When in the May local government elections, a party of “clowns” and “fruitcakes” got about a quarter of the vote, commentators went giddy with polling projections in search of what such voting would mean for the main political parties. They were missing the point. Here was a mass expression of derision for the whole British political establishment. In a small democratic way, it was nothing less than a revolution against the “soft despotism” that has prevailed in British politics for more than a generation.
Kenneth Clarke, a sentimental wet and the embodiment of the soft despotism of recent times, got it precisely right in the abusive terms he chose for these revolutionaries. As “clowns” and “fruitcakes”, they were precisely the sort of people who should never (in his view) play any part in politics. Yet now more than a quarter of Britain’s electorate had waved two fingers in the air in an unmistakable rejection of the established politicians who claimed to speak for them. Many who don’t bother to vote feel the same way. And the first question must be: what was it about the political class they were rejecting?
One thing might have been the corruption that had been revealed in the recent expenses scandal. Britain’s politicians felt they should be better rewarded, and had found a sneaky way of getting more. But politicians notoriously seek both power and money, yet this was a political class without much power. It was constantly being frustrated by the rules emanating from Brussels and Strasbourg. And what it actually managed to do, it did badly, such as spending money like water to little purpose. The result had been to create a massive national debt.
The odd thing was that in spite of this curious lack of power, Britain’s politicians presided over a regime that actually seemed to be highly controlled and oppressive. “Political correctness” was the ironic name for a system that encouraged people (and especially some immigrants) extensive encouragement to be offended. The proliferating rules of so-called “hate speech” became a standing challenge to basic common sense.
Again, the Government had responded to the endless demands of pressure groups seeking to manipulate employment and get promoted in British life. Feminists, immigrant groups, students with dubious results were examples of those demanding benefits on supposed grounds of fairness. It sounded great, but as everybody realized, it also meant harming those who were more competent. Great for the mediocre! Commerce, the universities, speech and much else was constantly subject to regulative manipulation. Employers, observed Lord Sugar in the Telegraph on Monday, must now worry about the “political correctness of things, the claims culture, and health and safety.” No wonder they often give up, and business lags.
You can sum much of this up by saying that British democracy had degenerated into a kind of oligarchy. Government was being used to impose the opinions of the few upon the many, and democracy was fading away. It’s true, of course, that every democracy has something of this character, because “government by the people” is a piece of visionary humbug. It can only mean some degree of consultation while politicians and officials get on with the job. But Britain’s political establishment has quite lost touch with democratic realities.
The reason is that the establishment has become an oligarchy in which the ideological convictions of the educated class are being imposed by law upon a majority of the country, and that majority in turn is being nervously understood as incubating the prejudices of the less savoury members of a football audience. The basic belief juxtaposes the old Enlightenment contrast between Reason and the Passions. The oligarchs think they are rational and decent, while despising a population it finds constantly falling into xenophobia, racism and a variety of phobias. Language reveals a lot, and the sneering word “tabloid” summarises the oligarchic view of the classes that must be kept under control. The UKIP triumph is in part the working class fighting back against a hostile caricature of what they actually feel and support. It is a remarkable kind of class struggle going on.
What then is this oligarchic political vision that is being imposed upon us. The most obvious tenet of oligarchic doctrine is our membership of the European Union. Almost the entire political class has been inducted into this club, and few have much stomach for reclaiming the national independence that we have lost in the process. Challenged, they talk of “isolation”, and conjure up absurd statistics about trade dependence. Had they had the opportunity, many, particularly the Liberal Democrats, would have had us in the horrors of the eurozone by now, yet they too have joined in abusing the Eurosceptics as unworldly. The lies told at the 1975 referendum have been erased from memory. The opponents of EU membership, almost certainly a majority of Britons, long had no party with which to associate. Only with UKIP pressure has the question been able to return to political life, and as yet only by some in the Conservative Party.
Our rulers, furthermore, are all devout multiculturalists. Until recently when the demos began to growl UKIP attitudes, there seemed no limit to its readiness to absorb people of any culture from all over the world. Britain has always been a country of immigrants, they cried, and many of the Left thought it a smart move, since immigrants, with their close concern with governmental welfare, strongly tend to support left-wing parties. Labour’s 13 years of easy entry have rather transformed the voting structure in the country. It is only recently that politicians have begun to concern themselves with “white flight” or the tendency of the natives to move out of dominantly immigrant areas leaving ghettos behind. They are abandoning a world they can no longer recognise. The “shocking level” of concentrated ethnicity, as David Goodhart the director of the think tank Demos has observed, “means there is less opportunity for interaction with the white mainstream”. In the not too distant future, the Oligarchy will start to encourage us to recognise a duty to have a certain proportion of ethnic-minority friends. One is reminded of the oligarch’s view of state schools – preferable for everybody, except perhaps their own children.
