Think of the National Trust, and what probably comes to mind is an image of a middle-aged, middle-class couple pottering round a neo-classical pile built at vast expense by a spendthrift earl in the 18th century, and then surrendered to the Nation in lieu of inheritance tax sometime in the late 1940s. After all, its purpose is surely to preserve historically significant houses and gardens for the enjoyment and education of the general public.
Well, it seems not. Seek out the National Trust’s Strategy to 2025, and the first words you read are: “Our 21st-century ambition is to meet the needs of an environment under pressure, and the challenges and expectations of a fast-moving world… Underpinning this is our renewed commitment to diversity and inclusion and playing our part to create a fair, equal society, free from discrimination.”
In their “10-year Vision”, written in the same hideous identikit jargon, they talk about a “revolutionary” move away from the “outdated mansion experience”. The Trust provides little evidence that stately homes are becoming less popular; reading between the lines the main problem that the Vision’s authors seem to have with the English country house is that it is old and traditional and popular with comfortably-off white people.
I don’t particularly want to get stuck into the National Trust. But they do provide a particularly interesting example of a problem afflicting institutions in modern Britain, namely the relentless politicisation of parts of life which should represent an escape from politics.
The Black Lives Matter summer has revealed the extent of this phenomenon. We had the frankly bizarre spectacle of British footballers and rugby league players being compelled to kneel before they started playing, in obeisance to a protest movement that began in another country, on another continent, in response to something that barely ever happens in the UK. A number of police chiefs also took the knee, including Alan Pughsley of Kent Police. Art galleries and theatres and universities rushed to signal that they too were supportive of BLM, with many rushing out statements confessing that they were guilty of institutional racism.
Meanwhile, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, the Scottish women’s football team Glasgow City will play the entire 2020-21 season in a strip adorned with her name. In support of this gesture, the club manager stated that “We champion change and equality”. What a dilemma for Glasgow City players who favour an originalist approach to interpretation of the US Constitution.
These developments should be highly disturbing to all those who favour a free and open society. Such societies cannot function without mediating institutions, i.e. civic organisations that exist independently of the state and are devoted to non-political purposes. These groups are of many different kinds but the one thing they have in common is that exist as an end in themselves, not as a means to something else.
People come together to form, say, a chess club because they wish to play chess together, not because they wish to oppose Brexit or lower the voting age. A chess club which limited its membership to socialists, or to monarchists, would in an important sense no longer be a chess club. A constant feature of totalitarian regimes — of both the Left and the Right — is a strong hostility to groups that exist for their own sake, and independent of state ideology. They recognise, rightly, that such organisations represent alternative focal points for loyalty and affiliation, and that they are places where ideology is subdued and put in its proper place.
Consider, for example, the crushing of independent trade unions in the Soviet bloc — hence the bitter struggles over Solidarnosc in Poland — or the way in which Nazi Germany refused to tolerate any competitors to the Hitler Youth. Scouting, with its strong emphasis on internationalism, has frequently been suppressed under dictatorships.
Obviously modern Britain is not any kind of authoritarian regime; by comparison with most countries, we retain a healthy and vibrant civil society. However, it does not follow from this that we need not be concerned about the encroachment of politics on voluntary associations that have, or should have, what Roger Scruton called “purposes internal to themselves”, rather than existing to promote a particular view of how the world should be organised. When a police force in Wales can insist that a male-voice choir made up of police employees should no longer officially associate itself with the police because they do not accept women as members, it is not unduly alarmist to think that we might have a problem.
Opportunities for people to come together outside of political commitments are hugely important because it is in such contexts that we get to know each other as individuals, rather than as bundles of ideas or opinions, and to develop the social capital and trust that makes such a difference to whether countries are pleasant places to live or not. The independent institution is a little haven of peace away from the rancour that inevitably accompanies politics.
It is a chance for us to focus on one thing, not many things, and this is healthy for both individuals and the wider society because it encourages the pursuit of excellence and the development of virtues. At the cricket club, our aim and purpose is to become the best cricketers we can be, and to build fellowship with others through that process. It is not a failure of a cricket club’s purpose if it does not have a position on Black Lives Matter or the nationalisation of utilities.
For some people the very idea of a non-ideological sphere, or a non-political space, is effectively a myth. A standard progressive reply to the kind of argument I am making here is that what looks like an absence of ideology is often nothing of the sort, and that conservatives tend to ignore the ideologies embedded in established or existing practices and norms. The status quo is political, so by not challenging the status quo you are already taking a political stance whether you like it or not. “Silence is violence”, as one of the slogans of the past summer, has it. If you do not state your support for whatever movement is currently demanding it, then you are effectively throwing your weight behind whatever injustice — real or purported — the movement claims to oppose. Black Lives Matter supporters agree with President George W Bush: You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.
Nevertheless, there is clearly a need for spaces where political demands can be ignored as not relevant, as not part of the purpose of that space, for the reasons noted above. And there is plainly an important distinction between the ideological and the non-ideological, even if by non-ideological what we really mean is “minimally ideological”. To take a political or ideological view of an event or organisation, of an utterance or argument, is to view it through the lens of an organising principle, to consider it primarily as an instance of a general rule and to allow our conclusions to be dominated by already existing prescriptive commitments.
The non-ideological approach to life, by contrast, approaches each case on its own merits; it considers, as the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “the thing itself”. It is humanist, seeing people and their situations as standing alone rather being slotted into a neat pre-existing box. It also recognises the existence and importance of customs, traditions, institutions and ways of living that are beyond the reach of organised compulsion. It is the basis of authentic pluralism, because it enables us to carve out room for minorities and dissenters.
This of course is anathema to the dominant modern way of thinking. Liberalism today is fervently universalising, hence the ever-expanding empire of “human rights”, and the “equality duty” imposed on all public bodies by the 2010 Equality Act. It is this equality duty that is at the bottom of so many cases of once-neutral or apolitical institutions feeling compelled to wade into political areas where they do not really belong. The Act has given a rocket boost to Conquest’s Second Law: “Any organisation not explicitly Right-wing sooner or later becomes Left-wing”.
What we have seen this summer is the continuation of an attack — not necessarily intentional or co-ordinated, but an attack nevertheless — on the very idea of the independent institution or body, that can stand apart from political debates because politics is not part of its function and nature. The demand is, as it were, that everything is about everything all the time. This is not healthy, and it is not conducive to building the kind of society where people of many different backgrounds and opinions can rub along together harmoniously.
We need to have domains where politics — that is, debates about how the nation as a whole lives together, how the government should or shouldn’t act, what we must and must not be compelled to do — can be put to one side, and we focus on the particular, not the general. There is a great swathe of life that is not political, and there is so much joy and richness to be found away from politics and away from ideology; history and the arts and sport, hobbies and films and family life. If we bow to the demand that all human activity must be understood and mediated through a political lens, we will live to regret it.