Fingers on buzzwords

The election campaign hasn’t been all surface effects. There’s been a bit of philosophy at times, to

Modern politicians often sound as if they are speaking the same desiccated, drearily technocratic language. That has been true for much of this campaign, but, for all that, there have been some conceptual and rhetorical innovations, and even phrases that appear to be the freshly minted coinage of spin doctors and campaign managers turn out to be made of older metal than we might have expected.

The big society

David Cameron's big idea of the campaign is the "big society". This was launched with some fanfare at the end of March at an event in London, and made it into the Conservative manifesto. Three weeks later, it was being buried by Cameron's colleagues, one of whom said, "We need to turn Oliver Letwin's Hegelian dialectic into voter-friendly stuff." (Letwin, chairman of the Conservative Research Department, has a PhD in philosophy.)
That shadow minister meant to dismiss the idea, but in doing so he revealed a finer appre­ciation of the philosophical antecedents of the "big society" than he might have wanted to admit to. For what Hegel called, in his Philosophy of Right, "civil society" - the stage "which intervenes between the family and the state" - looks very much like the network of voluntary organisations to which the Tories propose to "redistribute power" as they seek to weaken the power of Labour's big state.

Little platoons

There's no reference to Hegel in the Tory manifesto, but there is an allusion to one of the founding fathers of conservative thought, Edmund Burke. The "institutional building blocks of the Big Society", the document reads, "[are] the 'little platoons' of civil society".

“Little platoons" is a phrase that occurs in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the classic expression of conservative scepticism about large-scale attempts to transform society in the image of abstract ideals. The Tories today use it to refer to the local associations that would go to form a "broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation".

The problem is that, for Burke, little platoons weren't groups that you volunteer to join; they were the "social subdivisions" into which you are born - the kind of traditionalism you would have thought Cameron's rebranded "progressive" Conservatives would want to avoid.

Communities

The Conservatives have promised to create an army of "community organisers", an idea with a somewhat less predictable ancestry: it derives from Saul Alinsky, denounced by the ultra-conservative commentator Melanie Phillips as an "extreme" leftist. Alinsky was a formative influence on Barack Obama.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are as enthusiastic as the Conservatives about "communities". In a pamphlet published by the Fabian Society on 26 April, entitled Why the Right Is Wrong, Gordon Brown wrote that "liberty entails . . . engagement in the community, not shutting oneself off in a totally private sphere", a formulation whose debt to the Edwardian "New Liberalism" of L T Hobhouse and J A Hobson Nick Clegg would have recognised.

The communitarian inflection to much of Labour's rhetoric is a reminder, too, of the influence that the German-American social theorist Amitai Etzioni briefly enjoyed in the mid-1990s over Tony Blair.

Fairness

Etzioni's influence is also evident in the new version of Clause Four of Labour's constitution that Tony Blair imposed on the party in 1995, asserting that "the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe". Echoes of Etzioni's idea that "for the ship of state to progress everyone must pull the oars" can be detected in the emphasis that all three party leaders place on "fairness".

Clegg has described fairness as an "essential British value", while Cameron has frequently appealed to notions of "fair play" when invoking ordinary voters who "abide by the rules" and "do the right thing". Brown, in his Fabian pamphlet, also mentions the notion of justice-as-fairness propounded by the great American political philosopher John Rawls.

Rawls thought that the best way to work out what a just society would look like was to imagine a situation he called the "original position", in which people are ignorant of their circumstances and natural or biological endowments. If people don't know how gifted they are or what their social position is, then the distributive arrangements they settle upon won't be distorted in favour of those blessed with advantages that they didn't earn.

Equality

For Rawls, justice entails equality. Each of the three main parties' manifestos mentions the need to promote equality (for Labour, it is a "public duty") or the desirability of reducing inequality (the Lib Dems say that a fair tax system should "redistribute wealth and power to alleviate [its] worst excesses").

Most politicians talk about the need for greater "equality of opportunity", but only Brown has come close to acknowledging that Rawlsian justice requires a conception of equality rather more demanding than pallidly meritocratic bromides about "progressive ends" would suggest. "Equality of opportunity is desirable," he writes, "but it is only fully possible if we embrace fairness of outcome, too."

