From a liberal point of view – December 2016

Health warning

This is my personal view, as a liberal with a small “l”, of one aspect of our current political situation.

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The resurgence of populism

2016 has been an annus horribilis for us liberals. We have been stunned, first by the Brexit referendum, and then by President-elect Trump’s victory in the USA. When we look at Europe, we see a surge in support for populist far-right parties. Why? And what can we do about it?

Let’s start by thinking about the differences between progressive economic policies, and progressive social policies.

When I say progressive economic policies I mean policies that tend to reduce inequality in wealth and/or income; traditionally called left-wing policies.

When I say progressive cultural policies I mean policies that tend to make society more tolerant of difference (for example, by being in favour of immigration, by championing women’s rights, gay rights, BAME rights etc).

You might imagine that people who advocate progressive economic policies would also support progressive cultural policies, but sociologists have found that this is not, actually, the case. Some do, and some don’t. There is no correlation between the two at all.

This is important.

Think of people suffering poverty as a result of the way business and government interact. People on zero hours contracts, for example, or people on the minimum wage in London.

Now, suppose nothing is done to reduce their poverty, but progressive cultural policies are implemented.

In the first place, because nothing has been done to help them economically, they will all be unhappy, and many will be angry.

For some of them, perhaps about half, socially progressive legislation will be welcome but far from sufficient (remember the maxim “It’s the economy, stupid”). The remainder, who oppose socially progressive legislation, will feel that it adds insult to injury. The harsh fact that they are still in poverty will exacerbate the feeling that the progressive legislation is “Political correctness gone mad”. This means that policies that deliver progressive social results but don’t deliver progressive economic results will not satisfy those who are experiencing economic hardship, and will outrage some.

This unhappiness and outrage will be fruitful ground for unscrupulous politicians to exploit by blaming the economic hardship on the minority groups. “You’re poor, because immigrants are stealing your jobs,” for example.

“Political correctness gone mad”.

Are we liberals guilty of that?

One supporter of Brexit to whom I have spoken made the point that until they won the Brexit referendum, people like her couldn’t speak out and argue their case. They were vilified as ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’. After the referendum she felt that she could argue for tight controls on immigration because she knew that many people felt as she did.

She has a point. It is democratically legitimate to argue the case for tight controls on immigration. There are all sorts of arguments that can be made, from the strain on infrastructure such as houses, schools and healthcare provision, to the change in our national culture and identity that high immigration levels bring. Not everyone who makes such arguments is a racist or xenophobe. How dare we, the very people who should champion tolerance, instead use ridicule and insult to silence people who want to make these arguments? No wonder they’re angry. No wonder they’re hostile.

And, while we’re at it, let’s think about those who genuinely are racist and xenophobic. Internet memes often refer to such people as assholes. But, guess what? All they’re doing is what humans have evolved to do; be wary of the stranger. For nearly all the history of the human race this has been a survival trait. Of course, it’s no longer helpful and could be disastrous given modern weapons technology, but it’s human and natural. The only way the attitude will change is by education, not by hostility and ridicule.

So, how do we move forward?

Firstly, the issue of massive – and growing – inequality of wealth must be tackled. There really is no way round this.

Secondly, while continuing to make the case for socially liberal policies, we must remember that our opponents’ views are democratically legitimate. We must be respectful, and we must be open. Almost certainly some of their arguments could contribute to policies that will lead to a happier, more stable and harmonious society.

Thirdly, while racism and xenophobia are anathema and have to be opposed, the only way to eliminate them is by education.

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