What Conservative Government? – Part 1

David Cameron - Conservative Party - Tree Logo - Coke Zero Conservatism

The Left may love to rail against the Evil Tory government inflicting untold harm on the defenceless people of Britain in service to their extreme, worse-than-Thatcher ideology. Of course, it’s all just hysterical, hyperbolic nonsense. This “What Conservative Government?” series will highlight multitudinous examples showing that David Cameron’s rootless, centrist Conservative Party is an authoritarian, Big Government carbon copy of Tony Blair’s New Labour.

Last week, I had the opportunity to debate the Conservative Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, on the infantilisation of today’s students and their ludicrous demands for trigger warnings, safe spaces and the suppression of free speech.

This week, Vaizey pops up in Conservative Home, defending the government’s record on public libraries from left-wing attack (my emphasis added):

When I first became a Minister, we abolished the libraries quango and moved responsibility to the Arts Council.  We wanted to join up our cultural strategy with libraries.  This decision has been thoroughly vindicated.  The Arts Council has made £6 million of new Lottery funding available to libraries to host cultural events and realise their role as important community spaces.  Yesterday, they announced a further investment of more than £1.5 pounds, which will help library authorities work better together, and will support a range of national initiatives covering reading, digital literacy and health.

[..] Councils have a legal obligation to provide comprehensive and efficient library services, and must consult with the local population on plans. We are the first Government to review every closure. Central government can and will intervene if a council is planning dramatic cuts.

There is a serious point here, which is that the Labour Party are utterly disingenuous to attack the Conservatives for library closures, when only 11 of 79 library closures in the past five years have been ordered by Conservative councils. And there is probably merit to the implied suggestion that left-wing Labour councils are publicly rending their garments and spitefully shutting down high profile services as a kind of self-immolating protest against the Evil Tories in Westminster.

But what kind of conservative government obsesses about the “national initiatives” feeding into their “cultural strategy”, and watches over the shoulder of every local authority in the country, demanding the right to sign off on every single building closure? Certainly not any government that truly believes in smaller, leaner government or a renewed emphasis on localism and individual liberty.

Now, this centralise-first instinct in British politics is not new. And ironically, it is partly the legacy of the Thatcher government, which faced implacable resistance from rabidly left-wing local councils and believed that the only way to implement its agenda was to circumvent and/or neuter local authorities. But the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did nothing to reverse this process, and David Cameron’s Coke Zero Conservatives are in no hurry to undo the process.

But the over-centralisation of government is one of the biggest problems in British politics and civil life. It kills any attempt at radical experimentation or bold new policy initiatives in the crib, since everything must conform to the same national standards, either by legal requirement or the fear of endless angry “postcode lottery!” headlines in the press.

Why should the four home nations of the UK not have the ability to vary tax rates and bands as they see fit, according to local priorities, so long as all four pay the correct proportional share of their revenue to Westminster for UK-wide shared obligations such as foreign policy and defence?

Why should local authorities not be able to raise (or lower) sales taxes autonomously, in place of a fixed (and brutally high) VAT rate of 20%, returning funds to taxpayers or spending the revenues as local communities see fit?

Why should city councils not be permitted to implement hotel room taxes, as in nearly every major city around the world outside the UK, and use the revenue to promote local tourism in the provinces and regions?

(The one policy standing in David Cameron’s favour is the creation of local Police and Crime Commissioners – though it has been hard to generate any real enthusiasm for this form local control when it is not replicated in other areas of our lives).

A truly radical, campaigning conservative government would be asking these questions, developing policies to answer them, and then boldly implementing them across the nation. And now, after five years of Conservative government, Britain might be starting to feel the benefit of re-embracing liberty, individualism, localism and regional variation.

But of course, all of this would require the Conservative Party to actually govern like a conservative party.

 

Conservative Party Logo - Cameron - Oak Tree

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BBC Daily Politics: Shining A Spotlight On Student Illiberalism

 

Few politicians will dare to criticise today’s breed of authoritarian student activists – because odious and illiberal as their worldview undoubtedly is, both main political parties have something to gain from regulating our behaviour and speech

Yesterday, I went on the BBC Daily Politics to talk about the creeping tide of campus illiberalism and the tyranny of modern student activists who seek to turn their universities into fuzzy, unthreatening places where intellectual debate and reason are secondary to making people feel accepted and validated at all times.

The debate was framed around the question of whether Britain should consider raising the voting age, given the fact that so many student activists recoil from free speech and the boisterous exchange of ideas, preferring to cloister themselves in ideologically homogeneous “safe spaces” while viciously lashing out at anybody who dares to hold different ideas.

I had written a blog post back in November, following up on Glenn Reynolds’ (of Instapundit) column suggesting in the wake of the Yale and Mizzou controversies that if students could not tolerate hearing contradictory ideas, they had no business voting and participating in democracy. I think a lot of the points that Reynolds made were very strong, though I also agree with what he said when he walked back his statement the next week.

