On Politics and Language

September 13, 2013

This will be the last post for the foreseeable future on this blog, as I have accepted a politically restricted position and will be ceasing partisan comment. Given this, I’ve decided to actually explain the blog’s title, which – alongside people pointing out its obvious pretension – is something that has apparently caused some confusion.

Logos (pronounced low-goss), from the subheading given above, refers to a rational principle. It is an ancient Greek word, and has taken on many meanings for a range of different authors, differing even from Plato to Aristotle. It is Plato’s meaning which is relevant here: the logos is the means by which we access the eidos, the Forms. For those not familiar with this theory, a coarse form of Plato’s argument is as follows. We can recognise a unity across differing objects – for example, we can see a red car and say that it is red, see a red brick and say that it is red, and see a red bucket and say that it is red. How do we recognise red, when there is not one red in one form, but various in many? There must be an exemplar that we call upon in order to recognise such abstract concepts, such unities. This exemplar is a Form, an eidos.

We can have Forms of any abstract concept: the Form of a horse, say, is a perfect exemplar of Horsiness. All particular examples of any abstraction approach the perfection of a form, but do not fully achieve it, but it is in their proximity to the ideal that we are able to recognise them. We gain knowledge of the Forms through a logos, which is a way of expressing the content of a Form. The classical example is that of shape: Socrates says in the Meno, when asked how one would explain shape to someone with no understanding of it, that shape is the limit of a solid. This latter clause is the logos of the eidos of shape. It looks rather like a definition, and indeed one could claim that Plato holds a theory of meaning that states that a word has a fixed meaning given by a fixed definition, and that definition can be uncovered through philosophy, which allows one to identify the logos of a particular Form, or the rational principle by which one accesses it. This is a very primitive statement of his argument, but it will suffice for the point I wish to make.

This understanding of meaning as fixed is one that is perennially popular in philosophy, even to this day when at least one famous academic has made his career from taking as the starting point of his argument: “We want words to have a fixed meaning. What needs to be the case for this to work?” However, it is almost trivially untrue, as even the most cursory reader of Wittgenstein will be aware. Instead, words take part in games of meaning, in which participants in a particular game may assign a meaning to a word while other games assign a different meaning. Meaning is thus fluid and only given in how the word is used. However, it remains crucially important, even without the fixed points of eidos: only with a shared logos can we successfully communicate.

What does any of this philosophical abstraction have to do with politics in the real world, you might be asking? The answer is a great deal, because our main political parties have all been complicit in activities which subvert the logos for their own ends, and in doing so have created a situation in which we are governed by groups of people who in a very meaningful way no longer speak the same language as the public.

The first example of this – indeed, the example that directly inspired the title of this blog – is a phrase used extensively by the Liberal Democrats: ‘local campaigner’. Typically, this phrase is used in the Party’s public-facing literature to describe candidates at both local and parliamentary levels. It seems innocuous – the overwhelming majority of Lib Dem candidates do campaign on local issues, and do so genuinely. My objection to it is not based on dislike of candidates, but rather on the way in which its use in this context changes its meaning. The habitual use by Liberal Democrats of this phrase to refer exclusively to their candidates in their literature and not people who campaign for their local area without political aspiration adds to their logos for this phrase, while the public spirit inherent in campaigning lends the phrase an air of altruism when interpreted by the public. These logoi are as below:

libdem

While it may seem unusual to think of Lib Dems as seeking power, it is clear that the use of this phrase packs in a great deal of utility: the leftmost logos presents an inducement to vote for the candidate.The Lib Dems are not lying when they use this phrase to describe their candidates – in my experience, politicians rarely lie – but instead they have bastardised the meaning of a phrase for political gain.

Of course, the public is not quite so easily deceived as I paint here, but we have two options for their response: either they accept the Lib Dems’ use of ‘Local Campaigner’ as being equivalent to their use (and thus the Lib Dems are not really communicating with them as they are in two different language games) or they recognise that the Lib Dems are using the phrase differently and that actual communication is not happening. Either way, the use of this phrase with its Lib Dem logos erects a barrier to genuine conversation between politicians and the public. It is the case, however, that they are not necessarily aware that this could be in any way considered untoward, which I shall consider later.

