How Not To Talk To Brexiteers

James Obrien Brexit Trump Fascism Hysteria

If Remainers truly want to reverse or soften Brexit, they should spend less time flaunting their own enlightenment and more time engaging with the valid concerns of Brexiteers

I am continually astonished that otherwise intelligent, politically astute Remainers repeatedly choose the catharsis of insult, showing off to their peers and “talking down” to their opponents over engaging with wavering Brexiteers on terms which might produce some kind of compromise, if not a total change of heart and mind.

Say what you want amongst yourselves, Remainers, in university lecture halls or March for Europe demonstrations, but speaking and acting in public as though the Brexit vote was motivated primarily by ignorance or xenophobia is a surefire way to harden opinions and fail to convince potentially winnable Leave voters. Besides the fact that such a blanket statement is patently untrue, how many political arguments are won (permanently) by the side which mocks and taunts their opponent?

In order to change hearts and minds in debate, one must find a common frame of reference or (where that is genuinely impossible) at least feign to understand and sympathise with the underlying motivations of the opposing side. Tell somebody that you hate them and everything they stand for and you have permanently destroyed any chance of building the rapport needed for persuasion. But tell someone that while you understand their deepest motivations yours is the better path to satisfying them and maybe you have a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, so much of political debate is now little more than preening and performing for one’s own side rather than genuine attempts to inspire or change minds. I am guilty of this myself at times, having written pieces that I know will be eagerly picked up and shared by my “Amen corner” of fellow conservatives, libertarians and Brexiteers. But this is inreach, not outreach. And the losing side cannot indulge forever at inreach as a substitute for doing the harder work of talking to those who disagree. This approach is guaranteed to shrink your base to a diminishing band of Ultras rather than grow the broad – in this case, huge – coalition that would be required to overturn the EU referendum result.

While facts are important, emotion plays a big role when it comes to Brexit (on both sides). And at the risk of opening myself up to public ridicule, I will share some of the non-factual claims and actions which rub me (and at least some other Brexiteers) up the wrong way, and immediately make me less receptive to Remainer arguments. I do this as a public service, and because I am getting really tired of encountering the same insults, straw men and non sequiturs in my social media interactions with Remainers.

I don’t claim to be the archetypal Brexiteer, but hopefully some of what I say may be generally applicable and fall on receptive ears. So here goes.

First of all, as with other Brexiteers I am quite patriotic. That is not to suggest that many decent Remainers are lacking in patriotism. But it cannot be denied that there is a coven of hardcore anti-patriots harboured within the Remain community, people who actively dislike or (at best) are ambivalent about the nation state in general and the United Kingdom in particular.

For pity’s sake, stop giving these people the microphone. And take the conch away from AC Grayling, JK Rowling and Ian Dunt while you’re at it. I readily concede that true patriotism and love of country goes much deeper than jingoistic flag waving – the national anthem NFL protests in America, whilst I personally disagree with them, show that it is possible to make a calculated snub of certain national symbols while remaining more true to the country’s founding values than any shallow populist. But if you think that you are going to persuade Brexiteers by painting a negative or pessimistic vision of Britain then you are sorely mistaken.

Brexiteers believe – quite rightly – that Britain is a great, powerful and influential country, and while we personally may have played no part in making it so we are nonetheless proud to be part of this cultural (not racial) heritage. It is not that Britain “punches above its weight” in the world, to use that tiresome phrase surely coined by the pessimistic days of 1970s national decline. On the contrary, we punch exactly in line with our weight given that we have the world’s sixth largest economy, second most deployable military, nuclear power status and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, not to mention our unmatched contributions to culture, commerce, arts and science.

So talking about Britain as a “small” country in terms of geopolitical power not only flies in the face of objective reality, it actively raises the hackles of many Brexiteers who are justifiably proud of our country’s status. You can disagree as to whether this pride is justified, but descend into mockery and you will not get a hearing from many Brexiteers, nor deserve one. Shrieking that the UK cannot survive outside the EU is not a smart debate tactic. If your parents continually told you that you were useless and totally unable to succeed on your own in the world without their smothering helicopter parenting, would you stay living in their basement forever or become even more determined to move out and prove them wrong?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you cannot make a compelling argument that Britain will be economically or diplomatically harmed by leaving the EU – indeed, this staunchly eurosceptic blog has repeatedly warned that Brexit done wrong could be calamitous. But far better to make the argument in terms of future growth and prosperity at risk rather than paint a picture of a small, helpless Britain adrift in the world, buffeted by “great powers” like Malaysia or Mexico. It’s really annoying.

Then there is the tedious “Open vs Closed” talking point, voiced endlessly since the referendum result came in. It goes something like “we voted Remain because we are open-minded, forward-looking and ambitious while you voted Leave because you are closed-minded, backward-looking, insular and fearful of the future”. Stop for a moment and think about how you would feel if somebody tried to win you over by condescending to you in this manner.

