Daniel Hannan: Super Thursday’s results weren’t a victory for conservatism, but for our leader: Brexity Jezza

12 May

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

It was, as every pundit rushed to explain, an incumbency vote. The Conservatives held England, Labour held Wales and the SNP held Scotland. In a crisis, people rallied to the regime.

Yes. But let’s spell out, in full depressing detail, precisely what kind of regimes they were rallying to. They were rallying to free stuff. They were voting gratefully for administrations that were ladling out grants, subsidies and interest-free loans. They were cheerfully endorsing the idea of being paid to stay at home.

Indeed, they had little option but to vote for these things. Who was offering an alternative? What politician, in the current mood, wants to be the gloomster reminding everyone that accounts must be settled? Who feels like being a Cassandra, droning on about how the debts of the past 14 months will drag us down for years to come? I mean, look what happened to Cassandra.

The rise of big government is paradoxically bad news for Labour. Boris Johnson has always had a thing about bridges, airports and other grands projets. Even before the pandemic hit, the man who once described himself as a “Brexity Hezza” was starting to unscrew the spending taps. But the lockdowns altered the fiscal terms of trade utterly and irretrievably. Not so much Brexity Hezza now as Brexity Jezza.

Corbynistas are claiming belated vindication. “You see? There was a magic money tree after all! Your guy is spending more than our guy ever promised!” Yes, he is. And that is precisely Labour’s problem. How can Keir Starmer – how can anyone – criticise the government for not spending enough? The usual Labour line, namely that they’d be more open-handed than those heartless Tories, is redundant.

If it can’t attack the Government on fiscal policy, what else can Labour go for? Sleaze? Yeah, right, good luck with that. The country decided early on that it was fond of the PM. Sure, he might be seen as a bit chaotic, but he is doing things that people like. At a time when he is leading the UK through a world-beating vaccination programme, moaning about a redecoration that is not alleged to have cost taxpayers a penny is not just pointless, but self-defeating. Labour has made itself look unutterably small during a crisis. Wallpaper for Boris, curtains for Keir.

Green issues, then? Again, forget it. The PM has embraced the eco-agenda as wholeheartedly as any head of government on the planet. Labour would, as voters correctly perceive, pursue the same agenda, but in a less cost-effective and market-friendly way.

With economics, sleaze and environmentalism off the table, Labour is left only with the culture war. Oddly, this is one of the few issues that unites Corbynites and Starmerites. The trouble is, it doesn’t unite them with anyone else. The two Labour factions squabble furiously on Twitter, but both are leagues away from the patriotic working people who used to be their party’s mainstay.

As Khalid Mahmood, the Birmingham MP, put it after the result: “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party”. Mahmood was the first British Muslim MP, and is generally happy to take up causes for his co-religionists outside Birmingham. But he has little time for identity politics – at least, not in the deranged form that the British Left seems hell-bent on importing from the United States. In common with most Brits of all ethnic backgrounds, Mahmood a patriot, proud of having had ancestors in the Merchant Navy in both world wars. That his love of country should set him at odds with the Labour leadership is telling.

The culture war is where Labour is weakest. Corbyn was more or less openly anti-British, siding automatically with any nation against his own, regardless of the issue. Starmer at least sees why this is unpopular, and does his best to be photographed from time to time with flags. But, coming late and awkwardly to patriotism, he offers a slightly cringe-making version. The country at large – not just Labour’s old base, but the 80-plus per cent of us who think that, with all its faults, Britain has been a benign force down the years – senses his inauthenticity. As I write, opinion polls suggest an 11-point Conservative lead.

The combination of social liberalism and extreme internationalism that Corbynites and Stamerites share is, outside a few cities with big universities, unpopular. That may change over time, of course. The historian Ed West, rarely a man to look on the bright side, believes that demographic change will eventually align the electorate with Labour’s purse-lipped culture warriors. The population, he glumly notes, “is going to be more diverse, more urban, more single, more university-educated and more impoverished by rental prices” – all trends that help Labour.

Perhaps so. Indeed, as Henry Hill noted on this site yesterday, the one region of England where the Conservatives have started slipping is my old patch, the South East. Local election results saw reverses in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Oxfordshire and (by extrapolation from the new boundaries) Buckinghamshire. But, to be brutally frank, it makes little difference. Under the first-past-the-post system, the Tories can slide a lot further in the Home Counties without endangering more than three or four MPs. For the next couple of election cycles, at least, the Long Awokening won’t much matter.

No, far more alarming is the way in which fiscal conservatism has simply disappeared, an early casualty of the lockdowns. Even as the country reopens, there is almost no talk of cutting spending back to where it was, let alone of starting to repay our debts. Just as after 1945, a collective threat has made us more collectivist. We crave big government. We feel we have earned a pay rise, and we vote accordingly. The Labour Party may have had it; but so, alas, has the free market.

Gary Powell: Ministers shouldn’t appease the LGBT+ lobby. It doesn’t speak for all gay people – certainly not for me.

13 Apr

Cllr Gary Powell is a councillor in Buckinghamshire.

While China continues on its stratospheric journey as an economic and military superpower, the West preoccupies itself with the new cultural Marxism of identity politics.

Unfettered from the inconvenience of objective reality and scientific verification, this ideology sweeps across the political and social landscape with a degree of contagion matched only by its contempt towards our foundational belief systems, and the rights of anyone too low in the woke pecking order to matter.

A major prong in this identity politics colonisation, the LGBT+ lobby continues to pressure the Government; and the Government, presumably with an eye to increasing the younger vote, looks as though it is wobbling.

