Daniel Hannan: We must hold out to Russians the promise, and example, of a free society

30 Mar

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.

Tchaikovsky is being dropped from musical programmes all over the Western world. Audiences in Britain, the US, Canada, Switzerland and the EU have had their imagined sensitivities respected by not being exposed to Russia’s most popular composer.

Nothing very surprising there, you might think. The BBC might have broadcast Beethoven throughout the Second World War, but the Anglosphere of that era was not dominated by identity politics and cancel culture. Indeed, many Britons understood the fight against Nazism as a battle for individualism, eccentricity and freedom.

Nowadays, by contrast, it is customary to stigmatise long-dead artists for reasons that have nothing to do with their work. We are primed to look for the flimsiest connections to anything our age regards as “problematic”, and to flaunt our own purity by an exaggerated repudiation of those so connected.

Never mind that Tchaikovsky was as much Ukrainian as Russian; that his father was descended from an old Cossack family, the Chaikas; that he spent his summers in Kamianka, slap in the middle of Ukraine, and lived for three years in Nyzy, scene of some fierce recent fighting; that at least 30 of his works had Ukrainian subjects or incorporated Ukrainian folk songs.

For what it’s worth he was also, by the standards of his time, a liberal – an enthusiast for a wider franchise and for constitutional government.

Yes, he was a Russian patriot, but he had little time for bombast. He described his 1812 Overture as “very loud and noisy, and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love.”

But, of course, cancel culture is about emotion, not detail. Drawing attention to Tchaikovsky’s relative liberalism is as pointless as to Cecil Rhodes’s. In public discourse, both men are now symbols, targets, not flesh-and-blood human beings.

So far, so familiar. But this column is not a rant about cancel culture. For war brings us up against the hard truth that, sometimes, collectivism – identity politics, if you like – is inescapable.

Even those of us who consider ourselves small-government types accept that there are some legitimate state functions. Defence is a prime example: it would be difficult to organise the protection of a nation’s territory through a voluntary subscription scheme. If we accept that armies are the business of the state, then they must also be the responsibility of those who constitute the state.

It was on this basis that we fought the Second World War. Even as we listened to Beethoven, we were bombing of German cities. We knew that we were thereby killing some pacifists, some committed anti-Nazis, come to that, some tiny children. But we did it on the basis that war is a collective endeavour.

Among the many horrible aspects of war, this dissolution of the individual into the collective is among the least remarked yet most odious. Decent citizens become enemies on no other grounds than nationality. People who might (in other circumstances) be friends are encouraged to commit what would (in other circumstances) be capital crimes.

It works both ways. Once wars start, people rally to their leaders, whatever their previous thoughts about the rights and wrongs of the conflict.

For example, I was opposed to invasion of Iraq – a lonely position for a Conservative back in 2003. But, once the fighting began, I wanted our Armed Forces to succeed. I watched with horrified disdain as some of my fellow peaceniks began to slide into a kind of gleeful defeatism, almost willing us to lose so that they could say “I told you so”.

As Guy Crouchback observes in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, once the first shots are fired, considerations of politics give way to considerations of nation.

People rally to unjust as well as to just regimes. ConHome’s Mark Wallace has noted that support for Vladimir Putin is up by around ten per cent since the invasion was launched, and support for the war itself is strong:

“Since the conflict began, polls by Lord AshcroftRussian FieldFOMstate-owned VCIOM and a group of independent pollsters all put support for the war between 58 and 75 per cent.”

While the decision to invade may have been Putin’s, the view that Ukraine ought not to be allowed to chart a wholly independent course is broadly shared by his countrymen.

Just as Lenin inherited many of his strategic imperatives of imperial Russia, so Putin has inherited many of his from Soviet Union. Successive regimes saw Russian security as being bound up with the subjugation of contiguous territories and the indirect domination of a buffer zone beyond them.

The exception was Boris Yeltsin – largely because of the anomalous circumstances that saw him, as head of the Russian Federation, take the lead in dissolving the USSR. Russia thus became a rare example of a nation that seceded from its own empire; and, to this day, many Russians feel the phantom pains of their amputated republics.

Yeltsin was exceptional in another way, too. He oversaw a more or less pluralist, multi-party system. For most of its history, Russia has been a dictatorship of one kind or another – and dictatorships, in the main, are more liable to launch aggressive wars than democracies.

