Donal Blaney: Lessons for GB News from an early draft of disruptor television

15 Jun

Donal Blaney is a solicitor, the founder of the Margaret Thatcher Centre and co-founded 18 Doughty Street and the Young Britons’ Foundation.

Sunday evening saw the much-anticipated launch of the self-styled disruptor news channel, GB News. Like many, I watched its opening couple of hours of broadcasting. My heart sank for those involved. Grainy and blurry images. Mics not working. Odd set design. It all felt familiar. It reminded me of the launch of 18 Doughty Street.

I was very much the junior partner in the team that launched 18DS in 2006. Funded by the visionary entrepreneur, Stephan Shakespeare, 18DS was run by Tim Montgomerie (then of this parish) and Iain Dale (now an award-winning presenter on LBC).

Our goal was to create what we called “Fox News Lite”, in an era long before Fox News lost its way. Unregulated by Ofcom because our output was online, 18DS would pursue a radically different news agenda to the mainstream print and broadcast media, ensuring that unheard stories were covered, and unheard voices had their say.

We failed. A little over a year after 18DS first began, the plug was pulled. Acrimony among the leadership team and a lack of long-term funding, coupled with feeble viewing figures, meant that the shows could not go on.

So what lessons, if any, are there for GB News to draw from 18DS?

  • Sort out the tech. There can be no excuse for audio or visual problems. Mics must always work. Guests need make up. Presenters need to be in focus. Whoever is speaking needs to be on camera. This is not rocket science. Practice, practice, practice. There will be howlers (who can forget when one 18DS presenter left his mic on while taking a pee, and the sound of him humming from the loo was broadcast live?) but these need to be ironed out within hours or days rather than in weeks or months.
  • Be ruthless. If presenters, contributors or guests are not cutting it, cut them. No matter how good a bloke X might be, if he turns out to be dull on screen, get rid of him. Now.
  • Change whatever needs changing, quickly. The first set we had at 18DS included a gold throne that looked as if it was straight out of a nineteenth century brothel. God knows how it was allowed to be seen. Parts of the GB News set looked like a North Korean news channel. Recognise the problem and redesign the set. Admit mistakes and move on, quickly.
  • Chemistry takes time. Watching Andrew Neil prompting his teams of presenters to say how feisty they were towards each other last night was cringeworthy. While every producer prays for the next Johnny & Denise, or even Piers & Susanna, such on air relationships take months or years to develop and can rarely be forced. And if on-screen talent hate each other, deal with it quickly. TV-AM learned that lesson too late.
  • Reconsider formats. At 18DS, we focused on 30 and 60 minute shows. But as these could only be watched online, at 2006 download speeds, these shows were way too long. No one watched them (me included!). We should have focused on much shorter clips that might have attracted a following or been shared virally. GB News needs to recognise that viewers have short attention spans and may struggle to sit through hour-long shows comprised of otherwise sound rants from hyped-up presenters.
  • Money matters. GB News is well backed financially. Leftists’ attempts to boycott advertisers in the hope they will cease advertising on the channel will fail to bring GB News to its knees (and will mean that Lottie, Hugo, Rupert and the gang of public school trustafarians at Stop Funding Hate will no longer be able to shop at Amazon or eat Kellogg’s). But running the channel, if it is to be a success, will cost way more than anticipated. Hopefully the financial backers have deeper pockets than they believe they might need.
  • Stick to the mission. 18DS went mainstream and lost its USP. Had it remained avowedly right-of-centre in its news agenda and output, it might have stood a chance. As yet another mainstream outlet, it was destined to fail. GB News needs to remain a disruptor. Everyone at the channel needs to watch Andrew Neil’s opening remarks last night until they are seared into their souls.
  • Ignore the naysayers. We live in an era of the cancel culture. Civility in public discourse has gone. The left will be desperate for GB News to fail. The morale of those involved in the channel will suffer if social media reviews are read. The solution is simple: ignore them. They are not your audience. The silent majority is.
  • Stand up to enemies. Ignoring naysayers does not mean that they should be allowed to kill GB News at birth. Be prepared to defend robustly all complaints to Ofcom from those who feign being offended. Their only goal is to see GB News go the way of News of the World. These people will never be happy until all media outlets with whom they disagree are destroyed, along with the reputations, livelihoods and lives of those who has the temerity to be involved. Do not be cowed.
  • Never give up. The first night was full of glitches. Many will mock online. Others are already furious that GB News presenters have expressed – shock, horror – opinions with which they violently disagree. But as these triggered snowflakes wail uncontrollably in impotent fury into their kale, lentil and chai lattes this morning, and for months to come, all at GB News need to channel their inner Churchill. The success of GB News matters. Truly it does. The silent majority has been denied a voice in broadcasting for far too long. 18DS tried and failed. GB News will try harder, and if it does so, it will not fail. All who believe in free speech must wish it well because, without a plurality of voices in the public square, we are not free.

Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

From Disraeli to Johnson, the Left has never understood the Right, and Fawcett shows us why

31 Oct

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett

Edmund Fawcett, “a left-wing liberal” (his term), here performs, with grace, acuity and good humour, a signal service for conservatives. He introduces us to each other.

Reading his book is like being at a vast family party, where as one glances round the marquee one is struck by the affinities between people who have never met, but have much in common.

Here one encounters cousins of whom one may, perhaps, have heard, but about whom one knows next to nothing.

In one of the most delightful parts of his book, published as Appendix C, Fawcett in under 40 pages gives us brief lives of over 200 conservative politicians and thinkers, drawn from Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom have attained some degree of eminence since the French Revolution.

This brevity is wonderful. It is not difficult to find a long book about any of these people. To find a dozen lines that are worth reading can be almost impossible.

And conservatism is itself an almost impossible subject. As Fawcett remarks in his preface, “A chaos of voices has often made it hard to say what, if anything, conservatives stand for.”

He notes a paradox:

“Puzzling as it sounds, conservatives have largely created and learned to dominate a liberal modern world in which they cannot feel at home.”

He remarks that he is not writing solely or even primarily for the benefit of conservatives:

“Readers on the Left will get a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore.”

And he adds a pointed question for his companions on the Left:

“if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Part of the answer to that question is that the Left often fails to take the Right seriously. Moral condemnation forestalls understanding.

Another part of the answer is that the Right does take the Left seriously, is indeed terrified of the damage it can do. Fawcett begins with two conservative opponents of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Burke is for British and American conservatives a marvellous source of wisdom, endlessly invigorating and enjoyable. Few of us have ever felt at ease with Maistre’s savagery, but Fawcett insists that although “Maistre was never going to sit well in conservatism’s front parlour”, he “belongs in the household as much as Burke”.

We are happier to be told that Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), a Prussian who studied under Kant, worked for the Austrians and took a retainer from the British, translated Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution into German, “teasing out Burke’s thought in long footnotes that tidied up the argument in rationalist spirit”.

Gentz, Fawcett suggests,

“was an early model of a familiar present-day figure, the clever policy intellectual with top degrees circulating between right-wing think tanks, conservative magazines, and political leaders’ private offices.”

And Gentz in his essay “On the Balance of Power”, published in 1806, developed the ideas which would guide the post-Napoleonic settlement, upholding peace between nations while retarding not just revolution but democracy.

Fawcett is excellent at giving us a feeling for his conservatives by quoting remarks which a less worldly Lefty would not find funny, and might therefore be inclined to censor.

So at a dinner at the Congress of Aix in 1818 we get Gentz telling Robert Owen, pioneer of utopian socialism and of the co-operative movement:

“We do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”

But Gentz was not some blinkered reactionary, who supposed the ruling classes could restore to themselves the privileges they had enjoyed before 1789:

“Revolution had to be fought, Gentz insisted, not with nostalgia but with modernity’s own weapons.”

Here is another part of the explanation for conservative incomprehensibility. Intelligent conservatives are at once more attached to the past than their opponents, and more anxious to understand what will work in the future.

This mixture of mixture of emotion and pragmatism cannot be reduced to an ideology – the very thing that leftish commentators consider it a mortal weakness not to possess.

Fawcett’s book is brilliantly organised, so one can without difficulty find what conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States were saying and doing in any particular period.

He himself worked for The Economist as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, and also as its European and literary editor.

