The cradle of conservatism
Comment from a British historian. She does not quite seem to see that political orientation can only be explained at the psychological level but she makes some interesting points -- particularly about Britain's infamous North/South divide -- a prosperous Conservative South and a raddled socialist North
Austerity has sharpened the perception of an incurable North-South divide: Tories fret about their appeal to the North and Midlands and a vanishing footprint in the great northern cities. Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” Labour still fails to ignite enthusiasm in the aspirational Home Counties.
Yet one of the compelling aspects of Britain’s political history is how settled wisdoms have been disrupted over time and the political geography of the country transformed as a result. So much so that the map we see today is pretty much the inverse of an older North-South divide, in which the centres driving economic prosperity were Lancashire, Yorkshire and the clanking foundries of Manchester and the mills of Bradford.
Many of the big ideas we associate with conservatism today were forged not in the sleepy, rural, hide-bound South, but in the North of England, crucible of noisy arguments about conservatism and its responses to economic change. I have just finished a quest to find its roots and turning points for a Radio 4 documentary - a grand tour of the idea of what we sometimes call “small c conservatism” – a recognition that its ideas and instincts wield influence whichever party is in office.
As a native north-easterner, one of the pleasures of the odyssey has been indulging in political archeology over more than two centuries. Whether we are naturally inclined to conservatism in its political clothing or suspicious of it, the country we live in has been shaped by the power of centre-Right ideas – and Tory-led governments have held power for well over half of the period since the French Revolution as a result .
One definition of conservatism is a resistance to change – or, as Michael Oakeshott, the post-war political philosopher put it, preferring “the familiar to the unknown, the tried to the untried, fact to mystery”. In essence, this has been true since the philosopher Edmund Burke resisted the lure of revolution in 1789, diagnosing the moral weaknesses of the French Revolution, when so many leading minds of the day were inspired by its radical ideas. “At the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista,” the sagacious Burke prophesied, “you see only the gallows.”
But the view of conservatism as opposing change is very far from its whole story. A less well-understood side is a crafty readiness to accept and adapt to challenges – even the ones it originally resisted or feared, from the extension of voting rights to today’s rows about gay marriage.
The 19th-century Reform Acts and the extension of the vote to more working men and the fast-growing population centres of the North looked like disaster for those Tory landowners of the kind we might now deride as the toffs of Camp Cameron. But a main reason why Britain has a history rich in reform rather than the bloodshed of radical upheaval is that since the Civil War, conservatives have adapted to social and economic changes, rather than waiting until the resentments blew up into street-fights or revolutions.
The question of how we should respond morally to changes that affect what the policy wonks would now call “social cohesion” between the well-off and the less fortunate has long inspired great conservative political thinkers. Contrary to the caricature of a creed interested only in self-advancement or selfish preservation of wealth, it is fascinating to revisit the ferocity with which thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle, the “sage of Chelsea”, responded in the first half of the 19th century to the rampant materialism of his era.
The reduction of links between different social groups to a mere “cash nexus,” was abhorrent to Carlyle, who, like another (small c) conservative, the Victorian critic John Ruskin, was horrified at the vulgarity of new money and its corrosive effect on the feudal ties that had bound the rich to the poor. So off Ruskin went to address Bradford mill-owners in 1864, denouncing “the goddess of 'Getting-on’ ”, and taking his audience to task for being so foolishly money-driven (not that they took much notice).
The political battles of the 19th century, as conservatism sought to maintain its relevance beyond the world of Jane Austen’s genteel rural society, were ferocious and produced some stomping sorts, ripe for the Matt cartoons of their day. Lord George Bentinck, who allied himself with Disraeli in opposition to Free Trade, had sat in the Commons for nearly a decade, without tousling it with a speech. He suddenly burst into life in the 1840s as a sort of Nigel Farage of his day, with an appeal against reforms and to the “stomach conservatism” of tradition.
Bentinck appeared in Parliament in his hunting gear and muddy boots in order to make his point that the fate of an established social system depended on maintaining the status quo of the Corn Laws. If we think that today’s alliance of David Cameron and Nick Clegg is an odd couple, imagine the sight of the horsey backwoodsman Bentinck and flamboyant “Dizzy” making common cause in swashbuckling speeches against Peel’s free traders. In the end, the Corn Laws were repealed because the economic case behind them had withered – another turning point for conservatives, coming to terms with an altered world – not for the last time.