I was surprised to get the call from the BBC, but I thought it was worth accepting the invitation to push the broader message – not that we should go around banning groups of people from voting just because they wind us up, but that this insidious culture of identity, grievance and therapy, incubated in our universities and ignored for too long by the media, is going to have profound consequences for our society and our democracy as these people grow up and join the electorate.

The Daily Politics’ Soapbox feature is good for what it is, but when it comes to laying out a new and complex argument full of nuance and detail, there are obvious shortcomings. You get a two-minute video (which I filmed in Oxford, with particular thanks to the Oxford Union and its president) to make a brief pitch, but that pitch can only be around 200 words, the rest of the time being given to music and establishing shots. And then there is the live segment, broadcast after Prime Minister’s Questions, where you get to debate with Jo Coburn, Andrew Neil and the panel.

The video is shown at the top of this piece, and you can judge the results for yourself. I’m reasonably pleased with how it went, but also frustrated that we could only skim the surface of what is an important and fascinating issue – one with potentially profound consequences for education, free speech and democracy.

Notably, the two MPs on the panel that day – Ed Vaizey and Kate Green – didn’t want to delve into the real issue at all, choosing to get hung up on the specifics of the voting age element. Green in particular was in denial about there being any kind of problem, saying that she didn’t think it was a “new thing” and that “there have always been controversies in our universities”.

But Green then goes on to say “I think it is part of exploring boundaries and debating ideas and issues”.

No. This is precisely the problem. By high-handedly declaring that they speak for all students and elevating their personal feelings over any question of objectivity, truth or legitimate debate, these student activists – the New Age Censors – are specifically crushing the debate of ideas and issues, not just for themselves but for everyone so unfortunate as to be studying with them.

Kate Green tries to make the new academic dystopia of safe space rooms, trigger warnings on texts and campus speech codes something that is natural and commendable, part of exploring boundaries. But it is no such thing. At the time of the Yale controversy, the student (Jerelyn Luther) who had a full-on toddler’s meltdown over a harmless email about Halloween costumes raged:

“It is NOT about creating an intellectual space, it is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here! You are NOT doing that! You are going against that!”

So universities are not to be places of learning and intellectual debate any longer. Or if they are, this mission is very much secondary to the far more important task of making students feel comfortable and validated in whatever “identity” they happen to have assumed on that particular day.

This is what we are dealing with, and this is what neither Ed Vaizey or Kate Green wanted to grapple with. Of course, both have their reasons.

I was essentially describing a group of wobbly-lipped, permanently “vulnerable” perpetual victims who are in constant need of a strong authority presence to smite their enemies and protect them from emotional harm – in other words, I just described the current Labour Party’s ideal (if not yet typical) voter. No wonder Kate Green couldn’t bring herself to engage with the substance of my argument – to do so would be to alienate the very people whom Labour has been reaching out to since the Gordon Brown era.

And what could Ed Vaizey say in support of free speech and against its rapid erosion on university campuses across the country? His leader, David Cameron, flew to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and walked arm-in-arm with some of the world’s most brutal and repressive leaders in defence of “free speech”, while people continue to languish in British prisons, locked up simply for saying, singing or tweeting something that another person found “offensive”. The present Coke Zero Conservative government doesn’t look on these petty authoritarian students as a problem – it admires their attempts to ban speech and regulate freedom of expression.

I should be clear that not all students – not even most students – are like the petty little tyrants in the headlines today. Spiked’s Tom Slater makes this point forcefully:

If there’s one thing that really gets on my nerves, it’s the idea that students today are uniquely intolerant. The explosion of campus censorship in recent years has made bashing campus politicos a kind of commentariat pastime, with fortysomething columnists wheeling the little blue-haired pillocks out each week to give them a good kicking. But while the students’ union censors deserve everything they get, all too often campus censorship has been painted as a generational phenomenon – as if undergraduates appeared from the womb with a Safe Space policy in hand.

I quite agree. And my one regret is that there was no time in my fleeting moment on the Daily Politics to explore the context in which these little campus tyrants are growing up, and what has made them the way they are. As Tom Slater, Brendan O’Neill, myself and a few others have pointed out, many of those “fortysomething” columnists and academics now criticising the student activists are themselves guilty of supporting the hate speech laws and therapy culture which have taught the New Age Censors that “sticks and stones may break their bones, but words will kill them stone dead”.

That being said, I think it was still a useful opportunity to raise an important issue and maybe raise awareness among a wider group of people, many of whom haven’t set foot on a university campus in years and would be horrified to discover the kind of illiberal dystopia that they have become in the name of “tolerance” and “inclusivity”.

But as Spiked is now doing, we all should give particular praise and encouragement to those few students – like George Lawlor from the University of Warwick – who have been brave enough to stand against against these illiberal trends on campus.

This fight will not be won in the television studios of Westminster or the columns of national newspapers. It is the brave students withstanding huge social pressures and even physical intimidation to take a stand for liberty and free speech on their own university campuses who must do the real fighting, as well as those professors and administrators with sufficient backbone to stand up to the shrill demands of the Safe Space Lobby.

But the rest of us should provide what air cover we can, as this blog has consistently done – and will continue to do going forward.

Safe Space Nook

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