The second example I want to pick up on was used by Ed Milliband in his speech to the TUC conference. In it, he claimed that he was presenting a ‘fundamentally different vision of our economy’. In practice, this means a greater emphasis on apprenticeships and potentially something like Germany’s KfW running alongside the existing Green Investment Bank, with perhaps a greater reluctance to deregulate employment thrown in. ‘Fundamentally different’ is, as a result, an exaggeration at best. However, it is highly likely that Milliband believes that he is presenting something very different, because of a feature of political trench warfare: all differences are magnified by competition. Thus, we have two logoi that are even further apart:

labour

Nonetheless, this use of the phrase retains its utility, as it prompts party supporters to believe that Labour is genuinely pushing for real change. However, the sheer disconnect on show here means that such supporters will necessarily be disaffected as time passes, because they are literally incapable of communicating with their leadership using phrases like this.

To maintain parity, the last phrase I want to consider is the current form of the perennial political favourite ‘hard working families’, the slogan of the Conservative Party: ‘For Hard Working People’. This phrase is interesting, as bound up with its positive tone is its negative: it is against people who don’t work hard. It is also deceptive, functioning like ‘local campaigner’ by providing the implication that it will support all hard-working people, even if they fall foul of another more capricious hard-working person who employs them. We therefore have:

tories

Again, communication is hampered by meanings that differ; meanings that have been subverted in the name of political utility. The practice of assessing messages against both polling and focus groups is done with the explicit intention of finding a package of words that delivers support regardless of what those words mean to the person saying them.

The end result is a political class that is incapable of communicating with the general public, and more troublingly, with each other: all three parties have their own language games, and debate between relies upon the protagonists being sufficiently intellectually adept to move between games at will. It is hardly surprising that the public is increasingly disaffected with a political class that does not speak the same language as them – not, in its normal usage, because they use big words and overblown rhetoric, but because they do not share a common logos. UKIP does at present, which partly explains its rise, but the temptation of the sheer utility of abusing meaning in this way will overcome them in the end.

People working in politics will doubtless find this very odd, overly abstract and unimportant compared with the big issues of the day. What does it matter that they distort the meaning of a few words in order to save the NHS, for example? To answer this, I’d like to use an analogy with the foreign exchange market. At every moment, large computers are comparing prices for currency in all the markets around the world, and where they find a momentary opportunity for arbitrage, conducting hundreds of trades a second. The profit on each trade is typically in fractions of a penny, but the sheer volume of these trades makes the practice very lucrative indeed. The same applies to the abuse of the logos: each time a politician says something using a meaning with which they privately disagree, they commit a fractional sin. When they do it hundreds of times a day, they commit a much bigger sin. Even worse, by sheer repetition the sin is normalised, to the point that most political types reading this will respond with ‘Well, that’s just how it is’.

It cannot continue. Without a genuine effort to communicate with the public using meanings that we all share, our political system is left at risk of even greater disaffection and the dangers of a public growing disenchanted with democracy. Without bravery from our politicians, the logos will continue to decline.

Debate on the Internet takes the form of a many-tailed temporal worm: many different segments of argument persisting across time and yet standing in relation to a particularly obstreperous character as their starting point. This post is in response to a post by Mark Wallace, which in turn was in response to an article by Owen Jones, which itself was a response to Sunny Hundal.

Sunny made the dreadfully uninteresting argument that people he disagreed with were evil, for a definition of evil so broad as to include any health minister forced to ration healthcare by virtue of not possessing infinite resources. Despite being mind-bogglingly stupid (or, indeed, perhaps because of this) it attracted quite some debate, with Owen Jones responding that Tories weren’t evil but rather rationalisers of policies which defend their own privilege. This is absolutely true: it is entirely possible to ostensibly believe in policies which enable entrepreneurs to produce products which improve the lives of millions while at the same time supporting policies which reduce the amount of tax one personally has to pay. Very often they can be the same policies; simply having good intentions doesn’t grant one altogether altruistic motives.

Mark wrote a response to this which includes the following statement:

“Or maybe Conservatives think what we think because, having interrogated
the logic and the evidence, we honestly believe conservatism holds the
best solutions for the problems the nation faces?”

