Adrian Lee: Different values from those of the BBC: The Prisoner and the “culture war” of the sixties

29 Aug

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Fifty-five years ago this weekend, on Sunday 28th August 1966, a film crew started shooting the opening scenes of a new TV series for the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) in the streets of Westminster. One location on that sunny morning was the Abingdon Street underground car park on College Green, just opposite the Palace of Westminster. No casual passer-by could have then realised the political significance of the programme starting its first day of filming and few recognise even today that the resulting series, The Prisoner, represented a counterblast to the Left bias of the BBC from its independent rival in an undeclared Culture War of the 1960s.

During the 1960s BBC Drama received universal applause for crafting period costume series such as The Forsyte Saga and multiple adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels. Whilst these productions exhibited little cultural or political bias, the BBC compensated when it came to their long-running series of The Wednesday Play (1964-1970). Here, the emphasis was placed upon miserablist, social realism and grotty “kitchen sink” settings with plots revolving around homelessness, abortion, and inequality.

Few will forget the impact of the plays Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, which launched the career of Marxist filmmaker, Ken Loach.

Arguably the most notorious episode of The Wednesday Play was Peter Watkins’ film The War Game, which portrayed the after-effects of a nuclear strike on a home counties town. It was intentionally horrific and powerful propaganda for the unilateralist cause. At the last minute, the BBC realised they had gone too far and pulled it from the schedules, but they ensured that it was shown to invited audiences in cinemas and CND was able to obtain copies to show at public meetings across the country. It was belatedly given a full national broadcast by the BBC in 1985, at the height of CND’s campaigns against Cruise and Trident.

Over on ITV, the mission was to entertain rather than to preach. In the Sixties, ATV/ITC supremo Lew Grade had progressed from producing variety shows like Sunday Night at the Palladium to making glossy action series with his regular team of Monty Berman (Producer) and Dennis Spooner (Scriptwriter), such as The Saint, Department S, The Champions and Man in a Suitcase. Grade had the foresight to improve the visual quality of British television. Not since the Kordas’ Denham Studio days in the 1930s had there been such a will to beat Hollywood at their own game. Wobbly sets went, film studios replaced television studios, theme tunes were written by top composers Ron Grainer and Edwin Astley and all series were shot on film stock rather than videotape. Grade’s aim was to produce first-class products that could be sold worldwide and that meant that they had to be made in colour.

One of Grade’s best-selling shows was Danger Man, a conventional spy series featuring Anglo-Irish actor Patrick McGoohan. Danger Man had gone down well Stateside, but when the time came to switch to full colour production, McGoohan informed Grade that he wanted to embark upon a new venture with scriptwriter and author, George Markstein. McGoohan pitched an entirely original series to be called The Prisoner in which the hero is an intelligence officer who resigns his post and is promptly kidnapped by persons unknown. He wakes up in a mysterious Italianate coastal village (Portmeirion, North Wales). Each week the anonymous authorities controlling the village would attempt to extract information from him, whilst the hero would defy their will and try to escape. Grade was sufficiently intrigued by the idea to give this production his approval.

The Prisoner is not really a spy story at all. Once the lead character is abducted from his flat and ensconced in the village, the narrative turns into an allegory of Man versus the State, the individual against the collective. None of the inhabitants of the village have a name, only a number and CCTV cameras watch their every move. However, unlike the sort of dank and dingy hell envisaged by Huxley and Orwell, this repressive society is brilliantly colourful and superficially attractive. The village Tannoy system broadcasts the ice cream flavour of the day, there is an old people’s home, free health care, social security and a labour exchange. Ersatz lounge music is piped into the inhabitants’ comfortable homes and the village brass band plays the Radetzky March in the square. Even phoney elections are occasionally held. The message is clear: if you conform and do as you are told, you can have a whale of a time in the village. McGoohan and Markstein were making a bold libertarian statement on the limits of European Social Democracy. This series would never have been made by the BBC.

