat to various blobs who are well served by ossified state structures.

I hope so. Aside from Brexit, David Cameron’s aborted Big Society was the last thing which passed for a significant political idea in this country, and it had merit.

The revitalisation of our civil society has a value, as does the revivification of our democracy (if only we can build on Brexit and demand that powers reclaimed from Brussels filter down further than Westminster). It may not be possible to count them up in a spreadsheet but their value is real, as is the positive impact of living in communities which are more than homogenised temporary landing pads for globe-hopping citizens of the world or run-down ghettos to house the people who serve them.

This is cultural Brexit. It’s not that the European Union is the source of every last one of these woes. It’s that many people who defend the EU and supported Remain are as deaf to the concerns of Constitutional Brexiteers as people who think globalisation is all benefit and no downside are deaf to the criticisms of those who oppose the centrist consensus. The deafness to both concerns is the same, because in both cases they are overwhelmingly the same people.

It is this failure of empathy and imagination which first gave the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, and then gave us Brexit. The anti-establishment backlash which powered Donald Trump to the White House was also similar, though Brexit is much more coherent than Trump’s grievance-fuelled manifesto.

Remainers can keep shouting about Brexiteers being wrong, stupid or evil. They can delude themselves that we were all hoodwinked by a red campaign bus or Russian propaganda. But if they want to tackle that pervasive feeling of divorce and estrangement from their own country which many of them painfully feel, they will simply have to consider that theirs is not the only valid or reason-based prism through which to view Brexit.

Remainers must be bold and confront rather than dismiss Cultural Brexit. And they must dare to imagine that regardless of how this government’s rather ham-fisted attempt at Brexit plays out, those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union may just be on the right side of history after all.

David Bowie - Beckenham Free Festival

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The Conservative Party Has Lost The Pulse Of The Nation

Laura Pidcock - Labour MP North West Durham - 2

Labour’s statist, redistributionist policies are as bad as ever, but unlike the Tories they increasingly have the pulse of the nation

Once again I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with a stridently left-wing MP in their criticism of this drifting Conservative government and the failing centrist consensus which it represents.

As Jon Trickett continues to curate LabourList for the week, North West Durham MP Laura Pidcock writes:

Those people who sit on the government benches, who speak very well and pronounce their excellence and their firm grasp of the system, probably do believe it was their hard work that got them there. I’m sure they believe that it was some unique brilliance that put them in a position of power, not their childhood classrooms with numbers in single figures; not their personal allowances whilst at university: not their ability to recover from failures, because of the large cushion they sit upon. Not everybody who is wealthy and privileged is like this, but it certainly – and evidently – it makes it harder for those that are to understand the reality of what is happening to ordinary people.

This is why you get a system like universal credit, like the bedroom tax, the rape clause, the sanction system, the work capability assessments and he hugely alienating disability benefits system. It is why there are fines and punishments associated with all aspect of working class life: parking, smoking, littering, debt payments, libraries, electricity meters. When I had a book that was overdue to return to the Commons Library, I did not receive a fine. Undoubtedly it was assumed that I was too busy, that I had better things to be doing. Do the same presumptions apply to 99 per cent of Britain? Of course, not. On the contrary, they seen are lazy, feckless and are perceived to be “cheating” the system for turning up minutes late to a benefits assessment. Then they are hit where they won’t recover: through their finances, and so the cycle continues.

Of course, Pidcock ultimately goes on to spoil it all with economically illiterate class envy and a programme based more on tearing down the privileged rather than giving greater opportunities to the underprivileged:

We must expose the absurdity of our current system, we should shine a light on the cosy, privileged networks which lock out our people, our communities and our class. We have to call out poverty pay for what it is: it is robbery from the real wealth creators.

This much at least is socialist piffle. Yes of course there are some exclusive, exclusionary networks that are unwelcoming to minorities and working class people, and this is reprehensible when it occurs. And yes, recruitment to the SpAdocracy and cadre of parliamentary researchers and advisers which acts as a recruitment pool of future MPs is often too narrowly targeted at people from the same homogeneous background. But as this blog discussed yesterday in the wake of the Oxford University diversity non-scandal, the real issue is a problem with the supply of qualified people from under-represented backgrounds, not a lack of demand for them.

