While we’re waiting for the Euro-election results – and scuttlebutt is looking extraordinarily bad for the DUP – I’d like to ponder on something that Green MEP Caroline Lucas was saying on Newsnight the other night. This was apropos of Rankin’ Dave Cameron’s plan to take Tory MEPs out of the European Peoples Party and form a new Strasbourg bloc of rightwing Eurosceptic parties, mostly of the Eastern European persuasion. This is something that Ian Traynor has been banging on about in the Grauniad for weeks, largely recycling talking points from New Labour and the Party of European Socialists. To be scrupulously fair to Cameron, he isn’t proposing an alliance with the real rightwing exotica in the European Parliament, such as the League of Polish Families, the Greater Romania Party or Alessandra Mussolini’s Azione Sociale. It’s just that, by the hysterical tenor of Traynor’s articles, you’d assume he was.
Now, I like Caroline Lucas a lot more than I like Ian Traynor, and I wish she was one of my MEPs rather than the shower we have over here, but she was talking very much along the same lines. What was interesting to me was her line of argument against Cameron’s proposed partners. Given Václav Klaus’ eccentric views on climate change, it’s unsurprising that the Czech Civic Democrats are ideologically treif for a Green. The thing that startled me a little was Caroline lighting into the Polish Law and Justice Party, the vehicle of the Kaczyński brothers, which has a stringent moral conservatism as a key part of its platform. “Some of these people,” thundered Caroline, “actually believe that homosexuality is a sin!”
If I was being unkind, I might linger a little on the fact that Caroline is running for parliament in the gay ghetto of Brighton. I don’t in fact think she’s being opportunistic, I just think she’s being slightly disingenuous. She can’t really be surprised that rightwing Polish Catholics aren’t as gay-friendly as leftwing British Greens, nor do I think she seriously is. What she was saying was that these people’s opinions were so outrageously beyond the pale that no decent person should consider even forming a tactical alliance with them.
There is possibly an aspect here of being a little inured to this kind of thing – he who listens to phone-ins on Radio Ulster will be exposed to a very different spectrum of views than she who listens to phone-ins on Five Live. After all, we get to hear the weird and wonderful thoughts of Iris Robinson and Sammy Wilson on a regular basis – lots of us even vote for them. On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to what Madam Miaow was saying on the dog ‘n’ bone this morning, that it’s when we lose the capacity to be shocked that we should be worried. Mind you, it’s something that has struck me for some considerable period of time, that a lot of well-meaning people, when faced with outright reaction, simply go haywire. It’s where you find this assumption that views falling outwith modern metropolitan cultural mores are not opinions you can disagree with, but psychopathologies to be anathematised. Britain isn’t quite as advanced as Canada, where those holding unfashionable opinions can be hauled in front of human rights tribunals and told to stop expressing those opinions in public, but it’s getting there.
So anyway, in my whimsical fashion, I was watching this segment on Newsnight and started thinking that this was the sort of thing that would be tailor-made for those jokey pieces they sometimes like to do in Philosophy Now, wondering what great thinkers of the past would make of contemporary problems. Actually, you could have a Newsnight Review-style round table, perhaps featuring Nietzsche, Locke, Descartes and the late Saint Augustine.
Nietzsche would, I think, have found the whole argument rather funny. He understood as well as anyone that religion is an integral system, and once you start removing planks then the whole edifice is under threat. You will notice, for instance, that Reform Judaism tends to suffer quite a high attrition rate, while the Haredi sects experience it hardly at all; in irreligious Britain, the Catholics and Pentecostalists are thriving, while the dear old C of E is virtually dying on its arse. That’s because there’s an incredibly strong imperative in religion to hold onto traditional values. The systematic aspect of this is quite important. For example, the Catholic stance on homosexuality is not some arbitrary and irrational piece of prejudice – if anything, it’s too rational, as Catholic teaching on sexual morality, deriving from an Aristotelian concept of natural law, is a one-size-fits-all doctrine that simply doesn’t make room for the gays. That’s why Pope Benny might, if you ask him the right question, talk about a compassionate approach to all of God’s creatures, but he’s not going to rewrite the rule book in accordance with the demands of OutRage! and Channel 4 News.
