Some thoughts on the lack of compassion from the left

In the debate surrounding the European Union, a point that I have made several times is that the import tariffs imposed by the EU against countries outside of Europe is immoral; it protects European labourers to the detriment of the workers of poorer countries, especially in Africa, but also in Asia and in South America. Surprisingly, even when talking to people who would consider themselves to be left-wing, and who almost certainly vote for Labour or even the Greens, often the response has been one of total apathy.

You can provoke a similar reaction if you criticise the treatment of Greece and Portugal by the European Union; I have often given an analogy wherein Britain elects Jeremy Corbyn, and the British electorate are promptly given notice by Angela Merkel that Corbyn’s economic platform is incompatible with that of the European Union’s, and he shall quickly be disposed of. When I offer up this analogy, the response is always the same: “We are Britain, not Greece or Portugal”, I am told, “We are too powerful a nation to be bullied by the EU, and remaining in it does not entail kowtowing to it”. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, because the purpose of the analogy is not to incite fear that this will happen in the United Kingdom, it is to show how outrageous the way that Greece and Portugal have been treated is. For some reason, those who declare themselves to be pro-EU on the grounds that it is right and proper to work together with other European countries have no issues when those other European countries are trampled upon by Germany and the EU institutions.

This is not an article I am writing to take a jab at those who are left-wing and support the European Union - there are many people who criticise the import tariffs that the EU uses to hurt poor countries, or who criticise the EU’s treatment of Greece and Portugal, while also believing that the best way to encourage progress is by remaining in a union of European countries, and this is a completely fair position. Rather, it is an article to note the growing number of people who will happily go to the polls and vote Labour, and who will declare themselves to be left-wing, while also lacking the basic compassion that being on the left or centre-left necessitates.

A quite disturbing example of this is the recent declarations from many on the left, or many Labour voters, against the government’s decision to take more refugees. It is not merely that they are content with the measly number of refugees the Conservative government is taking, it is that they are actively calling for Britain to take fewer or no refugees. This is occasionally made in conjunction with critical comments about Muslims. Recently, it has become a trend among academic and other left-wingers to criticise the ‘regressive left’, in other words, those who believe that we should be tolerant of Islam and be accepting towards Muslim attitudes. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris especially have been actively writing and speaking out against Islam, and against those who ‘enable’ Islam.

The problem with their criticisms is that they often fail to adequately distinguish between ordinary Muslims and their beliefs, and religious extremists. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Islam to be made, and indeed I often make them. You will struggle to find many on the left who will not immediately condemn, for example, Islamic attitudes towards homosexuality, or the treatment of women by some Islamic countries.

But it would be a mistake to think that either ordinary Muslims should take any blame for any actions that are not their own, or that these misgivings are exclusive to Islamic countries. As an example, Female Genital Mutilation is often cited in evidence that Islam is inherently oppressive towards women, but there is never any thought given to the fact that FGM is not particularly a Muslim problem at all, and in fact is largely a Central African problem: Eritrea, a Christian country, has the highest rate of FGM in the world. Similarly, although the persecution of homosexuals takes place in many Islamic countries, it is also illegal to be gay in many Christian African countries. It has become common for people to be intellectually lazy and attribute to Islam a problem that actually has cultural roots that cannot be boiled down to a single cause.

In the George Orwell essay Antisemitism in Britain, he talks about a Labour MP’s reluctance to take in Jewish refugees who are fleeing the Nazis, who says “We never asked these people to come to this country. If they choose to come here, let them take the consequences”. This sentiment is identical to that of many on the left who are growingly reluctant to accept more Syrian refugees, and to me it seems clear that we will look back upon those who want to accept no more Syrian refugees who are fleeing either Bashar Al-Assad or the Islamic State in the same way that we see those who argued that we should take either fewer or no Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazis. It is quite shocking how someone can who professes to care about the homeless and poor in his own country has no interest in those who are suffering in the squalid conditions in Calais, or those in Syria whose lives are being destroyed by carnage and war.

The growing lack of compassion amongst many on the left, I suspect, was the reason for Jeremy Corbyn’s emphatic victory in the Labour leadership election. Many have guessed that his ‘anti-establishment’ status gave him an advantage, but my belief is that the fact that Corbyn, despite any other faults, clearly genuinely cares about the refugees in Calais, or clearly cares about people in Britain living in poverty, or clearly cares about those who are being murdered abroad with arms supplied by the British, was the reason for his sweeping victory. The Labour membership did not want to be given a seventeen-point plan on how Labour can win in 2020, they wanted someone who, in contrast to New Labour or even Ed Miliband, could make an impassioned case for compassionate politics, possibly even if it meant more Tory government and more austerity. 

Some thoughts on conservatism

The English are natural conservatives. This does not mean that they are right-wing, or that they tend towards economic liberalism, or that they support wars in foreign countries, it simply means that they think that good things ought to be conserved. To be conservative is ‘to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss’. This is why extremist parties never gained traction in England. While countries in mainland Europe toyed with Fascism and Communism, and asked for their societies to be transformed in ways that would make them unrecognisable, the English asked that their country be kept in-tact, and that any change should be both gradual and reversible without great loss.

The temptation of radicalism is obvious. Instead of gradually making progress towards a better England, we could elect someone who will change everything immediately and make things better. The problem is that, with institutions that have taken hundreds of years to evolve into what they are, they shall also take hundreds of years to transform in any massive way. English people know this intuitively, and this is why they have little time for the radical politics of Jeremy Corbyn, or indeed any radical. It is why in every election, they elect the less radical party, whichever party that may be. In fact, this is the reason that such a radical opposition is so dangerous to England, because it allows the governing party to become more radical without risk of being booted out of government. The claims that a radical Labour party will force the debate to the left is nonsensical; Michael Foot did not drag Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party to the left, nor did Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard drag Labour to the right.

Conservatism in the sense of conserving things that matter is important, it makes us far less likely to mistakenly elect a government that is either absurdly right-wing or absurdly left-wing, and it means that any change enacted by a government will almost certainly be small enough that, if it is unpopular or unsuccessful, it can be reversed. As pernicious as the current government’s policies have been, they are not radically right-wing. Think about what left-wingers consider to be the most overtly harmful pieces of legislation: they are usually either changes to spending/taxing, which can be immediately changed by a new budget, or they are often things like the gradual privatisation of the NHS. In fact, the health service has barely been privatised at all. Since the process started about ten years ago under New Labour, only 6.1% of the health service had been privatised by 2013/14. Because of English conservatism, there will never be a government that has a crack at privatising the whole thing, nor in all likelihood one that puts it back into public ownership. Another example is the top-rate of tax. If we had a truly radical right-wing government, one that believed it their moral duty to tax the bare minimum while maintaining law and order, we might have seen the top-rate fall to a piddling amount in the single-digits. Instead, it was lowered from 50% to 45%. Unjust, yes, but relatively modest.

Any party that wishes to govern must be modest in its proposals. There has been much made of the fact that this current Conservative government may have purposefully under-promised in their manifesto with regards to improving people’s lives, such as not including the higher National Minimum Wage. Why would they do this? It is a way of appealing to the natural conservatism of the English. If any party promises that they will wildly change the country in any way, even if seemingly for the better, it is both unbelievable and undesirable. Unbelievable because governments are notoriously dishonest and undesirable because, if a change turns out to be a bad one, it ought to be easily reversible. Labour should have learnt from this, they should have seen that any changes they implement must be incremental, but instead they have leapt upon the chance to be radical, to commit themselves to pure ideological, radical socialism over a gradual, reformist social democracy. Aside all his other faults, this is why Jeremy Corbyn will not win in 2020. 

Some thoughts on the right to be heard and mass surveillance

The internet is a magical thing. In days of yore, not everyone could be heard. This was for two reasons: firstly, there was much more conventional censorship. Books of incredible importance were banned or remained unpublished, and newspaper articles that seemed to conflict with the interest of the mogul at the top were struck out with black marker. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there was no means by which the average joe could say his piece. A skilled writer could perhaps have a letter occasionally printed in the local newspaper, but certainly there was no way that a great idea could be heard by the masses if it was not written by the right person. In the West, we take for granted the fact that now, people can basically say what they want, and, if it is interesting or moving or inventive enough, millions will read it. What has happened is that the English language has been democratised. One difference is that now almost everyone in the UK can both read and write. This is secondary, however, to the fact that the person who is heard is not determined by the interests of a newspaper tycoon or the will of a government, but by the number of Facebook shares he/she receives.

What people do not realise is that this huge shift in the way that people can spread information is dangerous to governments, and that for many, it is in their utmost interest to stop it. During the Arab Spring, Egyptians convened not only in Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo, but also on twitter and Facebook. In China, governments have implemented a ‘great firewall of China’, which not only literally censors the things that people write but also breeds feelings of paranoia, where everyone feels as though they are under surveillance, and in turn become more likely to censor themselves. In many countries, governments have at least made some effort to censor their people. In Turkey, it is illegal to insult the President, as has rather comically been revealed when Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of The Rings films, was called to testify at the trial of a man who compared President Erdoğan to Gollum.

In the UK, the efforts to censor the people have been less obvious, and have largely been surreptitious. But that does not mean they are not happening. The way it happens is firstly by highlighting real problems in the UK, and falsely claiming that the solutions involve surveillance and censorship. For example, the Paris attacks have been used to quickly usher through the so-called Snooper’s Charter, a bill that mandates Internet Service Providers to keep every single person’s browsing history for twelve months. Some may think that this is a good thing, and that we can trust the government only to look at the data of wrongdoers, as was said by Member of Parliament Richard Graham when he quoted Joseph Goebbels and said, ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’. This argument might hold up if it weren’t for the fact that several times, GCHQ has been found to unlawfully access the data of its people and its organisations, including recently being found to have illegally accessed the data of Amnesty International and the Legal Resources Centre. We don’t know why the government would want to illegally snoop on Civil Liberties charities, but I think we could have a pretty good guess.

This mass surveillance could possibly be justified if it stopped terrorist attacks. You’d think that, given the amount that politicians reel off the numbers of terrorist attacks that have been stopped in the last year or whatever it is, the surveillance systems are hugely successful, and often lead to terrorists being captured. The truth is slightly different. One analysis of the NSA’s spying programme concluded that the surveillance had had ‘no discernable impact’ on preventing attacks. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the U.S. government was quick to leap on the fact that the NSA is keeping Americans safe, and NSA Director Keith Alexander testified that the National Security Agency had prevented 54 attacks. The truth was later revealed that this was a lie, and Alexander eventually admitted that what he had said was untrue.

Surveillance and censorship go hand-in-hand, and often, surveillance in the name of counter-terrorism is the first step in mass censorship. The United Kingdom is lucky to had never experienced dictatorship in the same way as the USSR or Germany, but this leaves Britain particularly vulnerable to a certain naivety about censorship. In the USSR, grandparents tell their grandchildren stories of how they placed pillows over the microphones of their landlines out of fears that they were being listened to by government officials, and how all sense of privacy was eradicated and replaced by total loyalty to the Party. Although Britain is far from the privacy violations of the USSR or the hellish dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four, sleepwalking into a state where privacy is a relic from a bygone era is not impossible, and the current Conservative government have no sympathy for the traditional liberal values of privacy and individual freedom. David Cameron said, “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone”. Hardly makes you feel safe to say or think what you want, does it? The internet is a vitally important tool to allow people to say what they want, and to criticise the government when they do wrong. This is why many seek to place limitations on what you can and cannot say online, and also why they must be stopped. 

Some thoughts on the U-turn in modern British politics

It seems to me that there are two types of U-Turn, and not often is the distinction between these types discussed. Firstly, there is the commendable U-Turn. This is the type that John Maynard Keynes talked about when he asked of an audience member who queried a U-Turn Keynes had made, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’. In politics today (and I suspect ever), this type of U-Turn is exceedingly rare. It does not matter what new evidence surfaces, politicians are very unlikely to have a sudden conversion. The second type of U-Turn, and the one that I will write about, is one that John McDonnell might refer to as ‘embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing’, and this is the type of U-Turn where a politician, or anyone else, changes their mind in order to fit some narrative that they wish to promote.

A good example of this is the Conservative Party’s recent behavior over the Lords’ rejection of tax credit cuts. For years, Conservative MPs have been perfectly happy to extol the virtues of having a second chamber and make the argument against a reformed House of Lords. Whether the argument against an elected House of Lords is a good one is irrelevant, the fact is that they have shown support for the Lords in the way that it currently works. Yet, as the Lords becomes an obstacle for George Osborne in legislating, and in the more long-term, an obstacle to him becoming leader of the Conservative Party, he will huff and puff about the outrage that an unelected House of Lords has blocked legislation from the elected House of Commons. Of course, politicians are not so plain about such things. They tiptoe around the fact that they are changing their minds for political reasons by referring to some minutiae that they claim makes all the difference. For Osborne, he claims that the difference is that this piece of legislation is a statutory instrument relating to finance, which to you or I seems obviously an unashamed piece of spin. Are we seriously to believe that if a Labour bill that happened to be a statutory instrument relating to finance had been blocked by the Lords, the Conservatives would be up in arms about the democratic injustice of it? Of course not.

That is not to say that changing your mind to suit some political objective is exclusive to those on the right, or more common there. George Orwell, for example, in his essay The Prevention of Literature, talks about the way in which Communists changed their mind to make the Communist Party look good: “Consider, for example, the various attitudes, completely incompatible with one another, which an English Communist or ‘fellow-traveler’ has had to adopt toward the war between Britain and Germany. For years before September, 1939, he was expected to be in a continuous stew about ‘the horrors of Nazism’ and to twist everything he wrote into a denunciation of Hitler: after September, 1939, for twenty months, he had to believe that Germany was more sinned against than sinning, and the word ‘Nazi’, at least as far as print went, had to drop right out of his vocabulary. Immediately after hearing the 8 o'clock news bulletin on the morning of June 22, 1941, he had to start believing once again that Nazism was the most hideous evil the world had ever seen”.

A more modern example of those on the left having the most blatant double standards is the case of the European Union. When the election results came in on May 7th, it was difficult to not hear the cries from the left of the injustice of the electoral system. First Past the Post was a failed system, they claimed, and somehow had given the Conservatives a majority of the seats despite the fact that they received only 37% of the vote. Again, whether this argument is a good one does not particularly matter, it is the sheer brazenness with which those who make it have to apply this logic to British elections but defend the European Union. David Cameron might only have received 37% of the votes, but Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, received precisely zero votes.

Perhaps an even clearer example is the way in which the governments of Greece and Portugal have been treated by Angela Merkel. Imagine, for a second, that Jeremy Corbyn is elected Prime Minister in 2020. Imagine then, that, in spite of the fact that he has won an election on an anti-austerity ticket, the European Union announces that this economic policy is incompatible with the wishes of Angela Merkel, and that if they do not adopt it by choice, austerity will be forced on the people of the UK. If this happened, the British left would be up in arms, and rightly so. So why, when this happens in Greece, are the British left (with some exceptions) still happy to support the European Union? In Portugal, the left-wing majority government has been refused office on the grounds that they are not compatible with Europe, and the Conservative Prime Minister has been allowed to remain in place. The same people who would, without a doubt, denounce these things as disgraceful and undemocratic if they were happening either within, or being forced upon, the United Kingdom are happy to ignore or even defend them when they apply to the European Union.

Double-think, to come back to Orwell, is still rife. People can accept that an unelected House of Lords that acts as a check on the elected House of Commons is a good thing, and then come out and say that the House of Commons ought to be able to legislate whatever it pleases and should not be blocked by unelected Lords. People can passionately believe that the Conservative government ought not to be able to form a majority government without a majority of the votes and argue that the European Union, in spite of the fact that neither the European Commission nor the Council of Ministers is elected, ought to be able to pass laws that affect the United Kingdom. Many things have changed since Orwell was writing, but politicians and people who talk about politics having views that are completely inconsistent to one another in order to preserve some kind of narrative, has not, and it is doubtful that it ever will.