Today, we watch the Tory party writhing in its uncertainties about foreign intervention in Syria, arguments about a foreign entanglement and its risks that would have seemed wholly familiar to Disraeli, opposing Gladstone’s resistance to action over the Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria. But if resisting interventions is nothing new for the conservative-minded, the wider world has often created fresh dividing lines. The Boer War became the focus of fierce patriotism, and one of its best-known Liberal opponents, Joseph Chamberlain, was routed by an angry conservative crowd of working men at a meeting in Birmingham, protesting in favour of the imperialist war (the real “Occupy” movement).
An intriguing aspect of my grand tour has been the interplay of place and culture in this story. Much of it lies buried below layers of arguments about the modern Left and Right. From the Lake District’s famous son, William Wordsworth, abandoning his revolutionary radicalism in favour of reverence for the “genius of Burke” and his gentler pursuit of reform, to the powerful undercurrents of causes such as Irish Home Rule, which attracted Unionists allied to the Conservative Party in the north-east in the first decade of the 20th century. Political history has its eddies and flurries, not all of which follow the kind of ideological straight lines we tend visit on them.
It seems important to me to avoid every exploration of politics ending up as a “which side are you on?” question. Sometimes we learn a lot more about ourselves – our beliefs and aversions – by digging into half-remembered periods of political history and tracing back the roots of our views. My grandfather disagreed with the generally pro-Boer War sentiments of most working men in his youth and would rail in favour of the “poor bloody Boers” facing the might of England’s armies. I now understand a bit more about why that was and the mental map of politics that shaped him.
So many themes recur, such as old arguments between protectionism and free trade that lurked at the heart of the rise of Ukip and our strained relations with the European Union.
Immigration, with its benefits and disadvantages, has long divided conservatives. A stirring figure in that story hailed from the industrial Midlands – Enoch Powell, the grammar-school boy from Wolverhampton, whose 1968 speech attacked immigration from the Commonwealth. Powell was, thankfully, wrong about the inability of Britain to absorb immigrants peacefully. The “rivers of blood” analogy was as over-stated as it was disagreeable.
But behind that speech lies a wider conservative anxiety – a suspicion that people lower down the social pecking order were suffering from the whims of elites and that change was being foisted on people without their agreement. For that reason, Powell’s questions echo today, ranging through the politics of immigration on the Right to Ed Miliband’s attempt to woo back Labour voters anxious about the impact of incomers on their jobs and services.
We end the grand tour looking at the ideas that shaped the young Margaret Thatcher on a trip to Grantham. These days, you approach Alderman Roberts’s sturdy red-brick chapel via a long road of Polish and Ukrainian shops, a testament to the single European market she helped create. The strong religious non-conformism of her upbringing, with the emphasis on individual responsibility as a spiritual, as well as a political value, accounts for a lot of her self-belief. And if she later adapted that creed to gain prominence on the national and world stage with convenient additions and subtractions along the way, then that is firmly within the flexible tradition of conservatism: the most elastic belief system of them all.
It's Super-Media! With the Power to Detect Non-Existent Racism
The media's fixation on the Trayvon Martin case, while ignoring much more brutal crimes with clearer racial motivations, is a return to pre-O.J. America.
The thesis of my book, "Mugged: Racial Demagoguery From the Seventies to Obama" -- out in paperback this week! -- is that after decades of liberals play-acting Racist America, wherein they cast themselves as civil rights champions, and other, random white people as Bull Connor (a Democrat), it all ended with the O.J. verdict.
That's when white America said, That's it. The white guilt bank is shut down. It was one of the best things that ever happened to America -- especially for black people.
But then in 2007, Barack Obama brought it all back. In order to immunize the most left-wing presidential candidate the nation has ever seen, the Non-Fox Media went into overdrive reporting their fantasies of an America full of racists, constantly terrorizing innocent blacks.