Mark suffers from an all too rare flaw in contemporary politicians: the need to ensure that what he’s doing is right. As a result, he clearly believes that Conservatism, as an ideology, is based upon a rational assessment of the evidence. This is fascinating, because it’s difficult to square this notion with, well, the evidence. To take a few examples:

  • Osborne’s economic policy appears to be less based upon evidence and more upon throwing darts on a board composed of random fiscal manoeuvres. He’s combined a particularly arbitrary approach to cutting public spending (20% cuts across all departments except politically protected ones without any particular exemption for capital spending) with a few random quasi-Keynesian initiatives. The Help to Buy scheme in particular stands against everything we learned from the credit crunch and even all the arguments made by right-wingers in the States: Government underwriting of mortgages for first-time buyers is a bad thing.
  • Iain Duncan Smith, while starting from the well-intentioned position of wanting to lower the marginal rate of taxation on people transferring from benefits into work, has decided to start ignoring the evidence in favour of his own belief that he is right.
  • The Conservatives’ official position on Europe is to negotiate the repatriation of some powers which they think are better held at the national level. However, the recent report on this subject has caused at least one Tory adviser to complain about the weight it puts on evidence, as the facts appear to run contrary to their position.

I may be being unfair, as Mark appears to want to have this debate at a much more macro level:

“Conservatives believe in doing what works – not holding tight to nice means, and to hell with the ends. We recognise and embrace human fallibility, and seek to sculpt policies that turn it to society’s best advantage. We would rather acknowledge the profit motive and channel its energies towards alleviating ills, than seek to restrain it at the cost of greater human suffering.”

Conservatives, having looked at the evidence, want to use capitalism and the greed of mankind to achieve good. This is entirely reasonable – as a liberal I want the same thing. But crucially, as a liberal, we’ve wanted this for much longer. Opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws and other restrictions on trade in the 19th century came primarily from the Tory benches, and their eventual repeal caused the formation of the Liberal Party. Either conservatism has changed since then to require evidence before making policy, or it continues to be an ideology founded most of all upon retaining particular structures of power.The latter is a more Burkean Conservatism, and it is undeniable that such an approach is still common within the party. Such an ideology is less concerned with what works than what works for oneself.

However, this does not mean that Mark is wrong: as I mentioned above, it is entirely possible for at least some Conservatives (although not, apparently, the ones in the Cabinet) to support a policy on the basis of evidence while that policy simultaneously supports existing power structures. But it does present a problem to his more sweeping claim that Conservatism has some kind of lock on rational evidence-based approaches to policymaking in comparison with other ideologies: this is as obviously nonsensical as the claim that right-wingers are evil. The intellectual tradition and current practice of the Party points to Conservatives being no less and no more likely to rely on evidence than any other political grouping, and rightly so, otherwise all Conservatives would agree on absolutely everything. Only socialists all think the same.

A senior Tory has allegedly stated a belief commonly held amongst central party managers everywhere: that their activists are ‘swivel-eyed loons’.  ‘Loon’, of course, is ultimate derived from ‘lunar’; the traditional belief that madness was more common during full moons. If we assume that voting Conservative is a form of madness, we can check whether a full moon does in fact impact upon the Tory vote by cross-referencing it with daily polls:

Loony ToriesSource: Polling undertaken on the UTC date of a full moon since beginning of 2012 when YouGov started recording UKIP separately.

There is a small but noticeable impact on both the Conservative and UKIP voting intention, with the former impact significant at the 5% level*. This is the inverse of what people who would also be happy to dub UKIP nutters would expect, and presents a danger for Mr Cameron. The first Thursday in May 2015 is the day after a full moon. The motion of our nearest celestial partner may yet cost the Conservatives the next election.

*This relationship attenuates as the data set grows, precisely as a non-crazy person would expect. From 2010 to the present day it’s practically insignificant. One could attribute the short-term effect to science being right or Nigel Farage being a werewolf.

It is no coincidence that UKIP’s rise is in line with popular concern about immigration. Or is it? It’s true that Britain hasn’t been quite this concerned with immigration since 2011, and everyone remembers those days two years ago when Farage’s face beamed from every channel twenty four hours of the day. We’ve taken as read that their rise means the British public is positively infuriated with the thought of dirty foreigners coming over here and ruining everything with their ethics of work. It’s possible that we might be wrong.