Nietzsche grasped this brilliantly, as an essential part of his “Death of God” thesis. His view was that, once you killed off the basis of religion, then you also destroyed the basis of traditional morality, and therefore the Umwertung aller Werte – the revaluation of all values – came into play as, if you had the courage of your convictions, you had to consciously rewrite values from the bottom up. He had particular fun attacking the freethinkers who, having disposed of Christian belief, wanted to hang onto those bits of Christian morality they found congenial, while ditching the bits they didn’t like. Even if you don’t like to use the word “sin”, you certainly believe in right and wrong. But without a firm ethical basis, the danger is that your morality is simply based on what is popular at any particular point in time.
So let us now turn to Augustine. His political theology is of interest in terms of the debate around separating church and state, especially regarding the distinction he drew between sin and crime, and why it wasn’t the business of the state to outlaw sin. In Augustine’s view, the state could legislate to prevent citizens from harming each other, but it couldn’t legislate to make citizens virtuous – that was the job of religion. The distinction is important when we come to the question of tolerance. You see, if one approves of something, or is indifferent to it, then tolerance doesn’t come into the equation. I don’t “tolerate” homosexuality because I don’t have a moral problem with it. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to believe that homosexual acts should be legal, and that gays shouldn’t be persecuted by the state, while simultaneously holding that homosexuality is sinful. I would suggest that this is in fact the majority viewpoint in the north of Ireland. You may similarly get people to agree that abortion should be legalised here as a social necessity, but it would be a much tougher ask to get people to stop disapproving of abortion – even the Alliance for Choice fight shy of that one.
While we’re on the subject of toleration, let’s turn to Locke, who still informs a lot of left-liberal thinking on cultural matters. I remind you that Locke’s call for religious toleration was restricted to the Non-Conformist sects; he explicitly opposed toleration for the Catholic Church, on the grounds that Catholicism was, well, intolerant. If you hear in this an echo of Geert Wilders and his call to protect Dutch tolerance by not tolerating brown people with funny religions, you aren’t far wrong. And you may also detect an affinity with the Decent Left. It has to be understood here, in the context of British constitutional history, that for over 300 years, from Henry VIII until about the 1850s, the central issue in English politics was the Catholic problem. I suggest that the Muslim problem currently exercising the intelligentsia is basically the Catholic problem by other means.
Finally, let’s have a brief pitstop with Descartes. Old René, following on from the Galileo affair, was insistent on the need to start from first principles and, if first principles are in conflict with standing public opinion, then so much the worse for standing public opinion. This works quite well for science, but, notwithstanding the pretensions of scientific socialism, I’ve never really believed that you can have a Cartesian approach to politics.
I believe this because of the difficulty in establishing unarguable first principles in politics. What you usually end up with is conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. Or one thinks of Francis Wheen’s Mumbo-Jumbo, where rationalism is identified with propositions Francis agrees with (though how his strident scientism is compatible with Private Eye‘s stance on MMR is still a mystery), while propositions he disagrees with are dismissed as mumbo-jumbo. Or one can get into the far left where the various shibbolethim of the various groups – “consistent democracy” for the AWL, “centrism” for Workers Power, “popular frontism” for the Weekly Worker, and whatever you’re having yourself – are elevated into first principles that can form a golden key to explaining the world and pointing a uniquely correct way forward.
My point here is that politics is, above all else, a dialogue. One may have one’s ethical or moral or ideological compass, although much of the political class appears to have none except the gaining and holding of office. But it’s vital to hang onto the necessity of dialogue. We don’t gain much from stating a tangled bunch of preconceptions as first principles and then acting as if those who hold dissenting positions are somehow mad or bad.
Yet, for all that, Caroline Lucas has some basic principles. So too have the mad Polish Catholics, although they aren’t the same ones. If Lord Snooty has any, I’ve yet to notice.
And that’s quite a ramble from where we started. Now, I think it’s time for a nice cup of tea, a chocolate gravy ring and some Battlestar Galactica.