Want to persuade the ‘bigots’? Understand them first.

The word `bigot` is deployed so often that it’s become mere punctuation in the gay marriage debate. Bigots do exist, but not all those seeking to retain purely heterosexual marriage count as one. A large poll by the research agency YouGov indicated that there are 32% of Britons who support civil partnerships, but not same-sex marriage. That’s not the ignorant expression of revulsion we might expect: it shows there’s a fine distinction being made between homosexual union and full marriage.

This non-bigoted kind of opposition is a purely technical one. It holds that a union between two people of the same sex would fail to qualify as ‘marriage’ purely by definition. To these traditionalists, ‘marriage’ is an analytical description, not a right to be shared out.

To explain, let’s take a less emotive example: it would be nonsense to campaign that everyone has the right to become a bachelor. Bachelors are men by definition, and women cannot become bachelors. No matter how much someone might campaign on grounds of equality, it will have no effect in persuading us that women should be allowed to become bachelors too.

Those traditionalists opposing same-sex marriage ‘by definition’ are in the same camp. To traditionalists it simply does not qualify as an equality issue: marriage is, by definition, limited to male-female union. That’s why the popular language of this debate is having no impact. Instead, if we want to persuade them to support gay marriage then we need to admit two things: (a) extending marriage to homosexual couples entails a fundamental redefinition, and (b) there are good reasons to redefine marriage this way.

We should begin from a position of understanding. Traditionalists define marriage as a contractual union designed to create a stable foundation in which to raise a family. (For a fuller explanation see this ResPublica paper.) It is therefore reasonable for them to insist that, given this, the institution of marriage can only form around the biological combination necessary for the propagation of children. In the absence of an unnerving scientific breakthrough, that combination remains the one between a man and a woman.

But there are good grounds to change the definition of marriage which might find sympathy with traditionalists. Let me outline one such argument here, albeit briefly.

The best way to keep the traditional definition of marriage current is by extending marriage to same-sex couples. The traditional conception of marriage has not kept up with the way nuclear families are formed in modern Britain. Specifically, adoption, fostering and surrogacy are common. Same-sex couples are building families in this manner, but are not entitled to the protections of traditional marriage.

That traditional definition held that marriage is a contractual union designed to create a stable foundation for family. If that is the case, then surely society will benefit from an expanded institution: one which gives families headed by a same-sex union a stable foundation too. Given the way that families are increasingly formed, the male-female biological combination is no longer as central to marriage as the need to encourage commitment.

Same-sex marriage, then, preserves the spirit of traditional marriage. In order to persuade Britain’s traditionalists that it is a good idea, we need to understand their opposition, not shout it down nor speak irrelevantly about equality. We should admit that same-sex marriage entails a fundamental redefinition, and argue that such an important institution should support modern families in all their guises. Supporters: swallow your pride and understand the ‘bigots’.

Edmund Burke

Quick review: ‘Edmund Burke, The First Conservative’ by Jesse Norman

Political parties: “They’re all the same!” runs the familiar refrain. I understand why you might say that. It’s hard to find out what our politicians are really thinking. We rely on the kind of superficial, agenda-driven media coverage you can digest with your cornflakes. Eventually we get hold of election manifestos, but they are a mere shadow of the real thing, the result of unseen compromise and populist calculation. We scrabble around in the dark, guessing at motives. Without further enlightenment the politicians all feel pretty similar.

Are you thinking what we're thinking?

No wonder Michael Howard failed so dismally with his 2005 election campaign: ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’

There is a solution. Modern political parties are philosophical groupings. They gather people who hold similar values; people who tend to agree on the kinds of policy that are best for society. If you can understand what brought them together, then at last you have proper insight into what their politicians might be thinking. You’ll see gut politics, before calculation and compromise take their toll. Political parties don’t all look the same once you understand their diverging philosophies.

Edmund Burke book front

‘Edmund Burke: The First Conservative’ by Jesse Norman

This book will help you understand the Conservative Party. The author drops you straight into the commotion of 18th Century life, and shows you Edmund Burke: “the greatest and the most underrated political thinker in the last 300 years.” Burke’s energetic writings and magisterial rhetoric championed an intellectually robust conservatism before the movement was properly born. Forget about the lazily false accusation that conservatives are nasty supporters of the rich at the expense of those in need. For Burke, the nation is a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” He believed in “personal liberty but not individual licence,” bounded by social order. He believed in careful political reform that makes progress without jeopardising what we have already achieved. And he believed in a strong society of balanced institutions, within which everybody has the safety to flourish. It’s the antithesis of today’s liberal individualism.

We discover that Burke is a deeply caring man, but one who was led by considerations of practicality and consequence before token political posturing. “Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption.”