ImmigSource: Ipsos MORI

Concern about immigration is not bound up with concern about unemployment or indeed the economy. In fact, when times are bad and people are worried about jobs, they’re less likely to be worried about immigration. This is completely counterintuitive to anyone raised on a diet of history lessons in which the Nazis exploited fears about the economy to scapegoat the Jews. However, it would appear that we’ve drawn the wrong lesson from history.

Opposition to immigration, along with gay marriage, the EU and other things that UKIP is on record as not liking, is not driven by economic circumstances. Rather, it appears to be cultural: opposing all of those things appears to be what you do in order to signify your membership of the Fuddy Duddy Tribe. Like all cultural issues, it’s something people only have time for when they’re not worried about where the next meal is coming from. This leads us to an interesting quandary for the Conservative Party: the rise of UKIP is as a result of the Coalition’s stewardship of the economy no longer being quite so dreadful. This has given their former voters the freedom to vote with their ‘resentment of change’ hat on, rather than their ‘must be sensible’ hat. If we were back in recession, UKIP wouldn’t be doing so well.

The United Kingdom Independence Party, to give it its full rather clunky name, is expected to do rather well in the local elections today. The main driver behind this potential success is ostensibly its positioning as an anti-establishment vehicle for discontent with the main parties. This is interesting, because claiming to be against the establishment requires an understanding of what the establishment is in the first place, and libertarians like the UKIPers have traditionally been very bad at properly analysing the structures of power.

So I’m going to do it for them. I’m going to go through each of the policies listed on their website (or at least the ones that appear to be actual policies rather than random statements of intent) and assign each a number. 1 will represent a policy that changes who has power and influence in Britain today, 0 will represent a policy that has no impact on power structures, and -1 will represent a policy that actually increases the power of the establishment. For clarity, I am defining ‘establishment’ as ‘the current distribution of resources, policy influence and decision-making powers in the UK today’.

1. Defence

Like most libertarians, UKIPers fetishise defence, presumably so they can call on the army when the hoi polloi revolt against the total removal of their legal protections. UKIP’s defence policy is to increase defence spending back to 2010 levels, disband the Ministry of Defence and turn over control to high-ranking officers rather than civilians, scrap Trident and replace it with nuclear cruise missiles, and buy more tanks and boats. There’s also a lot in there about bolstering the role of the Territorial Army, which is no way a reflection of what many UKIPers spend their weekends doing.

While this policy clearly impacts upon the MoD, it alters power structures by expanding the role of an existing authority – the military. Laughable as you might find the idea that we need aircraft carriers to fend off Somali pirates in converted fishing vessels (yes, really, that’s their argument), it’s undeniable that this is a significant change to the balance of power, and so I will award their defence policy a score of 1.

2. Immigration

Unlike most libertarians, UKIP do not believe in the free movement of peoples. They propose a five year freeze on immigration for permanent settlement and the imposition of a points based system for limited immigration for specific skill sets the UK cannot supply. The practical upshot of this is to get rid of Polish plumbers and other archetypes of foreign labourers beloved by the popular press.

Reducing immigration will lower economic growth, making us all a little poorer. However, there is evidence that an influx of labour depresses the wages of the bottom decile of the population, even though average wages rise. Functionally then, restricting immigration makes the poorest slightly better off relative to the majority of the population, although everyone is poorer than before. This is a shift in the distribution of resources, and so I give this policy a score of 1.

3. Tax & Spending

Please note: the policy under discussion here is a ‘proposal’ rather than formal policy. Nigel Farage has apparently contradicted this policy elsewhere. However, there is nothing else available that would indicate UKIP’s position.

UKIP want a ‘flat tax’ on income over £13,000 of about 25%. This is a colossal tax cut for the most well-off, and a tax rise for the less well off. This would dramatically reduce the overall tax take, producing, one supposes, a much-reduced scope for redistributional payments like pensions and the NHS. They want to shift the burden of corporate tax away from profits and onto ‘added value’, being the difference between the cost of the inputs and the value of the outputs. This will dramatically penalise our already struggling manufacturing industries and provide a great boon for financial services as HMRC struggles to work out precisely how much value a particular financial product adds to its constituent parts. Under this policy, those who are already doing well are awarded and the less well off are penalised. I give this a score of -1.

