Auto-liberals, Corbynistas and modernity #2

This near-2000 word posting is a sort of appendix to Auto-liberals, Corbynistas and modernity #1.

It is designed to colour-in some of the necessary historical and philosophical background to the way modern Auto-liberals and their Bossy Liberalism fit into and cut across long-running assumptions.

1: Some contemporary political history
2: Unpicking J S Mill’s Religion of Humanity
for our time

1: Some contemporary political history
The first few sections below are a primer on the fractures and challenges of modern politics.

The old political matrices
Most political discussion has for at least 100 years assumed that the Conservative and Labour parties corral and encapsulate right and left, upper and lower class, rich and poor, managers and workers. Even age came into it, with the young tending toward Labour and the mature toward Tory (the new under 50s are not following the latter part of that process as they used to). These patterns are breaking down. The stereotypes were always over-simplifications, or caricatures.

But political and cultural discussions have another dividing line: let’s call it that between illiberal and liberal. This provides a matrix which has for years often been overlain on the political division between right and left. Roughly speaking, the left accused the Tories of being illiberal and the Tories, well, they sometimes seemed to accept that they weren’t liberal, sometimes more or less accepted that Labour were – and then wondered whether that was praise or condemnation. The idea that Tories might be liberal appealed to some of their own number, but in complicated ways. The economic right of the Tories, for instance, sort of accepted that they were comfortable with the neo-Liberal label; and the economic left of the party were on several matters what came to be called Wet. Nowadays, it is more obvious than ever that there are socially tolerant, or permissive, Tories. But the Auto-liberals never seem to spot the varieties of liberalism lurking in these Conservatives.

Reframing these matters is made easier if we accept that there are many curiosities in political life. For example, Mrs Thatcher was over-regarded by almost all parties (and Parties) as a right-winger on economics, and especially on tax-and-spend; she was actually pretty pragmatic and kept rather more Macmillanism in place than she would have liked. But she was a special sort of Tory: unlike some of her heartlands, and a little like some of the Tory grandees she disliked, this lower middle class woman, no curtain-twitcher, was not overly concerned by the permissiveness of the age. (Though she drew the line at what she thought was school propaganda for homosexuality). Nonetheless, she is rightly remembered for making capitalism and property ownership respectable across all the classes. It is important to remember that her idea of an  entrepreneurial working class was a shock to nearly all of society. White Van Man was born.

Tony Blair, the most extraordinary chameleon, accepted very much of economic Thatcherism (and even more accepted the muted Toryism of John Major). The Labour party never forgave these betrayals, though many long-term and almost all first-time Labour voters did. As elusive of real definition as Thatcher herself, and as peculiarly charismatic, Blair left a further, indelible impression: he seemed to preside over a country in which liberal social attitudes had become really quite normal across all classes. (He even attempted to modernise his party’s “liberalism”: he wanted to bring social order back to the young on the country’s working class estates.) The Big Picture upshot of the Thatcher/Blair years was a double-whammy from modern politicians to old assumptions: the country was thrust blinking into new territory. Old political allegiances had been shattered.

The old cross-dressing
There had always been people prepared to ignore what were widely assumed to be their class and political allegiances. Many working class people believed that the Tories understood the economy and jobs-creation. Such voters may have worried that socialism was not practical, and may have thought it was unattractive too. Many middle class people almost guiltily believed that they should vote for the tax-and-spend which make society kinder. And then there were what we might call snobberies: some, often traditional, working class people liked to be associated with the middle or upper classes; and some middle and upper class people rather disapproved of their own kind – especially their selfishness – and fancied reaching beyond them. (We see another variety of that downward longing in the middle class male aspiring to be at one with the populism of the football terrace.) Those complications are real enough, and can be enriched by adding that social values differed on several other grounds. Many working class people agreed with others right across the spectrum that the welfare state led to welfare dependency, which produced bad effects amongst both the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Such working class people may or may not have thought that the various elements of “family, faith and flag” (and why not add “field”, to cover rural issues?) were safer under the Tories. Many middle and upper class people disagreed with most of that.