I am an ardent Brexiteer, but like many of us I speak a foreign language, am married to a foreign-born citizen and have travelled and worked abroad. I read the Economist, for heaven’s sake. There are doubtless many unsavoury words which could be thrown at me with some justification, but “closed-minded” and “ignorant” are probably not on the list. If your post-mortem analysis of the EU referendum is telling you that Brexit appealed exclusively to a group of people who are paranoid, stupid, vaguely racist and fearful of the future then your analysis probably needs fine-tuning more than my values.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about education. Yes, a majority of people with formal higher education voted to Remain. But aside from academia’s general left-ish bias and desire to maintain current systems and sources of funding, this is a youth effect as much as an education effect – far fewer people from older generations went to university. Are these people not clever enough to understand geopolitics, unlike the sagacious newly-minted gender studies graduate? Some of my best friends from home have become smarter and more well-rounded than me, and I went to university while they cracked on with work. So enough sanctimony about being smarter and better-informed, please. I can count the number of Remainers I have interacted with who possess a basic understanding of the EU and its institutions on two hands, with fingers to spare.

Next, stop assuming that Brexiteers mean something other than the words which come out of their mouths. If they complain that mass immigration is straining local services and infrastructure or changing the nature of their communities, then uncomfortable as it may be for you to accept, that is probably what they mean. It is not code for “we want massive increases in taxation to deliver gold-plated public services” or “stop unscrupulous businesses from undercutting the minimum wage”.

If you are a more economically successful Remainer, try to check your “wealth privilege” (to use the current stupid social justice terminology). People in poorer or more suburban communities often have quite a different experience of large-scale immigration than city slickers, who tend to see only benefits and no costs. If you want to make traction with those Brexiteers for whom immigration is a major issue then some empathy will be required, even if deep inside you feel like you are palling around with Hitler.

Next, let moderate or more thoughtful Remainers finish speaking before jumping down their throats. There are probably twenty other things which I could say about Brexit which might add some nuance to my own views and enrich the broader debate slightly, but I am never going to say them because they can be so easily misinterpreted, made to sound bad or otherwise used as a weapon against me and my side. The national debate would benefit from hearing some of these things, but if talking openly about doubt, provisos and exceptions is going to be used by short-term charlatans lacking the patience to reel in the big fish then they will never see the light of day. Again, the short-term urge to perform and score easy points undermines the long-term goal of changing minds.

Finally, be more honest and open about your own beliefs. If you are a closet euro-federalist, probably better to just come out and say so at this point. Half of the antipathy and resistance to the European Union in Britain is borne of the fact that all these years of steadily-deepening integration have taken place under furious protestations from the ruling class that anything significant was happening at all. You will never get what you want (or be able to properly enjoy it if you do) through deception, so be honest about your vision for a federal Europe and try to win people over on the merits.

But even if you are not a beady-eyed euro-federalist with EU flag pyjamas as I once was (well, an EU polo shirt and lapel pin at least) you should still make your case honestly and positively. As Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn can attest, people respond warmly to positive messages and coherent narratives, while looking sceptically on constant fearmongering and haphazard messaging. People grudgingly respect Jeremy Corbyn because he says what he actually believes and doesn’t moderate his message (much) for short-term political expediency. Be like Jezza.

Don’t be like all those pro-EU campaigners and politicians, trotting out the same tired catchphrases about needing to cooperate with other countries or allowing the doe-eyed youth to “live, work and love in Europe”. Newsflash: Brexiteers know that international cooperation is important, they just don’t see why Britain necessarily needs the EU to facilitate this for us when even small countries like Norway and Switzerland are outside political union, and while other continents and parts of the world have conspicuously not followed our lead in setting up supranational governments of their own. If the EU model of cooperation is so great, show off that superior education of yours by telling us why. Best use lots of pictures, though, because us Brexiteers are a bit thick.

But if (as I sneakingly suspect is more likely) deep down you also believe that the EU is ill-designed, dysfuntional, furiously resistant to change and unnecessary for most international cooperation outside the realm of trade, then come clean and say that, too. We will respect these concessions to reality far more than if you just keep on humming Ode to Joy and telling us that Brussels is the only reason our parents were not annihilated in a nuclear war.

So in summary, if you want to have a fruitful discussion with a Brexiteer instead of just retweeting AC Grayling and feeling smug, remember these simple tips:

Acknowledge the UK’s genuine strengths and do not denigrate patriotism.

Stop talking about the “Open vs Closed” dichotomy, as though Remainers represent the apotheosis of human enlightenment and Brexiteers the dismal nadir. It’s really, really annoying. Talk about “Somewheres vs Anywheres” if you must, because that at least is actually rooted in reality and can spawn a useful debate.

Stop banging on about education as though a 2:2 degree in a soft subject at an unremarkable university makes you Henry Kissinger and uniquely qualified to hold forth on matters of statecraft and diplomacy. It doesn’t. And when evidently simple people start prancing around as though they are Isaac Newton and Nikola Tesla combined, by sole virtue of the fact that they voted with the Remain herd, it can rapidly become quite tedious. Some very smart people voted to remain in the EU, but so did some complete and utter cretins.