Most institutions remotely connected with government are under huge pressure to improve their diversity ratios, and face constant political pressure and bad publicity when they fail to do so. The fact that insufficient progress has been made tells us that the pipeline of qualified (or interested) candidates remains restricted, not that willing and capable people are necessarily being turned away.

But strip away the leftist agenda and the rest of Pidcock’s criticism is spot-on. Of course there are honourable exceptions, but MPs sometimes manage to display a remarkable lack of empathy for the struggles of the squeezed middle. This manifests in a multitude of ways, and is by no means restricted to the Conservative Party.

The London-raised metro-left Labour MP parachuted into a safe Northern constituency but boasting a voting record more attuned to the priorities of Islington than Darlington is every bit as out of touch as the privately-educated Tory MP who cannot comprehend why a six-week gap between applying for Universal Credit and receiving a payment might be problematic. Or the Tory MP who is confused that a selfish housing policy which chronically restricts the supply of housing stock to benefit older homeowners simultaneously alienates younger voters. Or the rural Tory MP who devotes all their energy to supporting NIMBY causes and then wonders why each election leaves him with fewer and fewer colleagues from urban constituencies.

My concern is not that the Labour Party is suddenly coming up with compelling, inventive new solutions to the problems we face as a country. By and large, they are not. My concern is that Labour are at least correctly identifying some of those problems and speaking to them in a way which makes people think they care, while the Conservative Party steams on in the same dismal direction as before, bereft of vision or policy ideas and with an unfortunate tendency to loudly insist that everything is great when everybody can see otherwise.

My concern is that more than four months after a general election result which has seemingly prompted no change in strategy by Theresa May’s government, Labour MPs are starting to make more sense – and sound more like they live in the real world – than their Conservative counterparts.

And when that happens, it usually means that the out-of-touch party is heading for a spell on the Opposition benches.

 

Laura Pidcock - Speech

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Laurie Penny, Gaslighter

Laurie Penny

According to Laurie Penny, conservatives are the true enemies of free speech and the illiberal student activists who beat them up, ‘no platform’ their speakers and disrupt their events are merely questioning the establishment

As they stagger on under the “leadership” of Theresa May, this Conservative government continues to cast about aimlessly for some kind of raison d’être, a justification for showing up for work in the morning which sounds marginally more noble than “because daytime TV sucks”.

And so it came to pass that the unremarkable minister for universities, Jo Johnson, decided to jump on the increasingly popular right-wing bandwagon of bashing identity politics, demanding that universities uphold a commitment to free speech and promise not to use no-platforming or safe spaces to suppress the exchange of ideas on pain of being fined or even deregistered as an institution by the Office for Students.

This is all incredibly boring. Jo Johnson was head of the Downing Street Policy Unit from 2013-2015 under David Cameron, right at the time when illiberal identity politics zealots were cementing their power. If Johnson had a burning desire to protect free speech, he could have persuaded Cameron to take up the cause. He did not do so. It is also curious that he now wants to become a crusader for free speech when working for an authoritarian prime minister whose every instinct points the opposite way, toward more regulation and censorship. In short, this whole thing is a PR stunt by a rudderless Tory Party chasing headlines rather than following an ideological compass.

But all this is only to be expected. More noteworthy is the response to Johnson’s posturing by identity politics priestess Laurie Penny, who took to the New Statesman to claim not just that conservatives are exaggerating the threat to free speech but that it is entirely a figment of their imagination.

Penny’s article begins dishonestly, and then gets worse:

The nonsensical consensus amongst the centre-right that today’s students are a bunch of censorious cry-babies plays well with the base, so Johnson Minor has jumped on the rickety bandwagon barreling down the road to the palace of convenient fictions, where a delicate banquet of delusion will be served to those whose cash and status protect them from ever having to hear their opinions questioned by a bunch of rowdy kids.

Conservatives seeking protection from having their opinions questioned? This is an interesting inversion. Rather than trying to minimise the issue and argue that the threat to free speech on campus has perhaps been blown out of proportion and is perhaps not as bad as portrayed, Laurie Penny insists – rather shamelessly – that the problem does not exist at all, that it is all a figment of our imagination.

Penny must be a secret neo-conservative fan girl because this is a consummate Karl Rove strategy, whereby she shamelessly accuses her opponents of the identity politics Left’s own glaring flaws. Where is the lengthy list of prominent left-wing speakers who have been banned from college campuses by conservatives? Where are the left-wing professors who fear for their job security if they question conservative ideas? Where are the left-wing students expelled or suspended from college because they made conservatives feel “unsafe” and contributed to a hostile, non-inclusive atmosphere? They don’t exist.

