Category Archives: Conservatism

The consequences of the Grenfell Tower tragedy could be profound

I have a strong feeling that the atrocity at Grenfell Tower this week (and my sympathies are with those affected) will prove to be both another nail in the neoliberal coffin and the beginning of a sweeping Labour revival.

This I have thought not for a very long time, but the longer I ponder the prospect, the more convinced I am that it is correct. At least, this is what the signs point us to.

There is something going on in Britain. Sections of the population are mobilising in profound ways, workers are demanding action where their voices were once muffled.

Who knows where this renewed energy will lead? I hope not towards the violence we saw at Kensington Town Hall. The poor know better and can get their messages across in more constructive ways.

Corporate failure to provide suitable, non-flammable cladding has sparked intense anger. But the emotion provoked is about more than just that. It is being more widely aimed at four decades of neoliberalism.

Public mistrust of the private sector was certainly aroused in 2008 after the financial meltdown. There came a turning point for the west, which I believe has swayed slightly to a more Left-wing, interventionist economic consensus.

The neoliberal agenda is treated by the working classes with understandable disdain. It promotes individualism over the maintenance of a social conscience and has represented a sustained attack on democracy.

There is also an interesting parallel at play here. When Margaret Thatcher was in power and she introduced ‘right to buy’ (a form of housing privatisation), homelessness right across rural England soared.

This has been recorded quite brilliantly by my friend Anthony Clavane in his new book A Yorkshire Tragedy. Though Grenfell Tower is a wholly separate problem, it does reflect a certain disregard for the housing needs of the country’s poorest.

I noted yesterday, also, the scurried way in which Mrs May climbed into her convoy 4×4, choosing, perhaps understandably, to avoid the baying crowds demanding both answers and leadership.

I can of course imagine that such a situation would be nerve-wrackingly intimidating. Local residents, bereaved families and angry demonstrators do not make for the ideal public meeting after such a painful week.

There was, though, something slightly symbolic about the Prime Minister’s forced departure from Kensington yesterday. Mrs May appears weak and biding her time, and this crisis could be the beginning of her end.

That is not to say that Grenfell Tower’s blaze was her fault. I think there have been very cynical attempts by hard leftists to associate her with the deaths of, at the time of writing, an estimated 58 people.

The idea that Mrs May ought to be blamed for the fire is fanciful and unhelpful nonsense. Leftists who have genuine (and I think reasonable) grievances with corporate ineptitude will undermine their cause by engaging in this useless finger-wagging.

I have defended the importance of protest at this blog as an important avenue of expression in any democracy. But there can be no excuse for ensuing demonstrations to erupt into savage carnivals of violence.

I also believe that the Labour Party will win the next General Election, whenever it is called. If contemporary British politics tells us anything, it could be as soon as this autumn. There are a few reasons why I think this.

The first is that the myth and fakery of Tory strength and stability has been left helplessly exposed, both by the party’s incompetent leader and their throwing away of 21-point polling leads in one of the worst political campaigns in modern history.

The second is its potentially disastrous dealings with the Democratic Unionist Party, which could completely hollow out Tory support in more urbanised, metropolitan areas of the country.

Social and moral conservatism, but for occasional stirrings, has been more or less wiped out in Britain. The Conservatives have instead presented a more liberal agenda for many years.

This has been because they have no alternative. The Tories are electable if they mouth conservative sentiments but advocate liberalising policy. They are able to tap in to a wide range of the electorate this way.

Of course, there are setbacks. The popularity of UKIP over the last three years (though now decaying again) was a result of Conservative Party failure to address problems caused by mass immigration and Brussels-imposed attacks on our sovereignty.

Theresa May tried to pose as the rescuer of the party; the woman to restore the winning ways of the 1980s, but her personality-centric campaign only managed to reveal her fatal weaknesses.

The mess she now finds herself in, combined with negotiations with the DUP, who don’t subscribe to the Tories’ more liberal agenda, will cost her party dearly at the next election.

More progressive Tory members, voters and activists have already begun questioning their support for the party. LGBT Tories, many of whom I know, will be particularly uneasy with this unfortunate (and thoroughly unnecessary) alliance.

There is also the question of Jeremy Corbyn, whose stock has changed significantly since last Thursday. He now looks the part, talks the part and oozes refreshing confidence.

Something resembling stability has returned to Labour over the last week. I am also convinced that Mr Corbyn’s party would have garnered many more votes from the electorate on June 8th had people genuinely thought he was within a chance of winning.

He should, though, refrain from overtly politicising tragedies of the kind we have seen this week. I don’t think he should, for instance, spend two minutes on Sky News berating cuts to local authority budgets and fire services without the causes of the fire being properly established.

If the election were held tomorrow, Labour would undoubtedly outperform themselves. Nobody believes that the Tories are adequately prepared for governing.

And nor are they in a strong enough position to negotiate our withdrawal from the European Union effectively. No wonder there is such anger.

 


Theresa May has been exposed as a political fraud once and for all

At last, Theresa May has been exposed as the ineffective, political fraud that she is. Quite a shame it is, though, that in order for the public to realise it, the country must sit and suffer through a minority government doomed to failure whether it is supported by the DUP or not. I doubt it will make it through the Brexit negotiations, or perhaps even to 2018.

