Citizenship And The Nation State Remain Relevant, Despite The Efforts Of Their Detractors

Katy Perry - Treaty of Westphalia - Nation States

There’s life in the humble nation state yet

As the backlash against Brexit grows ever stronger and the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics eats away at our national fabric from within, there are many legitimate reasons to fear for the future of patriotism, citizenship and even the nation state itself.

However, there are also a few reasons for optimism, and Rebecca Lowe Coulson sets some of them out in Conservative Home. But first she paraphrases the question that many people are now asking about the continued relevance of the concept of citizenship:

In an increasingly globalised world, however — in which the Westphalian order of nation states is regularly criticised as inward-looking — citizenship is repeatedly denounced as an outdated representation of division and exclusion. It hardly seems necessary to comment that such denouncements typically come from the privileged, within the most economically and politically secure nations. And that, like those Britons angered at the imminent loss of their EU citizenship after Brexit, few “global citizens” seem keen to give up the privileges of their current national citizenships.

Of course, what many of those citizenship-snubbers truly want (like most of the rest of us) is for their own privileges to be extended to those living in less secure places. It is undeniable that great global imbalances remain, even though living standards continue to rise across the world. But then, the question should not be whether the concept of citizenship precludes opportunities in the sense that being a member of one state can be highly preferable to being a member of another, but whether it is still the case that one’s rights and opportunities are best protected and afforded through membership of an individuated state. In a world in which secure states increasingly offer extensive rights to non-citizen inhabitants, aCitind less secure states need more substantial upheaval and help than an improved understanding of the intricacies of membership rules, is the concept of citizenship relevant?

Coulson Lowe then goes on to explain exactly why the concept of citizenship remains relevant, and will not be undermined despite the best efforts of those who see the nation state as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a crucial guarantor of rights:

We all remember how, in her 2016 Conservative Party conference speech, Theresa May said that “citizens of the world” were “citizens of nowhere”. The comment has become symbolic of an approach for which she has been widely criticised: an approach seen both as arrogant, and as attempting to appeal to those on the further right of her party.

At the time, I felt her tone mistaken, in that I would have preferred a use of language implying greater keenness to heal, or at least address pressing divisions within the country. General criticisms of the comment often overlook the argument May was setting out, however. The words came within a section about the “spirit of citizenship”, and read, in full: “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizen’ means”. Surely, it is that forgotten second sentence that is key, here. And that the point May was in the midst of making was about the importance of “respecting the bonds and obligations that make our society work”.

The state, and the society that exists within it, still matters profoundly to those people who aren’t happy with the countries they call home .. Official membership of such societies is conferred in different ways: from the automatic rights of familial lineage to the successful passing of a test. But the standard way of gaining the citizenship of a state is by being born and growing up in it. For those of us fortunate to count somewhere like Britain or Australia as that place, it can be easy to take for granted the relative privileges this affords us.

Yet most of us see that the uncertainties and risks of life make it expedient for us to live together in societies, and that, as social creatures, it is natural for us to want to do so, over and above that expediency. The advancements of the past centuries — in communication, travel, science, military capabilities, commerce, and on — have made it impractical for societies to remain limited to the family groups, villages, or cities they once were. The continuation of that advancement does not mean that our embrace of the nation state must also become outdated, however. For simple reasons of functionality — not to mention the more complex, such as those related to culture or national identity — it is hard to see how bigger blocs or idealist internationalist approaches could work.

This is what many on the Left fail (or are unwilling) to grasp. The Westphalian concept of statehood and sovereignty (combined with 19th century concepts of nationalism) survive the test of time because they work with the grain of human nature rather than against it. Rather than pretending against all available evidence that somebody from country A has as much in common with someone from country Z as their next door neighbour, the system of nation states is a tacit admission that the human instinct to be part of a social communities mean that harmony is best achieved when systems of government are aligned with societal boundaries. And indeed, when there is a mismatch between government and society, nation states have often split and reformed in response.

But the bigger blocs and non-state actors championed by the nation state’s detractors will not become a viable replacement in the foreseeable future, precisely because an entity’s democratic legitimacy and popular support are derived from having a demos which identifies as a cohesive whole and consents to being governed at that level.

The United States works as a country because US citizens see themselves as American first and foremost, and not Californian, Texan, Iowan, Alaskan or North Carolinian. The United Kingdom survived the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum because a majority of Scots (just about) considered themselves British as well as Scottish, if not more so.

Supranational blocs do not command this sense of loyalty or commonality among the people they nominally represent, as the European Union discovered with Brexit and will continue to discover as member states chafe against one-size-fits-all dictation from Brussels. Brexit occurred because the European Union’s drive for ever-closer union and a grander role on the world stage was plain for all to see, and the majority of voters who consider themselves more British than European wanted no part of it.

The “if you build it they will come” approach – where ideological zealots construct all the trappings of a supranational state in the hope or arrogant expectation that a common demos and sense of shared purpose will follow on automatically – has been proven to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

And this is a good thing, because as Rebecca Lowe Coulson correctly observes, supranational and non-state actors have generally proven themselves far less able to effect change than unilateral, bilateral or multilateral efforts by nation states with common purpose. The very nature of trying to shoehorn the competing national interests and priorities of multiple countries into a “common” foreign, fiscal or defence policy gives rise to resentment, suboptimal outcomes (such as stratospheric youth unemployment in Southern Europe) and inevitable net losers.

And yet the myth persists – amplified by bitter Remainers and much of the corrupted civil liberties lobby – that cooperation between countries is only possible under the umbrella of supranational government, and that these non-state actors are somehow a better guarantor of individual liberties than nation states themselves.