Stop trying to divine secret hidden motives in what Brexiteers say, and take them at their word. Their concerns about sovereignty are not actually an inchoate cry for a new NHS tax, or any other left-wing pipe dream.

If you encounter a Brexiteer with whom you think you might have a productive dialogue, engage with them in good faith. Don’t just mine your exchange for nuggets of Brexiteer stupidity to titillate your Twitter followers.

And finally, be honest about your own beliefs. If you want a United States of Europe, just own your euro-federalism and wear it with pride. If you have a more nuanced position, stop feeling like you have to pretend that the European Union represents everything that’s good in the world as though this will do anything other than attract bovine applause from other Remainers.

I probably should not be offering these words of advice. Indeed, it is very much in my short-term interest to see Remainers carry on exactly as many of them have been doing since the referendum result was announced last year – it makes you look shrill and hysterical, and only hardens many Brexiteers in their convictions.

But I also have a longer-term interest in living in a country where the standard of political discourse is set a few levels higher than two monkeys throwing faeces at each other, and good (or at least productive) political debate requires at least some degree of empathy for the other side’s position. In this spirit, I have tried to explain a little bit of what makes some Brexiteers tick, and what downright ticks us off. You can laugh at this information and ignore it, or you can use it to improve the quality and tenor of your arguments so that we don’t just keep shouting the same talking points at each other ad nauseam.

Remainers, the choice is yours.

 

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Lack Of Empathy For Opposing Political Views Threatens Social Cohesion

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The inability of the political and professional classes to comprehend or respect the political opinions of those from other backgrounds is nearly as grave a threat to our social cohesion as unchecked multiculturalism

There is a whole bucketload of truth in this piece by Michael Merrick, which should make uncomfortable reading not only for metro-leftist, pro-EU types, but even those of us in the so-called professional classes who do not subscribe to majority opinion.

Merrick discusses the differing prevailing cultural and political norms which exist among working class people (generally more conservative) and those in the urban professional classes (much more progressive), and the difficulty of bridging the gulf of misunderstanding between the two. This is particularly relevant when it is almost exclusively the professional classes who are charged with setting public policy, despite often having no real empathy with those whom they seek to reform or re-educate.

Merrick writes:

It is a long established truth that graduates tend to be much more liberal than their non-graduate compatriots. Indeed, since the referendum, plenty on the Remain have been quick to point out the education gap between Leave voters and themselves. The observation is innocent enough, though it too often contains all the smirk and subtext of that teacher from my youth.

Thus the graduate professions take on a particular character, with norms of outlook, of worldview, indeed of morality. The moral compass of the liberal outlook is distinct from the conservative, and these things split broadly over class, which correlates with level of education; these tribes value different things, draw lines in different places. But when the deck is stacked so heavily toward one over the other, the chances of any effort to comprehend the difference diminish whilst self-certainty proliferates. And liberals, contrary to assumption, tend to be as intolerant as conservatives, who have a broader moral outlook, though less understanding of the conservative viewpoint than the other way round. In a profession which is graduate dominated, and with graduate-level education so tightly correlated with liberal outlook, so we might see the roots of an important disconnect. Conformity to the norms of the in-group becomes the mark of the sophisticated, the cultured, the educated. And transgression comes at a cost.

As such, if you arrive from a working-class background shaped by these subversive norms, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the derision might be delivered in the abstract – against a general viewpoint or unidentified Other – the barbs are felt personally. The word bigot, or any of its linguistic manifestations, is chucked about casually, but it hits specific targets, especially when it addresses a common viewpoint amongst those who comprise your upbringing. Those ‘xenophobes’ and ‘racists’ who voted Leave, for example, are not disembodied, theoretical people, but those who you know to be nothing of the sort, such as grandparents, who were always so loving and kind, and parents, who have lived a life of service to others, friends, who are decent and hardworking, the folks who live next door, the lady who you see at Church each week, the priest who baptised your kids. It becomes personal, and it jars.

But with public affirmation of in-group norms comes prestige –  in the echo chamber of social media, there is status to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. An army of followers giddily RT and ‘Like’ such comments, as if their articulacy were evidence of their truth and justification for their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority a justification of their presumed existential superiority, too.

This truth tends to sail over the heads of people who currently exist and always remained largely in the same social class and culture in which they were raised – how would they know any different? But Merrick, who gained access to the professional classes after being the first in his family to get a degree, is better placed to notice the gulf of incomprehension and unwillingness to empathise with the other side, having occupied both sides of the divide at various times.

