Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Dilettante on the Radio: BBC 5 Live's Tony Livesey

I was invited back to be part of a 14-strong panel in Livesey's Lounge for their Strike Special, debating the strike and pensions proposals. Listen in iPlayer here.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Of Death and Freedom

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
C. S. Lewis
English essayist & juvenile novelist (1898 - 1963)
This year, millions of people across the Arab world have risked life and limb to topple entrenched dictators. A man in Tunisia literally lit the powder keg by setting himself on fire. In Egypt, protestors continue to die in clashes with security forces. In Libya, a poorly armed and badly organised rag-tag rebellion defied a ruthless and well-equipped regime – their heroism leading to NATO intervention, not stemming from it.

From the sixties through the eighties, oppressed blacks marched, fought and died to overthrow racist regimes in the American South and South Africa. They faced down hostile mobs, police crowd-control, and organised mechanisms of state persecution. Many died.

In the forties, a huge collection of nations across the world saw tens of millions of men and women perish resisting a horrifying form of ultra-nationalist totalitarianism rolling across the globe from Japan and Germany. They could – the gay, communist and racially impure aside – have elected to preserve their lives by finding some accommodation in their soul with their would-be masters. They fought, showed exceptional courage and died far from home to preserve a world better than that.

Do you understand the logic of these people? I think most people do. I’ve not come across many people who look at a great struggle for liberty and instinctively ask ‘why?’ Whether the reason is cultural or instinctive, the war of liberation is a concept we understand, and usually admire. In short, dying for freedom is something we get.

It is interesting that our attitude to dying of freedom is totally at odds with that. When we calculate what an acceptable ‘cost’ of freedom is, the context is everything. Millions of men dying on the battlefield for freedom? That makes sense. A few thousand people a year dying of lung cancer caused by smoking? Totally unacceptable.

The list goes on. We wring our hands over adding 10mph to the speed limit in case it causes a few more deaths. We whack huge deterrent taxes on products we deem to be harmful. We grumble about but fundamentally tolerate an ever more restrictive health and safety culture. We see people willing to tolerate swingeing restrictions on personal liberty with the justification “if it saves just one child…”

Does it make sense that we can justify paying millions of lives for freedoms we sell for only one?

There are several reasons this bizarre disconnection might have happened. The first is that when we see soldiers fighting for a cause, they aren’t fighting for the little freedoms with which we’re personally acquainted. They’re fighting for Freedom, the sweeping, capitalised abstract concept that most people agree is fundamentally important. The enemies of freedom often come offering such unappealing prospects as racial purging or, latterly, clerical authoritarianism, which helps us appreciate Freedom all the more.

Freedom feels harder to defend, however, when its opponents attack it piece by piece and with good intentions. Defending the rights of people to kill themselves with cigarettes doesn’t have the same heroic feel to it that dying for democracy does. To launch a big defence of little freedoms can seem disproportionate and petty. People might even think you’re some kind of libertarian.

Another reason might simply be that when we measure up the two transactions in our heads, freedom is not actually our primary concern. The people dying in the big battles for the big issues look and sound heroic, and we admire the heroism. The people fighting for the small freedoms can sound petty.

 Perhaps we instinctively dislike the idea of letting people make bad decisions, but just don’t like this authoritarian instinct shoved in our faces with uniforms and barbed wire.

Or perhaps it is just a product of becoming dependent on the structures originally put in place to protect us. I’ve written about the impact of universal healthcare on liberty before, but I approached it from the government’s perspective. Consider it from the people’s perspective.

Morally speaking, the fundamental principles of the NHS seem argumentatively bulletproof. Everyone, everywhere in Britain, shall have access to the healthcare they need free at the point of delivery. There is no way that someone can fall through so tightly woven a safety net – our consciences will not permit it. You’d surely have to be a monster to oppose such a thing?

If we were prepared to apply this honourable principle in conjunction with personal freedom, that might be fine. But we’re not. While with one hand we push universal medical cover onto everyone in Britain and offer to foot the bill, with the other we try to claw back as much of that money as possible.