Take this hysterical email recently sent out by “civil liberties” organisation Liberty:

Yesterday we took another huge step towards our withdrawal from the European Union as the Government published the Repeal Bill.

If the Bill passes in its current state, people in the UK will lose rights after we leave the EU. It’s that simple and the stakes are that high.

The vote to leave the European Union was not a vote to abandon our human rights.

Yet the Repeal Bill includes worryingly broad powers for ministers to alter laws without parliamentary scrutiny and contains no guaranteed protections for human rights. Worse, it takes away the protections of the Charter of Fundamental Rights without ensuring that we will continue to protect all of those rights in the UK after Brexit.

Every single right we have now needs to stay on our statute books – from those contained in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, to equality protections we’ve gained from our membership.

Liberty – and other groups who are content for British citizens to have “rights” imposed on them from above rather than argue for and win them at a domestic level – see supranational organisations as a convenient bypass for national democracy. If the stupid British people are too dumb to vote for more employment protections and other government treats, this line of thinking goes, then advocacy groups who know better should just go over their heads to the EU. This is profoundly undemocratic, but more than that it only affirms the dangerous idea that our rights should be granted by government (at any level) rather than being innate and inalienable.

This is utterly wrong, as I explained back in 2015:

The new, emerging institutions which will replace them are being designed behind closed doors by small groups of mostly unelected people, as well as the most influential agents of all – wealthy corporations and their lobbyists. We have almost no idea, let alone influence, over what they are building together because instead of scrutinising them we spend our time arguing over the mansion tax or the NHS or high speed railways, which are mere distractions in the long run.

The liberties and freedoms we hold dear today can very easily slip away if we do not jealously guard them. By contrast, power is generally won back by the people from elites and powerful interests at a very heavy price – just consider Britain’s own history, or the American fight for independence from our Crown.

The yawning gap in the argument of those who would do away with the nation state is how they intend to preserve democracy in its absence (assuming they even care to do so). Even many of the EU’s loudest cheerleaders concede that the current institutions are profoundly undemocratic and unresponsive to popular priorities or concerns – this tends to be expressed through an exasperated “of course the EU needs reform!”, sandwiched between odes of love and loyalty to the very same entity, as we witnessed countless times during the EU referendum.

But what that reform actually looks like, nobody can say. Or at least, those few tangible visions for a future EU which do exist are so unmoored from reality as to be little more than idle curiosities – see former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25, which contends both that the European Union can be persuaded to undertake meaningful reforms (ha!), and that this reformed EU should then amplify left-wing priorities to the exclusion of all others (how very democratic).

If you want to do away with the concept of the nation state or actively agitate for its demise then I think you have a responsibility to state clearly and unambiguously what you would have in its place before pushing us all into the undiscovered country. Yet the assorted citizens of the world, so anguished by Brexit, refuse to come up with an answer – at least not one which they are willing to utter in public.

The European Union is not a static entity – it is an explicitly and unapologetically political project moving relentlessly (if erratically) toward the clear goal of ever-closer union. If this is not their preferred outcome for Britain and all other nation states (and few pro-EU types will admit that this is what they want) then it is incumbent on them to offer an alternative goal with a politically viable means of achieving it.

And until they do so, the assorted enemies of the nation state do not really deserve a hearing.

Treaty of Westphalia

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Like, Why Can’t British Politicians Talk Fancy No More?

Great political speeches are only possible when there are great ideas to be expressed, and great leaders to express them

After watching the semi-famous video of former Labour minister Peter Shore arguing passionately against Britain’s membership of the EEC during a 1970s Oxford Union debate, Mark Wallace of Conservative Home has realised that the quality of contemporary British political oratory is perhaps not what it once was.

Wallace observes:

What’s striking is to try to list the modern speeches by Parliamentarians which have achieved the same quality. I’ve wracked my brains and, frankly, I can’t think of any. To be quite honest, while there are many excellent MPs in today’s House of Commons, I can’t think of a single one who speaks so well. Probably the most famous good speech of recent years was delivered by Hilary Benn, in the Syria debate – but watch it back, and you’ll see that while it was effective, it was done with notes and is still seen as exceptional rather than normal.

Depressingly, most of our Parliamentarians do not seem to prize public speaking. Indeed it’s a fairly regular occurrence to see some of them apparently struggling to convincingly read out loud from a bit of paper. Many are perfectly serviceable speakers, but compare modern performances to those from 40 or 50 years ago and it seems that today’s greats are not as great, the average is somewhat worse than it was, and the worst are now really quite dire.

Indeed. In actual fact, Hilary Benn’s speech on Syria wasn’t particularly good at all – it is memorable mostly because of the dramatic circumstances of its delivery during a period of unrest over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, not the rhetorical exhortations of a man with all the charisma of a Quentin Blake illustration.

People also frequently praise the speeches of leftist politicians such as Mhairi Black (whose maiden speech in the House of Commons went drearily viral all over social media), but these speeches are also not particularly well-constructed or persuasive – they are simply very emotive, which makes them seem good in an age when feelings trump reason and reality TV has diminished our collective capacity to think.

Wallace continues:

Somewhere along the way, we ceased to value oratorical skill in our politicians. Perhaps it was the decline of the public meeting and the rise of soundbite-dominated TV campaigning that did it. Or maybe the decision not to teach school pupils how to debate left millions unduly intimidated by the idea of even trying to speak in front of an audience. There’s also a suspicion in some quarters that public speaking is somehow inherently elitist – a fallacy, given the many great orators who once arose, largely self-taught, from the union movement in particular, but a self-fulfilling belief, in that if you tell the majority of kids that only the rich and posh do speeches then you run the risk that they will believe you.

