Of all parties, the Liberal Democrats would be the party in Britain I’d feel closest to. Of course, this is not the 1920s, this is not a three-cornered contest, and there is no immediate prospect of any Liberal Democrat becoming prime minister.
So it is between David Cameron and Gordon Brown for prime minister. I would not always naturally support one of Labour or the Tories over the other. At the moment, I do feel that after thirteen years in which they oversaw the onset of recession, a slow recovery and a deterioration of public finances, the Labour Party do not deserve another five years in office, and certainly not under Gordon Brown. But in any case, this election campaign has not been as exciting as perhaps it could have. Despite the dissatisfaction with the government, there has been no strong public wave behind the opposition, as there was in 1979 and 1997, in part because the expenses scandal hit both large parties in near equal measure.
But there are cultural reasons I’d be cautious to support the Conservatives. I think their decision to leave the Group of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament group of most conservatives and Christian Democrats like Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel, to form the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, was misguided. They confined themselves to an alliance that does not blend well with David Cameron’s attempts to portray the Conservatives as a more modern party, with parties with reservations about homosexuality. I don’t doubt that the Conservatives have changed as a party, on this and other issues, but the votes of their MEPs show the dissonance within the party and how Cameron himself has difficulty maintaining the more progressive image.
Having said that and despite his previous adamant opposition to repeal of Section 28, which forbid promotion of homosexuality in schools, I don’t believe gay people have any serious reason to concern from a Conservative government under David Cameron. I would not consider it the most unlikely thing if legislation to allow gay couples to marry was introduced by the Conservatives. On the most recent gay issue in the campaign, I would actually have to agree with the substance of Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling’s comments. I think there is less freedom in the country if a private B&B owner is told he must rent his rooms out to a gay couple against his wishes, even if such an owner shouldn’t be let anywhere near a major party ticket.
As The Economist wrote a few weeks ago, the Conservative approach to social issues is misguided and often presumes the most dire and exaggerated situations. Their marriage incentives seem well intentioned, but the wrong approach; it is true that children generally fare better if their parents are married, but funding married couples, including many who are financially secure, seems a strange waste of resources, and it discriminates against those children who have had the misfortune to be born to parents who have since moved apart. It was a small mistake in the course of the campaign, but the fact that the party got the figure of teenage pregnancies wrong by a factor of ten earlier this year shows how out of touch they can be at times.
On the North, the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force banner has come to little, with Ladbrokes currently predicting no Tory or Ulster Unionist candidate to be elected (The Times is using their predictions in each constituency on a great gadget on their site). Their strongest chance is in Strangford, the seat left vacant by Iris Robinson, but even there they give the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt a 50% chance of victory. And in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, both Unionist parties stood aside in favour of an independent, Rodney Connor, ending David Cameron’s hope of a Tory-backed candidate in every constituency. Overall as yet, Ladbrokes predict no change in Northern Ireland. Depending on the balance of the major parties in Westminster, the seats here could be of importance.
In his memoirs, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable talks of trying out the various parties when in Cambridge. Of the Conservatives, he writes, “Whilst there was a liberal veneer, I knew, because I had seen it first-hand, that their activist base depended on the energies and prejudices of bigoted people like my father, whom they were only too happy to use.” This is still true of the Conservatives. They appear more nice and friendly, but there is still the lingering tolerance for groups like the Young Britons’ Foundation, as long as they stay in the background.
A tight Conservative majority would give inordinate power to such fringes of the party, as John Major found after 1992, so I think if they are to have a majority, better it be higher than the four seats currently predicted on the Times site. But I would still look forward more to a hung parliament, where the Liberal Democrats could exert influence in their more sensible social policies and approach toward the European Union. Depending on their strength, they might even manage to secure electoral reform, which Gordon Brown talked of this week, presumably in the hope of their support. Which party should lead, will then depend very much on the division of seats.
I recently picked up a copy of Barry Goldwater’s 1960 classic, The Conscience of a Conservative, at the Trinity Book Sale. A short text, it succinctly outlines his small government stance. On basic principles, I would have a fair amount in common with his viewpoint, though I would start the conversation with the question of individual liberty. On constitutional questions, for example, I do believe that there is scope for changing interpretations of an original text, in line with agreed principles.
Corporations, unions and politics
I found his section on unions interesting from a contemporary perspective, in his criticism of their involvement in politics.
In order to achieve the widest possible distribution of political power, financial contributions to political campaigns should be made by individuals and individuals alone. I see no reason for labor unions – or corporations – to participate in politics. Both were created for economic purposes and their activities should be restricted accordingly.
Interesting that an old conservative icon took for granted the case against participation by corporations, half a century before the United States Supreme Court ruled the contrary stance this year in the Citizens United v. FEC case.
Freedom of association
I think there was a certain inconsistency in Goldwater’s stance on freedom of association. He argues for right-to-work laws which forbid contracts that make union membership a condition of employment. But he also voted against the Civil Rights Act on the grounds that anti-discrimination laws in employment impeded on freedom of association. I don’t doubt Goldwater’s personal integrity on the matter of race, but on grounds should an employer be allowed to require their employees to be white but not be allowed to require them to be union members. Milton Friedman took a more consistent stance in his 1962 work Capitalism and Freedom, opposing both right-to-work laws and anti-discrimination laws. Not, of course, that consistency in such matters is always a virtue.
Republicans since Goldwater
I do admire Goldwater, and I wonder how the Republican Party would have fared had he been elected President. When he won the 1964 nomination, his two issues were small government and the Cold War. He was always going to face a difficult fight that year, against President Lyndon B. Johnson just over a year after the assassination of President Kennedy. But it was after Goldwater’s overwhelming electoral college defeat that Republican candidates such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan determined to capture the votes of those termed the silent majority, by becoming a party of increasingly fundamentalist religious viewpoints.