All these things help explain why our policies are now directed against Russia as a whole, rather than just against Putin and his cronies. Russian sports teams are banned from competition, regardless of the political views of individual team members. Some economic sanctions are targeted at oligarchs, but many are hitting ordinary Russians. A Russian pianist was recently prevented from performing in Montreal, despite his opposition to Putin and to the invasion.

“For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

This inexorable collectivism is one of many reasons why, as a classical liberal, I hate wars. It is also, paradoxically, why I hate Putin and want him to lose. Not just so that Ukrainians can pursue their own dreams, but so that Russians can get another chance to build a more open polity. It might not work – the record until now has been disappointing – but it is surely worth a go.

In the mean time, let us try to keep our own sense of perspective. Yes, we should exert maximum pressure on Russia with the goal of pushing it out of Ukraine – and, with luck, of bringing Putin down.

But let’s not pretend that banning Swan Lake is anything other than performative tribalism. If we want to hold out the ideal of a free society as something for both Ukrainians and Russians to aim at, we need to believe in it ourselves.

Jeremy Black: The ‘culture wars’ aren’t a distraction from confrontation with Russia, they are part of it

24 Mar

Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

One of the comments on my last piece for ConservativeHome suggested that I was playing the ‘reds under the bed’ card with reference to the Ukraine crisis. The implication was that subversion, let alone treason, or even a milder version of ‘culture wars’ during the Cold War, were imaginary; indeed, a creation of paranoid sensibilities.

Would that that was true, but the historian scarcely has to point out that the Cold War saw from the outset a significant engagement with espionage and subversion.

Both were part of the playbook for the major powers, and certainly an aspect of the Communist commitment to total war. To neglect them would be to fail to understand the history of these years.

That failure indeed was an aspect both of the standard journalism during the Cold War and of the equivalent historical work. Each was inclined to underrate, or simply ignore, the role of espionage or subversion. And yet both were very important and their significance was underlined by any treatment of the period that puts an emphasis on the politics of the moment and the contingency, whether in terms of the Miners’ Strike or the Provisional IRA.

Linked to this, but separate, came the commitment to the Soviet camp of those who were not involved in subversion or worse. This was an aspect of the ‘soft power’ dimension of the Cold War, but one that was significant both politically and militarily.

Thus, those who opposed the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Britain and West Germany directly contributed to Soviet military intentions. So also more generally did those who sapped confidence in Western institutions and intentions, not least by sowing anti-Americanism in Western Europe.

Thus, the Left was to be more vocal in Britain and West Germany in 1983 against the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles than on behalf of the Poles oppressed in 1981 when martial law was declared and Solidarity suppressed with scores killed. This martial law remained in place until 1983, but the British Left preferred to focus on Greenham Common.

In some respects, the crisis prefigured the present one with Ronald Reagan introducing sanctions, providing covert aid to Solidarity, and pressing West Germany against the Yamal oil-gas pipeline from Siberia.

That was the past, but there are direct links to the present. This is a matter of individuals, the Jeremy Corbyns of the world, but also of broader climates of opinion and the relevant institutions. Indeed, ‘culture wars’ take on meaning precisely in these terms namely as part of a deliberate assault on the context and continuity of British civilisation.

That much of this assault comes from those who have gained influencer in, if not control over, so many British institutions makes the situation not only more troubling but also harder to resist successfully. The use of a critique of the British empire in order to compromise any positive presentation of national values is well-entrenched in much of the modish world of opinion.

Books and syllabi continue to appear accordingly, as with Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence. A History of the British Empire published this month by Penguin Random House and damning Britain past and present. As a sample, Brexit is presented as racism: “The British government’s configuration of white power clearly jettisons prospects for a federation of Western states.”

Such nonsense will receive undeserved praise and the accompanying panoply of awards and fellowships with which the academic elite award each other. That those who do so increasingly decry liberalism and deplore what they term privilege is part of the bleak comedy of the modern university.

The Cold War saw the same tendency, and doubtless there will be similar attempts to ‘contextualise’ Russian aggression and brutality by attacking the past and present of the West.

Daniel Hannan: We feel the pull of geography, cultural congruence, and kinship in the West. Whether Woke likes it or not.

16 Mar

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.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, I made a spectacularly inaccurate forecast. The coronavirus, I predicted, would end our obsession with identity politics.

In a grimmer and harder world, we would be less inclined to indulge ourselves in abstruse debates about ‘cis privilege’. Businesses fighting to remain solvent would no longer fret about gender pay gaps. In the scramble to find vaccines, no one would give two hoots about the sex or colour of the researchers.

