Disraeli, Labour Mediocrity, Human Rights and the SNP

Time was that David Cameron was referred to as the “heir to Blair”, and indeed he has proved this many times over. After five-years of a blisteringly right-wing agenda – even with the Lib Dems supposedly in a restraining role – he is now free to move even further right. Where to, I hear you ask. Is there really any where left to go? The Coalition government, rather than setting a new model for good government, as some naive PR enthusiasts hoped, was a circus of calamity, with government ministers rushing into one disaster after another. Most people in this country would agree with the general spirit of “let’s reform welfare”, but when you get to the nitty-gritty of what to cut, when and where, you come up against the hard truth that firstly, there is very little left to cut without inflicting a huge amount of pain on people who work much harder in a day that David Cameron has in his whole life; and secondly, that contrary to this government’s deeply held belief, and the belief that they came into office with five years ago, there simply aren’t millions of people fraudulently claiming benefits; there simply aren’t hoards of work-shy slackers bleeding the public purse (or if there are, they’re the sort of people who bankroll Conservative campaigns).  Cameron has no more intention of ruling for “One-nation” with a Conservative majority than he was in a coalition with the Lib Dems. He no more represents a new brand of “compassionate conservatism” now than he did when he was lying his way into office in 2010. So don’t expect moderation, expect more of the same, more misappropriating the legacy of a great uniting ideological tradition for his grubby brand of divisive liberal conservatism.

Now onto Labour mediocrity. The more I hear about the Labour leadership contest, the more overwhelming my despair becomes. How has the party of Keir Hardie, Clement Atlee and Nye Bevan got to the depressing stage where the most left-wing candidate in a leadership contest was deeply implicated in the privatisation of the NHS and has recently described “wealth creators” as “heroes”. There’s that noxious phrase again, this time straight from the mouth of a prospective labour leader. I’ve written so many times about the absurdities of that phrase that I feel no need to do so again. The cabal of dismal mediocrities lining up to be the first to bow down to the conservative agenda are a sad reflection on the state of the labour party. They all fail to inspire any sort of confidence, and I can’t be the only one thinking it. The Labour party has got to the stage where the whole nation cringes every time they casually abandon all their principles. “If you didn’t worry so much about electoral viability”, they cry, “then you might actually win one!”

As I understand, the attempted scrapping of the human rights act is part of a long tradition of Conservative misunderstanding of where the threat to our sovereignty really comes from. The main argument for scrapping it is the misinformed belief that British courts must bow down to the will of Strasbourg, which simply isn’t true. They are only bound to take their views into consideration. It’s true, as written in today’s Spectator, that Britons had human rights before a labour government made a law for it, but the European convention on Human Rights wasn’t principly designed for Britain, it was designed for those countries in the European sphere which are more saddled with corruption, and in which things like police brutality are more likely. Then why, you ask, do we need to be part of it? Because the whole point is to create a minimum international standard in order to keep countries like Russia in line. Britain’s exit would only bolster the courage of those countries, and weaken an already feeble consensus. But not to worry, this will be a hurdle which likely trips the new government in its infancy, which should be fun to watch.

No words can express my frustration with the SNP and its wiles. But I’ll try. Tommy Sheppard, the new MP for Edinburgh East, gave a terrific maiden speech in the House of Commons recently, and it left me gasping with frustration. I share many of Labour’s arguments about the childishness of the SNP, and I despise nationalism anyway. So you can understand my frustration on hearing Sheppard’s typical list of social democratic complaints, many of which I agree with; and I do believe that those arguments have not been made forcefully enough in the house of commons. But I wish he hadn’t come to Westminster. I wish none of his ideologically opaque, morally loose compatriots had turned up. I wish they hadn’t come, talking loudly about their “civic”, inclusive brand of nationalism, as if such a beast even exists, as if such a beast has ever existed, anywhere in the world; as if nationalism doesn’t always have the potential to be a divisive, insular force. I wish he and his friends hadn’t come, showing perfect disdain for the traditions and customs of a noble institution built upon the age-old community he is trying to tear apart. I wish they hadn’t come, claiming their willingness to work constructively towards what Nicola vaguely described as “progressive goals” throughout the campaign, ignoring of course the rather obvious point that progressivism is about building a community, a community which, in this case, the SNP are trying to tear apart. And of course they didn’t “seek a mandate” for independence during this referendum, but why do they become angry with those who don’t believe them, when their ideological DNA, the whole reason for their existence, is to seek separation? And given that nationalism is famed for seeking any opportunity to advance its rather narrow goals, and that historically and in modern-day Scotland, nationalism is rather good at dressing itself up in whatever ideological clothes are fashionable at the time, how do they expect anyone to believe them?