As in that magazine, his eye for what is happening overseas is very good, but the texture of British politics is sometimes smoothed away in order to make it fit some editorial analysis.

Fawcett does not get Benjamin Disraeli. Few historians of ideas do, for by the time the butterfly has been pinned to the page, he is dead.

Millions of voters did get Disraeli, loved his patriotism and felt exhilarated by his impudence. He is the only Prime Minister who has inspired the creation of a posthumous cult: the Primrose League.

When he comes to Stanley Baldwin, Fawcett attributes his description of the new Conservative MPs elected in 1918 as “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” to Lloyd George, as if only a Liberal could see how repulsive the Tories were.

Baldwin succeeded in part because he well understood how repulsive the Tories might seem, and took enormous pains to create a more favourable impression.

In 1980, Fawcett introduces us to “the hard right”. It is an unsatisfactory label, for the word “hard” makes it sound more defined, and less yielding, than it really is.

Fawcett knows the term is not satisfactory, for he keeps worrying away at it, and trying to justify it. In the course of a passage about Donald Trump, he writes:

“The hard right, in sum, was not weird or extreme. It was popular and normal. Indeed, it was alarming because it was popular and normal.

“Lest the term ‘hard right’ here sound loaded, and the account of events overdrawn, the passion and dismay with which mainstream conservatives themselves reacted needs recalling. They did not, in detached spirit, dwell confidently on the hard right’s visible weaknesses and incompatibilities. They did not ask if there was here a pantomime villain got up by the liberal left.”

Trump was and is an opportunist, a huckster who has belonged to three different political parties, and who seeks, as American presidential candidates since Andrew Jackson have sought, to get himself elected by expressing the anger of poor white voters who loathe the condescension of the East Coast establishment.

When he comes to consider Boris Johnson, Fawcett quotes The Economist‘s description of him as “indifferent to the truth”, and its advice to voters last December to vote Liberal Democrat – a way, perhaps, of feeling virtuous, but also of opting out of the choice actually facing the country.

Fawcett goes on to attribute a “forceful hard-right style” to Johnson, and a “disregard for familiar liberal-democratic norms”. The author is worried, for as he declares in his preface:

“To survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support… When, as now, the right hesitates or denies its support, liberal democracy’s health is at risk.”

The conservative family is in danger of going to the bad. This is true, but has always been true, and sometimes the warnings have turned out to be exaggerated.

Johnson enjoys teasing liberals, but has lived much among them, craves their approval and himself possesses many liberal characteristics.

Fawcett will know this, for he is the Prime Minister’s uncle: a brother of Johnson’s mother Charlotte.

The near impossibility of defining Johnson, something of which his critics complain, could even be a sign that he is a conservative.

These quibbles about the last part of the book in no way diminish admiration for it as an astonishingly accomplished survey of the last two centuries of conservative thought.

Jason Reed: History will judge us for our response to the Uyghur genocide

23 Aug

Jason Reed is Deputy Editor of 1828 and digital director at the British Conservation Alliance.

Hollow declarations of socio-political high-mindedness are all the rage in political discourse these days, especially on the Left. People love to talk about how righteous they are and how evil everyone else is. One of the virtue signallers’ favourite talking points as of late is that, had they been alive two hundred years ago, they would have publicly opposed slavery.

Slavery was the accepted norm of the time. But many on the Left love to talk about how they would have gone against the grain, selflessly sacrificing any public standing in order to become revolutionaries and voice their disgust at the unspeakable horror of slavery, even if nothing came of them doing the right thing. They insist that they would always stand up for the basic human rights to life, dignity and freedom, no matter the difficulty of the circumstances.

While we can’t put that claim to the test directly, we can achieve a close approximation by observing how those same people on the Left react to the genocide that is taking place in front of us today. Unsurprisingly, it’s not looking good.

The Chinese Communist Party is shamelessly massacring Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The proof that has emerged of the horrors taking place within the Chinese borders is overwhelming. No matter how much you might want to twist the truth, it is now impossible to repudiate what is happening in China. A genocide is taking place. Not only can it no longer be denied – it can no longer be ignored.

