28 February 2017

In praise of the liberal elites


If, as has now become the accepted wisdom, Theresa May has murdered Ukip, she has done so by appropriating the essence of Kipperism. Who needs Ukip when you have a government obsessed by the EU and by immigration? There are times when Mrs May’s impersonation of a Kipper is so convincing you have to make a conscious effort to remember that, notionally at least, she was a Remainer as recently as last June.

Politics is a matter of attitude, however. And what really makes a Kipper is the belief that Britain’s best days are behind it. The country is going to the bleedin’ dogs and the elites – the metropolitan, liberal elites – are to blame. Not just because they caused this mess, but because they don’t even care about it.

There is, plainly, a link between this pessimism and one kind of traditional Toryism. They share the same part of the political spectrum.

The Brexiteers, meanwhile, are in one sense the heirs to Margaret Thatcher. Not just because her Euroscepticism became the defining feature of her later years in power but because, like the Iron Lady, the Brexiteers imagine a greater Britain.

Thatcher offered what she considered a programme for national recovery and renewal. She would halt, and then reverse, Britain’s long post-war decline, refashioning Britannia for a new age. In like fashion, the Brexiteers imagine a new Britain that, released from its European bondage, will once again be an example to the world.

This, it should be allowed, is a comforting vision for a future otherwise notable for its murky uncertainty. But it hints at something else, too: namely the suspicion that something, somewhere, has gone wrong. Britain took a wrong turning somewhere along the road to 2017 and we have all been paying an awful price.

Yet while this sense that something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong may be widespread, it’s not one that’s supported by the evidence.

Teenage pregnancy rates, once considered both a cause and proof of social atomisation by some conservatives, have halved in the last 20 years. Crime rates, rightly reckoned another conservative bugbear, have fallen dramatically. An uptick in violent crime recorded in England and Wales last year was not enough to wipe out years of dramatic gains. According to the Office of National Statistics, crimes rates in England and Wales peaked in 1995 and have since reduced to levels not seen in 40 years.

As if this was not enough, the divorce rate – which has often been another conservative obsession – is also at its lowest level in 40 years. If this is a crisis, let’s have more of it.

No one would deny that there are not significant problems to be addressed. Too many communities lack the opportunity or the capital to make the best of their abilities. Too many children from poor backgrounds, in particular, are denied the chance to receive an education commensurate to their talents and needs.

Too many young families struggle, at least in some parts of the country, to afford a new home of their own. Too many people remain trapped by a welfare system that lacks both the flexibility and the compassion to take account of their particular needs. Too many Britons still live in want of one form or another.

Old certainties – or, rather, assumptions – have crumbled, not least the idea that the next generation will enjoy greater opportunity and prosperity than our own.

All of this is serious and all of it needs to be addressed by government. (Spare me, however, the Brexiteer delusion that Brexit unlocks all these doors, lifts all boats, and ameliorates all problems.)

Nevertheless, not everything is gloomy. Despite what you may read in the newspapers or hear from our politicians, this is not necessarily an age of greater anxiety than past times. Our politics may be febrile, but our society is more stable than you think.

There has never been any shortage of pessimism in Britain – and conservatives, in particular, have often enjoyed long soaks in the stuff. But according to the most recent edition of the government’s Community Life Survey, 89 per cent of British people are satisfied with the neighbourhood in which they live. The proportion who are “very satisfied” has increased from 30 per cent in 2008-09 to 45 per cent in 2015-16.

Just 17 per cent think their neighbourhood is worse than it was two years ago, compared to 27 per cent who thought that in 2007-08. Self-reported levels of happiness and contentment remain at historically high levels – and 89 per cent of people agree that their “local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well”.

In 2003 – before, that is, the wave of immigration from new EU member states in Eastern Europe – 80 per cent of Britons said the same. Nor has there been any decline in the percentage of people who think people around them “pull together to improve their neighbourhood”.

The British people might think their country is going to the dogs, but the message from their neighbourhoods is actually that, on the whole and taking everything into consideration, we’re doing fine, Jack. We are happier with our own lives than we are with the country – even though society is, in the end, only the accumulation of individual experience. Data sometimes is the plural of anecdote, even if we don’t believe it.

In truth, the divide between the individual and the community is less obvious and less complete than often imagined. Individuals need strong communities; healthy communities foster strong individuals.

I understand that social conservatives deploring what they consider 30 years of liberal excess have an interest in disputing this – and even, perhaps, in harking back to some quasi-mystical golden era in which everything was simpler and the world more perfectly arranged.

But the truth is that age never existed. If our grumbling but generally contented time is the fruit of an age of liberalism run amok, then let’s have more of that dastardly liberalism.

Alex Massie is a political commentator