Tales From The Safe Space, Part 57 – Transphobia Inquisitions And A Kafkaesque Nightmare At Wilfrid Laurier University

Lindsay Shepherd - Wilfrid Laurier University Ontario Canada - Academic Freedom - Social Justice - Transgender Pronouns - Jordan Peterson

University professors and diversity officers now haul students to appear before campus Social Justice Star Chambers, imposing disciplinary measures without ever explaining the nature or context of the charges against them

One of the interesting developments in the continued takeover of academia by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics is the way that enforcement of the strict new leftist orthodoxies has swung from college students pressuring their professors and university administrators to university professors and newly hired diversity officers now pressuring and bullying the students.

It is as though university faculties and leadership teams were so scared by the wave of occupations, campus protests and media spectacles (not to mention high-profile forced resignations) over the past several years that they became determined to get out ahead of the curve and be part of the identity politics vanguard, becoming the hunters rather than the hunted.

We saw this a few months ago at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where more than one professor saw fit to encircle a conservative student recruiting for her campus political organisation and hurl insults and taunts in her direction. So desperate were these middle-aged professors to be seen as sufficiently “woke” “allies” of various designated victim groups that they ended up behaving in a far more raucous, juvenile way than the poor girl they were tormenting.

But now an even more disturbing case has emerged, this time at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. Graduate student and teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd recently found herself hauled in front of a Star Chamber consisting of two professors and a campus diversity officer after an anonymous complaint was made against her for showing a video – fully within the context of the class she was teaching – of somebody expressing a point of view which did not accept or validate current transgenderism doctrine, specifically the use of alternative pronouns.

From The Star:

Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University, said she ran afoul of school authorities after she aired a clip in two tutorials of a debate on gender-neutral pronouns featuring polarizing University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson.

The excerpt from TVO’s current affairs program The Agendashows Peterson, who has famously refused to use gender pronouns other than “he” or “she,” defending his position against a professor who argued it was necessary to use the pronouns that a person prefers to be called.

Shepherd said she was chastised by her superiors for failing to condemn Peterson’s remarks outright and told her neutral approach to the clip was tantamount to remaining neutral on other objectionable views such as those of Adolf Hitler.

While Global News reports:

She was called into a meeting in which Laurier faculty and administration told her that playing the clip without condemnation legitimizes the viewpoint, which they don’t support.

[..] The meeting, which Shepherd secretly recorded, left her in tears after staff said playing the clip created a toxic environment for transgender students and called her transphobic.

Note: Lindsay Shepherd considers herself a leftist and did not actually agree with the perspective which Professor Jordan Peterson expressed in the now-controversial video. She was hauled before a disciplinary body merely for presenting a different argument in an academic context.

Summaries really do not do the exchange justice, so I strongly encourage you to spend 9 minutes listening to the secret recording of the meeting made by Lindsay Shepherd, or at least to read my transcript below. The purpose of this is not to generate more superficial outrage about “crazy campus SJWs” but to emphasise the degree to which universities are running at full speed away from any commitment to academic freedom and towards uncritically promoting one very particular (and flawed) worldview to the exclusion of all others.

Full transcript below:

PROFESSOR 1: …why that might have been seen as problematic by some of the students, maybe even threatening?

SHEPHERD: Um, I don’t see how someone would rationally think it was threatening. I can see how it might challenge their existing ideas but for me that’s the spirit of the university is challenging ideas that you already have. And I don’t know who this came from, I would be interested to see the original complaint or complaints, because like I don’t really have any context as to what exactly their problem was.

PROFESSOR 1: Sorry, can I, um…

SHEPHERD: The thing is, can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure that they are insulated away from this, is that what the point of this is? Cause to me that is so against what a university is about. So against it. I was not taking sides, I was presenting both arguments.

PROFESSOR 1: So the thing is about this is, if you’re presenting something like this, you have to think about the kind of teaching climate that you’re creating, and, um, this is actually, these arguments are counter to Canadian human rights code, ever since – and I know that you talked about, um, C-16, ever since this passed it is discriminatory to be targeting someone due to their gender identity or gender expression. So bringing something like that up in class, not critically, I understand that you’re trying to, like –

SHEPHERD: It was critical. I introduced it critically.

PROFESSOR 1: How so? Like, as in?

SHEPHERD: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.

PROFESSOR 1: Okay. In the spirit of the debate is slightly different to being, like, “this is a problematic idea that we maybe wanna unpack”

SHEPHERD: But that’s taking sides.

PROFESSOR 1: Yes.

SHEPHERD: That’s me being like “oh look at this guy, everything that comes out of his mouth is BS but we’re gonna watch anyway”.

PROFESSOR 1: Okay. So I understand the position that you’re coming from and your positionality, but the reality is that it has created a toxic climate for some of the students. Y’know, it’s great that —

SHEPHERD: Who? How many? One?

PROFESSOR 1: Okay. May I speak? It’s —

SHEPHERD: I have no concept of, like, how many people complained, what their complaint was, you haven’t shown me the complaint.

PROFESSOR 1: Yes, I understand that this is upsetting, but there’s also confidentiality matters.

SHEPHERD: The number of people is confidential?

PROFESSOR 1: Yes. It’s one or multiple students who have come forward saying that this is something they were concerned about, and that it made them uncomfortable. You’re perfectly welcome to your own opinions, but when you’re bringing it into the context of the classroom that can become problematic. And that can become something that is – that creates an unsafe learning environment for students.

SHEPHERD: But when they leave the university they’re gonna be exposed to these ideas, so I don’t see how I’m doing a disservice to the class by exposing them to ideas that are really out there. And I’m sorry I’m crying, I’m stressed out because this, to me, is so wrong. So wrong.