Boy, was I wrong. Woke had become a religion and, like all religions, it pressed new events into its existing theology.

Indeed, as has happened down the centuries, plague pushed the faithful to demented displays of devotion. Some self-flagellated, some smashed statues – white BLM supporters unconsciously mimicking their mediaeval forebears

I don’t intend to repeat my inept forecast. The Ukrainian war will leave a lot of people poorer, colder and hungrier. The spike in food and fuel prices will mean that almost everyone will end up working longer hours or being able to afford fewer things or both. But that does not mean that there will be any retreat from identity politics.

The war hasn’t weakened woke, but it has revealed it. It has exposed, for example, the way in which woke is only ever used against the West.

Vladimir Putin’s government includes few women and fewer people of colour. He is no friend to LGBT rights. But people who insist on seeing the world as a pyramid of hierarchy and oppression have struggled to extend their critique beyond their customary targets.

Consider, for example, the worldwide rage over Prince William’s almost stunningly banal observation that “for our generation, it’s very alien to see this happening in Europe”. Immediately, the grievance merchants piled in. Typical was the reaction of Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King:

“Horrific comment. European people ran roughshod over the continent of Africa, pillaging communities, raping women, enslaving human beings, colonizing for profit and power, stealing resources, causing generational devastation.”

As usual, a purity spiral kicked in, with the original remarks being exaggerated at each repetition. The Prince, it was averred, hadn’t just been insensitive, he had been colonialist. No, he had been outright racist. Much of the fury was whipped up by Nadine White, the Independent’s race correspondent, who repeated and then refused to retract that “Prince William said it’s rather normal to see war and bloodshed in Africa and Asia but not Europe”.

How readily wokies reach for the concept of “my truth” when it suits them. A week before the Duke of Cambridge’s mundane remark, I had written an article making the same point: that it was shocking to see a full-scale war in a consumerist European society whose people “use Netflix and Instagram, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers”.

Ever since, Google Alerts has been tipping me off to mentions of my article in various overseas journals, mainly in South Asia and the Middle East. Except that, in this imaginary version, I am reported as having written that we should care about Ukrainians “because they look like us” or “because they are white”.

To repeat, wokery works only against the West. No one thinks it odd that, say, Arab countries are more bothered by violence in Palestine than violence in Papua. No one complains that the Pakistani government focuses more on Indian-controlled Kashmir than on Russian-controlled Kherson.

Double standards are intrinsic to wokies. Identity politics insists on seeing race in everything. It defines people by their sex and ethnicity. It demands that the collective identity of some groups be elevated: that, for example, US policy towards Africa should be guided by the sensitivities of African-Americans.

Yet it is simultaneously outraged when Western public opinion is influenced by geographical proximity, cultural congruence, or ties of kinship.

In reality, these ties are inevitable. Britain is bound to feel more responsibility towards, say, Hong Kong than Macau, more kinship with the Falklands than the Faroes. All human beings feel empathy when they can imagine themselves in a similar situation.

The reason that, for example, the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram caused more global revulsion than the deaths of children in Syria is that, while few of us can imagine being shelled in our homes, we can all imagine how we would feel if our kids did not come back from school.

These reactions are part of the human condition. Adam Smith famously observed that “a man of humanity in Europe”, hearing that “the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake,” would feel very bad for them, but would sleep as soundly as if no such thing had happened. Told, by contrast, that he would lose his little finger the next day, he would not sleep a wink.

People often stop the quotation at that point, but Smith goes on to explain that we would none the less sacrifice our finger to save hundreds of millions of lives, because our conscience would kick in with or without a direct emotional connection to China.

That, it seems to me, should be the guiding principle of our foreign policy. We should treat all lives as sacrosanct, all human rights as valid, all nations as entitled to their independence. But most of us will naturally feel closer to, say, Canada than to Kazakhstan, and there is no dishonour in that feeling.

Ah, say the critics, but are we really treating other peoples equally? Were we as generous to Afghans and Syrians as we are being to Ukrainians?

It depends who you mean by ‘we’. If you mean Britain, yes we were. We airlifted some 17,000 people out of Afghanistan when the government fell last year, and have taken in more than 20,000 Syrians, not counting then tens of thousands more we support in states contiguous to Syria.

