It seems that when a politician gets elected and proceeds to implement his programme (upon which he was elected) this is a cause of outrage – at least to judge from the demonstrations in Washington, London and other cities. Whether what President Trump has done with his 90 ban on people from certain countries is wise, is a matter of opinion, and as it involves the US law, it is probably a matter for legal dispute. What is not in dispute is that this is the sort of thing he promised to do. Usually we react badly when politicians find reason for not doing what it was we elected them to do; now we have an interesting reversal. Trump failed to win a majority of the popular vote, but he is the duly-elected president; except that those who did not vote for him seem not to want to accept the verdict of the election. We see something similar in the UK with Brexit.
It is clear that liberal opinion in our societies is outraged that the idiot voters have ignored their advice, and their reaction to it seems to be to hector, lecture and virtue signal until – well, until what? The duly expressed will of the people changes? What a very dangerous route this is. If, when the next Obama wins, those who oppose him refuse to accept his legitimacy and take to the streets against him. what will those liberals who are now doing so have to say to them? Democracy depends on accepting the outcome of elections run on rules you knew they were being run on, and then in accepting as part of that the actions of the new Government. By all means protest at their actions, but the scale of the hysteria on Trump and Brexit suggests that many liberals seem to think the rules only apply when elections come out where they wanted them to come out. Two, of course, can play at that game – and alas will do so in the future.
Let me say up front, I voted ‘remain’ and I would not, had I had a vote, voted from Trump. I think that the British Government is managing the Brexit process as well as it can, but that the outcome will not be a good one; I think Trump lowers the tone of government and would be well-advised not to treat those who disagree with him as traitors. But be that as it may, the electorate decided what it decided, and we have to live with that. The notion that Trump should be disinvited from his State visit is an astonishing one. Nothing he has done compares to what China has done to Tibet. But I saw no million strong petition protesting that one; similarly with the King of Saudi Arabia. That the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition seems to think this is an option is merely another sign of his unfitness for the office he holds. Those opposed to trump and Brexit would be well-advised to get some decent leaders and begin the struggle for power by legitimate means.
This last year has been one which proved the truth of Lord Melbourne’s dictum: “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.” At the start of the year you could have obtained excellent odds against a Brexit win and a Trump win from any book-makers in the land; you’d probably have cleaned up monetarily if you’d double-up on that and gone for both. The puzzlement of the liberal elites in our society is exceeded only by their anger at the uneducated folk who brought about this unprecedented state of affairs. Very occasionally, one reads pieces which don’t take the view that the elite itself is a hapless victim, and which acknowledge that the sort of disdain being shown for ‘the people’ in some quarters is a part of the problem. Being lectured on ‘white, male privilege’ by a well-educated woman of colour earning thrice what you earn, may be something many can put up with, but it does not take an enormous amount of imagination to understand why a poor white man in a low-paying job might feel a little resentment at it.
Whilst ‘the system’ was delivering prosperity to large numbers of people in our society, its many flaws were tolerable and, to many, disguised, but when you reach a stage where an individual on an average income cannot afford to buy a house in most parts of the UK, and where ‘zero hours’ contracts are common, those defects are writ large: people work in order to have a decent life for themselves and for their children, and if work does not provide that, or the system does not provide work at all, then the problem is writ large. Add to that mix the anxieties caused by an economic slow-down and by large-scale immigration, and you get real problems; add to that a climate where to talk about such things gets you labelled as ‘racist’ and you get a toxicity which at some point was bound to infect the body politic, not least since its self-appointed physicians denied that the problems were real. When people feel ignored and scorned, they will look for redress – this is one of the things elections provide – and that this has now come to pass is clear. But, as in the UK in 1997 when a charismatic politician aroused great hopes, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating – and what President-elect Trump will have to deal with is a legacy not of his making, but which will restrict him in ways he will discover as he goes forward.
In the UK, it becomes ever clearer that our political class is so feckless that no one bothered to make any plans for what ‘Brexit’ would mean. Thus far Mrs May has been able to get away with the meaningless mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, but at some point reality is going to intrude and she is going to have to show what that really means. She is a fortunate politician in that her main Tory rivals self-destructed, and she is facing the most hapless leader of the Labour Party since the 1930s. She may decide to risk a General Election if parliament will not give her what she needs, and she may well win it – but the problems will not go away.
Our democracies stand on a precipice, not because of the electorate, but because the professional political class is failing to show that it knows how to deal with the problems which afflict us.
The old radical cry that aristocracies were unfair had everything to commend it. After all, if you were simply born to wealth and power, where was the merit in you having them, and what legitimacy did that confer on you? There grew up, in opposition to it, the idea of meritocracy. Indeed, one might say it is the modern mantra – here in the UK and across the West, the idea of meritocracy is firmly embedded as an ideal. But do recent political events suggest that its shortcomings are now showing?
