May 26, 2020 - 11:50am

The Campaign for Common Sense logo. Credit: CCS

A great many interesting stories got buried by the meltdown over Dominic Cummings’ childcare arrangements. One such was the launch by Bedford Free School founder Mark Lehain of the Campaign for Common Sense, a new body pushing back against the encroachment of identity politics into public life.

Writing in ConservativeHome, Lehain argues that:

…significant chunks of public life have been increasingly shaped by unrepresentative concerns, and become more and more disconnected from the majority of people […] well-meaning initiatives to make society fairer are actually making things worse and dividing people further.
- Mark Lehain, Conservative Home

Lehain’s initiative follows on the heels of the recent launch by another former Free School founder, Toby Young, of the Free Speech Union, a body that seeks to defend people who have been deplatformed or otherwise cancelled for expressing the ‘wrong’ views. But the two initiatives show some intriguing differences. Young’s organisation has a libertarian flavour, describing itself as ‘non-partisan’ and arguing on its home page not for any value set in particular but rather that “free speech is the bedrock on which all our other freedoms rest”.

Lehain, on the other hand, has led not with the negative freedom to say whatever we like but with polling calculated to show consensus views across the country, and how they diverge from the ‘official’ morality of identity politics. This might seem trivial but might in fact represent a more significant challenge to ‘cancel culture’ than Young’s effort.

The Free Speech Union, while it claims to challenge identity politics, fails to escape its core premise: a radically individualistic assessment of human society. For both Young and the identitarians the FSU opposes, there’s no common good — only Young’s freedom to say what you like, or the identity-politics freedom to be what you like.

The Campaign for Common Sense, on the other hand, argues that “there are some truths shared by the overwhelming majority in society, [which] should form the basis of interactions and decision-making” but that this shared value-set “has found itself pushed aside by a vocal activist minority”. The campaign’s polling appears to back this assertion up across age, sex, political preference and socioeconomic group.

When the Free Speech Union launched, I found myself wondering if it would defend anyone whose free speech was infringed, regardless of how inimical those views might be to a majority sense of the common good. When members of a far-Right group were arrested for posting stickers blaming migrants for coronavirus, Young tweeted in their defence, suggesting that this is at least possible.

But a campaign founded on a majoritarian approach to public ethical norms can’t be this absolutely relativistic. ‘Common sense’ is always going to conclude that some views are beyond the pale. In this sense, the CCS is less a ‘moderate’ version of the Free Speech Union than it is a competing paradigm: one that recognises that society as a whole contributes to determining public ethical norms, and to policing the boundaries of those norms.

In aligning itself with majority common-sense UK opinion, it’s thus conceivable that the CCS could find itself at odds with either the FSU, or the forces of ‘cancel culture’ — or both. By explicitly making the determination of acceptable values a majoritarian activity, it’s a radical challenge to the idea that no one has the right to question someone else’s morals. If it gains traction, the population could find itself both freer to express commonly-held views — and, potentially, also less free to express those which push normative political boundaries.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.