One of the major reasons why I couldn’t bring myself to vote in this election was Mrs May herself. Aside from her woeful track record as Home Secretary, in which she clamped down on valuable freedoms, ravaged police budgets and botched spectacularly her efforts to get immigration under control, this election has exposed clearly her inability to lead.

Her advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, have rightly taken some of the criticism, but the buck will fall with the Prime Minister. And so it should. This Tory campaign was one of the worst in history. So bad, in fact, that it let an IRA-sympathising Marxist come close to Number 10. Let that sink in for just a moment.

There are many reasons why May’s campaign backfired so dramatically. One factor was a Lynton Crosby decision to make it all about their leader. It was Team Theresa, in which every vote for her strengthened her bargaining power in negotiations with the European Union.

Campaign strategy was personalised in this way in order to frame political debate in terms of the ‘strong and stable’ (ha) May and her opponent, the hapless, scruffy Jeremy Corbyn, knee-deep in attacks from his own parliamentary party and likely to require some sort of coalition in order to get into government.

It was a strategy that pitted the strong against the weak, the stable against the chaotic, and it made sense when coupled with early, convincing polling leads of up to 21 points. But there soon developed a problem. Mrs May is a very wooden and uninspiring performer, especially when put under pressure by opponents and journalists.

There were countless times during the campaign in which she blatantly avoided simple questions, and thanks largely to horrid gaffes from senior Labour figures like Diane Abbott, she was allowed to get away with them more or less unscathed. Perhaps this was the real reason she didn’t take part in either leader’s debate, forgettable and nauseatingly stage-managed as they are.

The Prime Minister knew that she would not perform at all credibly. But, regardless of the motive not to show up, there was revealed a fetid hypocrisy. Any strong and stable leader would appear at political contests of this kind to defend his or her party interests. May’s back peddling revealed fatal flaws in the Tory campaign message. It was here that things really started to unravel.

Compounding upon her oratory weaknesses was her profound lack of direction. Mrs May, ironically compared with Margaret Thatcher as her Prime Ministerial tenure began, got herself caught up in sticky, unnecessary U-turns both before and during the election.

We were told that there would be no snap General Election. We were then told that the National Insurance contributions of self-employed workers would not be raised. Then there was the debacle with social care, which was soon climbed down from for fear of alienating that vital pensioner vote.

I am sure the government is in far too weak a position to even consider pursuing it now anyway. By the time the policy is revisited, it is quite possible that Mrs May will be sitting on her couch in Maidenhead, relieved of her duties and wondering why she ever bothered to call an impromptu election in the first place.

Then came the manifesto; one of the most vacuous in modern history. In many ways it was similar to Ed Miliband’s in how lacklustre and minimal it was. It didn’t feel conservative, it felt rushed and lacking in adequate preparation. This may have been because Tory party advisers were expecting a comfortable majority whatever was written.

The Labour Party manifesto, on the other hand, was very impressive. And I am not saying that I agreed with its policy proposals. I have, for instance, spoken out against plans to scrap tuition fees and maintain that zero hours contracts have uses for a range of different people.

Labour’s manifesto was substantially more radical and included policies which retain popular support across much of the country, including amongst Tory voters. A good example of this would be renationalisation of the railways, which a recent YouGov poll (May 17th) revealed majority cross-party support for.

The latter years of the neoliberal period have been defined predominantly by financial collapse. The crash in 2008 sparked a new wave of deep mistrust of markets, but no party prior to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour had managed to tap into that sentiment.

In this regard, I think the decision (accidental or otherwise) to leak a portion of the Labour manifesto in advance of the other parties was a wise one. Much like with Vote Leave’s use of the £350m figure during last year’s referendum, wide condemnation of Mr Corbyn’s Left-wing policies in the media backfired.

Finally, where May’s Tories spent time fire fighting with its core vote over plans to reform social care funding, the Labour Party managed to arouse younger voters and incentivise one of the surprise turnouts in recent electoral history. The great generational voting divide has opened up once more.

This blog post has been abnormally complimentary about Labour, and this is because I think they deserve great credit. I do, though, put their tally of 262 seats down mainly to Theresa May’s useless leadership and the influence of the Remain vote, seen most glaringly in pockets of London that remained blue for decades.

Labour’s radicalism was daring and paid off, but Kensington certainly didn’t become turn red in one dramatic election over plans to renationalise the National Grid. Moves towards a softer Brexit were undoubtedly made in these areas. Battersea, too, was a surprise gain for Corbyn and his team.

Despite picking up 43 percent of the vote share, Theresa May looks weaker than any Prime Minister in recent memory. There is no way she can stay in the long-term. Minority governments are rare precisely because they are a recipe for instability.

Even the Tories’ new partners, the Democratic Unionists, have differences of their own to iron out. Perhaps people will now start to realise what social conservatism really looks like.

And what really displeased me was how unreflective her speech was of the nation’s verdict on Friday morning. She had to save face, of course, but her podium address outside Number 10 Downing Street reeked of ignorance and arrogance. It is no wonder many of her Conservative colleagues now despise her.

 


Final thoughts on voting, non-voters and elections before results are finalised

A few weeks ago I decided, against the advice of friends and family, not to vote at this General Election and I managed to stick to that vow. I have written at this blog about my reasons for abstaining, but to summarise, I mistrust both major parties and their leaders, the election was called to allow the Tories to extend their lead over weakened opposition and I live in a safe, Leave-voting seat extremely unlikely to be toppled by Labour.

