The English Assassin

I’ll say this for Sunny Hundal, when he sets out to stir up a hornets nest, he really sets out to stir up a hornets nest:

The bloggers and much of the press won’t be happy until the BBC reflects their worldview without accepting that the whole picture may lie somewhere in the middle, despite their continual hypocrisy. Not only are they uninterested in balance, they are completely obsessed and convinced that this vast leftwing conspiracy dominates the Beeb.

Secondly, BBC editors themselves seem to have collectively lost their cojones, or at least their editorial guidelines. The first sign of an outraged rightwing blogging campaign leads editors to hurriedly make changes while simultaneously releasing statements that any accusations of bias had nothing to do with it.

I’m not sure that I agree fully with Sunny’s contention but I can appreciate his frustration with the absurd levels to which right-wing ranting about the Beeb’s supposed ‘liberal bias’ are reaching of late.

To some extent, the Beeb is always going to attract some criticism even on occasions when it is doing an excellent job of working to its brief to provide the British public with a reasonably balanced view of the world. Indeed, one of the more obvious signs that the Beeb has got the balance right are those occasions when it seems to have pleased no one and it receives criticism and accusations of bias from all sides.

If nothing else, that can be taken as a function of the fact that there are always some for whom ‘bias’ equates to ‘anything I disagree with’ irrespective of whether the factual and/or intellectual foundations of the complainants opinions are solid or shaky – and, more often than not, they are desperately shaky. Over the last few years, and certainly since the Hutton Inquiry, the volume of such complaint (numerical and auditory) from certain vested interest groups has markedly increased while the signal-to-noise ratio has declined proportionately with the result that an important and necessary ongoing debate about the role of the BBC public life has, to a considerable extent, come to be dominated by a completely debased set of narrative assumptions about ‘bias’ to the detriment of the overall public discourse.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with taking a critical view of the BBC from wherever you sit in the political spectrum, when such a view is merited, and the complexity of the balancing act that the Beeb has to undertake to preserve its air of studied neutrality, especially on issues that carry a political charge, is such that it won’t always get things right. Biases can creep into news reporting simply because the events on which the Beeb is reporting and the circumstances in which reports are filed are anything but value free. It should be patently obvious that a report on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East filed from the calm of a street in Tel Aviv will create a very different visual impression, if nothing else, from one filed in the midst of a gun battle in Gaza City and such impressions can and do colour the perceptions of the viewing public.

But in such situations, there is only so much that the Beeb can do to in the name of presenting a balanced picture of events. It can try to provide the viewer with ‘both’ side of the story and with a range of different perspectives that are relevant, to differing degrees, to the matter at hand, from which it then falls to the viewer to synthesise their own interpretation of events and reach their own conclusions. The viewer has to take some responsibility for the manner in which they view the Beeb’s output and whether they treat what they see critically or uncritically, otherwise the very notion of providing balanced content becomes meaningless.

One thing that is certainly worth reflecting on when it comes to the growing band of serial complaints and self-appointed guardians of ‘the balance’ like Biased BBC is precisely what their modus operandi reveals about their attitude towards the viewing/listening public. Do they see the public as active, thinking human beings with the capacity to form their own opinions or as passive consumers of news content with an intellectual capacity not so far removed from that of sheep? More often than not, when one looks at the shrillest voices and what they’re saying one finds its the latter rather than the former.

A clear example of this kind of attitude; one that successfully made its way from the blogosphere to the MSM, is what the Telegraph’s Damian Thompson called ‘The Scandal of Newsround’s 9/11 Bias‘, which centred on the inclusion of this passage in a Newsround account of background to Al Qaeda’s 2001 attack on the World trade Centre.

The way America has got involved in conflicts in regions like the Middle East has made some people very angry, including a group called al-Qaeda – who are widely thought to have been behind the attacks.

In the past, al-Qaeda leaders have declared a holy war – called a jihad – against the US. As part of this jihad, al-Qaeda members believe attacking US targets is something they should do.

When the attacks happened in 2001, there were a number of US troops in a country called Saudi Arabia, and the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, said he wanted them to leave.

Thompson’s contention, which sees him agreeing with Biased BBC, is that ‘this explanation implies that America was in some way to blame for 9/11 (something many BBC journalists believe)’, while, at the same time, prompting Roy Greenslade, writing for the Media Guardian, to the observation:

I think it’s fair to ask the BBC to be more forthcoming about how they did do it? Was that really unconscious or conscious bias? Who was responsible? Have they been disciplined? We need to know more.