Such was the alteration in what was seen as most fundamental to the Republican Party that Goldwater, who had been considered on the right relative to the supporters of Nelson Rockefeller, was very much on the liberal wing. He opposed the adoption of anti-abortion as a policy stance, and in the 1990s, called for the removal of restrictions on gay soldiers serving openly in the military, saying that “Everyone knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar” and encouraged gay activism. In response to the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell’s concerns about the appointment about Sandra Day O’Connor, Goldwater said that “Every good Christian should kick Jerry Falwell up the ass”.
He publicly dissociated himself from the right of the party, “Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists, and you’ve hurt the Republican party much more than the Democrats have.”
A recent National Journal article by Jonathan Rauch, considering the leverage of the populist Tea Party movement, opens by writing “The history of the modern Republican Party in one sentence: Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.” Mickey Edwards, Republican Congressman 1977–93 and a former chair of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), said that he wouldn’t attend this year, given that he could no longer identify with those now calling themselves conservative, and that he wouldn’t feel welcome, because they wouldn’t think Goldwater was a conservative. I would even wonder if Barry Goldwater would pass the purity tests to get through a Republican primary today. A few years ago in a debate in the Hist on genetically-modified food, Prof. David McConnell, President of the Society and professor of genetics, said, “I would like to support the Green Party, but I can’t”. Such is as I feel about the modern-day Republican Party. Except for California Senate primary candidate, Tom Campbell.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Portmarnock Golf Club was entitled to exclude women from full membership (I covered this on Facebook, still not in the habit of posting such things here). I would agree with their decision in this case, based on the idea that individuals have the freedom to associate with others on the terms they decide for themselves. I’m not saying that this is an absolute right in all cases, particularly that there could be discrimination on the basis of race that should at times be prevented.
(Having said that, while it cost them money in the courts, and anything that hurts them is a good thing, I see little sense either in forcing the British National Party to allow membership to those who aren’t white. They very clearly are a racist party, I can think of no reason someone who wasn’t white would wish to join, and allowing them to be explicit about it had the benefit of discouraging votes from them.)
This is a different case to whether sex discrimination should be allowed in matters of employment. It is easy to conflate issues because of the broad similarity of what is involved, and the common principles, but because there are no economic structures, the principles are subtly different. In this case it is simply a matter of the freedom of association, that in a free society any group of people may come together to decide how they want to organize.
There are any number of ladies’ clubs around the country, which no one objects to. They may not bother stating explicitly in their rules that their membership is exclusively for women, but it is understood to be so. For whatever reason, men and women often like to associate without the other. Some women might like to chat at their book club, while men might like there to be only other men while chatting in the members’ bar in Portmarnock. Perhaps a ladies’ sports gym would have been a better example, as men and women respectively often like to be with their own before and after sports. Not all do, of course. I have little interest in sport myself, and in general, prefer mixed groups. And in any case, I hope never to middle-aged enough to wish to join a golf club.
The bigger perspective really is where does what is known as the equality agenda end. As far as I’m concerned, the state should tackle discrimination in as far as it is directly responsible for the employment or association. However people wish to organize socially should be their affairs. What those on the left of this and related issues forget is where we’ve come from, and what they historically fought against. In years gone by, conservatives sought to mould society in a particular image, and interfered with matters that should have been the private domain, controlling the interactions between individuals. This is now what those who wish to force social clubs to open their membership are trying to achieve in reverse. Until all units of society are tolerant and diverse, at least in principle, they don’t seem to be happy. Except, that is, that they won’t tolerate those who have no wish for diversity.
Originally posted on Facebook
I was one of those who first heard of Ricci v. DeStefano on Tuesday, as one of Justice-designate Sotomayor’s recent cases. I’m not sure it should be used as the benchmark for assessing her, given by upholding precedent, she did what would be expected of her. But the thinking behind the ruling is worthy of further analysis.
Most liberals in this part of the world do have an instinctive reaction against positive discrimination, relative to views commonly held in the US. The idea that people should be hired or not depending on the group they belong to seems distasteful. Having said that, it is wrong to cast aspersions on the motives of such regulations, to style them reverse racists, as some talk-show hosts might. It goes with out saying that there are certain structural problems in American societies that would lead more white people than black people succeeding on a particular quiz.
But, as this article argues, it is not helpful to have a different standard for different groups. It creates resentment among those who were qualified, but for the fact that not enough of certain groups passed the test. The case of Frank Ricci is particularly likely to do so, given that he had clearly put a lot of work into preparing for the test, and found ways to overcome his dyslexia. It can also serve, to some degree, to perpetuate the myth that black people are not as capable academically than others. It also lessens the need to ensure satisfactory levels of basic education in the first place, if these will be attempted to be corrected for later on.
The real solution seems to me to determine what the real minimum requirements for the position are, as clearly the test overstated these in the first place, given that they were happy to adjust the effective pass mark for some of those who took it. If a test is inherently biased towards one group, the answer should not be to accept that and make allowances for them, but to make a test that eliminates this. In this case, for example, there should probably have been more of a practical element to the test.
We have an element of that here, where at the end of civil service exams, applicants are asked to answer what categories they fit into of the nine grounds on which discrimination is prohibited, namely gender, marital status, family status, age, disability, race, sexual orientation, religious belief and membership of the Traveller Community. What is implied in this case is that future tests will be adjusted if the success is less than would be expected given the proportions of any one of these. On similar grounds, I think this unnecessary, and if one group of people happens to be less likely to fill the minimum requirements, then so be it; otherwise, the test should be brought to what really are the minimum requirements. The only exception I think I’d make to this would be on grounds of disability, as someone could be otherwise capable, but be unsuited for a test as normally set up.