Having said that, I look forward to hearing more from him.

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Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a deceptively simple idea which has infected the political discourse of the last thirty years, and even the Tories – no longer a proper party of reaction, but instead deluded self-described liberals who are just as guilty of utopianism as the socialists of yore – have succumbed to its duplicity.

Thatcher’s argument was that a more unequal society was fairer, because those at the top would have risen to the top through merit; useless, talentless scroungers would have sunk to the bottom, and everyone would be in their rightful place. Meritocracy, when properly thought through, is really a savage form of social Darwinism, with echoes of far nastier right-wing movements.

The trouble with this, is that if you assume – as all good Burkeans should – that there will always be an elite of some kind, as evidenced by almost every civilisation that ever existed, including some of the most prosperous ones; then really what you are looking for is an elite which is grounded, which knows where it came from, its duties to society, and what it owes to those who work in its factories and fields. This is surely a recipe for social cohesion and happiness, far more than an arrogant, impetuous, international elite whose wealth has surpassed reason or purpose, and who carries itself with an intolerable haughtiness because it believes it “deserves it”. They have risen through their own “merit”, they have done the proles the great service of employing them on minimum wage, and that’s where their obligations end.

The second problem is this weird idea of “merit”. What is merit? Who gets to define it? Because so-called free market capitalism isn’t doing a great job so far. As Owen Jones once said: care workers are paid the minimum wage whilst advertising executives are paid outrageous sums: which do you suppose is doing society a greater service? Which has the greater merit?

But suppose merit is viewed as ability rather than moral fibre and kindness: here were run into another issue. Intelligence is a strange quantity: it can come in many forms, many of which come from the environment in which your early childhood development took place. Why is a child whose parents read to them, more deserving than a child who never got to read a book until they were 14? Where is the fairness in that? And even if these values are innate, they are still awarded by lottery, which makes it no more fair than aristocracy.

The one argument left standing for meritocracy is that it catapults people of skill into positions where they are needed, doing society a service by fulfilling those roles more competently. This I grudgingly accept. But here we find ourselves stuck on this issue of “the two equalities”: Equality of opportunity and of outcome.

This is a very weird notion: one of those things that it appears no-one in politics has properly sat down to think about, before ranting their piece. The idea that you will ever achieve “equality of opportunity” is preposterous. There will always be hidden advantages, an uneven playing field. If thatcherites truly believed this they would abolish the great public schools, like Eton and Harrow; we all know this won’t happen. And the idea that creating more academies is going to create equality of opportunity is again ridiculous; by creating variation in what children are taught at school, you obviously diminish equality of opportunity, because it relies at its most basic level on equipping people with the same tools.

Equally ridiculous is the idea that these two equalities can be cleanly separated. Thatcherites will often say: “I believe in equality of opportunity, but not of outcome – that’s a socialist idea”. They are living in a fantasy land. Children from richer households obviously do better at school. Children who come from households where their parents struggle to make ends meet are obviously likely to underperform. I’m not saying this is without exceptions, but it’s imperative to acknowledge that this is an overwhelmingly accurate rule. And it’s getting worse.

Lastly, is the simply ludicrous idea of “getting to the top through merit” in the first place. There are absolutely no people in the world who have gotten rich purely off their own merit and hard work. This is a lie, but a lie which has become the consensus. There are innumerable aspects of running a business that rely on exploiting public capital: roads to transport your goods; schools to educate your workers; hospitals for when they fall sick; limited liability: the very basis of capitalism; and lastly, but certainly not least: the workers themselves. Certain conservatives seem to misunderstand how capitalism works (surprising from the party of business), but the surplus (or that all important “wealth creation”) is almost entirely due to the efforts of workers and the natural resources which have been extracted: it rests very little on shareholders. This is why, even with a large welfare state, workers will NEVER be properly compensated for the role they play, unless they take part in some kind of co-operative.

So to sum up, after that lengthy and exhaustive treatise, meritocracy is no excuse for an unequal society; indeed, meritocracy is impossible without at least some level of equality of outcome. It is marginally better than aristocracy, but should certainly not be the holy grail of politics.