And this can have a real impact in terms of public policy, as Merrick notes:

In our schools, this has real consequences – as I have explored here and here – creating a representation vacuum as a class of Anywheres seek to educate a generation of SomewheresPioneers against Settlers, with the former holding all the power and believing professional success consists in educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing. Pupils from a socially conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) background, will at times find themselves at odds with the ethical and moral paradigms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education (or the absence of it). And so the cycle starts over, an abiding tension between home and school, since in this case to be educated is to leave behind what you hear and are taught at home.

But some do choose home. Not because of a lack of learning but because of a refusal to shed heritage and home as the participation fee. If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation there. That those who agitate so fiercely for social justice, and write and speak so piously about the disenfranchisement of the working class, should choose to studiously ignore this particular deficit, and indeed locate their own virtue in the perpetuation of it, tells us a lot about the intractability of the culture clash we accommodate.

“Anywheres seeking to educate a generation of somewheres” – that phrase resonates, particularly as the self-described Citizens of the World tend to assume that the only thing preventing others from embracing their worldview is their lower level of education.

I actually see a lot of myself in what Merrick writes. I wouldn’t know whether to describe my upbringing as working class or middle class. Income-wise, being in a single parent family on benefits, living in Harlow, we were very much working class. But thanks to other branches of the family that worked in professional or academic circles, I wouldn’t say that my social upbringing was that of the typical working class. I should also note that my accent was never the standard estuary accent typical to Essex, but rather that of my wider family – and in Britain, accent does so much to demarcate one’s class status.

I certainly remember being both aware and very ashamed of being poor when I was young, and keenly noticed the difference in lifestyle between many of my schoolfriends who came from working families – their Sky television versus our black and white television set, for example. To be clear, I wanted for nothing when I was a child and had a great upbringing rich in love and family and culture. But a child notices these things, and it is silly to deny that they influence one’s development.

And so, when I went to university I was probably overly keen to embrace the distinctly more upper middle-class lifestyle and tastes enjoyed by my peers – not that I ever fell properly into the working class mould because of our extended family, but because I was keen to explore new horizons which had previously been somewhat limited. I enjoyed being on the Entertainments Committee of the Union Society and wearing black tie to the weekly debates featuring famous names from British political and cultural life. I admit that I enjoyed having transcended the town, the culture and many of the people with whom I had grown up.

This continued into my professional life. Living with other young professionals starting their careers in London, I was happy to make jokes about chavs, or otherwise look down on those from less educated and less wealthy circumstances. I would sometimes crack jokes about Harlow and the people there (despite the fact that I had, and continue to have, friends living in Harlow to this day). I remember attending one fancy dress party in a chav costume, which I thought to be terribly clever at the time.

In fact, it has probably only been in the past five years, since I started blogging (and consequently reading and thinking a lot more about various issues) that I realise the deliberate nature of what I was doing as an adolescent and a young graduate – and how insufferable I must have been to so many people from my earlier life during that time. And it is only now, in the aftermath of the EU referendum and the enormous establishment hissy fit which continues to this day in response to the outcome, that I fully understand what Michael Merrick is saying and identify very much with his experience.

I have always felt that the best people to analyse or give commentary on a situation are those who have held both sides of an argument at one time or another, or been on different sides of an important wedge issue. Why listen to somebody like Owen Jones analyse politics, when he was raised to hate the Tories and simply continued on the same uninterrupted intellectual trajectory his whole life, the only difference being that he can now use longer words and quote academic sources sympathetic to his position? There is no personal growth there, nor any real empathy for the other side (the possession of which is the only real acid test of one’s own political philosophy) and consequently no real attempt to engage with ideological opponents. That’s not being an intellectual, it’s being a partisan shill.

Similarly on Brexit, why listen to some millennial writer who has only grown up knowing life inside the EU and accepting its unquestioned brilliance all the days of her life? What can such a person really add to the national conversation besides a whole heap of confirmation bias and sanctimony?

Now, I would never claim to be better than Owen Jones or Generic Millennial Remainiac Writer. But I can at least plausibly claim to have had my feet on both sides of the political and cultural divide at various times, having grown up holding the typical youthful left-wing opinions and then made a gradual move toward the libertarian or conservatarian Right. And even more so having been a staunch euro-federalist in my university days, to the extent that I hung an EU flag on my dorm room wall and sometimes insufferably wore an EU flag lapel pin, to rediscovering the vital importance of the nation state and becoming an avowed Brexiteer over the past five years.

Generally I find that the most productive exchanges take place with people who have not simply percolated in likeminded groupthink for their entire careers, but who have either personal experience of occupying the other side of the argument or at least made a sincere effort to reach out in good faith to those who disagree.

I was a socialist in my youth, and know many of the old arguments inside and out – but crucially, I also know through personal experience that many of those who still hold socialist views are good and decent people. I was a pro-European in my youth and know the entire case for European political integration backwards and forwards, yet despite having reversed my position 180 degrees I know that many of those who still hold these views are intelligent and honourable people. I hope that this knowledge of the opposing viewpoint and acknowledgement of the decency of those with whom I disagree adds a bit of depth to my better pieces of writing.