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Can I mention the gender violence – the gender and sexual violence policy?

PROFESSOR 1: Yeah, please.

DIVERSITY OFFICER: So under that, um, gender violence does include sexual violence but it also includes, um targeting folks based on gender, um, so that includes transphobia, biphobia, homophobia, all those sorts of things are protected under the policy, and so those are things that Laurier has upheld as values as well as the Ontario human rights code. Um, and so those are things that we’re responsible for, uh, not impacting our students in that way, and not, um, not spreading transphobia in that way.

SHEPHERD: Okay, so what I have a problem with is I didn’t target anybody. Who did I target?

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Trans folks.

SHEPHERD: How? By telling them ideas that are really out there? By telling them that? By telling them? Really?

PROFESSOR 1: It’s not just telling them. In legitimising this as a valid perspective, as this is another valid perspective —

SHEPHERD: In a university all perspectives are valid!

PROFESSOR 1: That’s not necessarily true, and —

SHEPHERD: Well, this is something that’s being intimated in current society and I don’t feel the need to shield people from what’s going on in society. Like, to imagine that this is happening in a university, it’s just…bad.

PROFESSOR 1: Okay, so just to give you a context. Also within all of this that is happening, um, Laurier’s being blanketed with white supremacist posters currently. There’s another debate in society which is whether or not North America should be a set of white nationalist states and that it should be ethnically cleansed of other people. That is also a current debate in society. Would you show something in your tutorial that had, y’know, white supremacist and non white supremacists debating whether or not other people should live in North America? Is that something that you would show?

SHEPHERD: If that was related to the content of the week and we were talking about right wing speakers then maybe. It depends on the content, like, I mean if there’s really ideas that are existing out there like that then, I mean… Look, the thing is I don’t see what’s transphobic about showing a video of Jordan Peterson. He’s a real person. He is out there.

PROFESSOR 1: He is a real person, but he is a real person who has engaged in targeted behaviour or targeting of trans students, um, in the particular, like — basically doxxing them, if you know the term, like giving out their personal information so that they will be attacked, harassed, so that death threats will find them. This is something that he has done to his own students, he has done to other students, um, and this is also something that the students are aware of. So this is, this is basically like playing – not to kind of do the thing where everything is kind of compared to Hitler – but this is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos from GamerGate. This is the kind of thing that, departmentally, in terms of critical communication studies and in terms of the course, of what we’re trying to do, is diametrically opposed to everything that we have been talking about in the lectures. Was this one of the reasons that you wanted to do this, because it was like, a reaction to the lecture content and, uh…?

SHEPHERD: No, we were talking about gendered language, and I was asking them to structure sentences using “they” or using “his” and “her”. And then we talked about the societal context of it. So I don’t get why I’m being seen as transphobic by virtue, by proxy of me just saying, just stating, just exposing people to an idea. I don’t get how that label is attached to me, I really don’t.

PROFESSOR 1: It’s more about the effect rather than the intention, like obviously that wasn’t your intention, but nevertheless it disturbed and upset students enough —

SHEPHERD: So everything’s about those students who are disturbed? Everything is catered to them?

PROFESSOR 1: [Sighs]

PROFESSOR 2: Can I just offer a different perspective? Um, were you, was this, um, tutorial based on looking at grammar?

SHEPHERD: Uh-huh.

PROFESSOR 2: And it was focused on the use of pronouns and the use of grammar?

SHEPHERD: Uh-huh.

PROFESSOR 2: Um, is grammar not something that’s not really subject to debate?

SHEPHERD: The “they” and the “his” or “her”? It’s a huge debate right now. Can we use “they” in the singular?

PROFESSOR 2: Yeah, but you do know that “they” has actually been used in the singular and —

SHEPHERD: Yeah, and that was in the video I showed to the class, and that was a point I made. The thing is, that’s kind of funny, is I disagree with Jordan Peterson. I disagree. But, um, you guys seem to think that I’m like pro-Jordan Peterson or something. It’s very funny.

PROFESSOR 2: Well, um, do you understand how what happened was contrary to – sorry, what was the policy, the —

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Gender and sexual violence.

PROFESSOR 2: — Gender and sexual violence policy? Like, do you understand how…

SHEPHERD: Sorry, what did I violate in that policy?

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Um, so gender-based violence, transphobia in that policy, causing harm to trans students by, uh, bringing their identity as invalid or their, uh, pronouns as invalid.

PROFESSOR 2: Or something like that.

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Potentially invalid.

SHEPHERD: So I caused harm and violence?

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Which is under the Ontario human rights code and a protected thing, and also something that Laurier holds as a value.

SHEPHERD: Okay. So by proxy, me showing a YouTube video, I’m transphobic and I caused harm and violence? So be it. I can’t do anything to control that.

PROFESSOR 2: Okay, so that’s not something that you have an issue with, the fact that that happened? Like, are you sorry that it happened?

SHEPHERD: Like, I mean, I know in my heart and I know I expressed to the class that I’m not transphobic, and if any of them — I don’t know, again, I don’t know what they said — but I made my — I don’t think I gave away any kind of political position of mine. I remained very neutral. And, um —

PROFESSOR 2: And that’s kindof the problem…

[AUDIO ENDS].

Note how the professors are totally unable to distinguish between the idea of raising an idea for critical discussion and targeting a student and inciting hatred or violence against them based on that idea. Time and again, the professors imply (and sometimes outright state) that any idea or argument which deviates from the prevailing transgender orthodoxy can only be discussed if it is first denounced as wrong or even “evil”. Students are not to be exposed to ideas and left to evaluate them in a neutral environment; rather, they will be informed of the “correct” response to such ideas upfront, presumably to avoid “harmful” misunderstandings.