This is a clear loss to the character and effectiveness of our politics. How often do we hear people lament that politics is boring, that its main characters are bland, or that they don’t understand what it’s all about? It cannot have helped to have reduced the art and feeling in how we communicate about politics, and abandoned a means to compellingly communicate often complex concepts to mass audiences.

I am very glad that Mark Wallace and Conservative Home have woken up to the crisis in British political rhetoric. This blog has been lamenting the abysmal quality of British political speechwriting (and delivery) for years, not least here, here, here, here, here and here. Hopefully with the “bigger guns” of ConHome now trained on the problem we might force the discussion into the mainstream.

But good political rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum. Contra Mark Wallace and Peggy Noonan, the internet and social media are not a guaranteed friend of good political speechwriting, heralding a coming renaissance in speechifying. While it is true that some political YouTubers are able to gather massive numbers of followers with their witty or acerbic rants, I can’t think of any high profile social media activists who communicate in a genuinely persuasive way.

Case in point: if one looks at the likes of Owen Jones on the hard left or Paul Joseph Watson on the conspiratorial/alt-right (nobody outside the extremes has much of a following), these people are good only at preaching to the converted in order to generate clicks and likes. They will hardly ever cause somebody to reconsider their own deeply held convictions unless a process of personal political transition is already underway. This also applies to the likes of The Young Turks, Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro and other voices in American politics, some of whom are good, but who tend not to do bipartisan outreach.

No, the art of British political speechwriting can only be revived if there is a simultaneous renaissance in British political thinking. And there are precious few signs of such a revival taking place any time soon. Right now both main parties are pretty much intellectually dead. The Labour centrists, utterly exhausted and discredited after the Blair/Brown years, are finished – and in their place is a holdover from the 1970s in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, the soft and non-threatening quasi-conservatism of Cameron/Osborne gave way to the statist paternalism of Theresa May, another throwback to the 1970s which can hardly be considered progress.

Nowhere was this dearth of visionary thinking mirrored by equally uninspired rhetoric reflected more clearly than in the EU referendum campaign. This was a highly consequential, even existential political decision for the people of Britain, and yet rather than bold speeches and compelling narratives on either side we were offered little more than glib soundbites and canned catchphrases.

As I wrote at the time:

When the history of Britain’s 2016 EU referendum comes to be written, what will we remember? Of all the particularly dramatic moments in the campaign to date, none of them have been speeches. Sure, sometimes the fact of a speech has been newsworthy, such as when an unexpected establishment figure has been wheeled out to say that Brexit will usher in the apocalypse, but the content – the oratory itself – has rarely raised hairs or stiffened spines.

In fact, proving Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous assertion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, the media has determinedly reported almost exclusively on the latter two. Of course that is always the temptation for journalists, but our politicians have hardly given the media much to work with on the ideas front, even if they were minded to cover them.

This is a depressing state of affairs. This most important debate should be bringing out the best in our politicians and our media. We should be witnessing a straight-up fight between advocates of the democratic, independent nation state and those who ardently believe in the euro-federalist dream, adjudicated by a press corps  beholden to neither side and always willing to challenge baseless assertions rather than merely provide a “fair and balanced” platform for two partisan idiots to yell at each other for an equal amount of time.

We will not see a revival in political speechmaking in this country until British politicians actually start having ideas and advocating policies worthy of grander rhetoric. So long as there remains in place a technocratic, managerialist consensus between centre-left and centre-right (which very much remains the case and has only been partially broken by Brexit), there will be no bold new ideas in British politics, and in turn there will be no speeches worth listening to.

When even the prime minister of our country sees her role as more of a glorified Comptroller of Public Services than a world leader representing a great and consequential nation, why would we expect her speeches to be any more memorable than the platform announcements at Waterloo station? And if the prime minister’s words are so utterly uninspiring and inconsequential then why bother listening to the words of those who are not even at her level, but merely vying to replace her in that diminished role?

Our current political debates are often petty and parochial, and so are the words we use to fight them. And those issues which might potentially generate bold ideas matched by bold words tend to be furiously ignored by political leaders – look at their refusal to properly confront the Islamist threat, or the staggeringly superficial debate about Brexit.

Great political rhetoric only occurs when there are great issues at stake and great minds willing and able to tackle them. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself“, delivered as the American economy buckled under the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University, setting the United States the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches“, given after Britain’s deliverance at Dunkirk. Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall“, made at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (and ironically helping to usher in the post-Cold War world which for all its wonders also sucked much of the vitality from Western politics, together with our raison d’être).

And maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world. Perhaps this is why American political oratory has undergone a similar decline in the post-Reagan era, now that Pax Americana is drawing to an end and the uncertain new multipolar world emerges.

But one thing is certain: without conviction politics, there can be no speeches of great conviction. At best, a centrist or technocratic politician might be able to mimic the grandeur and cadences of famous speeches – as President Obama did so effectively, talking loftily of hope and change while a very different reality played out on the ground – but they will never truly achieve that perfect synergy of subject, argument and tone that is the hallmark of a great speech.

Why are there no great contemporary British political speeches? Well, try picturing one in your head, given the kind of issues we typically argue about and the politicians who represent us.

Imagine future historians studying the impact of rousing speeches about lowering corporation tax by a few percentage points or abolishing the so-called “bedroom tax”.

Imagine schoolchildren memorising the words to that famous speech opposing HS2 or supporting the renationalisation of Southern Rail.