4. Health

UKIP wants to reallocate central NHS funding to elected boards in each county (presumably this means a single one for London, unless by ‘county’ they also mean ‘borough’). They want nurses to stop getting these new-fangled degree things because education prevents people from caring. I presume this is why; they seem to think that nursing degrees don’t involve any time on the wards at all, rather than at least half as at present. I remain baffled as to why there’s this common presumption that nurses should be the equivalent of manual labourers; the human body is rather complicated and I’d like people looking after to me to know what they’re doing.

I digress. The County Health Boards would represent a significant redistribution of power downwards, but coupled with this policy is the power to allow a charge for all prescriptions, not just those of the better off. This is a revocation of the principle of free-at-the-point-of-use, meaning that it’s a step in the direction of state-funded healthcare being inaccessible to the least well off. As this policy partly redistributes power and partly reinforces existing resource distribution, I give it a 0.

5. Small businesses & employment law

As a tiny businessman, I welcome UKIP’s warm words of support for small business, although they’re identical to the ones that come from every politician. A key way in which politicians could reduce the stress on small businesses is by stopping saying that we’re the engines of growth for the economy. It’s a lot of responsibility.

UKIP want to help us by getting rid of almost all employment protections, including weekly working hours, holidays and holiday, overtime, parental leave, redundancy and sick pay, and require a standard contract form which indicates the average wages and conditions for that role in that industry. While I look forward to seeing the vast bureaucracy that would be required to continually assess wages in each of the nearly 10,000 SIC codes, I can’t help but suspect that average wages in each would be set by the dominant player in the sector, who would be able to pay more than, say, start-ups. This would make it harder to crack open market incumbents by reducing the available pool of labour at a price we could afford. Coupled with the fact that employees have less influence than employers, I’m giving this a -1.

6. Energy

Ah, Roger Helmer, a man I recall responding to my press releases with ‘Poppycock!’ whenever I said something he didn’t want to believe. UKIP’s energy policy is based on opposition to something they don’t want to believe, namely climate change. They reject renewables that impact on the landscape (solar and wind), want an end to environment-related subsidies, love nukes and want more gas and coal.

The practical upshot of this will be to cement the market dominance of the Big Six energy supply companies, because the big stuff is expensive and they’re the only ones building it. The only power plants built in the UK in the last five years which aren’t owned by an international energy conglomerate are renewables or small-scale CHP.

The response of the market incumbents to the removal of environmental tariffs will be the discovery that the previous price was what the market could bear, so they’re free to raise prices. If UKIP genuinely think that the Big Six are going to suddenly opt for lower profits then they’re being even more bonkers than when they think you need a Sea Harrier to blow up a dinghy. A big -1 here.

7. The EU

Bafflingly, UKIP doesn’t have a policy on the EU. They mention that they want to leave in other documents, but they don’t set out how they’d do it. I therefore am unsure of the impact of this ‘policy’ – certainly, redistributing power from Brussels to the UK counts as being anti-establishment, but because our ties to the EU are so complex its impact is uncertain. EU funding for deprived regions would vanish, along with substantial trade ties. We’d certainly be poorer, at least initially. I therefore have to give this a 0, pending further information.

In conclusion, UKIP score -1 on the anti-establishment front, or 0 if you exclude their tax ‘proposal’. From this we can say that UKIP, despite its Farage-shaped veneer, is at least as pro-establishment as the other parties, and potentially even more so.

Following on from my previous post, I want to discuss MacIntyre’s claim that stories and the roles that people play in them contribute something fundamental to personal identity. This is crucially important to modern politics, because storytelling – in the form of political narratives – is at the core of how parties present themselves and their ideas.

I first encountered the slightly arcane world of political messaging when I began working for the Liberal Democrats many years ago, back when they were cool. Over beers in a bar somewhere in deepest darkest Brighton, I was enthusiastically given the stripped-down story that constituted the Lib Dem narrative in all seats in which we fighting Labour:

  1. The Government isn’t delivering.
  2. Labour have let us down.
  3. Only the hard-working local Lib Dem candidate knows what you want.