If by ‘we’ you mean the EU’s border states, such as Poland and Hungary, then I can only invite you to spend a couple of days there and you’ll see what the difference is.

In 2015, I worked in a hostel for some of the youngsters who were crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. They were bright, resourceful kids who had had hellish journeys. I hope I would have done the same thing in their position.

But they were not refugees, at least not as we define that word legally. Almost all were men. On the Polish-Ukrainian border, where I spent last week, the picture is very different. Lines of women with young children queueing patiently in freezing temperatures.

Another demand of woke is that must act as if gender is a social construct. But Poles and Hungarians haven’t yet learned to play along. They can see the difference between men who have left their families behind and families who have left their men behind. It is tempting to think that a European war might jolt us into seeing the same thing. But it won’t. Nothing will. Woke has won.

Sarah Ingham: A real war puts the West’s culture warriors in cruel perspective

4 Mar

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

Albie Amankona: The culture war is a distraction from the real business of Conservatism

3 Mar

Albie Amankona is co-founder of Conservatives Against Racism For Equality (CARFE).

Call me old fashioned but I miss the days where the Conservative Party was more anti-tax than anti-woke, more pro-business than pro-culture war. Fashionable nostrums, like “woke” and “anti-woke”, come and go, but our conservative values are timeless and they bind us together.

Conservatism has gone awry, we have become complacent and sloppy. Too complacent with the current system to reform planning and unlock the potential of house builders to address the housing shortage; delivering on the British dream of home ownership for a generation where that is out of reach.

Birth-rates have dropped as house prices have soared. Coincidence? I think not. There are few things less conservative than presiding over conditions that make it hard for the young to settle down with the joy and security of their own families.

Rather than providing leadership on equalities, we fear being called “woke”. In Spring 2021 the Government released a ground-breaking report on British race relations, the first of its kind to discuss family breakdown, disaggregate BAME, and separate the injustices of racism from some racial disparities where factors such as family structure, cultural norms and geography play a bigger role in life outcomes. The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report has 24 recommendations which could change the lives of millions of Britons and improve social cohesion.

Almost a year post-release, no government response. I have been holding my breath since September when Kemi Badenoch told us the government’s response was coming “shortly” in her excellent Black History Month article.

On LGBT+ issues, we cannot square how to improve the lives of trans Britons and ban conversion therapy whilst reconciling women’s rights and single-sex spaces – something which has been achieved by countries we outcompete on other metrics such as France, Ireland, and Portugal. It is not impossible and society has not collapsed across the channel or the Irish Sea.

At Party Conference I warned the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Oliver Dowden, about “anti-woke” rhetoric. I have spoken to countless MPs, peers, journalists, broadcasters, and fellow party activists about the pointless pursuit of a confected culture war and about the need to find a positive, unifying, and dare I say inclusive Conservative narrative to counter the left’s divisive oppression Olympics. A radically moderate narrative, as Steve Baker MP would say: radical in our care for one another, but moderate in what we say and do.

We must recognise that unless we find this narrative – if we continue to only oppose and divide – the small minority that represent only the most radical views will win.

During Dowden’s Heritage Foundation speech, it was encouraging to hear the Chairman say: “we allow ourselves to be obsessed by what divides us rather than what unites us” as he rejected cancel culture, defended free speech, conservatism and western liberal democratic values.

However, nebulous references to “woke ideology” and unmannerly asides about pronouns sullied an otherwise sound speech. The culture war has reached a level of nonsense where an individual cannot exercise their freedom to choose a veggie sausage without being called “woke”. Why do people care if someone’s banger is pork or pea protein? What does “woke” mean? It is meaningless, make-believe, another dreaded “social construct” that we enthusiastically build.

According to YouGov, 59 per cent of Britons do not know what “woke” means. Frankly, the “war on woke” does not matter. On what does matter – policy – we fear the polls too much to use our historic 80-seat majority to deliver the post-Brexit reforms necessary to turbocharge growth, level up, reform the NHS, regulation, taxation, and housing, or be honest about the need to balance the books after spending nearly half a trillion pounds on our Covid response in less than 27 months.

I laugh when I think about what drew me to the Conservative party, from a Labour family made up of the descendants of proud Northern mill workers and Windrush migrants. My gratitude for gay marriage, the promise of fiscal discipline and a budget surplus by 2020.

