Alex Morton: The left want to make it illegitimate to be right-wing, and the state is helping them to do it

Quangos, councils, media outlets, even the police are apparently content to apply unequal restrictions to those of us whose views they dislike.

Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.

We all know that people on the left tend to think that justice and righteousness are on their side. But increasingly they also seem to feel that right-wing views are simply illegitimate to hold.

The panels on the BBC’s flagship political shows, as we’re all aware, are massively biased in favour of Remain. But if goes beyond that. The ERG are consistently described in the press as “hardliners”, whereas if you are trying overturn the largest democratic mandate in British history by supporting a second referendum before implementing the result of the first, in defiance of the manifesto upon which you were elected, you are portrayed as a principled objector.

Or consider the media response if 15,000 children had played truant to call for balanced immigration policies (which the vast majority of voters would support), rather than to protest against a doomsday version of climate change. I suspect the papers would be full of the reports on the threat of indoctrination by politically motivated teachers – if the organisers were not already being investigated for thought-crime.

It is not just the media. Holding right-wing views, being right-wing, or even just departing from the politically correct orthodoxy, is an increasingly risky business.

More recently, the CEO of the charity Women’s Aid – the impeccably progressive Katie Ghose – was forced to step down because (in her previous role as head of the Electoral Reform Society) she had paid UKIP some pro forma compliments while speaking on a panel at its conference.

Even the state is attacking right-wingers and right-wing views

The problem is not just that a culture war is raging. It is that the state – even under a Conservative Government – is often leading the charge.

A 74-year-old from Suffolk was contacted by police after writing about gender issues – despite not committing any crime, and despite there apparently not being enough officers on the streets to deal with knife crime. Miranda Yardley, a transsexual who dissents from the new orthodoxy on gender identity, was charged with hate crime after getting into a Twitter spat. After ten months of hell, the case collapsed on its first day, with the judge ruling that “there is no case and never was a case”.

A few years back, we had the loving foster parents who had three children removed from their care because they had committed the crime of supporting UKIP. (Ironically, by the same left-wing council in Rotherham that was later found to have covered up sexual abuse by racist grooming gangs.)

If you are an advertiser whose campaigns “support sexist stereotypes” you can have them pulled from the public gaze without compensation. And God help you if you try to show Londoners a picture of butter.

If you are a free market think tank, you can be told off by the Government quango the Charity Commission for being too political, while big charities continue to push a left-wing agenda of more state spending. The British state itself will often donate large sums to these charities, which then lobby for more state spending and state intervention. Meanwhile, vast numbers of quangos constantly pump out calls for more intervention and banning and restricting (a recent favourite being banning gas hobs).

Universities, meanwhile, which are massively supported by the state, are not just 9:1 in favour of Remain but have become a place where we need to “decolonise” the curriculum but simultaneously where no-platforming is on the rise. If I were at university, I would genuinely fear that my grades would be affected by my views.

The police, the BBC, that local authority in Rotherham, the Charity Commission, the Advertising Standards Agency, universities, charities like Women’s Aid – all these are at least partially funded, supported, or even fully operated by the state. Yet have been used to prosecute a war on right-wing people and right-wing views.  No wonder conservative and small-l classical liberal views are in full retreat.

The goal is to shut down debate – especially in the case of the fake liberals

This is not just a case of a few left-wing authoritarians. The self-declared “moderate” centre also contains many people who are prepared to shut down right-wing points of view.

The whole point of a liberal society is you do not tell people what to do, or think or say – other than, for example, banning direct hate speech that incites violence, or stopping direct discrimination against individuals. Yet many people who use the term ‘liberal’ today are anything but.

The goal of much of this is to make people afraid to express right-wing views in public and delegitimise them as a very concept – something which has become more important in the social media era. I have lost track of the number of people who have told me they are afraid of saying things or supporting right-wing causes publicly.

Bias in the media will always be with us – which requires robust, free debate to counter, rather than echoing left-wing calls for censorship. But the state, and all its agencies, should make sure that it is not endorsing, let alone waging, a war on right-wing opinions. That means refusing to fund charities which will not tolerate genuine diversity of views. Trying to ensure more balance within universities and the education system. Punishing regulators, police officers and councils when they clearly overstep the mark.

Conservatives must protect conservatism

Coming out as a gay man at school, I learnt that the more you apologise for yourself, the worse it gets. Conservatives have been told that they should sit down and shut up. Instead, they need to fight back. At the very least, a Conservative government should on basic liberal principles oppose this war on anyone who deviates from the new orthodoxy.

Nick Hargrave: In an age of post-truth politics, moderate politicians must prepare to work across party lines

I have reluctantly concluded that there needs to be greater regulation of the veracity of claims made by registered participants in political campaigns.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.