Yet who populates this “LGBT+ community”, and on whose authority do LGBT+ spokespeople speak? Although I’m a gay man and a longstanding gay rights campaigner, this lobby doesn’t speak for me. Many lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people, across the political spectrum, actively campaign against the LGBT+ lobby.

The primary LGBT+ obsession is the introduction and enforcement of extreme gender ideology – which has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Many gay and lesbian people strongly oppose the values and aims of the LGBT+ lobby and do not consent to its claims to speak on our behalf. We are not a homogeneous attitudinal monolith, and the real gay and lesbian community has never elected these strident spokespeople.

How can we support a lobby that has redefined homosexuality to mean “same-gender attraction” rather than “same-sex attraction”, so that gay and lesbian people are now called “transphobes” and “genital fetishists” for asserting our surely unassailable right only to date people of the same biological sex as ourselves?

The LGBT+ lobby is a dangerously anti-gay and misogynistic force, steamrolling over women’s and girls’ sex-based rights and protections, attempting to give intact biological males access to hitherto exclusively female environments and domains, simply on the basis of “transgender” self-identification. It attempts to remove the right of same-sex attracted people to meet and organise exclusively on the basis of our sole shared characteristic of same-sex sexual orientation.

We now often get called “LGBT+” instead of gay or lesbian. Young gay and lesbian people – assailed by a barrage of online transgender grooming, woke LGBT+ school and media indoctrination, and modish peer contagion – are increasingly self-identifying as “trans”, and therefore as heterosexual but in the wrong body, inviting the irreversible risks associated with a possible nightmare journey into hormone blockers, cross-sex hormones and even amputations: a modern form of “conversion therapy” that was examined in a recent piece by Radical on these pages.

The history and language of the historical LGB rights movement – “conversion therapy”, “Section 28” – are being casually misappropriated by an extreme gender movement that is actively undermining our autonomy and identity.

Until around 2015, LGB people had the same unchallenged right as every other social minority group to meet and to organise on the basis of our shared common characteristic, which is sexual orientation and nothing else. However, following gay marriage, some grabby gay rights charities and activists needed a new minority cause to keep the ker-ching in their cash registers and to keep the victim identity bandwagon rolling. Consequently, the “T” (transgender) was added to their campaigns, even though “gender identity” has nothing to do with LGB rights.

This still wasn’t enough, and further groups were added to the expanding alphabetic initialism, representing such phenomena as “asexuality”, “kink”, and the “furry” identity, (something to do with dressing up as a furry animal). The free-for-all “plus” in “LGBT+” is reflected in Stonewall’s current motto: “Acceptance without exception”. Surely a bad maxim that encourages blind acceptance even of things that are harmful.

The LGBT+ lobby’s attempt to impose extreme gender ideology on society also does little to help people with genuine gender dysphoria, who deserve acceptance and support, who do no harm by presenting culturally as the opposite sex while respecting the traditional sex-based boundaries that are in place to protect women and girls, and whose reputation is harmed by association with social engineering, zealotry and overreach.

A ferociously-championed political movement, extreme gender ideology is designed to undermine cultural norms, scientific reality, the connection between motherhood and children, parental rights, and freedom of speech: aspects of society one might reasonably expect the Conservative Party to defend tooth and nail as a party that is meant to be conserving what is good and valuable.

The gay and lesbian community has never agreed to merge its cause with any other group’s cause, or to surrender our right only to date members of the same sex, our right not to make common cause with extreme gender ideology, or our right not to give up our exclusive gay or lesbian spaces. Neither have we agreed to encourage LGB young people to wrongly believe they are transgender and be set on a de facto conversion therapy pathway to self-identified heterosexuality by means of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones.

The individuals in the sub-categories that this purely hypothetical “LGBT+ community” composite claims to represent do not form a monolith, and we have a right to our own individual views and opinions: that includes the many mainstream, moderate trans people whose own campaign to help people with gender dysphoria and enlighten the public has also been hijacked by victim-culture social engineers pushing an extreme political agenda.

Many gay and lesbian people on the planet do not enjoy even the most basic of gay rights: Western sensibilities over a wedding cake don’t even hit the radar, and pronouns are the smallest beer imaginable. Homosexuality is still illegal in 70 countries, where the death penalty can be imposed in several. In some places, gay people are publicly flogged.

Yet the western LGBT+ lobby remains primarily obsessed with self-indulgent identity politics that will allow natal men to drive a coach and horses through women’s and girls’ sex-based rights and protections and will cause confused, misinformed and traumatised children to wrongly self-identify as trans.

Countries with anti-gay customs and laws can now point to the LGBT+ overreach in the West as an excuse to block basic gay rights reforms at home. The Western LGBT+lobby is harming the rights of gay and lesbian people, children and women across the globe. This is not a movement that deserves appeasement – least of all from conservatives – and there should be no more concessions.

We need Conservative leadership that will stop neo-Marxist identity politics being force-fed to children in British schools, and not a Government of appeasement that abandons conservative principles while nervously and surreptitiously shifting to the woke left in search of votes from an indoctrinated Brave New Generation.

Robert Halfon: Patriotism is important to people – whatever the liberal elite thinks – and there’s nothing wrong with that

24 Mar

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Pride and Prejudice

I have tended not to engage in the cultural wars raging at the moment. This is, in part, because I have been focused on education and Covid and, second, because I remember the words of a close friend, “You don’t need to don your armour for every battle.”

However, the skirmish over our Union flag and the sneering about ministers’ flag displays from BBC presenters really got my goat.