Obviously, a part of me wanted to take part. My polling station is but a five-minute walk from my home. The polling card I was sent on Tuesday is still leaning against my television as I type, almost guilt-tripping me into feelings of wrongdoing. But in good conscience, I did not wish to. There is something very slavish about the voting process that is especially magnified when one lacks enthusiasm for all of the available, balloted candidates.

As a non-voter at this election, I wanted to rebut three of the more ludicrous claims that have been made, particularly today, about the vote. They are certain clichés that are recycled every polling day, but that nonetheless linger despite being so profoundly false. I then want to slip in a few final thoughts about improving elections, turnout and predictions ahead of tonight’s result. I should note that this blog has been written partly before and partly after the emergence of tonight’s exit poll.

Non-voters surrender their right to complain

Of all the nonsensical remarks made by the sad individuals who spend polling day pressuring others to vote, none is more irritating and wrong than the argument that non-voters cannot complain about their future political environment or public policy.

The first reason for this is that voting is not by any means the only way to express your views or mobilise politically. In fact, for large portions of the country living in safe seats, it is scarcely a way. Other, very good avenues through which a person can become active and influence the political landscape might be through think tanks, research, trade unions or protest.

Can we really say that a highly active political person, who falls outside the traditional spectrum and thus does not support establishment parties, does not have a right to complain despite engagement in other relentless forms of campaigning and activism? Furthermore, this cliché ignores the reverse: that the reason many do not vote is precisely because they have no party to vote for. Are these people not entitled to a moan? There are plenty of them.

We don’t elect all kinds of bodies and individuals who represent our national institutions. We don’t elect judges, public servants or Lords. Does this mean that, upon their occasional incompetence, we are not allowed to deride and moan about them? I fail to see how the absence of a personal vote equates to limits on that individual’s speech.

It is perfectly plausible that complaints from non-voters, especially those with influence such as academics, may actually help in their complaining to form constructive solutions to difficult problems. I would also add that common reasons for not voting have nothing to do with disinterest. Often, health or scheduling issues may conflict with access to a polling station.

I don’t want to set a complaints threshold. I am not going to say: ‘Only taxpayers can moan about flaws in public policy’, because I think children have the right to moan about injustices and failures at school and in their local communities. The truth is that targeting non-voters (who may live in seats rendering their votes unworthy of effort) as individuals who need to be silenced instead of contributing to debate is a very flawed idea indeed.

Britain fought wars to defend the right to vote

Can anybody name a war in which British troops were explicitly fighting to defend the right to vote? I certainly can’t think of one. A quick examination of any of our country’s more notable conflicts over the last century or more will induce the sensible to conclude that votes were no factor in our military pursuits. Brave men and women have always fought, and continue to fight, for liberty and to resist unjust oppression. These are the necessary motives for war, not protecting or winning any kind of vote. I am not sure why people constantly spread lies like this.

If by ‘war’ we mean suffrage, then that is at least more accurate, if a little misleading. Men in the early 1900s (whose suffrage is always mysteriously forgotten) and women in the late 1920s did indeed fight for the vote, but through domestic mobilisation and pressurising of political institutions. Certainly not on any battlefield.

Abstaining is unjust as other countries do not have the vote

Many countries, it is true, do not have public elections, but it is important that we clarify what we mean by countries that ‘do not have the vote’. The United States, for instance, holds quadrennial elections that the public are able to vote in, but does not constitutionally enshrine any explicit right to vote.

There are also countries in which voting is mandatory, such as Egypt, Lebanon and North Korea. Regardless of the appeal (or lack thereof) of candidates, or of the views of individuals, citizens are legally obliged to cast a ballot every few years. Furthermore, there exist countries that hold elections at municipal and not national levels, or in tier-based systems. Saudi Arabia and China are good examples of countries that operate these respective systems.

But I do not see why the existence of less democratically organised countries provides any moral reflection of abstentionism in countries that do allow their citizens to vote. It is not our business to decide upon the running of other countries as much as we would appreciate not allowing the influences of others dominate the way we govern our own. If citizens in oppressive regimes demand more voting rights, then those opportunities must be fought for at the bequest and approval of the affected population.

If we look for a moment in countries that restrict voting participation or refuse to hold elections altogether, we notice that these practices go on in un-free countries. I would ask the voting zealots to remember that as well as craving votes, many citizens in these countries would also appreciate the freedom not to vote (and hence legitimise the leaders that they despise).

Spoiled ballots ‘None of the above’ option

Why do people spoil their ballot papers? It is the most ridiculous waste of time and I have never understood why folk bother doing it. I was actually informed by a colleague this week that standing candidates are actually shown and read all spoiled ballots, which I found quite amusing (though I didn’t independently verify that it was true).

One interesting idea that I do think people should pay more attention to, though, is that of a ‘none of the above’ option on electoral ballot papers. I believe that if enough of the electorate opted for such an option, say 25% of voters, then an election ought to be declared void and is re-started with new leaders and new manifestos. I do not know if such an idea would cause massive political instability, but it would certainly provide shelter for the disillusioned.