Unfortunately, this attempt to bridge the chasm of cultural and political difference is almost nonexistent among the political class – on both sides. Rising star Labour MP Jess Phillips openly admits to being “raised in no uncertain terms to hate Tories“, a fact which shines through in many of her speeches and television appearances. And the inability of many of those in the Conservative Party and the centrist, machine politics wing of the Labour Party to empathise with working class people is self-evident – a particularly shameful indictment of the Labour centrists, who now openly scorn a large swathe of their political base.

And this failure to empathise with different people has real world effects, like when David Cameron went marching off to Brussels to conduct his faux renegotiation with the EU despite never really having stopped to ask what the British people wanted out of it, and today’s Conservative government pursuing an idiotic and damaging approach to Brexit on the assumption that immigration is the overriding factor for most people when post-referendum polls (and a few conversations with actual Brexiteers) reveal concerns about sovereignty and democracy to have been the primary driver of Brexit.

We currently have a political class who at best arrogantly think they can channel working class opinion without ever really stopping to consult the people they think they are ventriloquising, and at worst simply don’t care at all about what a whole swathe of the population thinks and believes.

More worryingly, it takes an immense effort to overcome this gulf of misunderstanding – in my case it took over five years, and that’s despite having occupied both sides of the debate at different times, such is the zealotry of a convert to professional class norms – and the political class generally show zero aptitude for that kind of introspection.

Michael Merrick has done a great job of diagnosing the problem, but right now I fail to see a ready solution. The gulf of incomprehension is likely to get wider before it narrows.

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John F Kennedy On The Responsibilities Of Educated Citizens

John F. Kennedy, May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963

From Kennedy’s address to the 90th anniversary convocation of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, delivered on May 18, 1963:

But this Nation was not founded solely on the principle of citizens’ rights. Equally important, though too often not discussed, is the citizen’s responsibility. For our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. The protection of our rights can endure no longer than the performance of our responsibilities. Each can be neglected only at the peril of the other. I speak to you today, therefore, not of your rights as Americans, but of your responsibilities. They are many in number and different in nature. They do not rest with equal weight upon the shoulders of all. Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of responsibility. All Americans must be responsible citizens, but some must be more responsible than others, by virtue of their public or their private position, their role in the family or community, their prospects for the future, or their legacy from the past.

Increased responsibility goes with increased ability, for “of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

[..] You have responsibilities, in short, to use your talents for the benefit of the society which helped develop those talents. You must decide, as Goethe put it, whether you will be an anvil or a hammer, whether you will give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education. Of the many special obligations incumbent upon an educated citizen, I would cite three as outstanding: your obligation to the pursuit of learning, your obligation to serve the public, your obligation to uphold the law.

If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it will not be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to limit our educational system. Modern cynics and skeptics see no more reason for landing a man on the moon, which we shall do, than the cynics and skeptics of half a millennium ago saw for the discovery of this country. They see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.

But the educated citizen knows how much more there is to know. He knows that “knowledge is power,” more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people, that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all, and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, “enlighten the people generally … tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

[..] Secondly, the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or President. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the State house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a Senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.

[..] Third, and finally, the educated citizen has an obligation to uphold the law. This is the obligation of every citizen in a free and peaceful society–but the educated citizen has a special responsibility by the virtue of his greater understanding. For whether he has ever studied history or current events, ethics or civics, the rules of a profession or the tools of a trade, he knows that only a respect for the law makes it possible for free men to dwell together in peace and progress.

He knows that law is the adhesive force in the cement of society, creating order out of chaos and coherence in place of anarchy. He knows that for one man to defy a law or court order he does not like is to invite others to defy those which they do not like, leading to a breakdown of all justice and all order. He knows, too, that every fellowman is entitled to be regarded with decency and treated with dignity. Any educated citizen who seeks to subvert the law, to suppress freedom, or to subject other human beings to acts that are less than human, degrades his heritage, ignores his learning, and betrays his obligation.

I think that we can all take something from this speech as an inspiration to strive to be better citizens, no matter our position on American politics and the forthcoming presidency of Donald J Trump. None of us are above learning from the example set by great men and women of the past.

Yet nobody gives speeches like this any more. Why?

Is modern political speechwriting so poor because it reflects the abysmal quality of our present political discourse, or is our political discourse so poor because our contemporary leaders, more concerned with bribing and placating a fickle public than calling us to any kind of higher duty, have increasingly lost the rhetorical skills required to persuade and inspire their citizens?

 

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On Left And Right, British Politics Is Characterised By Pitifully Small Thinking

Grammar Schools - Conservative Party - Theresa May

Grammar schools and OBEs – anything to distract ourselves from the real, serious political issues facing modern Britain

Of all the issues and circumstances which afflict modern Britain, what policy do you think would make the single most positive difference? Ensuring that Brexit takes place and that we positively reshape our relationship with Europe and the world? Comprehensive healthcare reform? Constitutional reform to reinvigorate our democracy? Freeing higher education from the dead hand of government funding and control? Sweeping simplification and reform of the tax code?