Picture a crowd of thousands of people brought to its feet in genuine excitement by a pledge to reduce NHS waiting times by 15 percent in the next parliament, hire a few hundred more nurses or increase the minimum wage to an astronomic £8 an hour by the year 2020.

And there’s your answer.

Winston Churchill speech to Canadian Parliament - 1941

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Embracing ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ Will Not Make The Rootless Tories More Popular

The Good Right - compassionate conservatism

Compassionate conservatism barely won David Cameron a majority government in 2015, even against the hapless Ed Miliband. Rebooting the flawed concept, especially against Jeremy Corbyn’s turbo-charged ultra-compassionate socialism, means fighting the Left on their own terms and is doomed to failure

Despite its complete and utter failure to deliver a solid electoral victory for the conservatives, or to meaningfully detoxify the Conservative Party’s “nasty party” image, the woolly, nebulous and thoroughly unhelpful concept of “compassionate conservatism” refuses to die.

Following Theresa May’s abject failure in the 2017 general election – losing the Conservative Party their majority by failing to counter the appeal of a marauding socialist who actually has principles, stands for them unapologetically and convinces more and more people of their value – all manner of ideologically limp Wet Tories are now coming out of the woodwork to proclaim that the only way for conservatism to survive is to meet Jeremy Corbyn half way.

These appeasers of the Left (I won’t call them pragmatists because that kinder term suggests a kind of nobility and wisdom for which there is very little evidence) seem to sincerely believe that staying in power means accepting vast swathes of the Left’s argument about the welfare state, wealth redistribution and fiscal restraint. They would have the rest of us believe that conservatives face inevitable defeat unless the Tories compete with Labour to be the loudest cheerleaders of the bloated public sector.

Charlie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover, is only the latest to advance this defeatist theory, writing in Conservative Home:

Step one to victory is to conquer the idea that the Conservatives are on the side of the rich. Every Conservative I know is in politics because we care about the vulnerable and the least well off. At the election, we failed to explain to people how our values offer the best for people and their families.

Conservatism is at its best when we communicate a vision of Britain as a land of opportunity, aspiration and success. A place where anyone, whatever their background, can achieve and succeed. Where they can climb the ladder of life. A country where people can get jobs, a home to call their own and achieve their full potential. Where Government gives people a hand-up, not handouts – and hard work brings rewards.

Our caring conservative tradition is also central to all that we are. This is why we must showcase our values as the party of compassion. The conservatism that seeks to protect people from the worst excesses of the system.

Protecting people, and being the party of compassion, matters every bit as the land of opportunity. This means standing up against rogue landlords, overcharging utility companies, loan sharks, tax dodgers, and unscrupulous employers.

And yet rather than proposing that the Conservatives do what Margaret Thatcher did to the hard left in the 1980s – namely, steamrollering over their socialist squeals, failed dogmas and entrenched special interests to speak directly to the people and sell them an alternative vision of Britain’s future – Charlie Elphicke proposes instead that we prance around humming The Red Flag and hoping to convince enough wavering voters that we are little more than the Labour Party with a brain and a calculator.

Elphicke proposes capitulation to the false leftist narrative that it is in any way “compassionate” to redistribute wealth and income from those who earned it in order to better fund a welfare machine which encourages dependency and helplessness more than self-sufficiency. Elphicke – though he would never say so out loud – effectively accepts the idea that we should give a man a fish, and then another fish, and then another one until the barrel is empty, rather than teaching people to fish for themselves.

Elphicke continues:

I’ve spoken to colleagues from across the country who were asked by people on the doorstep what our manifesto offered for them. They struggled to find positive things to say.

Now I’ve heard people say we didn’t have a “retail offer.” But, you know, we’re not selling soap powder here. We are about caring for people and changing lives. We failed to explain how we would do that – and so people didn’t know.

It’s not difficult to think how we could have done so much more to support traditionally Conservative motorists, aspirant home owners, small business people, and the elderly. Or how we could have reached out to families and younger people with lifelong learning, greater help for carers, and more support to get on the housing ladder.

We should have showcased our record of action, too, because it is pretty incredible. We brought Britain back from the brink. We have delivered record employment, a strong economy, a powerful recovery from Labour’s crash, along with pumping vast amounts of cash into the NHS. Our failure to highlight our record cost us heavily.

Many of these observations are correct, but the conclusion which Elphicke draws from them are depressingly wide of the mark.

Yes, the Tories did an abysmal job of standing up for their record. At a time when the Labour Party manifesto offered an series of calculated bribes catering even to firmly middle class voters, the Tories went to battle with their mindless slogan of “strong and stable”, and a deafening silence when it came to defending their limited efforts at fiscal restraint since 2010.

But Charlie Elphicke’s vision of “caring conservatism” is not the solution. Rather than standing up to the politics of Me Me Me or turning away from the notion of bribing voters with cynical manifesto pledges, Elphicke merely proposes that the Tories start using the same playbook. Even the term “caring conservatism” should raise the hackles of any self-respecting conservative, suggesting as it does the idea of government as an omnipresent, watchful auxiliary parent, charged with wiping our noses and keeping us safe at the expense of our freedom and individuality.

Worse still, to even talk of “compassionate” or “caring” conservatism is to concede that ordinary, vanilla conservatism is somehow cruel or lacking in compassion. It suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with our worldview and our politics, and that only by being born again and accepting the “compassionate” modifier do we become semi-respectable people with whom it is just about acceptable to associate in public.

