Tuesday, July 08, 2008 

Dave's raves pt. 94.

The farce is strong in this one.

Do you ever get a sudden feeling that you've been dropped, without any warning whatsoever, into a parallel universe? Everything seems exactly the same, but scratch the surface of your existence slightly, and you discover to your horror that everything's backwards. The sort of world where the Labour party still stands for the working man, where Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps is funny, and where Rupert Murdoch is known as Red Rupert (credit: PB).

I got that dread feeling when reading David Cameron's latest rave about the Broken Society™. In general terms, it's actually a rather good political speech; unrelentingly Conservative, naturally, but it makes sense, which is more than you could ever say for the majority of Blair's attempts. It's this section on personal responsibility, which has always been the stock in trade Tory excuse for doing naff all, which seems so completely bizarre:

"We as a society have been far too sensitive. In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, in order to avoid appearing judgemental, we have failed to say what needs to be said. We have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, deferring gratification instead of instant gratification.

To which you can only respond, has Cameron never picked up almost any newspaper, ever looked at an internet message board, or indeed read any blog? Far from becoming too sensitive, we are as a society demand that there must be someone to blame when something goes wrong; if someone puts a step out of line, we sure as hell let them know about it; and most of all, we make judgements every minute of the day based on the most shallow information we have to hand, informed by our own personal prejudices.

As Chris argues in two posts, at its root Cameron's argument comes down to class. Cameron is not talking of his own roots when he emphasises that we've failed to say what's wrong and what's right, otherwise we'd have to bring back up that embarrassing fact that Cameron and two of his closest political allies were members of the Bullingdon club. Classic recent examples of this, and how the middle classes get defended while the "lower" classes and different races get it in the neck could not be more emphasised than the treatment meted out firstly to Fiona MacKeown, a traveller who left her daughter with two adults while on holiday who was tragically murdered, whom was pilloried in the Daily Mail by Allison Pearson, whom also just happened to be the staunchest defenders of the McCanns, giving the game away by saying how "these sort of things don't usually happen to us", and then by the Shannon Matthews case, who received far less of the coverage than that given to the McCanns, almost undoubtedly because of casual snobbery. When it became apparent that her disappearance could have been a scam, the entire neighbourhood in which she lived was likened to Beirut, although not presumably the modern-day Beirut but the civil-war fused city of the 80s, and her family itself was described as a real life reflection of the one in Shameless.

The reality is that we find ourselves assaulted daily by the moral warriors that have set themselves up as arbiters of what is right and wrong while they themselves refuse to open up their own lives to similar scrutiny, probably because most of them have details which they want to keep well hidden. One can't help but be reminded of Paul Johnson, one of the crusaders against such vice, who was subsequently exposed as regularly receiving spankings from Miss Whiplash. Somewhat hilariously, after he jumped ship from the Mail he denounced the paper for being "bad for society" for printing exactly the kind of why-oh-why despairing he had contributed.

In fact, what Cameron's speech and thoughts are clearly threatening is the age old separating of the poor and downtrodden into deserving and undeserving:

"We talk about people being "at risk of obesity" instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it's as if these things - obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction - are purely external events like a plague or bad weather. "Of course, circumstances - where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make - have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.

It also certainly helps when you're born into a family that can afford to send you to Eton and can pay for the damage you cause to restaurants once you're at university. This seems to be where the New Blairite Conservative party and the Post Blairite Labour party appear to be parting on policy: the Conservatives now seem to be saying that regardless of your circumstances, regardless of how hard you try, it's all down to the choices, often the extremely early ones that you make before full maturity, that will define where you get in life. This seems to ignore the number one thing that everyone learns early in life: that it isn't fair, and if you're unlucky enough to be born into a family on the borderline poverty line, it's really really unfair.

The really pernicious thing about this apparent new line in Conservative policy, turning away from the spurious compassionate one, is that this comes just when social mobility itself has almost completely collapsed. This isn't because of a collapse of personal responsibility, a failure to condemn bad behaviour or otherwise (certainly not the abolition of grammar schools, as argued by those who were lucky enough to attend them while everyone else suffered), it's because equality of opportunity has slumped. The drawbridge has been closed, and now Cameron thinks it's the perfect time that those who have failed both through their own fault and no fault, to be told exactly what he thinks of them and why they're such miserable washouts.

With all this talk of the Broken Society™, broken families and complete social breakdown, you'd think that the Tories might have something approaching a plan to turn all these things around. And they have (PDF). It just turns out to be as similarly wanting as their analysis of personal responsibility and public morality, as the only real policy on helping families staying together is that old bung to give families up to £20 a week simply for being a couple, which will delight middle class families that have been together for years but will do nothing whatsoever to stop others from splitting up, while discriminating against the single parent families that need the most help in the first place. The other stuff is just laughable: a health visiting service to help parents cope with raising a young family? Isn't that nanny statism at its worst which ought to be providing by the private sector? "Relationship" lessons for young people when we ought to perhaps concentrate on reforming sex education first, which it would go hand in hand with?

Yet you can understand why this is all so attractive. It feeds directly into everything which the Daily Mail and Telegraph rail against, that the welfare state creates dependency, that anything other than the traditional nuclear family, itself only a recent construct, will lead to a moral breakdown which directly feeds into the knife crime we see on the streets, and the idea that you can no longer say what is right and wrong. That this is nonsense, and is in fact motivated by one thing, which is the fear of being told you're wrong and getting criticised, which is in reality what some rail against as "political correctness", i.e. the right not to be contradicted, doesn't affect the overall feeling that everything is permanently getting worse and will keep on getting worse. It leads directly to the hilarious chutzpah of Tim Montgomerie saying that the Conservatives are now the real party of social justice. He's right, as long as you define social justice as the right to stay in exactly the same position you are when you're born for the rest of your life. The sad thing is that Labour or indeed the wider left doesn't seem to have an answer to any of this, and it looks like we'll paying for it for years to come.

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