The problem is not that crusty old establishment figures are upset that brave, radical students are questioning their judgment. The problem is that these illiberal students do not merely question ideas, they actively suppress them on the grounds that they amount to dangerous “hate speech” with the power to wound or even kill. Yet through immense self-deception, Penny is able to cast actions which deliberately prevent speech from taking place as mere protest:

This is a non-controversy, and it’s unbelievable that otherwise intelligent commentators are taking it seriously. “No-platforming” is just another word for student protest – the practice of opposing invited speakers with bigoted views is a time-honoured one. The cooked-up row over “student censorship” is led by the sort of trembly-whiskered outrage-merchants for whom “censorship” means “making me feel bad about holding certain views”.

But protesting an idea and infringing on the rights of another person to express that idea are two very different things. One could excuse any act of violent oppression using Penny’s logic. “But lynching is just another word for protest”, said the Klansman to the sheriff as he was caught red-handed tying a noose. “I believe that black men are a menacing sexual threat to white women. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, I sincerely believe that it is and on that basis you have no right to stop me stringing up DeShawn over here for making my wife stare at him lustfully”.

And so it is with the SJWs. They sincerely believe that words are violence (or at least some of them do – I can’t help but think the smarter ones know full well that words are not deadly, but pretend that they are as justification for censoring unwanted ideas) and on that basis they claim the right to “protest” by shutting down the offensive speech, preventing it from taking place or exacting severe physical, financial or bureaucratic consequences for the speaker who dares to persist.

Laurie Penny continues:

There is, I ought to say, a rhetorical difference here that causes some confusion. Today’s students are simply more likely to use the language of empathy and trauma in their politics. They’re more likely, initially, to say “this book about how women aren’t really human might make some of us feel unsafe” than they are to say “this book is bullshit”. They’re more likely to say “you’re doing harm” than they are to say “fuck you”.

This is partly because a lot of today’s young radicals come from demographics for whom it’s far more dangerous to say “fuck you”. They are young women, young queer people, young people of colour. Their way of questioning authority is simply less actively aggressive. Today’s angry young people are more likely to show you their scars than their fists. That might be passive-aggressive, but it’s not politically unsound.

This is nonsense. Today’s SJWs and Antifa (the movement’s Faith Militant) are equally happy inflicting scars as they are flaunting their own to garner sympathy. It doesn’t take long to dig up both high-profile and more obscure cases where the pseudo-victimhood of supposedly marginalised and oppressed groups morphed suddenly into violent aggression on campus.

Witness student Bonita Tindle pushing and shoving a white male student who had the temerity to wear his hair in dreadlocks. Witness the recent incident at University of California – Santa Cruz, in which protesters shut down a meeting of the College Republicans and one protester claimed that she literally felt unsafe meeting in a library which was previously used by college Republicans. Witness the aggression of Jerelyn Luther getting hysterical about Halloween costumes. Witness Black Lives Matter shutting down an ACLU free speech event at William and Mary College, holding up banners declaring that speech kills. Note, too, the rising trend of outraged leftists demanding that speakers and publishers of wrongthink retract their “harmful” ideas and articles rather than going to the effort of disproving them. The Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics is causing many on the Left to forget how to argue at all.

Laurie Penny dismisses the current ideological focus on “harm” as a mere difference in rhetoric compared to previous generations, which is blatantly false. If you think a prominent idea is “bullshit” and evidently false then you generally relish the opportunity to publicly tear it down and discredit its proponents. But the SJWs do not do this. All too often, they don’t even attempt to engage with the substance because they claim that even hearing contrary thoughts expressed will do them physical and emotional harm.

There is hardly a shortage of literature and academic research on the rise of victimhood culture and learned fragility/unresilience. One thinks particularly of the paper “Microagression and Moral Cultures” by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, which discussed the difference between dignity, honour and victimhood cultures, or Jonathan Haidt’s development of these ideas.