‘Cost to the NHS’ has become the justification du jure for the restriction of personal freedom. Smoking; obesity; idleness: all of these cost the NHS money. We’re not prepared to meet that cost, but our ‘social consciences’ refuse to let these people out of the system to choose for themselves. So to spare our wallets we take their freedoms away in the name of doing them good.

This is perhaps the most ingenious vehicle for oppression yet devised, because it is powered by the very people whose freedoms it takes. A people who have come to value the safety net more than their personal liberty are left to languish in the long shadow of their own charity.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I mean, stripping cigarette branding, or minimum alcohol pricing, or banning marijuana. Those are only little freedoms. Who died for them?

What we lose sight of is that ‘Freedom’ is made up of all the spaces in which we are left to choose for ourselves. In trading them piecemeal in exchange for being better protected from ourselves, we’re part of a terrible long term transaction.

It is a certainty that free people will not live as long as those who are the prisoners of good doctors, but nobody aspires to imprisonment. Put the question to someone in those terms and they’ll reject it, the same way they reject authoritarianism when it comes with jackboots and brown shirts.

Today’s authoritarians march in small steps, so we must always be prepared to fight for small freedoms. To paraphrase the popular phrase: look after the little liberties, and Liberty will look after herself.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Dilettante on LondonSpin: Challengers Must Wake Up to the Advantages of Incumbency

In my role as CF election columnist for London Spin, I outline the serious advantages held by an incumbent and try to wake Southworth and McDonough up to the fact that they're completely wasting their campaigns. Read it here.

Mancunion Article: It will never be easy to find a graduate job again

My old university newspaper, The Mancunion, invited me to contribute a commentary piece to their feature on youth unemployment. You can read it here.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Dilettante on LondonSpin: Do Endorsements Matter?

 Political gossip site LondonSpin have taken me on as a columnist to cover the Conservative Future elections. This is my first piece, pondering whether or not the branch endorsements focused on by such sites actually matter.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A further response to Ian James Parsley

 I've been neglecting writing for a little while due to a bout of flue and an exam. Hence I wasn't aware that Ian had posted a response to my critique of his federalist position until I got a message about it on Twitter. I've since brought myself up to speed and will respond again. 

 However, this isn't going to devolve into a fisk-fight, with Ian and I posting increasingly long line-by-line rebuttals of each other's positions. Instead, I'll simply provide a succinct presentation of my views on the various issues Ian raises here.

Edit: The succinct thing got lost the moment I hit the thorny issue of 'Englishness'. 

 First, I would like to clarify that I do not believe that a Conservative government can reverse devolution, nor do I think I argued thus. What I do believe that unionists need to do is hijack devolution and change its shape. Instead of the 'devolutionary centralisation' of the SNP and Plaid, where they simply seek to claw as much power as possible to the national assemblies, we should be advocating more radical localism. Local councils, elected mayors and so forth can all be used to sate people's lust for localism without boosting nationalism.

 Ian's point about adopting a make-or-break option to the nationalists is one I completely concur with. The Scots have a right to decide whether they're in the UK or out of it, but if they choose to be in it then they must negotiate that position with the rest of the British. The idea that the SNP can simply cherry-pick their relationship with the UK is as ridiculous as the belief that the UK can do such with the EU.

 The 'Greater England' point is one which Ian and I are not going to agree on. Put simply, it is all a matter of perspective. Ian sees an over-mighty English bogeyman squatting at the heart of the union because he insists on viewing the union through the prism of the home nations. I take the position that whether or not you are Mancunian, Brummie, Glaswegian or from any other corner of our country, you are British and that in order for Britain to continue to warrant existing we must be governed as British.

 This is what lies at the heart of my argument that unionists need to start fighting for the conscious British identity. Labour first started undermining it when they adopted anti-English posturing in Scotland in the Eighties, and the nationalists have piled on that bandwagon since.