The youth and voter turnout

Last night, I put a bet on with Ladbrokes that voter turnout would fall between 60-65%. I still imagine that this is the case, as I think that post-referendum fatigue may have caused many people to stay at home and not both today. ‘Brenda’, infamously interviewed by the BBC outside her house a few weeks back, captured this mood excellently by asking: “Why are they asking us again, can’t they just get on with it?”

Public figures, usually trendy liberal lefties and rich celebrities, once again tried their best to rally the young at this election. Their mannerisms are often so patronising. I wouldn’t mind so much if these people were honest, and openly asked youngsters to cast a vote for the Labour Party. That would at least be a little more sincere. The young may have turned up in surprising numbers today but it will be a while before we have any evidence. I suspect youth turnout was, as is customary, proportionally low.

The freedom not to vote and marginalisation

It is worth remembering that the freedom not to vote is very important. It was not protected by any of the nation’s wars, but it remains a useful method of political protest. The freedom not to vote is imperative purely because it allows members of the public to refrain from voting in instances where all balloted candidates propose policies and espouse views that they personally disapprove of.

I am actually developing a rapid dislike for the term ‘marginalised’. It is overused in political discourse. But, for social and moral conservatives such as myself, as well as other narrowing sects of the population, marginalisation is something we are experiencing. And I see no end to it.

Many who do not vote choose not to because they feel that in doing so, they would be fuelling a consensus or knot of parties with whom they have fundamental disagreements; thus bringing upon themselves further disenfranchisement. In this regard, not voting can be just as powerful and as telling as voting.

 


Jump on the May bandwagon? Count me out

The more I think about it, the more I respect the Tory campaigning strategy ahead of this General Election. The Prime Minister and her advisors have succeeded in making this campaign all about her. It’s all about her, ‘Team Theresa’, where every vote for her strengthens her hand in negotiations with the European Union.

It is, of course, a false trail. Our negotiations with the other EU states will depend largely on their mobilisation, not ours. I say I respect the personality tactic because it is effective in highlighting Jeremy Corbyn’s glaring leadership weaknesses. It pits ‘Strong and Stable’ May (she is anything but) against the hapless Labour leader. This point was made rather well by my friend Charlie Peters on Sky News this morning.

Well, I for one will not be jumping on the May bandwagon anytime soon. She is not the visionary architect of the new, third era in post-war British politics. I am particularly disturbed by the artificial and vacuous term ‘Mayism’, which as the Prime Minister rightly pointed out, is not actually a thing. Mayism is in fact the name that has been donated to the political changes forced by massive swings in public opinion over the last few years.

These changes are characterised primarily by distinct mistrust in markets and disillusionment with neoliberal capitalism (fuelled predominantly by the 2008 financial crash) and Left wing social projects like mass immigration and multiculturalism. Latching on to these sentiments, Mrs May is, if anything, an opportunist.

She is not the driver of anything. In many ways, she is in an unfortunate, subordinated position. She is seeking election on a premise that she fundamentally disagrees with, will no doubt find herself at the mercy of other European leaders and unprecedented Tory polling leads mean that she can only hope to decrease the population’s margin of support for the Conservative Party. Her legacy will not sound or look anything like the one she envisaged when she entered the political arena back in the 1990s.

And if we look, the process is already under way. Her proposed changes to the funding of social care are already frightening many pensioners into abandoning the blue corner in favour of the red one. You can hardly blame them. May has for some time appeared strikingly untrustworthy, showcased by several U-turns (which are neither strong nor stable) and her abysmal track record on issues like immigration and personal liberties.

Immigration stands as the largest blemish on her political record. She echoed conservative sentiments against mass migration at Conservative Party conference a couple of years ago, which prompted quite a backlash, but didn’t even try to do anything reasonable about it in government, refusing even to campaign for a Leave vote during the referendum campaign. May is not interested in sovereignty. But, now that she has the chance, she does want to be the Prime Minister that manages to drastically cut net migration figures (though this will more difficult to achieve than most expect).

She is a renowned opponent of free speech and has a dark authoritarian streak within her. Spiked have produced some useful compendiums of some of her political interferences with freedom of expression both here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/theresa-may-the-new-prime-minister-grave-threat-to-freedom/18547#.WSL_Xuvyvcs and here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/dont-look-to-theresa-may-to-defend-freedom/19602#.WSL_8uvyvcs, detailing her barring of citizens she deemed ‘not conducive to the public good’ and providing Ofcom with powers to block any TV content it considered ‘extreme’.

This is without mentioning her overseeing of the Investigatory Powers Bill, which received Royal Assent last November and threatens our online privacy, and Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which stands to regulate the British press through an independent body known as Impress and would no doubt have been passed by both Houses had a snap General Election not been called.

Her record as Home Secretary was also marred by her disgraceful treatment of police forces, which have been shredded beyond belief by needless austerity measures during a period that has seen massive population growth. (I wrote on this some months ago; the statistics on frontline police numbers in England and Wales alone are nothing short of remarkable: https://norgroveblog.com/2016/10/04/heres-what-really-ought-to-be-in-hammonds-autumn-statement/)

At the time, she tried to defend a policy of deep cuts by suggesting that more could be done with less, and that since crime statistics (which are hard to analyse due to changes in police action and thresholds for prosecution) were falling, more police officers were not needed. But since crime is an iceberg issue, this argument is fatuous. Lower recorded crime does not necessarily mean less crime. If there is a lower police presence on the streets, correspondingly less crime will be seen and dealt with.