But of course the long-dead Burke cannot tell you everything you need to know about conservatives nowadays, no matter how well the author colours him back to life. History moved on, and philosophy matured through Burke’s intellectual legacy. Even liberal individualism pops up in the modern Conservative Party. Today’s Conservatives are a patchwork coalition with three overlapping philosophical strands: free market ‘Thatcherite’ conservatism, one nation conservatism, and traditionalist conservatism. This May’s election manifesto will reflect at least some thought from all of them. Better get reading then…

See ‘Edmund Burke: The First Conservative’ on Goodreads

Like what you hear? For a modern treatise that owes much to Burke’s ideas, enjoy Roger Scruton’s A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism.

A Journey: My Political Life, by Tony Blair

Quick review: ‘A Journey: My Political Life’ by Tony Blair

Tony Blair’s autobiography is a work of fascinating dissection. The slick and latterly despised figure we knew from newspapers and television bulletins peels away to reveal someone on the same journey of self-improvement as we are. “I was the same jumble of failed dreams, thwarted hopes, and disappointed expectations as well as the achievements. I used to look at successful people and think: I’m not sure I could ever be like that.” Viewed with an eye to his ever-vulnerable development of character and leadership, plainly controversial decisions become finely nuanced personal challenges. Whatever you think of Tony Blair’s politics, this book leaves the ambitious reader with plenty to learn from.

Rating: ****

See ‘A Journey: My Political Life’ on Goodreads.

The Screwtape Letters

Quick review: ‘The Screwtape Letters’ by C.S. Lewis

Rating: *****

I often argue that religious morality has a deep advantage over secular morality. Both look similar from the outside, but religion continuously spurs a person to self-examine inner motivations and honestly assess their own character in a way that the secular stimulus of societal censure cannot manage alone.

C.S. Lewis examines this ‘inner life’ through the imaginary medium of two disgustingly-named devils strategically conspiring to win a soul for Hell. It works well. He lays bare the little tricks that we use every day to disguise our true motivations even from ourselves. We are proud, for example, of our ‘unselfishness’ – which is really the exact opposite of the selfless love that should be the only reason for acting.

It is a witty book too, which is perhaps what saves it from a descent into bland sermonising.

See ‘The Screwtape Letters’ on Goodreads


Quick review: ‘The Soul of the World’ by Roger Scruton

Rating: ****

We may have lost God, argues philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton, but we still need a sense of ‘the sacred’. Don’t be so quick to dismiss such a concept as vague nonsense. Like much of Roger Scruton’s thought, it is impeccably nuanced and rewards close examination. He argues that the sacred is of fundamental relevance to a life well-lived, and then plunges into a definition and defence of it that weaves together human experience of other people, civilisation, society, law, architecture, art, music and religion. Mechanistic explanations of the world have served us well, he says, but fall far short of a full human understanding of it. Important features emerge from the mechanics, but are not reducible to them. A full understanding of music cannot be reached by describing a sequence of pitched sounds. A painting is more than an arrangement of pixels. Consciousness is more than the firing of neurons. There is something missing — something that is crucial to the way we humans interact with the world. Much valuable insight ensues, even if you worry that Scruton has opened up a chasm which he cannot quite fill.

See ‘The Soul of the World’ on Goodreads

Thatcher front page

Why your Conservative friends are so ‘nasty’

Margaret Thatcher’s recent death caused an explosion of amateur political comment in offices, pubs and social media feeds. As expected, the ‘Billy Elliot’ view of her premiership as a steady attack on the poor found its voice again – but so did equally superficial analyses in confident support of her actions in power. It’s not surprising that most of us lack the knowledge for profound commentary on 1980s history: there are (arguably) more important things in life. I hear that stamp collecting, for example, can be a thoroughly gratifying hobby. But why do so many people imply their opinions are authoritative when they are so ill-informed?

It’s particularly easy to complain noisily about a Conservative government without the supporting evidence to back up one’s opinion. This arises out of a peculiarity in political philosophy: it’s simple to dismiss Conservatives as malevolent, but correspondingly hard to rebut their opponents on ‘the Left’. So let me suggest why your Conservative friends seem so ‘nasty’.

The actions of Conservatives in government appear harsh. The varied philosophies underlying modern day Conservatism all tend to eschew direct government intervention in favour of more natural, and therefore (they say) more sustainable solutions. We only see the results of this philosophy in their policies: Thatcher’s government privatised industry where possible, so that the profit motive would act as a guarantor of efficiency; they limited the power of unions, believing that short-term resistance to reform in unprofitable industries led to longer-term decline; they sought to lower direct taxes even on the wealthy, arguing that the effect of individuals freely spending their money was more effective than government spending in creating economic growth and therefore jobs too. Thatcher’s policies, and the varied philosophies of her successors, aimed at positive consequences at the expense of outright popularity. Therefore, identifying the positive results of their actions requires an eye to the long term, and a much deeper knowledge and analysis of complex consequences than most of us have time to form as we sleepily tune out with the 10 O’Clock News. But opposing Conservatives is no bother: just look at how nasty their latest idea is!