McGoohan’s character is called Number Six by the village authorities, but he continues to insist “I am not a number. I am a free man.” At one point, one of his captors, angered by his continual defiance says “You’re a wicked man. Have you no values?” Number Six replies “Different values.” The village is run by a succession of Number Twos (played by the cream of British actors of the period) who represent transitory political leaders. Number One, the ultimate authority, is never fully revealed. The Swastika or Hammer and Sickle of this totalitarian society is a canopied penny-farthing bicycle, which we find emblazoned everywhere, from public buildings to the labels on tinned food. The village streets are patrolled by a large white weather balloon, Rover, which descends upon the inhabitants and smothers them, should they dare step out of line. Finally, the village has a diverse international community of different peoples. Nothing really knits them together, save their captivity.

Filmed between 1966 and 1967 in sumptuous 35mm colour, no expense was spared on its production. After a couple of months filming on location in Portmeirion, the crew moved to the MGM film studios in Borehamwood for the interiors. It is estimated that the whole series cost over £20 million in 2021 monetary value, making it one of the most expensive British television productions. Visually, the details added by Art Director Jack Shampan are stunning. The whole village has a uniform feel and great care was taken in designing costumes and props. The studio sets of Number Two’s office and the Control Room are particularly memorable and would not be out of place in a Bond film.

Despite all the efforts that had gone into production, much of the visual effect was lost on viewers, owing to the fact that colour broadcasting had not yet started in the UK. Faced with mounting costs, Lew Grade decided to cut the series short at 17 episodes. By this time, McGoohan had fallen out with Markstein, leading to the latter’s departure. Consequently, McGoohan, by now exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown, took charge of the final four episodes, which arguably were poorly structured and carried surrealism too far. The final instalment when broadcast in 1968 led to a public outcry.

The Prisoner gained a cult status in later decades with re-runs on television and home release. However, to conservatives and libertarians the programme holds a greater significance as the only British television series bold enough to express a different set of values to the stagnant, cultural-socialist agenda of the BBC. It certainly shows us a glimpse of a path not taken, where different talents, separate from the old Left clique, could have been given free rein. The Prisoner should also inspire us to what can be achieved in the future.

Calvin Robinson: The Left and Right are both wrong on pronouns – and it’s distracting us from the important issues

28 Jul

Pronouns are such a non-issue. They’re the perfect example of the culture wars being exacerbated by the imagination of both sides of the debate. On the liberal-progressive Left, activists think they’re showing their virtue of inclusivity by announcing their pronouns in their bios, and on the conservative Right, we often feel like we’re being attacked or having woke nonsense shoved down our throats by social justice warriors, but is this an area where we’re both wrong?

Has any research been conducted into pronouns and how they affect the tiny minority they’re supposed to “include”? How often are people truly offended by someone using an incorrect pronoun for a person who identifies as transgender or non-binary? I imagine the number is infinitesimal, but I can’t find any hard evidence outside of ideological activist groups to back this up, either way. Could it be that we’re inventing an issue that doesn’t exist in order for the Left to virtual signal and the Right to campaign against?

Pronoun declarations have shifted from social media bios to professional email signatures. A quick search of my inbox for “he/him” and “she/her” shows a high number of results for civil servants, BBC employees, and academics at universities from Oxford University to Oxford Brookes.

When writing emails to someone, when do we ever refer to that person as he/him or she/her, anyway? Third-person pronouns rarely come up in conversation around a person in real life unless one is being rude. My grandmother would always say, “Who is she, the cat’s mother?” if I referred to someone by their pronoun instead of their name – but using the third person pronoun in an email is even rarer. The absence of body language to point out who you might be referring to makes it difficult. The whole pronoun situation is such a non-issue; it’s surprising to see how rapidly it has been taken up by the metropolitan elite: civil servants, academics and the mainstream media.

The Scottish government is now jumping on the bandwagon, pushing a “pronoun pledge” to encourage civil servants to include their pronouns in their email signatures. However, a consultation poll resulted in a vast majority (60 per cent) of respondents expressing their discomfort with the idea of having to declare their pronouns.

Could it be that an approach to appear inclusive to the minority is exclusive to the majority? Less than one per cent of the UK population identifies as trans, and while it’s important to ensure minority groups feel welcome, that should not come at the expense of the majority. Coercing people to display their pronouns could be tantamount to gender discrimination – a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010.