This, of course, can be recapsulated around any particular issue, and it’s a useful starting point for this discussion because it’s a very clear statement of the narrative form:

  1. Setup (Disappointment in Government empathised with)
  2. Conflict (Traditional sources of hope for change no longer available)
  3. Resolution (Ergo, vote Lib Dem)

It is, however, fundamentally an impoverished story. The previous discussion covered how MacIntyre’s view of narrative as at the heart of personal identity leads to an interesting point: the tellers of stories shape the lives of those who opt for roles described by those stories. The only role accessible to the audience in this story is that of the disappointee; there is no scope for participation beyond that. There is the audience and the protagonists, and the protagonists are clearly distinguished from the audience. Even the emphasis on empathy and understanding and ‘local’ is insufficient to overcome the difference of roles.

This is significant, because other political narratives have expanded on the roles available to the audience in an interestingly prescriptive way. This week saw the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, whose political narrative can be summarised as:

  1. The country is in a shocking state
  2. Reactionary forces, such as unions, want to imprison economic enterprise in their grasp or that of the State
  3. I shall set you free to enjoy the rewards of your own industry and ingenuity

This narrative ascribes at least two roles to the audience: that of a reactionary force, and that of the industrious and entrepreneurial masses. This faces a very different impoverishment to that of the Lib Dems: that of non-exhaustive roles. The call is for the audience to become protagonists in the battle against the state of the nation, for which Government is an enabler. The audience can either be entrepreneurs or dinosaurs. No other course of action is available.

The roles permitted the audience are non-exhaustive in the sense that people could very well fall outside them; they are not simply the audience, they are active participants in the story. If they are unable to participate, then the story has nothing for them. It is clear that Thatcher believed her own story: the closure of the coal mines was supposed to lead to the of flowering a service economy driven by all the entrepreneurship pent up behind the floodgates of state ownership. One can see Thatcher’s legacy as a tremendous experiment into the fungibility of labour in a context in which there is no other source of wealth available. Unsurprisingly, the answer to the question of, “Can a labour force skilled for a particular profession based in a particular geographic area readily transfer those skills to new employment once the major source of local income is eliminated?” is “No”. The demand by other members of her Government that the newly redundant demonstrate their get up and go by getting on their bikes neglected the fact that bikes costs money. No Conservative government has ever argued for a bike allowance for the unemployed, a fact which must remain a mystery.

Without fungibility of labour, Thatcher’s narrative missed out great swathes of the population, who were left without a role. An interesting analogue of this problem affected the narrative of New Labour, which can be summarised like this:

  1. Public services you rely on are in a shocking state
  2. The Conservatives have failed to deliver better services even when times were good
  3. We will let capitalism rip and feast upon its proceeds in order to deliver better services

This is a an exhaustive narrative; the public are either capitalists or service recipients. The passivity of the latter raises an interesting comparison with the Lib Dem narrative above: one can trace political lineages through the stories they tell, and the shared passivity in both approaches indicates that the Lib Dem strategy was to be Labour, but better.

New Labour assigned a role to capitalists that in the end they could not play: that of a never-ending source of wealth. In this, they failed to define roles which matched reality, in much the same way as Thatcher. The assumption that the reality of people will match a politician’s story about them is all too common in politics.

We can see from the above three stories that impoverishment comes in many guises: that of an ill-fitting role that can just about extend to all, but fails to prescribe that role in an interesting fashion, that of an assumption about how far a role can extend, and that of an assumption about those who play a role which already exists. Political stories do not describe reality, but rather touch upon it lightly in ways which appeal to the politicians that tell them. However, it is easy to describe and condemn with the benefit of hindsight, so in my next post I shall examine Ed Miliband’s version of the One Nation narrative. As something directly inspired by MacIntyre’s work, it should be interesting.

I have been broadly uninterested in the interminable debate over the passing of Margaret Thatcher; arguments about whose disgust and loathing is better justified hold little appeal (that being said, there’s an interesting article here which ontology fans may enjoy). Even more tedious has been Twitter, which is now the domain of an intense competition over who can be the most meta in their outrage. The Daily Mail has joined in by promoting outrage over an outrageous attempt to demonstrate outrage over Thatcher’s legacy, culminating in the following amazing sentence about a song from a children’s musical:

“The BBC would not confirm exactly what part of the song would be aired tomorrow, but most of the lyrics contain the offensive phrase.”

The Conservative Party is at a loss to know what to do about an instance of free speech about which they happen to disagree, and in being so demonstrate why I will always find their political philosophy repellent.