Laurie Penny is doing a fantastic job of telling often well-meaning leftists exactly what they want to hear. She seeks to assuage any doubts that some wavering souls may feel about their movement’s snarling illiberalism by waving away any concerns as the desperate squeaking of a racist, misogynist old guard who are simply upset at the loss of their hegemony. After all, it is much easier to dismiss concern as the self-interest of oppressive powers rather than reflect on the ideological oppression they themselves are inflicting in the name of social justice.

But in telling conservatives that persistent, concrete efforts by the Left to paint their ideas as intolerably extremist and forbid their expression on campus are merely imagined, Penny is actively gaslighting. She is engaging in that coercive, manipulative behaviour more common to spousal abusers by portraying her opponents as crazy and flat-out denying observable reality in order to delegitimise conservative concerns about free speech suppression.

That Laurie Penny feels able to lie and deceive so freely in the pages of the New Statesman shows just how strong the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics has become. Adherents to this illiberal, censorious cult no longer fear being discredited or held to account for their lies. So complete is their control over academia and so cowed and enslaved are the media and many politicians that people like Laurie Penny can now create their own reality and demand that others accept it as real.

If a conservative were to insist that capitalism was completely flawless or deny that poverty exists, they would be laughed out of town and rightly lose all credibility. Yet Laurie Penny can use her exalted perch in the New Statesman to deny that things we can all see taking place on Western university campuses are even happening at all, yet still be taken seriously the next time she spouts off on TV.

That’s the protective power of the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics at work.

That’s how close conservatives and defenders of free speech are to losing this war.

 

Gaslighting definition - Dr Robin Stern

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Does Oxbridge Discriminate?

Brideshead Revisited - Oxbridge - Social Class - Discrimination

Oxbridge has every incentive to admit more students from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds. If diversity has failed to improve then it is our fault as individuals, families, communities and voters for failing to provide elite universities with a bigger, better talent pool

Another day, another tedious story about Oxbridge being a terrible bastion of privilege and discrimination where the few working class students who manage to evade the perimeter and matriculate find themselves mocked mercilessly by Bullingdon toffs while students of darker complexion are forced to drink from separate water fountains.

The trigger for this year’s rehashing of the predictable dirge was a freedom of information request submitted by Labour MP David Lammy, who selectively requested and interpreted data to paint the bleakest possible picture of barriers to elite higher education in Britain.

The Guardian reports on the “shocking” findings, and then have the temerity to criticise the Oxford University press office for daring to defend themselves rather than meekly accepting criticism and submitting to corrective punishment:

Oxford and Cambridge have been accused of failing to engage in serious debate over their lack of diversity by the former education minister David Lammy, who first highlighted the issue with data obtained by freedom of information requests.

The Labour MP said the universities had been “trying to make journalists change their stories” rather than address how little progress they were making in recruiting talented students by race, social class and location in England and Wales.

His accusation came after sparking national controversy over data – first published in the Guardian – that showed that as many as 16 Oxbridge colleges failed to offer any places to black British applicants in 2015, the most recent figures under the FOI request.

Note that when leftists call for a “serious debate” on something, in actual fact they do not want a debate at all. What they want is for you to flop over submissively on the ground and agree to whatever Utopian socialist pipe dream they have in mind. Back in the real world, Oxford and Cambridge do little else these days other than engage in never-ending symposia about diversity. The reason that these debates don’t satisfy the Left is because they do not end with Britain’s elite universities sacrificing their brands and academic standards by further lowering their entrance requirements to attract less qualified applicants who happen to tick the right diversity checkboxes.

David Lammy huffs in the Guardian that “seven years have changed nothing at Oxbridge”, but this is totally untrue. Elite universities are falling over themselves to admit minority and working class students to improve their admissions statistics. They face immense political and even financial pressure to do so. Seven years have indeed changed Oxbridge, but only in the direction of being even more amenable to considering applications from underrepresented groups. What has not changed, though, are the stubborn social and environmental factors which continue to restrict the pool of minority applicants in which Oxbridge and other elite universities must fish.

Of course, Labour were quick to pile on with predictable, cookie-cutter criticism:

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “This is the latest damning evidence on the government’s failure to widen access to our most selective universities.

“The proportion of comprehensive school pupils getting in to top universities under the Tories is lower than when Labour left office, and this data shows that the problem is especially serious at Oxford and Cambridge.

“Ministers claim their system is working, but these figures show that it isn’t.”