One could debate endlessly (though this blog would prioritise Brexit above all else). But two things almost sure not to make the list would be the two political stories dominating the news this weekend – Labour leadership contender Owen Smith’s ostentatious vow to ban the bestowing of new honours for five years if he becomes leader, and indications that Theresa May’s government is on the verge of overturning New Labour’s spiteful and vindictive ban on the opening of new grammar schools.

From the BBC:

Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith says honours will not be bestowed upon Labour donors, MPs, advisers and staff for five years if he wins the contest.

Mr Smith, who is challenging leader Jeremy Corbyn, said he wants an honours system that rewards “selfless acts, not political and personal patronage”.

Mr Smith, MP for Pontypridd, said Mr Cameron’s list – which included many Downing Street staffers and Conservative donors – was put together with “blatant cronyism”.

“David Cameron’s resignation honours list has brought the system into disrepute and deepened people’s mistrust of politics.

“It’s simply not good enough for [Prime Minister] Theresa May to turn a blind eye to this situation – we need fundamental reform of the honours system so it can reward good deeds and restore people’s trust in politics.”

He also said his proposed five-year honours ban would stay in place until a total overhaul of the system was completed.

This blog does not dispute the fact that the British honours system is hopelessly corrupt and abysmal at recognising exemplary virtue. If Samantha Cameron’s personal stylist is worthy of career-boosting recognition in a gross act of cronyism, what possible grounds are there to deny an honour for every single member of the British armed forces, all of whom risk their lives for very little financial reward compared to that which they could receive in other private sector careers?

While there are many aspects of British imperial tradition which are worth carrying into the present day, the byzantine honours system, with its multiple levels and incomprehensible initials, is not one of them. In fact, it is the ultimate expression of inward-looking elitism, a Country Club tiered membership system which allows its wealthy and well-connected members to compare themselves with one another while excluding thousands of people whose lifetimes of service make them far more deserving of public recognition.

So scrapping the honours system altogether and replacing it a flattened and simplified system – perhaps just one award for civilian life, like a stripped down variant of the Order of Australia – would be a worthy goal, though hardly mission-critical for UK prosperity. Far less impressive, though, is Owen Smith’s dismal suggestion of an arbitrary five-year pause to supposedly review the system.

This is a typically British muddle. When faced with an unacceptable scandal or unethical situation, the establishment’s typical response is to launch a meandering and ultimately fruitless inquiry, kicking the issue into the long grass until public outrage has died down sufficiently that things can go on unchanged. The only way that the rotten system will ever change is either for firm and immediate action to be taken, or for the issue to be folded into a package of further-reaching constitutional reform (by far the better, though less likely option).

Owen Smith, last gasp of the Labour centrists, clearly has no interest in serious reform – of the honours system or anything else. His proposed five-year moratorium is a quintessentially New Labour device, assuaging public anger with a big flashy gesture while doing absolutely nothing to tackle the underlying issue or inequality. This isn’t bold new leadership from somebody worthy of succeeding even Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. And this is the man who believes he is uniquely gifted to carry Labour back into government?

Not that the Conservatives are any better.

The main news emanating from the Conservative Party this weekend has been the leaked suggestion that Theresa May is planning to announce a repeal of New Labour’s ban on the building on new grammar schools – not unpleasing news, certainly, but concerning (and highly vulnerable to political attack) when not placed in the clear context of wider education reform with a laser focus on raising standards and improving social mobility.

The Guardian reports:

Theresa May has been warned she will face stiff opposition to plans for new grammar schools from some senior Tory MPs as well as Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The prime minister was facing a backlash after the Sunday Telegraph reported that she will announce a return to more selective schools in England as early as the Conservatives’ autumn conference.

Downing Street made no attempt to dampen speculation that an extension of selection in schools is on the government’s agenda, releasing a statement on Sunday that said: “The prime minister has been clear that we need to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

“Every child should be allowed to rise as far as their talents will take them and birth should never be a barrier. Policies on education will be set out in due course.”

The suggestion that May, a former grammar school pupil, will opt for new selective schools after an 18-year ban delighted many Conservative backbenchers. More than 100 Tory MPs are said to support a campaign by ConservativeVoice, a group endorsed by senior cabinet ministers Liam Fox and David Davis in 2012.

In many ways, seeking to lift the ban on new grammar schools is commendable – the ban is a grotesque piece of spiteful, anti-aspirational Labour Party downward social engineering, in which “equality” was to be achieved by hacking away at the ladders to success in favour of dull, uniform mediocrity.

But as a first major flagship Conservative policy under Theresa May, it is disappointing. Yes, it shows more grit than was ever displayed by David Cameron, and yes it will keep restive Tory backbenchers happy – essential if May’s government is to survive the next four years with a notional majority of just 8. But in terms of the overall education reform which Britain needs, grammar schools are but a drop in the ocean.