I think the question that really needs to be asked is why both Thompson and Greenslade appear to have completely taken leave of their senses.

The background to the 9/11 attacks is somewhat more complex than that outlined by Newsround, but then they are writing for a youthful demographic, but the essential details of Newsround’s coverage are factually correct.

The trigger that set Al Qaeda running, as is exhaustively documented by the US intelligence community, was the decision of the Saudi government to support and work with the UN coalition in expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 rather than go with Bin Laden’s suggestion of forming an Islamic liberation army based on the Mujahideen forces that had previous been engaged in fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to retake Kuwait. It is precisely because of America’s involvement in conflicts in the Middle East and, particularly, its support for the House of Saud, that America has been targeted by Al Qaeda, not because the US is its primary target – Bin Laden’s main focus remains the removal of the House of Saud from power in Saudi Arabia – but because US support for the Saudi government is seen as critical to its survival. Take the US out of the picture and out of the region and, so Bin Laden believes, Saudi Arabia will inevitably fall to a Wahabbist popular revolution akin to the Shi’a revolution that engulfed Iran in 1979.

Limited though it is in content, the BBC’s account is factually accurate and biased only to the extent that it doesn’t explore the ‘merits’ of Al Qaeda’s position or the rights and wrongs of US foreign policy in the Middle East. In this case its actually the passage’s evident lack of bias either way that’s being held up as supposed evidence of anti-American bias on the part of the BBC.

You can reasonably criticise the Beeb on this for appearing to have skimped on the detail but any perceived bias is this, or in the account that this one replaced, which Biased BBC has deemed, in its sole judgement, to be ‘offensive’…

A lot of countries don’t like the way America gets involved with arguments in the Middle East. They think that the US unfairly helps Israel in its conflict with Palestine. Israel and Palestine have been arguing for many years over who owns what land.

America is seen to be sympathetic towards Jewish Israelis, so some Arabs and Muslims think America does not like or understand them.

…exists solely in the mind of the blog’s author and those, like Thompson who, in the absence of a reasoned argument, find it necessary to resort to snide asides about the alleged private opinions of unnamed BBC journalists to get their disingenuous points across.

Inevitably, one of the names that crops up as having been party to Biased BBC’s attack on Newsround is that of Iain Dale, although in this case it was his temporary Mini-Me, Shane Greer, who ran with the ball.

Iain’s posted a – by his usual standards – lengthy response to Sunny’s article in which he makes the following observation:

Has it ever occurred to him, that sometimes – just sometimes – the right may have a point?

Well yes. Quite. But what matters is not whether the right has a point – they always believe that they do in any case – but what that point actually is and whether it has any merit.

A short while back, Iain got into it with the BBC, over its coverage of the report of John Redwood’s Competitiveness Commission, accusing it of ‘doing Labour’s dirty work‘. Not the actual release of the report, mind you, for that you’d have had to wait until the following Friday, but rather the now obligatory pre-launch tour of the Sunday morning news studios and politics show sofa with accompanying coverage of Cameron making complimentary noises in the Daily Telegraph without actually committing himself to anything.

Dale’s contention is quite clearly set out in his opening gambit:

I don’t know how this is being covered on other networks, but the BBC are starting all their news bulletins about John Redwood’s Competitiveness Commission reports with the words…

The Labour Party has today criticised…

This has happened many times before. Instead of concentrating on the substance of a Tory policy announcement the BBC seem to revel in giving Labour Ministers the microphone to explain how whatever the policy happens to be is making the Tories more right wing than Michael Howard. It is a disgrace. This morning they wheeled out John Hutton to slag off Redwood’s report, without even carrying any information about the report itself or indeed any comment from John Redwood or any other Tory.

Unfortunately, as Boaden pointed out on the BBC Editor’s blog, that’s not quite the full story.

In her response she lists the opening words of the Beeb’s coverage of the story from nine different news reports, spanning the course of the day and covering all the main BBC channels/radio stations that ran the story – BBC1, News 24, Radios 2,4 & Five Live and the BBC website and Ceefax service – out of which only one, Five Live, gave greater prominence to the Labour view of the report’s trailed content than Cameron’s comments about the report. With minor variations in the precise wording the story the Beeb ran throughout the day ran to the following format:

BBC One/News 24, 6am: The Conservative leader, David Cameron, is considering radical plans to help businesses cut 14 billion pounds a year by cutting red tape and regulation. The proposals have been put forward by a senior figure on the right of the party, John Redwood. Labour says it’s evidence the right had regained control of the Tory agenda.