This is incredibly counterproductive. Economically speaking, conservatism at its best means government getting out of the way so that people can succeed according to their merits, and providing a limited but dependable safety net for those in real need by not lavishing unnecessary benefits on over half of the population who are arbitrarily declared “vulnerable” and in dubious need of government assistance. The point that conservatives should be screaming from the rafters is that real conservatism would do more for the truly needy, by rolling back a benefits culture which sees as much as 50% of taxpayers becoming net dependants on the state and compensating for that rollback by lowering general taxation and restructuring the welfare state so as to provide something more than grim subsistence for those who need to use it.

You don’t see Labour MPs or activists describing themselves as “sane Labour” or “grown-up Labour”, effectively conceding that the more statist, big-government policies of their party base are somehow insane or childish (even though they are). They own their left-wingery and proclaim it proudly, not apologetically. Centrist Tories or “compassionate conservatives”, meanwhile, come across as ashamed of their own party and apologetic for their own beliefs, and seem determined to tack as closely to Corbyn’s party as possible before the cognitive dissonance becomes too unbearable.

This is a contest that conservatives can never win. In the race to be more paternalistic, more restrictive of behaviour and more redistributive of wealth, the Tories will lose to Labour every day of the week. And with Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the Labour Party it won’t even be close.

Look, I get the superficial appeal of Charlie Elphicke’s proposal. It offers a quick and easy route to staying in power, where rather than having to do the hard work of challenging voter assumptions and telling the electorate difficult but authentic truths, instead we can just act a bit more like the Labour Party and stay in government forever. But it won’t work.

If the 2017 general election taught us anything, it is that an entire generation of young voters have grown up experiencing all of the wealth, liberty and opportunity which Thatcherism helped secure for them before they were even born, but that these same people have been taught to despise the very things – capitalism, free markets, a less activist state – which made our material wealth possible in the first place.

Corbyn’s cohort of young admirers literally share memes on social media using smartphones and personal computers which were only put in reach of ordinary people thanks to the free market they are busy disparaging, and they do so without a shred of irony because throughout their young lives, nobody has dared to forcefully defend Margaret Thatcher’s legacy or to suggest that real “compassion” means more than blindly firehosing taxpayer money at every social problem and expecting positive results.

An entire generation has grown up (and older voters gone over two decades) without really hearing a stirring argument in favour of smaller-government, pro-market policies from any senior politician. Even most Conservative MPs have preferred to talk about mitigating the “damage” done by the market, or as Elphicke puts it, “protect[ing] people from the worst excesses of the system” rather than explaining how “the system” is a good thing, not to mention a hell of a lot better than socialism.

Neither has there been an adequate effort on the part of Conservatives to rebut the Left’s cynical and dishonest attempt to portray every failure of regulation, every act of crony corporatism as a failure of capitalism itself. Here, Charlie Elphicke’s idea of a “rapid rebuttal” unit actually has real merit. Too often we cower and equivocate whenever the Left trot out their Capitalist Bogeyman of the Day – be it Philip Green or “the bankers” – rather than pushing back and explaining that criminal acts or regulatory failure does not discredit the economic system which has delivered more wealth and prosperity to more people than any other in human history.

But all of this needs to be done under the overall aegis of a vision of conservatism as a force which liberates people and sets them free rather than one which coddles them.

Sure, the Conservative Party might eke out another few general election victories (or at least 2017-style non-defeats) by playing up the “caring conservatism” angle and chasing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party ever further to the left. But any such battles won will come at the expense of losing the wider war. If the Conservative Party is to be nothing more than the Labour Party with a modicum more economic sense then really, what’s the point in even bothering? A succession of such Conservative prime ministers, having totally forsaken their own raison d’être, could be in office for years yet never really in power. Theresa May in perpetuity.

The Thatcherite revolution was made possible partly because years of stultifying, socialist post-war consensus led Britain to a crisis point, teetering on the brink of irreversible national decline. In 1979, the Conservative Party took advantage of that crisis to discredit the status quo and present their alternative offering as both beneficial, necessary and inevitable, shifting the Overton Window of British politics firmly to the right. And while there were negative side effects which should not be overlooked or minimised – particularly outside the southeast – the Thatcherite medicine worked.

We are at another such crisis point today, this time brought about through the confluence of Brexit, the unmitigated side-effects of globalisation, an economic recovery which has been intangible for too many people, an over-centralised Westminster government and a terminally unreformed public sector. Labour are already moving to take advantage of this crisis and shift the Overton Window back to the left. And they are succeeding – ideas which were fringe absurdities twenty years ago, like wage councils and the renationalisation of industry, are now stunningly back on the agenda, while the man who promotes them is a few false moves by Theresa May away from 10 Downing Street.

Conservatives cannot afford to squander this opportunity, to allow the current political crisis (or state of flux) to be used by Labour to drag Britain further to the left without even putting up a fight for the small-government, conservative values which once saved this country. And breathing life back into the corpse of compassionate conservatism will only aid the Left in their endeavour. It will be a huge signal to our ideological foes that we accept the premise of their argument (compassion = a bigger state and more redistribution) and only encourage them to expand their demands move further and further to the left themselves.

It is ludicrous that we even find ourselves in this position. Jeremy Corbyn was twenty points down in the opinion polls until Theresa May launched her disastrous and thoroughly un-conservative general election campaign, and now he is within striking distance of 10 Downing Street. Red Conservatism or Blue Labour, a la Nick Timothy and his disciples, doesn’t work. If people want swivel-eyed socialism they’ll pick the real deal over the off-brand equivalent, every single time.

