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Why #FucktheTories just isn’t good enough
by Mo Lovatt
It was something Nick Clegg said in his resignation speech that got me thinking about this. “One thing is clear,” he said, “liberalism, here, as well as across Europe, is not faring well against the politics of fear.” He went on to say the politics of identity, of nationalism, of “us” versus “them” is on the rise.
Clearly Clegg was invoking the malign spirit of that brutal period in Europe’s history when liberalism stood firm against nationalism. Perhaps it was a coy attempt to say to his supporters, our party’s failure at the polls wasn’t just about a broken election promise on tuition fees, it was, in fact, part of a wider sentiment sweeping the continent.But nonetheless, I think Clegg was on to something.
I’m not about to suggest Farage or Sturgeon are the new Hitlers and Mussolinis of this world, the comparison would be facetious. Besides which, it would be to completely miss the point. This modern, British creature is an entirely different nationalist beast altogether.
What UKIP and the SNP have in common with those fascists of yesteryear is their belief that our “identity” is completely bound up with the nation (be that Scotland or the United Kingdom), that our interests as a nation are more important than the other human beings we share our planet with. But where those old, 1930s-style xenophobes sought to place the people firmly within the body of the State, to glorify the very Nation-State itself, this watered down modern version does no such thing.
Instead it sees the State – or more accurately in the language of this election, “Westminster” – as some distant, impenetrable chamber, distinct from the people, where all the decisions are made. And, if you feel your interests are not being represented there, you jolly well better vote for us so we can stand up for you in some small way within the machinery that is Westminster. It’s hardly a pleb-rousing appeal to glory, prosperity and self-fulfillment through the State. Instead it’s tapping into a fear within the powerless that nobody’s really looking out for them. For the Scots (half of whom voted against Scottish independence) it’s tapping into the fear that the English are better represented in Whitehall; to the average UKIP voter it’s tapping into the fear that the law and the Welfare State are more on the side of the immigrant than them. It’s all so very narrowly focused, pessimistic and, well, State-centred.
Like Clegg who cited the “beguiling appeal” of Scottish Nationalism, I’ve been amazed that so many of my left wing friends now think the SNP is the most progressive party in the UK; that there are calls within the North of England to join Scotland. After all, this is a party that wants to introduce such authoritarian policies as the Named Person Legislation and who, in 2012, introduced the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications’ bill which outlawed the singing of sectarian songs, flag waving and even blessing oneself within the grounds of a football stadium. They’re hardly a party of the people, who support self-expression and self-determination.
The problem with nationalism, in any form, is that it ensures our identity is narrow in focus, it necessarily pits “us” against “them” – it denies our common identity as human beings. At a time when many of us are concerned about environmental issues, when we care about social justice and poverty in a global context, when we know that the combined wealth of the world’s richest 1% is greater than the rest of the population put together, we would be fools to subscribe to the views of a party of nationalism simply because they are more “anti- austerity” than the others. We need to focus on our common humanity. Simply being anti-Tory is not enough.
But where UKIP and the SNP managed to garner loyalty from certain sections of society by appealing to a sense of identity, it has been said that the electorate completely failed to identify with either the Tories or the Labour Party. Those in the new centre ground simply voted for who they thought could best “balance the books”. They weren’t inspired by an idea or a vision for Britain, they were simply choosing the least-shit bunch of middle-managers to keep the wheels turning.
This is hardly surprising given the whole election campaign was focused on what the State can and can’t do for us. From which party can best manage the economy (the new definition of “the economy” being, apparently, the nation’s house-keeping bills), to the way in which we manage and pay for our Welfare State. That’s why for me the real winner of this election wasn’t the Tory Party, or UKIP or the SNP, it was The State.
The problem with this exclusive focus on the State, and the idea that it is some amorphous, distant piece of machinery that governs our lives, is that it entirely diminishes our status as thinking, acting, rational people – as potential agents of social change. We are reduced to a passive “electorate”– people who must look to the State to ensure their rights, their justice and their freedoms. And, more insidiously, we now look to the State to legislate on how we should behave: what we can say, how we bring up our kids, what we can eat and what flag we can wave at a football match.
If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at the government’s list of new legislations. The proliferation of statutory instruments is shocking: 324 in whole of the 1950s, compared to a staggering 17,476 in the five years since the coalition took power in 2010. We have a political class obsessed with legislating other people’s lives. Even the residual elements of Thatcher’s neo-liberals have stopped attempting to roll back the State.
So where is the alternative viewpoint? Who is arguing that people can think for themselves and manage their own lives without this continued proliferation of State interference? Where are the people who believe in our right to self- determination? Where are the people who believe in people? In the position that Sam Harris describes as, “… peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone”?
Perhaps we do need to look across the Atlantic, to Sam Harris and his mates. You only have to watch a couple of episodes of Bill Maher’s popular HBO political talk show, Real Time, to realise there’s a strong, vocal, left-leaning libertarian voice being raised and one that inspires and resonates with people too.
Maher and Harris are part of a school of thought called New Atheism and their brand of libertarianism is entirely focused on the idea that religion should be countered, criticised and opposed by rational argument; the religious right of the Republican Party being a common target.
In the 2007 debate, The Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse, Harris and fellow new atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett discuss their criticisms of religion and advocate critical thinking. Dennett asks why those with religious beliefs deem any challenge on their way of thinking as “offensive”. The implication being that people who are offended by your criticisms are impossible to engage with, they simply recoil into a fetal ball of hurt and sensitivity, your challenge to their belief is rude and insulting.
Dawkins, agreeing that the charge of offensiveness seems to be the preserve of the religious right, wonders how that scale of offence might be measured, compared to the lesser crime of, say, criticising one’s taste in music, one’s football team or one’s politics.