Her political blunders over the years only further dispel the myth that she represents strength and stability in government. In her 10 months as Prime Minister, she has U-turned on a number of significant issues, like a rise in National Insurance contributions for self-employed workers and the holding of a snap General Election. If Mrs May has shown anything in her premiership so far, it is that we ought not to take her word for very much.

I have decided not to participate in this election, other than through this blog as an independent. I shan’t be campaigning for any party and will not cast a ballot either. Politics for me will resume once the country has parted ways with the European Union.

 

 


Reflections on railway renationalisation and a Tory Brexit

My apologies, firstly, to readers for the general inactivity at the blog since the middle of April. This has been down to juggling work at a new job and the completion of my journalism dissertation, which I submitted on Thursday evening.

My hope is to achieve the 2.1 that will allow me to continue my studies into Masters level, with my eyes currently set upon an MSc at Royal Holloway in ‘Campaigns, Elections and Democracy’. I should now hope to return here frequently for the foreseeable future.

In my absence, this year’s General Election has gotten under way. A portion of the Labour Party’s manifesto has been leaked, and thanks to pledges to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and energy sector, has been described as taking the UK ‘back to the 1970s’.

It may be worth remembering for a moment that Germany, a modern and well-run country, operates nationalised rail and worker-run energy co-operatives. Northern Ireland, too, (incidentally a part of the UK) retains public control of its rail system.

For the record, I don’t support renationalising Britain’s energy sector, but local, energy co-operatives, similar to those that exist on the continent do not sound like such a bad idea. I do admit to succumbing to the appeal of democratic ownership of utilities and co-operative privatisation (worker control of industry) of Royal Mail may be popular amongst postmen and women.

As far as our railways go, the ongoing debate around public and private ownership would seem to me to be a secondary issue. The primary issue is upgrading infrastructure and investment, and cancelling the vast amounts of money we seem keen to spend on vanity projects like HS2, which stands only to increase London’s workforce and damage the rural environment of the midlands. Any strong government ought to, by now, have scrapped such madness.

Britain’s rail infrastructure is predominantly Victorian and not entirely electrified, much to our national embarrassment. The billions put aside for HS2 should be re-directed towards modernising track and signalling, and towards investing in more medium-speed, medium-distance inter-city railway lines. London is too often used as a connecting city for long-distance travellers making their way across the country (and often finding themselves paying extortionate amounts).

The question of who owns rail services is made less important still by the fact that there need not be one single system of ownership, as demonstrated by the state operating of the East Coast mainline until March 2015. Britain’s rail system is not only franchised, it is regionalised, which means that, with very few exceptions, services are all co-ordinated independently of one another. The state can retain ownership of some lines whilst allowing for others to be run privately, depending on factors like performance and quality of service.

Immediate renationalisation would not make the running of rail services particularly cheap. As I have said, it is the cost of maintaining infrastructure, due to its age, that sets the cost of British rail travel above that of the rest of the continent. Upgrades to infrastructure ought to be at the centre of any debate about Britain’s railways and present a far more pressing concern than discussions over ownership.

I will not vote for the Labour Party on June 8th, but the aforementioned leaked manifesto content doesn’t look to me as if it will take us back forty years. This is merely dishonest Tory propaganda, no doubt aided by the incompetence of figures like Diane Abbott, who do nothing but discredit the Left and its labour movement.

Meanwhile, the Tories sit firmly in the driver’s seat of this election. They are rightly standing on a platform of seeing out the Brexit process, but of course, they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Many of them do not support out withdrawal from the European Union and thoroughly resent last summer’s referendum result. My vote for them in June (if I bother or indeed remember) will be more out of obligation than anything else.

I am at least glad that the Liberal Democrat leader this time around is Tim Farron, and not a young and fresh Nick Clegg, who managed to sweet talk the country into voting for him seven years ago. Thanks to Farron’s confusing position as leader of a party with which he has profound moral disagreements, the Lib Dems are not quite the force they could be.

Knowing that I was an adamant leaver, some readers might think that I am relieved the Tories are in poll position to win this General Election. This is not quite so. Something about the party’s (and indeed the Prime Minister’s) track record over the European question is cause for concern in my mind.

A couple of days ago, David Cameron made a comment that sparked some degree of doubt in my mind. He said that Mrs May needs a big majority so that she can “stand up to the people who want an extreme Brexit, either here or in Brussels.” It is a shame that UKIP can no longer muster the strength that it did back in 2014.

UKIP formed the ideal barricade against sentiments of this kind within the Conservative Party. There are many who call themselves conservatives, despite their continued existence that Britain should not govern itself and control its own affairs, who are fanatically supportive of the European project and of ceding parliamentary sovereignty.

When these people (Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan and George Osborne to name a few others) use the expression ‘extreme Brexit’, they demonise the reasonable belief held by large sects of the country, including especially much of the Tory grassroots, that the United Kingdom should control its own trade, borders, lawmaking and judicial process, no matter the difficulties which undoubtedly lie ahead.

Mr Cameron’s comments reminded me that placing complete trust in the Tories and giving them a free hand over such an important issue might not be advisable after all. We’ve heard ‘Theresa May’s hard Brexit’ quite a lot in recent months, but increasingly my fear is that when it is all said and done, Britain will no longer be halfway in the EU. Instead, she may find herself perching halfway out in what will look like an especially embarrassing position.