The proportion of pupils in grammar schools has been under 5% since the late 1970s. Even assuming an aggressive policy of encouraging new grammar schools, it is hard to see this figure substantially increasing within, say, the next decade (i.e. in time to make a measurable difference in the productivity and quality of the British workforce).

Academic selection can be beneficial, and we should certainly aim to stretch the most talented pupils and appropriately enrich their education wherever possible. As a former state school pupil, my own education was in no way enhanced by being grouped together with other children of decidedly mixed ability (and this despite streaming). And I strongly doubt that the less able students benefited greatly from my presence either.

But the real issue in British education is the stunted curriculum, unambitious targets and wildly excessive early focus on specialisation. As a state school student, I had no opportunity to learn Latin, or philosophy or the classics. And no matter what steps I have taken in adult life to fill the yawning gaps in my knowledge, nothing can replace exposure to these topics at an early age. Why should these subjects be the preserve of expensive fee-paying private schools, simply because some dull left-wing bureaucrat decided that “ordinary” students do not need exposure to the classics and the Western canon in order to get jobs working in factories which no longer exist?

Why, too, are fourteen-year-olds expected to know what they want to be when they grow up, and begin dropping subjects like hot potatoes as they begin studying for their GCSE examinations? How on earth is a young teenager, who has perhaps only ever had one teacher in history or geography or modern languages, supposed to know for sure that they will never need whole areas of knowledge in their future lives? For this is exactly what we demand of our young people today.

At a tender age (when frankly, issues of popularity or boredom come into play as much as anything else) we expect young people to drop subjects and constrain their life choices first at fourteen, when they start preparing for GCSEs, and again at sixteen (if they haven’t been encouraged to abandon school altogether by pandering government agencies) when they begin preparing for A-levels. This is ludicrous – and the idea of dropping subjects which one finds difficult hardly instils young minds with a positive attitude towards dealing with life’s inevitable challenges.

Rather than continuing to shoot for the middle with our education policy, contenting ourselves when we just about keep pace with other middle-ranked nations, we should set our sights higher as a country. We should be looking to match and outdo countries like Japan, Finland and South Korea from their perch at the top of world tables in educational outcomes, and improving our schools so that it is no longer just our elite private schools and Oxbridge which are the envy of the world.

Would this be easy? Of course not. Many factors are involved, from daycare and early pre-school education, relative poverty and tackling an often lukewarm culture of aspiration. In some of these areas (particularly around the culture of aspiration and delayed gratification) we can clearly do much more. In other areas, there may be difficult questions over infringement on personal choice and the proper role of the state. But we should at least have the debate and talk about how much power we are prepared to concede to different levels of government (or determined to take back from government) in order to drag ourselves up the educational league tables.

But these are all discussions which will never take place if the focus is taken over by a debate about grammar schools, which make up just one weapon in the fight to improve educational outcomes. We will never have the broader discussion and the complete policy review if Theresa May’s government expends a vast amount of political capital fighting furious Labour and LibDem MPs to an impasse and ends up being defeated in the Commons by a jubilant Jeremy Corbyn.

So here we are – well over a month after the EU referendum, and here we are talking about grammar schools and the honours system.

Of course the machinery of government must grind on, Brexit or no Brexit. And of course this is the slow summer season, when MPs and journalists normally take a break, promising each other that nothing momentous will take place while they try to grab some quality beach time. But the fact that the Labour Party is consumed by yet another leadership election with a challenger whose key selling point is promising to spend five years thinking about changing the honours system, while the Tories play to the backbenches by choosing to fight and die on the hill of grammar schools, is not encouraging.

Maybe party conference season and the return of Parliament will provide more context, or some other sign of hope that Theresa May’s government plans to do more for social mobility than re-litigate a battle from the 1970s, or that Labour’s childish centrist MPs will either accept four more years in the wilderness or finally show some courage and strike out on their own.

Because at present, the policies and preoccupations of Britain’s leading politicians do not seem remotely equal to the scale of the challenges at hand.

 

Grammar Schools

Grammar School - Conservative Party

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Our Schools Are Hotbeds Of Anti-Democratic, Anti Free Speech Sentiment, Hostile To Conservative Students

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British schools and universities represent an oppressive and highly unsafe space for young students who believe in free speech or hold pro-Brexit beliefs

If you think that you have been made to feel uncomfortable for holding eurosceptic, pro-Brexit beliefs, spare a thought for those young Brexiteers trapped firmly behind enemy lines in the clutches of Britain’s left-wing educational establishment.

Tanya Kekic, a sixth-form student, writes in Spiked about the post-referendum climate endured by those who supported Brexit:

As they had scarcely met anyone supporting Brexit, they could not understand how this had happened. Their only explanation was that the electorate was misguided, brainwashed, uneducated and motivated only by their hatred of immigrants. They were not at all embarrassed by their disdain for ordinary people. In fact, teachers and pupils openly said that democracy is a sham, that we need ‘experts’ to make the big decisions and that idiot Leavers should not have been able to vote in the first place. I’ve not been around long, but I have never seen anything like it. I knew this kind of loathing of the ‘masses’ existed, but in the past it had been disguised.