But even eight years ago Dawkins was woefully out of touch. Over the last twenty years in Britain, with the decline of traditional left and right wing thinking, and with the rise of identity politics, it has become increasingly impossible to engage with people’s ideas in a rational, analytical way. This has led to what was arguably one of the most anti-democratic elections in post-war Britain. When discussing genuine political issues with those who don’t agree with us was replaced by tokenistic slogans in 140 characters or a “thumbs up, I voted, I’m one of the good guys,” icon on Facebook.
Criticising someone’s politics in Britain today has become akin to an affront on them as a human being, on their identity. It hurts their feelings.
Following the election result, when I posted something about Labour’s defeat on my Facebook status, a well-respected colleague was upset with me. It seemed insensitive, she said, to pour scorn on their loss, to not allow them time to grieve. I was mortified. After all, no decent human being wants to deliberately hurt someone. But how do we progress, how to find a common understanding and political truth if we can’t challenge, discuss, debate and criticise?
Another post I made came in for equal consternation. How can you post something so negative, my Labour party friend asked? Now is not the time to criticise, now is the time to work out what we stand for and who we represent. Now I’m sorry if this offends people’s sensibilities, but I am going to say it, because I think it’s important: if you don’t know what your political party stands for, or who it represents, then it’s not a political party at all. It’s simply a group of people who want electoral success for its own sake – or more likely, because they don’t want the Tories to have it.
But I didn’t feel alone for long. Soon the right wing press was full of scathing remarks about the arrogance of the left wing Twitterati who had failed to realise that not everyone thinks like them. Within the Labour Party itself there were dissident voices arguing that Labour had lost touch with the people it represents. It has led to a rise in the phenomenon of the “shy Tory” and, many commentators now agree, if you don’t know what people think, how can you challenge or inspire them to think differently?
Yet still the #FucktheTories rhetoric goes on. From the garden centre owner’s sign that went viral, to the “progressives” 16-point plan found on Facebook to abuse and marginalise anyone who voted Tory. Incidentally, at number one on the list, “If you see a Tory, pin a rosette on them so we know who to kick in the street.” What’s next? A purple triangle for UKIP voters, a yellow star for liberal democrats?
Then there was the Oxford Philosophy lecturer who’d chosen to delete all her Tory and UKIP Facebook “friends”, to shield herself from the obnoxious views of right wingers. Well, okay, it’s her free social media time, her private business. But the fact that she chose to share this decision publically in such a boastful way is cause for concern. As someone who teaches philosophy she should know that the History of Western Thought has progressed, not by avoiding those ideas we find deplorable, but by engaging with them. Will she stop teaching Plato, Machiavelli or Nietzsche, simply because many of their ideas could be classed as right wing? Are we to assume Aristotle built his philosophy on thin air? Will she fail to mention that the Conservative Party does have a concept of social justice? From the old-fashioned notion of Noblesse Oblige to the neo- Liberal idea of “trickle down”, there is a concept there. It might not be one we agree with, we may continue to doubt Cameron’s claims to build a “One Nation Conservatism”, but the point is, not everyone does doubt that claim. And we should at least engage with it if we want to posit an alternative concept. We need to open our ears and our minds, we need to think, evaluate, engage, discuss and challenge. And we should do that with a 21st Century head on our shoulders. We can’t stay stuck in the ideas of post-War Britain, we are looking out upon a different landscape. If there is a left it ought to stand for more than increased funding for the NHS and not cutting benefits.
I’m not saying benefits and the NHS are a bad idea –far from it, but it’s the principles underpinning our Welfare State that make them great. The idea that if the system can’t provide people with work, it should be able to provide them with a living, that people in the modern world shouldn’t live in fear of illness, that everyone should be free from exploitation and poverty to pursue his or her own life, to be the best they can be, because we are equal in our humanity.
But we need to look at new and inspiring ways to do these things. What about moving social responsibility back onto the corporate ledgers? If our so-called consumer power is so great, how about making corporations more responsible and responsive to our needs as a society? This may be tantamount to privatisation, but can’t we at least have the discussion, look at alternatives, move outside the old, stagnant paradigm? What about building a different sort of economy all together, a different state – when the machine is so broken, why are we continuing to tinker around the edges, why not invest in a new one?
Okay, perhaps we’re not ready for a socialist revolution just yet. But whilst we continue to buy into the premise that The State is the only mechanism for governing our lives, if we continue to believe that people are selfish, stupid and unkind and therefore need regulating, then we lower our horizons, we curtail our ability to think critically and to radically search for new solutions, and – most importantly – we lose the humanism that should be at the centre of any new, truly progressive thought.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but recognising that I don’t may be the best starting point, because it’s only by engaging with each other that we’ll be able to come up with something new and better. So let’s engage, rather than alienate, the laddish, racist Sun Reader who voted UKIP or the Shy Tory-voting clerk in the patent office - because you never know, he might be a genius.
I recently had a discussion with a couple of friends, Daily Mail readers. I can’t remember what the issue was, probably immigration, almost certainly immigration. I’d got myself tangled up in my arguments, they were leading me down a useless cul-de-sac and I ended up positing something that was complete nonsense. My counterparts pointed out my error and then with a triumphant, “Ha! You lost.” the discussion was over. But I hadn’t lost, I had discovered something new. I wish I hadn’t been deterred by the self-satisfied smirks that greeted me from across the table. I wish the discussion hadn’t ended there. Because, if we’d carried on, we might have all become a little closer to the truth.
Mo Lovatt, The Great Debate
The Great Debate is a not-for-profit community organisation dedicated to maintaining a space for public discussion through courses, day schools, debates and workshops for the general public on topics ranging from Darwinism and human nature, to free speech and environmental thought.
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© Mo Lovatt, 2015