I doubt a similar teenager would make the same decision today. Now, we must tell voters we believe in families, freedom, opportunity, free-markets, low taxes, and a pro-business environment… as we have legislated for the opposite. Some blame Covid, but Lord Frost resigned as he concluded that it was more than that. I agree with him.

Actions speak louder than words. Parliamentarians who I have respected my entire political life are too scared of Number 10 to tell them what the country is thinking. Instead they defend the indefensible and our reputation tarnishes. The May local elections will be a major test.

I believe in the transformative power of Conservative governments, on equality issues like advancing LGBT+ rights, on constitutional changes like Brexit, on economic reform like Thatcher’s free market revolution, and on defence like victory in the Falklands and managing the evolving conflict in Ukraine.

As Covid retreats and we respond to actual war in Europe, we should stop stoking the concocted culture war and worrying about name-calling when we make challenging but correct choices on the economy, defence and equalities.

If we must be scared of something, let it be what will be going through voters’ minds at the ballot box, when Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn are in the past. If this is going through my mind, what will be going through theirs?

Profile: Nadine Dorries, Johnson loyalist. A splash of colour amidst a grey landscape. And promoted by him for precisely that reason.

14 Oct

Boris Johnson likes to disconcert his critics by doing things which fall outside their conception of what it would be fitting for him to do.

His appointment of Nadine Dorries as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is a signal example of this.

In all the reams of speculation about how he would reshuffle his Cabinet, nobody seems to have foreseen her promotion.

As David Gauke remarked earlier this week on ConHome,

“When Nadine entered Parliament as part of the 2005 intake (of which I was also part), it was not obvious that she would one day join the Cabinet.”

Other Conservatives treated her more rudely. Two Tories who have recently published their diaries, Sasha Swire and Alan Duncan, refer to her by her nickname, “Mad Nad”.

Like Johnson himself, she was until recently looked on with condescension as a vulgar and unserious person who had no idea how to behave. Dorries refused to show the respect for the Cameron-Osborne leadership which anyone intent on promotion was expected to show.

So when asked in April 2012 by the BBC whether David Cameron and George Osborne are “still, in your opinion, two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”, Dorries replied,

“not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime.”

When Theresa May succeeded Cameron as Prime Minister, and made Philip Hammond Chancellor, Dorries was no more supportive of them.

And yet if the world had been paying attention, it would have seen that if and when Johnson became leader, her fortunes would in all likelihood be transformed, for she has long been one of his most loyal supporters.

In September 2012 she recalled on ConHome (for this site took her seriously and carried a considerable number of pieces by her) the origins of her support for Johnson:

“I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, the first time I heard it suggested that Boris might one day be Prime Minister.

It was in Bournemouth, on the second evening of conference in 2004. I was in the company of a shadow secretary of state and a senior member of CCHQ, and we were sat in the window seat of a restaurant. It was evening, dark and pouring with rain.

The restaurant was bustling, packed with conference goers and smelt of wet wool, pensioners and politicians.

We were in a slight hurry as I had to get the shadow minister to a speech he was due to deliver at a conference fringe – but after a full day which had begun at 6am – we were starving and desperate for food. My job was to place the order quickly and as I sat back down into my seat, the conversation turned to the last tense conference we three had been at together the previous year, which had set the scene for the downfall of Iain Duncan Smith.

The conversation wandered onto the longevity of Michael Howard’s tenure in the role of leader, which I was informed with an authoritative voice, would be short.

My question was, ‘who could possibly replace him?’ The swift reply, which indicated that it wasn’t a spur of the moment revelation and perhaps something already pre-determined, shot straight back in one word ‘Boris’.

I laughed. Oh… how I laughed. I replied with one word, high on exaggeration, ‘Boris’? Followed by ‘are you serious’? They were, deadly…

It only took weeks of viewing Boris through the prism of potential leadership in order to shift my thoughts to exactly the same place as theirs.”

And here is Dorries at the most recent party conference, asked by Christopher Hope during the recording of Chopper’s Politics podcast who her mentor has been:

“It’s always been Boris… Someone like Boris who does it a bit differently gives you the confidence to be yourself in politics.”

When Hope asked why her appointment as Culture Secretary had been criticised by so many in the arts, she replied:

“Oh snobbishness, total pure left-wing snobbery.”

Nadine Bargery was born in 1957 in Breck Road, a deprived district of Liverpool. Her father, a bus driver who died at the age of 42, was an Irish Catholic, her mother an English Protestant.