I remember some years ago (pre-2010) when I was a parliamentary candidate, a BBC journalist came to visit Harlow. I happened to show him a leaflet I was sending to residents, containing some key campaign messages about cutting the cost of living and the like. The front of the postcard displayed my face superimposed on a Union flag. The reporter looked at my leaflet in absolute horror and questioned whether I was pandering to the far-right. Completely gobsmacked, I replied how on earth can a leaflet with our national flag be seen as any way promoting racism?

I never forgot this moment because, to me, it symbolised all too clearly that so many of the London professional classes were out of touch with the decent patriotism and pride of most citizens. The infamous 2014 “Rochester” Tweet by Shadow Cabinet member Emily Thornberry served as another example.

In many overseas countries, I have seen flags proudly displayed on government buildings and in ministers’ offices. No one raises so much as an eyebrow. Yet, when ministers choose to do so in this country, this is something to be mocked and laughed at.

The reason I care about this is because I think the knocking and disdain for our flag by the “liberal elite”, is a small example of the gulf between their views and those of millions of voters – and one of a number of reasons why so many voters turned against Labour.

Far from being the first refuge of the scoundrel, patriotism is an anchor that roots all of us in our communities and provides stability and cohesiveness from one generation to the next. Pride before prejudice.

Schools Disgrace

Over the past week, horrific allegations have emerged about sexual abuse, assault, harassment and “a culture of rape” (predominantly conducted by male students and directed towards females) in certain leading private schools. At the time of writing, over 5,500 testimonies from current and former pupils have been documented on the “Everyone’s Invited” website.

Even worse, it appears that school staff have not always taken adequate action upon learning of allegations (until it reached the media). At first, it looked like this was confined to one or two schools. Now, it seems this problem is much more widespread. As I write, a state school in Lincolnshire has hit the press because of students sharing abhorrent rape “jokes” online.

There must be a national inquiry led by the Department for Education or Ofsted to establish exactly what has gone on, the scale of the abuse and how the failings of protection of female pupils, of care and safeguarding have gone unchecked.

It is my view that Ofsted should inspect all schools – public or private – rather than having different inspection regimes. These schools, some with a great history, should be ashamed that they have allowed these things such abuse and harassment to occur, letting down so many of their pupils, without repercussions for the perpetrators.

Competition

Over the years, I have tried to explain my own definition of Conservatism to (extremely patient) ConservativeHome readers. It usually involves the phrases “ladder of opportunity” or “The Workers’ Party”.

Given the upcoming local elections, I would like to propose a challenge to readers: how do you explain what Conservatism means on the doorstep?  In other words, if a resident asks you while canvassing, “what is it to be a Conservative”, what is your reply?

The only conditions are that your answer:

  • cannot mention Brexit;
  • must not be more than two sentences; and
  • must also pass the Ronseal Test (i.e. it does what it says on the tin).

Comment below. With JRR Tolkien Day on Thursday, it seems only appropriate that the winner will receive a Tolkien novel.

Free speech and the culture wars. It’s Fox to the rescue.

23 Mar

Lockdown has been a miserable time for everyone, but dare I say what’s made a lot of people feel even worse is the ongoing culture wars. There doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by without someone being “cancelled”, from Piers Morgan leaving to GMB for questioning Meghan Markle’s account of her time in the Royal Family, to Davina McCall being attacked for defending men, to, yes, the demise of Mr Potato Head. The silent majority has been wanting some leadership here.

Enter Liam Fox. Yesterday, quite unexpectedly, he delivered a brave and much-needed address at the Adam Smith Institute titled The Perpetual Battle for Free Speech. It covered an enormous amount of ground, from setting out the historical and current importance of free speech, to criticising Scotland’s Hate Speech Bill, to Fox confessing his guilt at not defending Jo Brand, who came under fire for a politically incorrect joke. I recommend readers watch it below:

Why did this matter? For lots of people, Fox’s speech will be reassuring as a measure that the Government is paying attention to the culture wars. In recent times, MPs haven’t seemed exactly enthusiastic to get involved. Take Boris Johnson, for instance, who Sam Coates from Sky News asked earlier in the year “is Joe Biden woke?” Yes, it was an awkward question. Yes the PM didn’t want to insult the President of the United States. But his response – “I can’t comment on that” paired with a pained facial expression – emphasised a general tendency to tiptoe around the culture wars/ free speech debate/ whatever we are calling it now.

Part of the reason MPs don’t want to get involved in these matters is, of course, the pandemic. Who wants to defend Piers Morgan when they are sleep deprived or have thousands of emails about Covid-19 restrictions? But it’s also a tricky area to navigate and easy to get “cancelled”. As Fox said in his speech: “The first question that anyone today might ask is ‘Why would any politician in their right mind voluntarily enter into the minefield that is the Free Speech debate’.”

It increasingly seems to me that MPs don’t have much choice in the matter, unless they want to stop watching TV, reading papers and basically tune out of the news. We seem to be going through what I call the “Twitterfication” of society, meaning that any idea and sentiment that looks “popular” on social media now moves into the real world, in a way that’s incredibly out of sync with what most people want (as I have previously written about here).

Conservatives have some good ideas for dealing with the culture wars, and some tough fighters (Liz Truss’s speech about the Fight for Fairness, for instance). One of the most interesting ideas for defending free speech comes from the Department of Education, which set out rules for universities to follow on this topic, and has essentially used funding as a bargaining tool in the matter (“if you don’t protect free speech you will not get it”, is the plan).

These are important steps, but we need MPs to share opinions too. Ultimately we’re in a battle of ideas, and the Government needs to talk more than it does legislate. Although crucially, Fox points out that this battle is “everybody’s business. Whether it is online abuse, the bullying mob of the intolerant, the cancel culture, no platforming or unwarranted government intervention, it is up to us all to speak out in defence of those at the receiving end, whether we find the prospect comfortable or not.”