This may be an acknowledgement of Rawls's point that inequalities of income and wealth reflecting differences of talent or ability cannot be justified. In other words, just because you are more talented than I am, that doesn't mean you deserve greater rewards.

Progressive

Cameron has said many times that reducing inequality is one of the aims of "progressive Conservatism". He and his party remain committed, at least if their manifesto is anything to go by, to meeting the "progressive challenges of our age: making opportunity more equal [and] fighting poverty and inequality". Yet it is not immediately obvious how the Cameroons propose to square their idea of "progressivism" with their professed Burkean conservatism - at least if they are using the language of progress in any but the most banally general sense. (Naturally, it is possible that this is exactly the sense in which they are using it. However, let's apply what philosophers call the "principle of charity" and take what they say as seriously as we can.)

The problem is that since the Enlightenment genuine progressives - Marx, for instance; or social democrats such as Anthony Crosland, who assumed that Keynes had solved the problem of mass unemployment once and for all - have regarded progress as an effect of historical necessity and the clunking fist of the central state as its enabler. But today's Tories profess to believe that the role of the state is not to be the embodiment of history with a capital H, but rather to act as a stimulus to "social action" in neighbourhoods and "communities".

Redistribution of power

So talk of "progress" sits rather uneasily with the anti-statist rhetoric of the "big society" and Tory calls for the devolution of power to the "little platoons" - or, at least, to "individuals, families and neighbourhoods".

The Lib Dems have spoken a similar language; their manifesto says that a "failure to distribute power fairly between people" is at the root of
the problems Britain faces today. This is an impeccably Liberal thought, because it derives from the greatest liberal philosopher of them all, John Stuart Mill.

In his masterpiece, On Liberty, Mill wrote that one of the besetting "evils" of politics is "adding unnecessarily" to the power of government. For that reason, he recommended that the state function primarily as the "central depository" and enabler of "municipal corporations and local boards", "individuals and voluntary associations".

Mutuals

There is something of Mill in the enthusiasm displayed by all three parties for mutuals - organisations, whether public-service providers or private firms, which are owned by their employees. Labour's commitment to reorganising public services using mutuals is a reminder
of an underappreciated strand in the party's tradition: the "guild socialism" of G D H Cole, which took the depredations of unaccountable power as seriously as it did the injustices of capitalism.

The "contract with the voters" that Cameron launched in the last week of the campaign attempts to speak a similar language of "accountability", while the Tory manifesto says that the employee-led co-operatives that public-sector workers will be encouraged to form will result in the "most significant shift in power from the state to working people since the sale of council houses in the 1980s".

The echo in that phrase of Labour's avowedly "socialist" manifesto for the 1974 general election, which promised to bring about a "fun­damental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families", was, one assumes, unintentional.

Broken society

If Cameron's contract requires greater "accountability" on the part of the state, it also demands much of the electorate - that it work with the government to repair the "broken society". Poverty, family breakdown and welfare dependency are all symptoms of brokenness in the Tories' diagnosis of our predicament.

The principal influence on this strand of Conservative rhetoric has been the work of the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith and his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, which has sought to restore the kind of One-Nation Toryism that was suffocated by Thatcherism (minus a recognition, it ought to be said, that the original One-Nation Tory, Benjamin Disraeli, understood that the state had a significant role to play in repairing the fractures and fissures of industrial society).

There are echoes here, too, of Jacques Chirac's successful 1995 campaign for the French presidency, in which he promised to heal "la fracture sociale". No doubt the unreconstructedly Euro­sceptic Tories would want to keep that particular affinity quiet.

The great ignored

On the first day of the campaign, Cameron addressed a portion of the population he called the "great ignored" - "the people who grow our food, police our streets, pay their taxes and obey the law". We didn't hear much about the "great ignored" later in the campaign, possibly because the allusion that most commentators, if not voters, picked up was not to John F Ken­nedy (Cameron had shamelessly channelled Kennedy when he said, "Ask not what your government can do for you. Ask what we can do to make our country better"), but to the man JFK defeated in 1960, Richard Nixon.

In 1969, once he had finally made it into the White House, and at the height of the campus rebellion against the Vietnam war, Nixon appealed to the "silent majority of [his] fellow Americans" who weren't protesting, and who remained unembarrassed by their patriotism and conviction of "national destiny".

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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