Money was “very tight” and she left school at the age of 16 to train as a nurse. At the age of 17 she met Paul Dorries, to whom she got married, and with whom she had three daughters.

They spent a year in Zambia, she running a school, he working as a mining engineer. On returning to England, she set up a child care business.

In 2001, she stood as the Conservative candidate in Manchester, at Hazel Grove, then a safe Liberal Democrat seat, after which she spent three years as a special adviser to Oliver Letwin, who this week told ConHome:

“It isn’t often that someone with Nadine’s energy and chutzpah arrives on the political scene. When they do, one can expect all sorts of fireworks. And now she is in charge of a Department that will give her every chance to light up the sky. This is likely to be a spectacle worth watching.”

“I wanted to be an MP so badly it consumed me,” she wrote on ConHome soon after entering the Commons. She would have liked to represent one of the Liverpool seats, but none was remotely winnable for a Conservative, so she became the candidate for Mid Bedfordshire, which she has held since 2005.

In her maiden speech she said:

“I promise to be a voice for the family and to stand up for mothers who wish to stay at home and raise their children but feel voiceless and unworthy in such a career-oriented society, when raising the children of tomorrow’s society is the most worthy job of all.”

Here was an early sign of her social conservatism, perhaps most evident in her strenuous attempts to reduce the age at which women can obtain an abortion from 24 weeks to 20. She also spoke in favour of grammar schools. She and her husband separated in 2007.

In 2012 she came before a wider public by appearing on I’m a Celebrity, to the annoyance of the Conservative Whips, though she had asked for and been granted leave of absence without revealing where she was going.

The Whip was for a time withdrawn, but she remained well able to give as good as she got, as in this dialogue with Andrew Neil in December 2012:

Neil: “Do you think your political career’s effectively over?”

Dorries [amused rather than cowed]: “No, not at all. It might just be beginning.”

In 2016, she wept at St Ermin’s Hotel when Johnson announced to his followers that he was abandoning his leadership bid, and in 2018, after he had resigned from the post of Foreign Secretary, she leapt to his defence when he was under fire for his article about burkas. Early meetings in his new leadership campaign were held in her Commons office.

Her ministerial career began at the age of 62, in July 2019, when Johnson became Prime Minister and made her a junior minister at the Department of Health. The following May he promoted her to Minister of State in the same department.

And just under a month ago he made her Secretary of State at DCMS. This is nowadays a major economic department, with a heavy legislative programme including the Online Safety Bill, crucial measures to enhance Britain’s position as a world leader in data and tech, and significant though as yet unspecified media reforms.

Johnson has cleared out the previous ministerial team, led by Oliver Dowden, which was running this programme, and has put in a new team led by Dorries, with one fewer minister.

As Gauke observes,

“To some extent, she embodies the new Conservative voters – northern, working-class and socially conservative and is a natural culture warrior. It is surely likely that the Prime Minister, in making this appointment, looked forward to her upsetting all the right people. So far, she is doing exactly that.”

On the sports side of her brief, she declared her interest as a passionate supporter of Liverpool Football Club, and has pointed out that her great grandfather, George Bargery, was a founder member of Everton, where he played in goal.

On the literary side, she has herself enjoyed success as an author. In 2014, when the first of her novels came out, Ann Treneman of The Times went to Liverpool and did an interview with Dorries which is of absorbing interest.

The new Culture Secretary is aggressive and friendly, pugnacious and vulnerable, at one and the same time. In Chopper’s Politics podcast at the party conference, she recalled having to borrow shoes to go to school, mentioned with pride the achievements of several people who had been at her school, and said that today they would not have the same opportunities to make their way in the cultural field:

“If you want to do that today you need a double-barrelled name and you need to have gone to a private or a public school or your Mum needs to know someone or your Dad needs to know someone or you need to have a connection with the BBC…

“For me that’s what levelling up is about…it’s about people…who come from a background like mine who want to be the next grand slam champion but can’t afford private tennis lessons.”

She added that the BBC “have a kind of groupthink and their groupthink excludes working-class backgrounds”.

DCMS is responsible for more appointments to public bodies than any other department. It is hard to imagine a Labour Secretary of State could be more determined than Dorries to ensure that working-class applicants have a fair chance of getting those jobs.

Johnson has, in short, put in someone who is profoundly committed to her idea of levelling up, and may also prove rather good at catching her opponents off balance.

Daniel Hannan: Forget Rayner and ‘scum’. It was Reeves’ interview this week that revealed why Labour is unelectable.

