Shame is one of the most underrated forces binding together and protecting our political norms. Take the case of Amber Rudd, in what may turn out to be the last time someone resigns after doing something wrong: Downing Street wanted to keep her in post, but she thought, rightly, that having misled the home affairs select committee, she had to go. Compare that with Esther McVey, whose offence was in every measurable sense worse, but is still in the cabinet.
The Conservative Party has said, rightly, that the ongoing problems with anti-Semitism in the Labour ranks are a scandal. But its correct criticisms of the Labour Party, ought to, if she had any sense of shame, mean that Kemi Badenoch wouldn’t have felt able to say that when the Muslim Council of Britain says there are institutional problems with Islamophobia in the Tory Party, it does so for a “political motive”.
The ongoing row over historical remarks made by Roger Scruton, the philosopher and Theresa May’s new housing adviser, is the latest in the series. Some people have tried to claim that Scruton’s comments that “many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish, and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire” is less offensive in the full context of his lecture, The Need for Nations. I have read the lecture in full, and this, predictably, is not true.
Scruton’s thesis is that the problem with the European project is that it has become an empire, that while there are good and bad empires, good empires seek to “protect local loyalties and customs under a canopy of civilisation and law”, but bad empires have no respect for the need for nations and their traditions. The European project sees national pride only through the prism of the destructive conflicts in the first half of the 20th century. Although he is more rhetorically sympathetic to Hungarian Jews’ inability to distinguish between positive and negative forms of nationalism, it is impossible to rescue this section from the charge of repeating a series of anti-Semitic tropes: that Jewish intellectuals and George Soros in particular form part of a supra-national project, and the classic “divided loyalties” trope that Jews are uneasy with their own nations. The rhetorical acknowledgement of existing problems of anti-Semitism in Hungarian society should be taken no more seriously than the same in the god knows how many rhetorical flourishes made by Labour politicians on the issue.
But just as it is impossible to defend Scruton’s remarks, it is also impossible to argue that the Labour Party has not said and excused worse. Only this week, we learnt that, in a shocking dereliction of its duty of care, it failed both to pass death threats made against Luciana Berger, a Jewish Labour MP, on to to the police or even to warn Berger about the threats. And with a handful of exceptions, many of the Labour politicians calling for Scruton to go have been entirely mute about Labour’s various anti-Semitism scandals.
This lack of shame allows MPs to, with a straight face, retain ministerial office in the face of scandal, defend the indefensible and powers the breakdown of our political norms. As so often when politics breaks down, the first victims are those least able to defend themselves: in this case, the poor and people with Jewish and Muslim cultural heritage. While we ought to care about this in its own right, history should teach us that what starts with bad treatment of minorities very rarely ends without bad treatment of everyone else.