Because any imbalance simply must be the fault of institutions, and ultimately the government who wield absolute power over everything and everyone. The idea that poverty, social stability, family structure, engaged parenting or personal responsibility might play a part in the under-representation of certain groups at Oxbridge is unthinkable. Heavens, no. Successive British governments have created a perfectly egalitarian society, and the only reason that the enrolment at Oxford University does not perfectly match the makeup of the general population is because evil admissions officers in Oxford colleges harbour a seething, visceral hatred of poor, brown kids.

Lammy goes on to complain:

During this period [2010-2015], an average of 378 black students per year got 3 A grades or better at A-levels. With this degree of disproportionately against black students, it is time to ask the question of whether there is systematic bias.

Really? Now is the time? I’m so glad, because this conversation is indeed long overdue. Nobody has once raised the issue until this watershed moment, courageously midwifed into existence by David Lammy. At long last we can finally ask why, a time when every other institute of higher education in the country have conspicuously prostrated themselves before the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, Oxford and Cambridge continue to openly revel in institutional racism.

This is asinine.

Getting angry at Oxbridge for not admitting more ethnic minority and working class applicants is putting all the blame for societal, cultural and family problems at the foot of higher education. I am technically a BAME individual (oh, how I hate that stupid, infantilising acronym) from a poor, single-parent family, yet I was admitted to Cambridge University and neither experienced discrimination while there nor witnessed anybody else facing discrimination. On the contrary, there was a rigorous, fiercely intellectual atmosphere (aside from all the drinking and punting) which cared only about what you think, not what you look or sound like.

If anything, given the incentives and political pressure faced by universities today, I would not be surprised if many elite institutions already do more than they should to correct for social and government policy failures by accepting students from under-represented backgrounds that would not stand a chance if they were white and middle class. I know that if I was a university administrator and my performance appraisal, reputation or funding were at stake then I would be very tempted to selectively lower standards.

To properly address this issue we need to have “honest conversations” not about institutional discrimination but about family structure, culture, parenting, wealth and both primary and secondary education. We need to ruthlessly eliminate influences which tell certain impressionable youngsters that academic achievement is uncool, that being a useless parent is socially acceptable, and which peddle myths about Oxbridge based on hazy recollections of Brideshead Revisited.

We also need to stop the media hand-wringing. Hysteria about the lack of BAME people at Oxbridge only feeds a false narrative that minorities are unwelcome at Britain’s elite universities. It is very hard to increase representation when you simultaneously tell a certain group that they probably won’t get in to Oxbridge and will likely have a very bad time there if they do manage to beat the odds.

What we cannot do is expect our best universities, the engine of Britain’s innovation and research, to expend scarce time and resources bringing some candidates up to the basic level they need to be starting at. Some remedial classes are already offered to students who arrive at universities without the required study skills. It would be unfortunate if this reactive solution were to bed down at Oxbridge.

It is very convenient for politicians such as David Lammy to point to an evil, imaginary bogeyman which is responsible for a lack of diversity rather than admitting the more complex and intertwined failures which contribute to the problem. But as a “BAME” person (ugh) from a relatively disadvantaged background who was accepted into Oxbridge, the narrative being spun by the Left smacks of cynicism and a lack of serious thought.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that discrimination does not exist at the margins, or in the form of so-called microaggressions. I’m sure that it does. But I do not believe that it is systemic, particularly given that Oxbridge faces so many incentives and coercions to increase diversity.

Rather than badgering our elite universities to fix upstream issues and single-handedly correct disparities in the opportunities available to different demographic groups, we need to call individuals, families, communities and (yes) government to account for their failings and shortcomings. We need to foster a universal culture of ambition and respect for academic achievement which transcends lines of gender, ethnicity, wealth, culture or social background. This probably means making a thousand small and often inconvenient changes to the way that we behave as individuals, parents, teachers, students and policymakers, which is much harder work than joining the David Lammy Chorus and blaming everything on discrimination.

But the easy solutions are rarely the correct ones, and when it comes to increasing minority representation at our elite universities we must do what is hard rather than what feels good.

Formal Hall - Fitzwilliam College Cambridge University

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Conservatives Are Conceding The Battle Of Ideas Without A Fight

Jeremy Corbyn thumbs up

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is hard at work promoting their beguiling new left-wing vision for Britain while the Tories offer nothing but drudgery and incompetence

Every day now brings more ominous warning signs for the squabbling, directionless Tory government that the only people in Britain offering a clear, articulable vision for the country are those on the Corbynite hard-left wing of the Labour Party.

