Moral Reconstruction

What do conservatives wish to conserve? It is a question now often posed, sceptically, to conservatives by politely amused cynics, or those who see in the political right’s rhetoric little more than faux-patriotic flummery mixed with copious amounts of ‘business as normal’ neoliberalism. However, sincere conservatives who feel that their own political tribunes exist purely to implement precisely the same changes their opponents push, except a few years later and with a more apologetic tone, have been asking the same question for some 190 years.

It’s a question that Disraeli’s protagonist Coningsby poses several times in his 1844 novel of the same name. Referring to the rise of Peelite Conservatism, whose 1834 Tamworth Manifesto attempted to ‘adjust’ conservatism for the post-Reform Act era, at one point Coningsby asks:

What do you mean to conserve? Do you mean to conserve things or only names, realities or merely appearances? Or, do you mean to continue the system commenced in 1834, and, with a hypocritical reverence for the principles, and a superstitious adhesion to the forms, of the old exclusive constitution, carry on your policy by latitudinarian practice?

The irony of this was that even as Disraeli was writing, the things and realities he wanted to conserve – the prerogatives of the monarchy; the independence and purity of the Church; the authority of the landed aristocracy and the House of Lords that was their political vehicle – were (as he more-or-less-admitted) already in the process of being undermined, or were already mere ciphers. Indeed, when he finally gained meaningful power 30 years after the publication of Coningsby, Disraeli himself often found practical politics a difficult arena for the revival of these realities.

They had more reality to them in 1844, however, than any likely successor candidates have in 2023. Judging from the risibly OTT Pantomime Dame gurning of Matt Hancock, second only to Boris as the most shameless adulterer in modern political life, the idea that the Conservative Party would seek to conserve the norm of heterosexual marriages being the preferred, default context for having and bringing up children is shockingly controversial. More shocking to him, I imagine, than sexualised drag performances for children becoming normalised.

It’s striking that Matt Hancock always seeks to explain away the farrago of treachery, lies and sexual incontinence that constitutes the entirety of his life for past 2 or 3 years in terms of ‘love’. His public disgrace isn’t because he betrayed his wife, abandoned his children, flagrantly broke his own draconian COVID laws, made a complete prat of himself by eating kangaroo testicles in a fake Australian jungle, and was then later shown to have managed the pandemic through a uniquely toxic mixture of fear-mongering, incompetence and dishonesty (the latter fact made public because he was stupid enough to give his entire WhatsApp history to a journalist not renowned for her sentimentality towards politicians). Oh no. He’s simply guilty of ‘falling in love’.

Because everything that the Conservative Party once stood for has been dissolved by a mixture of the unintended social acid of their own economic policies and the rise and rise of aggressive secularised cultural progressivism, most ‘Conservatives’ have adopted the empty banalities (and worse) that now constitute our deracinated secular orthodoxy. Any impediment to the pursuit of pure liquid modernity, to the gospel of autonomy, self-realisation and unbounded freedom to pursue desire – ‘impediments’ such as religion, family, local communities, traditional social mores and moral codes – are now not only seen as hopelessly old-fashioned, but actively evil. ‘Tories’ like Matt Hancock (and many, many others) do not believe in conserving anything. Indeed, they’re actively in favour of eliminating any vestige of the institutions that their party was supposed to conserve.

But then again, that’s all they are. Vestiges. Even the very best Conservatives (and conservatives, small c) have to admit to themselves that there isn’t much left to conserve, and soon, unless something changes, there will be nothing.

Over the past 60 years, the family, on any metric, has been undermined to the point where ‘conservation’ isn’t the issue, reconstruction is. Indeed, with a birth-rate continuing to fall, mere survival would be quite an achievement.  

The Church is now presided over by a group of liberal-deist bishop-vandals who are literally destroying the oldest continuous social and religious institution in England (except possibly the monarchy), the parish. One need not rehearse the usual statistics about secularisation and decline in Church attendance as they are only too depressingly familiar.

One could go on. The constitution has been messed and meddled with to the point of complete incoherence. The idea of the nation, whether of Britain or England, has been all but dissolved by the solvent of economic globalization and the ever burgeoning cosmopolitanism of the elites, be they bankers, academics, jet-hopping politicians or tech gurus. The idea of ‘local community’ is a joke in many parts of a country, characterised as they are by an ever mobile, churning, uprooted population, forever kept in an endless whirl by residential universities, the London brain-drain, unstable employment patterns and, of course, limitless immigration.

It is, however, the changes in the folk-morality of the nation that are most depressing. They are obviously linked to the other factors, but need to be seen in their own right.

Let’s take Matt Hancock. He met Gina Coladangelo and fell in love – or at least lust, who knows. He had an affair with her, then (once he was found out), left his wife and children for her.

There are two ways of looking at this all-to-familiar story. One is basically: ‘good for him’. It might be couched in a more shameless or a more apologetic tone, either ‘why shouldn’t he be with the woman he loves, especially if he no longer loves his wife any more?’, or ‘It’s a shame for his wife, but #loveislove’. The other is: no, this isn’t ok. Betrayal is bad. His marriage vows should actually mean something, and he if he meets another woman who he likes, lusts after or even loves, then his commitment to his marriage and family is more important, and he should simply repress those feelings, because it is his duty to do so.

Of course, coverage of Hancock’s affair was distorted by the usual political hypocrisies, but if you ignore who he was and see it simply as a generic case, the truth is that probably the ‘good for him’ view would gain majority support, certainly among the various factions of the elite, probably among the majority of the under 35s, and sadly among many others too.

The moral air that the vast majority of us now breathe is that of self-gratification, personal autonomy, and hedonistic-materialistic utilitarianism. It often comes with a heavy dose of emotional sentimentalism to soften the cynicism, but that it what it amounts to. Any other ethical register – the importance of restraint, duty, honour, sacrificial responsibilities to others – strikes many as not only silly, but actively suspect or even evil, as such fusty old principles will not let people ‘be who they really are’.

But what love is there without these things? Talk of ‘love’ has become merely talk of self-love, dressed up as some sort of noble moral imperative. When Christ talks about love, is it the love of self-sacrifice: ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ It is the love of obedience: ‘if ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love’. It is a love that is best expressed in discipline, humility and the annihilation of pride and self-love. It is perhaps most pre-eminently a love grounded in truth – it ‘rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth’.

The truth is that ‘who we really are’ is not, generally, something to be celebrated. In one sense, we ‘really are’ children of God who can be redeemed and grow in holiness via grace, but given the fallenness of human nature, most of the time ‘being the person we want to be’ means: being sinful. Being selfish. Being puffed up, worldly and often exploitative. I for one don’t want to be ‘the real me’. I’ve met the real me. I’m awful.

This folk-morality is deeply anti-Christian. Sometimes it’s claimed that the emphasis on love and a certain egalitarianism means that it’s a sort of secularised ‘All You Need is Love’ style post-60s version of Christianity. But it isn’t really. One sliver of that heritage has grown to be a monstrous, cancerous tumour while the rest of the moral framework of Christianity has been tossed aside as antithetical to, on the one hand, the greed and grandeur of capitalism, and on the other, the incontinence and pride of ‘leftist’ progressivism.

In this moral wasteland, no wonder we have a crisis of family, community, the church, and all manner of other things. Once we’ve lost the ethos that animated all of those other institutions, they truly are empty forms, mere shells that barely deserve to be conserved.

So what we need is not conservation but reconstruction. And politics won’t be much of a help there – not yet, anyway.

Politics can play, given a fair wind, some role in trying to maintain or encourage the conditions in which virtuous habits, strong families, burgeoning faith, humane economic norms and rooted local communities can flourish. But there is not a fair wind blowing. Politicians will govern in accordance with the moral norms and culture that they find around them.  And ultimately they are not solely or perhaps even mainly to blame. Neither is the media, neither are any of the scapegoats left and right like to blame.

You want to know the problem? Look in a mirror.

There is a brilliant scene in the last series of The Thick of It when foul-mouthed spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker goes on a magnificent rant:

Let me tell you this. The whole planet’s leaking, everybody is leaking! You know? Everyone’s spewing up their guts onto the internet, putting up their relationship status and photos of their vajazzles! We’ve come to a point where there are people, millions of people, who are quite happy to trade a kidney in order to go on television! And to show people their knickers, to show people their skid marks, and then complain to OK! magazine about a breach of privacy! The exchange of private information – that is what drives our economy. But, you come after me because you can’t arrest a landmass, can you? You can’t cuff a country. You might as well just go and – you can’t lynch that guy there, can you? But you decide that you can sit there, you can judge and you can ogle me like a Page 3 girl. You don’t like it? Well, you don’t like yourself. You don’t like your species, and you know what? Neither do I, but how dare you come and lay this at my door! How dare you blame ME — for THIS! Which is the result of a political class, which has given up on morality and simply pursues popularity at all costs. I am you and you are me.

This speech struck me at the time as being profoundly insightful. Despite being a response to a specific context (essentially the Leveson inquiry) and blaming ‘a political class, which has given up on morality’, the real drift of it was that we’re all to blame for our moral decline. A whole culture and society has, largely if not completely, given on morality. Politicians are merely giving the people what they want, and what people want is to have their selfishness and their pride and their greed for instant gratification affirmed.

Yes, political changes might have accelerated or even encouraged this, but most of us bought into a culture of licence over liberty and greed over goodness only too readily. We suddenly found that a lot of the old restraints, whether in the form of laws or moral norms or institutions or customs, no longer existed: and we threw ourselves into the resultant anarchy with licentious abandon. Our character and moral fibre as a people, both individually and as a collective, is more important than any politician or law.

This is a truth that Disraeli also recognised. The wise (if somewhat shadowy) guru of Coningsby, Sidonia, makes much the same point when he ascribes the political dangers of the 1840s not to laws or institutions per se, but to something deeper. ‘It is not in the increased feebleness of its institutions that I see the peril of England; it is in the decline of its character as a community’.

When it comes to this moral decline, I’m no better than most. When I became a father and found that suddenly my time wasn’t my own and I was jointly responsible for another tiny human being, I found it hard. Really hard. At one level, I hated the loss of freedom, the fact that it definitely marked the point when my life wasn’t simply a succession of opportunities to indulge myself. In an age where most of my contemporaries did not have children and still had their evenings and weekends to themselves, changing nappies rather than being out enjoying myself made me feel a bit sorry for myself.

Hope lies at the other level, however. Because at another level, I saw the loss of freedom for what it was: a salutary ‘moral chain’ on my appetites. I recognised the tendency to selfishness and irresponsibility in myself, and though I didn’t and don’t always successfully resist it, I did and do at least dislike it. I looked at the old principles, which still exist in residual form enough for us to be aware of them, and realised that they were the right ones, hard as they might be. I realised that my yearning for my old irresponsible ways merely reflected a lot of elements of myself that were not admirable or even freeing, but just squalid and lowly and horrible.

Something similar had happened when, not long before I became a father, I was baptised. I realised that my old humanist-liberal beliefs were not the result of generosity and enlightened kindness, but merely a confused and not particularly coherent justification for a lack of true self-reflection and honest acknowledgment of the truth of my own (and others’) fallenness and need for repentance and rebirth.

Birth. Rebirth. Neither in the case of the actual birth of my son, nor in my rebirth in Christ in my baptism, did the state or politics play the leading role. And to find something worth conserving again, it’s exactly these ideas – birth, rebirth – that we need to look to.

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This decline in the old moral ethos is particularly unhelpful for men. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways the consequences for women are worse, but men needed that old moral framework, as much to protect others as themselves, more.

The chaos of a moral and actual economy defined by ‘limbic capitalism’, where the norms and institutions that restrained us from indulging our worse, most animalistic instincts are swept away as unconducive to both rampant consumerism and the new individualistic politics of ‘progress’ alike, is a disaster for men.

Men, conditioned by their evolution and hormones and whatever else to be more aggressive, sexualised, and generally unable to restrain their desires and instincts, need restraints and codes of honour and moral norms – and the institutions to enforce them. Badly. Once you let men loose in a world where these restraints have gone, you are asking for trouble – and not just for the men themselves.

And trouble has duly resulted. We now see generations of men succumbing to addiction, whether to cannabis, alcohol, gambling, opioid drugs, or worse. Men corrupted by the moral disaster of 24/7 instant access to hardcore pornography. Men who either are so enraptured by the prospect of a never-ending course of casual sex and uncommitted relationships, or so demoralised by no sex – or love – at all, that fewer and fewer of them get married and have children. Men without moral purpose, without honour, and without spiritual life, whose self-indulgence and aimlessness is encouraged, not challenged, by our politics, economics and culture.

Some are turning to the nihilistic, animalistic worship of money and sexual power offered by the likes of the loathsome Andrew Tate. Others embrace the nasty, embittered world of inceldom. Others find some comfort in the work of Jordan Petersen, who, to be fair to him, is probably not such a bad thing overall, since the banalities that he trots out are more wholesome and helpful than most of what else is on offer, albeit very far short of the ideal. Most, however, drift outside any coherent or self-conscious moral, spiritual or ideological framework, many suffering with mental health problems or addiction, others subsisting in the void, at best finding some outlet in intense physical exercise and ‘self-improvement’ drives.

There is nothing for these men to ‘conserve’. They want to destroy, to lash out, or at best find some moderately less psychologically painful way of struggling through.

And their travails matter for all of the broader issues we should care about. There are no strong families or increased birth rate without decent, honourable men living with purpose. There’s no hope for the Church unless men start going. There are no flourishing local communities and organisations without dutiful, solvent men volunteering and helping out. There’s no hope in general if 49% of the population are either useless, feckless or feral.

We have to reconstruct a better way for them.

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This better way has to combine a number of qualities. Firstly, it has to work with the better grain of masculinity itself. Men’s aggressiveness and vitality can respond well to restraint and discipline. A sort of martial instinct can be harnessed to high purposes. Secondly, it has to find better moral ideals than having sex with hundreds of women or owning a lot of cars. It has to appeal to a noble instinct that puts a high value on looking after the weak and honouring women and children – and in my view this means that it must be Christian, either implicitly or explicitly. Thirdly, it must be social and appeal to a broad, collective sense of camaraderie and brotherhood and supporting each other.