Of course, once Republicans got the Democrats to stop terrorizing black people, there was no one else doing it. Nonetheless, for decades, the media would highlight every apparent white-on-black crime, treating each such incident as the Crime of the Century.
White-on-black crimes were, and are, freakishly rare. But the media weren't showcasing these one-off events as man-bites-dog stories, but rather as dog-bites-man stories in a universe brimming with packs of rabid dogs. According to liberals, whites attacking blacks was an epidemic -- a nationwide "cancer," in the words of erstwhile New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
In December 1986, a gang of white toughs were roaming around Howard Beach, Queens, brawling with anyone they met. They beat up an off-duty white fireman. They attacked a couple of Hispanics. But it was only when the young delinquents fought with three black men -- Cedric Sandiford, Timothy Grimes and Michael Griffith -- that they secured their place in history and became the literary event of the season!
After the initial encounter between the black and white punks -- there were epithets exchanged and criminal records on both sides -- the white gang returned with a baseball bat, spoiling for a fight. Grimes ran off unharmed, Sandiford got beaten, and Griffith tried to flee by climbing through a hole in a fence -- and ran directly into a busy six-lane highway, where he was hit by a car and killed.
The police summarily concluded that the white gang's other fights that night had "no racial overtones." Only the fight with the blacks constituted a hate crime. The FBI opened an investigation and 50 police officers were assigned to investigate. Hollywood made a movie about Howard Beach. The New York Times still celebrates anniversaries of the Howard Beach attack.
News stories were brimming with references to Birmingham and Selma. Columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, "Howard Beach suddenly has become what Birmingham once meant." (A few years later, the ethnically sensitive Breslin was suspended for denouncing a young Korean-American colleague in the newsroom as a "slant-eyed b***h.")
In an op-ed for The New York Times, Atlantic editor Jack Beatty blamed Howard Beach on the Republican Party: "From Richard M. Nixon's 'Southern strategy' to Ronald Reagan's boilerplate about 'welfare queens,' the legatees of the party of Lincoln have wrung political profit from the white backlash. Howard Beach shows that the politics of prejudice may have some vile life left in it yet."
In 1986, only 2.6 percent of all homicides in the entire country were white-on-black killings. Black criminals killed nearly three times as many white people (949) as whites killed blacks (378) and they killed 16 times as many black people (6,235) as whites did.
Mayor Koch called the Howard Beach attack "the most horrendous incident of violence in the nine years I have been mayor."
Earlier that year, a 20-year-old white design student, Dawn Livecchi, answered the doorbell at her Fort Greene, Brooklyn, townhouse and was shot dead by a black man, Anthony Neal Jenkins, who had followed her home from the grocery store.
One Queens woman interviewed by the Times about the Howard Beach attack mentioned that her husband had been beaten so badly by a group of blacks that he remained in a coma two years later.
In one of dozens of "retaliatory" attacks that invariably follow these media-created racial incidents, the day after the attack, a black gang beat and robbed a white, 17-year-old boy sitting at a Queens bus stop, shouting, "Howard Beach! Howard Beach!" "He's a white boy, and they killed a black boy at Howard Beach."
Just a week before the Howard Beach attack there was another interracial crime in a neighborhood only slightly farther away from The New York Times' building than Howard Beach is. A 63-year-old white woman, Ann Viner, was attacked at her home in New Canaan, Conn., savagely beaten, dragged to her swimming pool and drowned by two 20-year-old black men.
It was the first murder in the affluent town in 17 years. That seems like a newsworthy event to me.
But the Times mentioned Viner's murder only in three short news items, totaling less than a thousand words. The longest piece, 500 words, was an initial report on the murder -- when there was still hope that the killers were white! No other major news outlets in the country mentioned Viner's murder.
So if you're confused by the blanket coverage of the Trayvon Martin case -- attracting even the attention of the president of the United States! -- while far more common and more vicious black-on-white murders are ignored, try to understand that liberals are frightened by change. They are desperately clinging to a world that never existed.
Their fantasy of an America bristling with racists allows them to portray any criticism of our massively incompetent and dangerous president as just another sad episode of oh-so-typical white racism. They have to protect Obama, so the rest of us have to get Mugged .
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