Four months after the general election, and all of the political energy and momentum is still on the Left. Jeremy Corbyn is more wily than he was in 2015, less prone to gaffes or accidentally handing his enemies the initiative. His centrist rivals have fallen into line, discredited and with no strong candidate to unite behind. Moreover, while most conservatives spent the summer licking their wounds far from the ideological field of battle, Momentum continued to organise and prepare for what they believe is one final push required topple the Tories and seize power.

And this newfound confidence is starting to creep into the rhetoric used by Labour politicians. Jon Trickett, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, writes this week in LabourList:

There was a time after the second world war when government saw its central role as creating a socially just Britain where full employment, adequate housing for all and free education was the right of the many.

In that time, there was always more to achieve but the national sense of purpose was clear.

It was a time when jobs were secure and for the long term. Policy was designed to make communities feel secure, when the past was a bad place of mass unemployment, slum housing and no hope. But the future was full of promise, where strangers were welcomed into communities because no one felt their jobs were under threat.

And in the time, it was not acceptable that the growing wealth of the country was only distributed to the wealthiest.

A coherent set of progressive values aimed at building a social contract in which we had a sense of duty to the community, and the country agreed to stand behind those who could not care for themselves.

Note what Trickett is doing here. He is building a narrative, talking about the kind of country we once were and citing the great endeavours from our past in order to build a link with the present and generate enthusiasm for future Labour policies.

President Lyndon B. Johnson did something very similar (albeit at a much more sophisticated level) when introducing the Great Society initiative in 1964, not merely proposing a raft of random new socialist programmes but making them collectively seem almost inevitable by deliberately linking them with the American founding, history and national destiny:

The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

In fact, this is a simple device which even mediocre politicians and rhetoricians were once capable of using before technocratic centrism sucked the soul and energy out of politics. It is the exact opposite of anything written or spoken by a Conservative minister in Theresa May’s administration, because great political rhetoric can only exist when there are great ideas to be expressed or arguments to be won.

Trickett goes on to give a perfunctory but devastating indictment of the state of Britain under the Conservatives:

But now you would struggle to discover a shared sense of national purpose. You could describe a sense of anomie in Britain where a sense of common values, duty to others and co-operation for shared ends are, to one extent or another, lacking.

Too often: post-industrial communities have been abandoned; young people have less hope than ever before of acquiring a home at reasonable cost; education has become a commodity rather than a public good; where that which was common is frequently private or suffering from severe spending cuts; and, where the wealth of the most privileged is growing exponentially at the expense of the rest.

How do we explain this shift in the national culture?  Or rather, how do we account its disintegration and fracturing? Is this a uniquely British problem? And can we begin to rebuild a renewed socialist project based on 21st century.

At this point a five-alarm fire warning should be sounding in CCHQ and inside the head of every single Tory or small-C conservative in Britain, because Jon Trickett has just eloquently and concisely diagnosed the ailments of modern Britain – the fact that we are effectively drifting as a nation with no core unifying purpose or attachment to one another and a diminishing sense of obligation to our fellow citizens. In other words, Trickett has created an itch, a burning discomfort with the status quo, and now stands ready to offer voters the calamine lotion of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist policies.

One does not have to agree that building “a renewed socialist project” is the answer. The point is that Trickett has clearly defined a problem and proposed a solution, all in the space of three short paragraphs. The Tories, meanwhile, are stuck defending a mediocre record with the huge distraction of Brexit, and seem to be loudly insisting that everything is great despite mounting evidence to the contrary (see Universal Credit). They have chosen to be cheerleaders for the status quo rather than agitators for change, even though the Conservative leadership election-that-wasn’t last year presented the perfect opportunity for unflinching self-assessment followed by an ideological reset.

That opportunity was squandered. And it has really come to something quite appalling when a Labour politician is responding to the priorities of this blog before the Tories pay proper attention. Jon Trickett is hardly known as Labour’s greatest thinker, but at least he understands that mandate-bestowing electoral victories are won on the back of selling the electorate an inspiring vision for the future.