Corbynites believe that conservatives are evil, heartless, amoral “Tory Scum”. We will not suddenly win their friendship, or their respect, by deferring to them on a few specific issues or taking the sharp edge off our message of economic freedom, individual liberty and a smaller, more efficient state. No appeasement is possible or desirable. The only thing to be done is to get out and win the argument in public, to have a million difficult conversations with people who are currently quite sympathetic to the Corbyn worldview because of our shameful failure to adequately preach our own values.

The alternative – if we insist on reanimating the corpse of compassionate conservatism – is to doom ourselves to more centrist malaise at best, and a truly frightening Jeremy Corbyn socialist government at worst.

 

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Is It Time For Conservatives To Get Over Thatcher?

Theresa May - Conservative Party Tories General Election 2017 Manifesto Launch - Halifax

Theresa May is proving to be more Ed Miliband than Margaret Thatcher

Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman thinks that we should all flop around on the ground and praise Theresa May for tearing up tried-and-tested small-government conservative ideology in favour of an interventionist, paternalistic, stubbornly large state. Apparently at this challenging point in our history, when decisive leadership and a clear direction of travel is needed more than ever, we should swallow our reservations and lustily cheer on a pragmatist, paternalistic prime minister who still has not even properly articulated her vision for Britain.

On the day of the Conservative Party’s 2017 general election manifesto launch, Paul Goodman tells us that it is time for us to “get over Thatcher” and “get on with May”, because apparently a New Labour government with a blueish tint is the best that conservatives can now hope for.

Softening the ground in advance of what will surely prove to be a frustratingly unambitious general election manifesto launch – particularly given the paucity of opposition faced by the Tories and the near certainty that they will be returned to government with an increased majority – Goodman simpers:

Theresa May does not support a big state: in her very first major policy speech outside her ministerial responsibilities, she said that it should be “small, strong [and] strategic”.

Oh, well that’s fine then. She said it, so it must be true.

Nor, for that matter, is her so-called Red Toryism as crimson as is sometimes claimed.  Many of the headlines generated during the last few weeks will look less alarming to liberals if they peer at the small print.  May wants more council houses, but it isn’t clear where the land to build them on will be found.  She supports more rights for workers, but it isn’t evident whether taking leave to care for a family member, for example, will be paid – and nor is she planning to scrap the employment tribunal fees that David Cameron introduced.  She has resuscitated a requirement to put employees on boards, but it looks as though companies will choose them.  The red spray is mixed with blue paint.

So now we are to celebrate that Theresa May apparently wants to build more council houses? What about houses for upwardly mobile young people to buy – people who now find it exponentially harder to get on the property ladder than Theresa May’s generation? Where does Theresa May think that the next generation of conservative voters will come from when it is so difficult for so many to take the stake in society that comes from property ownership? And are we to rejoice that an unfunded pledge to allow workers to take family care leave could hurt small businesses and make companies quicker to fire in a downturn and slower to hire in an economic recovery?

She doesn’t want to state to get bigger, but she does want it to intervene more.  The industrial strategy won’t seek to pick winning companies, but it will search for winning sectors.  There will be an energy price cap – not the relative one floated by John Penrose and others, but an absolute one.

I’m sorry, but what is the functional difference between a bigger state and one which simply “intervene[s] more”? Most people judge the size and bearing of the state on the number and nature of interactions they must have with it over the course of their daily lives – everything from speeding tickets to planning permission to small business red tape to the amount of tax taken from their pay cheque every week or month. Even if Theresa May was technically shrinking the percentage of Britain’s GDP accounted for by government spending – and there is no indication that this key indicator is even on her main dashboard of concerns – her record as Home Secretary and subsequently as prime minister suggests that her “intervening” state will only seek to take on an even larger role in our lives.

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But while we agitate about the detail, the Prime Minister sees the big picture – and has assimilated its scale and size more clearly than her Thatcherite critics.  The Conservative Party travels through the landscape of its times.  These are not the same as they were in the era of Thatcher’s first landslide, over a quarter of a century ago, any more than they were a quarter of a century or so before that, when Harold Macmillan won his own overwhelming victory in 1959.  The world has globalised.  Family structure has been transformed.  The western world has low birthrates and high immigration.   Britain is a multi-racial country.  The Soviet Union has collapsed and Islamist terror has risen.  The crash happened and recession followed.

Free market absolutists will claim that the former took place because there is too much crony capitalism, and too little of the real thing.  They have a good point.  But the argument only draws one deeper into probing whether the system works as well for the working man and woman as it did in Thatcher’s day.  There are three big reasons why it does not.  First, relations between capitalism and nationalism are strained now in a way that they weren’t then.  Many of those who do well out of it feel they have more in common with their counterparts abroad than their fellow citizens at home.  If you doubt it, ponder the politics of immigration – and look, to pluck just one example out of the air, at how George Osborne at the Evening Standard now beats a pro-migration drum.

Second, the changes in the way we live now have created winners and losers.  The latter are simply out-wrestled by Iain Duncan Smith’s five giants – failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency.  For those who can’t read or are mired in debt or trapped in substance abuse, the traditional free market nostrums of lower taxes, a smaller state and less red tape are not so much wrong as irrelevant: if a man isn’t working because he can’t count, cutting taxes won’t help him.  Finally, capitalism in the western world is simply not creating well-paid white and blue collar jobs on the same scale as it was in the immediate post-war period.  Welcome to the gig economy.

