Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
What is political correctness? The most obvious answer is that it is a particular set of political ideas — typically those of the post-modern, progressive left. But there’s another, broader, definition — one that has more to do with epistemology than ideology.
How does one judge whether something is true or false? One could try do it objectively — assessing whether a claim has a basis in reality. Alternatively, one could start with an overarching political narrative — and then accept the things that fit with the story, while rejecting those that don’t. Thus instead of factual correctness, the criterion is political correctness.
On this definition, PC is not just a left-wing affair, but can be found across the political spectrum. In America, right-wing political correctness can be seen in the influence of conspiracy theories on the Republican Party. However, we shouldn’t assume that Tory common sense protects British conservatism. The fact is that rightwing PC — though in a different form to the US version — is making in-roads in this country too.
Consider the issue of the day: the cost of living crisis. As we sweat through another heat wave, it’s difficult to focus on the approaching winter — but nevertheless it is coming, along with an unprecedented surge in the price of gas and electricity.
The energy price cap for domestic users is going to shoot up in October and again in January. We don’t yet know the exact figures, but barring a miracle it won’t be hundreds of pounds added to household bills, but thousands. And this in a country where one in five adults have savings of less than £100.
Why is this happening? Is it because we’ve relied for far too long on the insecurity of non-renewable, imported energy sources? Or shall we claim it’s the fault of climate change policy?
No prizes for guessing which explanation the anti-greens prefer. For instance, here’s Lord Frost in the Telegraph. He starts off by correctly predicting that “a national emergency is coming.” However, he pins the blame on “net zero proponents” who chose to “rely on renewables and interconnectors, and to run down storage.”
Let’s deal with these items in turn. Firstly, renewables reduce aggregate demand for imported gas — and are thus saving us a lot of money. “Interconnectors” are links between different countries’ gas and power grids; as such they facilitate free trade (which I thought that Frost was in favour of). As for “storage”, I’m assuming that he means the stockpiling of natural gas — where the UK has indeed run down its capacity. However, this has nothing to do with net zero.
The key development was the closure of the Rough storage facility — a depleted gas field in the North Sea. It was the wrong decision, but one made on economic grounds alone. With several LNG import terminals up-and-running it was thought that we could rely on the tanker trade instead. It was yet another victory for the just-in-time ethos of the globalised economy. Therefore to blame environmentalism, which seeks to balance short-term efficiencies against long-term sustainability, is perverse.
David Frost isn’t the only Tory peer out to finger the greens. Daniel Hannan does the same (also in the Telegraph). His claim is that our leaders don’t want us to have cheap energy. It’s a provocative idea — but what are these abundant domestic resources of which we’ve been so cruelly denied? As far as I can tell, Hannan has three examples in mind: nuclear, shale gas and and “300 years’ supply of coal”. Oh dear.
I’ve busted the nuclear and shale myths before. The truth is that the Government has promoted both of these industries, but they haven’t delivered. After successive construction delays, we’re still waiting for the first of the new nuclear plants to be finished. Meanwhile, the supposed “ban” on shale gas is actually a moratorium that followed earthquakes at the UK’s sole commercial fracking site.
As for that cornucopia of coal, I’m sure that Arthur Scargill would have agreed. Yet it wasn’t environmentalism that shut-down Britain’s pits, but market forces. In fact, Hannan says so himself in the same article: “the transition from relatively dirty coal to relatively clean gas required very little state involvement…the Thatcher government simply withdrew subsidies and allowed the market to do its work.” In fact, this is the trump card in Hannan’s argument, which is that government should just get out of the way — and let price signals dictate the energy mix.
But what does he think would have happened if that had been the case? For most of the last thirty years, gas was the cheapest source of energy. Thus in Hannan-world we’d have built nothing but gas-fired power stations since the 1980s. As a result, our exposure to the current crisis would have been total.
I’m grateful that Hannan believes that “decarbonisation will happen eventually, as alternative sources become cheaper than fossil fuels.” However, he hasn’t noticed that this happy day has arrived. Even before the gas price surge, renewables were becoming cost competitive — and now they’re several times cheaper. Thank goodness we had the foresight to support them in their infancy.
When you believe an opponent to be fundamentally wrong about something, it’s tempting to see them as either ignorant or dishonest. But I don’t think that of the Noble Lords Hannan and Frost. They just need to escape the right-wing political correctness in which markets are always effective and environmentalism always suspect.
Furthermore, it’s not just the hard-liners who need to free their minds. The mainstream of the party is also trapped within a false narrative — as made painfully clear by the current leadership contest.
Here, the delusion is arguably more disturbing. Instead of falsely blaming net zero for the cost-of-living crisis, there’s been failure to face-up to the true extent of the emergency itself. Indeed, we’ve spent the last six weeks stuck in a make-believe world of fantasy tax cuts. For all the references to Margaret Thatcher, there’s been no acknowledgement that the benign conditions that enabled the fiscal policies of the 1980s no longer apply.
Liz Truss insists that this country’s best years lie ahead of us. But it isn’t true — or at least it won’t be for a long time. What does lie ahead is a troubled post-Covid future in which recession looms, war rages in Ukraine and broken supply chains disrupt the global economy. Beyond that, we can also look forward to a possible invasion of Taiwan, the next Eurozone crisis, an American meltdown and a second degree centigrade of global warming.
So forget those sunlit uplands, we need a Prime Minster capable of leading us through the fire. I’m not sure that’s Rishi Sunak, but I’m certain it’s not Liz Truss. Anyone capable of dismissing emergency aid to freezing households as “handouts” is obviously lost to the reality of our situation. Nor does she seem to understand that the households who would most benefit from her tax cuts are not those most exposed to rocketing fuel bills.
Perhaps she’s got a cunning plan for funding her tax policies and getting the country through the coming winter. But I don’t see how. Upon becoming Prime Minister, reality will shatter the narrative. Truss will either have to break the promises that got her elected or condemn millions to hypothermic bankruptcy. Either option will be politically cataclysmic.
But then that’s the problem with political correctness — it does a lot more harm to the right than it does to the left. While socialism and liberalism are about telling people what they want to hear, conservatism is about telling them what they need to hear.
Failing to do that is the ultimate betrayal of our values.
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