It’s a common trope that we live in an age of post-truth politics. It increasingly appears that politicians have impunity to say things that are either demonstrably false or – more often in the UK at least – promise a future that is not supported by a rational reading of the evidence at hand.

The EU referendum and the subsequent process after serve as good exhibits for the prosecution. The Leave side of the fence is probably the more egregious with the £350 million red bus, the promises that a free trade deal with the EU would be the easiest such undertaking ever and – most pressingly now – denunciations of those who suggest that a ‘No Deal’ Brexit would come with a cost.

The Remain side of the divide is not without fault either though; lest we forget the ‘punishment budget’ that never happened, the pre-referendum modelling on the impact of the vote that ludicrously assumed no policy response from the Bank of England – not to mention every piece of bad economic news now being held up as a ‘told you so’ with no examination of whether the real cause is Brexit or not.

We should not of course  hark back to a mythical golden era where those with power dispassionately handed down truth to the people. From the hagiographical Anglo Saxon Chronicle in the ninth century to the 1945 General Election campaign, where our wartime hero, Winston Churchill, said that a British Gestapo would be needed to implement Labour’s policies – politicians of the day have always presented their interpretation of the truth to try and win support.

It is all a matter of degrees. But nonetheless it does feel like something has changed for the worse in politics in recent years. Certainly since the extension of the franchise in the nineteenth century, I do not think there has been a period in modern British history where politicians pay such scant regard to objective evidence and where the general public are willing to suspend disbelief in response.

The causes for this are well-rehearsed enough; the explosion of the internet in the past 20 years that has given the charlatan and the populist an unvetted voice and forced ‘moderate’ politicians to engage in an arms race to catch up; a declining trust in traditional sources of authority because of the profound economic effects of the financial crisis, globalisation and automation; the exponential growth of data, meaning that it’s easier to build a surface argument no matter how flimsy; a news cycle that moves so quickly that the best and speediest rebuttal in the world still comes too late; an increasing divide on values which means people shut out information that they don’t want to hear.

Less well tested is how we might rectify the situation.

There are two options. We can accept that, short of banning the internet and censoring political discourse, there is very little we can do. We are at the mercy of events and will have to accept a mid twenty-first century characterised by demagogues winning elections and referendums, chaotic policy making, a gradual erosion of the global rules-based order – with evidence only coming back into vogue after a series of shocks and recessions that lead us to see the error of our ways.

There is another school of thought though, which I much prefer – if only because the alternative is unlikely to be peaceful or economically stable. While there is no silver bullet, there are certainly things we can and should do to raise the standard of political debate in this country.
First, we need better politicians who the public are willing to trust in a face-off with the charlatans of the hour. Part of this is about getting people who have genuinely achieved things outside of Westminster into the Commons, and speak with gravitas and knowledge of what the real world is like. We could frankly do with more Andy Streets and Geoffrey Cox’s going into the frontline.

But there is more to it than that. We should also be honest that self-defined moderate politicians of this era stick to the line too much, and are obsessed with repeating back what they think people want to hear. As someone who spent several years in the bowels of Downing Street and Conservative Campaign HQ, raised on a diet of Clinton 1992 and Blair 1997 as model campaigns, this has been a humbling and gradual realisation. Most effective public policy is difficult and involves trade-offs; campaigning is very different to governing.

There is no better illustration of this than the current mess we have reached in the implementation of Brexit where our political leaders were not honest about the compromises needed to give practical effect to the referendum result. The temptation to boil political communications down to a form of cereal marketing will always be there. But I suspect that future leaders who level that there are no moral absolutes or easy answers will do better than is commonly supposed; the electorate are many things but they are not stupid.

Second, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there needs to be greater regulation of the veracity of claims made by registered participants in political campaigns. There are important free speech considerations here and unregistered mendacious participants will still slip through the cracks online. But a more developed regulatory regime would nonetheless remind mainstream politicians that they should not stoop to this level.   One could, for example, trial a role for the Advertising Standards Authority – who currently cannot adjudicate complaints and impose sanctions on electoral material – in an upcoming campaign in the UK.

Finally, and perhaps a little uncomfortably, we have to get better at working on difficult issues across traditional party lines. If we are constantly saying the other side have nothing good to impart then there are consequences. The electorate do not know who to believe. They think everyone is as bad as each other. The door is opened to those who take the easy way out and propose mythical ‘unicorns’ rather than evidence-based solutions. Cross-party coalitions on issues such as fixing social care, an honest conversation about the right balance of tax and spend to fund twenty-first century public services – or dare I say it implementing a version of Brexit that respects the narrow mandate of the referendum – would lend credibility to viewpoints because they don’t look politically driven.

Some will of course cry ‘establishment stitch-up’ and ‘Westminster cartel at its best’. It will be the responsibility of the moderate politicians of the future to demonstrate that evidence, and developed understanding of the issues at hand, remain the most reliable route to improved living standards and a better tomorrow.