One also wonders how far the professor/inquisitor had to dial down his definition of white supremacy when he made his remarks that the campus is being “blanketed in white supremacist posters”. One imagines that any literature advocating any kind of immigration enforcement at all would now fall into this category, together with any poster bearing the image or advertising the appearance of a prominent mainstream conservative. And when some future Wilfrid Laurier student is hauled before the same Social Justice Star Chamber for illicitly watching a Ben Shapiro or Tomi Lahren video under the covers at night in the privacy of their dorm room, the definition of racism and white supremacy will be just as expansive and unquestionable as transgender doctrine was at Lindsay Shepherd’s trial.

After all, the professor seriously posits the idea that there is a mainstream debate going on in society over whether North America should be ethnically cleansed of non-white people. These academics are so unhinged, so utterly untethered from reality, that they interpret a far-right argument on the very fringes of society – one which is actually diminishing, not gaining traction over time – and elevate its importance to that of some widespread national movement. This is a childlike catastrophisation of the current situation at best, and brazen intellectual deception at worst.

Listening to the recording, what is really surprising (besides the content) is the fact that at all times it is Lindsay Shepherd, the grad student, who sounds not only more reasonable and measured but more intellectually astute than her inquisitors. Shepherd was apparently being grilled by two professors and a Wilfrid Laurier University diversity officer, and despite being placed in a hugely stressful situation and occasionally fighting back tears as a consequence she sounds poised and articulate while her academic tormentors reach for every worn-out phrase or comparison in the book, frequently having to “tag” one another in and out of the discussion as they are repeatedly stumped and confounded by Shepherd’s logical responses.

Is this what the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics does to academic minds? Did the capacity for reasoning and critical thinking faculties of these professors gradually rot away after they drank too deep from the well of identity politics? Did they jettison independent thought and learn to mindlessly repeat approved orthodoxy so long ago that they now find themselves bested in debate by a scared grad student despite enjoying a 3 to 1 numerical advantage?

These really are third rate academic minds. Who says “positionality” in a sentence? Be under no illusion – this is a thoughtcrime investigation panel, and the judges are so inarticulate that they can only keep restating their blunt, unwavering dictum in occasionally varying language rather than engaging with and rebutting Shepherd’s arguments – hence their heavy overuse of the word “problematic” without any kind of granular explanation as to what was problematic or why it was so. These professors cannot even make a rudimentary case for their own intersectional ideology; all they can do is state and restate its core commandments.

These inquisitors do not deserve the title of “professor” when their snivelling, cowardly attempt to enforce their credo was so comprehensively deconstructed and debunked by a nervous but principled and steadfast grad student. Neither do they deserve to be employed by any academic institution which calls itself a university.

And unless Wilfrid Laurier University rapidly takes steps to publicly sanction those professors and apologise to Lindsay Shepherd, they should no longer be taken seriously as a place of higher education.

 

UPDATE – 20 November

Rod Dreher makes a good point in his own reaction to the Lindsay Shepherd story:

It’s worth listening to the clip to hear how nicey-nice and bland the inquisitors are. These people are destroying academic freedom and the purpose of a university, and they’re doing so in anaesthetic tones that conceal the act of real violence to the core values of a university.

The tone adopted by the two professors and the diversity officer is indeed striking. The language they use is incredibly passive and their voices never become harsh or accusatory. Instead they appear to be trying to undermine Shepherd with bland niceness, to keep hammering home the same illogical message with soft insistence in the hope that she will ultimately break down and state that 2+2=5.

It is worth remembering that the gravest threats to free speech and academic freedom in the West come not from angry student protesters but from the impeccably credentialed, dulcet-toned bureaucrats and functionaries who share their worldview.

 

UPDATE – 23 November

Professor Nathan Rambukkana, Lindsay Shepherd’s inquisitor-in-chief, has apologised to the student in a fairly gracious open letter. Money quote:

Second, this entire occasion, and hearing from so many with passionate views on this issue from across the political spectrum, has made me seriously rethink some of the positions I took in the meeting. I made the argument that first-year students, not studying this topic specifically, might not have the tool kit to unpack or process a controversial view such as Dr. Peterson’s, saying that such material might be better reserved for upper-year or grad courses. While I still think that such material needs to be handled carefully, especially so as to not infringe on the rights of any of our students or make them feel unwelcome in the learning environment, I believe you are right that making a space for controversial or oppositional views is important, and even essential to a university. The trick is how to properly contextualize such material. One way might be through having readings, or a lecture on the subject before discussion, but you are correct that first-years should be eligible to engage with societal debates in this way.

Is the letter perfect? By no means. It still adopts the whole “I’m sorry if you were offended” self-exculpatory language in places, and Rambukkana certainly does not forsake his main positions or his belief in identity politics. But still, better this than nothing at all. And at least there was an apology for the awful Hitler comparison.

Wilfrid Laurier Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy also took the opportunity to “apologise” via open letter, writing:

After listening to this recording, an apology is in order. The conversation I heard does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires. I am sorry it occurred in the way that it did and I regret the impact it had on Lindsay Shepherd. I will convey my apology to her directly. Professor Rambukkana has also chosen to apologize to Lindsay Shepherd about the way the meeting was conducted.

I remain troubled by the way faculty, staff and students involved in this situation have been targeted with extreme vitriol. Supports are in place at the university to support them through this situation.