The nineteenth century British aristocracy was very aware of its fragile foundations, and for every spendthrift aristocrat, there were many who saw their position conferring on them the duty of public office – a job done for free under a sense of obligation. Most of those who governed were well aware it was a matter of chance that they were there. But what happens with a Meritocracy? If you have risen to a responsible position because you are the best for it, because of your own talents, there is a great temptation to arrogance – and to look down on those whose talents are so clearly less than your own. We have, I think, recently seen this very plainly. Brexit and the triumph of Trump are a reaction of ‘ordinary people’ to the tyranny of the Meritocrats – and the supercilious reaction of the ruling elites shows that they still have not got it.
The whole concept of ‘merit’ is a difficult one. In a world where so much depends on education, the fact is that the accident of brith still has a lot of influence on whether your talents will be nurtured and have an outlet. Then there is the little matter of the accident of birth itself – not everyone is born with an equal talent set – genetics is nature’s way of endowing us unequally, and it is no more systematic than the old way where men and women were born into a privileged background.
In a world more influenced by Christian anthropology, meritocracy was tempered. There was a sense that one’s talent was a gift from God and to be deployed for the wider good, not for selfish ends; there was also the humility which comes from knowing that you, yourself, would one day be subject to judgment for how those talents would be used. The great Gladstone even kept a diary which, in effect, noted how he had used every day. It caused some puzzlement when historians were first allowed access to it as it is very unlike a modern diary; but it was his own account book for his reckoning with the Almighty – this, he would be able to say, is how I deployed what you gave me Lord, I did not bury it, I used it thusly.
But in an atheistic or agnostic culture, where does this sort of humility come from? If you grow up thinking that you have achieved what you have achieved by your own talents, that is no school for humility. It is, however, an attitude which leads to impatience (to put it mildly) with those who have not achieved what you, and others like you have. You are an expert, you know better, and most of those with whom you associate feel the same. Unfortunately (for you and your fellows) there is a great electorate out there which is not only convinced by your expertise, but which, surveying its own situation, is even less convinced that your expertise is bringing it the answers it needs. Perhaps that will be the school of humility in which our rulers will turn and find some wisdom?
I used Kipling’s ‘epitaph to a dead statesman’ on yesterday’s post because it remains significant, but also because on this day of remembrance it would seem almost too much that it is as relevant as ever. There was a time when it was the fashion amongst military historians to criticise the late Field Marshal Montgomery for his over cautious approach to battle; this stemmed from his on experience of the Great War. There he had seen men thrown at the opposite front line as though they were pawns in a game of chess; this was something he refused to do, and I may owe my existence to his caution as my father served in the 8th Army and was duly grateful for his caution. The same reluctance to sacrifice the young was behind Neville Chamberlain’s determination to try every avenue before opting for war with Germany. How easy it is to take some moral high ground at the expense of the lives of others. My own suspicion is that few things have done more to undermine confidence in our political class than the Iraq war. A campaign begun for reasons never really explained to achieve objectives never defined, which has led, sequentially, to the great migration crisis afflicting Europe; our sins have fond us out. But who has paid the price? The dead and maimed soldiers; the dead and maimed civilians; the raped women; the refugees; the poorer communities where so many refugees find their place. Of the end of this no man can tell; but no ne thanks it will end well. The cost in blood, misery and treasure had been, and continues to be, immense. Kipling’s statesman asked what lies would serve him ‘here among mine angry bad defrauded young?’ We have seen many lies tried, but as the poem implies, there are no lies which serve. All they have done is to devalue the currency of democratic politics which depend on trust. If the people you elect seem to hold the lives of your children in such low regard, then what use are they?
This is where, for all the whining about him, Trump has a point. America pays about 4% of its GDP on defence, the UK 2% and the rest of NATO nothing like the 2% they ought. That means that Americans are paying for the Europeans to be able to pay taxes on better healthcare than most Americans enjoy; one can see why that doesn’t seem such a good deal. When, as I did this lunch-time, I hear Europeans saying that ‘American must understand’ this or that about NATO, I think they are part of the problem. Europe needs to understand that it has to help pay for its own defence; it can’t ride on Uncle Sam’s coat-tails for ever.
We have passed through a period where our rulers have thought it in our interests to ‘nation build’. It was unclear to some of us at the time whether the rest of the world actually wished to have nation states that were approximations of what we in the West had, not least at a time when Europe seemed uncertain of the value of the nation state. If ‘we the people’ have had enough of this, then it is hardly surprising.
