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Worth the Fight!

Many voters have switched off from the coming general election, unenthused by the main parties and their shopping lists of promises which blur the edges of real change.  But, says John Marenbon, this election matters every bit as much as the last for the millions who care about whether Britain’s traditions of democracy, law, and culture will shape people’s lives in the years to come.

For this country a general election is a unique occasion. MPs temporarily – many permanently – are stripped of power, and forced to beg us for their support. People have the chance to express a view about the sort of society they want, about how our country, indeed our world, should be.  Distant as that may seem from the humdrum pledges of party manifestos, voters in recent elections did express a clear choice about how they wanted the country to be. Labour’s previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, stood for a different way of life than that promised by two successive Conservative rivals at the despatch box, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, just as Thatcher promised a different Britain from that her Labour opponents were offering.

So far, this general election appears to lack such a distinction, despite Sir Keir Starmer’s promise of ‘Change’, and Mr Sunak’s counter of ‘No Change’. But the two parties do differ in what they offer, though their conceptions of how things ought to be are blurred and incomplete – Starmer’s because his beliefs slip and slide according to circumstance, Sunak’s from the myopia of a rootless technocrat. Voters have a choice between conservatism (with a small ‘c’) or its rejection.  This can be seen in two major matters, which affect not just how Britain is governed, but how daily life and this country will be: Brexit and Britain’s cultural identity.

Brexit remains a central area of difference, though the campaigns of both main parties opened with silence on it. Labour is now completely dominated by firm supporters of the EU, who want Britain to return to it in all but name. The Conservative leaders are split, but some still share and understand the aims and values that made Brexit possible and continue to make it worthwhile. More important than the longer-term opportunities for the economy (short-term economic gain was not expected), or the powers (not used) to restrict immigration, is the restoration of sovereignty. Consider what is happening now and in the coming weeks. Britons are being given the chance to express their choice about their government, to choose MPs directly accountable to them, within a political landscape with which they are familiar. EU membership threatened to reduce such occasions to a charade, with power to rule in the hands of an unelected EU Commission. Similarly, the EU system undermined English and Scottish law, which have evolved over centuries, altered and refined by practice as well by legislation. Though Britain’s parliamentary democracy is not the only good polity, and English and Scottish law represent just two of many forms a sophisticated, adaptable legal system might take, British democracy and its law suit Britain because they have grown up in Britain and Britain with has grown with them. The underlying justification for Brexit is simply small-‘c’ conservatism: British voters who turned out in their millions to endorse Brexit in 2019 from left, right and unaligned, valued this country’s traditions, its democracy and its laws.

The greatest present danger, however, to what conservatives hold dear comes not from an intended rapprochement with Brussels, but from an ideological movement among the half-educated semi-intellectuals who run Britain’s universities, civil service and public broadcasting, whose voices have all but obliterated others in the artistic, cultural and legal spheres and are increasingly dominant in business too. The popular name for this shifting collection of attitudes and ideas, which had its origins in the 1960s but remained marginal until the 2000s, erupting only around 2020, at the time of the pandemic, is ‘woke’. But the jocular yet insulting tenor of this word, an Afro-American coinage turned back on its original purpose, does justice neither to the coherence and power of the ideology that it describes, nor to the threat the ideology presents.

A better label is ‘EDI’, ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusiveness’. EDI is the official, all-pervasive face of ‘woke’. Observing it is a legal requirement on every sort of public institution, from government departments to schools and universities, and it has become an important aim in the private sector too, policed by a growing army of public and private EDI enforcers. The legal requirements set up by 2010 Equalities Act, which centred on preventing discrimination, have been not extended, but twisted: EDI has become a weapon to undermine both cultural tradition and the pursuit of excellence.

Boris Johnson displayed a healthy scepticism about the EDI ideology and an understanding of the importance of tradition. In October 2021 he said: –

We should never forget, people around the world admire this country for its history and traditions. They love the groovy new architecture, and the fashion, music, and all the rest of it. They like it for the way it emerges organically from a vast inherited conglomerate of culture and tradition. And we Conservatives, understand the need for both, and how each nourishes the other and we attack and deny our history at our peril.

Such genuinely conservative sentiments would sound strange coming from Sunak’s lips, but some of his ministers, such as Kemi Badenoch and Esther McVey, have raised their voices against EDI, if showing little comprehension of the complicated nature of the different components. There are no such voices in today’s Labour Party. And, in one central area at least, the universities, the government has taken decisive action. EDI endangers academic freedom, and universities that lack this freedom are no longer universities except in name. To protect academic freedom, a ‘Tsar’ has been appointed – the resolutely non-political champion of free speech, Professor Arif Ahmed – who recently issued a remarkably rigorous set of draft guidelines (https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/fsvjdljh/regulatory-advice-24-guidance-related-to-freedom-of-speech.pdf), which will protect academics from the worst encroachments of EDI on their freedom. They are due to have effect from 1 August.

Will an incoming Labour Government, probably fortified by a large parliamentary majority, let these measures through, against the wishes of so many of its supporters in the universities and in the pressure groups for minority powers? This question is just one of the many reasons why conservatives have much to fear from the defeat of the Conservative Party.

Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy: an historical and philosophical introduction and Pagans and Philosophers. The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz.  Politeia publications include Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities, co-published with New Direction.

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