Then there’s the issue of made-up pronouns such as zie/zirself, ze/zem, xe/xem, which nobody outside of the exclusive trans-community knows what they mean. Is that the purpose? To design a community that is so exclusive that by default, everyone else is written off as bigoted and backward in their views?

Activist groups like Mermaids and Stonewall appear to have an agenda that you either subscribe to unquestioning or you’re cancelled for being transphobic; this approach is antagonistic and unhelpful to the small community they purport to support.

The debate around trans rights is a genuine and important one; who gets to identify as which gender is a prevalent debate in schools, sport and the criminal justice system, for example. But this is not that debate. We must not fall into the trap of conflating trans issues with pronouns in bios.

This attempt to compel people to use trans-lobby language in one’s email signatures is often portrayed by my colleagues on the Right as authoritarian – I wouldn’t go that far, it’s quite common for companies to have an email signature policy, that’s just good etiquette (or “Netiquette”), but this is just a distraction from the real battle that’s going on; the erasure of women from our culture.

The question isn’t should we include he/him or she/her in our email signatures; the important question to be asking is why are we allowing boys in our girls’ changing rooms, why are we allowing men in women’s prisons, and why are we called ‘phobics for raising these questions and wanting to protect the rights of woman and girls?

Johnson now has the serious task of restoring pride to the working class, failed by Labour

24 Jul

The New Snobbery: Taking on Modern Elitism and Empowering the Working Class by David Skelton

If David Skelton had delayed publication of this book by many more months, he would have had to rename it The New Orthodoxy.

For the lessons he urged in his last book, Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map, are becoming more and more widely accepted.

That book was reviewed on ConHome in October 2019, and in December of that year Boris Johnson redrew the political map by leading the Conservatives to victory in many of the forgotten towns.

Or the blue remembered towns, as one might now call them. The initiative now lies with the Conservatives.

The “new snobbery” identified by Skelton is mainly a problem for the Labour Party, which needs to regain the seats it lost in 2019, and cannot do so as long as voters in places like Hartlepool, captured by the Conservatives at a by-election held less than three months ago, feel despised by many on the Left.

That astonishing result came just in time for Skelton, who writes:

“Once the scale of the Hartlepool defeat for Labour had become clear, elements of the Left indulged in another round of electorate blaming. One claimed that the problem for the Left was that ‘a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots’ and asked, ‘How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?’ Another claimed, ‘We don’t have an opposition problem. We have an electorate problem.'”

Skelton has collected much snobbery of this kind, some of which he quotes in his piece this week for ConHome.

In his book Skelton reminds us that such sentiments are not new. Here is Engels to Marx in November 1868, as newly enfranchised working-class voters supported “reactionary” parties:

“The proletariat has discredited itself terribly.”

Nobody has put it better than Engels. The workers often refuse to behave as progressive middle-class intellectuals instruct them to behave.

Skelton writes in a rushed, clumsy and gloomy tone about the dreadful delusions of the leftie intellectuals, but surely they have more cause for despondency as they contemplate Johnson’s to them incomprehensible success.

Lunatic “woke” nostrums, and attempts by their adherents to usher in a tyranny of virtue, cry out for a new Michael Wharton who helps us laugh to scorn these impertinent attempts to purify our history, language, institutions and the rest.

Earlier this week, I met a peer who has just been on one of the courses where members of the House of Lords are taught how to behave. He took it all with the utmost docility, but at the end asked his instructor whether it was all right to be rude to an Old Etonian.

“Oh yes,” she replied without a moment’s thought.

And perhaps that is one of the things people like about Johnson. One can be as rude as one wants to him and he doesn’t seem to mind.

The Prime Minister has an old-fashioned idea of liberty, as involving a degree of tastelessness; a propensity to live and let live; and a willingness to tease the Puritans, not least by avoiding a culture war fought on their own ineffably humourless terms.

We now have Wharton, not as a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, but as Prime Minister: a man capable of seeing the absurdity of everyone, including himself.

But there is another part of Skelton’s story where gloom is understandable. The destruction of great industries, the loss of skilled trades, the humiliation of proud workers reduced to scraping a precarious existence, is the dismal post-war story in town after town.

The example closest to Skelton’s heart is the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks in his home town of Consett, a topic dealt with at greater length in his previous book.

One of the worst things about the nationalisation after the Second World War of the commanding heights of the British economy was that decisions were no longer taken locally, but in London, where it was easier to pretend that parsimonious investment, limited by Treasury rules and recurrent public spending crises, would be adequate to modernise these grand old industries.

Local pride and ownership were lost. Now everyone owned the plant, which meant nobody owned it, and its future was in the hands of distant politicians and officials who for the most part had no deep knowledge or commitment.

The nationalised industries declined into job-preservation schemes which failed even in their own terms, a series of doomed rearguard actions as the great names of British manufacturing went under.

Just as modern architecture done on the cheap in the 1950s and 1960s led increasing numbers of us to shudder at the idea of allowing anything to be built, so regional policy and industrial policy were discredited by a lengthening record of failure.

In his recent Levelling Up speech, Johnson lamented the “basic half-heartedness” of the 40 different schemes or bodies which over the last 40 years have tried to boost local or regional growth.

He admitted that “for many decades we relentlessly crushed local leadership” because “we were in the grip of a real ideological conflict in which irresponsible municipal socialist governments were bankrupting cities”.

Now, he rejoiced, “that argument is over and most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

So we are at last returning to local leadership. That at least is the idea. We can be pragmatic rather than ideological, and can bring everyone together in a particular locality in order to do what works.

Skelton agrees that we should not allow ourselves to get “stuck in the endless trenches of a culture war”.

He observes that the Labour Party “emerged from those great institutions of working-class life: the chapel and the trade union”, but that the proportion of Labour MPs who were manual workers “has fallen from almost 20 per cent in 1979 to less than three per cent today”.

The party has become obsessed by cultural issues, and has forgotten that secure, well-paid work is what matters to its former voters.

Let the Labour Party debate cultural issues to its heart’s content, while the dignity of work is championed by the Conservatives.

Skelton wants to formalise “the partnership between workers and employers” by putting workers on boards, which he thinks would “help to rein in the excesses of executive pay”, and would “increase productivity, enhance retention and promote a long-term focus”, instead of short-term expedients to increase shareholder value.

Every successful Conservative leader from Disraeli to the present day has taken seriously the requirements of the working class, and has thereby triumphed over priggish middle-class Liberals and Socialists who supposed they were the true guardians of the workers. Here is a serious task for Johnson.

Sarah Ingham: Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

23 Jul

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

Never mind Rhodes Must Fall, a goodly percentage of the statues, murals and installations in the country’s public spaces should be consigned to the scrapheap.

As well as being a battleground in the nation’s intensifying culture war, the debate on public art went back to basics a few weeks ago, thanks to the unveiling of the Diana memorial statue. Suddenly we were also judging a piece on its aesthetics; how it looks – rather than how we look as we pronounce judgement.

Sadly, the public was none-too-impressed by the pewter Princess. Drawing comparisons with a traditional religious Madonna, The Times’ art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston elevated the debate. Her piece was however headlined “Laura Ashley monument is little better than the usual tat“.

In the hysterical rush to the barricades to defend or attack representations of Britain’s long-dead and usually long-forgotten worthies, few have paused to look – really look – at the works in question. Rhodes should fall – or at least be turned to face the wall of Oxford’s Oriel College – not least because it is a pretty dire representation of such a key player in 19th century colonial history.

There is a certain irony that the Croesus-rich racist white supremacist looks vaguely Asiatic and that his baggy suit is more Albert Steptoe than Savile Row. If the sculptor had been more skilled, gravy stains and dandruff could probably be discerned. This rendering of Rhodes is less The Three Graces than utterly graceless.

Why are Tory Councillors in Essex Censoring Artwork?” demanded The Guardian on Monday. The work in question – a small hexagonal-shaped rose garden framed by three ordinary benches – can be found in a park in Shoeburyness and is part of the Estuary Festival. An English Garden created by Gabriella Hirst is apparently a commentary on Britain’s 1950s nuclear weapons industry. This seems more than a bit of a stretch, even when we learn the roses are a breed called Atom Bomb.

It’s not this drearily anodyne artwork to which some are objecting but the wording on the accompanying plaque. But having to read a work rather than be moved by it is usually a signal to expect bad art and worse prose. It’s always contextualisation, never explanation.

Instead of asking why councillors are censoring artwork, we should be asking why they are not. Indeed, too often they are cheerleaders-in-chief for incongruous cultural blots on our landscapes and ugly blight in our town centres.

A tour of public art in Surrey is to realise that the closest most works get to great is the vaguely Matisse-blue of Bisley’s  quirky Millennium clock tower which seems inspired by a cross between a dovecote and Big Ben. Woking is littered with creepy, garishly-painted oversized figures. Sean Henry’s seven-feet-tall Walking Women is the latest in the series of “much-loved sculptures” declares #WeAreWoking.

If the aim is really “to create new, stimulating and high-quality environments that revitalise public spaces and recognise the importance of culture”, it has failed. The sculptures bring to mind a Zombie Apocalypse, perhaps written about by HG Wells. He is commemorated by the War of the Worlds Martian Tripod, a piece in chrome which is as breathtakingly bad as the giant cockerel with which a former council leader lumbered a Dorking roundabout. Staines offers us the Swan Arches which bring to mind Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad.

Surrey is far from the only sorry place where recent installations of art in the public realm are not fit to be placed near local war memorials. Thankfully, there is beauty in their very simplicity. They have stood the test of time and are a rebuke to “much-loved sculptures” and other pieces of junk foisted upon us.

Art is subjective. One woman’s Venus de Milo is another’s Aphrodite at the Waterhole created by Tony Hancock in The Rebel. Public art, however, raises questions that are too rarely asked. Who decides? Who decides who decides? Who’s paying? Over the last decade matters have been further complicated by the Community Infrastructure Levy, the charge levied on developers, often in addition to the existing Section 106 obligations. Has this caused an upsurge in “art” for art’s sake?

In a bid to curb the nuisance of noisy supercars racing through the streets of the Royal Borough, Kensington and Chelsea Council is seeking to extend its “acoustic camera” scheme funded by the CIL. Judging by the crowds drawn to Sloane Street where wannabe-Hamiltons regularly show off their wheels, the dozens of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens are perceived to be far more beautiful than any works of numerous works of art in the area, including the majestic Wellington Arch Quadriga at Hyde Park Corner. The cameras are a far more resident-friendly way to spend CIL than frittering it away on ugly installations.

Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth has recently been home to a giant blob of cream topped by a red cherry, a black fly (echoes of Damien Hirst 25+years ago) and a drone. The work of Heather Phillipson, it was called THE END.

If only.

Daniel Hannan: London was always going to be fine post-Brexit. But now we must cut EU rules and allow it to prosper.

7 Jul

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.

Brexit was never going to kill the City. It is a measure of how demented our culture war became after 2016 that that notion was ever seriously entertained. London gained the top spot through strong property rights, incorruptible courts, secure contracts, light-touch regulation and low taxes. Everyone understood that the system was impartial, that the rules would not be rigged against foreign companies, that all were equal under the law.

Those features allowed London to retain its pre-eminence despite the decline of sterling as a global currency, despite the Second World War, and despite the economic collapse of the 1970s. Companies from around the world recognised that the best and cheapest money markets were disproportionately concentrated in the Square Mile. EEC membership had little to do with it.

Eurocrats never saw things that way, of course. In their eyes, London was a parasite, moving money around while honest Europeans did the more “real” work of making cars, producing chemicals and ploughing fields. Brexit, they believed, was an opportunity to shift jobs to Paris, Frankfurt and Milan, and to divert the accompanying tax revenues to their own coffers.

Emmanuel Macron came to London and pitched directly for companies to relocate. His ministers set up offices to advise on the transition. Frankfurt expanded its English-language schools.

Meanwhile, Brussels set out to be as bellicose as possible. UK-based firms found that the letter of the law was suddenly being forced on them with a perversity that their Japanese or American rivals were spared. At the same time, the EU refused to grant equivalence to British financial services providers.

Equivalence – essentially an agreement to trust each other’s regulators – is a normal courtesy among advanced economies. The EU offers it to Brazilian, Chinese and Mexican companies. Britain, naturally, offers it to the EU. But the EU evidently believed that refusing to reciprocate might somehow asphyxiate London.

It didn’t work. This would have been obvious had it not been for the hysterical tone of Britain’s Europhile broadcasters, determined as they were to show that Brexit had been a catastrophe.

Every relocation of a UK job to the Continent was drooled over with a kind of excited despair, while almost no attention was paid to jobs moving the other way – or, indeed, new jobs being created. When, as a result of EU restrictions, Amsterdam briefly overtook London in the volume of shares being traded, there was terrific excitement; when London reclaimed its place last week, coverage was muted.

The EU’s strategy is self-harming. Protectionism always makes the state applying it poorer. Making it harder for continental firms to access London finance does more damage to the continental firms than to London. It also signals to the world that Brussels discriminates on the basis of nationality, subordinating prosperity to prejudice.

Had the EU been more adroit, it might have sought to make itself more attractive. Instead of denying Britain equivalence, it would have looked for ways to lower its own taxes and to reassure the world that it would not tilt the scales against foreign companies. But, for whatever reason, it cannot bring itself to think that way.

Don’t imagine for a moment, though, that London’s dominance is guaranteed. The City has no automatic right to the top slot. It must earn that place anew every day. Brexit doesn’t just allow the City to make its regulatory regime more competitive; it obliges it to do so.

As Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, put it earlier this year: “I’m afraid a world in which the EU dictates and determines what rules and standards we have in the UK is not going to work”.

There was an argument – a weak argument, in my view, but an argument – for matching some EU standards for the sake of equivalence. But when Brussels won’t recognise even our current rules, which are identical to its own, there is no argument whatever for holding back.

We should begin by repealing those EU rules which were opposed by the industry when they were brought in, even if, having now assimilated the compliance costs, some established actors have lost interest in repeal. We need to think of future businesses as well as existing ones. We should undo the parts of the EU’s MiFID 2 and Solvency 2 regimes that we opposed at the time, and scrap the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive and the short-selling ban.

More broadly, we need lighter-touch regulation. Many of our rules are still aimed at preventing the 2008 crash, rather than at facilitating future growth in fintech, green investment and digital trade. At the very least, we should make competitiveness an explicit part of the regulators’ mandate – certainly no less than stability, confidence or consumer protection. Other regulators, such as Singapore’s, take it for granted that boosting competitiveness is part of their role.

And let’s not be shy about cutting taxes in ways that will attract investment and so, over time, increase revenue. It is hard, on Laffer curve grounds, to justify the bank corporation tax surcharge or stamp duty on share trading. We also need to end the absurd rule which limits bonuses – thus whacking up bankers’ basic salaries and reducing the link between performance and pay.

Some of these reforms might be unpopular. But, with our public finances in the state they are in, we can’t afford to subordinate our recovery to the prejudices of focus groups. Financial services are, to Britain, what tourism is to the Maldives. As our mediaeval wealth rested on wool, so our modern wealth rests on banking, insurance and investment. I’m not asking you to like bankers and hedgies; I’m just asking you to recognise that they pay 10 per cent of Britain’s taxes.

The PM wants to show that Brexit has tangible benefits, and commissioned Iain Duncan Smith, George Freeman and Theresa Villiers to look at ways to raise our competitiveness. Their report in May set out a measured and realistic plan to do precisely this.

But, as anyone who has worked in politics will tell you, the real challenge is turning your vision into hard policies over the head of an often change-averse civil service. “Between the idea and the reality,” wrote T S Eliot, “Between the motion and the act falls the Shadow”. Between the speech and the implementation, between the report and the legislation, between the ambition and the deregulation – falls the Shadow.

Robert Halfon: White privilege is the wrong way to describe nearly one million white working-class disadvantaged pupils

30 Jun

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.

I asked a few people in my constituency of Harlow what they thought about “culture wars” at the weekend. Not only had the term passed most people by, but one individual believed that it might be something to do with Game of Thrones.

But, just because most people are not focused on the “culture wars” in the same way that the “Twitterati” and the Westminster Village are, that does not mean we should not allow significant debate and discussion about terms like “white privilege”. Some proponents of concepts like “white privilege” seek to close down debate by accusing those who want to discuss this as racists.

Far from promoting racial harmony, using “white privilege” pits one group against another and does more to damage race relations than enhance them.

Following the recent publication of our Education Select Committee Report, The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, it was noticeable how, with the exception of great Labour figures like Lord Blunkett, even discussing the subject of “white privilege” was according to the Left, a sin of sins. The subject was discussed over just three pages out of a 90-page strong report.

I have been told that I am a racist. My staff and I have received calls to my House of Commons Office to explain that we are racist individuals. It is interesting that this attack is coming from the Left. (As an aside, it is the Labour Party that produced a leaflet sent around to Muslim constituents in Batley and Spen showing and criticising the Prime Minister for shaking hands with Narendra Modi, the Hindu Prime Minister of India.)

Our Education Committee decided to highlight the issues caused by the term “white privilege” because its use is fundamentally wrong for three reasons.

First, the concept of “white privilege” implies collective guilt when it should be individuals who are responsible for acts of racism.

Second, if you use the words “white privilege” you are basically telling a poorer white community that they are privileged. You are saying to a single parent, who might live in a tiny flat, doing their best to bring up their child, that they have “white privilege”.

Third, the use of the term is factually incorrect. All of the data shows that, far from being privileged in education, disadvantaged white working-class students are doing worse than almost any other ethnic group. Just 17.7 per cent of white British pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a pass or above in GCSE English and maths and only 16 per cent go on to university.

There will be individuals who make intellectual arguments as to what “white privilege” really means. For example, the BBC posted a video to its website of John Amaechi, a psychologist and former NBA basketball player, explaining why he believes “white privilege” to be justified.

However, the problem is that people can make all of the intellectual arguments that they like, but disadvantaged white groups just hear two words, “white privilege”. It is a bit like the Ronseal advert, it does what it says on the tin. The use of the term just tells people that whatever their circumstances, whatever their background, they have “white privilege”. It is wrong.

The other argument that often crops up is that the term “white privilege” is irrelevant and is not being used. This is far from the case. Barnardos uses the term as a guide to parents on its blog. Councils have been introducing “White Privilege” terminology. (See page 16 of our Education Committee report.) Calvin Robinson, a former teacher and school governor, has written extensively as to how the concept of “white privilege” is being introduced into teacher training toolkits and much more besides.

I previously mentioned David Blunkett, the former Education Secretary. Last week, when writing about our Committee report, he said:

“I, for one, have always found it offensive, divisive and frankly irrelevant to making a difference to the lives of those from whatever background, who deserve our support…to put it bluntly, the last thing that young people facing disadvantage need to hear is anything about ‘white privilege’”. 

He gave a warning to his party saying:

“If my party is not able to raise its voice in defence of its former political base of the white working-class, it will not have much chance of winning power in future”.

Blunkett has got it on the nail. Rather than properly reading the report and really examining why white working-class pupils struggle so much more than other ethnic groups in education, the critics choose to try to undermine the whole report based upon literally a few pages that suggested that the concept of “white privilege” was putting white working-class pupils at a further disadvantage.

I mentioned I asked people on the streets of Harlow about the “culture wars”. While they may not have come across this particular terminology, they did hear about our Select Committee report because of the intense media coverage. The overwhelming response has been positive. The silent majority know that white working-class pupils from free school meal backgrounds have been neglected for decades. It is time to right this wrong.

Daniel Hannan: We cannot allow our solution to the problem of illiberalism depart from liberal principles

26 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.

Every time you think woke students can’t get any more pompous, risible or absurd, they surpass themselves. The latest madness is a campaign by the “Birkbeck Students Anti-Racism Network” to remove Eric Kaufmann from his position at their college. Dr Kaufmann is one of the most original and brilliant political scientists of our age. He writes a great deal about identity issues, basing his work on original research and polling rather than on woke pieties.

His very rigour enrages his detractors. A lengthy charge-sheet is levelled against the Vancouverite professor, much of it in what Orwell called duckspeak: “He’s indistinguishable from the institutions that create, legitimise and perpetuate the ways of thinking that ultimately serve to install and preserve capitalism and colonialism alongside the social systems that sustain it: the patriarchy and white supremacy…”

Among other things, Kaufman has apparently committed the abominable sin of being “associated with Quillette, UnHerd, Spiked and many other far-right & bigoted magazines”. He is, hilariously, accused of being a white supremacist – I say “hilariously” because Kaufmann is of mixed Chinese, Latino and Jewish heritage. Worst of all, he is apparently engaged in “cancelling ‘cancel culture’.”

Such, I suppose, is the logical end-point of woke. Simply to argue against cancel culture is now considered grounds for cancellation. True, these Birkbeck blockheads are outliers; but less so than they would have been five years ago – even two years ago. Each stunt of this kind ends up dragging the centre of gravity further towards what would until recently have been almost universally seen as a lunatic fringe.

A straightforward vindication, you might think, of the Government’s plan to appoint a campus free speech tsar. Kaufmann himself has written on this website in support of government intervention, arguing that legislation will alter behaviour, as happened with the seat-belt law.

We should be careful, though, that our solution to the problem of illiberalism does not itself depart from liberal principles. Free association, like free speech, is a fundamental right. University societies are entitled to disinvite speakers. They can do so in a self-righteous, inconsistent and discourteous way without trampling on anyone’s freedoms. What they can’t do – or at least shouldn’t be allowed to do without sanctions – is to disrupt other people’s meetings, or use the threat of physical force to keep a speaker away.

The distinction matters. Legislation aimed at punishing universities that have deplatformed speakers is, as Steve Davies argued in a paper published yesterday by the Institute of Economic Affairs “an intrusion of political power into the internal affairs of a private body and would be rightly resisted if it were attempted elsewhere.

The real problem, as Dr Davies correctly points out, is the lack of ideological diversity, not only on campus but in a number of graduate professions. The solution lies in lowering barriers to entry so as to encourage heterodoxy rather than yet more state bans.

That, though, is a difficult argument to make in the current climate. Wokery undoubtedly provokes an angry response. But that response is more often Trumpian than libertarian. Bans are met with counterbans, cancellations with more cancellations. You got one of ours sacked? Well we’ve dug up something silly that one of yours once said!

As the culture war becomes more vicious, we lose sight of what ought to be the elemental precepts of a liberal society: free contract, free expression, free association. A few months ago, I wrote a ConHome column making the basic case for liberty and property. Businesses, I wrote, should not be compelled to take customers. A restaurant should be allowed to insist that you wear a tie, a hotel to refuse to cater to children, Twitter to reject Donald Trump, Amazon to refuse to host Parler, a cruise ship to demand proof of vaccination. Whether they were wise to exercise these rights was a different issue; but our presumption should be in favour of freedom.

That case would once have gone almost without saying on the Centre-Right. Not any more. The comment section was filled with angry screeds, several of them from people who think of themselves as mainstream conservatives, complaining that I had gone over to the other side.

As so often, we are being pulled by American cultural currents. Republican state administrations have taken to banning vaccine passports – that is, making it illegal for private firms to set their own conditions on who can use their facilities. As David Frum points out, the tendency predates the Coronavirus: Oklahoma Republicans had already passed a law that made it a criminal offence for a company to ban employees from taking firearms into its parking lot.

To argue that, just as the state should not impose vaccine passports, neither should it prevent private companies from requiring tests, is an increasingly lonely business. To believe that people should have free speech, but others should be under no compulsion to give them a platform, is at odds with the authoritarian mood of the time. To aver that students have every right to be wrong and rude, and even to object to having teachers from outside the hard Left, but that universities should not indulge their nonsense, is nowadays an eccentric position. Liberalism is in retreat. No one cares about process when they happen to favour a particular outcome.

Yet take those precepts away and everything we understand by a free society – fixed rules rather than arbitrary rulings, the ability to innovate and invest without fear of confiscation, the freedom to speak your mind without being blacklisted, East Germany-style – suddenly becomes a lot more precarious. There was a time when conservatives understood that.

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.