My mind instantly turns to the recovery of the ideal of chivalry and the spirit of the Christian gentleman that occurred in the 19th century, encapsulated in movements, books and ideas such as the novels of Walter Scott; the Young England movement; Kenelm Digby’s ‘The Broadstone of Honour’; the ‘muscular Christianity’ of people like Charles Kingsley – and so on.

My mind also turns to the long tradition in this country of male sociability and self-organisation, of male clubs and organisations that harnessed a fraternal, voluntaristic impulse that appeals to a sort of very male ‘band of brothers’ sensibility: of guilds, sports clubs, working men’s clubs, the Boy Scouts, even masonic lodges – even, I suppose, meetings of Alcoholics’ or Gamblers’ Anonymous (which are majority, albeit not exclusively, male). This tradition encapsulates the salutary use of rites of passage, of some degree of ritual or ceremony, of shared pursuits, and of accountability to each other through pledges or making public commitments.

These things seem antiquarian, and obviously hard to simply resurrect. But they have a splendid core of sound principles that I think could be repurposed.

For example, Kenelm Digby was an eccentric man who wanted to recover his idealised version of medieval Christian chivalry in a very different age. Nonetheless, the core of the moral code he outlines seems evergreen. A chivalrous man believes and trusts in God; he is strictly honest and honourable, and despises all that is base; he is courageous and heroic will always fight for what is right, no matter how hopeless the cause; virtue is more important to him than money; he is loyal to the ends of the world; he is courteous and generous; he demonstrates humility in all things; he is modest and always respects and cherishes women; he protects and helps the poor, weak and vulnerable. Imagine the opposite to Donald Trump, and you’re near the mark.

(Indeed, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is ominously significant that the leading ‘Conservative’ politicians in much of the western world in recent years – not only Trump but people like Boris and Matt Hancock come to mind – are basically the exact opposite of these values.)

What’s more, such an heroic appeal to an older ideal, with its mixture of Christian morality and a code of quasi-martial valour, is the perfect sweet-spot between a better Christian ethical framework and working with the grain of masculinity. It’s the tone of muscular Christianity that you find in many of St Paul’s epistles, particularly in Ephesians 6:

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints

It also appeals to men’s imaginations, their souls. All human beings need to feed their imagination, to transcend mere utilitarianism, bureaucracy and economistic motives, men as much as women, and they don’t get much chance in a sanitised and disenchanted modern world. Pure instrumental reasoning and narrow rationalism has got us into the mess we’re in at the moment. Perhaps we need to harness men’s less rational side. As Sidonia observes:

There has been an attempt to reconstruct society on a basis of material motives and calculations. It has failed. It must ultimately have failed under any circumstances; its failure in an ancient and densely-peopled kingdom was inevitable. How limited is human reason, the profoundest inquirers are most conscious. We are not indebted to the Reason of man for any of the great achievements which are the landmarks of human action and human progress. It was not Reason that besieged Troy; it was not Reason that sent forth the Saracen from the Desert to conquer the world; that inspired the Crusades; that instituted the Monastic orders; it was not Reason that produced the Jesuits; above all, it was not Reason that created the French Revolution. Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination. Even Mormon counts more votaries than Bentham.

When it comes to being clubbable and associative, the main problems are the decline of the voluntaristic spirit, and the fact that it is legally difficult nowadays to advocate for an all-male space or organisation. But, as Mary Harrington points out in her recent book Feminism Against Progress, if women (rightly) want to defend their single-sex spaces, then shouldn’t a distinct form of all male sociability be allowed too?

This is important, because I’ll tell you what won’t help tackle the crisis of masculinity, any more than Andrew Tate or other nihilistic appeals to sex and power-worship: middle-class women with clipboards telling men to ‘check their privilege’ or chastising them for their ‘toxic masculinity’. Too many institutions – schools for example – are dominated by a feminised attitude that finds any appeal to things that captivate and potentially ennoble men ‘distasteful’ – and given that such institutions are overwhelmingly dominated by women, that’s hardly surprising. Any mention of the ‘armour of God’ or a noble battle or epic adventure or a ‘band of brothers’ will give these women conniptions, which, if protecting and honouring women is what you want, is completely counter-productive.  If you want positive male friendships to flourish, if you want lost young men to be able to find father figures and role models, if you want a better form of masculinity to flourish, it must be done on its own terms, in its own way, among men. Lecturing them or trying to ‘educate them’ out of their instincts won’t work. You have to try to direct their nature into better channels, not dam it up altogether.

What practical form all of this would take I do not know. I have this vague vision of a sort of loose club which asks anyone wishing to sign up to commit themselves to a series of chivalric pledges. They could then hold themselves accountable, either in person or online, to each other if they struggle to uphold those pledges or break them. They could create local branches and meet, and award each other prizes or badges or ‘orders of manhood’ or whatever (like, I suppose, the ‘degrees’ or ‘grades’ of freemasonry) for certain achievements (volunteering). They could organise sports fixtures between themselves, or trips and outings. I don’t know exactly. Perhaps that’s too formal and fussy. We could work it out.

For what it’s worth, my pledges would be something like (with apologies to Roland):

  1. Fear God, support the Church, and always act like a good Christian
  2. Tell the truth, uphold promises, and act with honour at all times, even if to your own disadvantage
  3. Act with courage, perseverance and complete loyalty, always shoulder to shoulder with your comrades
  4. Respect the honour of women, and abstain from anything which degrades or hurts them
  5. Protect the weak and defenceless
  6. Act always with humility, modesty, courtesy and chastity

But the whole enterprise would have to be much broader than some voluntary organisation. The aim is to change the entire moral weather, in the media, on TV, in books, on social media in favour of this sensibility and these principles.

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This is just one example of what I mean by moral reconstruction in one area of life. We will need it to occur in many others. It has to come from below, from voluntary activity, from laymen and women, because it’s not going to come from an elite that are even more corrupted by progressivism than the mass of the population. In my mind it is related to attempting to revitalise orthodox Christianity more broadly and re-evangelise now essentially heathen western countries, but it goes much wider than that. Without it, politics will descend even further into a pointless squabbling match conducted in a moral desert between vacuous non-entities, always making their degraded appeals within the broader cultural context of a set of worthless or actively evil secularised cultural and moral assumptions that can only make things worse.

With it, politics might become a meaningful battle again. We might be able to rebuild institutions and habits and mores that encourage human morality and flourishing again, and that can be defended and even encouraged within the broader civic sphere.

Who knows, one day we might end up building something worth conserving again.

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The New Confessional State

When Charles II was restored in 1660, it was widely assumed that it would be on the condition of a new regime of (relative) religious tolerance. Charles himself had promised as much in his ‘Declaration of Breda’, a list of (vague) promises to his soon-to-be subjects made as a prelude to his reclaiming the throne. Given that the Presbyterians (one of the major Puritan sects that had caused his father so much trouble in the 1640s) were, by 1660, willing to acquiesce in his Restoration, this was hardly surprising. Certainly the Presbyterians themselves saw it as a quid pro quo: we’ll support your return if you give us freedom of worship. ‘Dissenters’ – that is, Protestant Christians who disagreed with the doctrines and rites of the Church of England, usually on the grounds that the latter was not Protestant enough – were to be allowed to exist in some reasonable degree of freedom.

This was not how things turned out.  Charles’ promises came with two caveats. Firstly, ‘liberty to tender consciences’ was promised on the condition that the religious views tolerated did not “disturb the peace of the kingdom”. Secondly, it was all conditional on the consent of parliament.

The parliament elected in 1661 was dominated by high-flying Anglican cavaliers. They had suffered themselves from religious persecution at the hands of the Presbyterians and then the Commonwealth regime in the 1640s and 1650s, and were in no mood to compromise or show ‘indulgence’ on matters spiritual. In their minds, Protestant Dissent was, by definition, incompatible with ‘the peace of the kingdom’. They passed a series of laws which, cumulatively, effectively made Protestant Dissent illegal. All members of the realm were legally obliged, in theory, to be members of the Church of England: to attend their parish church on a Sunday, pay tithes, and be baptised according to the rite of the Book of Common Prayer. ‘Conventicles’, i.e. Dissenting religious meetings, were banned, on pain of imprisonment or even transportation. Holding municipal office was made conditional on taking communion within the Church of England. These laws became known (rather unfairly) as the Clarendon Code (Clarendon, his chief minister, actually did not support most of it).

In practice, these laws were applied very unevenly. Charles II vacillated between patchy and ineffective enforcement of the code, more active attempts to live up to the promises of Breda and impose toleration by royal fiat (in reality, more because he wanted toleration for Roman Catholics than Dissenters), and furious reversions to persecution by means of rigid enforcement of the penal laws. At various points one policy or the other was more politically convenient for him. In the 1670s, the Test Act was passed, which actually tightened these restrictions further: it made Anglicanism compulsory for anyone holding any public office of any kind.

By the end of his regime, he had adopted a policy of whole-heartedly throwing his lot in with the Anglican establishment and the strict enforcement of the Clarendon Code (largely because they were the safest bulwarks of his regime in face of the threat from the Whigs, who were attempting to exclude his brother and heir, James, from the throne). When James acceded and became James II,  he attempted to reverse this policy by giving indulgence to both Dissenters and Roman Catholics. He paid for the attempt with his crown.

James had been far more interested in toleration for his Roman Catholic co-religionists than for Dissenters, and this was incendiary in a country in which Protestant fear and hatred for ‘Popery’ united both Dissenters and Anglicans. The triumph of the revolution of 1688 in the face of (in the view of most contemporaries) the threat of rampant Popish rapine, murder and tyranny led to something of a pan-Protestant reapprochement: the common enemy of James II’s papism and the fact that the Dissenters had, in general, spurned James II’s offer of toleration made it hard for the Church of England to maintain the hardline position it had taken before 1688. The result was what is usually called the Toleration Act of 1689, which finally made Dissent legal (sort of).

The Toleration Act was not what it might appear, however. There is a widespread assumption that after the ‘Glorious’ Revolution, toleration reigned and England suddenly gained complete freedom of worship and religion. This is one of those comforting fictions held by many with a superficial grasp of English history: it isn’t remotely true.

The Toleration Act was a very limited legal provision. It wasn’t even called ‘The Toleration Act’ – its actual title was ‘An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certaine Lawes’. It did not repeal the penal laws against Dissent: it merely exempted from their penalties some of those who were prepared to take certain oaths pledging allegiance to the regime. It specifically excluded from its terms Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters who did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Dissenters still had to register their conventicles with the authorities. And as for non-Christians – well, they gained precisely nothing from the Act. It allowed people to recuse themselves from Anglican services only if they went to a Dissenting one instead.

Perhaps most significantly, it did not give non-Anglicans full civil or political rights. The Test and Corporation Acts, which made it illegal for anyone other than Anglicans to hold any public office, ranging from being a member of a municipal corporation (effectively a local councillor) or a lord lieutenant through to being a judge or a minister of the crown, were not repealed. They were to remain the law of the land for another 139 years. By the late 1820s, the laws against Dissenters and even Roman Catholics had been repealed, and over the next few decades the vestigial elements of the Anglican monopoly (e.g. in the universities) were also dropped. It’s true that the Church of England is still the established church, but the practical political implications of this are now limited to, essentially, some ritual and ceremonial role and a few Bishops in the Lords. The confessional state ceased to be in the mid-19th century.

It’s true that in practice elements of the 1689-1828 legal and political settlement were softened and bent over the years. Walpole ensured that the Corporation Act didn’t apply to newly founded corporations. ‘Occasional Conformity’ – where Dissenters took Communion in Anglican Churches in order to qualify for public office, while still predominantly worshipping as Dissenters – was practised by some to evade the Test Act. But the basics of what we call the ‘confessional state’ held. The state had an official religion that it actively encouraged. It discriminated against those who did not adhere to it and membership of the state apparatus at all levels (including the universities, which were a particularly pronounced example of total Anglican monopoly) was conditional on at least pretending to conform to it. But, in a modification to the older idea of Church-State relations, where being a subject of the realm and a member of the Church were merely two different ways of looking at the same thing, it was prepared to recognise and tolerate the existence of (at least some – in practice the majority of) non-adherents and give them some basic rights and freedoms.

Whatever else one might say about this, it was fairly clear. The beliefs that were officially sanctioned and those that attracted civil and political penalties were openly stated and precisely defined. Adherence to the doctrines, morals and rites of the Church of England, as expounded in the 39 articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Church’s other official formularies and practically expressed by baptism and taking Communion a certain number of times per year was the condition of being a full member of the state and many state-aligned institutions. A hierarchy of beliefs outside of that was maintained and outlined in law: in effect, being a non-Anglican Trinitarian Protestant gave you second-class membership, being a Roman Catholic or non-Trinitarian Protestant gave you third-class membership, and anyone else was effectively in the fourth class (although that was generally practically irrelevant).

A confessional state of some kind – whether akin to the ‘full-fat’ pre-toleration version or the post 1689-version – has been the norm in human history, and remains the norm in much of the world. In many ways, the condition that flourished in England between around the mid-19th century until quite recently, and in some other (largely western) countries around about the same time is quite exceptional. Indeed, even for quite a large chunk of that period in England – until around say the mid-20th century – there remained a vague cultural and in some senses even implicit legal and political privilege accorded to, broadly, Christian (if not really specifically Anglican) doctrines and ethics. It fell some way short of a confessional state, but it was at least a fairly loud echo of it.

The short period when the state got about as near to genuine neutrality as is possible – from around the mid-20th century, arguably somewhat earlier, until quite recently – was, I would argue, a sort of interregnum, a period that saw something like a balance of power between different world-views in which none was strong enough to enforce their own privilege or monopoly. This was the brief flourishing of something like free speech, freedom of conscience, full freedom of religion and so on.

That period is – has been for some years – drawing slowly but inexorably to a close. We are seeing the emergence of something like a new confessional state underpinned by a new orthodoxy – but with crucial differences relative to the last one.