29 Sep

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.

The moderates’ response was more telling than Angela Rayner’s original outburst. Calling Conservatives “scum” is hardly a new departure for Labour, as anyone who has been at either party conference will attest.

Indeed, an anthropologist coming new to the peculiar dialect of the British Left might assume that “Toriskum” was their standard word for people outside their tribe.

Rayner had simply rattled off one of those compound phrases that Lefties use: homophobic, racist, misogynist, absolute pile of banana republic Etonian piece of scum.”

OK, Etonian was a colourful addition (and a questionable one if the speaker’s intention was to suggest that you shouldn’t categorise or “other” whole groups of people) but, apart from that, it was a standard collocation: a stringing together of words that are so often placed next to one another that the speaker isn’t really thinking about their individual meanings.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell calls it duckspeak, a term of approbation in Party circles, meaning “to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all.”

Much more interesting was the way in which supposedly grown-up, centrist Labour front-benchers reacted when asked about their deputy leader’s tirade. Well, they said, Angela might have used slightly OTT language, but her essential point was sound: this was indeed a hateful administration.

Typical was the interview given by Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, on Monday’s Today Programme. Nick Robinson asked her whether that list of adjectives was entirely fair when the Tories had had two female prime ministers, when two of the four great offices of state were held by women and two by British Asians, and when the education and health secretaries were also Asian, the business secretary black and so on. Here is how she answered:

“Look at what happened during the pandemic, where if you’re from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, you’re more likely to get the virus, more likely to die from the virus. The virus exposed some of those divisions and inequalities in society. I do understand why a lot of people feel very angry with this government. I feel angry with them as well.”

Robinson let it pass and, as far as I can tell, no one else has picked it up. But that response struck me as far more revealing than Rayner’s rant. Here was Labour’s Shadow Chancellor – in a BBC interview, not in some high-spirited speech to activists – accusing the Conservatives of causing needless deaths on grounds of race.

Whether they were doing so through neglect or out of some hidden Nazi impulse was left unsaid. But the differential in death rates was, in Reeves’ view, plainly ministers’ fault. Her suggestion that it was proper to “feel very angry with this governmentwas a straight imputation of blame.

It is true that, especially in the first wave, ethnic minorities were more vulnerable. No one knows exactly why. Epidemiologists have proposed different theories. Some link the higher fatality rate to being in more exposed occupations; others to multi-generational households; others to genetics; others to a greater incidence of pre-existing conditions; others to being a more urban population; others to vitamin D deficiency, which is more common in dark-skinned people at relatively sunless latitudes. More recently, differential rates in vaccine take-up have been identified as a factor, though that obviously didn’t apply during the first wave.

Maybe one or more of these explanations are correct; maybe it’s something else entirely. I have no idea. Neither have you. Neither has Reeves. But she thought nothing of blaming the deaths on Tory racism – an astonishingly serious charge to level if you’re not in a position to back it up.

My purpose is not to have a go at the Shadow Chancellor. In most interviews, she has struck me as pleasant, polite and personable. That’s the point. So natural is it in Labour circles to assume that people to your Right are murderous bigots that even the sensibles do it; and, when they do, no one bats an eyelid.

To see how odd it is to level such accusations, consider the related question of whether Covid is more dangerous to men or to women. Here, the differential is far greater than among ethnic groups. Although the sexes are equally likely to catch the virus, men are nearly three times more likely to need intensive treatment, and are significantly more likely to die.

Again, there are competing theories as to why, though here there is a clear front-runner, namely differences in immune response systems which make women less vulnerable to some viruses.

No one, to my knowledge, has tried to argue that the higher death-rate among people who carry a Y-chromosome is the result of sexism, and rightly so – it would be an absurd proposition.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the differential had been the other way around, and that women had been likelier to lose their lives. Would Labour MPs have followed the science and concluded that biological differences were beyond the power of the state, or would they have blamed Tory misogyny? I think we all know the answer.

Here, in a nutshell, is why Labour is struggling to make progress. It keeps stirring up a culture war that, in present circumstances, it can’t win. Its obsession with identity politics – organisers of Labour meetings in Brighton were declining to take questions from white men on grounds that they needed to talk less and listen more – puts it hopelessly at odds with the majority of British people.

It is possible, I suppose, that the majority will eventually shift, as woke youngsters grow up, carrying their values with them. Britain might end up like Canada (or at least English-speaking Canada) where there is genuine electoral demand for a measure of identity politics.

