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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear