16 February 2019

Purity tests


This week a three-year-old article unexpectedly shot up our internal list of CapX’s most-read pieces. There was no obvious reason why a lengthy consideration of what several centuries of economic history had to teach us about welfare reform was suddenly relevant again. Until, that is, we saw who the author was.

Dr Victoria Bateman is an economics lecturer at the University of Cambridge. But you probably know her as the naked Brexit lady. For Britons who have been living under a rock for the last few weeks, Dr Bateman has been touring the television studios in the buff with the words ‘Brexit leaves Britain naked’ written on her chest as a protest against our departure from the EU. For subscribers overseas: yes, this really is what it has come to.

Logging on to social media, it soon became clear that the spike in traffic to this particular article was because some on the Left had decided that Dr Bateman’s views on welfare were unacceptable. One tweet captured the mood: ‘The whole internet loves naked Brexit lady, the naked lady who hates Brexit! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the naked lady is rabidly anti-welfare free-market right-winger’. Elsewhere she was accused of ‘calling for a return to Victorian callousness’ and, even more absurdly, racism.

These are gross misrepresentations of Dr Bateman’s argument. But hundreds of retweets and likes followed.

It turned out, in other words, admirers of the Bateman stand on Brexit were not quite so keen on her earlier work. The existence of views outside their very narrow definition of acceptable opinion on one subject invalidated those that fell within the boundaries. Naked Brexit Lady won the progressive seal of approval – even earning a papal audience with Owen Jones. A quick Google later, Evil Right-Wing Welfare Hater was persona non grata.

The same stultifying trend was seen in the tedious debate about Churchill that cropped up once again this week. The greatest Briton of the 20th century found himself subject to a very 21st century purity test, with the years 1939-45 weighed in the balance against Tonypandy (or a laundry list of other excavated sins) and found wanting. The conversation devolved into ‘hero or villain’ – as if there was no possibility of any verdict in between.

This kind of mentality isn’t just found on the Left. One of stranger spectacles on social media in recent months has been the Leave.EU campaign denouncing any Tory MPs who fail to support the hardest possible version of Brexit as not properly Conservative, and vigorously promoting deselection campaigns against them.

The is bizarre is not because of the merits of deal vs no deal, but because Leave.EU was the chosen vehicle of Nigel Farage and Arron Banks during the referendum campaign – and Banks was resoundingly rejected when he recently sought to rejoin the Tory party. In other words, a man who has not been allowed to be a Tory is now trying to define what a Tory should be.

At the end of the Miners’ Strike, Arthur Scargill – his defeat complete, his movement in ruins – was asked how he felt. ‘I feel pure,’ was the response. Observer journalist Nick Cohen calls this ‘one of the most terrifying lines in left-wing history‘.

The tragedy of the British Left is that it has moved from Cohen’s position to Scargill’s – from point vs counterpoint to orthodoxy vs heresy. But in such an environment, whether on the Right or the Left, the space for debate, for free thinking, for argument and innovation, is closed off.

It is a mindset completely at odds with the messy truth about all of us. And the more it creeps in, the less edifying politics becomes.

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Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.