From which Five Live’s 11am bulletin deviated in this fashion:

Five Live, 11am: “Labour has condemned the latest review of policy carried out by the Conservatives as a lurch back to the right wing of politics. The review — led by John Redwood — identifies ways of deregulating business. The secretary of state for business, John Hutton, said the Tories were now more right wing than they had been under William Hague and Michael Howard.

While by early evening, all mention of Labour’s response has disappeared from the opening gambit in use by the Beeb.

BBC One, 6.05pm: “It’s being called a ‘tax cut by any other name’. The Conservative leader David Cameron is considering a radical programme of cuts in red tape and regulation.”

Helen also pointed out that, in addition to the news coverage, the Beeb’s coverage also included:

…John Redwood was interviewed at length about his report by Peter Sissons on BBC One and News 24 on Sunday morning, on Five Live on Sunday, and on Radio 4’s World Tonight on Monday. Naturally we included in our coverage the reaction from the Labour party, and also from the LibDems, the CBI and the TUC.

And just to verify that last point, the Redwood interview with Peter Sissons can be seen here and the BBC’s coverage also included this analysis of the content of the report, such as had been trailed at the time, which includes brief footage of John Hutton’s comments which we made during the course of an interview on News 24 with…

…Peter Sissons.

The moral of the story, so far as the TV footage is concerned, seems to be ‘try getting out a bed a bit earlier on Sunday mornings, Iain’.

Iain continues by mounting a bit of pre-emptive defence of his stance in what one presume to be the expectation of being accused in comments of shilling for his own party:

Can I just conclude by saying that I would make the same point if they started their report about a Labour policy announcement with the words ‘The Conservatives today criticised…’ It’s just that I have never heard them do this!

Funny, I have… on numerous occasions.

It’s a given of contemporary news journalism that novelty matters. Competition in what is, with advent of the internet and multi-channel television, now a 24/7 industry which moves at a breakneck pace has put a heavy premium of finding something new and novel to report, even [especially] on a story that’s already been running for several hours. For that reason, there’s absolutely nothing novel or unusual in seeing a Labour politician take top billing on the occasional news report about a newly release Conservative policy or vice versa – in fact its actually a bit more likely to see the Tories take the top of the report on a Labour/government issue simply because the party in power at any given time tends to churn out many more stories than the opposition parties combined.

If there’s a trick to gazumping your political opponents then its nothing more complicated than ensuring that you’re the one with the fresh angle and a new take on the story and getting in at the right time – and it’s even better if you’ve got a bit of exclusive interview footage to offer.

This, one would have thought, would be blindingly obvious, but as Iain’s response to Helen Boaden’s overview of the day’s actual coverage of the story shows, this was the day that Iain left his media glasses at home:

UPDATE: Helen Boaden has responded HERE. She rather makes my point for me by quoting the 5 Live bulletin which is the one I heard and which prompted the post. Normally on a Sunday the bulletins on Radios 5, 4 and 2 are all more or less identical. This, it seems, was not the case on Sunday this week.

One report on one channel that deviates from the Tories preferred news management script does not make Iain’s point or substantiate the claim that the BBC were doing Labour’s ‘dirty work’. Complaining bitterly about the one report of nine that went off the preferred message does, however, look suspiciously like a case of chucking your weight behind your own party’s efforts to manage the day’s news agenda than a legitimate complaint, whether or not that had any part in Iain’s thinking.

Ironically, Iain managed to completely miss the one thing about which he might have raised a credible complaint, the Beeb’s use of the classic footage of Redwood [badly] miming along to ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ during his spell as Minister for Wales, for which Boaden did offer an apology. That said, however, that footage is – much to Redwood’s chagrin I’m sure – the defining moment of his political career and the foundation of his richly deserved reputation for being somewhat out of touch with the real world and, at least in my own household, had no appreciable impact on my assessment of either the man or the policies.

As for the point about debating the detail of Redwood’s report raised by Iain, and illustrated by these comments from ‘Tone Made Me Do It’:

The Conservatives today launched their new deregulation policy. How has the BBC addressed this? By giving the microphone to the labour party who then denounce the Conservative party as being more “right wing” than they were under William Hague. No discussion about the policies of business and trade at all – just an “oh my god look how right wing the Tories are now (it will be the cattle trucks next)” cry from the Labour party and their friends at the BBC.

