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People who accuse others of "virtue signalling" are trying to stigmatise empathy

The phrase is devious political propaganda.

The phrase “virtue signalling” is a slur and it is everywhere; it is part of the Trumpian scream. Empathy, fellowship, society, love? To the critic of the “virtue signaller”, they are all vanity, whether online, at a protest or at the ballot box. This is psychological projection, but still interesting: where did it come from?

It first appeared in print in the Spectator magazine, in a piece by James Bartholomew in 2015. Bartholomew was the Earhart Foundation senior fellow in social policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). The IEA is a neoliberal PR company disguised as a think tank. You will hear IEA men on the BBC arguing – while posing as impartial experts – against the plain packaging of tobacco, for instance.

The Earhart Foundation, meanwhile, was a neoliberal charitable trust, funded by oil money. It bankrolled Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek – the author of The Constitution of Liberty (1960), who also helped to set up the IEA – and many other neoliberal economists who want the state to shrink to the size of an ornamental golf ball.

First, the politics: in his jaunty, “guess-what-I’ve-noticed-y’awl-plain-folks” style, Bartholomew indicated he approves of privatising the NHS; that the minimum wage could be “absurdly high”, especially for the cretins who don’t deserve it; that the foreign aid budget is ineffective; that the Cameron and Osborne administration did too much for “the poor”. Then the slur: it is not enough to state your case; you must also debase your most powerful opponents. He does this, it seems to me, by imagining himself into a hellish parody of an Islington dinner party, and calmly unpicking – or rather inventing – the thoughts of those who inhabit this imaginary world.

So here came the virtue signaller, with his or her implicit affection for the minimum wage, the NHS, and the foreign aid budget. (He does not give much time to rebutting these real beliefs.) The virtue signaller is probably a member of the so-called liberal elite, which is yet another euphemistic slur. It means: an educated person of influence who disagrees with you.

To Bartholomew, the virtue signallers will say they like Mary Beard. They hate 4x4s and the Daily Mail. They like shopping at Whole Foods. Virtue signallers, Bartholomew then declares, are defined by their hatred, which is as furious an act of psychological projection as I can imagine.

Yet I cannot hate him; I cannot hate anyone who reports that he has learned that sometimes people say “Have a great evening” to each other, and is so baffled by their behaviour that he must invent a new category of narcissist to define them. Later, he wrote a further piece praising his initial piece and the invention of virtue signalling:

 

The lack of a phrase obstructed open discussion of what was going on . . . New phrases and words are the opposite of Newspeak. [This is from Nineteen Eighty-Four. By George Orwell. He has read a novel. He is – what? – intellect signalling?] They make expression and argument easier.

 

Open discussion of what is going on? Making expression and argument easier? I would say that what is going on is the debasement of kindness, of empathy and of love – as a concept, and for profit.

If you imagine – and then proselytise – that people cannot love each other, and that community can be dismantled for the benefit of the funders of the IEA, who cares if children smoke cigarettes? To insist that anyone who offers fellowship to a stranger has a narcissistic condition is not making expression and argument easier. It is failing to understand people who are nothing like you; or impugning them.

The phrase is not cultural commentary, then; it is not whimsical; and it did not come from nowhere. It is, rather, and its invention is dedicated to the enrichment of the plutocratic class, the decimation of any surviving welfare state anywhere on Earth, and, eventually I suspect, democracy itself. I hope, when the time comes, there will be a jaunty phrase for that. 

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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Staying in the EU would make it easier to tackle concerns about immigration, not less

Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to Leave voters’ concerns, while at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?

We must challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.

In fact the opposite is true. Our study into the options available to the UK shows that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving.

First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is "unconditional", as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.

EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.

But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.

Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called "Posted Workers Directive", so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.

Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has no interest in labour market reform.

Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.

The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce "safeguards" to respond to "situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time".

Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The UK should seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s "emergency brake", which could be activated in the event of "exceptional inflows" from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.

Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.

In contrast, a "hard Brexit" will not deliver the "control of our borders" that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.

These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about "rejoining the world" by the ultra free-market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. And whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel).  Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as "visitors" but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.

We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.

The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

Some will say that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.

There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.

The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.

This is neither an attempt at triangulation nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course.

Harvey Redgrave is a senior policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and director of strategy at Crest Advisory.