Nobody seriously disputes any of this, but Theresa May’s prescriptions are all wrong. Globalisation does present real social challenges in terms of ensuring that people are no longer left behind as they have been by many callous elites who otherwise consider themselves enlightened and compassionate. And of course Britain’s industrial makeup and labour market are very different today than in the 1980s, but this doesn’t mean that a heavily interventionist state is the answer.

This blog has often noted that the challenge falls hardest upon conservatives to come up with answers to the problems of globalisation – to find ways to retool and retrain a population so that they can participate in the industries of tomorrow rather than clinging to the dying industries of the past. This was clearly one test that the Thatcher government failed, and the legacy of broken communities left behind as side effects of the Thatcherite medicine is why there are still many people who would shoot themselves before voting Tory, and why the Labour Party’s electoral floor remains so stubbornly high.

But the answer to this challenge is not to steal wholesale from the left-wing playbook and seek to make the government the energetic auxiliary parent to millions of grown adults, people who should be expected to find their own way in life. The answer is to find the least invasive way possible of incentivising people to retrain and gain skills that make them competitive in the labour market – perhaps the kind of vocational adult education common in America’s community colleges, but either tied to the welfare system (so benefits become contingent on learning), made tax-deductible or a requirement for larger companies seeking to make redundancies. As this blog has previously noted, Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for a National Education Service connecting adults with further education is not actually a bad one – it is just the left-wing execution (funnelling everybody off to university, free of charge) which is wrong.

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We will have seen more of the Conservative Manifesto by the end of the day.  But what we know already is that May, if she can win her own landslide, wants to correct the liberal excesses of the Thatcher era by making peace with the state – of seeing it, as this site puts it, not as Big Brother, but Little Brother.  This ground has the merit of being where most voters stand: very, very few speak the Westminster Village language of making it bigger or smaller.  And the Prime Minister seems set to use her mandate to do much of what this site has been pressing it to do – such as dropping the tax pledge and ending the pensions triple lock, thereby setting the scene for more flexibility in deficit reduction and more fairness between the generations.

It doesn’t matter whether people speak the Westminster Village language or not. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, most people had not read the “Stepping Stones” report – that influential document which diagnosed all of Britain’s economic and social ails, and prescribed a comprehensive cure. But the man in the street didn’t need to have read the report, or necessarily have a firm sense of the ideology behind it. What was important was the fact that Margaret Thatcher came to office with a pre-formed ideology already in her mind, while her government’s policies generally flowed from that same consistent approach.

Theresa May is the precise oppose of this – the anti-Thatcher, if you will. Theresa May ascended to 10 Downing Street as the ultimate pragmatist – somebody who kept her head firmly under the parapet while Home Secretary, almost never stirring the waters or causing controversy by ramming through serious reforms in her department and being notable only for her willingness to take advantage of terror attacks in Western countries to vest ever more powers in the security services and clamp down on civil liberties.

There is no Theresa May governing philosophy. While Margaret Thatcher somewhat vaguely quoted St Francis of Assisi as she entered 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, Theresa May spoke quite specifically about helping the JAMs (people who are Just About Managing). But Thatcher’s vagueness concealed a deadly seriousness of intent, while May’s specificity seems only to hint that she will steal shamelessly from the Labour playbook in order to steal their voters.

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Thatcherism was right for its times, and has lessons for today.  But the world has moved on, and the Conservatives must move with it.  This is a Party, not a mausoleum.  None the less, the Prime Minister’s plan contains a stinging irony.  May, the former Remainer – as Thatcher also was – has not only embraced Brexit but grasped, perhaps more fully than any other British politician, what it means, what the British people wanted in backing it, and where it is leading.

It is Brexit that is empowering May within her own Party, because the free marketeers are so often Brexiteers too.  Since she has won their trust over the EU, they will forgive her views on the market – for the moment, anyway.

That’s not how it works! Even if one agreed with Theresa May’s ill-considered Brexit approach, merely agreeing to carry out Brexit in accordance with the referendum result does not and should not automatically build up reserves of goodwill ready for the moment that the prime minister chooses to chuck conservative economic policy overboard.

Brexit is incredibly important, but so is the day-to-day government of the country. And rejecting the lighter touch, non-interventionist policies which have benefited this country so much should not be done lightly, as Allister Heath warns in the Telegraph:

This jobs explosion [from 1975 onwards] is an extraordinary achievement, and one which, tragically, the Tories now take for granted. Their policies are no longer geared towards job creation – yesterday’s issue, they clearly think – but towards “improving” the labour market and making it “work” for more people.

[..] The answers from Mayonomics are much more simplistic. There is a demand for lower energy prices, so she will simply deliver them by fiat. The jobs market will be fine regardless of how much more red tape is thrown at it, the new doctrine asserts – after all, the minimum wage keeps going up and the roof hasn’t fallen in. The existence of invisible side-effects, or the fact that we may well be nearing a tipping point, doesn’t enter the calculation. Mayonomics advocates blaming business for “not doing enough for their workers”, but hitting them with yet more non-wage costs will merely put further downwards pressure on wages, in a dangerous vicious circle.

Heath concludes:

To make the most of Brexit, the UK needs to embrace free markets, not retreat to the quiet economic certainties of the Sixties. The Tories will eventually come to realise this, of course, but not before they squander an immense opportunity to retool this country into a 21st century trading superpower.

As I write, Theresa May is on her feet in Halifax, Yorkshire, launching the Conservative Party manifesto. People are standing and cheering. It is an election manifesto which will almost certainly receive the endorsement of the electorate on June 8. But contrary to the hysterical shrieks of the British Left, it will not be a Thatcherite manifesto. In some cases, it will barely be recognisable as a small-C conservative manifesto.

And small government conservatives should not take this lying down.