On the other hand, those on ‘the Left’ benefit from the opposite situation. Their policies are instantly popular because they tend towards immediate and noticeable government intervention. Over the last year we’ve heard calls for a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ on financial transactions to punish the bankers’ dangerous profligacy; legislation to ensure a gender balance on company boards; and suggestions that no budget cuts should be made to treasured public services. Any political party espousing these simple solutions seems ‘nice’, and identifying any negative results of their actions requires a deeper knowledge and analysis of labyrinthine consequences than most of us have time to form.

So Conservatives struggle to succinctly justify their views, and are prone to superficially persuasive attacks on their actions. Whereas ‘the Left’ enjoy the opposite situation: their views are already persuasive, but very difficult to oppose unless you are intricately well-informed. The result is poor quality discussions in the pub, at the office and on social media. It’s frustrating for Conservatives, because they face what they know to be unjustified challenges and lack the resources to argue back. It’s also frustrating for the Left, because they fruitlessly oppose what seems like stubborn nastiness in their Conservative friends.

There is a way out of this trap: we must assume that people generally hold political beliefs with good intentions. What if Conservatives oppose the Robin Hood Tax not because they’re receiving backhanders from the banking fraternity, but honestly think that such a tax would harm one of this country’s largest export industries and that everyone in the UK would be poorer as a result? What if they oppose legislating gender balance not because they’re misogynists, but see the benefits of more diverse boardrooms and think that encouraging natural equality promotes better candidates more sustainably? What if their keenness to cut public spending is borne not out of disregard for the poor, but to avoid rising government borrowing costs which would make us all significantly poorer through rocketing interest rates and inflation?

Assuming that both sides have good intentions might just calm some of the spewing indignation exhibited on all sides of politics. Sometimes we’ll have been wrong to assume the best in our opponents, but the debate will have been calmer anyway. Most importantly, we might avoid the kind of hysterical one-upmanship that so easily obscures crucial analysis.

Revolution in Russia

No revolution please, we’re British

In what probably won’t be called the ‘Battle of the Beards’, prickly politico Jeremy Paxman and flowery comedian Russell Brand met last week, to conduct a meta-analysis of our political system. The ensuing conversation would sound familiar to anyone brave enough to spend time in an undergraduate common room. However, one word caused me to prick up my ears: revolution.

Weren’t you inspired by Brand’s dream of a revolution that could achieve the well-meaning transformation he propounds? It’s not impossible. After all, Parisian students almost achieved a revolutionary comeback in 1968. Even if you would not venture as far as bloody revolt, at least some drastic action sounds appealing. If there is indeed a painful problem with our political system causing real suffering and injustice, don’t we need a correspondingly strong response?

No. Contrary to Russell Brand’s verbose thesis, revolution is not a good way to rework our politics. Tumultous change to a political system is always divisive. It is therefore dangerous and prone to violent reversal later on. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany all warn that such revolutions can cause unpredictable harm.

Political philosopher Roger Scruton is more fluent than I could be in making this point. Reflecting Edmund Burke, he argues, “Experiments on this scale are dangerous, since nobody knows how to predict or reverse the results of them … In each case they led to the collapse of legal order, to mass murder at home and to belligerence abroad.”

Therefore, says Scruton, we should tread carefully. “The wise policy is to accept the arrangements, however imperfect, that have evolved through custom and inheritance, to improve them by small adjustments, but not to jeopardise them by large-scale alterations the consequences of which nobody can really envisage.”

This is neither the most exciting response, nor the most reassuring when faced with harsh, tangible problems emanating from our political system. Nevertheless, it may be the most effective in achieving sustainable change. Where is my proof? The United Kingdom.

The UK has never hosted a successful revolution. This is rare in Europe. The major strength of its institutions, customs and conventions lies precisely in their gradual evolution. Our constitution and practices developed where political need coincided with widespread support. They are continuously being adjusted and improved. We limited the King’s power with Magna Carta, codified the rights of Parliament, guarded free speech and assured an independent legal system in the Bill of Rights, limited the unelected House of Lords with the Parliament Acts and so on through the Human Rights Act and to the present day where we are once again considering press freedom. None of this could have been fast-forwarded without jeopardising stability. Had the barons in 1215 pressed for representative democracy then the fields around Runnymede would have ended up a lot better fertilised and civil war would likely have continued. Graduated progress assures wide assent, each step secured as a firm but flexible foundation for the next improvement.

We often take the positive side-effects of stability for granted. While the French proletariat guillotined tens of thousands in Robespierre’s ‘Reign of Terror’, English and Scottish philosophers and scientists harnessed the peaceful benefits of Enlightenment progress. The general public followed on, becoming educated, widely-read and culturally-involved like never before. Some of that period’s British progeny are still household names today. Men like Isaac Newton, David Hume, and Adam Smith could all boast legacies which still improve our quality of life in the 21st century. Britain thrived as revolutionary havoc raged across the channel.

It’s not surprising that honest, revolutionary rhetoric like Russell Brand’s gains traction. When people are hurting, we all want change now. When it comes to the political system, though, tread carefully. Hasty moves harm generations yet unborn, and jeopardise the UK’s unique stability and flexibility which was engendered by centuries of progress. Keep calm everyone. There will be no revolution thank you very much, we’re British.