Often the culture wars are framed as a “Conservative” issue; that Tories want one, and so forth, a thesis that seems completely unsupported by how few want to get involved. The truth is that these matters transcend party lines, and require everyone across the political spectrum, MP or otherwise, to stand up for a tolerant society where people can share and debate their worldviews. Furthermore, we cannot allow people who try to “cancel” others or close down debate describe themselves as “liberals”. It is simply not true.

Either way, Fox’s intervention was a great step forward. It brought me back to my time studying social psychology, where I learnt about how people can challenge “the crowd” (ours now on social media). Most of it simply comes down to one person speaking up, and then others follow. Let’s hope Fox’s speech gives many people the impetus to get loud.

Davina McCall, groupthink and the Twitterfication of society

13 Mar

In recent days, the UK has been shocked by the murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who was attacked while walking home in South London. A Met Officer has since been charged with her kidnap and murder. Everard was clearly loved by so many people. It is horrific that a young woman going about her life should be taken in this way. My thoughts are with her family and friends at this terrible time.

Lots of women are naturally very upset about what happened. Everard’s murder has sparked a national conversation about safety. Some women feel nervous about parts of life that men take for granted, and may have had awful experiences that shape how they navigate the world. As a 32-year-old woman I know that I might be expected to continue that discussion here, but I do not wish to. All I can say is that I was extremely sorry to hear the news.

Why is this piece about Davina McCall, the TV presenter? It is a sad reflection of our times to move from tragedy to social media wars in the course of one article. But that is what has happened in real life this week. I have been astonished by the speed at which conversations about women’s safety moved to heated arguments, and then political opportunism. The debate on women’s safety escalated when Baroness Jenny Jones from the Green Party suggested the UK needs a 6pm curfew for men.

It was such an extreme thing to suggest that I thought it was a (dire) joke at first. The idea should have been quickly dismissed, but Mark Drakeford then took the stupidity baton and ran with it, suggesting that Wales could implement this plan. In the meantime, the commentariat argued over how much responsibility men have to tackle women’s safety.

Even just listening to women’s experiences has surely been an important lesson for men this week – to realise how common it is for them to be fearful, and the reasons why. We must do more as a society. But generalisations about men can be taken too far. How many of us have loved ones that are doing their best every day? Do they deserve to be grouped together with the most evil among us?

McCall wanted to temper the debate, and Tweeted her thoughts to the world (below). It’s hard to overstate how much bravery her post took. McCall has 2.7 million followers, a fantastic career and we live in an era when celebrities are allowed to say a very limited range of things (whatever anyone claims). She risks severe reputational damage in posting this:

Almost immediately newspapers deemed this the “wrong” view to have. All the headlines followed the same narrative: “Davina McCall condemned”, “Davina McCall criticised”, “Davina McCall faces backlash”, “Davina McCall slammed”, “Davina McCall slammed”, “Davina McCall slammed”… there is a lot of slamming… This is me going through all of them online.

But the evidence of McCall being “slammed” is ambiguous to say the least. Let’s take how many people “liked” the Tweet – 85k (at the time of writing). In other words, many people agreed with her, and those are just the ones prepared to show it.

It was interesting to note that one newspaper used the fact McCall was criticised by a Loose Women panellist as evidence she had been widely condemned. It doesn’t surprise me that newspapers think a celebrity shaking their head reflects majority sentiment. I call this the “Twitterfication” of society. We now assume that a vocal/famous minority on Twitter reflects everyone. Anyway, you could just as easily have said “Davina McCall praised for defence of men” based on her Tweet getting 85k likes.

The McCall write up is a problem for journalism. It shows the tendency of writers to a) report Twitter as if it is real life (how many readers actually care what a Loose Women panelist Tweeted about McCall?) and b) frame events on Twitter through their own perspective (“bad Davina!”).

Why does this matter for a political blog? Well for one, the McCall event has to be seen in a wider context. In the last week, UK voters have looked on in bewilderment as Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview essentially destabilised parts of the media. Piers Morgan, for the crime of questioning the couple’s account of their time in the Royal Family, was pretty much shown the door at ITV, as was the editor of the Society of Editors.

We have seen that there is a prevailing orthodoxy in the UK (and indeed US). I don’t think I need to spell out the range of opinions you are supposed to have under this quasi-religion, but one now seems to be around how much responsibility men need to take for other men. Hence why McCall has been treated as blasphemous for stating otherwise. It is a fragile place for a society to be in.

The Government is hoping all this culture war stuff will go away, despite allegations to the contrary (that it wants a culture war). It clearly thinks it can navigate its way around these tricky areas with policies, such as Gavin Williamson’s free speech legislation.

Yes these steps are important, but all MPs also need to roll up their sleeves and put forward their worldviews. The McCall debacle isn’t just a Twitter spat, but an example of how distorted and censorious our society has become thanks to social media. The Government can’t stick out of this one. It needs to find its “inner Davina”.

Interview: Nigel Biggar says human rights are not enough and the British Empire was good as well as bad

16 Sep

If the BBC wishes to balance its coverage of the culture war, it should invite Nigel Biggar to deliver at least three series of talks on Radio 4.

The first would be about his new book, What’s Wrong With Rights?, in which the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford takes issue with the excessive claims for the doctrine of human rights made by some human rights lawyers and other “rights fundamentalists”, and contends, as he puts it in this interview, that “We as a society cannot live on rights alone”.

This opening salvo would be succeeded by a tremendously popular series of talks in which Biggar would demonstrate that the British Empire was good as well as bad, so too was Cecil Rhodes, and would expose the shoddy history being peddled by those “on the Corbynite Left or among Scottish Nationalists” who assert that “Britain equals Empire equals Evil equals America equals the West”.

He observes here that they get away with this because “most people know bugger all about the British Empire”.

In Biggar’s view,

“Not allowing our imperial history to be rubbished is important, because if indeed our imperial history was all that they say it was, namely a litany of atrocity, then the moral authority of the West is eroded.”

Biggar, born in Scotland, is now at Christ Church, Oxford, has also worked in the United States and the Republic of Ireland, and regards himself as British rather than either English or Scottish.

His third series of talks could be devoted to his defence of the Union, and of the United Kingdom as a “highly successful” multinational state.

Any BBC producer who wishes to check what Biggar sounds like will find, by listening to a podcast he recorded on this theme, that he speaks in a calm, lucid, moderate, humorous tone.

Although he challenges received ideas, there is no hint of extremism in what he says. As he puts it here,

“I’m an Anglican. And a Burkean. I like incremental change rather than ruptures. Just for the record, I did vote Remain, but my heart is Brexity.”

Unlike some Conservatives, Biggar does not believe withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights would necessarily discourage judges from taking decisions which properly belong to parliamentarians:

“If lots of [European] judges see themselves as champions of this gospel of human rights, then it’s possible that judges in our own courts may see themselves in the same way.”

ConHome: “One of the things which prompted you to write your book was a series of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights in cases about the conduct of British troops in Iraq.

“You observe in your introduction that

“the jurisprudence was alarmingly imprudent, partly because the court comprised a majority of judges whose countries had no living tradition of sending troops abroad, whose historical imaginations were accordingly limited.”

“Would it be fair to say that this limited historical imagination is at the root of a lot of the things you’re writing about?

“Many well-intentioned people go astray because they don’t even realise that history has much to teach us – not in the sense of straightforward lessons, but by informing one’s understanding of the world.

“They’re trapped in the present, and they’re therefore extremely susceptible to what you end up calling the moral arrogance of the rights fundamentalists.”

Biggar: “Yes. My first love, and my first degree, was in history, before I became a theologian cum philosopher cum ethicist. The philosophical side of me likes precision. I like clarity. I appreciate the force of logic.

“But the other side of me wants, as it were, ethical concepts to be able to hold their heads up before the messy realities. So that’s why I found myself thinking between philosophy and history a lot, to see if these concepts really can walk on the battlefield, as it were.

“On the point you raise, this had to do with the judgment in Al-Skeini and Others v. the United Kingdom in 2011. It had to do with six killings of Iraqis by British troops in Basra in 2003.

“The issue was whether or not the British should have conducted investigations of their deaths in accordance with Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The crucial question was whether British occupying forces had authority and control, so that according to the court, what applies in Europe should apply in Basra.

“Now I noticed on reading through the judgment that the British judges were sensitive to the fact that formal control – jurisdiction – is one thing, but effective control is crucial.

“Because if, as one British judge put it, Basra was on the verge of anarchy, then you don’t have effective control, and therefore you need to allow the security forces greater leeway, because if the state collapses, no rights get any protection at all.

“The British judgments were that there was no effective control, therefore the European Convention should not be transferred from, let’s say, peaceful Hamburg to anarchical Basra.

“The European Court’s judgment quoted a lot of the British judges, and made clear that the criterion as far as they were concerned was effective control, but then having done that, proceeded to drop the qualification ‘effective’, and just decided that the British had authority and control.

“Why? It’s no coincidence that the judges of a British court belong to a country that has a long tradition of an active military. British judges, some of them at least, were aware of the military realities and the political fragility.

“None of this was apparent in any of the rest of the European Court’s judgment.

“At this point, there was a national difference. The British judges had a sensitivity to a factor that European judges with a different tradition just didn’t have.

“And that was crucial in the judgment. There is a general problem with international courts when they come to judge this kind of thing.

“The same applied to the French, of course. Should the British and the French be willing to submit to the judgment of a court that doesn’t really have the experience or the imagination to make prudent judgments?

“In this court judgment, reached unanimously, there were 17 judges. The European Court recognised that it was a serious issue.

“Giovanni Bonello, the Maltese judge, went way over the top in his political rhetoric. In his case it was clear that in addition to his political objections to the occupation of Iraq, his view was that the duty of the court is to uphold the sanctity of human rights.

“He exorted the court to

“stop fashioning doctrines which somehow seem to accommodate the facts, but ratherto appraise the facts against the immutable principles which underlie the fundamental functions of the Convention.”

“Not ‘to accommodate the facts’ because these principles are ‘immutable’, these principles are sacred.

“It is a hostage to fortune for a military power such as Britain to allow its military operations to be subject to the judgment of a court that does not share its assumptions.”

ConHome: “The Americans don’t do this.”

Biggar: “No they don’t. The Americans submit to no international court, and I suppose for the first time I began to appreciate why the Americans don’t.”

ConHome: “What’s your view on the proposed opt-outs from the European Court of Human Rights which the Government is reported to be considering? Or even that we might withdraw altogether?”

Biggar: “If you read Noel Malcolm’s Policy Exchange study [reviewed here on ConHome], that seemed to me to be a devastating critique of the quality of reasoning in the judgments of the European Court.

“So there are reasons to think about withdrawing.”

ConHome: “Noel Malcolm is pretty definitive about that. He thinks we should withdraw.”

Biggar: “Yes he is. I’m not as definitive…”

ConHome: “You’re an Anglican.”