This ongoing ethnic cleansing represents all the very worst of humanity. Blinded by religious prejudice and racial hatred, energised by an uncompromising desire for ethnic purity, and driven by an impulsive need for total control over its people, the Chinese government is committing the single most heinous act of which mankind is capable.

Every day, new irrefutable evidence surfaces. Each batch of new information is more heart-wrenching than the last. It is now over a month since the Andrew Marr Show broadcast appalling drone footage of Uyghur Muslims being blindfolded, lined up and packed onto a train to be carted off to remote government facilities. The Chinese Government, via its ambassador in London, responded by denying flat-out on live television that which has already been proven beyond any doubt.

The Russian government also denies acts of aggression even when the world knows it is guilty, such as after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. But it does so with a knowing smirk. Vladimir Putin likes to see how far he can push Western governments before they lose patience. He knows full well that we don’t believe a word of what he says, and he doesn’t care. One gets the impression that he even finds it funny.

But China is different. When Liu Xiaoming, Beijing’s UK ambassador, was asked by Marr to explain the footage, he seemed almost offended. How dare we interfere in China’s domestic affairs? The CCP embodies a coldness. It lacks humanity. It believes that it is perfectly within its rights to do what it is doing, and it is taken aback that we Westerners should dare to object to it.

The Chinese response to the drone footage was not a one-off. There is a clear pattern forming in the way the CCP intends to deal with these kinds of accusations. Earlier this month, a new piece of evidence emerged. A Uyghur fashion model by the name of Merdan Ghappar filmed himself handcuffed to a bed and described in detail the 18 days he had spent chained up and hooded with dozens of others in one of the government’s “centres”.

Once again, in their official response to the surfacing of damning new evidence, the Chinese authorities habitually tell total mistruths. They have no substantive counter-argument to offer, so they lie. They insist, for example, that highly secure “re-education camps” are entirely voluntary schools for anti-extremism training.

Rather than calling this behaviour out for what it is, rather than pointing to the reams of evidence incriminating the Chinese government, the left somehow chooses to equivocate. Perhaps they are motivated by the word “communist” in the CCP’s name. Or maybe they are merely keen to maintain their record of siding with all the worst regimes in the world. Either way, leftists doge the issue and engage in what effectively amounts to CCP apologism.

As a result, China thinks it can get away with anything. The Chinese government feels no shame for what it is doing. It denies completely that anything out of the ordinary is happening in Xinjiang, let alone that people are being systematically incarcerated, torn from their loved ones, sterilised and murdered because of their race and religion. It does not show a flicker of remorse as it issues its blanket denials of any wrongdoing.

That’s because the Chinese government believes the West is weak. They stare us in the face and deny what is plain to see. They look us in the eye and tell us that the sky is green, and expect us to back down. They poke and prod us relentlessly, expecting no retaliation. They think they can get away with doing whatever they want and never be held accountable or face the consequences of their actions. Why do they think that? Because of useful idiots on the Left in the West who will defend them to the death.

So, perhaps, if those on the British Hard Left truly do support human rights above all else no matter how inconvenient it might be to say so, and they really would have openly opposed slavery 200 years ago, they should prove it now by standing up for the group which is on the receiving end of the most awful violence and oppression imaginable.

If we have any conscience at all, as a nation and as a society, we simply cannot allow what is happening in China to continue. We are at a crossroads in our global political journey. As the UK leaves the European Union, the world watches on to see which direction Britain will choose. On the one hand, we could give in to the leftist, isolationist Little England vision of a reclusive UK which has no major role to play on the world stage.

Alternatively, we could make that post-Brexit Global Britain we have heard so much about into a reality. Surely, opposing genocide is one issue on which we should be able to achieve a universal consensus. A crime against humanity is taking place and history will judge us for how we respond to it. Uyghur Muslims desperately need our help. Let’s not waver or quibble. Let’s answer their call.

Free speech for Wiley?

26 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anand Menon: Our latest research finds that the Conservatives are divided on economics, but united on culture.

30 Jun

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

Dominic Cummings must be rubbing his hands with glee. As more and more questions are raised about what some are calling the ‘lethal amaterurism’ that has characterised the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the country spent most of June distracted by furious arguments about race and statues.