Waah waah waah. Way to make it all about yourself. More:

Let me be clear by stating that Laurier is committed to the abiding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Giving life to these principles while respecting fundamentally important human rights and our institutional values of diversity and inclusion, is not a simple matter. The intense media interest points to a highly polarizing and very complicated set of issues that is affecting universities across the democratic world. The polarizing nature of the current debate does not do justice to the complexity of issues.

Laurier is prepared to engage with these important discussions in a thoughtful and determined way. I have announced a task force to delve into these issues. Further details will be announced in the days ahead. I look forward to the process and I am confident that the outcome will contribute to a better understating of these issues for Laurier and the broader community.

This is a total deflection. Giving life to the principles of free speech and academic freedom is indeed “a simple matter” – it just requires a backbone and a baseline commitment to the basic principles of a university. If MacLatchy feels constrained by the incredibly stultifying Canadian human rights laws then as a university vice-chancellor she should have been vociferously opposing damaging, censorious developments like C-16, not cheering them on from the rafters. MacLatchy needs to go.

 

Lindsay Shepherd - Wilfrid Laurier University Ontario Canada - Academic Freedom - Social Justice - Transgender Pronouns - Jordan Peterson

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The Battle For British Conservatism: Should The Tories Be Ideological?

Tories vision is not optimistic about the future but small mean and nasty - Jon Ashworth MP - Conservatives

Some say that it is not the job of conservatives to think big or be ideological – but in a period of discontinuity such as this, being ideological and ambitious is exactly what conservatives must do

My interest was piqued recently by a Philip Collins column in the Times, in which Collins argues for pragmatic conservatism over idealistic conservatism, and chastises Brexit-supporting conservatives in particular for supposedly putting adventurism and ideology over the cautious stability which ought to flow from the conservative worldview.

Collins makes some interesting points, beginning with his conception of the differing roles of Britain’s two main political parties:

The electorate selects a Labour government to push the nation down the road of progress. That effort inevitably leads to an excess of public spending and too great a faith in the capacity of the state to improve the lot of the people. Much good gets done along the way but the temperature gauge of the British people is so attuned that, once spending starts to spiral, they call on the Conservative Party to tidy up. The whole point of the Conservatives, the absolute raison d’être of Tory government, is to provide sound money and solid competence, unburdened by too much radical belief.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this. Over the course of both short and medium-term timeframes one can witness this phenomenon in action, from the pivot away from New Labour in 2010 as a short-term correction by an electorate in search of economic competence, and on a longer-term macro level the big swings from pre-war government to Attlee’s post-war socialism followed by a Thatcherite rollback of the post-war consensus.

(Of course, one can also argue the opposite – that the 1979 and 1983 Conservative governments were a deeply ideological monetarist reaction against the managed decline wrought by Keynesian economics and the socialist mixed economy. But while I fully agree that these were very ideological movements on the inside, I must also concede that they came to power not because the British people suddenly bought into a particularly individualistic mindset but rather because the people knew that the Tories were delivering strong, necessary dose of needed medicine).

But it is when Collins applies this same thinking to the European Union and the question of Brexit, though, where I really take issue with his argument:

But the issue of Europe, alas, pricks Conservatives into believing things. Suddenly, all the errors of the left, which the right exists to correct, are being committed by the Conservative Party. The usual conservative view is risk-averse and frightened of grands projets by their sheer complexity and by the low capacity of the state to administer them. The true conservative, who is not a reactionary in thrall to the past, is also not a radical excited by a better tomorrow. He or she instead makes a fetish of the present. Better not to risk change for fear it will be worse than what we have. The caution and the complacency can be infuriating but it is a fool who sees no wisdom in the position.

Where are these conservatives today? Can you name a single one? Who is the person who holds the quintessentially conservative view, which is that the EU is a bit of a mess for which no affection can really be mustered but who thinks that leaving is really not worth the candle? The process of leaving, thinks the historical conservative, is just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother. To attempt the most complex administrative task that the British state has undertaken since the conduct of the Second World War is just a profoundly unconservative thing to do.

This, to me, seems a rather glib analysis. The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union for slightly more than four decades. This is but a blip in the very long history of our country, and certainly an aberration in comparison to the independent course we charted before joining the EEC in 1973. To say that remaining in the European Union is the conservative option is to apply an exceedingly narrow temporal window in determining whether the “natural” state of being to which conservatives should naturally gravitate should be the status quo, or what existed for centuries up until forty years ago.

Collins would be aided in his argument that the EU represents the “new normal” if there were any other examples elsewhere in the world of nations voluntarily creating supranational governments to sit above their own courts and legislatures, cheered on at every stage by their citizens. But of course there are no such examples. The people of Canada, Mexico and the United States do not clamour to form an ever-closer union of their own, let alone one which includes central America (the equivalent of the European Union’s continual eastward expansion). Nor would the citizens of, say, Canada, tolerate the idea of a supranational court and legislature in Mexico City setting an ever-wider range of social, trade and foreign policy.

In other words, it seems clear that the European Union is the historical aberration, not Brexit. The EU is an anachronistic relic borne of a time when the world was divided into a few major international blocs. It is a solution to a problem which no longer exists, and while international cooperation is more important than ever, EU-based cooperation has conspicuously failed to live up to the challenges of our time, from the self-inflicted euro crisis to the great migration crisis. And given that EU membership represents such a narrow slice of our history, it seems clear to me that the conservative position is one which advocates a calm, orderly and pragmatic Brexit (probably of the kind which I and other members of the Leave Alliance campaigned, namely a phased exit from the EU via EFTA/EEA in order to avoid undue disruption to trade and economic links).

