I try to avoid the Sunday press. From its echoes on Twitter, it appears to be a troll-fest through which innocents like me are unpleasantly reminded of the existence of columnists we’d thought had gone to pasture years ago. And even the thoughtful ones, like Matthew Syed, feel an extra urge to be provocative on Sundays; perhaps it is that sense of a readership already wound up by the Marr show and eager for more.
It was in this hardened spirit that I read Syed’s “there’s no rabid Right without a smug Left”, which attacked the idea of “liberal good, conservative bad”. If I dare simplify shamelessly, the author concedes with the peerless David Aaronovitch that conservatives have been on the wrong side of many, many battles this last few decades, and always ooze past, with little pause for remorse or reflection.* DA is worth an excerpt:
It has been like this my whole life. A month before I was born the Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing killed himself; homosexual acts were illegal and gay men went to prison. When I was a year old Ruth Ellis was hanged in a prison two miles from where we lived. Until I was 11 it was perfectly legal to operate a workplace “colour bar” against black people. Pupils at my school were caned. Until I was 21 it was legal to discriminate against women in the workplace. Trains were full of cigarette smoke right up to the 1980s. In every case the same thing happened. Reformers — liberals, nanny staters, environmentalists, human rights campaigners — would point to a problem and campaign for change. And conservatives (Tory or otherwise) would oppose.
There are two counters, as I see it, in Syed’s response. The first, that the liberal left has been guilty of just as much wrongthinkery, is the one less worth engaging with. In a feast of false-equivalence and whataboutery, we see listed the love for Stalin, the abolition of national borders, militant trade unionism, and even cutting the age of consent to 12 as liberal smoking guns, just as bad as the structural anti-reform bias of the conservative right. But these postures were never the agenda of the social democratic, liberal left – the part that actually got a crack in power, and which did just as much to keep the lid on raving Corbynism as anyone else.
As for the crimes of the liberal left in power, the list includes the invasion of Iraq – fundamentally a project of American neo-cons – and the financial crisis, brought about in part by manic deregulation initiated under conservative governments. It is hard to come away convinced that the world would have been better with IDS in power.
The second is the part that interests me: that by being right and sure of it, the liberal left is smug, unwisely contemptuous and hence responsible for the grotesque rise of Trump, the self-harming act of no Deal Brexit, and the other populist horrors of the past decade. Apparently, the reason conservatives have adopted such extreme positions is “the militancy of liberals”, forcing them in turn to ever greater extremes. “You didn’t want refugees bombarded in the Channel? Well MAYBE YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE MENTIONED TRANSGENDER RIGHTS, HUH?”
You can tell I’m disappointed here. In particular, something I admire some conservative thinkers for is their rejection of soggy relativism, the idea that my-right-isn’t-your-right-and-that’s-fine. Sometimes there IS right and wrong, and saying so unflinchingly is the correct thing to do. Cringing before people you know are badly informed or horribly motivated is both cowardly and patronising. If someone today held forth like the Daily Mail columnists described in Aaronovitch’s piece – about “the criminal proclivities of various races. Jews equalled fraud and blacks equalled knives, apparently” – then it isn’t liberal or openminded to nod sympathetically and say, well, everyone gets a point of view. Nor are there two sides to the question of whether sundering all arrangements with the EU is a smart idea (it isn’t), or being asked to wear a mask in a shop is a horrible infringement on liberty (no, again).
And, relatedly, it is just patronising to suggest that ultra conservatives do bad things because horror of liberal extremes forced them to. They are meant to be grownups, and if they are indulging atavistic urges in a sulky fit at the mockery of the liberal left, well the only answer is still more mockery. Tell them they are wrong, remind them they were wrong when they opposed the decriminalisation of homosexuality or supported bars on interracial marriage, too. It may inspire them to pause and think – certainly more than pandering to them has.
It is heroically unlikely that the conservative and liberal side have had the equal winnings from the intellectual arguments of the past couple of centuries. Just reflect on how much the world has changed. Look up when a child was last hung for stealing bread. There has been a direction of travel, and reminding people of that is no bad thing. So what if it is smug? There needs to be a psychic punishment for being wrong, a reason to fear it. The smugness of the other side in the face of their eventual recognition of their wrongness is key part of this.
There are worse crimes than being smug about being right. Being wrong, in power, and unashamed of it is definitely worse.
*I don’t deny that the liberal left was wrong about a few things. State ownership of industry, for example, although like the peerless and lamented Samuel Brittan I would regard that as a far from liberal postures