And the new uncertainties
This is a bad time to be hidebound. There are new uncertainties, and no shelter from them. Globalisation and IT produce weird new perspectives on capitalism and socialism alike, but also on all the other matrices and spectrums of political and ethical discussion. A country which has known over 70 years of a welfare state has disagreements about its efficacy which are no longer merely theoretical. A country which has swapped Empire for 70 years of immigration from the former-Empire now has “natives” of many sorts, all of whom know things which Enoch Powell’s fans or those who hated him, again, could only imagine. Britain and Continental Europe face Brexit, which is just one version of the challenge faced, alike, by old-fashioned patriots or fans of the new-fangled European Empire. No-one actually knows whether modern international, and intra-national inequality matters very much, or what to do about it, especially if one believes that the main, definite, problem is the multiple poverties of the modern relatively poor (whose material standards of life are, for most of them, much improved over those of past generations) . Only committed socialists are sure that more spending on welfare will definitely benefit the disadvantaged in society. More and more people of every stamp, except the committed socialist, might accept now that to be “disadvantaged” is not necessarily to have been denied opportunities, but to have been for some reason unwilling to respond to the offer. Perhaps tough love has merit over the automatic preference for tenderness. We feel moderately confident that the British are dangerously under-educated at almost every level of society, and even more so at the bottom than the top.

Will parents get behind schools as standards are wrenched upwards? Can teachers rid themselves of the child-centred mantras they have liked for half a century? If we had a more motivated, more numerate and literate working class, would that be enough to make a Rhine model of labour relations work here? Or might we achieve a wide understanding that the greatest security is in a vibrant, not a socially-orientated, economy? Will we move beyond old models of tax-and-spend welfare provision, free at the point of use? They look very shaky, even in terms of social justice, but it is not easy to find the way ahead which reconciles pragmatism, compassion and social solidarity.

Mrs May achieved great success for her party’s voter-share in 2017, but did so with a complicated political offer whose presentation was mangled. She was well on her way to getting the Conservatives past deserving the Nasty Party label she identified years ago. But she was probably nowhere near doing so in a way which would have won over the auto-Liberals, who were seduced by the Corbyn team’s brilliant opportunism. Hell, Jeremy Corbybn’s record of unwavering support for wrong-headedness struck a chord with them: it seemed like charming grandfatherly constancy and idealism.

2: Unpicking J S Mill’s Religion of Humanity for our time
Vernon Bogdanor said on Sky just before the 2017 election that it was an important characteristic of modern politics that the voters’ attitudes mattered as much – more, maybe – than ideology, or class.

Much more than a reading of history or of policy, Auto-liberalism is an attitude: it is inherently powerful because embedded deeply in the conscious and subconscious of its adherents. It is capable of delusional politics because it isn’t interested in practicalities, pragmatism or compromise. It is in some respects a religion, whose prophets and martyrs include John Lennon, Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, David Bowie. Jeremy Corbyn seems to walk in these footsteps; even to appear to be their political manifestation.

Reading Maurice Cowling on J S Mill’s liberalism is instructive. In a nutshell, Cowling points out that Mill wanted to replace what he thought was a failing Christian religion with a new Religion of Humanity, in which a high-minded, educated elite would win over the thinking and feeling support of the masses. Mill thought that faith and habit were important, even in a secular world. So, the Auto-liberals tick that box. Mill was keen on real pluralism, including political diversity.  The Auto-liberals have no sense of that. He also wanted a homogeneity of  educated high-mindedness. The Auto-liberals in their half-baked way rather agree. But they don’t see that Mill’s pluralism and his longing for homogeneity were fatally conflicted. Nor do they know or care, of course, that loving racial and gender diversity (and thinking about very little else) would probably not have satisfied Mill’s demand for high-mindedness.

Nor did Mill notice – how could he think so mad, sad and bad a thing could happen? – that universities would abandon any real hope of being high-minded or intellectually challenging. He could not have imagined the huge success, but also the backfire, of a liberalism which would produce an academy intellectually and pastorally committed to closed minds and bullying intolerance of differing opinions.

In short, my case is that the Auto-liberalism of the soft-left Green graduate is indeed a Religion of Humanity, but it has turned its back on the idea of pluralism of thought and policy.

Just as the political parties are accommodating themselves to many of the new fault lines and factions in politics, sociology, economics and culture, a considerable body of people under 50 or so have flocked to a quite-hard left position which is as old-hat as Benn, old-Kinnock, even – goodness – Militant.

The new graduate Auto-liberals are delusionist on several levels. They deny that the Conservatives and New Labour may have been quite realistic and decent. They deny that globalisation is a fact of life, unlikely to be avoidable by single countries or trading blocks. They deny that welfare may not need to be delivered by the state. They deny that high taxation even of the well-off may be counter-productive. They deny that Conservatives may be decent, and even tender and warm-hearted; and that tough love may be appropriate. These questions have several possible answers, and it is delusional to deny that the Conservatives and New Labour, in their different ways, did try to answer them.

So my case is that Auto-liberals are bad liberals because they do not properly challenge themselves with the duties of pluralistic thought and policy; and they are delusional because they refuse to challenge themselves with the modern realities they ought to see around them and in the recent political history of their country.


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Publication date

05 June 2017