I am in interested in politics because to be so is the natural outcome of an interest in philosophy and morality; one cannot really describe the morality of the individual without paying some regard to the society in which they find themselves. If one’s interest in politics springs primarily from philosophy, then the most important principle by which anyone’s politics can be judged is that of coherency. Regardless of how much I disagree with someone, if I can see the chain of reasoning behind their approach to politics I can, as a minimum, respect them. The death of Thatcher has revealed the incoherency of conservatism in the UK: at once opposed to taxpayers being hit by pay rises for public servants and then stinging us for a £10 million posthumous bonus for a public servant’s performance in office; at once opposed to restrictions on hate speech, and then clamoring for them when they are the subject of it.

It is a political philosophy that appeals to principle when convenient and emotive rhetoric when principle gets in the way. Moreover, it is a political philosophy that believes in using the State to enforce its incoherent worldview upon the nation: the use of taxpayers’ money to fund a celebration of the life of someone about whom the nation is bitterly divided is precisely that. I dislike it but simultaneously accept it: conservatism is not based on reason, but emotion, and as a liberal I cannot demand that everyone approaches politics in the same way I do. As a result, much like the poor, it will always be with us. It is likely that these two facts are related.

‘INDIVIDUALISM RAMPANT!’ the headline might as well of read, rather than the more demographically mealy ‘Generation Self‘. Apparently the youth of today are a source of concern to their elders, this time less in the form of angry old Colonel Blimp types despairing about their lack of a work ethic and more in the form of decrepit socialists bemoaning their lack of attachment to the mighty institutions of the Collective Good.The young ‘uns don’t see the NHS as something they must lay down their very lives for, and are more likely to view those on benefits as being lazy scroungers rather than noble souls down on their luck.

And yet paradoxically (to the Guardian at least) they are bang-on message on subjects like gay rights, not being horrible racists, and women being equal to men. The notion that there could be some kind of connection between a belief in individualism and freedom to live the life you choose unconstrained by society is something that eludes that newspaper’s fine people of letters.

Liberalism is stronger in the coming generation, which should be a cause for celebration amongst liberals everywhere. However, it is important to understand why individualism is on the up. There are two competing narratives:

  • The Guardian reaches for the handy lefty trope of Thatcher being to blame for all the bad things that have ever happened. The children brought up under her austere regime know that this is a dog-eat-dog world and are determined to not be eaten by dogs of any kind. Indeed, some of them are breeding bigger and bigger dogs just to avoid this. Then, in a sign of how ruthlessly capitalistic these young people are, they’re selling them for a profit.
  • Conservatives blame the over-mighty State for taking away things people used to do together and making them the preserve of the faraway man in Whitehall. Remember those wonderful days when the only way to afford healthcare was by clubbing together with the other people who worked at the factory in the scant few hours you had outside of work to build collective institutions, and how if you weren’t working and got sick you basically just died? Weren’t they wonderful? LET’S GO BACK TO THAT.

The wonderful thing about these narratives, like so much political messaging, is that they can both be true at the same time. It is true that Government-promoted individualism will encourage individualism. It is also true that removing the responsibility of looking after your fellow man engendered by his or her need by shifting it into something you do at two steps removed through the taxation system will excuse you of the guilt of failing to help. You can then blame the NHS when it makes mistakes, because it’s making you guilty by proxy.

Outwith my sneering at both ends of the political spectrum, I do agree with them on the point that they share, which is that compassion is a virtue which should be fostered regardless of how individualistic you are; you can believe in absolute freedom from the individual, zero taxes on everything and a nightwatchman state and still think you should care about the least well off. Lack of compassion is a serious character flaw. The institutions originally charged with fostering compassion, the churches, still do good work at a local level, but at a macro level have bafflingly decided to devote their time to reacting against the sweeping tide of liberalism, which in itself says nothing about the compassion their creed requires. Compassion remains a requirement of a society in which people actively want to participate: a liberal society requires that people have the minimum of compassion for their fellows sufficient to be in favour of their freedom.

We therefore do require some kind of civil institution charged not with fostering a vision of the collective good, but with the compassion that can lead to people freely agreeing to such visions. . It can’t be the State; it will never be the job of Government to prescribe morality in a way which goes beyond the law. It can’t be the churches; the metaphysical commitments they require for their compassion are now beyond the interest of much of British society. And it certainly can’t be the unions; they have too frequently revealed themselves to be the guardians of sectional interests. So what can it be?