What I’m referring to is a new(ish) set of doctrines, belief in which is effectively the condition of holding public office, elite status or full membership of a number of other powerful institutions. It would be tedious to go into this precisely, but the outlines are pretty clear. One must believe that the individual is a completely autonomous being, obliged to fashion themself according to their ‘real’ nature. This nature is shaped most fundamentally by one’s sexuality, gender or race (with a few other identity categories having similar status).  Certain identity categories – being ‘LGBT+’, being non-white, being non-Christian – are, by virtue of their historical (and according to its adherents contemporary) status of being victims, absolutely sacred. For some reason, some of these categories are purely a matter of self-identification (gender most obviously), others (race most notably) are not. The highest good is to not only accept but actively celebrate and promote these sacred identities.

It seems fairly self-evident to me that this orthodoxy is riven by contradictions and logical absurdities, but probing those is not my purpose in this article. What I think is obvious – and this is hardly an original point, but it is important – is that these beliefs amount to a religion. A form of theology is the only way of really understanding them. The belief in individual autonomy, self-fashioning, the existence of some ‘authentic’ inner self (‘Free to be me!), and the sanctity of certain groups are all predicated on certain metaphysical beliefs that are essentially religious in nature: they are no less dogmas than the Chalcedonian definition of the nature of Christ or the Holy Trinity. They are not predicated on the existence of God, but rather the worship of other things: self, some inner gendered ‘soul’, victimhood and so on. This orthodoxy has its own religious symbols (the rainbow or ‘Progress Pride’ flag rather than the Cross); its own liturgy (LGBT History Month, Black History Month and so on); even its own rites (taking the knee, etc).

Now, it seems to me that the fact that this world-view is essentially religious-metaphysical (and therefore ethical) and based on dogmatic premises that are difficult to empirically validate is not, in itself, the problem. I would argue that it is impossible not to hold such a worldview if one is a sentient human being, even if one holds one passively or mostly unthinkingly. There is no neutral space. The state must always embody some comprehensive worldview that is ultimately rooted in dogmatic, faith-based premises. Naturalism, empiricism, materialism: they are no less rooted, ultimately, in certain fundamental dogmas. The ‘golden age’ of ‘state neutrality’ was really more a question of the elite being sufficiently divided over which of those worldviews was correct to prevent any one becoming dominant to the point of having overwhelming and formal institutional privilege. This is a contingent situation, and one that is definitely unusual and almost certainly difficult – maybe impossible – to maintain indefinitely.

The problem with the orthodox worldview – call it ‘wokeism’, call it ‘critical social justice’, call it ‘rainbow flag orthodoxy’, call it what you like – is not that it is like all other similar worldviews in this respect: based on dogmas rooted ultimately in faith, seeking to promote and spread its doctrines, seeking state sanction and even monopoly. The problem is that it’s wrong. Its fundamental assumptions and dogmas are mistaken. But that is not my central point – that’s an argument for another day.

The most strikingly different and practically pernicious thing about the new orthodoxy is that it its priests and prophets unable to take responsibility for or even admit what it actually is. Because part of its ideological and spiritual dynamic is rooted in the idea that is essentially oppositional – that it is inherently subversive –  it can never acknowledge its own victory or status as an orthodoxy. That was, like or hate it, never a problem with the pre-Reformation Catholic Church or the post-Reformation Church of England. True, at various times – chiefly in their early stages – they had a subversive dynamic – against the Pagans, against the medieval Catholic Church. However, they were quite comfortable, after a while, with putting themselves forward as a complete, objectively true (albeit faith-based) framework for thinking about the nature of morality and reality, based on certain clear doctrinal statements and theological propositions, that could order our common life and, essentially, become the establishment. The new orthodoxy has to pretend to itself that it is always against any orthodoxy or establishment, even as it obviously becomes one to any external observer.

This is why the new orthodoxy imposes and enforces its dictates in the haphazard, often informal way that it does. People who deviate from the orthodoxy are sacked, blocked from advancement or cancelled all the time, but because the precise nature of its current contours is always unclear and because admitting their status as priests or state functionaries would run against the self-image of the orthodoxy’s supporters, it can’t be enforced in a clear or well-defined way. It is imposed in official ways that are arbitrary, confusing and often inconsistent; or in informal ways using mechanisms of social disapproval or semi-official pressure or self-censorship. Its adherents will swear blind that their opponents are imagining things or are hysterical and misinformed – then five minutes they will admit that their opponents are quite right about what is happening, but what is happening is actually good. It manages to be an ideology that is shape-shifting, clear in outline but difficult to pin down exactly, forever denying its own status while it’s in the process of fulfilling it. It’s a turbo-charged dynamic force – and a dynamic force is, as Stanley Baldwin said, ‘a terrible thing’.

The confessional state we had between 1689 and 1828 was actually rather preferable.

Firstly, it existed in an era where the state had fair less power, particularly over non-state bodies. Dissenters may have been excluded from public office, but there were large realms of social and economic activity that were relatively free from government regulation, and therefore the sway of the confessional state, which meant they were able to dominate certain areas (commerce; finance etc). Given the close relationships that now exist between the state and many large corporations and employers – a necessary function of the long-term growth of the role of the state, but also a more recent development which we see in, for example, the weird private-public partnership between the US state and the large tech firms that exists to censor social media – the new quasi-confessional state has more power to impose its orthodoxy over broader swathes of society.

Secondly, the old confessional state had pretty clear parameters and was, generally, applied quite consistently. The Church-State establishment rarely had serious qualms about using its power to promote its well-defined orthodoxy, and so it didn’t have to work by misdirection, constant shape-shifting and bad faith denials of its own power. Accommodations were made and loopholes allowed for practical reasons, but even they worked in a fairly predictable fashion.

All of this makes it very tempting to say: if we are going to live under a new official state-sanctioned religion, which promotes it own worldview and discriminates against those who demur from it – which it seems we are, whether I or you like it or not – then can we please have a proper, legally-defined, precise confessional state? Can we have a modern-day equivalent of the Test and Corporation Acts, of the Clarendon Code, so that we know precisely what we have to believe to be allowed to hold public office, work in universities, work for the government etc? At least then we would know where we stood and have some degree of legal and political certainty, which would be preferable to the ever-shifting soft-authoritarian theocracy that we are currently more than half-way towards. Then we could perhaps also have our own Toleration Act, which might let us know what legal and political rights we latter-day dissenters are still allowed.

The reality is that, for the reasons I outlined above, this is highly unlikely. The new orthodoxy, with its metaphysical underpinnings of subversion and never-ending progress, cannot face up to the responsibilities of being the establishment. They might not even have a stable or coherent enough doctrine to even be a conventional confessional state. They must exist in a weird double state, Schrodinger’s Orthodoxy – both the orthodoxy (in reality) and not-orthodoxy (in their own minds) at the same time.

And that is perhaps the most worrying thing: it seems possible that they will end up having the ultra-dynamism, the dream-logic and ideological doublethink of something far more akin to Stalinist totalitarianism than the old-fashioned Anglican confessional state, which in comparison seems positively mild.

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Why we need a new heroic age of Church leadership

It may be antiquated and romantic whimsy on my part, but I cling to a notion of the ideal bishop as undaunted hero of the faith, providing, by his lionlike courage and defiant devotion to the causes of Christ and catholic teaching, a soaring example of visionary spiritual leadership.

Even arch-sceptic Edward Gibbon couldn’t help but be impressed by the epic story of St Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria. ‘The immortal name of Athanasius’, he observed, ‘will never be separated from the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defence he consecrated every moment and faculty of his being’. Despite being deprived of his See no fewer than five times, by four different Roman Emperors; despite becoming a desperate fugitive hunted high and low throughout the desert wilds of Egypt; despite persecution, exile and frequent brushes with death, Athanasius maintained his constant and unyielding hostility to the heresy of Arianism to the end, and helped ensure the victory of catholic orthodoxy against tremendous odds, against the massed ranks of ‘counts, praefects, tribunes, whole armies’ who hunted him down, against the unbridled hostility of the entire civil and military establishment of the Empire.

One cannot help but feel that this behaviour would probably be considered, within the sanitised corporate shell that is the administrative and disciplinary framework of the contemporary Church of England, more deserving of referral to a psychiatrist than of canonisation. Did Athanasius consider the safeguarding implications of seeking asylum in the ‘secret chamber’ of a 20-year old pious Alexandrian maiden, as Palladius of Galata asserts he did during his flight from the persecution of Constantius? Wouldn’t his energy have been better channelled towards drawing up a 5-year strategy and vision document outlining how the Nicaean definition of the nature of Christ’s divinity might co-exist alongside Arianism within a Jesus-shaped ‘mixed ecology’?

No doubt the higher ups in the new parasitical anti-church that has sprouted within the bowels of our historic structures, devoted first and foremost to the gospel of managerialism and techno-babble, would have had something to say about Christ’s own ministry. Was it wise to appoint lowly fishermen as his main outreach facilitation officers, rather than professional marketing and brand consultants? Wouldn’t a digital lab webinar have been more effective as a means of missional communication than giving a sermon standing on a mountain? Was a proper cost-benefit analysis done to calculate whether the inputs to the Atonement – the scourging, the being nailed to a cross, the giving up the ghost – were commensurate to the output, which was, after all, only eternal redemption for the human race?

We do, of course, not live in an heroic age, an age of burning faith, martyrdom and devotion. Rather we live in the great era of spiritual apathy and indifference, interspliced with mad bursts of quasi-religious progressive fanaticism; of mechanism, materialism and utilitarianism; within the church, of the meticulous, supine management of a decay and decline that is seen as inevitable. Given that, it should probably come as no surprise that the sort of bishops we produce are not quite of the nature of Athanasius, Chrysostom or Becket, and are rather more likely to remind us of the deputy regional manager of a chain of supermarkets. Perhaps in some respects that is a good thing: such formidable men were the products of ages more violent, more turbulent and a good deal less comfortable and ‘safe’ than our own. Personally, they were probably incredibly difficult and alarming individuals. If Chrysostom were transplanted to the 21st century, one struggles to see him being offered a column in the Church Times or becoming a regular on ‘Thought for the Day’. He might make us all a bit too uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, it is surely the case that in this kind of shuffling, pusillanimous era we need uncompromising messengers of Gospel truth and orthodoxy, heroic conveyors of inconvenient moral verities, and fiery prophetic voices of doom crying in the wilderness more than ever. Surrender to the secular languages of ‘change management’ and MBA-style jargon, attempting to adapt the spirit of Taylorism and human resource departments to produce spiritual time-and-motion studies, will not make the Church more ‘effective’ or ‘productive’ (whatever that would mean) – it simply reduces its extraordinary, transcendental, urgent message to the level of the quotidian, the utilitarian, the banal. Not only that, but the grasping, instrumentalising spirit of technocracy and managerialism is actively contrary to the spirit of the gospel, which rejects every easy commercial assumption, every sophistical calculation of profit-and-loss, every piece of instrumental rationalisation. We should sell everything we own to possess one pearl and one pearl alone, that of Heaven.

What we need, therefore, are some bishops who defy this spirit, who refuse to conform to the Weberian spirit of the new church bureaucrats, who rattle against the iron cage that Welbyism is creating. The Bishops only emerge from their bureaucratic fortresses nowadays to issue vague, theologically undernourished moral pronouncements on subjects where they know their viewpoint will find approval from their liberal masters. This is not good enough. The message of Christianity – of sin, repentance, and humility; of resistance to the Flesh, the World, and the Devil; of the Incarnational necessity of sacraments and incorporation into the body of Christ – is countercultural. It’s inconvenient. It fundamentally rebels against the contemporary world’s embrace of the ‘ethic’ of ‘be who you want to be’, of self-will and lust and rebellion, of shallow materialism and empty consumerism. We need our bishops to deliver this message with courage and defiance and love and a total indifference to the approval of the heathen world, rejecting totally and utterly every debased secular influence that has distracted us from this mission, now matter how hard or unlikely that sounds.

A version of this article was published in New Directions magazine

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Live not by lies: my letter of resignation from the Labour Party

Dear Membership Services and CLP Secretary,

I am writing to resign my membership of the Labour Party.

I have no illusions that the Labour Party centrally will be interested in why, but for my own sanity I want to put into writing the reasons why.

I have been a member of the Labour Party now for just short of 17 years. I joined when I was 15 years old. Between 2010 and 2016 I was a Labour councillor, between 2014 and 2016 I was an executive councillor for finance and resources. Over the years, I have been a branch secretary; chair of my university Labour Club; a ward organiser; and various other positions too numerous to mention. In rain, sun, sleet and snow I have knocked on more doors and delivered more leaflets and sat through more meetings than I care to remember. I have met many of my best friends and indeed my beloved wife through the Labour Party. It has been like a family to me. Resigning is one of the most gut-wrenching and difficult things I have ever done, but I cannot remain a party member any longer and reconcile it with my conscience.

Being a party member has never been without its ethical dilemmas. I have disagreed with many of Labour’s policies over the years, from PFI to the Iraq War. Nonetheless, even at the height of New Labour it seemed to me clear that the only realistic, practical vehicle for advancing the interests of working people was, despite all its flaws, the Labour Party. I have never been interested in protest and moral purity for the sake of it: it is sterile and self-indulgent. I profoundly believe in a broad-based social democratic party that compromises and makes pragmatic adjustments in order to allow it to govern and improve people’s lives: a party that is patriotic because it wants what is best for our entire nation and not merely the wealthy and materially privileged.

I have, however, wrestled for years now with the sad reality of what this great party and movement – the party of R.H Tawney and Ernie Bevin, of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, of Denis Healey and John Smith – has become. The truth is that if I had had the courage I would have resigned when it became clear that, under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party had descended to the level of an anti-semitic Britain-hating faction combining grossly irresponsible student politics with a thinly-veiled contempt for democracy, debate and the rule of law.

I have justified not resigning hitherto on the basis that good people needed to stay inside to try to influence the party in a more positive direction once Corbyn had gone. It is now clear to me that there is no realistic path to moral and political recovery for the Labour Party, short of a miracle. The majority of its members are now hysterical, anti-patriotic conspiracy theorists drunk on a toxic brew of quasi-totalitarianism, divisive and hateful identity politics, and contempt for the ordinary working-class people that the Labour Party historically existed to represent. Most (though not all) trade unions have become totally disconnected from the views and interests of their members and the electorate: they will not save us. Keir Starmer is powerless against these structural forces, even if he wanted to defeat them (which is doubtful). The problems are so deep-rooted that I doubt that any Labour leader can resist them.  They’re not just a part or fringe of the Labour Party: they are the Labour Party.