A nation is more than an economic alliance, it is more than the sum of the individuals belonging to it, its people share values, assumptions, a history – hopes, and fears. The Market knows nothing of these things, the Market seeks to maximise profit. We were told that the ‘trickle down’ effect would mean that everyone would, in some way, profit from the dominance of the Market; morality – what did that have to do with the Market? It is not, then, surprising that in a society where the Market has been dominant for a couple of generations, we should face a crisis of morality. The crash of 2008 was an example of what happens to a Market where morality is absent. Why should those operating it not seek to maximise profit? Why should they make less money for themselves than they could by not offering mortgages to those who could not afford them? Why should they not invent investment schemes so complex that no one understood them? It was only in the aftermath of the crash that the answer was clear to some, and even then, that reasoning became devalued as a political slogan. The reason was that we were all in it together; except in practice some were more deeply in it than others, and so once the immediate crisis receded, the bankers and others went back to their old ways – unrestrained by any moral code – the Market knows no morality.
Yet the very word ‘credit’ shows us the moral origins of the Market. The word comes from the Latin ‘credo’ – I believe. Free-Market capitalism was based on a substructure of Christian morality – the idea that ‘my word is my bond’. The whole idea of a paper-money system is based on the notion that some bank somewhere will redeem that piece of of paper for goods to its value. Over the centuries the Judaeo-Christian understanding of human dignity, the rule of law, social justice, rights to the ownership of private property, the importance of the family and care for the disadvantaged have shaped our society. As that glue ceases to hold things together, we are testing, to destruction, perhaps, the idea that it is possible to have a society based on no values other than those of the Market – the the results are not reassuring.
We see the same phenomenon elsewhere in our society. Marriage? Once thought of as, if not sacramental, then as a sacred contract, one in which two adults came together in sickness and in health, to pool their talents and to link their fates, and to bring up a family. Unchained from the moral element, we now witness a society in which it becomes a temporary convenience, an excuse for a display of ostentatious wealth (even if it has to be borrowed), and if it ‘goes wrong’ it is all right, the State will pick up the bill for the children – and for any results in terms of what a broken home can do to a child. What matters is me, my personal happiness, my choices; here too, the Market rules.
In the pursuit of profit, business ‘outsources’ – that is it moves its operations to places where wages are lower, so profits can be higher. But what happens to the communities where those jobs used to be? The Market does not care. But Governments ought to. They ought for moral reasons, and they ought for utilitarian reasons. Fewer jobs mean lower tax revenues, higher welfare bills, lower living standards, and political discontent. It is not accidental that many of the communities which voted ‘leave’ in the referendum were those with high levels of unemployment, high welfare bills and low wages; it is hard to feel enthusiastic about a system which not only leaves you at the bottom of the heap, but which seems not to much care about it. But there is, and was, more to it than economics, and to see the referendum result as simply the vote of the economically disadvantaged is to fall for an analysis based on economics rather than identity. Some have said that those poorer sections of the electorate of voted for Brexit were acting irrationally, but that is to profoundly miss the point, which a more recent commentator gets in spades when he writes that: ‘Brexit voters, like Trump supporters, are motivated by identity, not economics.’
We have created a society in which young people find it difficult to afford a home in many parts of the UK, where the age at which people start having families is higher than ever, and where the birth-rate is such that immigration makes sense to provide a (low-paid) work force for the future. The loss of a sense of a common identity, a common morality, of the ties that ought to bind us, is palpable. Mrs May’s first speech as Prime Minister suggests she, or her advisers, may understand some of this, and the rhetoric of our Pope and of the Church suggests they do too. But the question is what follows from this? How do you recreate a sense of moral purpose in a society where the only God is the Market?
There is a long and honourable tradition of Catholic social teaching. It is, perhaps, time for Catholics to pay as much attention to it as they do to our own internal culture war – before it is too late.
“When we take the big calls we will think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws we will listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes we will prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few, we will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
So Theresa May in her first speech as Prime Minister, generally to great scepticism from the liberal media. It may be that the liberal media’s narrative of ‘posh boy Tories’ grinding the poor into the dust is so ingrained that it cannot accommodate such words from a Conservative Premier; it may be that it is simply as sceptical of such words from the political Right as it is credulous when the political Left uses them; or it may simply be that too many journalists are so historically ignorant that they have never heard of Disraeli, Joe Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin and Harold Macmillan and ‘One Nation’ Conservatism. But it is there is the DNA of the Conservative Party, and many of the reforms which have benefitted the wider electorate have come from Conservative sources. It was the Tory Shaftesbury who persuaded the Tory Peel to enact legislation to restrict the hours people could work in factories and to ban children working down the mines – the liberal objected to such restrictions on the freedom of people. It was Disraeli’s government which brought in legislation on food purity and working hours – the Liberals did not want to interfere with the market. It was Joe Chamberlain who wanted to bring in tariffs to protect home industries, and Liberals who wanted free trade.
