An open letter to Melanie Phillips
Dear Ms Phillips,
I was interested to hear on this morning’s Today programme of your plan to launch a company to publish electronic long-form essays that would foster “civilised public debate” and provide a platform for writers “defending traditional values”.
Anything that promotes nuanced, carefully argued and courteous debate, from whatever quarter, is to be encouraged. While electronic forums (such as the one on which I’m writing) have many merits, the need for attention-catching brevity does not always encourage those virtues – though that’s no excuse not to try.
Despite being a longstanding opponent of many of the late Margaret Thatcher’s ideas, I did not feel at all inclined to “celebrate” her passing; indeed, some of the personalised abuse unleashed at the time made me recall John Stuart Mill’s salutary admonition in On Liberty that “The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral.”
Needless to say, you made several points with which I feel inclined to take issue. While I heartily share your disapproval of ad personam argument, it is disingenuous to suggest that, while people of all political persuasions may resort to it, it is systematic and institutionalized only on the left. Witness the disgraceful invective recently directed at Professor Mary Beard after her appearance on Question Time, Niall Ferguson’s extraordinary attack on John Maynard Keynes, or indeed readers’ online responses to many comment pieces and the “flaming” that takes place on social media such as Twitter – the tactic is always the same: single out an individual with whom one disagrees and characterise them as unrepresentative or even deviant from the norm.
In his dogged pursuit of the idea that you personally do not lack a platform for your views, the normally incisive John Humphrys missed a more important point. You say that – if terms such as “left” and “right” are still meaningful – “the entire world view has moved to the left”, creating a stifling consensus. If this is true, it is only true in terms of social issues. In the economic field, the right has achieved an overwhelming ideological victory since the 1980s. While the Conservatives are anxious to ditch their “nasty party” image and now support gay marriage, Labour have long since abandoned Clause 4 and have become enthusiastic promoters of private finance initiatives, academies and the marketisation of public services.
This has opened up a contradiction that has attracted surprisingly little comment: how do you hold fast to traditional social and family values while regarding the market as the ultimate arbiter of what is desirable? The generation of economic capital does not necessarily guarantee social capital. The result has been an economy in which footballers and soap stars earn more than surgeons, and the care workers upon whom all but the richest of us will one day depend are among the worst paid, least trained and least respected people in the workforce.
It is neither necessary nor desirable to impugn the motives or integrity of a democratically elected politician with whom one disagrees, however strongly. I am prepared to believe, for example, that Mrs Thatcher was sincere in her wish to create a thriving economy based on thrift, hard work and family values. But politics is almost inevitably subject to the law of unintended consequences, and instead, the market in which she and her acolytes placed so much faith has left us with an unsustainable credit bubble, families who have known no paid employment for generations, and lap-dancing clubs in every town centre.
Yours respectfully…Tagged in: john humphrys, keynes, mary beard, Melanie Phillips, Niall Ferguson, thatcher, today programme, traditional values
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