Briefly, let me outline my objections to the contemporary Labour Party, objections which apply in slightly differing proportions to most (though not all) of its membership, the PLP and the leadership.

Firstly, the majority within the Labour Party has a more-or-less open contempt towards the British electorate, democracy and the rule-of-law. This was dramatically made clear by the disastrous and unforgivable decision to support an attempt to overturn the democratic will of the British people to leave the European Union by endorsing a second referendum. The actions of many Labour MPs, who strained every sinew and used every dirty parliamentary trick in the book to attempt to stymie Brexit, made me sick. This was, however, only the most prominent example of a wider trend.

Labour loses election after election because it treats the views of its diminishing band of core voters – and those of millions of swing voters – with disdain and contempt. For example, voters who felt that immigration on an unprecedented and extraordinary historical scale threatened to undermine their wages were (and are) ridiculed and mocked, or condemned as racist. Patronising liberals from London sneered at the idea that a reserve army of labour consisting of hundreds of millions of people might have some impact on wages. The truth was that they were more worried about the prospect of having to pay their cleaners and nannies higher wages than the interests of Britain’s construction workers, carers and rural poor.

This attitude leads to a situation where the Brechtian line about the necessity of ‘dissolving the people and electing a new one’ has become the consensus position within the Labour Party.

Not even the rule-of-law is consistently supported. Every single piece of direct action from every single radical far-left group, no matter how illegal, contemptuous towards ordinary people carrying out their business, or outrageous is supported or indulged by the Labour Party. Anti-democratic extremists who break the law at will, such as Extinction Rebellion, are supported and encouraged, at great cost to the credibility of the crucial goal of tackling climate change.

Secondly, the Labour Party is still, despite the fact that Keir Starmer has, to be fair to him, made some effort to tackle the problem, infested with anti-semitism. Our membership is a sewer of people who blame Israel for every single problem in the world, who are indifferent to the violence and Jew-hatred of Hamas, and who use dog-whistle (or not so dog-whistle) anti-semitic phrases and tropes. There are still principled opponents of anti-semitism in the party, but structurally Labour will not seriously challenge it because it knows that it if it were to do so, it risks alienating a considerable part of one of its last remaining loyal voter blocs: British Muslims. Not all British Muslims are anti-semitic – there are principled and moderate people among them – but all the evidence shows that anti-semitism is worryingly prevalent among that community. Indeed, recent events have shown that Labour is perfectly willing to use the sectarian divide-and-rule politics of inflaming hate between different ethnic groups if it is convenient. The issue of Palestine – a fringe issue of little interest to most British voters – is used as a way of dog-whistling to anti-semites. I am no supporter of the current policies of the Israeli government, but there is no question that opposition to the existence of Israel is used as a euphemistic way of signalling Jew-hatred by many on the modern left. Labour indulges this. It does not seriously challenge it.

Thirdly, the Labour Party is deeply infected by the disease that is a virulent, divisive, shrill and counter-productive form of identity politics, imported from the USA, in which the interests of the poor and working class are barely on the agenda at all. Labour has become so dominated by the politics of divide-and-rule, by the insidious mental habit of defining some groups as inherently virtuous and others inherently suspect by virtue of their skin colour, gender or other incidental characteristic that it barely realises it does it. The form of honourable anti-racism – the anti-racism of Martin Luther King, which implored us to judge each other ‘not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’ – that I was brought up to believe in by my left-wing parents is now seen as unacceptable. The English people, who are overwhelmingly opposed to the disgusting bigoted views of a tiny fringe, have been getting more and more enlightened on racial issues for years (as every social attitude survey and piece of objective evidence shows) – but the Labour Party smears them as racists.

These issues are bound up with two fundamental issues: class, and lies.

The Labour Party has become the factional outlet for highly-educated middle-class people who mostly have no understanding of poverty, no empathy for the poor, and no concern about the struggle to survive and live dignified lives that still characterises the everyday existence of too many in this country by virtue of their class position. The racialisation of every problem to the exclusion of any other consideration has made the Labour Party totally indifferent to the problems faced by people who have the temerity not to fit into a minority ethnic identity category.

This has led to the disgusting, the revolting situation where the plight of some of the most vulnerable and underprivileged people in British society is totally ignored – or worse – by the Labour Party. The fact that white working-class boys have the worst educational and social outcomes is swept under the carpet because it is inconvenient. Far worse, fear of being accused of racism has led to Labour politicians and supporters totally ignoring – or worse, actively turning a blind eye to – the scandal of the rape and sexual abuse of teenage girls in care on the basis of the respective skin colours of the victims and perpetrators. When your ideology allows you to ignore the gang rape of children because it’s ‘inconvenient’, you have lost your moral compass totally and utterly.

Lies are now the stock-in-trade of the Labour Party, and nowhere are lies more prominent than in our vile pandering to the extremist gender radicals. No amount of ideological cajolery or coercion will make me assent to self-evidently absurd propositions such as ‘women have penises’ or ‘trans women are women’. Denying biological reality to placate the fantasies of the trans-lobby is modern day Lysenkoism and science-denial, and I will not be party to policies such as self-ID and undermining the sex-based rights of women.

The truth is that the Labour Party is overwhelmingly dominated by people who are interested only in espousing the extreme ‘luxury’ views of a tiny milieu of metropolitan progressives, and have zero interest in the big material questions that face everyone in our country, whatever their race or gender. From social care to vocational education, from the need to develop good-quality jobs via a robust industrial strategy to tackling our housing crisis and making our welfare state less cruel and demeaning, Labour has nothing to say, and no intention of making the compromises needed to gain power to actually make a difference on such issues.  

Indeed, one cannot help getting the impression that the middle-class liberals who dominate the Labour Party luxuriate in their absurdly extreme radical opinions because it has become a status marker for people who wish to express their superiority to the ‘benighted’ working class, who need to be re-educated and scolded by their betters, who act like the worst sort 19th century missionaries converting the ‘backwards’ heathens.

I am aware that not every member of the Labour Party has succumbed to the forces that I have outlined, and I do not wish to impugn the honourable few. Many of them are still my personal friends, good and well-meaning people. But these tendencies are dominant and I see no way of reversing them.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said ‘let each man choose: Will he remain a witting servant of the lies….or has the time come for him to stand straight as an honest man, worthy of the respect of his children and contemporaries?’. In remaining in the Labour Party as long as I have, I have lived by lies. It has corroded my soul and made me ashamed of myself. There are only four types of people left in the Labour Party: the morally vicious, the well-meaning but mistaken, the stupid, and the cowardly. For far too long I have been part of the latter category.

No more.

Yours sincerely,

….

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The Real Radicalism of Old Orthodoxies

The Power and the Glory : Graham Greene : 9780143107552

In my many years as an atheist, I always had a bit of a dirty secret, one that the few people I ever discussed it with – who were similarly good secular humanists – could not understand. I loved the two chief English Roman Catholic writers of the mid twentieth century: Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. In particular, I loved their novels of faith and doubt, of good and evil, especially Brideshead Revisited and The Power and the Glory.

I had in those days little or no real knowledge of Christian theology, and I would have struggled to articulate in any way that would have made any sense to my own worldview why I loved these novels. My love for them was stubborn and instinctive, but I felt embarrassed about it. In retrospect, however, it seems clear that what I found compelling about them was that they were both powerful testaments to the idea that, however flawed and broken individual human beings are, whatever sinful or ridiculous – or indeed whatever ostensibly harmless and rational – things we do, there is this towering bulwark of profound transcendental truth, this measure of human life and morals, that stands quite above and beyond us and imbues all human life with this electric charge of dignity and shame and significance that cannot be found elsewhere.

I think that unconsciously what made me love them so much was the implicit contrast with the worldview I actually faced day-to-day, which drained all colour and life out of the world: the secular-liberal-materialist orthodoxy that I encountered in various forms where I had lived and worked: the great yawning beige spiritual chasm of suburban Essex, and then even more sharply among the complacent and preaching secularism of bien pensant Cambridge.

What underpinned the unconscious premises of those worlds – very different as they are – was a profound sense that, whatever you did, within certain boundaries of order, utility and social acceptability, nothing really mattered very much. The only significance our behaviour and beliefs had was immanent in a very trivial set of social relationships that valued bland security, pleasure and material comfort. As a youthful leftist I thought that the central choice was between a belief in a radical reordering of these social relationships – one that I now see actually altered the forms but left the substance still very much in tact – and clinging to the status quo. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I believed – or at least I thought I did, at a conscious level – that security, pleasure and material comfort were all there is, that morality was just a prudential way of making these desires hang together – but they weren’t distributed fairly because of some mechanistic disordering of our economic relationships. Politics was just a disagreement about the mechanisms – and there was nothing beyond politics.

The great alteration in my life came when I realised that the commonplace ways of viewing our social and political relationships that appear to be so different – far-left socialism, reformist social democracy, neoliberalism, radical libertarianism etc – actually have far more in common than anything that divides them, and that the real radicalism is to reject the cosmic mechanistic indifference that underlies all of them.

What does this commonality consist of?

Most basically, it is the view that, since no transcendental, didactic, spiritual order exists, the only significance that anything has is what human beings conventionally agree to bestow on it. Since human beings find it very difficult to agree on much except the need for a few basic conditions of bare and animal existence – the need for material sustenance, some basic degree of physical security, respect for the instinct towards avoiding pain and seeking pleasure etc – society can be reduced to a set of technocratic agreements about how best to order these lowly considerations. We might argue about which mechanistic combination of policies and institutions and regulations and laws and taxes is best to divvy up the raw materials we agree are important, and on what basis that divvying up should be conducted, but that’s where real debate ends. Beyond, that, so long as no-one other than oneself is harmed, anything goes. Morality is made into a lowly and pragmatic thing – or else a vastly abstracted set of arbitrary parlour games between cheese-paring scholars disconnected from any social or personal reality.

As there is no transcendental or spiritual reality, such a reality can’t limit the scope for or regulate the justifiability of humans manipulating physical and social reality as we please. The only limits to the imposition of sheer human willpower on nature and society are practical ones, which we might disagree about, but only in some technical sense. The ends to which this imposition of our might are aimed at are regulated either by the merely materialistic aims all agree on, or by disagreement that represents merely the expression of interests or power politics or moralistic propositions that are adopted purely subjectively and arbitrarily, perhaps as a thin veneer to justify aforementioned interests or power.

In this view, humans are, in essence, neutral beings: technologically advanced animals. They may be more or less intellectually or practically limited, but they have no pre-ordained ends, spiritual being or moral nature. The point of life is merely to satisfy one’s preferences, which are spontaneously and individually generated, part of some undertheorized ‘inner self’ which is probably no more than a bundle of arbitrary and ultimately chemical predispositions and desires. The only good is giving free-rein to this self, this bundle of desire and preferences, insofar as it’s compatible with the pragmatic arrangements needed to secure our basic mutual security and material existence.

Such a worldview tends to be linked to a metaphysic of determinism. We’re no more than chance assemblages of physical forces acting out a pre-ordained script, one programmed into us by inexplicable, vast forces, like evolution or economics or whatever other material phenomena that exist and play themselves out without rhyme or reason. This implies quite clearly that no-one really has any agency or responsibility for their own actions, which could hardly have been otherwise.

Of course, such a worldview is packaged in fluffy terms. If there are no fusty rules to obey, except a few pragmatic rules of thumb that ensure the unalloyed rule of pleasure and material security can continue, then anything goes! We need not fear judgment or shame, because we’re just marionettes without any real free-will anyway! We no longer need to feel restricted by boring old ‘repressive’ moral laws or traditional authorities or religions – we can just be ourselves and ‘get on with our lives’!

The problem is, of course, that it’s not entirely clear why, in such a worldview, anyone would really want to ‘get on with their lives’ at all, as the whole business has been reduced to a level of such insignificance, banality and purposelessness that it seems to be barely worth one’s time. There can’t really be any drama or romance or even love in an existence that has been stripped so bare. Life becomes like passively watching a play in which one features as a silent extra, a play with no jokes and no pathos, in which one knows the outcome in advance. It’s hardly any wonder that the majority of secular-materialists, of left and right, agree so passionately about people’s right to die, either assisted by someone else or through suicide, as and when they want, for any damn reason they might think of, from the relatively understandable (pain) to the merely causal (boredom). Because if you adopt this worldview, then…why not?

In order to try to cope with all this, the inhabitants of secular-materialist times either try not to think about the real implications of the rather terrifying universe they now suppose themselves to live in, either by not thinking much at all or by unreflectingly trading off old ideas despite substantially rejecting them (e.g. Christian morality in the repackaged, empty & distorted form of Human Rights™), or amuse themselves by ever more ‘transgressive’ and absurd assertions of arbitrariness and amorality in the rather quaint belief that they’re being radical and ‘daring’ and avant-garde. Hence the online cottage industry of secularist-materialist stupidity, in which articles are churned out advocating for things such as, in no particular order, incest, the legalisation of drugs, transgenderism, transhumanism, paedophilia, polyamory etc etc etc.

The truth is, of course, that such people are not in the least ‘radical’, except in these sense that they wish to apply the stale orthodoxy of our secular epoch a bit more consistently. Insofar as it’s radicalism, it’s a horrible parody of radicalism that seeks to apply the self-defeating remedies of a sick liberal order in ever more extreme doses in the hope that it will kill or cure.

No, the real radicalism is to reject this entire set of beliefs and embrace the real alternative: traditional catholic Christian belief and morality (whether Roman, Reformed or Eastern Orthodox).