The same low opinion of people is shown by my teachers’ and classmates’ rejection of freedom of speech on the grounds that, firstly, the public are too uneducated to hear dangerous views, and, secondly, the public are too weak and vulnerable to hear something that might offend them. Over the past year my freedom-loving friend and I have had ongoing debates at school about whether there should be a limit to freedom of expression. We have not yet found a teacher who believes in unfettered freedom of speech.

The most shocking encounters have been with our philosophy teacher. First of all, she declared that she completely disagrees with freedom of speech and the very idea of a free press. (I am not kidding.) Secondly, she became hysterical when we said that no religion, including Islam, should be above mockery or criticism (this was after we were shown a video ridiculing Christianity). She told us to ‘get out’ of the classroom, while whining that we can’t criticise the prophet Muhammad because it says not to in the Koran. We heard from another teacher that apparently we have ‘extreme’ views. (As far as I know, we haven’t yet been reported to Prevent.)

If believing in freedom and democracy makes you an extremist, we are really in trouble. Schools are encouraged to teach students about British values, such as tolerance and pluralism. But when they don’t know what these principles are, little wonder they fail to uphold them in practice. In particular, the idea of tolerance is very confused. We are not told to allow unpleasant views to be shared and then to challenge and criticise them; rather, we are told either to shut up and respect all beliefs, or to censor and shut them down. To understand why hypersensitive university students are cowering in Safe Spaces and banning ideas they disagree with, you only need to sit in on a Year Eight citizenship lesson.

This is concerning indeed, though not surprising. This blog has previously reported on the plaintive cries for help and/or of frustration from young conservatives, eurosceptics and civil libertarians who found themselves being ruthlessly persecuted at school, often with the full knowledge and participation of their own teachers. And clearly the EU referendum has taken that pre-existing hostile climate for free speech and injected it with steroids.

One marvels in particular at the philosophy teacher who “became hysterical” at the mere idea (not even the act) of criticising Islam, and who pre-emptively ejected Kekic and her friend from class as punishment for daring to suggest that all ideas should be open to debate and criticism. On might have thought that adherence to this view would be a prerequisite for anybody seeking to teach philosophy of all subjects, but apparently there are now schools employing philosophy teachers who actively oppose the idea of critiquing certain ideas and belief systems.

Where teachers lead, impressionable students will often follow. And the clear message being sent by the academic establishment – not only at the university level but at the school level too – is that the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics is firmly in charge now. Free speech is even less of an absolute right than it was before, woolly metro-leftism is firmly established as the only acceptable political worldview and ideas should no longer be judged on their own merit, but rather on the identity of their proponent and the position which they occupy in the Hierarchy of Privilege.

When I appeared on the BBC Daily Politics earlier this year to discuss the phenomenon of oversensitive students, I joked that something strange seems to happen in the minds of otherwise sensible young people the moment they first set foot on a university campus, making them suddenly obsessed with their racial and gender identities and utterly incapable of tolerating alternative viewpoints. But of course this facetiousness disguised an important truth, made clear by Kekic: the fact that we are raising our children to be this way from birth, through our therapeutic culture, worshipping of the self, encouraging of a state of constant personal fragility and a starkly authoritarian attitude toward any speech which even remotely contradicts certain established orthodoxies (Islam is above reproach, the EU is fundamentally good, etc.)

There are already whole industries – certainly in academia but elsewhere too – where holding conservative or eurosceptic beliefs amounts to social or professional suicide. The other day I attended a meeting of good people involved in various social enterprises and charities in the third sector. After I brought up the topic of the EU referendum in passing, the speaker proceeded to wax lyrical about just how awful Brexit is, never thinking for a moment that anybody in the room might possibly disagree with her. Though it was amusing, I also felt a pang of awkwardness and discomfort, knowing that I was surrounded by people who would be utterly repelled if I revealed my own true feelings about Brexit (I did anyway).

The point is that as a grown man and a political blogger well used to debate and disagreement, I still paused momentarily before airing a perfectly mainstream and acceptable opinion in front of people who strongly disagreed and who thought that those who supported Britain leaving the EU were stupid at best and malicious at worst. How, then, must those young people with conservative or eurosceptic beliefs feel, who have not yet developed so thick a skin? How are they to feel comfortable expressing their sincerely and legitimately held political views when finger-wagging teachers casually accuse them of “extremism” and conspire to silence them altogether?

There is a cancer in our schools and universities, metastasising throughout the entire educational establishment. It is a tumour which sucks the life out of free speech and academic freedom, and encourages dull, lumpen conformity invigilated by a watchful, censorious, politically correct Taliban.

We need to excise that tumour before it kills off independent thinking, freedom of speech and academic enquiry for good.

 

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