Democracy is not in crisis but it is feeling battered in much of the rich world at present, and is experiencing a ‘demand and supply’ problem. Voters have become more demanding, less deferential towards authority of all kinds, better educated and better armed (with the internet and social media).
At the same time, democracies are struggling to supply some of the good things that they have been associated with in the past – such as ever improving standards of living, accountable decision making (as globalisation removes more decisions from the nation) and a sense of a broad equalisation of status and esteem among citizens.
The last of those supply problems arises from the new system of status stratification by education, and in particular higher education, that has turned us into what has been described as “diploma democracies” — political systems in which the main political parties and broader public sphere are increasingly dominated by the views and priorities of the highly educated and liberal minded, notwithstanding a few tabloid newspapers and some angry corners of the internet.
What the populists get right
Stable, open democracies require representation of all the main strands of opinion in a society, and if significant interests are excluded they will find a way of making themselves heard. This is what has happened with the great democratic ‘rebalancing’ represented by Brexit, Trump and continental European populism.
This rebalancing is messy and disruptive and encounters resistance and push-back, and right now one of the main battle grounds is the British Conservative party.
Historically, the party has prided itself on being a broad church, absorbing all non-extreme views on the Right of politics. This tradition appeared to be at least partly abandoned by the Cameron/Osborne modernisation of the party, in which continuity with New Labour social policy was prioritised, and socially conservative views were largely excluded and seen as politically damaging. (The grudging exceptions to this story were the ill-fated “tens of thousands” immigration target and, eventually, the referendum concession.)
This move by the Conservatives effectively excluded a large body of national opinion from Parliament and continues to unbalance our politics. The militant ‘zero tolerance’ policy pursued by a small niche of metropolitan opinion, which patrols the public conversation seeking out heretics to expel, aims to keep it unbalanced.
Consider, as evidence, the recent sacking by a Conservative government of Roger Scruton, Britain’s most eminent conservative philosopher, for his tendentious comments about Muslims. And the ridiculous comments from David Lammy MP, the Nigel Farage of the Left, on Sunday about how retweeting something from a German populist party is an expression of Nazism.
What the populists get right
Yet a large body of opinion in this country hold opinions that are anathema to much of the progressive worldview: about 45% of people support the death penalty, about 65% think that immigration has been either too high or much too high, around half the population want to leave the EU, 62% of people think that Britain “sometimes feels like a foreign country”, the vast majority of women and men want modification not abolition of a gender division of labour, 58% of people think that newcomers are not integrating well, about one third of the population say they would prefer to live in an area where almost everyone is from the same background and 44% of whites say they would mind a little or a lot if a close relative married a Muslim.
Not all of these views are equally reasonable but, instead of excluding the people who hold them, would it not be preferable to persuade them to change their minds? Isn’t that how a democratic conversation is meant to function? Some of those views are gradually shifting in a more progressive direction as a result of the expansion of higher education and the generational shift, but not all of them.
Most people with such views are decent citizens, who are comfortable with ‘modern Britain’ but tend to think it is changing too fast. And it cannot be said often enough that the vast majority also accept the broad outlines of race, gender and sexuality equality – though might argue with equality activists about what equality actually means.
Academics have shown a steady drop in levels of racial prejudice since the 1980s. Only one per cent of the population now admit to being very prejudiced against people of different races (and they are almost all over 50), a negligible proportion say they do not want someone from a different race as a neighbour, less than 10% strongly disagree with gay marriage.
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Moreover, the constant insinuation, repeated by David Lammy on Sunday, that since Brexit, Britain has experienced a rising tide of violence and hatred against minorities is contradicted by the only reliable piece of evidence we have: the Crime Survey of England and Wales finds that hate crime is on quite a sharp downward trend, including in the period covering Brexit (when there was a brief spike in harassment).
Nevertheless, the partial suppression of legitimate small-c conservative views in the public domain, reinforced by our first-past-the-post electoral system denying representation to overtly populist parties, has ended up giving us Brexit instead.
Contrast this with continental Europe which has absorbed, accommodated and domesticated populist opinion over the last 20 years. Several populist parties have now taken part in government coalitions and in many cases, such as the Finns in Finland, have split and re-formed. The general direction of travel is towards less extreme views with experience of office tempering the views of leaders and most activists: consider the Freedom party in Austria and the People’s party in Denmark. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally has gradually moved away from support for France leaving the EU and not just because of Brexit.
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The Italian populist coalition has also just provided a good recent example of this domestication. Both the 5 Star Movement and Lega Nord were seduced by the anti-MMR vaccine cult and had promised to abolish a law banning children from attending school unless they had received jabs against 10 diseases. But when the 5 Star education minister was faced with an outbreak of measles in schools the party abruptly dropped its opposition to vaccination and in effect adopted the policy it had previously repudiated.