It was the fact my hungry secular soul yearned for these things that attracted me to Waugh and Greene. In their world, God very much does exist, and has all sorts of purposes – and the inevitable concomitant of purpose, restrictions – in mind for us. A transcendental, overawing spiritual edifice is there, extending far up unto the sky, towering over you. It’s odd and it’s gothic and it’s romantic and it’s exciting and it’s dramatic and by God does it make the world come alive again. It even makes sin and transgression a lot more interesting. It stands watching over a world of choice and good and evil and sin and virtue and true freedom and responsibility and meaning, where the drab monochrome of contemporary secular materialism fades away and in its place the most intricate, richly coloured, multi-textured work of glorious, heavenly beauty appears. It turns the world from one bland pile of steaming gruel that makes no impression on your jaded palette to an aromatic dish of spices and seasonings and delicious fresh tastes.

Welcome to the new radicalism of the 21st Century.

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Pull Yourself Together: Prince Harry and the Culture of Fatalism

There is a sketch from the brilliantly dark 00s TV show ‘Monkey Dust’ in which a man who is ‘at the end of his tether’ desperately seeks a therapist. An indifferent receptionist tells him that the only person who can see him is Major Wadcock, who has ‘worked here rather a long time’. Wadcock, an elderly war veteran, tells the man, who is struggling to deal with losing his father, ‘For God’s sake pull yourself together man! I lost 120 men and 2 toes in Malaya and you don’t see me blubbing. Next!!!’

I rather enjoy this puncturing of the touchy-feely self-indulgence of our age, a spirit summed up by Prince Harry, who has decided that an epic tour of self-pity and bemoaning his supposed victim status is the right path to help him recover from his past traumas. It made me reflect on the wider cultural malaise that he embodies.

Now, all joking aside, despite his massive privilege, clearly Harry has had a life marked by trauma. Losing his mother when he was a boy, before being asked to parade in the funeral cortege, is enough to affect anyone’s sang froid. No doubt being a member of the Royal Family, particularly in the context of the saga of his parents’ marriage and mother’s death, has not always been a laugh a minute. The fact that he has otherwise lived a life of extraordinary material privilege doesn’t mean he has not suffered in important respects. I am no fan of Prince Harry, but it’s futile to deny these realities.

The contrast between Major ‘Pull yourself together’ Wadcock and Harry’s ‘look at my trauma!’ tour symbolises the change in popular attitudes towards mental health and coping with the sort of adversity that Harry has indeed faced. In many ways, Harry’s mother’s death was the crucial watershed in public attitudes. The outpouring of maudlin sentiment and popular emotionalism that accompanied Princess Diana’s death was seen as a repudiation of the long hegemony of emotional repression and stoicism which marked our national life. The Second World War seems to be the other important landmark. The war generation – of which Major Wadcock is a caricatured, comedic symbol – cemented this sort of stiff-upper-lip attitude as our cultural default setting: men and women who had witnessed genuine death and suffering preferred not to talk about it, and the collective consensus was that pulling one’s self together was about as good a reaction as any to this and life’s other suffering.

The truth is that this sort of folk morality was never quite what it seemed. My father was taught at school in the late 60s/early 70s by a survivor of a Japanese POW camp. He was clearly a deeply troubled man who nowadays would probably have been diagnosed as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. A fundamentally gentle man, he had blackouts from time to time when he would become hysterical and violent, imagining he was back in the camp and being tortured by his Japanese captors. He injured several boys while teaching them metalwork, lashing out at them because he was convinced that they were his persecutors. Sympathy with his plight meant that this was covered up. Clearly a man so troubled should not have been teaching schoolchildren, although one can also sympathise with those who didn’t want to disgrace him, given what he had suffered, and so tried to gently coax him into retirement rather than just dismiss him.

And indeed during the war and just after ‘pull yourself together’ was manifestly not an altogether satisfactory response ,whatever its real virtues. Many struggled to cope with loss and witnessing terrible suffering, and no amount of stoical bromides could prevent some of them from suffering terrible mental health problems, sometimes suicide, more usually self-medication through drinking. Blitz spirit existed side-by-side with blitz shock and grief, and it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise.

I am not a mental health expert and don’t pretend to have any special insight in that area, but there is no doubt that taking seriously the plight of those suffering the aftermath of genuine trauma, grief and difficulty, those suffering mental health problems, is far more humane. Treating such issues rather than ignoring them or acquiescing in the solution of widespread self-medication through alcohol or similar is obvious common sense. My dad’s teacher should have received help of some kind: leaving him to cope with the aftermath of torture and near death on his own was deeply unsatisfactory.

The problem is that we have gone from one unhealthy extreme to another, from a culture of soldiering on and repression to a culture of mawkish self-indulgence and public parading of every human difficulty or trauma. From not talking about difficult things, people are encouraged to do little else, as publicly and openly as possible.

So in our current cultural moment, the case for a dose of Major Wadcockism is strong. Let me explain.

The reality is that almost everyone faces adversity and suffering at some point in their lives. Not everyone will have witnessed their mates being mown down on Sword beach or experienced being thrashed to within an inch of their lives by a Japanese prison guard, but pretty much everyone will experience the death of a loved one. The number of people who manage to negotiate their life without ever experiencing family breakdown/divorce or depression or loneliness or dysfunctional family relationships or problems with drink or drugs or abuse or some adversity on a significant scale is small. I am certainly not myself one of those lucky people, although I have been luckier than many.

Given that the vast majority of us encounter such problems, it seems to me that the worst thing that we can do in response to such traumas is to embrace an ethic of fatalism, or even a sort of perverse pride in being able to claim a particularly pity-inducing level of victimhood. Losing a sense that one retains agency in one’s own life and that one remains responsible for one’s own actions and responses to those difficulties is the worst possible thing that can happen. To paraphrase Marx (of all people), we do all individually make our own histories, even though we never make them under circumstances of our own choosing. The fact that circumstances can be difficult never takes away our ability to choose how to respond to them. Even the man condemned to hang can choose whether to die with calm dignity or weeping like a child. Those who lose sight of this become the most pitiable of all. They end up being bit-players in their own lives, acquiescing in the worst possible scenario of the multiple possibilities that were open to them.

That said, it is undoubtedly true that some people encounter circumstances that limit their choices to an extreme degree, and it would be quite wrong not to recognise this. The child growing up in the Gaza strip or a refugee slum-camp have every right to feel aggrieved at their situation, and simply exhorting them to ‘pull themselves together’ and nothing else is manifestly heartless and quite stupid. In some cases, people are given little or no choice but to acquiesce in a fatalistic acceptance of terrible situations.

However, the sort of self-indulgence and glorying in victimhood that I am decrying seems to me, paradoxically, to be more prevalent – and an awful lot less excusable – in societies and among individuals that do not face such extreme circumstances. Indeed, one could be forgiven for concluding that the more mild such circumstances, the more likely that a toxic brew of therapeutic narcissism, extreme self-pity and utter fatalism will take hold.

Ironically, Prince Harry has become more whingy and self-indulgent the less his life has become genuinely characterised by trauma. Losing his mother and being part of the circus that surrounded her death was terrible, but it also happened 24 years ago. He is wealthy and no longer within the ‘emotional prison’ (as he would see it) of his family, having moved to the US and given up being an active royal. He’s also married to someone who is undoubtedly attractive and whom he claims (and I have no reason to doubt his claim) he loves. He also has a beautiful son and another child on the way. And yet he has chosen this point in his life to engage in an orgy of self-pity and ‘me me me’ emotional exhibitionism.

In this sense, Harry is no more than a fitting symbol of our age, at least within wealthy western countries. Few people who live in the USA or UK face appalling circumstances on the scale of the Brazilian slum-dweller or sub-Saharan AIDs victim. Indeed, it is among the most wealthy, affluent and ostensibly fortunate even within our relatively privileged societies that one witnesses the most extravagant embodiments of narcissistic self-regard and whining victimhood-mongering. Stoical soldiering on is more likely to be witnessed (although far from inevitable) among those relatively low in our social scale, even among those who do have genuine problems: the food bank users, those who live in poverty-scarred, forgotten communities, those who work zero-hours contracts in Amazon warehouses. Even if their struggles are a good deal milder than the most troubled people in the world’s poorest countries, they do have genuine problems, and they are at least more likely to act with a bit of dignity than the exhibitionist wealthy whingers of our liberal ruling classes, who often fish about to find some plausible grounds for victimhood when none really exists.

The reason for this is that the fundamental assumptions of our hyper-liberal culture undermine self-reliance, resilience and basic responsibility, and those further up the social scale – with the exception of the genuine social conservatives (who often hypocritically preach liberal permissiveness to the rest of us) – are most exposed to those corrosive values (although we all are to some degree, and the working classes are by no means exempt).

Let us examine some of these assumptions.

One assumption is that the guiding principle of life should be choice. Any obligation or duty that isn’t consciously chosen by an autonomous, freely consenting individual is oppressive, and even when chosen, if it isn’t an obligation that can be thrown off at short notice on a whim then it is still oppressive. This is the basis upon which all moral, social, cultural and even biological norms, institutions and phenomena that restrict us in ways we haven’t consciously chosen – from norms of sexual self-restraint and monogamy even down to our biological sex – are assailed as oppressive.

Curiously, another assumption equally pervasive is that we are all puppets of our social environment (although never biological reality). It is a sacred orthodoxy of our age among liberals and leftists that it is in some way heartless to suggest that people might have responsibility for their own lives to any important degree. They hold that, although we’re not constrained by our biological sex, we are constrained within socially constructed gender roles: hence the bizarre belief among gender studies students that even chickens’ behaviour – let alone humans’ – is determined by their upbringing and social conditioning, not by their evolved sexual behaviour. Liberal orthodoxy holds that drug addicts or people in poverty are only and solely passive victims of their social circumstances, their environment, their family background etc: their own choices can never be taken into account in explaining their plight. Even moderate views that suggest that personal choices and social environment interact to produce these outcomes, and neither constitutes the sole explanation in isolation, are condemned as blaming people for their own poverty or addiction or unhappiness.

It’s not difficult to see the glaring contradiction here. Choice is everything, but no-one can be blamed for their bad choices. We are – or should be treated as – totally autonomous individuals, but we’re also trapped by our social environment.

The obvious consequence of this is a weird sort of fatalism. This odd mixture of ideas blocks off two wise and sane responses to life. The first is the sense that there are many things we cannot choose or change, and we’re best trying to make the best of them. Human will is not infinitely powerful, we’re not all-conquering Promethean superheroes, and so being content involves some degree of acceptance of this. The second is that where there are things that can be changed – either in our individual choices and behaviour or our collective institutions and environment – we do have some agency to do so. Human life is where our given circumstances interact with our choices. Accepting that not everything is in our control is the crucial precondition for realising that some things are in our control. God has created many realities that we cannot alter in order to give us a context of meaning and stability within which we can develop and co-operate in order to control the realities that He has left within our scope. We are free, but within certain constraints. Hyper-liberalism has led to the paradoxical view that we’re not free, but the scope for our unfreedom is totally unconstrained.

This bizarrely leads to a sort of cultural left-liberalism that is simultaneously very radical, in a totally futile way, and also very conservative, in a very effective way. In theory we can alter everything, bend all things to our will, including even nature and human biology, but in practice we are so shaped by our circumstances and social environment that we can change nothing. So we rail at the things that we cannot, in fact, change, while passively accepting many things that we could indeed change, both individually and collectively.

This leads to an impasse in which the only reaction that makes sense is a culture of narcissistic therapy and fatalistic self-pity, in which one performatively attempts to get sympathy for the unfortunate things that cannot be altered, but steadfastly refuses to take the sensible actions that could result in genuine alterations and improvements in one’s life. Prince Harry could try to leave the celebrity-Royal nexus and do an honest job that doesn’t shamelessly play on who he is – or at the very least retire to quiet, modest obscurity – rather than what he’s currently doing: making a sort of weird semi-career as a media celeb out of publicly slagging off his own family, the only reason why anyone has heard of him in the first place. If he is abused on social media, he could simply log off – but then he wouldn’t have something to flail against and use to garner sympathy. He is a man with an awful lot of choices, but without the gumption to make any of the right ones.

The old ‘pull yourself together’ stoicism – embodied by his grandmother – was probably too ready to remain silent on those unfortunate things we cannot alter in life, neglecting the possibility that one doesn’t have to cope with such adversity alone, and it might have overestimated the scope for our own agency and responsibility, believing that anything could be simply ‘shrugged off’ and overcome. However, whatever the faults of such an attitude, it was a good deal wiser and more excusable than the noxious blend of the weepy passivity and faux-radical self-righteousness that has replaced it.

In this contrast one might see some insight as to why the Queen remains popular, a symbol of duty and sanity, and Prince Harry is fast becoming a figure of fun and ridicule in the UK – a fact which suggests that on some deep level, the majority in this country still feel in their bones the power of the old belief in resilience and responsibility. It is that thought that gives me some hope.

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Abroad Thoughts From Home: On Travel

‘I travelled among unknown men,

In lands beyond the sea;

Nor, England! did I know till then

What love I bore to thee.’

Wordsworth

I’ve always hated travel, particularly foreign travel. Like sunshine, Line of Duty and coffee, it’s just one of those apparently wildly popular things that leaves me cold. When people tell me that they’ve been to some far-flung destination, to Thailand or Peru or India, they are rather taken aback – even annoyed – when my reaction is ‘Oh no, poor you’. Their descriptions of crystal-clear oceanic paradises, bejewelled palaces and breath-taking sunsets don’t move me in the slightest. All very well, I think, but could you get a decent cup of tea while you peered over the Serengeti? Were you nursing a thighful of mosquito bites while you admired the Taj Mahal? Was your awe at Macchu Picchu tempered by a nagging doubt that you’d lost your luggage and would have to sell yourself into white slavery to afford a plane ticket home?

As this may suggest, some of my antipathy towards foreign travel comes from simple logistical anxiety. While in foreign climes, I live in constant fear of being mugged or losing some key item, like my passport or wallet, and having to make myself very unpopular over a lot of awkward paperwork at the British Consulate – or worse. These anxieties make relaxing and enjoying it difficult. On a similar note, I just can’t be bothered with the faff and administrative fidgey-widginess that comes from all that planning and booking and whatnot.  Still more of it comes from having spent much of my first year at university listening to 18-year-old Grace Blakeley types bore on about how much they enjoyed building a school for disabled Asian children in between 72 hour beach parties during their gap years.

I do, however – at the risk of being accused of attempting to find thinly veiled rationalisations of my inveterate prejudices – think I have a few rather more weighty objections to foreign travel.