The reader will no doubt already have detected the central paradox in the thesis I am advancing. It arises from the fact that politicians are basically avid for power, and work hard to get more of it. Yet here we have a political class with a remarkable passion to devolve power away from Britain to, well, anywhere really, starting with the EU, and extending to those who want to come and live in Britain, as well as to international committees and declarations of rights. Even when Margaret Thatcher faced invasion of the Falkland Islands, this passion was evident. Many of her colleagues, wanted to hand the matter to the UN in the search for a negotiated settlement. This would have risked consigning the fate of British subjects to the mercy of a particularly vile military regime. But our oligarchs are dedicated to internationality. They deplore the selfishness of national sovereignty and see wisdom supremely in foreigners sitting in committees.
Why then are these politicians so different from others? The answer to this question is complicated because it must take us back to the Enlightenment, that crucial 18th-century period when, according to legend, Europeans threw off the yoke of religious superstition and began to respect evidence-based science. Here was the beginning of those passions to perfect society that we now recognise by such names as nationalism, anarchism, positivism, Nazism etc. They were all grand projects of politics designed to make people happy. Such grand projects of course had variable fortunes, but the most deeply entrenched of all was some version of socialism or social justice, a project so powerful in its claim to good intentions that its adherents could stomach as supposedly socialist rulers such unsavoury figures as Stalin, Mao and many others. But by 1989 that particular game was for the moment out of contention. The question faced by Enlightenment idealists was thus: where do we go now?
The answer was: into the international world. Two world wars had focussed the minds of naturally quarrelsome European states on the principle that jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Such politicians as Anthony Eden were accustomed to tossing off remarks about the obsolescence of the age of national sovereignty. The thought behind these remarks was vaguely Kantian, assuming that a world of republics (or democracies as the idea is currently advanced) would inevitably be peaceful. It seemed obvious that the people themselves had no interest in going to war. Here then, in a world of global republics was a new version of that elusive perfection of society, and indeed of the whole world, towards which the Enlightenment never ceased to point. The move from the rule of law to an international version of the same thing would at last bring civilised standards to the world. A useful rhetorical benefit of this new version of perfecting society — indeed, even better, the world — was that it was much more satisfactory to attack the Iraq war as being illegal (which might be given a certain precision) rather than immoral (which fatally depended on values and argument.)
The plausibility of this new perfectionism clearly depended on self-renunciation. Europeans had to surrender some of their own interests in order to demonstrate that their codifications of morals and international life were more than merely a cunning version of imperialism designed to Westernise the world. The way Europeans showed the new order to be the way forward was to offer up some of their own interests as exemplary sacrifices. Preferably, they had to renounce much of their patriotism.
It all rather replicates the project of Marxism in democratic states. Marxists had sought to replace the politics of parties competing for electoral victory by turning politics into a melodrama in which the good proletariat struggled against the oppressive bourgeoisie. Our new form of oligarchy seeks to replace the familiar dialogue between parties having competing policies by a system in which a single public attitude shared by the major parties struggled against the prejudices of people. And that attitude was basically a belief in the wisdom of international bodies. The EU and the UN were the creators of a better world if only we could persuade the people to embrace it.
The basic virtue advocated by this new progressive attitude was not the self-reliance of the past, but rather altruism as helping needier members of society. It was an attitude to public life supremely confident of its own superior rationality. And it seemed humble in its recognition of the equality of all cultures, and accommodating in its response to conflicts in the wider world.
Correspondingly, this attitude to the world found itself in conflict with deplorable passions such as xenophobia, racism and prejudice as expressed in the “tabloid” press. Here was one more political position taking up a moral posture and trying to impose itself as the basic decency the world needed.
It was thus little wonder that the obsequies of Margaret Thatcher were so dramatic. In some degree, they polarised this conflict in our values. Thatcher had no patience with the fake reasonableness of the current oligarchy. In the Falklands War and in her famous battles with the EU, she put Britain’s national interest at the head of her politics. She was not to be seduced by being offered a place in the club. UKIP is no doubt a somewhat ragged political movement, but its emergence as a political force may be recognised as the first serious challenge to the internationalist oligarchy in our time. And it is not without a tradition of its own.