UKIP will not pose a threat in 2020, but this may be bad for British politics

I now think that UKIP will play no considerable role at the 2020 General Election (provided, of course, that there isn’t one sooner). My conclusion is partly informed by uninspiring quarrels between its senior figures and partly by the result of last year’s referendum, which now seems so far away I can scarcely believe how time has flown.

Notice that I use the word ‘uninspiring’. Of course, squabbles in political parties – despite the fact that they can open up debate – aren’t usually very helpful, but with UKIP, matters are made worse. The party was primarily a one-issue political force, acting as a battering ram and driving home an agenda that had been forgotten or deliberately ignored for far too long.

At present, UKIP lacks purpose and direction. Its primary goal has almost (barring a few late hiccups) been achieved and it must now attach itself to other issues worth pursuing. Indeed, Michael Heaver, Nigel Farage’s former spin doctor, thinks that proportional representation and House of Lords reform are two such issues that the party can use to maintain its foothold in British politics.

This is a false trail. These areas of policy are fringe issues not capable of rallying a significant portion of the electorate. UKIP’s divisions are therefore uninspiring because neither side is offering any credible path towards long-term relevance in the current political climate. Arron Banks, who funded UKIP at the last General Election, claims that Paul Nuttall is week, but the problem is in fact much deeper.

The party has reached its sell-by date, and as the party only ever truly planned for a referendum, it is unsurprising to me that it finds itself a little hollowed out and purposeless afterwards. This is itself causing internal doubt and frustration. Being the leader, Mr Nuttall will find himself in the crosshairs, but truth be told, even Nigel Farage would struggle to keep UKIP on the map.

I do not write this gleefully by any means. I have always been fair to UKIP and stood up for the party when under unjust attack. This is because I believe that its impact on British politics has been largely productive. Its success transcends electoral representative democracy and, perhaps ironically, was aided largely by its very inconvenience to the establishment parties and their pocketed media tycoons.

UKIP’s most profound influence on British politics was to apply serious pressure on the Conservative Party to be conservative; to stop supporting Britain’s ongoing membership of the European Union, to stop imposing on the country unprecedented levels of mass immigration, to strengthen and illuminate the national culture and character. These simple premises had long ago been abandoned by a party that knew that all it had to do was mirror Blairite values and – as the Labour Party was hollowed and left demoralised in the ensuing post-Blair years – it would guarantee electability for years to come.

The Conservative Party knew that it had become New Labour. How could anybody have missed the many glaring parallels between its leader, Mr Cameron, and his now infamous predecessor? The trouble was, so too did many of its members. Its most disgruntled supporters switched their allegiances and opted instead to seek refuge in a growing party that believed and said the things conservatives had been saying vainly for so long. It is no wonder that UKIP became a force in such a short period of time.

Nigel Farage shrewdly spotted a few years ago that if he could only (but correctly) associate mass immigration with EU membership, and raise awareness to a possible referendum, his and his party’s political legacy would be secure. Though what he still does not recognise, to his discredit, is how ineffective the Leave campaign would have been had UKIP been spearheading it during the country’s referendum period. Alas, it no longer matters. Our side won it, all that remains is for departure to be negotiated and executed.

But what of the future of UKIP? I would love for my prediction to fall flat. They have been a useful kick in the backside for the Tories down south and northern Labour who, shamefully, have resisted public opinion (even that of its own voter base) and insisted on fighting – rather than listening to, UKIP. In the run up to the triggering of Article 50, backsliding on Brexit was widely suspected. But come the inevitable collapse of UKIP, a party almost too combustible for its own good, more serious backsliding may be seen.

The Tories, knowing full well that much of conservatism is damage limitation, may not see a battle worth fighting, and we could well see them revert to their old, disingenuous ways, freed of the UKIP-led electoral pressure that so many took for granted.


I am reconsidering my religious position

I have been running this blog for almost two years, and have managed to cover quite a range of subjects. I am extremely pleased with some of the feedback I have received, as well as with my own progress as a writer and as a thinker. The input of readers has been invaluable and I feel like my political acumen has been strengthened immensely.

I have, though, made quite the effort not to talk about my religious views on here. This is because, in truth, for the past weeks and months I have found myself trapped in a dizzying spiral of thought. I have been, for the first time in my 21-year long life, reconsidering atheism’s role in my life and whether to pursue faith.

About a year and a half ago, my politics underwent a notable transformation. I abandoned what I now call my period of default liberalism and found comfort and sincerity in political conservatism. As a teenager, I was apolitical and did not put any real thought towards major issues. By default, like so many youngsters now and then, I held liberal views. It reflected the environment I was brought up in: very secular, very anti-Christian and welded together by an educational and media establishment that espoused liberal sentiment. This is, of course, not to say that young liberals never have strong political acumen and do not think seriously about important issues.

It is not surprising that young people are so easily led to believe that to be atheist and liberal is necessarily the way to think. Most do so innocently, and like my younger self, are not consumed by critical thinking and political awareness. But, growing up, I felt that tendencies towards non-belief were so socially accepted that I needn’t worry about giving religion any independent consideration.

I often wonder if my upbringing had anything to do with subconsciously rejecting religion. My siblings are not religious and my mother, despite occasional querying, has never shown any sign of believing in a higher power. My grandparents, too, sometimes claimed to have Christian belief, but never spoke about Christ and only attended Church for ceremonial events, like funerals and weddings.