It seems almost compulsory, whenever anyone is asked about their interests and hobbies, in some personal bio or similar, to say, alongside those other perennial-but-tedious favourites walking and cooking, ‘foreign travel’. I am surprised at the number of people who appear to live almost solely for expensive foreign travel. They go about their everyday lives purely as the means to the end of paying for their big trip to Barbados or their annual cruise around the Balearics or whatever, and will talk about precious little else. 48 weeks of workaday grind is redeemed, apparently, by a month in sunny climes.

Younger people appear to see constant foreign travel as some badge of rectitude, proof of one’s open-minded, cosmopolitan tendencies. Indeed, these people seem to imply, those who aren’t constantly jetting off to some exotic and ideally ‘culturally enriching’ foreign land are insular, parochial, not really ‘living their best life’ (a nauseating phrase that deserves to pass into oblivion as soon as possible). A particularly irritating acquaintance of my wife’s once said (without a trace of self-awareness) that ‘I don’t think you can really say you’ve really lived until you’ve felt the wind ruffle your hair while you ride on a motorcycle through the Golden Triangle’ (somewhere in Thailand apparently). How can you really appreciate the full range of what humanity and nature have to offer until you’ve experienced the world’s rich panoply of different people, places and cultures?

The amusing thing about these people is that it is almost always the case that they probably don’t know their own neighbours or their local area. They think nothing of helping to build a school in the Gambia, but they wouldn’t dream of helping their local Church or community centre out with its gardening or cake sale or fundraising. Even if the city they live in contains genuinely deprived areas – which it probably does, as it’s probably London or some university town – one can put money on them being serenely indifferent to the problems of unsatisfactorily plebeian and unexotic poor people. Local poverty gives so much less opportunity for posing as the saintly good Samaritan in pictures with photogenic African children, I suppose.

The real issue here is that the human diversity that really matters is staring you in the face already. You don’t need to travel 4000 miles to find it: it’s all around you. Human beings contain multitudes wherever and whoever they are, and the motley group of people who happen to live within, say, a few miles of you encompass – if only you knew it – a bewildering array of different beliefs, attitudes, socio-economic situations, problems, dreams, fears, loves and heaven knows what. As importantly, the truly meaningful and enduring relationships, the ones that will give you a true home in the world and allow you to do consistent and unglamorous good are the ones on your doorstep.

Travel is only ever going to give you a very superficial insight into the ways that other peoples live, their problems and joys and relationships and so forth. Turning up and deigning to try their delightfully exotic looking food, pat their stray dogs and sample the carefully curated and airbrushed version of the ‘local experience’ that they think you’ll want to spend money on – or even turning up and spending a few weeks helping them install a water pump or whatever – is only ever a passing fancy. It’s attractive precisely because, however exotic and novel the experience, it’s temporary and you can forget about it all when you’re safely back home. If you can be bothered to look, you can’t forget about what you see when you open your front door so easily, which is why so many try not to see in the first place.

I think what makes foreign travel so incredibly appealing to so many people is, partly, that they are so alienated from their everyday existences, their neighbourhoods or towns or workplaces or even families. If you’re going to be bored and alienated, then best to do it staring out at a shimmering ocean, quaffing a Daiquiri, enjoying some decent weather, I suppose. Ultimately, however, a pattern of alienation and atomisation punctuated by hedonistic and superficially exciting forms of escape is no way to live. Attempting to find a richer, more satisfying, more dutiful existence at home would be time better spent, even if the cocktails are more expensive and the weather rainier.

The most troubling thing is that it belies a serious antipathy towards genuinely experiencing human diversity, an antipathy travel encourages or at best provides a diversion from. The archetypal modern man or woman will spend much of their time either socialising with people exactly like them (same opinions, same tastes etc), or travelling abroad to gain a passing experience of a cultures and peoples that may be different in some picturesque way, but which they will never have to have anything more to do with subsequently. The only place that they might find some genuine human diversity – people who actually see the world differently – is at work, although given the rise of working from home and the attempt to impose intellectual homogeneity on many workplaces, I wouldn’t bet on that. One can’t help but feel that the fact that so many younger people struggle with intellectual disagreement and heterogeneity nowadays is because there are so few contexts in which they might have to put up with the company of people who have very different outlooks and views to them. Given that they are most likely to meaningfully interact with fellow western travellers of a very similar socio-economic background and opinions to them while travelling (the locals are serving the drinks and changing the bedsheets), travel is very much not the solution to this problem.

A visit to one’s local pub is a more likely solution. I’ll certainly find more human diversity and interest in my local pubs – one of which adjoins a council estate – than I could from some whistlestop tour of Cambodia or the Baltic States or wherever. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘It is quite proper that a British diplomatist should seek the society of Japanese generals, if what he wants is Japanese generals. But if what he wants is people different from himself, he had much better stop at home and discuss religion with the housemaid’. I fear, however, that that is, in their heart of hearts, the last thing that most of the ever-so-sophisticated, cultured middle classes actually want. What they really want is superficial difference masking people much like themselves and cultures much like their own.

I will say this much for foreign travel, however. It never fails to make me appreciate how much I love home. I do actually recommend the occasional foreign jaunt – if only to sharpen up one’s appreciation of the superiority of England, of the familiar, of the everyday.

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A Plea to Save the Church of England

The Church of England is dying, and the process is being hastened by a process of managerial euthanasia overseen by its episcopal leadership.

Almost as bad as this is the fact that our (not-so) slow death is only the second stage of a process which will first see us transformed into a set of charismatic quasi-nonconformist wannabe ‘megachurches’ that totally reject traditional Anglican doctrine and practice. We won’t even be allowed to die with dignity.

We have to do everything we can to stop this. We have to save the Church.

Coming to the Church through tradition

My path to the Church of England was unusual. I was bought up in a home that wasn’t so much anti-religious as one in which religion played no role whatsoever (well, the secular religion of Marxism did to some extent, but certainly not Christianity). It was just never really mentioned. Until quite recently, I was a secular humanist, and if you’d told me that I’d end up a (I hope) devout Anglican I’d have thought you were quite mad.

What brought me to the Church? Well, many things. Partly because I had a total collapse in my confidence that any kind of meaningful moral framework could be sustained without God and gradually I came to see smug liberal secular humanism as a totally incredible intellectual edifice which was an awful lot less believable than the historic creed of the holy and apostolic catholic church. Partly I converted due to a process of reading more and more theology and apologetics and becoming increasingly convinced in the power, truth and coherence of the doctrines and faith of the Church. Partly the help and love of my wife, who was baptised a few years before me. Partly a hundred other things.

As part of this process, I read a lot of historic Anglican divines. The luminous devotional prose of Jeremy Taylor; the spare intellectualism of the judicious Hooker; the sacred simplicity of the poetry of George Herbert; the inspired sermons of John Donne. I read John Jewel and E.J Bicknell and Charles Gore and many Anglican writers across the centuries. I became increasingly convinced of the authority of the Church of England, a church Catholic and reformed, based on ‘one canon, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period’, centred around preaching the word of God and administering the sacraments: the visible body of Christ on earth.

I then looked around and saw that this country has the richest physical and cultural testament to this spiritual inheritance imaginable, an aesthetic heritage that is everywhere around us. Thousands of beautiful Churches and many sublime Cathedrals. Hundreds of choirs working to sustain our historical choral traditions. A literary canon underpinned by the deep faith of so many subtle, intelligent Anglican lay writers, from Jane Austen and W.H. Auden to Wordsworth and Laurence Sterne, not to mention Christina Rossetti, Barbara Pym, John Betjeman and many others. I had a spiritual awakening that became an aesthetic one too.

At the heart of all this are the glorious cadences and rich, sonorous tones of the Book of Common Prayer. My road to Christianity began, I think, because I came across, when I was volunteering in a second-hand bookshop, a very old, very tiny copy of the BCP in the store room at the back. It was too battered to sell and stock that was not sellable we were allowed to take home. I slipped it into my pocket and read it surreptiously, feeling like an apostate to the Church of Secular Humanism. It felt like a little shard of my dormant ancestral faith – and my heritage as an Englishman – piercing through my shirt into my side when I felt its dainty bulk through my jacket. I started going to Church and meeting a very kind, very erudite priest who prepared me for my Baptism.

But gradually, the reality of the Church of England of the 21st century began to dawn on me.

Painful realities

The Church that me and my wife attended – I was just starting, she’d been going for a few years – is a down-at-heel Highish Church in our home city. It is a truly beautiful building on the inside, and the (unpaid, semi-retired) priest who kept the show on the road was a true Christian who did her best in trying circumstances. The congregation was small and generally elderly. It was a shame that it wasn’t BCP, but I had that for morning and evening prayer and it celebrated the Eucharist in a dignified and moving fashion, using some BCP language for canticles and similar. It became a sort of home for me.

But gradually, the problems became clearer and clearer.

Firstly, as it was a team ministry our habitual priest did not always take the services. I noticed increasingly that the sermons that most of the other priests gave were, more often than not, either banal, irrelevant, or heretical.

Most common was the party political broadcast (always for the Lib Dems) dressed up very scantily as a piece of preaching. We had sermons against Brexit (Christ was a Remainer, essentially), endless ones about Climate Change, others about any fashionable left-wing cause under the sun. I sometimes agreed with the politics of the sermons, sometimes disagreed, but I wondered whether I’d stumbled into the wrong building of a Sunday. Was this a local Greenpeace meeting? Had someone neglected to tell me that I’d accidentally joined Amnesty International?

Worse still were the sermons that even I (who hadn’t spent years studying in a theological college) could tell were heretical. The one where the Resurrection was said to be merely a metaphor and compared to Pokemon. The one where the Wedding at Cena was said to be the product of Christ’s skill in chemical engineering. And so on. It was some time before I realised that the fact that these priests had gone to theological college was often precisely the reason why they spouted heresy.

I was keen to get involved, try to change things. I joined the local DCC and PCC. I was desperate to offer my services and get involved. I rather wish in a way that I hadn’t, because it was unbelievably disillusioning.

What became clear very quickly was that all the meetings talked about were money and bureaucracy. If the discussion ever strayed onto anything to do with worship (let alone social action to help the disadvantaged or evangelisation), the Rector of the team ministry would say ‘that is my decision, PCCs and DCCs have no power over worship or services’ – or, it was implied, anything but coming up with ideas to help us pay our Parish Share. If anyone challenged her, the reaction was extremely defensive and brittle.

Other than moaning about being broke and failing to think of ways to deal with it, the only other thing that happened in meetings was the distribution of the managerial pronouncements of the Church at diocesan or national level, which usually were about nothing other than trivia, routine matters, things that seemed curiously irrelevant (my PCC spent more time talking about the transfer of responsibility for a very old graveyard to the local council for upkeep than it ever did about worship), or safeguarding, which is important but took up an amount of time that seemed ridiculous.

I have spent years involved in another voluntary organisation (the Labour Party, for my sins), and I know this sort of stuff is necessary. I have no illusions: boring stuff has to be done. Treasurers make their reports, nuts-and bolts stuff is arranged, agendas written and minutes produced. But the problem was that in this parish there was nothing else – other than worship on Sunday, a cake sale and a few other bits and bobs which were nice, but not really embodying the fullness of Christian duty and faith, shall we say.

Then came Covid.

Covid

I need not say, I hope, that I appreciate how difficult the past year has been for everyone including priests. I am sure that many priests have worked hard to do their best for their flock.

But it is no exaggeration to say that I have been deeply, deeply shocked by the Church’s reaction to Covid.

Firstly, at the level of my own Church. The Church was shut as soon as possible and for as long as possible, opening only for the bare minimum for private prayer. The precautions taken were extreme to the point of ludicrousness (the Lady Chapel was closed because of the risk of someone catching Covid from the seats!). No-one came for private prayer much because the Church (which is enormous) had been transformed into what looked like a cross between an empty supermarket and a testing room at Porton Down.

Once we were allowed to hold services again, our Rector…did nothing. Services were only allowed to happen again months after they were permitted nationally, and even then no-one ever saw her. They were only allowed once every three weeks at my Church. They were shambolic because the zoom audience at home was prioritised and no-one knew how to properly work the technology.

Nationally, I was incredulous at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s order that priests would not even be allowed to celebrate the Eucharist in their own church. The alacrity with which Zoom was not simply adopted as a last resort, but embraced eagerly by many priests struck me as deeply alarming. The importance of the physicality of the sacraments, of the importance of bodily community, was brushed aside. Indeed, it became very clear to me that the priests who adopted the majority position – liberal anti-traditional evangelicalism – and even more so their more charismatic and emotionalist allies showed little or no interest in the Eucharist. My books had told me that Holy Communion was an ‘effectual sign of God’s grace’, a channel of grace and mercy, a key means of conveying to the faithful Christ’s spiritual power and love. My eyes showed me that only a tiny fraction of the Church’s actual priests thought the same.

The Church was instead obsessed with showing that it was an efficient albeit small part of the voluntary sector-cum-welfare state – noble, but proffered without any reference to any of the rest of its mission. Many priests fled indoors and abandoned their flocks. Distracting zoom services bedevilled by technological cock-ups and their inherent flatness became the be-all and end-all.

Perhaps worst of all, most priests embraced a safetyism which seemed to belie their (supposed) belief in eternal life. Fear, chiefly of death, became the dominant, almost the only note in the Church’s rhetoric. Bare life with little or no spiritual enrichment or saving grace became the priority. Death had sole dominion.

I left my Church and found one that deigned to open and seemed to value the Eucharist.

Wider issues

I am still a relative newcomer to the Church of England, and so my knowledge of its structures and policies is imperfect. No doubt I’m not right on every detail.  But even so, after I started reading the Church Times (itself largely a mouthpiece for the liberal evangelical establishment) and various other blogs and articles – as well as reading some of the documents sent to me as a PCC member – a number of wider issues became clear.

I had always been under the impression that the parochial system – whereby everyone in the country is in a parish and (if they wish it) under the pastoral care and spiritual guidance of their local Priest – was the jewel in the crown of the Church. And yet it was clear that the Church centrally sees it as a drain, a bore. It talks sneeringly about the burden of funding poor parishes. It actually squeezes money out of the local churches through the Parish Share, while relying on an army of often unpaid older priests to keep parishes (just about) going. It is now talking about a whirlwind of sackings, of gutting the parochial clergy altogether.