 

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Russell Square Knife Attack – Probably Not Terrorism, But No Grounds For Complacency

russell square crime scene

It appears that last night’s London knife attack was motivated by mental illness rather than terrorism. But it could easily have been otherwise, and some in the media and positions of authority once again proved themselves unwilling to accept the Islamist self-justifications of lone wolf terrorists

In the wake of a gruesome knife attack in Russell Square, London, which left one woman dead and many others injured, Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman is busy arguing at straw men:

In short, Bernard Hogan-Howe is right to warn in relation to another terror attack in Britain that it’s a case of “when, not if”, and it is doubtless necessary for the police to step up their presence.

But it is important to bear in mind that not every assault claimed in the name of Islam was planned by a terror group in Raqqa or elsewhere.

And it is worth remembering that the combination of mental illness, drugs and family breakdown can itself drive crime, and that Islamist ideology is not necessarily a fourth factor.

There’s an Islamist theat, to be sure.  But caution is one thing; panic would be quite another.  The personal risk to most Britons of being caught up in a terror attack is low, at least at present.

Terror is terrifying.  That’s its point – why terrorists carry out terror.  But there’s no need to make it more terrifying than it already is, and every need to keep calm and carry on.

My emphasis in bold.

But of course not every attack claimed in the name of Islam or the Islamic State was planned by an overseas terror group. I don’t know a single person who suggests that they were, and yet time and again we see establishment figures earnestly lecturing us about the blazingly obvious. But just because an attack was not planned from within territory held by the Islamic State does not mean that fundamentalist, radical Islam was not the motivator.

When improved intelligence work makes it harder for would-be terrorist attackers to move across borders or communicate specific plans electronically, ISIS increasingly relies on pumping out a constant feed of propaganda and indoctrination material in the hope and expectation that it will be picked up by the susceptible and used by the recipients to self-radicalise.

This is entirely in line with the directive made by senior Islamic State leader Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who instructs his faithful:

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.

You can keep calling the people who pick up the Islamist WiFi signal and act upon it “mentally ill” if you want – and some of them may indeed be so. But to look at their actions only through the lens of mental illness while furiously ignoring the religious terrorism aspect out of some craven obeisance to politically correct dogma is to disregard the entire context in which an attack takes place, stripping it of any sense and making it impossible to counter.

Archbishop Cranmer is also on the warpath against those who rushed to disseminate the mental health aspect of the story while withholding other pertinent details:

Perhaps it’s unhelpful to speculate about the ethnicity and religion of the assailant. Perhaps ‘assailant’ is also an unhelpful term if he has significant mental health issues. It was a ‘he’, wasn’t it? Yes, we know the sex of the suspect. And ‘suspect’ is a much better term, even though the police tasered him and currently have him under armed guard. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that. Act of terrorism? No, we can’t go with that: it’s just a ‘classic’ random stabbing – for the moment, anyway. So, we have a male suspect involved in a London stabbing who has “significant” mental health issues which are obviously mitigating. Yes, that’s the story.

Other facts are obviously known. But these truths must be withheld. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has called for the public to remain “calm and vigilant”. Yes, that’s the message. A 19-year-old man (how do they know his precise age before his name?) with significant mental health problems has murdered a 60-year-old woman and slashed five others, and we must keep calm and carry on. Nothing to see here.

Funny thing, truth. It requires clarity of thought and expression. It derives deep metaphysical speculation and complex judgments, such as those pertaining to religious mania or psychological health, from the most obvious facts and indubitable distinctions. The starting point must always be what is known, with a rational apprehension of how what is known has been made known. Sensibilities change, but the form of facts does not.

The human mind and heart can be moved in various ways, depending on how those facts are presented (or not). The Met and BBC can suggest shadowy lines of thought, and the Mayor of London can issue a command to be calm and vigilant.  But neither can command the mind to move to assent to something, especially if something more is suspected. Is it too much to ask that the establishment bear witness to truth? Or do they presume we have no interest in finding it? Isn’t it rather patronising to withhold it and exhort calmness and vigilance, when that very exhortation releases passions and induces concerns? Vigilant about what? Teenagers with mental health problems? Isn’t that a rather malleable conviction or manipulated truth, not to mention a slander on all who suffer mental health problems? Isn’t the whole truth a far better breastplate against extremism and shield against stereotyping than filtered facts and mediated knowledge?

At the time of publication (12:30PM, Thursday 4 August) it appears that the suspect in custody is a Norwegian citizen of Somali origin. It further appears that there is no evidence thus far of radicalisation, and that the tentative link to terrorism originally spoken of by the Metropolitan Police may not be true. Time, and further investigation, will tell.

But even if this is definitively proved not to be an Islamist attack, a woman is still dead and others are in the hospital. There is nothing to celebrate. And judging by the media and commentariat’s desperately weak understanding of how Islamist terror has adapted to work in an age of hyper vigilance (setting the bar so high that it “doesn’t count” unless personally orchestrated by black-clad jihadists out of Raqqa), there is much to be concerned about in terms of our own readiness and willingness to confront the threat.

Finally, praise must also be given to the armed respondents of the Metropolitan Police, who quickly raced to the scene of a very disturbing crime and managed to subdue the assailant using only a taser. If this attack had happened on the streets of New York or Chicago, the attacker would be in the morgue with about 20 police bullets in him and we would not have the opportunity to learn more about his motives first-hand. And while Britain’s need for armed police is regrettably increasing, we must take care to preserve the spirit (and the rules) which insist that shooting a suspect is the last resort, not the first.

 

Armed police

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