Biggar: “I’m an Anglican. And a Burkean. I like incremental change rather than ruptures.

“Just for the record, I did vote Remain, but my heart is Brexity.

“I voted on a 55/45 per cent basis. When I woke up on the morning the result was announced I thought, ‘Oh.'”

ConHome: “You weren’t in mourning.”

Biggar: “I wasn’t in mourning. I thought this is a different set of challenges.

“But back to the European Court. The problem with the way in which human rights are deployed and developed has to do with the attitude of judges, how they see themselves.

“If lots of judges see themselves as champions of this gospel of human rights, then it’s possible that judges in our own courts may see themselves in the same way.

“In which case, getting rid of Europe’s not going to help.

“It seems to me the problem is not confined to the European Court.”

ConHome: “We’re quite capable of making our own problems. The threat to the Union with Scotland, although Europe plays into it, is essentially a British problem.

“And I was very struck by the podcast you did a couple of years ago for These Islands, in which you said you had ‘sleepless nights’ before the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

And that you very much think of yourself as British, not as English or Scottish. An Anglo-Scot, but really a Briton.”

Biggar: “Yes, very much so. The prospect of not being able to call myself British did cost me sleep. And it made me wonder, ‘Why? Would the world really cave in if Biggar had to call himself English? It’s not that bad. Many people do.’

“But I’ve always had a very fierce and deliberate sense of being British. I’m married to an American, I could have made my life and career in America. I was absolutely clear I wasn’t going to do that, I was coming back here.

“What is it I’m attached to? And I noticed how people speaking up for the Union in 2013, and during the campaign in 2014, the argument was almost entirely in terms of economics.

“And it still is to a large extent. And I thought to myself, that’s important, but it’s not what makes me emotionally attached to the idea of Britain.

“And so after the referendum, which went the right way as far as I’m concerned, I sat down and wrote an article for Standpoint to try to articulate what I think it is that Britain means.

“I said the difficulty is it’s like trying to describe the ground you stand on. You take it so for granted that you find it very hard to articulate.

“I came up with Britain is a multinational state, highly successful, to the point where, on the whole, we identify with each other enough that when wealthy London taxpayers find their tax pounds going north to Newcastle or Glasgow or Belfast or Swansea, they don’t complain, in the way that Germans would complain if their tax euros were to go to Greece.

“So we have achieved – and it was an achievement, it was built up over centuries of co-operation and experience – a level of unselfconscious identification with each other – and of course we josh, we joke, we tease.”

ConHome: “More than that. Dr Johnson was incredibly rude about the Scots, although Boswell gives us the best of Johnson.”

Biggar: “One of the main arguments against Scottish nationalism, with its default resentment of the English, and especially if separation comes onto the cards, and the Scots find the English are not going to give them everything they want, we will find a degree of international hostility between Scotland and England we have never experienced since the 1700s.

“And then there’s the larger issue of the role of Britain in the world. I’m a supporter of the West. Britain is a middle-ranking but an important pillar of the West.

“That’s partly a legacy of our imperial past. There’s a continuity between the British Empire and the American-led international order.

“There are some, on the Corbynite Left or among Scottish Nationalists, who say that Britain equals Empire equals Evil equals America equals the West.

“I know enough history to know that Britain equals Empire equals Evil, that’s not true.”

ConHome: “Did anyone reply to your defence of Cecil Rhodes in Standpoint in 2016? You demonstrated that there were good and bad things about Rhodes, but he wasn’t the Hitler of South Africa.”

Biggar: “Good question. Not a single reply.”

ConHome: “This is possibly quite astute of your opponents, not to reply, but still it’s disastrous if you’re not going to get a proper argument about it – if they just avoid the argument.”

Biggar: “My experience of that row, and then the subsequent row about my views on colonialism, is that a lot of the other side don’t know their history, and don’t particularly care to.

“The Rhodes Must Fall lobby, the decolonisers, they’re not interested in the truth about history. And when you say, ‘What you say is not true’, they kind of just move on.

“The agitation is about using history for political purposes. My view is the use of history is pretty unscrupulous. So long as it suits their purposes, they will call Rhodes a Hitler, or in the latest bout of Rhodes Must Fall agitation there was one African PhD student who was reported by The Guardian to have described Rhodes as ‘génocidaire’. 

“There’s no sensible historical ground for that at all.

“But the truth about the past is not going to be the main factor, I think [in whether Rhodes’s statue will be removed from the facade of Oriel College, Oxford].

“What will predominate are emotions about the present, and the felt need to make black minority ethnic agitators feel at home. I say agitators because not all black minority ethnic students or people support the agitators.

“To remove the statue [from Oriel] I think would be to yield to irrational forces, who don’t care very much about the truth about history, and do care about symbolic coups.

“And if Rhodes goes down, all manner of statuary all over the country is going to be in question.

“Rhodes’ record was certainly a mixed one. But there are very few people who are honoured by statues whose careers weren’t mixed.”

ConHome: “Many academics have remained silent on these questions. You express yourself in a temperate manner, but you do speak up.

“For many politicians, scholars and journalists, this is a difficult judgment: when should one jump in to this culture war, often waged in such a rancorous way?”

Biggar: “I didn’t jump in.”

ConHome: “What happened?”

Biggar: “Well I did jump in on Rhodes, it so happened, in 2015, when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign came onto the stage. I’ve spent much of the past ten years reading about imperial history.

“Not allowing our imperial history to be rubbished is important, because if indeed our imperial history was all that they say it was, namely a litany of atrocity, then the moral authority of the West is eroded.

“In late 2017 I published an article in The Times saying we should feel pride as well as shame in the past. A project I had launched in July of that year called Ethics and Empire came under attack by a group of students online.

“Then within a week there was a second and third online denunciation, from 50 Oxford academics and then 200 or so academics worldwide.

“And that took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t looking for a fight. But now, because I care about what’s at stake, I’m stuck into it, and right now I’m half-way through writing a book with the working title Colonialism: A Guide For The Perplexed.

“Though I’m wondering about changing it to something more irenic like Why The British Empire Was Pretty Good.

“How do we handle the cultural war? Well I think we have to inform it. Part of the problem is that most people know bugger all about the British Empire.

“But most people have picked up that right-thinking, progressive people don’t defend it.

“The majority will take the path of least resistance. One thing one has to do is tell the truth about the past. So that’ll be part of my contribution.”

At the end of the conversation, we reverted to What’s Wrong With Rights? and Biggar declared:

“We as a society cannot live on rights alone. Rights talk so dominates public discussion that necessary talk about duties or about virtues or about the common good tends to get pushed to the side.

“Here’s a concrete example of why it matters. You remember in 2015 the Charlie Hebdo murders took place, because Charlie Hebdo had published cartoons of Mohammed that Muslims found offensive.

“And of course in reaction to those murders everybody was affirming the right to free speech. Charlie Hebdo should have been free to do as they damn well pleased and if Muslims are annoyed, that’s just too bad.

“Now of course that was right, and the murderers had no justification.

“But I did think, ‘Yes, OK, we want to affirm the legal right to free speech. But the question of how we handle free speech within the legal parameters is a moral question.

“And in the case of Charlie Hebdo, I thought well, publishing these satirical cartoons of Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo – what exactly were you trying to achieve in doing this?

“Because the people who read Charlie Hebdo, they’ll be people on the Left who are probably secularists, who get a kick out of seeing Mohammed mocked.

“Well, you know, it’s a free world, I guess if people want to do that, and enjoy that, that’s fine.

“But what did it achieve constructively? Did it achieve anything positive in terms of relations between French Muslims and other citizens?

“I do think we’ve got a duty to tell the truth, and if it so happens some people are annoyed by that, well that’s just too bad. But we shouldn’t say things just to annoy other people – we shouldn’t spit on other people’s sacred cows just because it gives us kicks.

“Freedom of speech is one thing – having the right is one thing – having the qualities of character to restrain yourself when you should restrain yourself, and to be charitable, or to be just, these are questions of virtue, and if we don’t have ways of training citizens in the virtues of self-restraint, we won’t have a citizenry who are capable of respecting other people’s rights.

“So the legal right’s good, but it just isn’t enough. We need to be talking about the formation of virtue more. Who does it, and how is it done? Which virtues are we going to promulgate?

“Rights are not enough. That’s something I really would like to emphasise.”

Free speech for Wiley?

26 Jul

Our older readers will be familiar with Wiley – the rapper who last week posted a series of anti-semitic remarks on social media.

We linger on one tweet only, in which he undertook a whirlwind tour of the Israel-Palestine dispute, claiming that “I cannot be upset about two sets of people killing each other on land that belongs to us anyway”.  This is a Black Israelite trope – the claim that black people are real descendants of the biblical Hebrews.

It takes a unique diplomatic talent to deny the rights of both Jews and Palestinians simultaneously.  At any rate, it goes almost without saying that Wiley’s posts were deeply stupid, disgusting, and self-defeating.

On that last point, Wiley has lost his manager, John Woolf, a self-described “proud Jewish man” who first clung to his client, saying that “as someone who has known him for 12 years I know he does not truly feel this way,” but soon let him go – an admission that Wiley does truly feel this way.

The point about our more aged readers is not a piece of self-trolling, incidentally.  At 41, Wiley isn’t exactly a slip of a grime artist almost young enough to know no better.

Anti-semitism these days is found more often on the Left than the Right, so it is tempting for a conservative site simply to slag off Wiley, as we do above, and move on.  But if free speech demands anything, it demands even more than Orwell’s famous quote about liberty meaning “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

For above all, it requires championing their right to free speech even when – no: especially when – they make remarks that we find reprehensible.

This is not to say that wicked words should escape consequences.  For example, Wiley is a Spurs fan.  So Tottenham Hotspur would be perfectly entitled to bar him from its stadium (assuming that he ever goes there).  That is its right as a free institution.  For what it’s worth, we hope that it does.

Twitter is a different matter.  After all, Spurs have not carved out, for all their footballing seniority, a culture-shaping space in the public square.  Twitter has.

At the time we publish, it has havered about with Wiley, deleting some of his posts but maintaining his account. There is a case for arguing that since Twitter is a private company, it is thus entitled to set its own rules for users – banning Katie Hopkins, for example, but tolerating Richard Cowie (Wiley’s real name).

Furthermore, it may be that Twitter is a rocket that will be brought crashing down to earth by the weight of its woke “hateful conduct policy” – and its double standards. Or, if you like, that will be outsmarted by more agile competitors.

We are not convinced.  Government already intervenes in the public arena – and must do, since the latter must be policed by the law. And it is Parliament that makes and unmakes law, government that must implement it, and the courts that must uphold it.  (Judges should also discover rather than make law, but that’s another subject.)

It follows that the law should always have a presumption in favour of protecting free speech.  So just as there’s argument for saying that what Twitter does is simply its own business, there’s also one for saying that is isn’t.

Which returns us to Wiley.  The Campaign against Anti-Semitism has reported him to the police and called for prosecution. If his posts broke the law, then so be it.  But not everything that is offensive is illegal, or should be.  To give an example in this area, Holocaust denial is not a crime in the UK, as it is in some other European countries.

There are a number of pragmatic arguments either way, but one of principle, rightly, holds: that free speech within the law is an ideal worth preserving, and that it should apply when the Holocaust is denied.

We would like to see it extended in the world of work.  Consider the case, for example, of Nick Buckley, recently reinstated as Chief Executive Officer of Mancunian Way, a charity.  He had been sacked after a social media storm in the wake of remarks he had made that were critical of Black Lives Matter.

The point is that he should never have been dismissed in the first place, and further free speech safeguards might have made the charity’s trustees pause before forcing him out.  (They themselves have now resigned.)

Then there is the story of Stephen Lamonby, dismissed as a part-time lecturer after making remarks about Jewish people that ventured into the perilous world of genetics, but which were positive.  Or of Gillian Phillips, a children’s author, fired as an author by Working Partners for tweeting support for J.K.Rowling over the trans issue.

Wiley makes music. He doesn’t help to run a charity or write books or lecture in a university.  This being so, what happens next is straighforward, or should be.

We hope that he will be ridiculed and ostracised, and that people boycott what he produces – which is admittedly, to paraphrase Shrek’s Lord Farquaad, a sacrifice that some of us are willing to make. What he can’t be, since the circumstances don’t apply – and shouldn’t be automatically, were they to do so – is  “cancelled”, i.e: sacked.

At least, not until or unless he were to be convicted by a court.  Let us spell it out in plain terms.  In this case, Woolf worked for Wiley, not the reverse.

And since Woolf worked for Wiley, he had the right to withdraw his services.  But were it the other way round, Woolf should not have the right to sack Wiley – or, rather, not an unqualified one (unless or until he is convicted, as we say.)

The right of a company to protect its reputation must be balanced by the right of a worker to free speech. Reprimands, penalties: yes.  Dismissal: not necessarily.

Overall, the Government should be reviewing the balance of the law to protect free speech – a natural companion to Gavin Williamson’s new drive to protect free speech in universities. To rework Dunning on the powers of the Crown, the Cancel Culture has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

“If universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, said Williamson in February. He meant it.

20 Jul

For a long time, the UK’s silent majority has been quite clearly concerned about “cancel culture” – which describes when people are demonised or sacked for having “the wrong views”. This concern partly explains why Labour suffered such a big defeat at last year’s election. The result was not only down to its confused stance on Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but the party’s woke worldview.

Unfortunately, cancel culture since seems to have accelerated, particularly during lockdown, when the nation watched statues toppled, innocuous TV shows like The Mighty Boosh removed for being “offensive” and an author even fired from her agency for Tweeting support for JK Rowling.

There have been growing calls for the Government to intervene before it gets too late; something which it’s not always easy to do, but last week Gavin Williamson announced a policy that could make a sizeable difference. 

Titled the Higher Education Restructuring Regime, it essentially incentivises English universities – many of which are struggling as a result of the Coronavirus crisis – to tackle censorship on campus in order to receive a Government bailout.

Williamson’s restructuring regime is broadly focussed on three areas. First, it asks universities to reduce administrative costs, including vice-chancellor pay, to focus resources “on the front line”. Second, it asks them to cut courses that lead to poor employment outcomes –  with the Education Secretary wanting to strive for “great value for money” as part of his commitment to levelling up Britain. And third, it requires institutions to “demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech”.

An independently-chaired Higher Education Restructuring Regime Board will be established, and Williamson will draw on its expertise to assess which universities should receive bailouts, by way of repayable loans.

Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, has strongly criticised the move, suggesting that the Government is exploiting Covid-19 to “impose evidence-free ideology”, and there have been similar objections. But one suspects that this will be an incredibly popular policy with taxpayers, for a number of reasons.

For starters, it has been said repeatedly that there are now too many young people going to universities, due to Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent attendance (the figure hit 50.2 per cent in 2017-2018). Williamson has said he will stand up for the “forgotten 50 per cent”, paying more attention to skills training, and other parts of the further education sector

This is great news; the UK needs qualifications and training to be better tailored to the economy, and there’s increasing evidence many undergraduate degrees aren’t providing a return on investment. As Neil O’Brien has written for ConservativeHome, “poor-value degree courses… waste taxpayers’ money, but don’t actually increase opportunities for students.”

Then there’s the universities’ free speech issue. Censoriousness has become so prevalent that Amber Rudd was “no-platformed” at the University of Oxford in March. There are numerous examples of universities banning speakers, as well as political hostility to those who hold Conservative/ Brexiteer views. Last year I wrote for The Telegraph about the amount of insults young people had been subjected to on campus because of these.

Williamson’s intervention is clever because it doesn’t tell universities how to combat this problem, and they have the option to do nothing; it simply motivates them to promote free speech. One way they could do this is by adopting the Chicago Principles, which are widely recognised in the Government and elsewhere, as best practice in this regard.

These were developed in 2014 following a series of incidents at different universities in which students tried to ban speakers deemed controversial. Academics at the University of Chicago drafted a statement that made an “overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”

Another way universities might tackle this is by trying to improving safety measures for speakers – so that they cannot be no-platformed, or maybe even interviewing students on their attitudes to free speech before offering them a place. There’s lots of ways in which the issue can be approached.

Some will not be surprised about Williamson’s announcement. In February he wrote for The Times that “If universities don’t take action [to promote free speech], the government will.” Strangely enough, it was the Coronavirus crisis that allowed him to stick to his word. Let’s hope that his policy gives other ministers some ideas for how to fight cancel culture too.