Also concerning is Collins’ assertion that Brexit is “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. He seems to wilfully ignore the fact that the Conservatives are also traditionally the party of patriotism and the robust, self-confident defence of national integrity (the clue is in the name Conservative and Unionist Party). While conservatism may often mean cautious pragmatism in terms of domestic policy (which admittedly has sometimes needed to be disrupted by Labour’s progressivism to advance the social good) it has never meant timidity or a lack of faith in Britain’s ability to act and defend our interests on the world stage. Collins seems to equate natural conservative caution with a necessary lack of ambition, but I do not consider these one and the same thing at all.

And then Collins really loses me with this:

Britain feels very different from the glorious summer of 2012 when Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to the Olympics was a paean to British culture that had spanned the world and to British institutions that had stood the toughest test of all, the test of time. In the distant past five years ago, it was an easy nation to be proud of. Boyle’s was a conservative vision of Britain, which the Tory party has thrown by the wayside.

I’m sorry, but this is balderdash. Prior to his career in journalism Philip Collins was speechwriter to Tony Blair, so his proclivities are very much of the centre-left. And while parts of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics might be said to be rooted loosely in conservatism, the part which most people remember is the bizarre open-air Mass in praise of the NHS and socialised healthcare.

(It is telling, too, how many of those on the left and centre-left almost seemed to discover patriotism for the first time back in 2012 while watching hundreds of actors in nurse costumes prance around a huge stadium pushing hospital beds and wheelchairs).

An all-singing, all-dancing Rite of Spring in worship of the National Health Service is not conservative in nature. In fact, its emphasis on uniformity, collective endeavour, equality of outcome and dependency on government is about the most un-conservative spectacle one can think of. The fact that it took a rather gaudy homage to that most socialist of socialist institutions to evoke feelings of patriotism in some on the Left shows that this was very much a leftist moment, not a conservative one – and in my opinion also shows that the same argument that EU membership is too new to fall under the protective umbrella of conservatism also applies to the NHS.

So should conservatives believe in anything, or should they be the timid, pragmatic and unambitious party of technocrats and fixers who are called in once in awhile to clear up the mess caused by an over-zealous Labour Party? I think this is where we need to be very clear about our meanings. It may absolutely be the case that most of the British public never see the conservative worldview and resulting policies in terms of an inspiring, coherent story. We may always be seen as the fixers. But that does not mean that we can get away without having a story to motivate and guide us, even if this remains largely internal.

Remember: British politics has now entered a period of discontinuity (as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) in which people have increasingly become dissatisfied with the previous Cameron-Blairite centrist, pro-EU political settlement and are demanding something new, something which addresses the unique challenges we face as a nation in 2017. This cannot be done without first diagnosing these challenges, understanding where they are interlinked, and then devising a set of mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle them.

We saw the same thing in 1977, when the influential Stepping Stones report (no, I’m not going to stop talking about it anytime soon) provided a blueprint which Margaret Thatcher then took to Downing Street and started implementing in 1979. The Thatcher government did not save Britain from inexorable national decline by conceding that reversing years of state ownership of industry and tackling the over-powerful trades union was “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. On the contrary, the Conservative Party of 1979 was forced to accept that discontinuity had to be met by new and previously unthinkable policies, just as the idea of leaving the EU remains unthinkable to so many within the political class today.

Believing in nothing and playing the role of the calm technocrat is all very well when times are good, when society and the economy are in steady-state and there are no urgent or existential challenges to be addressed. In such times, the Conservative Party is very welcome to play the tedious but necessary role of fixer. Unfortunately, we live in rather more interesting times which require inspired and often disruptively innovative policymaking rather than the usual government painting by numbers.

I can understand why this scares people like Philip Collins. The last time it was incumbent upon the Tories to be truly ideological, in 1979, they ended up remaking the country (and together with America, the world) and stamped a new political settlement on Britain which even now has not been fully rolled back. It is therefore natural, if a little cynical, that he now counsels the Tories to think small, to “keep their senses” and throw their arms around the status quo. The alternative must be terrifying to contemplate.

The last thing that the guardians of the current, fraying political consensus want is for conservatives to come up with an ambitious, ideologically coherent new internal narrative and then remake the country anew all over again.

And that is precisely why we must do it.

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Building A Britain Fit For The Future

Building a Britain fit for the future - new Conservative Party Tory slogan

Strong and stable, version 2.0

Word on the street is that the Tories have got themselves a shiny new slogan. Guido Fawkes reports:

Here are seven words you can expect to hear a lot more of over the next few weeks and months: Guido understands the new Tory slogan is “Building a Britain fit for the future”. Theresa May used it three times at PMQs on Wednesday, telling the Commons: “this government is building a country fit for the future”, “we are building a Britain fit for the future” and “We in the Conservative Party are building a Britain that is fit for the future”. This morning the CCHQ Twitter account used the same phrase.

As slogans go, I suppose that “Building a Britain fit for the future” could be a hell of a lot worse. It is certainly better than “strong and stable”, though according to Guido it seems as though the Tories are already in danger of wearing out their new slogan through enthusiastic over-use.

BABFFTF has potential because it at least acknowledges that we are entering a period of discontinuity – a time where the current system or political consensus is starting to fray and show signs of fatigue, where new and previously politically unfeasible policies are required to break the impasse or respond to the concerns of the electorate. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and the vote for Brexit are just two of the most prominent signs that we have entered such a time of discontinuity, with the pro-EU, centrist consensus adopted by Labour and the Conservatives through 2015 increasingly failing to address the hopes, fears, concerns and priorities of many people.

