We now have time to take stock and to consider not merely the impact of Covid-19, but the deeper issues that await. It is a moment not only to mourn the dead, and to salute those who have tended the sick, but to ask what kind of social and moral order so many are labouring to rescue.
Sadly, the answer is that today’s free society needs saving from more than a viral disease, grave as it is. But true judgement about its condition is at a premium. Moreover, it is now hindered by the mistaken belief that the virtues of medical and nursing staff, and of the volunteers who have given their help in the crisis, are evidence of the health of civil society as a whole.
These are also times of transition, in which prediction of outcomes in matters large and small grows harder. For example, who can say whether Brexit will “succeed”, whether the monarchy will be with us in 50 years’ time, whether parliament’s credit can be restored, or whether the “quality” press can regain its lost reputation.
Certainly, I could not have anticipated the scale of the return to British public life of anti-Semitism – a corona-like disease – and its infestation of the Labour Party. True, my father suffered because of it in his medical career; there were remarks made to me by kids at school; and it was an undercurrent at Ruskin in 1986 during my dispute with the college. I also withdrew from my contract at Tbe Sunday Times in 1992 after the then editor Andrew Neil commissioned David Irving to translate passages from Goebbels’ diaries, while my late friend Roger Scruton, at a time when he was unaware of my genealogy, in conversation described a mutual acquaintance as a “Jew boy”.
But the possibility that Labour – unable in the Brexit debate to choose between the devil of a capitalist common market and the deep blue sea of a sovereign country – will not return to government in the foreseeable future, or perhaps at all, is itself a dangerous token of political and social dysfunction. Damaged by Blairism’s destruction of Labour’s protestant moral tradition, losing its sense of direction down the now-forgotten Third Way, and hit for six by Corbynite sub-Trotskyism, its ruin has created a dangerous void. For no other party possesses the ethic that Labour at its best once espoused.
Having seen all sorts of things in my life – from the VE Day celebrations in Manchester’s Albert Square in May 1945 to the crash of the communist regimes in eastern Europe between 1987 and 1990, and so on – I could also think that the condition of Britain today, Covid-19 apart, is of little importance. But that would be wrong. It is a social and political theatre in which the major issues of the day in free societies are yet to be played out.
It is an arena in which the degraded “left” in Britain, as elsewhere, can no longer claim exclusive possession of the keys to “progress”. As I have written before, including in these pages, it is a word which merely signifies a “going forwards”, whose meaning must change with time and circumstance. Also clear is that a “progressivism” which espouses the cult-like causes of “diversity” and “identity” based upon race (Jews excepted), gender, and sexual preference is itself an expression of a dissolving civic order.
Indeed Britain, like many other free societies, now has a diminished sense of shared citizenship, though the will to recreate it has been movingly expressed in the spontaneous acts of so many during the coronavirus crisis. The atrophy of this sense in Britain has had many causes. They include grotesque and growing inequalities, a concept of citizenship increasingly defined merely by the rights to which it gives access, and the dispersal of so much of the public domain – the domain of community – into predatory private hands. Even Adam Smith, the philosopher of the free market, singled out the post office, for example, as one of the “public institutions” which there was a “duty” for the state to maintain. Yes, a duty.
All of the above are viruses in the body politic. So too is the increasing level of family breakdown, since the family is society’s microcosm. Diseases, too, are the degree of personal solitude, even before the lockdown, as community dissolves; the discarding of so many of the “old” into care homes; and the rising levels of crime, doubtless to resume in due course. “Inclusivity”, yes. But “inclusivity” in what exactly?
Another related symptom, equally viral, of our present state is the extent to which the word “citizen” has been displaced by “customer” and “consumer”; even the Queen was said in 2011 to be “remarkable value for money”. Yet at the heart of Tory free-marketry, another cult, stands a large dilemma: you cannot be both a conservative and a free-marketeer.
Why not? Because the free market is not conservative. Instead, its tendency is to sweep away, as it has done in Britain, traditional values and established institutions, including by purchase of what was once rightly, and necessarily, in public hands. Moreover, rather than upholding the moral order, free-marketry corrupts it in the pursuit of “growth”.
Now we all know of the attribution to Mrs Thatcher of the toxic sentiment, again hardly conservative in the literal sense of the word, that “there is no such thing as society”. But less known is that Boris Johnson, in his amoral Margaret Thatcher Lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in November 2013 – years before he came to celebrate “our wonderful NHS” – described “inequality” as “essential to the spirit of envy” and called “greed” a “valuable spur to economic activity”.
Such anti-ethic has again caused more long-lasting damage to civil society than coronavirus is likely to do, serious as it is. For market interests must be the servant of the civic order if it is to survive, not its master. But when I asked Michael Howard, during his time as Conservative Party leader, where he would draw the line on privatisation if he came to office, he thought for a moment and replied: “The army.”
The moral free-for-all that we have endured in recent years has also been as damaging to the health of civil society as the market free-for-all. For without self-restraint civil society cannot endure, and there can be no true freedom without order. There is also a difference between liberty and licence, while the “right to choose” is as double-edged in matters of personal morality as it is in the free market. This is especially so in times like ours when free societies have been driven berserk by their market and moral freedoms, and have little idea of where they are going. We have even reached the point where the imposition of common-sense civic rules in a pandemic can be seen as liberty’s denial.
Meanwhile, on another front, political correctness exerts its constraints upon truth-telling, stifling free thought and free expression about civil society’s real condition when they are most needed. Moreover, such limitations upon what may be thought and said are wholly at odds with the libertarianism of the apostles of market and moral freedom, who between them have done civil society such harm. Indeed, I was myself ordered at short notice by Prometheus, the US publishers of my most recent book The Free Society in Crisis, to remove several pages of discussion of legal cases involving gay and transgender marital, parenting and divorce issues, or face having the book “pulled”. I removed them.
Some of these limitations upon freedom of speech are infantile. Others strike at the heart of things, and prevent crucial truths being uttered at all. Moreover, it is not merely “judgmentalism” that is frowned upon but judgment itself, and in times when it has never been more needed. Nor is this a matter of “right” and “left” but of right and wrong, two words which for many are now taboo.
But under the surface of things, and despite all the self-deceptions about our true condition, many in Britain are aware of the urgent need for civil society’s repair. The numbers of volunteers in the current crisis has again been evidence of it. Similarly, the majority desire for Brexit – frowned upon both by “progressives” and big business in unholy alliance – has been an expression of the popular desire for the restoration of sovereign control over the national condition. And virtuous as is the “internationalism” of “progressives”, the nation is no less necessary than the family and the community as a locus of belonging. But when “progressives” fail to recognise this, history teaches us that the national argument becomes the property of the extremist.
Above all, the social, ethical and political repair of Britain’s damaged civic order demands the setting aside of reflexes which automatically diagnose a practical and necessary measure as “right wing “ or “left wing”, and approve or condemn it without further thought. For both wings will be needed in the coming period if Britain’s ailing body politic is to get off the ground.
David Selbourne is a political philosopher and social commentator. His most recent book is The Free Society in Crisis: A History of Our Times