 Ian says that at a recent event the idea of 'Northern Irish' as a primary identity went unchallenged. That's fine. Unionism is not about choosing whether or not you are Northern Irish or British, but about being Northern Irish AND British. The understanding that you can be both is one of the things that makes unionism superior to nationalism, with its worship of a primary identity.

 His very focus on 'England' serves to undermine Ian's argument. He is right to note that England and Scotland have diverged economically, but that masks the true story. The north of England is economically and politically very much like much of Scotland (sans the nationalism). Any story about the 'divergence' of the areas of the UK should be about how the capital-driven, well-connected and prosperous south has increasingly left behind the post-industrial, remote fringe. 

 But that narrative doesn't fit into the arbitrary lines of the Home Nations. Given that the North of England has suffered a similar fall from industrial grace as Scotland, Ian's treatment of England as a single unit is no more legitimate than my belief in Britain as one, and his statements about how unconsciously recent policies have represented 'English' interests are thus wrong. If anything, they represented Southern interests. 

 England's lack of identity does not mean that British identity is English. Ian commits the fundamental flaw - common amongst ideological nationalists - of assuming that 'England', as a cultural unit with convergent economic interests, has to exist. But this isn't the case - the only thing making Scotland's relationship with the South different from the North's is the lack of a border. The English nation is a cartographical fiction, and Ian's adoption of arbitrary national boundaries rather than actual regional politics and economics demonstrates the anti-unionist world view that underlies his argument.

 Finally, I maintain that Scandinavia was an absurd example for Ian to use in his first post, and his explanation confirms that. He is right to say, in his counter-rebuttal linked above, that a Scandinavian model is where a lot of Scottish and Welsh nationalists would like to end up. I don't doubt that. But Ian was using it to illustrate an apparently 'unionist' argument. And as an example of an end point unionists are supposed to find desirable, pointing to Scandinavia is a bit like pointing to Austria-Hungary.

 In short, my original position is unaltered. The frame of reference Ian uses when he forms his world view really shapes his conclusions before he starts. He adopts the Home Nations as the fundamental building blocks from which an argument must be formed despite the fact that 'England' is just as arbitrary a construct as 'Britain'. He continues to play down the role of 'Britishness' and explicitly states that Britain is not a unit. 

 This is an entirely honourable world view for a nationalist to adopt. But it is a very strange one for a unionist, because it holds that Britain is a fundamentally illegitimate concept. The idea of deciding policy on a British level is seen as 'doing what England wants'. If you view the Home Nations as fundamentally sovereign then the Union simply doesn't make sense. If Ian thinks like that, I'd be interested to know whether or not he actually considers himself a unionist.

 For myself, I continue to believe that unionism requires a believe in the validity of the British state and conscious identity. The assumptions behind nationalism, including those behind Ian's argument, are at heart arbitrary. Pan-British democracy could be viewed as doing what England says; but it could be equally said to be doing what the South and Midlands say or even just what the majority say. Choosing 'England' rather than one of the latter two is the product of a fundamentally nationalist view of the world where those lines have some special importance.

 Unionists - the best unionists, anyway - hold that no particular line on a map holds some sort of mythical, fundamental importance. That's why I'm proud to be one.

Friday, 11 November 2011

A Leading Partner in a Modern Power: Dilettante on The Student Journals

My latest TSJ article rounds off my three-part contribution to the Atlanticism-vs-Continental foreign policy debate, by making - or in less than 1000 words, summarising - the positive case for British engagement with the European Union.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Dilettante on The Commentator: The 1% Don't Have a Monopoly on Greed

In my second article for The Commentator, I challenge the Archbishop of York and postulate that the Church has no place taking sides in the 'Occupy vs. Capitalism' dispute.

Dilettante on the Radio: BBC 5 Live's Tony Livesey

 Myself and Mahyar Tousi, Chairman of Manchester Metropolitan Conservative Future, were invited back on to Tony Livesey's show as part of another student panel, this time debating tuition fees.

  I open with a sparring match against Caroline Dangerfield, President of the University of Salford Students' Union, before its opened up to the wider group.

 You can find it here, with our segment starting about fifteen minutes in.