The problem, though, is that the slogan seems to have been trailed before the necessary supporting ideas – the vital national reboot checklist which can steer Britain through Brexit and on to the other challenges – have been developed. Now, it’s possible that Theresa May has been huddled in Downing Street with her SpAds brainstorming some breathtakingly original new ideas, and that we will all be bowled over when they are announced in the coming weeks – but it seems unlikely. Firstly, she would be breaking the habit of a lifetime (doing something bold and visionary) and secondly it is hard to tell when such inspired policymaking might have taken place given all of the shenanigans going on in her Cabinet.

While we can finally detect a few faint signs of new intellectual life in the Tories – notably the Big Tent programme launched by George Freeman, and the Square Deal initiative led by Nick Boles – these groups are barely getting formed, and are months away (if not more) from reaching full fruition. And as I have previously written (and will continue to expand upon in coming days and weeks), we are still missing anything like an overarching framework to diagnose the issues facing Britain, draw out the links between them and produce an electorally viable set of policies to tackle them. Discontinuity requires policymaking through extraordinary means; the same old processes tend to yield the same old solutions.

That being said, the Tories cannot remain silent altogether while they try to get their act together. It is good, in a way, that Brexit is currently consuming most of this government’s energy because that means that they have little time (and even less political capital) to push through some of the authoritarian, statist, anti-market policies which one suspects Theresa May would now be rolling out had she won a thumping majority. A de facto “first, do no harm” doctine has thus been partially imposed on this government, like it or not.

But still the Tories must do something, starting with the Budget next week, to show that they are starting to understand the depth of public dissatisfaction with the old political settlement, particularly on housing (since this is a vital policy area more separated from some of the others). Years of disappointment mean that I have zero positive expectations of Phillip Hammond when he gets to his feet to deliver the Budget next Wednesday. I fear that even if there is noticeable movement on housing, it will be a big sop to Labour by focusing on the building of new council housing rather than the big unleashing/encouraging of private development (upward, not outward) which we need. This is Hammond’s chance to prove me wrong, as well as everybody else who has lost faith in the current government being anything more than a very clumsy caretaker.

The pessimistic part of me still believes that a mid-term rescue for the Tories is simply impossible; that it will take a (hopefully) short, sharp spell in opposition to rid the current Tory frontbench of much of its dead wood and see some new talent push forward – hopefully talent less beholden to the current political consensus, and which wants to do more than simply make a few cosmetic tweaks to win back public opinion. Readers will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot think of one example of a successful political turnaround that was driven by refreshed policies rather than the good fortune of events.

But a Jeremy Corbyn government is not something to be entertained lightly. The next government will likely set the tone and direction of Britain’s immediate post-Brexit years, and so will play a large role in stamping their imprint on whatever the new emerging political consensus or centre of gravity happens to be. After years of leftward drift under both New Labour and Conservative governments, it is important that the next significant course change is to the right. In a world of pure ideology one may well want the Tories decimated at the next election so that they can grow back stronger and with a renewed sense of purpose, just as controlled forest fires can ultimately benefit an ecosystem even as they destroy in the short term. But since we all have to live in this forest for the duration, dropping a match onto dry leaves by ushering Jeremy Corbyn into 10 Downing Street really must be an option of last resort.

Therefore let us hope that “Building a Britain fit for the future” and whatever quickly-concocted policies lie beneath it buy the Tories sufficient breathing room to attempt a more fundamental policy review – to create the new Stepping Stones report for 2018 that Britain needs to chart our way from one failed political consensus to a new one which addresses today’s challenges.

Let’s hope that it falls to conservatives to build the Britain of the future, and not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

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Recognising Failure In Brexit

Brexit - young professionals

One of the greatest failings of Brexiteers since the referendum has been our inability to convince more wealthy, urban, Remain-voting younger professionals that the old pro-EU political consensus is broken, or that they benefit in any way from nation state democracy

I spend a lot of time on this blog telling various people and groups – the establishment, Remainers, Labour centrists, Tory wets – to engage in a bit of introspection and consider where their own actions and behaviours may have helped feed the very circumstances or phenomena which now upset them.

It is only fair that I go through the same process myself, as a way to maintain intellectual integrity. And there is one failure in particular that I keep coming back to – never finding a way to bridge the gulf of understanding between the two worlds that I myself straddle, Brexitland (where I was born) and the urban bastion of EU support (where I now live).

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, even before we knew the demographic breakdown of the vote, I wrote:

I extend to you the magnanimity and friendship that (I hope) you would be extending to me right now had the result gone the way we all expected. It is incumbent on all of us now to work together to achieve the best possible form of Brexit.

I think it is fair to say that I have not always lived up to that aspiration, though most of my lapses have only taken place in the context of extreme provocation in terms of the rhetoric or tactics adopted by what quickly became an extraordinarily energetic (and often venomous) continuity Remain campaign.

I have at least never knowingly initiated a hostile encounter with an EU supporter, online or in real life, because I still believe that whatever convulsions or purges our political class may need to go through as Brexit unfolds, the rest of us will need to knit back together as one country. As I have written only recently, we have many other pressing issues besides Brexit facing us as a country, none of which can be tackled successfully so long as we have our hands round one another’s throats.

It was therefore been incumbent on Brexiteers like myself – in addition to safeguarding the referendum verdict and working to achieve a better form of Brexit than the present government is on course to deliver – to attempt to persuade at least some Remain voters (particularly those who are not hardcore eurofederalists) that Brexit has the potential to be a good thing and a catalyst for further change if we demand it through our active participation.