Mrs May belongs, to the clear discomfort of Thatcherite purists, to that Tory tradition which sees a role for the State in preventing inequalities of wealth growing to the point at which they become dangerous for democratic consent; which sees that alongside welfare reform, you still need welfare; and which seeds education as important in providing life chances for the poorest. It isn’t that the Thatcherite tradition does not see these things, it is that is often gives the impression that it believes in untrammeled ‘freedom’ first. As the Referendum debate seems to have illustrated, there are too many in our society for whom the word ‘freedom’ has a hollow ring. What does freedom mean when you can’t afford to feed or house your family because house prices are beyond your reach and wages low? Where is the freedom of choice if your educational opportunities have been limited by your social class? We can debate the causes of the decline of social mobility, but in the meantime it exists and seems to be worsening. If ‘the many’ in a democratic polity feel hard done by, they will not, forever, take the ‘few’ telling them that that’s the way things are for ever.
If a majority of people had felt the EU was theirs and had done something for them, if they had felt ownership of it, it would not have been necessary for the last Prime Minister to try to coerce them into voting for it by ‘operation fear’. If a positive case was made, many of us missed it. The Referendum became an opportunity for ‘the many’ to tell the political elite they were hurting, and the EU became the scapegoat for all those hurts. It seems Mrs May has picked up on that message. The extent to which her rhetorical commitments can be translated into practice at a time when, thanks to Brexit, the economic conditions will be unstable, is open to doubt. But at least she realises that a different rhetoric is needed. Austerity is all very well, but taken too far for too long, and in a climate where the very rich seem to be getting even richer, and in an economy where the bankers who crashed it walk away scot-free, something more is needed. If Mrs May can provide it, she will confound the sceptics and establish herself as the woman of the hour. If not – well let us hope we don’t have to go there.
What holds a society together? That wasn’t the sort of question you needed to ask before the advent of democracy. The upper orders ruled, and if the lower orders got out of hand they could be dealt with by force, or, if necessary, force and guile. In this country there was also a set of shared values mediated by the church, or, after the Reformation, the C of E, and even those who rejected that church, accepted the Christian values it embodied to society at large. The Ten Commandments were acceptable statements of fact, as well as a set of aspirations which, for the most part, had the backing of the law (you could never be made to honour your father or your mother, and coveting your neighbour’s ass, as long as you did nothing about it was between you and God).
Other things followed from such a consensus. It was accepted that unless you happened to inherit wealth, you worked for your living, and if you didn’t, or couldn’t, things were tough; charity, and latterly the State, would intervene to protect the most vulnerable; the family was the basis for a stable society, which allowed women the space to bring up children whilst the father earned a living for them all; marriage was one man and one woman, preferably for life, and getting out of a marriage was not an easy thing to do; if you got a woman pregnant, you were expected to do the ‘decent thing’, which was not defined as killing the baby because it was ‘unwanted’.There were two sexes, men and women, and for every ‘right’ society afforded you, a ‘responsibility’ went with it. These, and sets of other unspoken assumptions, held society together. There was, latterly, an assumption that these values were so universal that they could survive if their underpinning – Christian belief – was eroded. Is that looking secure?
This translates into attitudes towards our leaders. As we were never given the opportunity to vote on same-sex marriage, or on the consequent mangling of our language, where ‘husband’ can be male or female (or neither) and ‘wife’ likewise, we shan’t know whether ‘we the people’ would have approved or not; in similar ways, things like abortion, easier divorce and the legalisation of homosexuality, were decided without consulting us. The effects of these things now work their way through our society. Our leaders are content, but to many of us outside the Metropolis, it seems as though we are out of touch with their mind-set; the problem is we don’t have enough trust in them to accept that they know best; there’s too much evidence that they behave in ways designed to mislead us. A Government which will take us into a war on a false prospectus, as Mr Blair’s did, betrays a vital covenant. ‘Thou shalt tell no lie’ is not something we expect a politician to keep in all circumstances, but it is one we expect to be kept on the big things.
It wasn’t that in the good old days we thought our politicians were honest, decent Christians, but it is that we thought they shared the same values as we did and could, therefore, in some real way, ‘represent’ us and our views. After all, many of them had careers outside politics, and even if there was always a core cadre of careerists, there were plenty of back-benchers who were men and women of note locally who did not look to be Ministers, or for Ministerial patronage.
Moreover, many of our politicians clearly left politics poorer than they would have been otherwise. Churchill could have earned very large fortune after 1945 if he had concentrated on it, but while he did write his best-selling memoirs, he soldiered on as leader of the Opposition, and then another term as Prime Minister; it meant his family had to hand over his beloved Chartwell to the National Trust, because he was not a multi-millionaire, but that was the price he was willing to pay. Nowadays, they cut, run, and make a pile, as though they know it is all going to end soon. We should trust such men precisely why?
So, with trust between governed and the government at all-time lows, and with a loss of shared values, where next?