I thought to myself – well, the Church of England must have some money. And it is a fair point that much of it is tied up in pensions, paying employees and maintenance of buildings. But it became clear very quickly that its remaining money is being poured into grand ‘strategic development funding’ projects that sound suspiciously like either a) white elephants or b) means of shifting all the funds to grandiose evangelical propaganda projects (or both). Not only that, but such projects seem to be picked not according to any evidence of their effectiveness for revitalising the church, but purely for fitting in with the ideological and theological idiosyncrasies of the Welby agenda.

But that’s not all. It became clear to me that the liberal church Establishment doesn’t, as I assumed surely anyone would, see our heritage of churches – from exquisite Suffolk churches dating back to the Middle Ages to grand Victorian edifices, from those built around the time of St Augustine’s mission up until the apogee of the Oxford Movement – as a gift and a precious tradition. They see them as horrible burden, a pointless money pit that is totally unnecessary because ‘the church isn’t its buildings’.

But the poverty of the church leadership’s aesthetic sense, its total refusal to understand the power of the ‘beauty of holiness’, the great gift of those wonderful architectural, musical and literary heritages that most national churches would be absurdly proud to cherish and guard, doesn’t stop there. Suddenly I noted story after story in the Church Times about plans to close down the Church’s choirs, the backbone of its justly famous choral tradition. I found the casual cultural vandalism involved, the heedless desire for ‘change’ and innovation for its own sake or to satisfy the greedy importunities of the secular culture and ‘woke’ politics that the Church slavishly tries to follow, to be as shocking as it was disgraceful.

This was all the more shocking when I began to regularly read the jobs pages in the Church Times. While plans to sack more and more parish priests, to cut and cut and cut, where either announced or hinted at in the main pages at the front, in the less read pages at the back of the paper the Church was advertising to create a baffling army of ‘change enablers’, ‘diversity consultants’ and ‘missional archdeacons’ – an enormous tier of middle management with no function other than spouting jargon, diverting funds away from the parishes and completing the management consultant-isation of the Church. Whereas no money can be found for parishes, or to prevent priests being sacked, or to sustain choirs, endless money apparently exists to be funnelled into a Kafkaesque tangle of obscure bureaucracy.

I also began to hear stories about how some Churches were generally not living up to their requirements to provide the basic services that they are required to by Church law. A traditional set liturgy, participation in the Holy Eucharist, and the celebration of principal holy days is being set aside in many places – most usually observed in the most perfunctory way at 7am in the morning when no-one will attend –  in favour of the formless emotionalism and often heretical pronouncements of ultra-Evangelical groups, who have no respect for the traditional beliefs or formularies of the Church that they treat like a dying host, to be sucked dry for its buildings and resources (if they even need old-fashioned things like ‘buildings’).

I know these people. They were the ones who drove me away form any chance of conversion to Christianity when I was a student. They formed the core of ‘CICCU’, the strident group of happy-clappy bigots and fanatics who put off generations of Cambridge students from the Church for good by their shallow screeching and lack of intellectual engagement. They think that the Lambeth Quadrilateral is a brutalist tower block building in South London and that Apostolic Succession is a concept taken from the study of Social Anthropology. Most pertinently, they are not Anglicans – from no discernible Anglican tradition, not Low, Broad or High. They are Dissenters who are feasting on the corpse of the Established Church – and the Established Church is writing a menu with its own name as the main course while serving itself onto a plate.

What to do?

Covid is going to accelerate the long-term crisis that sees the Church of England’s numbers collapsing, quite regardless of the kamikaze policies of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Given the age of its congregation, sadly a sizeable proportion of its congregation will either die or never come back to Church. But these challenges will only become terminal if we fail in our duty to campaign to prevent our Church being made into a soulless cocktail of middle-management, woke race politics and heresy that is as bitter as it is icy cold. It needs to discover its strength in its traditions; its devotion to Christ, the Word of God and the Gospels; its sacraments; its rich liturgy; and its cultivation of beauty and spiritual enrichment and rapture in art, music and literature.

Such a movement will, I feel, have to come substantially from the laity. A large percentage of the leadership and many priests buy into the numbing jargon, secularist defeatism and knee-jerk liberalism that is becoming our new creed. The statement of good old Christian dogma, the revival of the traditional faith of our Fathers and Mothers, and the revivification of our heritage will only become from below.

This is because the episcopal establishment desperately wants the approval of these utilitarian, secularist, liberal times. They want to be loved by the atheist wreckers and the woke liberals who run our other major institutions. They want to marry us to the spirit of this age, but they don’t seem to understand that any Church that marries the spirit of the age will soon be left a widow. They fail to understand that what we stand for is profoundly counter-cultural in an age of relativism and nihilism. We should be a Rock of Ages, but they are throwing us as pebbles into the sea of doubt.

So I suggest that we set up a movement to save our church, uniting laity and those priests willing to help, bringing together traditionalists of High, Broad and Low church. If we don’t and our decline continues at its current rate, the consequences are clear. There will no Church left to save.

A sketch of our agenda

Here are my thoughts on some priorities

  • Open our churches as soon as safely possible, prevent a drift to online fundamentalism in the form of ‘zoom first’ dogma
  • Stop hiring endless new tiers of middle-management while our parishes suffer
  • Stop using meaningless management-speak and jargon that no-one understands. Speak in plain English
  • Re-resource the Parish properly and put the Parish at the heart of everything we do
  • Stop pouring money into SDF white elephants
  • Reject the intrusion of ‘woke’ race politics into our church – it is against Scripture, against tradition and highly divisive.
  • Evangelise on the basis of the dogmas of the holy and ancient (but reformed) catholic faith, our traditional formularies, and scripture. Get back to the basics of our beliefs and tradition, in which we should have confidence.
  • Put the sacraments, performed physically in person in our Churches, and a dignified, traditional liturgy at the heart of our Church and its worship
  • Save as many of our beautiful churches as possible for worship
  • Prevent any merger with the Methodists – who would form thousands of nonconformist allies for our Church leadership’s drive to make us into Dissenters
  • Emphasise the importance of beauty in bringing people to Christ
  • Stop cringing to the spirit of this secular age. Take on the cant and false orthodoxies of this liberal era
  • Campaign against heretical and in favour of dignified and orthodox preaching by the clergy. Keep to the theological orthodoxy of the historic Church
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Honour, Virtue and Life: A Short Postliberal Christian Manifesto

It increasingly occurs to me how utterly pointless most of what passes for political debate is. While contemporary politics is conducted within the parameters of a certain set of debased spiritual, moral and cultural norms, engaging in the transitory arguments of this or that ‘debate’ makes no more sense than arguing about the architectural plans while the ground you are preparing to build on is made of quicksand. The only debates worth having are at a far more foundational level.

Without a diligent rooting out of all the errors that ‘progressive’, nihilistic secularism has introduced into our cultures, societies and economies, individually and collectively, we are doomed to live lives of ever greater vacuity, despair, error and futility. None of the prominent alternatives presented before us even ask the right questions or acknowledge the important things – the answers do not lie with sterile cosmopolitan left-liberalism, or the new authoritarianism of the militant far-left, or the demonic might-is-rightism of ‘MAGA’ style right wing populist brutalism.

The purpose of this article is to put forward a short sketch of the principles that might be the basis upon which we could live human lives again. I hope that the secular postliberals can live with the Catholic (in my personal case Anglo-Catholic) elements of what follows: if they can’t, tough, Christian postliberals have done enough watering down to get secularists on board already, but ultimately that is futile, as none of any of what follows makes sense without a universe created and ordered by God.

  • Character and Virtue Against Bureaucracy, Rules and Legalism

The human soul cries out against the attempt to replace character, virtue and common-sense human decency with the empire of bureaucracy, the never-ending and ever-growing web of rules, regulations, orders and tick-boxes designed to create political and pragmatic order out of moral chaos. If your values are hedonism, bare existence, nihilistic self-will and the worship of mammon (however distributed), then you can spend every second until doomsday furiously working to find ever more human corners and niches and crevices to insert your never-ending permutations of soulless legislation into – it still won’t do you any good. The Mechanical Age intensifies all the time, applying its belief in the pulley, the crankshaft and the axle to ever more minute and intimate elements of life, to ever less effect, though at the cost of mounting human anguish.

Only a culture nourished upon the unblemished foundations of an uncompromising and unapologetic belief in an objective, unchanging natural moral law, which invests every person, object and institution with a healthful and rightful purpose and telos, can properly flourish. Such a culture erects upon this foundation the building blocks of true character, decency and virtue, all of which place moral chains on the formless appetites of erring individuals and give them a meaning and purpose and right-orientation that is attributable ultimately to the creative power and grace of God. Such moral chains, such boundaries and limits, liberate us from the tyranny of self-will and sin and make us truly see that the only true freedom lies in service to God and our neighbours.

  • Place, the Person and Loyalty

The universal – the unchanging and unyielding and universal moral constitution of the universe ordained by God – can only, however, be accessed through the local, the actual, the particular. God has sanctified every last atom of His creation and, through His incarnation, scandalous in its particularity, has shown us that the way to the transcendent and the true and the good is through flesh and blood, the here and now, and the circumstances that His providence has thrown into our path. There is no place in the world that cannot be the site of virtue and grace and beauty, and there is no person who cannot be the means by which we, in some sense, access the divine. We learn love and charity and temperance and justice through the irreducibly specific circumstances of various institutions, including but not limited to our families, our homes, trade unions, our churches and our nations. These particularities can also pervert our morals and our virtue and our right relation to God, but, if ordered as well as we as weak human beings can manage, with the help of God’s grace, they can orientate us to the divine and the health-giving. They become the stable platforms from which we can participate in the universal, and they thereby deserve our self-sacrificing love and loyalty. Serving this immense and complex web of persons, places, beings and institutions, which is far greater than the sum of its parts, becomes our service to the common good.

  • Honour and Romance

The charm and the joy and the buoyancy of these, our particular circumstances; the transcendence infused into the everyday by God in general, and more specifically in His church and sacraments; and the loyalty and awe that all of this inspires in us makes the only sane reaction to our life and this world that of a radical re-enchantment. Nihilism, determinism and materialism are literally insanity: it is no coincidence that Nietzsche ended up as gibbering madman, and it is no coincidence that no-one except the mentally unwell live their everyday lives as if such self-refuting doctrines are even partially true. The romance that touches everything, from the most humble and everyday human action to the most dramatic gesture of chivalry, is fathomless and of supreme importance. It makes squabbling and scrabbling and shouting over money-grubbing and preferment and brown-nosing and everything unconnected to true morality and honour and beauty of no consequence whatsoever. Actions that are undertaken with no regards to earthly calculation or concern, but purely because they are right and good and conduce to the purposes of God – because they embody virtue – no matter how unpropitious or even hopeless the circumstances, are always the highest and noblest thing we can aim for. Apparently hopeless or heroic self-sacrifice for others and for God can never be in vain.

  • For Beauty

A major way that God touches us with His gifts and His sanctity is through His gift of beauty. Beauty brings us near the divine; it is a supremely and inherently meaningful experience in itself, but it also helps us to discern His purposes and paths for our life. Ugliness and greyness corrode the human soul and reduce us to bare life. God has endowed the world with many forms of beauty, but none of them have typically been prominent in the way we have lived our lives and ordered our societies over the past 150 years – both Soviet Communism and consumer capitalism managed to produce vast panoramas of soul-destroying disfigurement and environmental degradation. Greyness, shallow posturing and mannerism, brutalism and shoddiness are inflicted on the people, who long for true beauty. No-one stares at a modern housing estate or out-of-town industrial estate and gasps in awe, like they would do with a Gothic Cathedral or a Morris and Co stained glass window. We must banish ugliness from the lives of the people.

  • Labour and Workmanship Against Speculation and Shoddiness

The point of human life is for all people and things to develop in line with their God-given purposes, to bear fruit in the form of their true, objective ends. Labour is the means by which we effect this in the case of things – the natural resources gifted to us by God. Doing a shoddy job because one has to make a living, botching a task through lack of time, doing something for the sake of it to look busy, doing something purely for the purpose of profiteering – none of these forms of labour can ever be to the glory of God and therefore they cannot be justified. True labour is carrying out a task that was meant to be, that develops something or someone’s inherent purpose or flourishing – their vocation – well, with care and diligence and attention – with true workmanship. Anything that inherently, as an end in itself, promotes human worship, virtue, joy, love, life or health is blessed as an end of labour. Anything that does not is not a valid end of human endeavour. High standards in accordance with God’s purposes and nature are their own justification. All human endeavours that do not conduce to these right ends are pointless – and worse, demonic. There is not an iota of justification in this world for producing worthless, shoddy tat; for financial speculation purely for the sake of making money out of money; for any number of things that make up the dark heart of our modern ungodly and out-of-joint economic existences. A cleaner who does a good job in mopping a floor is infinitely more valuable than any speculating spiv in the City, no matter how many millions they are paid, and no matter how badly the cleaner is treated.

  • A Culture of Life

No-one owns their own lives or bodies: God does, and he intends those lives for certain purposes not of our sole choosing, within moral parameters that we must accept. Autonomy is not an absolute value: it is one of many goods, and one that is not at the top of a sane human being’s priorities. None of us are ever truly autonomous – we all depend on others – and at the beginning and end of our lives we are all particularly dependent and fragile. God gave life to all of us for a very good reason, and only He can take it away. He has placed upon us onerous duties – duties which fall particularly heavily on the strong and mighty – to ensure that all life is preserved and flourishes and that we do everything to ensure that everyone lives not lives of mere bare existence, but lives rich in health and life and the true joy of embracing our vocation and function. Abortion and euthanasia are grave sins – how many wonderful artists or scientists, how many novelists or linguists, how many human lives touched by genius, have been aborted before they left the womb? But refusing to, both individually and collectively, look after, feed, cloth, love and house every one of God’s sons and daughters is equally sinful. Life is precious and infinitely valuable; it starts at conception but it does not end at birth.