Answers on a postcard, please.

And it’s the job of this man:

In all the debate about what the Tories might offer the Lib Dems to get their precious boundary changes, there’s a fundamental truth that seems to be being avoided. While both Lords Reform and changes to constituency boundaries are ostensibly constitutional issues, they don’t lie at the heart of the reason the Coalition was formed. The real electoral dividends are to be reaped from a strong performance on the economy, and this is why Osborne needs to go.

The deficit reduction strategy formed a key part of the Coalition Agreement, and relied on growth picking up in short order. This has not happened. The ostensibly independent Office for Budgetary Responsibility, which Osborne set up, has managed to get every single one of its growth predictions incorrect. If it were managing a fund based on its predictions, it’d already be out of business. We are now back in recession, and Osborne’s response to this is to attempt to restrain one of the few remaining growth sectors we have in order to take an economy-wide punt on gas prices going down – right when the market expects them to rise. Take a look at the price of gas in Winter 2014-15 on the futures market for an indication of the kind of stories we can expect to see at the beginning of the next General Election campaign.

If we have been part of a Government that has failed to deliver growth and plunged hundreds of thousands of people into fuel poverty, we can expect to be decimated by the electorate, even without changes to constituency boundaries. Therefore, Osborne has to go, to be replaced by one of our own. Hell, even William Hague would be better.

Lord Ashcroft, the gentleman who owns the Conservative Party, has commissioned a poll on the attitudes of people who read newspapers towards those newspapers. He looked to find out whether people were able to identify the political allegiance of their favoured newspaper. The results are fascinating, and I repeat them below:

Here is proof, if proof were needed, that 18% of the Telegraph’s readership are bonkers. However, what’s more interesting is how Lord Ashcroft presents these results.

Lord Ashcroft chooses to interpret this as evidence that newspapers do not lead opinion, but rather follow that of their readers. He claims this on the basis that if they led opinion, more people should recognise that they act as such:

“Part of the genius of successful newspapers is that they understand their readers and give them what they want. They don’t determine their readers’ political outlook, they follow it. […] But the view that the tabloid editor is a kind of Chief Whip, corralling the votes of biddable readers in support of the paper’s chosen victor, is patronising and wrong.”

The claim here is that it is only possible to lead opinion if people recognise what it is that you’re trying to do. This is an interesting claim, because it is the exact opposite of the approach that Thatcher took to leading opinion:

The Attitude Change Process

5.2.1 The traditional model of political communications resembles a military bombardment, in which you bomb your audience into agreeing with you, shouting louder when they appear not to understand.

5.2.2 The model we have suggested in earlier papers is quite different. It is based on the private perception of reality by the individual. The analogy we used was the building of a model of, say, St Paul’s, out of matchsticks. The structure would gradually take shape, but only when most of the matchsticks were in place would the observer suddenly realise the meaning of the model. At that point his attitude would start to change.

5.2.3 Each nugget of information that reaches him (a speech, two seconds on TV of the Grunwick pickets, an article, the report of a new wage claim, the plight of the Boat People) may only be one matchstick. This is why major speeches which take a great deal of effort to prepare are often not particularly cost-effective in communication terms. Their “yield” is usually only one or two matchsticks, in a few column inches. And of course they are discounted to some extent as propaganda, which live events – eg Grunwick, NUPE – are not.

5.2.4 Since in the nature of things we will seldom get everything right, it is a matter of making sure we take two or three steps forward for each step back. Of course there will be occasionally a rapid succession of matchsticks – as, for example, the events of last winter which altered the “mental sets”, at least temporarily, of a significant proportion of the electorate. But whenever we get something wrong, a matchstick will be removed from the model.

5.2.5 The important thing to recognise is that the process requires many matchsticks and lots of time – usually years rather than months.

It was quite clearly the position of the Conservative Party for many years that a drip-drip-drip effect of communication changes attitudes, rather than the marshalling of forces on election day. Tabloids do not need to be overtly political in order to fulfil a role useful to a political agenda – in fact, being overtly political would diminish their value as a source of matchsticks. Given the role Lord Ashcroft has played in developing Conservative strategy it is difficult to believe that he is not aware of this, which would make his claims above rather disingenuous.