Explaining the rightward drift

Austerity alone can't account for today's harsher and more individualistic attitudes.

As the NS's George Eaton notes, the latest British Social Attitudes survey -- which reveals increasingly negative attitudes towards benefit claimants and a decreasing support for higher taxes, green policies and redistribution -- makes grim reading for progressives. For Janet Daley, on the other hand, the news is cheering evidence that the centre ground of British politics is "a movable feast" and has moved firmly to the right.

I can't say I am surprised by the findings. But I don't think that the harsher public mood can properly be explained either by the chill winds of austerity freezing up the marrow of compassion or by Daley's preferred answer, "that the theory of public spending as the cure for all social evils has been tested to destruction". The change runs much deeper and has been evident for many years. And while it has created a new problem for the political left, the left rode the wave successfully for more than a decade.

Embracing and even promoting a discourse increasingly hostile towards society's losers and outsiders was a big part of New Labour's electoral strategy. It was Harriet Harman who reduced benefits for single mothers, Jack Straw who removed ancient legal protections for under 14-year-olds accused of serious crimes, and a succession of Labour home secretaries who presided over a doubling of the prison population. It was Labour, not the evil Tories, whose tellingly re-named Department of Work and Pensions introduced tough, contracted-out tests for incapacity benefit claimants.

The Thatcher government of the 1980s may have talked tough but its policies, by today's standards, were at times absurdly soft-hearted. Benefit claimants were indulged, students enjoyed a free education (and grants!), the prime minister herself ruminated on the impossibility of ever privatising the Royal Mail. But that's not because Maggie and Co were closet Lefties, of course. It just goes to show how far the centre of political gravity has indeed shifted during the past three decades.

It's paradoxical, to say the least, that while welfare spending has declined as a percentage of GDP over the past three decades (even while other types of government expenditure rapidly increased under Labour), resentment of welfare claimants has hugely risen.

This can't all be result of political rhetoric. Not unless you assume that the public are uncontemplative and sheeplike, meekly absorbing messages beamed at them by politicians. New Labour wouldn't have tacked so firmly to the right were it not for the fact -- revealed by opinion polls and focus groups -- that such policies and language were popular. Here are some other factors I think may be relevant:

1) The media. Newspapers such as the Mail have painted a persistent picture of work-shy benefit scroungers, typically immigrants, typically living in a four-bedroom council house with the latest in flatscreen TVs, typically claiming incapacity benefit while playing basketball or moonlighting as an exotic dancer. The stereotypes thus created undoubtedly helped to produce an atmosphere of hostility to welfare recipients. Even so, without an undertow of pre-existing public suspicion, the Mail's reports would have had less purchase. As with political rhetoric, the role of the press raises a difficult chicken-and-egg problem.

But it's hardly surprising that when the allegedly left-leaning BBC screens prime-time documentaries about incapacity benefit cheats, people exaggerate the level of welfare fraud -- to the extent of assuming that most if not all claimants are fraudulent.

2) Increased belief in meritocracy. Actual social mobility has not increased -- on many measures it has been reduced -- but there has been a marked decline in both deference and class-consciousness, and a convergence upwards of educational opportunities. Once there was a precipitous divide between the majority who left school at sixteen with few or not qualifications and a small university-educated elite. Now those who leave school "early" are widely assumed to be failures (who can therefore be assumed to bear responsibility for their reduced life-chances).

Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum that "there is no such thing as society" was widely and wilfully misinterpreted but it did accurately sum up the new individualistic morality: that people make their own luck, and that therefore the situation people found themselves in was to a large extent their own responsibility. If you believe that people's lot in life is largely beyond their control then you may have more sympathy -- and be more willing to support -- those who have fallen on hard times.

3) Less mutual trust and social cohesiveness. Partly this is a consequence of the aforementioned individualism, the growth of single person households and the hollowing-out of traditional communities. But there's also the changing face of the country, the result not only of immigration but of multicultural policies and the emergence of ethnic, religious and even sexual group identities. Because we live in a more "diverse" society people may be less likely to think of their fellow-citizens as people like themselves, and thus more likely to ask themselves, "Why should MY taxes go towards supporting THOSE people?" rather than thinking (as they may once have done), "One day that could be me."

Welfare-friendly societies have usually been fairly cohesive and culturally homogeneous -- like Scandanavia -- while, by contrast, the United States has been (culturally, economically, and geographically) highly diverse. But even the Scandanavian countries are more disparate than they used to be. A notable symptom of this is an increased enthusiasm for welfare cuts.

4) Less religious belief. Today's survey reports a continued decline in levels of religiosity: half the population now claims to have no faith affiliation (and half of those rarely if ever attend services). Younger people are both less religious and have "harsher", more individualistic social attitudes than their elders. While it's dangerous to draw political conclusions from religion (there are, after all, believers of all political persuasions as well as none), faith is positively correlated with feelings of compassion and with lower levels of selfishness. Christians, for example, are encouraged to practise forgiveness. It's striking that a more secular society is also in some ways a harsher and more judgemental one, less willing to overlook past failings or offer second chances. Perhaps it's also more realistic.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.