But that shift, if it happens, is many years away. In the meantime, the ugly combination of wokery and self-righteousness is as repulsive to the electorate as Corbynism was.

What an extraordinary state of affairs when our second party votes, by 70 per cent to 30, to condemn the defence pact with Australia and the United States as “a dangerous move that will undermine world peace”.

How shameful when the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, the man aspiring to lead the next government, supports that motion. What a bizarre situation when he cannot bring himself to say that someone with a cervix is a woman.

I feel almost sorry for Keir Starmer, caught as he is between the electorate and his aggressively pacifist, bitterly internationalist, viciously tolerant activists. Still, what a needless and self-inflicted row. Never mind the cervix, Sir Keir. Consider, more immediately, the arse, the elbow and the difference between them.

Labour’s conference task – to differentiate itself in a meaningful way

24 Sep

It’s not been the easiest 18 months for Keir Starmer, the period in which he has been Labour Party leader. With the Coronavirus crisis dominating the political agenda, there have been few opportunities for him to talk about much else – or set out his stall politically.

So no doubt he will be excited for the (physical) Labour Party Conference over the weekend, in which he has apparently been advised to “reintroduce” himself to voters. Keen to maximise the next few days, yesterday he released a 12,000 word essay, titled The Road Ahead, which sets out his “post-pandemic vision” for the UK.

Although there was much fanfare in the lead up to its release, reviews of the document have been disappointing to say the least. Far from bolstering Labour in the polls, it will raise questions across the political spectrum about whether Conference will be any more interesting – as well as how much longer Starmer can go on for.

Starmer has previously said Labour has “a mountain to climb” to win the next election; he has regularly given signals that he knows what the party’s issues are, and is ready to turn its fortunes around.

But The Road Ahead reveals otherwise; it shows, conversely, a Labour Party that is stuck in the past, with passages about the 2008 financial crisis (“a smokescreen for rolling back the state”) and why Brexit is bad. Astonishingly, given Labour’s desire to win back the Red Wall, Starmer complains that the “Brexit gridlock put enormous stress on our country” (and whose fault was that exactly?).

The essay is overwhelmingly negative. Tens of pages spell out what’s wrong with Britain, as the Labour Party sees it, as well as the Conservative Party, which Starmer accuses of handing of “billions of pounds of taxpayer money to their mates”. One wonders if Kate Bingham, the UK’s vaccine saviour, falls under this description – for the crime of being married to Jesse Norman, a Tory MP.

Elsewhere Starmer accuses the Tories of plunging “headfirst into the murky depths of the so-called ‘culture wars”’. This has become something of a cliched accusation from the Labour Party; the idea that the Conservatives started this ideological battle (because it’s so fun having one’s free speech stifled…). 

But it is also unlikely to enamour the electorate, especially at a time when Rosie Duffield, a Labour MP, has said she would not come to the Labour Party Conference due to online threats surrounding her “gender critical views”. This, in itself, is a very real example of a culture war.

It’s not all doom and gloom in The Road Ahead. Towards the end Starmer offers 10 principles for a Labour-run UK. The trouble, though, is that they feel rushed and rather vague, such as the pledge that the “economy should work for citizens and communities” and that the “government must play its role in restoring honesty, decency and transparency in public life.”

Furthermore, some parts of Starmer’s essay sound close to what the Conservatives are offering. Labour’s quest to “ensure good, secure jobs are spread across the country” is, after all, what the Government is aiming for with its plan to “level up” the country and move jobs to the North.

And this is a big issue for Labour; it is having to compete against a Conservative Party whose policies have been pretty generous when it comes to remedying economic inequalities. Labour has to prove, this weekend, that it can differentiate itself in a meaningful way.

Overall the document release reminds me of when Starmer dramatically took to the podium last October to call for a “circuit break” lockdown. His team had calculated that doing something would be better than nothing. But in both cases, the substance was missing. The Road Ahead, in fact, just reinforces Labour haven’t quite worked out what the electorate would like to hear.

Instead of bolstering Starmer’s appearance at conference, it will pile the pressure on him to announce detailed policies. Already there are signs of some interesting ideas; Labour has unveiled, for example, plans to force developers to sell homes to first-time buyers six months after they’ve been built. Can Starmer go much further than this? That is the question people will be asking this weekend. Or else, the road ahead looks misty indeed.

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?