This has moved the debate on from Boris Johnson’s chief advisor’s unique approach to optical health. More importantly, a debate about values rather than health outcomes suits the Government down to the ground.

The referendum of 2016 polarized the country along values lines (between social liberals and social conservatives) rather than along the left-right cleavage that traditionally structured political competition.

Source: British Election Study

Nor was this a one-off phenomenon. The values division laid bare by the referendum went on to shape the nature of subsequent electoral competition. Think back to last year’s election.

The fact that the Conservatives won seats like Wakefield, Bishop Auckland and Workington, or that they won by 21 per cent among working class voters is testimony to the realignment that had taken place in our politics.

So too is the fact that in seats where over 60 per cent backed leave, the Tories increased their support by an average of six per cent, whereas in those seats where more than 60 per cent voted Remain, the party’s vote actually fell by three points.

The argument over statues that has been such a central part of the Black Lives Matter protests in this country has mobilized that same division. And it is terrain on which the Conservatives are relatively well equipped to fight.

Recent work carried out by the UK in a Changing Europe compares the attitudes of MPs, party members and voters, by asking each group a series of questions about fundamental ideological attitudes. The findings are revealing.

When it comes to social values, the Conservative clan looks relatively united. Even more importantly, on values they are far closer to those crucial voters who switched from Labour in 2017 to the Conservatives in 2019 than to Keir Starmer’s party.

But when it comes to the politics of left versus right – questions like whether ‘there is one rule for the rich and one for the poor’, and the idea that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’ – the picture could hardly be more different.

Conservative MPs are to the right of both their own party members and Conservative voters, and significantly to the right of those 2019 Labour-to-Conservative switchers. Labour, on the other hand, is not just far less internally divided but considerably closer to those lost voters.

Looking forward, then, the Conservatives have an interest in maintaining a focus on values. Think of it this way. On the (feigned) threat to Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the Conservative Party spoke with one voice and rallied behind Boris Johnson. When it comes to the economic response to Covid-19, the party’s backbenches are increasingly restless.

The easing of lockdown will focus attention firmly on economic recovery. How these issues are framed then takes on crucial importance. We face another decade in which political life will be shaped by the impact of an economic crisis.

The Conservative narrative may well seek to major not on the details of the economic response – on how great the role of the state should be, or how we pay for ballooning deficits – but on arguably more ‘ephemeral’ concerns.

Conservative commentators are already queuing up to point out that it is surely no longer a priority to publish gender pay gaps, or to ‘suffer a little for the sake of the planet.’ Others argue that fads like the war on plastic have been made redundant by the virus.

It seems Number 10 is, in the short term, planning a number of ways of triggering values divisions. The Sunday Times reported that the Government is planning to scrap plans to allow people to change their legal gender.

Other reports suggest that some in Downing Street are encouraging the Prime Minister to launch a ‘war on woke’. The hope is clearly to profit from profound values divisions within Labour’s electoral coalition and detatch voters who might, if it really were all about the economy, stupid, support the centre-left rather than the centre-right.

For Labour, then, the key will be to find a way to nullify this strategy. Paul Mason has rightly argued that the party must focus on coming up with a more convincing narrative about reshaping the role of the state in the economy, as a means of uniting a coalition that has fractured over the last decade over values questions.

The party now has a leader that the public, including Leave voters, find broadly convincing – and one who is going to be less easy to label as an unpatriotic ultra-liberal.

A narrative about economic fairness unites Labour and has the potential to tap into the ideological attitudes of the median voter.

The Government’s current plans to emerge from lockdown will create millions of economic losers, and the Conservatives look set to incur significant governing costs.

A laser like-focus on the economy and on the steps needed both to recover from the post-lockdown slowdown in such a way as to tackle the numerous inequalities that the pandemic has highlighted could command broad support, not least among those voters that fled the party last year.

As the recent Labour Together review of the 2019 election concluded, Labour could win by building support for a ‘big change economic agenda’ that neutralises cultural and social tensions.

Whatever happens, the relative impact of the two cleavages – left vs right and social liberal vs social conservative will be crucial. The relative success of each side in imposing its own agenda on the political debate will help determine who ultimately triumphs.

This article is a cross-post from the UK in a Changing Europe’s website.

Read the Mind the values gap report here.