This has not been a roaring success. I live in northwest London, in an overwhelmingly Remain-voting constituency (Hampstead & Kilburn) where EU flags flutter from the windows, I work in a professional job and have a social circle largely consisting of people like me, some of whom read this blog and all but one of whom voted Remain. Not only was I unable to sway any of the young professional people who know me during the referendum or in the aftermath (though I did have more success with other demographics), my efforts on social media were even more disastrous.

To understand the scale of the problem, one needs to understand just how hard this particular demographic took the Leave vote. When my wife went to work (at an American-owned international public relations company) the day after the referendum, her company’s German office had already sent the following email to their London colleagues:

Dear Friends,

On this truly disturbing day, we want to send you our greatest empathy and heartfelt solidarity to London and the whole UK [company] Team. Although troubling times maybe ahead of all of us here in Europe, the whole team of [company] Germany keeps on believing in the European idea and the future of peaceful and prosperous unity for Europe with the United Kingdom and all the wonderful people living there.

So for us this is not the end of the road. Our friendship with you will be stronger than ever and we will get through this together.

Big Hugs from Germany

Please share with the whole office

This text was followed by a picture of the entire German team making heart shapes with their hands as they hold aloft the German, EU and UK flags.

This is what we have to contend with as we try to navigate Brexit – whole offices full of undeniably smart people who legitimately view the events of the past seventeen months as a nearly unspeakable calamity with no possible redeeming features.

The author of this email (and the senior person who authorised it) clearly had absolutely no doubt that their sentiments would be shared by every single one of their colleagues in London. There was simply no recognition that smart, professional people might come down on different sides of the Brexit debate, only the arrogant but genuine assumption that everybody working for the company (both in Germany and the UK) shared the pro-EU worldview.

Imagine working at such a place: certainly no Brexit-supporting employee would dare to openly admit their own political views in such a one-sided, hostile climate. If senior management think your political views are “truly disturbing” one is not likely to torpedo one’s own career by dissenting from the email. We saw the same intolerance of ideological dissent at Google earlier this year, when engineer James Damore was fired for what was portrayed by the media as an “anti-diversity screed” but which in reality was a thoughtful (if partially flawed) memo on Google’s specific diversity policies.

I was stunned when my wife showed me the anti-Brexit email circulated within her firm. But what struck me most was the way that the author described Brexit – the prospect of Britain regaining the kind of democratic control over its own affairs enjoyed by every other developed country in the world outside Europe – as “truly disturbing”. It simply should not be the case that the entire staff of any organisation (save perhaps the EU itself) view Brexit as an unmitigated calamity. That such uniformity of opinion still exists is a failure on the part of Brexiteers – despite the unwavering effort of many of us to present the progressive, internationalist case for leaving the EU.

We currently live in a country where many people are consumers first and conscientious citizens a distant second; where the elimination of the smallest short-term risk is seen as more important than safeguarding the long term democratic health of Britain. But it is not enough to rail at pro-EU professionals for voting for their own short-term economic self interest, just as it is not enough for disappointed Remainers to berate Brexiteers for supposedly voting against their own. Just as the rise of identity politics has stoked bitter divisions in society on both sides of the Atlantic, so in addressing Brexit here we must somehow find a new common language which unites all of us (or enough of us to establish a workable new consensus).

As of yet, I don’t have an answer to any of this. I just know that what I and other Brexiteers tried during the EU referendum and in the months following the Leave vote has not worked, and that something new must be attempted. The danger is that unless this key demographic of young urban professionals can be made to see Brexit in less catastrophic terms, they will reject any new conservative ideas out of hand and effectively hand the country to Jeremy Corbyn.

We have entered a new period of discontinuity in British politics, where the old consensus has broken down and new policies are required to solve new problems. Without a radically new approach we will be doomed to more of the same – weak, short-term governments reacting to events in isolation rather than proactively addressing them according to any kind of master plan.

It is impossible to build anything likely to stand the test of time – such as a new model for an independent, open country which is adaptive rather than defensive to globalisation, automation, migration and other issues – without the enthusiastic backing of enough people to elect a strong government with a clear mandate to deliver.

And it will be impossible for any Conservative government, at least, to secure such a mandate without better outreach to this truculent demographic of young urban professionals who currently believe that the Big Bad Brexiteers have stolen their future.

 

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The Big Brexit Guilt Trip By Ageing Political Grandees Will Not Work

John Gummer - Environment Secretary - Brexit - Live horse export - Remainer

Efforts by pro-EU political grandees to guilt the country into feeling bad about Brexit by elevating trivial British victories in ancient, minor trade disputes as proof of our great influence in Brussels only reveal the poverty of their ambition for Britain

Another day, another ageing political grandee is wheeled out to lecture us about how selfish and ungrateful we were to turn our backs on so benevolent and non-threatening an institution as their beloved European Union.

This time it is the turn of former Tory Environment Secretary John Gummer, who takes to the Guardian with a particularly tedious and deceitful lament that “we are unravelling the greatest peacetime project of our lives because Brexiteers insist we’ve lost control. But it’s simply not true”.

The premise of Gummer’s argument is that because he once had a good relationship with his environment and agriculture ministerial counterparts in Europe and ensured that Britain won key trade and regulatory battles when our national interest was at stake, this somehow proves that we had unparalleled and decisive influence in Brussels.

From the Guardian:

In fact, the UK has led Europe in a remarkable way, and has rarely failed to gain its major objectives. However the process is one of debate and argument, proof and counter-argument, rather than demanding that the rest of EU should immediately see the sense in our position and give way without question. It is this assumption of always being right that has bedevilled our relationships with our neighbours.