Having a narrative is important. Good leaders and successful political movements understand this. The Attlee government alluded to by Jon Trickett certainly had a clear vision of the New Jerusalem they wanted to build out of the rubble of war. Margaret Thatcher had her urgent mission to save Britain from a failing post-war consensus and terminal national decline. Even David Cameron had his “Big Society”, an idea which might have been genuinely transformative if only it was bolstered with more thought and political courage.

In America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his “New Deal”. LBJ championed the “Great Society”. Ronald Reagan beguiled the nation with his promise of “Morning in America” after years of perceived stagnation under presidents Ford and Carter. And while President Obama’s soaring rhetoric often exceeded his relatively pedestrian governing agenda, his 2008 message of “hope and change” also strongly resonated with many Americans (including millions who deserted the Democrats to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 after no positive change appeared in their lives).

British politics has been stuck in such a dismal slump because for two decades an incredibly narrow, self-serving consensus was allowed to crowd out all other perspectives. And while this consensus served many people fairly well, its policy outcomes focused almost exclusively on funnelling material benefits (either wealth and career opportunities or literal welfare benefits) to certain specified groups of people rather than calling all of us together as a society united by a common bond, culture and purpose.

That approach has been found wanting. When the bipartisan political consensus (favouring EU membership, social liberalisation, globalism and corporatism) goes unchallenged it feels no need to respond to the concerns of those who do not benefit from existing policy. That is why for all the material progress seen in Britain we are still blighted by low productivity, family breakdown, divisions over immigration and a lack of any meaningful government response to the negative side-effects of automation, outsourcing and globalisation.

By electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, some within the Labour Party recognised that continuing to stand up for a failing political consensus was no way to address these problems or win a decisive mandate for left-wing government. As incumbents, the Tories were left as the only major party championing the status quo, and rather than develop a radical, inspirational right-wing message of their own they continued to double down on bland, uninspiring centrism under Theresa May.

What makes it especially galling that the Left rather than the Right have recognised the need for a positive, bold new narrative is that it is the Left who are most in thrall to the Cult of Identity Politics which does so much to atomise society and make people see themselves as members of persecuted identity groups first and foremost rather than fellow citizens of a united country. Somehow, despite this increasingly prevalent mindset within their ranks, some on the Left still managed to recognise the need for a coherent, inspiring national message, a message with the potential to unite a broad swathe of society behind it (though whether it succeeds is another matter).

As John Prescott boasted earlier this year:

Finally, we’re talking about ideas and policies – not splits and personalities. Twenty years ago next month, Labour won an ­election landslide because we were united, trusted and had policies people could understand. When we lost in 2010, I felt we lost our way. We didn’t want to defend our record in government and by 2015 we accepted Tory austerity.

At least Labour is now ­developing clear red water between us and May. Not with soundbites and brickbats, but with popular policies.

Ideas and policies over splits and personalities.

Meanwhile, what do the Tories offer? False promises of being “strong and stable”, a moronic slogan which described an unattainable state of being rather than a clear direction for the country. More dull, technocratic drudgery in which eliminating the budget deficit (painstakingly slowly) is considered an aspiration worth putting in neon lights and making the focus of their government. Division and incompetence on Brexit, with the only optimistic Tory voices now belonging to free trade fantasists who want Britain to unilaterally lower barriers to trade and who think that crashing out of the EU and defaulting to WTO trade terms is a smart decision. Barely concealed leadership rivalries between a cast of identikit Cabinet ministers who seem to be competing with one another based on personality rather than different visions for the country.

Yet even now, the Conservative Party has no idea of the terminal danger it is in. Despite a few plucky efforts to re-inject some proper thinking and ideas into the party, the prime minister and her Cabinet offer no real ideological leadership whatsoever. Consumed by Brexit (and doing a pretty poor job at that) they seem to have abdicated any responsibility for using government to lead the country to a better place. Everything they do is reactive and cynical, like Theresa May’s university tuition fee freeze and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s age-based tax proposals, transparently cynical attempts to court the youth vote which are laughable in their inadequacy.

A couple of days ago I mused about whether the Conservatives can renew themselves ideologically and spiritually while still in office. This already slim prospect looks less and less likely by the day, both because senior people within the Tory Party seem to be too busy lurching from crisis to crisis to see the bigger picture and because all of the ideological energy and political momentum is on the Left right now.