The influence has, it is true, worked the other way too and populist parties have influenced mainstream ones, most notably in the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and the UK too (despite first past the post). But this is surely democracy working its magic, not some kind of poison injected into the system. One reason such socially conservative views are not going to fade away swiftly in this country is because they tend to be popular among the fast-growing and often religiously observant ethnic minorities.
“There is a feeling that commonly held values are being eroded and disregarded by an elite that believes it knows better,” wrote one prominent ethnic minority MP by the name of David Lammy in his book Out of the Ashes about the 2011 riots, a book that opposed a ban on smacking and excoriated the hedonism, nihilism and hyper-individualism of the ‘double liberalism’ of 1980s market economics plus a 1960s ‘anything goes’ worldview. The David Lammy of 2011 would surely have attracted the attention of the ‘zero tolerance’ policemen of 2019.
A constitutional reform programme that would give us some variant of proportional representation and so a political voice in Parliament for legitimate populism and social conservatism is not going to happen soon. Which means that the Conservative party must return to its broad-church tradition, as the Brexit result seems to be mandating.
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This is not rocket science. George Osborne, who was tweeting gleefully in support of the sacking of Roger Scruton, has a reputation as a fearsome political strategist but he must take quite a large part of the blame for his party’s current slump in popularity, as not only the author of an excessive austerity but also of a high-handed liberalisation of the party that turbo-charged Ukip and led to Brexit.
The obvious thing would have been to balance a liberal move, such as gay marriage, with something for the more conservative-minded family lobby – such as the right of couples bringing up children together to share their tax allowances thereby making it far easier for one parent to stay at home when children are young.
Instead, the Conservative leadership have found themselves cornered by a shallow, metropolitan worldview without the intellectual resources or political confidence to create the new kind of liberal-conservative settlement that the country and their future success requires.
In the long run, the main party of the centre-Right remains better equipped to lead that new settlement because it is easier for the Conservatives to shift Left on economics, as they did at the last election, than it is for the Labour party to shift Right on culture in the direction of a David Lammy (2011) Blue Labour politics.
But escaping the clutches of the ‘zero tolerance’ sectarians will not be easy, as exemplified by the Scruton episode, which speaks to a larger nervousness about the Muslim and Islamophobia question.
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The party has allowed itself to be painted as having an Islamophobia problem on the basis of a few prejudiced statements by local activists and councillors and an unscrupulous campaign against Sadiq Khan. Sayeeda Warsi, the former party chairman, has played a central role in this as she attempts to turn herself into one of the key gatekeepers to Muslim Britain, describing the Muslim experience in the past decade as a “brutal” one. The BBC and other news outlets uncritically recycle the claim in part to provide balance to the anti-Semitism charge against the Labour party.
Very few Muslims, who now make up about 6% of the population, are Tory voters or members and there is very little knowledge of Muslim communities and politics in the higher ranks of the party. This has made it harder for the party to distinguish genuinely moderate and reform-minded Muslim leaders from those associated with the Islamist strain of politics that encourages separation.
And it makes the party and country incapable, it seems, of having a reasonable discussion about aspects of Muslim life that makes British society more wary towards their fellow citizens of Muslim background than towards other minorities.
For Muslims do, on average, live more separate, and often poorer, lives than other minorities. Many of them come from traditional societies and now often live in the most depressed parts of post-industrial Britain: 46% of the Muslim population lives in the 10% most deprived local authorities. Only about one third of Muslim women work, they are more likely than other minorities to speak a language other than English at home, rarely marry out, and still hold to norms that are more authoritarian, patriarchal and collectivist than the increasingly liberal, egalitarian and individualist British mainstream.
Moreover, British Muslim attitudes on homosexuality, blasphemy, religion in politics, even conspiracy theory accounts of 9/11, tend to have more in common with global Muslim opinion than with the rest of British society.
Given that a large proportion of British people have no Muslim friends – in 2004, this was 90% – and, from the Rushdie affair via grooming gangs to jihadists acting in the name of Islam, Muslims are often associated with extremism, it may not be so surprising that, as I described above 44% of whites say they would mind a little or a lot if a close relative married a Muslim (35% of British Pakistanis feel the same about a relative marrying a white person).
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It is true that some Muslims do suffer discrimination and harassment, probably more than other minorities, but there is no evidence that it is increasing. And it is not Islamophobic to raise these real issues of tension and difference. What we need is a deeper conversation about segregation and how to engineer more and better interaction across the Muslim-non-Muslim divide, plus a focus on the achievements of the growing Muslim middle class, rather than more intense policing of conversations at Tory cocktail parties.
The Conservative party should stop believing what their enemies say about them, remind themselves that they are the first party to appoint someone of Muslim background to one of the highest offices of state, and face down the zero tolerance sectarians.
In fact, if the party is to rise to the challenge of leading the post-Brexit settlement across the country’s great value divides, it needs to apply that reasoning across Conservative thinking on all social and cultural matters.