• A New Version of Exclusivity and Self-Interest

    In a 50-year involvement in politics and 20 years in the House of Commons, I found that friendship is perfectly possible with people of very different political views from my own; indeed, some of the more stimulating and amusing companions came from the ranks of those whose political views I abominated.

    I have often puzzled over the fact, therefore, that people who are so agreeable in personal terms can hold views that are so unattractive.   People who are kind to animals, generous to their friends, and supportive of family members who need help, can often exhibit a breathtaking – and at times cruel – lack of generosity, compassion and understanding when it comes to those who are a little more distant from them in social or cultural or ethnic terms.

    My explanation of this apparent paradox is that people who hold right-wing views (excluding those who are just plain nasty) often suffer from a simple failure of imagination.  Their impulses are fine and generous when they relate to people who are recognisable and close to them.  But they are unable to project those commendable responses on to a wider scale because they simply cannot understand that society is made up of people who are just as dear to others as their own friends and family are to them.

    The rich and privileged are even more prone to this limitation than most of us. Like most people, they are more than capable of seeing only what they want to see and ignoring what they wish not to see. The advantage they have is that their wealth allows them to indulge these idiosyncrasies to a much greater degree than the rest of us.

    The starting, or default, position for many people, in other words, is that looking after themselves and their immediate families is the first priority. It requires real effort to persuade them that they can afford what might be seen as the luxury of thinking of others. People are often reluctant to lift their eyes from the immediate and close at hand, and to understand that taking the wider view can lead to a better life and a stronger society for everyone.

    Even when that effort is made and greater understanding of others arrived at, the prospect of hard times is often enough to send them hastening back to base. When crisis threatens, the hatches are battened down and the wagons are circled to face the enemy.   Any thought of social concern is abandoned; self-preservation is the first consideration.

    That is, I think, the explanation of the otherwise inexplicable fact that, in the midst of recession, when it would seem even more important than usual that people should recognise common cause and support each other, the response is in the opposite direction, and many become more fearful of other similarly disadvantaged people, more focused on self-protection and self-preservation and less generous towards the claims of others.

    Roger Scruton, (The Guardian, 10 September) seems to agree with me. His explanation and defence of what it means to be a Conservative – with its emphasis on the supposed imperatives of identity and attachment – is little more than a re-statement, in slightly more elegant language, of the traditional Tory preoccupation with the differences between “us and them”.

    The “way of life” enjoyed by “who we are” – those with whom, Scruton says, we identify and to whom we feel an attachment – begs all the obvious and age-old questions. Whose “way of life” are “we” talking about? Do we mean just those of us who are more than ready to join with us in defending the status quo and the privilege we enjoy at the expense of others? Do we exclude from the definitions of “us” those who, because they are different or are perhaps – according to our criteria, less worthy – do not share “our way of life” as we choose to define it?

    Scruton obligingly helps us with the answer. “Attachment,” he asserts, “is a form of discrimination and therefore a way of giving preference to those who already belong.”

    There is little of philosophy here. What we have is after all just another expression of self-interest and exclusion. Are his “attachment” and “identity” not just different ways of applying and emphasising difference from others? And no prizes for guessing who, in Scruton’s brave old world, will have the power to decide the criteria that will identity those who are or are not “one of us”.

    Even if we accept Scruton’s identification of the threats to our “way of life”, is it really the case that looking inwards is the best form of defence? Which is likely to be the stronger and, in the long run, more successful – a society that is fearful of change and difference, that instinctively excludes rather than includes, that divides and weakens, or one that embraces and values all its members, that builds its cohesion and therefore its strength?

    And should we really weep many tears for the poor hard-pressed Conservative, who finds it so difficult, Scruton says, to persuade people to think only of themselves? Perhaps he should try, for once, to see how easy it is to ask them to lift their eyes to a wider horizon.

    Bryan Gould

    11 September 2014