And where there is new conservative thinking, it tends to counsel more, not less, accommodation with the Left. Some MPs, like Sam Gyimah, talk the right language of purpose and ambition but then disappointingly default to predictable, Left-leaning “compassionate conservative” solutions. And even these efforts at conservative renewal tend to focus more on what the government could and should do for us rather than what we collectively might accomplish together as a people. Time and again, the present Conservative Party capitulates to the Left and apologises for its own principles.

This is frustrating because conservatives should be able to come up with a far more inspirational, compelling message than the one they have been peddling. The Left’s entire focus is fixed firmly on inequality. Yet even die-hard Social Justice warriors would surely admit that equality is a hygiene factor, the absolute baseline for which society should aim (though they might then go on to disagree about whether equality or opportunity or outcome should be the goal).

Therefore, as eloquent as Jon Trickett’s words are – and as much as they should scare conservatives who are yet to join the ideological battle – equality remains insufficient as an organising principle for society or a shared national ambition. We need more concrete goals toward which we can all strive and move together, while in the background we are working hard to achieve a just society (however we choose to define it).

And luckily for conservatives, this is what the Left still does not get. Though they have woken up to the need to talk in terms of vision and ambition while the Tories are still lost at sea, the Left still sees achieving equality as the ultimate goal. One gets the distinct impression that many on the hard Left would not much care if we never really accomplished anything great as a country and even regressed somewhat in terms of material comfort and economic development, so long as society was flattened and the gap between rich and poor reduced. To listen to many a Labour speech, one almost pictures a country with a state-of-the-art NHS hospital on every street corner but a population so busy marvelling at their wonderful state of equality that they forget to go out and change the world.

So there remains an opportunity for conservatives to sneak in with an improved narrative and national ambition, one which aspires to something more than mere equality. Something which actually seeks to organise and harness the best of our energies and skills as we strive to make our country and the world better, not just more equal. Such a vision, carefully crafted and persuasively argued, would beat the Left’s narrow-minded focus on equality any day of the week.

So who will step up to the challenge and help develop a worthy conservative response to the re-energised Left? Because right now they are the ones fizzing with energy and ideas, while conservatism seems content to trudge wearily to its grave, quite possibly dragging the country along with it.

 

UPDATE – 17 October

Evgeny Pudovkin makes some good points over at Comment Central, specifically around how the Tories can potentially keep Theresa May in place as a “bad bank” repository for public dissatisfaction with the status quo while developing new ideas and new talent in parallel:

Some argue for replacing May with a fresh candidate who could offer the Tories a new vision. Yet May is still at Number 10 due to the very reason of her being a fulfiller and not a prophet. Her main role entails overseeing already introduced reforms – Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, the house building programme and, indeed, Brexit. That doesn’t leave much time for blue-sky thinking, at least not until future relations with the EU are at least broadly defined. Just what exactly will toppling May achieve, apart from spawning new rivalries?

Any vision for post-Brexit Britain must be cultivated in parallel with May’s premiership. First of all, prospective candidates should establish a stronger presence on social media. The time when David Cameron could simply dismiss digital communication with his “Britain is not Twitter” jibe is over. As historian Niall Ferguson explained (here and here), the successes of both Donald Trump and the Leave campaign can be explained at least partially by their presence on social media. Secondly, the next leadership candidate might want to spend more time with the grassroots. Finally, a prospective challenger could create a new platform for developing policy. The Centre for Policy Studies served an important vehicle for Thatcher’s revolution, while Policy Exchange helped to inject a more coherent vision into Cameron’s project.

The dichotomy between May’s stable rule and the need to reinvigorate the Tory party is false. You can do both at the same time.

I agree in principle. Of course, this approach depends entirely on the public retaining patience with the Tories long enough for them to come through the other side of Brexit with an attractive new philosophy of government ready to go and an equally attractive leadership candidate to pick up the torch.

Right now, I struggle to see where the seeds of a new 21st century conservatism are germinating. Certainly the think tanks are nothing like the humming centres of creative energy that they were back when they propelled Margaret Thatcher to power with a copy of the Stepping Stones report in her pocket.

On paper, what Evgeny Pudovkin proposes makes perfect sense. In practice, I don’t see where the new ideas or the leadership talent are going to come from. I sincerely hope that this is due to my political myopia rather than a genuine dearth of new ideas within the British conservative movement, but I do not think it likely.

 

British Ambition - underground tube sign

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