Diary: the limits of liberalism

‘Many of those who usually insist ministers must “listen to the experts” are among those who now say Boris should ignore them. Armchair generals and football managershave become armchair virologists and epidemiologists’

Nick Timothy

As Covid-19 brings human and economic devastation to ever-more families and communities, my first priority, like the rest of the country, is my loved ones. My parents—one recovering from cancer, the other with a heart condition—have agreed to self-isolate until the contagion peaks. As I write, Britain’s numbers are in check, but the situation is so fast-moving that by the time you read this, the NHS might be under severe strain.

The government’s response is copping a lot of flak. Only time will tell if its policy to limit the spread of the virus will prove effective or not. Certainly, other governments have opted for more dramatic measures including severe travel restrictions and the closure of shops, schools and nurseries. It is undeniable that Boris Johnson and his ministers have been guided by the advice of the chief medical officer, the chief scientific officer and officials who have spent years preparing to respond to a pandemic. Yet many of those who usually insist ministers must “listen to the experts” are among those who now say Boris should ignore them. On social media it is the same: armchair generals and football managers have become armchair virologists and epidemiologists.

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Mid-pandemic, I turned 40, an age that once seemed ancient to me. Punctuating our lives as they do, it is natural that birthdays prompt us to pause for contemplation. One consequence of starting a new decade is that I am now one row lower in those age-range tables so beloved by bureaucrats and HR departments. As a result, I read I am at greater risk from coronavirus, heart attacks and other unfortunate fates. 

Obviously, there is no real cliff-edge between 39 and 40. But it got me thinking about how we misuse statistics, and base serious decisions on strange metrics. On the economy, for example, we prize short-term GDP growth above all: it does not matter if impact assessments say a policy will harm particular places, damage entire sectors, surrender sovereignty, or undermine longer-term growth. If it makes us marginally better off, in net terms, we simply adopt the policy.

This is not something elite liberals and angry Remainers admit when they boast about “evidence-based policy-making” and demand ministers “publish the impact assessments!” The statistics they cite are not the results of neutral formulae that determine the “rational” and “correct” course of action. They are skewed by the assumptions and values of the liberal technocrats who choose the metrics and weightings. In other words, they are ideology and political beliefs dressed up as neutrality and reason.

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The rise of the liberal technocrats comes up in my new book, Remaking One Nation. Writing a book is a strange experience. You spend months researching your subjects, sharing ideas with friends, and taking expert advice. Then you spend several more months working alone. You can run your manuscript past the people you trust and respect, but in the end you are left waiting for your work to be judged. It is an eerily solitary sensation.

When I handed the text to my publishers, last September, we knew nothing about coronavirus. And we did not know there would be an early election, let alone a thumping Tory victory. So the world has changed dramatically. But I think these changes reinforce the arguments I present in Remaking One Nation. Britain, like other Western countries, is living through two crises—economic and cultural—that reinforce one another in complex ways. Both crises, I argue, have their roots in political and philosophical ideas. In particular, it is by identifying the mistaken assumptions in liberal thought, and understanding how liberalism has mutated into ultra-liberal policies, that we can work out what has gone wrong. My plea is for a conservatism that understands the limits of liberalism and is capable of giving us the communitarian correction we need.

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There is nothing to stop Labour trying to find its own communitarian vision for the future, of course. But they are trapped by the “progressive’s dilemma”. They want diversity and solidarity, and take the latter for granted. Yet all the evidence shows that the greater the diversity of cultures and lifestyles within a country, the less people trust one another, the less solidarity they feel, and the less they accept progressive taxation, universal public services and a welfare state. Great figures from Labour’s past, like Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, would have seen this as a statement of the bleeding obvious. But from immigration to transgender rights, the Left has made its choice: diversity is more important than solidarity.

Perhaps a greater sense of solidarity will emerge from the pandemic. Several old-fashioned virtues have reappeared since we realised we faced a serious public health crisis. Self-restraint. Social responsibility. Respect for institutions and leaders. Concern for others, especially the old and frail. Almost everybody has accepted without question their obligations to their families, local communities and beyond. And there is widespread recognition that the state must be strong enough to protect everyone from economic insecurity and ill health. Sometimes good can emerge from appalling tragedy. It is the responsibility of all of us to make sure we emerge from this experience a better and stronger society.

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