The current Tory leadership contest has so far focused largely on quite specific economic differences between the contenders. Neither Liz Truss nor Rishi Sunak has really engaged with the cultural issues that were the centrepiece of Kemi Badenoch’s insurgent campaign.
The truth is that many contemporary conservatives, including Boris Johnson, simply want to leave this area of politics uncontested. Some assume, despite the longstanding evidence of the Equality Act and the imposition of ‘protected characteristics’, that these arguments are a distraction from their top priority – the economy. At best cultural arguments are a stick with which to beat Labour, rather than an area worthy of serious political consideration. Some Conservatives, such as Penny Mordaunt, have gone further still and actively embraced aspects of what I have labelled the ‘Culture Control Left’.
Worryingly, both Truss and Sunak now seem to be dabbling with the sort of illiberalism so beloved of the contemporary left. Truss has recently confirmed that if she becomes prime minister she will crack down on so-called ‘street harassment’. There will be a new offence which will outlaw ‘leering and intrusive staring’, wolf-whistling, cat-calling and sexual propositioning. Not to be outdone, Sunak has demanded that ‘downblousing’ – taking a photo down a woman’s top without her consent – be made illegal.
The implications of how such measures will be enforced are truly extraordinary for any society still having pretensions to being broadly liberal and civilised. How many seconds or minutes, exactly, will we be allowed to look at another human being before being subject to arrest? Will making a sexual advance become illegal per se? Will any photo taken in a public place incidentally featuring a bit of cleavage run the risk of a criminal record? These might all sound somewhat absurd, until you remember that we already live in a country in which the police visit people’s houses over ‘offensive’ remarks made on the internet.
This proposed legislation echoes the mainstream left’s obsession with the idea that Britain is awash with misogyny. This is just one front in a grand strategy to convince the public that the UK is riddled with an unending series of ‘crises’, ‘emergencies’ and ‘epidemics’, be it racism, obesity, climate change or whatever the issue du jour happens to be.
At one time, it was old fashioned religiously-driven conservatives like the Mary Whitehouse brigade who sought to ferment moral panics as a justification for greater censorship. Today, it is the updated application of Frankfurt School ‘critical theory’, a campaign of relentless negative hysteria and grievance.
An importance part of this grievance-mongering is that groups collectively identified as ‘structurally privileged’ – for which read ‘white people and men’ – require intense additional regulation, surveillance and punishment.
Go on the London Underground and you will be confronted by posters instructing you not to sexually stare at fellow travellers, or touch them, as if these were regular occurrences that require pressing attention. I wish Sadiq Khan would inform us what percentage, exactly, of journeys have featured such activities (putting to one side the issue of how the former is to be defined objectively)?
The flip-side of the ‘structural privilege’ nonsense is to categorise women, ethnic minorities, and a host of other groups as victims in need of protection. The objective is to transform the whole of society into one enormous ‘safe space’, in the supposed interests of those victimised groups. That necessarily involves conjuring up ever more detailed and bizarre ideas, hence the desire to outlaw downblousing – as much to demonstrate how seriously a politician takes an apparent problem as to offer any meaningful benefit to anyone.
The ultimate aim of this authoritarian tendency is to police all aspects of life, to erase the liberal assumption that most of human existence is characterised by a spontaneous, inherently non-political, order. For liberals, laws should exist primarily to prevent individuals from committing physically violent and property-violating actions against others. The articulation of personal opinion and personal desire, together with the visual observation of others, cannot, by definition, take away the rights of others.
At some point, those on the centre-right are going to have to take on these ideas. This is assuming that they have any genuine interest in re-shaping our society in a way that is compatible with broadly liberal values. The contemporary left’s cultural agenda contains a self-expanding logic, one that will keep extending the depth and range of governmental intrusion into our lives. Kemi Badenoch understands this in a way the two current contenders appear not to, perhaps because they see the economic sphere as being in some way hermetically sealed from the politics of culture. Be in no doubt, it is not.
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