Immediately Gummer frames the question of whether Britain could influence the EU as one of whether we could win individual arguments within the EU institutions rather than whether we could meaningfully influence the course of the EU itself.

Gummer then presents the crown jewel of his argument:

One example suffices. In a single market, the UK’s refusal to allow the export of live horses for food was clearly illegal but politically essential. All the odds were stacked against us, Belgium was becoming increasingly insistent, and a vote was looming. We had one strong card: our relationships. We had helped others in parallel positions, helping to find ways for the EU to meet its common objectives while recognising national differences.

My very effective minister of state, David Curry, and I had formed friendships and we took trouble to maintain them. Many of our fellow ministers had come to Britain and stayed at our homes. Above all, we had never pretended. They all knew that if we said something was really important to the UK, we weren’t bluffing.

We were always communautaire – but in the national interest. When the relatively new French minister, a socialist, in a very restricted session, without his key advisers, had agreed to something that would have been very difficult for France, I slipped round the table and pointed the problem out. He was able to retrieve the situation, the council was saved interminable recriminations, and Britain had a firm friend. Working as a team, clearly putting our national interest first but ensuring we got the best out of the EU, meant that when it mattered we won. I don’t suggest that my counterparts ever really understood the peculiar British view that it’s all right to eat beef but not horse, but they accepted it was a political reality and knew the UK would help when they had to explain their own national singularities.

Oh gosh, this riveting act of high-stakes international diplomacy will be recorded in the history books for all time. Schoolchildren two hundred years hence will still be learning about how John Gummer heroically managed to stop the UK from having to export live horses for slaughter in continental Europe, all because he was best pals with the French undersecretary for agriculture. Consequential feats of statecraft like this put one in mind of Yalta.

In fact, it only shows the extreme paucity of Gummer’s thinking and the worldview he represents. These old grandees – and you can throw in the likes of Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke here, too – sincerely believe (or have somehow convinced themselves) that British disquiet with membership of the European Union was based on trivialities like how many battles we won over live horse exports. They think that if only they can provide enough examples of the UK having successfully defended the interests of Cheshire cheesemakers or Welsh textile makers then we will have an epiphany, see the error of our ways and beg to be allowed back into the club.

It simply does not occur to these EU-loving grandees that the British problem with the European Union might originate at a deeper level than who is seen to win a plurality of disputes over trade or regulation. Having marinated for so long within a political elite which accepted supranational government and the gradual deconstruction of the nation state as a self-evidently good thing, they are now shocked to discover that not everybody agrees with the basic premise on which their entire worldview rests.

The Lord Ashcroft poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum showed perfectly clearly the key drivers of the Leave vote, and the number one issue was sovereignty (decisions about the UK being taken in the UK, as per the specific poll question). The British people voted to extricate ourselves from the supranational government in Brussels and reclaim our right to make policy and law for ourselves without having to either haggle with 27 other member states or otherwise operate within the narrow tramlines set by a set of remote Brussels institutions towards which many of us feel no love or affinity.

Unfortunately, almost since the beginning of the referendum campaign, most prominent Remainers refused to deal with the big picture. Yes we got a lot of tired old soundbites about the importance of “friendship ‘n cooperation” or overwrought tales about how the EU alone had kept the post-war peace, but the official Remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe, desperately shied away from the big picture at every turn.

Why? Because the big picture has always been toxic or concerning to far more Britons than actually voted Leave in the referendum. Most people don’t want the supranational government and its ambition/necessity to transform into a federal Europe, and knowing this, the Remain campaign never dared to try persuading them otherwise. This left Britain Stronger in Europe (and most Remainers) with little option but to drag the fight to a lower level, where it became all about money, economic risk and the kind of low-level goodies that people like John Gummer think dictate our sentiments towards the EU.

Perhaps this is understandable. From Gummer’s very narrow perspective we probably did indeed “win” in Europe a lot. But Gummer is thinking about issues of farm animal exports and agricultural regulations, not matters of geopolitics or statecraft. And the truth is that Britain had almost zero influence on the ultimate direction of the European Union as a political entity. Yes, we could sometimes slow things down or carve out occasional opt-outs for ourselves (at a diplomatic cost). But Britain could never realistically propose that a large supranational government in Brussels with strong federalist ambitions transform itself into a looser federation of closely economically integrated nation states. That simply would never have happened, even if Britain played the long game and aggressively sought support from other countries.

If one was a passenger on a cruise ship it would be nice to be sufficiently influential to sometimes suggest menu ideas to the chef or offshore excursions to the cruise director and have those suggestions adopted. But even then, at no point could that passenger reasonably imagine himself an officer of the ship, let alone the captain. Winning battles within the framework created for us to argue is not the same as having meaningful influence over the design of the framework itself. So no, we did not “win” in Europe, because we could not persuade those on the bridge to set a course which we were willing to follow.

Once again, this debate has proven that the British people have always had a more expansive view of the EU question – and higher ambitions for our country – than the majority of our political class. Many Remainer grandees still see things in terms of petty fights won and lost in the Brussels crèche where they were allowed to play, and simply can’t understand that our problem was not that they failed to smack the other kids around to our satisfaction but rather that they were content to play the role of children in the first place.

By voting to leave the European Union, the British people are demanding that our politicians and leaders become adults again, not rambunctious toddlers and surly teens supervised by their parents in Brussels. We want government without training wheels again, even if this means that we wobble a bit or even fall and scrape our knees.

This was never about petty little trade disputes here and there. Brexit was far more fundamental than that, but even now many EU apologists fail to see it.

 

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