Entering my teen years, and becoming fairly academic at school, I developed a level of confidence during religious debate that, if I could go back now, I would find repulsive. The family and schooling environments I was raised in enshrined in me the apparent lack of importance or value that religion has to play in modern society. I thought that religious people were stupid, and being militantly atheist, and non-believers not so. My rejection of religion, after years of ignoring it, soon became rather more deliberate. To me, God didn’t exist and I hated Him.

This is a surprisingly common notion amongst modern atheists, and only now do I realise how silly it is. It might be because so many people view atheism as the last station on the line; that there can’t be anything after it because that is the direction that society has travelled in after so many years of rampant religiosity. Atheists often dismiss religions on the grounds that they privilege faith over reason, but I do not necessarily think that is true.

Often, those who are religious, or those who have converted to a religion from a position of non-belief are those who have paid more thoughtful attention to the universe and the meaning of life. The other day I was struck by this powerful C.S. Lewis quote:

“…and out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

…on the desire of man to fill the void not inhabited by God through other means. It hit me primarily because I feel so detached from those around me; those who subscribe to the described pleasures of hedonism. It is possible that, by pursuing Christianity, I provide my politics with a more solid foundation. Something, if you will, to complete the package.

I used to think that worship was a binary thing; that individuals either worship God or they do not worship. I now realise this is demonstrably untrue. It is in human nature to worship, but it is precisely what we worship that defines (and separates) us. I can see only three options: God, the state and the self. When worship is considered from this perspective, it is much easier to treat it as a more rational characteristic of human behaviour than previously thought. It is possible that God can fill a personal void for me. I won’t worship any state, nor will I worship the individual as do so many liberals around me.

There is a door ahead of me, but one that I am hesitant to open. I don’t know what lies behind it, but increasingly my suspicion is that it is everything that I have been looking for.


Trump’s inauguration and the new American patriotism

Despite the bold claims and fancy soundbites woven into Donald Trump’s inaugural speech earlier this evening, I thoroughly enjoyed most of what he said. I thought that his message, delivered with conviction and characteristic bite, was refreshingly patriotic. The beauty of Trump’s discourse is that it is precisely not what we would ordinarily expect from a senior statesman: politically incorrect, blunt and wildly ambitious.

I was struck, as I always am by these occasions, by the tendency of those on the conservative Right (or at least those pretending, as I suspect Trump could be) to rely heavily on patriotic sentiment in political discourse. Yes, the ceremony symbolises a transition of power and a new chapter for a republic, but there is always something spectacular about effused, Right-wing patriotism.Today’s inauguration certainly had a distinctly patriotic feel to it. The pomp traditionally provided by celebrity performances was ditched and religious propensity played its typically central role.

Trump said poignantly during his speech that “when you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” Perhaps this kind of rhetoric is a tactic that the Right finds useful when it comes to setting a narrative.  I have for a long time considered ‘patriotic correctness’ to be a means of regulating acceptable thought, speech and behaviour by those on the Right, almost certainly a defence mechanism designed to counterweight the more liberal-espoused political correctness. But the best part by far of the new president’s inaugural message came towards the end, as he claimed boldly: “We will bring back our jobs, we will bring back our borders, we will bring back our wealth and we will bring back our dreams.” In one powerful sentence, Trump encapsulated why he had been entrusted with office. It was a beautiful line, displaying his love of country and using it to directly address the concerns of ordinary American people.

It tends to be the case that the political Right, or conservatives, are more openly patriotic than those on the liberal Left. Research on this issue is both abundant and unsurprising. The Pew Research Center show that by and large, ‘steadfast conservatives’ are more likely to believe that the United States of America stands out above all other countries, with only a small minority of ‘solid liberals’ agreeing: http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/26/section-2-views-of-the-nation-the-constitution-and-government/.

A prominent Gallup poll, conducted between 2001 and 2016, showed that while patriotic feeling has stagnated, those most likely to be patriotic are republican voters: http://www.gallup.com/poll/193379/new-low-extremely-proud-americans.aspx, which serves to support the idea that a broad liberal-conservative divide, not by any means perfectly illustrated by voting tendencies, exists when it comes to attitudes towards American patriotism. By July 2016, 68% of Republican voters said that they were proud to be American, compared with just 45% of polled Democrats.

If the new leader of the free world’s combative inaugural address is anything to go by, the exploitation of republican-led patriotic sentiment in America (I strongly suspect Trump’s voter base included many democratic defectors, too) might well be what we end up calling Trumpism. It probably has something to do with how the president connects with people. Simple language, bold optimism and evocative expressions of personality are exotic traits in modern politics, used sparingly and often by those attempting to present themselves as ‘anti-establishment’.

The imagery, too, was remarkable as Trump stood up in front of a White House teaming with establishment figures. Four former presidents sat nervously behind him as he delivered a punchy pledge to unite Americans, reminding them of the privileges they are to enjoy over those he referred to as “outsiders”. This does not mean that the new American patriotism is rooted in xenophobic prejudice or snobbish majoritarian entitlement. Rather, it is a rallying cry against the very mechanisms that have left a large chunk of the population feeling marginalised. In many ways, Trump’s presidency marks the first true test for populism in the modern era. Since Marine Le Pen must wait until May to be elected and Brexit has not yet happened, the next few months will serve as a useful appetiser for those who have spent the last year or so riding populist waves.