  • For the Poor and the Lowly, and Against the Wisdom of the ‘Wise’

Status and wealth and the credentials given out by our society do not constitute wisdom or importance. Those who are disrespected and lowly and sneered at are more likely to be the bearers of God’s wisdom. Popular common sense, the decency and humanity of the ordinary democratic man or woman, is almost always saner than the ravings of obscurantist intellectuals. Prominence and status produce complacency, arrogance and vanity. They breed a thirst for novelty and upending steady tradition and truth for the sake of relieving their boredom. True expertise and wisdom – that of the true artist, or the scientist who makes a pioneering discovery, or the engineer who can build the best bridge, or the priest who is particularly in touch with God – are to be valued, and certainly the variety of God’s gifts and purposes implies differentiation. But the usual pattern is that of disconnected, vacuous, nihilistic elites who have reasoned themselves into positions no sane person can hold sneering at the masses, who have been more sensible all along.

These elites might be corporate vultures or they might be self-styled ‘left-wing’ radicals – they are always in their way ‘progressive’, avant garde and disdainful of virtues they cannot profiteer from, whether in terms of status or money. They like change and constant revolution because it makes them feel important and superior, and gives them the role of a privileged vanguard who is ‘needed’ to guide the hoi polloi in the ‘right’ direction. Sadly, their gambits have had much success in the past three or four hundred years, but they haven’t won yet because their values are attempting to put the round pegs of a cold and inhuman narcissism into the square pegs of human decency. Most people abhor ‘progressive’ destruction and want to hold onto the things of value – often the product of the painstakingly developed wisdom of tradition – that we already possess. They only want to change what is intolerable or abhorrent, that which grinds down their souls and makes them hunger for spiritual, aesthetic and moral nourishment – which is often a great deal, but rarely the things the false, idolatrous elites object to.

Put very simply, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent’; ‘the first shall be last; and the last shall be first’.

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Thick Liberalism: Understanding the Opponents of Postliberalism

I note that recently postliberals have been accused of having an excessively ‘baggy’ definition of liberalism – as someone put it to me recently, ‘liberalism just means stuff you don’t like’. I think that there is some truth in this accusation, at least insofar as we have been too woolly in our expression, and it got me thinking. Postliberals need to be precise about the nature of its various opponents, and not lump them all together under lazy general labels. It is always wise to ‘know thine enemy’. So I think we need to try to tease out distinctions and be clear about how we should classify those we wish to critique.

The first thing to note is that clearly postliberals aren’t only critical of various forms of liberalism (of left and right), but also of the far left, of radical/extreme leftism/progressivism, although we do sometimes tend to elide liberalism and radical leftism, or talk about them in quite vague ways (although this is partly because there are a lot of grey areas and overlaps). So although I will focus on liberalism, we can’t neglect the far/radical left.

The distinction that strikes me as a wise starting point to examine these definitional questions is that of pluralism and tolerance versus anti-pluralism, as it is perhaps the most fundamental dividing line between different liberal visions of politics and society. So that is where we will start.

Liberalism, Toleration and Pluralism

Traditionally, liberals believed in tolerating different – especially marginal – groups and viewpoints and advancing procedural methods of ensuring that the basic rights and liberties of those groups and views – to be free from violence and persecution, to express themselves, etc – were protected. It is, of course, quite possible to dislike such groups and views, but believe they have a right to exist without harassment. Toleration does not imply approval – indeed, if it implies anything, it implies putting up with something despite not approving it.

It seems to me that this is not necessarily the same as ‘neutrality’, the idea that the state should be ‘neutral’ between different groups and views (if that is even possible). One can be tolerant and believe in pluralism while also believing it is fine for the state and/or the majority of the population to give a privileged position to one particular viewpoint or framework or group.

An example of what I mean taken from the religious sphere is as follows. In England and then Great Britain from 1688, the state (de facto and then de jure) recognised that religious groups outside of the Church of England should be tolerated (firstly just Trinitarian Protestants, but later on Jews, Catholics and non-Trinitarian Protestants, and eventually atheists and other groups), given the freedom to exist, worship, publish their views etc. But the British state was obviously not, for a long time, ‘neutral’ between different groups: the Church of England was given official state recognition and a privileged position in all kinds of ways for a long time, most obviously through establishment – which technically endures to this day, although mainly as a formality and in general ‘neutrality’ now reins supreme in the UK in the religious sphere.

So there is a distinction between tolerant pluralism and neutrality. There is also a distinction between both of those things and the anti-pluralism that is gaining ground, particularly within mainstream and public bodies, from QUANGOs and public corporations to universities and large corporations. It hasn’t yet entirely prevailed, but it is getting there.

This anti-pluralist view takes certain values – diversity in terms of race, gender identity, sexual orientation etc, autonomy, novelty/anti-traditionalism– and attempts, as Eric Kaufmann argues in his Whiteshift book, to make them into sacred dogmas, which one either has to believe in and implement, or at least pretend to believe in and/or not resist/contradict – or else. Such a view maintains that there is no scope for legitimate disagreement with these principles, and therefore those who disagree with them should not be tolerated: at the very least, they should be sacked, denied employment, hounded, no-platformed etc.

This anti-pluralism would seem to be antithetical to liberalism, and more compatible with – or at least less directly contradictory to the basic commitments of elements of – the Left, and generally this is the case. Such anti-pluralism has usually prevailed on the Far Left, sometimes pretty explicitly (in the form of a totalitarian, anti-democratic Communist state), sometimes slightly more subtly (in something like Marcuse’s idea of ‘repressive tolerance’). One would think that it would be anathema to liberalism – and to some extent you’d be correct.

However, certain forms of modern liberalism have often ended up in the unhappy position of abandoning what one might think of as one of the saving graces of classical liberalism. Tolerance or neutrality might seem like uninspiring and empty ideals, but at least they’re not overtly oppressive and totalitarian ones. But even they are being lost in the thinking of many modern liberals – how come?

Thick and Thin Liberalism

John Gray showed how some forms of liberalism have lost their tolerant credentials in his conception of ‘the two faces of liberalism’.

He argued that the one ‘face’ of liberalism is essentially a positive doctrine of what constitutes a moral, good life – one defined by values of individual autonomy, social diversity, anti-traditionalism etc. One might associate this will J.S. Mill. Let’s call it ‘thick liberalism’.

The second type of liberalism is one that sees conflicts between competing views of the nature of the good – legitimate pluralism, in effect – as inevitable, and sees liberalism as the way of finding some way of managing these divides, finding a modus vivendi, or perhaps some minimalist ‘operating consensus’ between outlooks, views, and groups which are simply incompatible. In this viewpoint, the only indisputable ‘good’ is the bare protection of minimum ‘negative’ liberties, or a kind of managed ‘neutrality’ or procedural consensus. One might associate this type of liberalism with Isaiah Berlin, or in a slightly more modern form, Habermas and to some extent Rawls (though much divides those thinkers in some respects). Let’s call it ‘thin liberalism’.

In thick liberalism, there are moral values that are indisputably good, and about which no legitimate or reasonable disagreement is ultimately possible. In this view, valuing social homogeneity, or tradition and the authority of the community over the individual, or virtue (rather than, say, hedonistic utility) is simply illegitimate. If the promotion of these ideals necessitates a non-democratic and elitist political or governance structure, so be it. In reality, it almost certainly will necessitate elitism and a disdain for democracy, because the values it sees as objectively true are often not especially popular.

In thin liberalism, legitimate disagreement and pluralism are accepted, and the emphasis is to set up a framework of institutions and procedures that can manage disagreement, often through rights-based or legalistic means. These institutions and procedures must be, to some extent, insulated from democratic pressures, although so long as democratic politics is applied only to issues that don’t affect the underlying ‘neutrality’ of the state, then some element of representative democracy will be accepted.

Now, thin liberalism has its drawbacks (as we shall discuss), but it’s pretty clear that it’s less noxious than ‘thick liberalism’, which cannot tolerate dissent and implies significant intellectual intolerance.

We can now see how some liberals – ‘thick’ liberals (if you’ll excuse the expression) – can be anti-pluralist and repressive. The overlap between them and the radical left can be considerable: let us consider the differences between different types of ‘thick’ liberalism and far/progressive leftism.

Thick Liberals and the Far Left

Firstly, let’s look at the Far Left.

The old-school unreconstructed Marxist Far Left tends to be anti-pluralist in an old-fashioned and overt, class-based way. The interests and views of proletariat – or at least what Marxist-Leninist elites decide to be the ‘real’ interests and views of the proletariat – rule, ok? This has the virtue of being simple to understand, albeit obviously toxic. This is now a minority view within academia and left intellectual circles, although it is far from dead and still rears it ugly head from time to time.

The newer ‘Social Justice Warrior’ Far Left tends to put less exclusive emphasis on class and the proletariat. They decided that actual proletarians – the ones who have been more-or-less contentedly voting Labour or Tory for decades and aren’t terribly interested in revolution – are a total disappointment many years ago. So they decided to adopt new groups, seen as historically oppressed by the insidious operations of capital, the state, and culture – ethnic minorities, the nations of the Global South, sexual minorities, students, etc etc – as their standard bearers (in a strict hierarchy of victim status, you understand, with class at best equal to the other factors, and usually seen as the least important), and develop all kinds of ways of showing how every aspect of the status quo is in some way oppressive, hateful, evil etc. This kind of view is now ubiquitous among academics and left intellectuals, especially at the lower and non-managerial level.

Secondly, let’s look at thick liberalism.

The thick liberals of the left have a lot of crossover with the SJW far lefties – in fact, they can be close to being indistinguishable. However, lefty thick liberals are more inclined to see their ideal as quite compatible with some form of capitalism than the SJW Far Left. Perhaps some elements of capitalism constrain elements of individual autonomy and diversity and need to be regulated, but generally, so long as the forces of traditionalism and homogeneity (etc) can be totally extirpated – by suppressing free speech, for example – they are pretty relaxed about the (highly individualistic) ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ represented by consumer capitalism, so long as the big multinationals have enough black people and women on their boards. They are more keen on emphasising the positive virtue of self-expression and ‘authentic’ consumer-style autonomy granted by identity politics, in contrast to the SJW Far Left’s preference for emphasising the extent to which it represents a power struggle against evil structures of oppression. This kind of view tends to be view of the university authorities, the vice-chancellors, managers and bureaucrats, who find enough common ground with the lower-level more SJW left academics to run along fine most of the time. It is also pretty common among state institutions and many large corporations.

Then there is a thick liberalism of the right, which sees the positive and unquestionable moral values of liberalism in far more economic terms. Autonomy, diversity etc find their apotheosis not in affirmative action, hate speech laws etc, but in the free market, in a kind of pro-open borders, pro-free trade libertarian utopia which cannot tolerate any other form of economic organisation. You can find this view in some enclaves of academia – in places like George Mason University in the US – and in Silicon Valley tech firms and some other large multinationals. These people do at least have the virtue of being less oppressive when it comes to issues such as free speech, as they are more interested in the nexus between economics and morality than that between cultural and morality.

I think that is a fairly defensible taxonomy, insofar as it goes. But what of the more honest, old-fashioned liberals who do believe in tolerance? What is the problem with them?

Thin Liberalism

Undoubtedly, the ‘thin’ liberals are less sinister. They do sincerely want to find some way of living that accepts genuine differences of opinion, and doesn’t try to impose its highly contentious liberal world view on the rest of us. Berlin, Rawls and Habermas might be boring as hell a lot of the time, but at least none of their adherents are likely to try to sack any academic who disagree with them.

However, I think that such liberals suffer from other problems.

Firstly, ‘neutrality’ is always a bit of a nonsense in politics. The way it works tends to be that liberals come up with some set of procedures, which, once followed, result, they argue, in ‘fair’, ‘neutral’ decisions. But, of course, the outcomes of liberal procedures are never ‘neutral’: they can’t be, by definition.

For example, one might say that one will tolerate both those who are pro-choice, and those who are pro-life, and accept that both views are legitimate ones. This is fine, insofar as it goes – it is certainly better than the thick liberal and radical left position, which ultimately sees a pro-life position as illegitimate, not something that really should be tolerated.

However, the state’s laws will ultimately embody one view or another. Either abortion will be legal, or it won’t be. Ultimately, most questions of politics involve making a determinate decision one way or another. Proceduralism is an attempt to pretend that such decisions are ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ when really, they never are. Liberal proceduralism in practice usually eschews democratic decision-making, because they don’t trust electorates, full of emotions and passion, to be ‘neutral’.

But then again, their preferred mechanisms and procedures of decision-making – courts, bureaucracies, ‘basic structures’, codified constitutions – aren’t neutral either. They will always tend to tilt towards a more substantive vision of liberalism, a thicker liberalism, that most decidedly is NOT neutral, not least because the people who dominate ‘neutral’ liberal institutions are judges, academics, lawyers, etc, who mostly are liberals.

The emphasis on ‘procedures’, ‘neutral mechanisms’ and the ‘non-ideological’ also tends to unconsciously favour values that amount to a kind of social lowest common denominator and that are easily integrated into legalistic procedures and decision-making matrices: values that are easier to quantify, define and make a practical basis of policy. I would suggest that the value that has tended to be favoured by this tendency is that of utilitarianism, which, whatever else it is, is not ‘neutral’ or ‘non-ideological’: liberal utilitarianism is as much a substantive ideological position as any other.

Conclusion

It seems to me that the most honest approach to these hugely important issues of pluralism, tolerance and ‘the good’ is for societies to accept legal toleration of a variety of views and groups, and to ensure that their right to freedom of expression and other basic liberties are entrenched, while also being clear that there is a substantive vision of the common good that it will choose to privilege over the others. Neutrality is simply not an option: it is a fantasy – so the next best thing is toleration plus frank acknowledgement of the substantive moral position that is being privileged. Such a position could be a way in which some form of liberalism might function (although it doesn’t show any signs of doing so, and I hope we might be able to come up with something a bit better than that!)  – but it also seems to me to be a good framework for postliberalism to operate in.

Anyway, I hope that this presents at least one step towards something of a more precise delineation of the types of liberalism that we postliberals object to, and why.

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