 

 


Weighing in on the grammar school debate

I thought I’d weigh in with a few thoughts on the ongoing (and frankly rather dull) grammar school debate that has attracted quite a lot of attention in recent days. It is an argument which is often dragged to the foreground, despite a far greater problem within education looming behind it. If we are to talk about this issue sensibly, I feel a sense of perspective must be established and the possibility of real educational reform proposed.

We are told ceaselessly by the leftist egalitarians that to select by academic merit is wrong. They will often claim that comprehensives are the ideal barricade to private school dominance, despite their obvious failures, that existing grammar schools (a pathetic crop of besieged, unrepresentative institutions) are stuffed full of middle class kids and that by attending grammar schools, many children will subsequently lose out on the opportunity to mix with a vast cross-section of society.

Some of these arguments are better than others. Writing as a former grammar student (I went to a bilateral school in south east London; half academy and half grammar), I am not convinced that grammar streams overproduce a certain type of student, ethnically or socio-economically. Britain is a diverse country, and grammar schools are themselves becoming increasingly socially mixed. I understand the many concerns that people have over the reinstatement of new grammar schools, but grammar education was able to pull me, a poorer, working class student, up the ladder and provide me with the necessary tools to progress.

But here lies the interesting question. Why are so many of us worrying about the possible reintroduction of a few more state grammar schools whilst, at the same time, not paying any attention whatsoever to the extensive selection that already exists throughout our society? Children (from the very beginning of their schooling, but particularly around the age of 11) are streamed according to their postcode, religious upbringing and parental income up and down the country, but do we ever hear fuss from the grammar school abolitionists? No. They are silent about it and do not ever attempt to discuss it.

Paul Mason, one of Britain’s more respectable Left-wing commentators, wrote a very intelligent piece in ‘The Guardian’ on Monday, which can be read here:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/08/grammar-schools-arent-fit-for-the-world-of-the-future

…in which he argues that ‘their [grammar schools] aim is to reimpose a social divide entirely at odds with technological change’, the kind of change that is taking the jobs market by storm. He writes that ‘the divide in the 21st-century economy will be between tasks you need a human for and those you don’t’, and that ‘what we need, instead of selection, is to set education free’.

His final sentence hits the nail on the head. Freedom is exactly what Britain’s education system needs, though I expect Mr Mason and I have very different takes on just how to bring freedom about. A national grammar system, rather than a fragmented system furnished with as little as 163 academically-selective schools, could well be a step up from the current structure, but a system I’d like to see implemented would be infinitely more efficient.

A full blown voucher system.

Also advocated by the libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, a full blown voucher system would be similar to (though, crucially, not the same as) voucher-based, privatised systems already underway in countries such as Chile, Sweden and Hong Kong. Voucher systems are usually introduced to promote school choice, rigorous competition and involve the subsidising of the consumer, rather than (as is currently the case) the producer.

In Sweden, where around 12% of students are recipients of school vouchers, the scheme has produced generally positive results. In an article for ‘Forbes’, Adam Ozimek wrote that

“another important factor is that for each student that attends an independent school, the school received an amount equal to a large majority of the average per-pupil cost of the students public school system, and this is paid by the student’s municipality. This means that the resources available to the local public school are decreased as more students choose independent schools. This increases the competitive pressure, which the results suggest is an important determinant of improving outcomes”.

The suggestion that schools can compete in their current format in Britain is pure fantasy. During his run as Education Secretary, Michael Gove dabbled with the introduction of school vouchers, but it remains to be said that only a tiny proportion of students have actually had any meaningful access to them. Within education, the taxpayer can either subsidise the producer (schools), or he can subsidise the consumer (parents with children). At the moment, we subsidise the producer, which has lead to mass bureaucratisation, a lot of money wasted and a generally sub-standard system of education. In short, if the government is to hold its monopoly on the creation, resourcing and funding of schools, then we cannot realistically expect schools to compete, as funds provided are pegged with the school’s size, location and need.

In this context, then, there is a strong argument for the return of a national grammar school system (as was the case pre-1965, when more than 1,300 grammar schools existed in Britain, compared with just 163 today and laws preventing more from being established). If we maintain that governmental administration of schools is the best way forward, bearing in mind the three, rampant selection processes that I outlined earlier in this blog, then we must allow for bright young children, many of whom will come from poorer backgrounds, to slide into better-performing selective schools, just as we did for those politicians (Harold Wilson comes to mind) who decided to pull up the ladder behind them in the mid 1960s.

Our current Prime Minister herself benefitted from a selective, grammar school education. I hope that her posturing over the re-introduction in many parts of the country of selection-by-academic merit isn’t merely an attempt at appearing conservative. My educational utopia doesn’t look set to be introduced any time soon, and as private school dominance continues to usurp the rest of society, Britain desperately needs to re-think its strategy on education. Ideally, handing over all schools to the free market and introducing tuition fee-pegged vouchers to parents who cannot afford private schooling for their children would make for the freest, most competitive structure, but if taxpayers’ money is not rerouted, and we continue with the state-funding of schools, then I hope Mrs May acts on her conservative instincts and decides to bring back those 1,000 grammar schools, lost in the winds of egalitarian dogma.