I’m really not sure what either expected – it’s not like I recall ITV or Sky News putting on an hour long special with a couple of economists hacking through the detail of the report, nor did the Tories actually launch their deregulation policy – that didn’t take place until the following Friday when it was given the usual full platform speech launch. What both the media, and opposition politicians, were given to work with was no more than a few carefully selected ‘highlights’ with little or no detail on which to work up the kind of substantive analysis that the Tory faithful appear to think the report deserved, plus the usual vapid ‘I welcome the report but I’m not committing myself to anything’ puff-piece from Cameron in the Sundays. With that little to go on, the obvious, and I must say entirely predictable, line for a Labour politician to take is that ‘it all sounds right-wing so that’s we’ll say about it and we’ll drag in a past failure or two [Hague] to drive the point home.

If its a detailed policy evaluation you’re genuinely after then you’re not going to find it in a five minute news report on the TV news on a slow Sunday no matter which of the channels you’re watching, and that’s precisely the reason for this and numerous other pre-launch Sunday sofa tours, as arranged by all the major parties in advance of a policy launch. The objective isn’t – using this case an example – to spark off a discussion about the policies business and trade; if that’s what you’re after you’ll have to wait for Monday’s FT and the business leaders in the broadsheets, its about pitching a few headlines to the public and hoping that one or two will stick.

So far as the message the Tories were trying to get over on that day there were only ever five words that mattered – ‘fourteen’, ‘billion’, ‘pound’, ‘tax’ and ‘cut’ – and if that’s all the public picked up then it was a job well done, just as Labour’s objective would have been to get over the idea that whatever Redwood was proposing would inevitably amount to a ‘lurch to the right’, the dog-whistle implication being that if the Tories were lurching to right and talking about ‘tax cuts’ then that would mean cuts in public services. The political contest taking place on that day was purely one of rhetoric and not substance, one in which the order in which the respective messages were presented mattered only because the one that goes over first is usually the one that’s most likely to stick.

As with the Newsround non-scandal, the behaviour of those crying foul raises the question of what exactly is their underlying view of the public. Fighting over top billing on a five minute TV news report, which could only ever aspire to making the thinnest of scratches on the surface of something as complex as business and trade policy, only makes sense if you see the public as passive consumers of news content, as sheep to led by the nose to your preferred rhetorical position. The same argument, looked at from a perspective that see the public as active, thinking, participants in a political process, looks to amount to no more than a pair of bald men fighting over a comb.

Much of the current right-wing chatter about ‘liberal bias’ in the BBC, and elsewhere, resembles nothing so much as the observations of George Orwell in his classic essay ‘Politics and the English Language’:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive.

The question that’s rarely asked when conservative start complaining about the BBC’s ‘liberal bias’ is precisely what they mean when the say ‘liberal’? In what context are they using the term? And in what sense is the BBC actually a ‘liberal’ organisation.

It could, for example, be liberal in the sense of ‘liberal democracy’ being, therefore, supportive of free expression and political pluralism. In which case where, exactly, is the problem? Aren’t both those qualities part of the lifeblood of a free and democratic society and therefore precisely what you’d expect to see reflected in BBC programming?

Liberal could be used in the sense of referring to ‘liberal economics’, and if the BBC is biased in that direction then what do right-wing conservatives have to complain about – isn’t that what they want? Let’s face it, from the welter of aspirational lifestyle programmes to the naked capitalism of shows like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, the Beeb is hardly short of programming that extols the ‘virtues’ of capitalism, so where’s the problem?

Perhaps its the Beeb’s social liberalism that conservatives find objectionable? But is that really a ‘left/right’ thing?

Ask me to give you a list of socially liberal bloggers and two that would certainly find themselves up near the top of the list would be Devil’s Kitchen and Mr Eugenides, neither of whom could ever be considered to be a ‘bit of lefty’. And yet, look at what they have to say when discussing social issues that are often seen as ‘touchstones’ of right-wing conservatism – say abortion for example – and you’ll find that both are liberal to a fault in their views and attitudes – in fact classically so.

And why shouldn’t they be, after all it was the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill who famously said…

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.”

…which is about as succinct a definition of classic social liberalism – or libertarianism, if you prefer – as any I can think of.

Mill also observed that:

Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.

And who am I to argue with philosopher of his stature.

No. When blogs like Biased BBC rail against the ‘liberal bias’ of the BBC the context in which the term liberal is used is, more often than not, that which Orwell ascribed to the word Fascism, that of being devoid of meaning but for indicating that whatever it is they’re complaining about is “something not desirable”.

What is being expressed here is not conservatism, certainly not in the classic sense of the term. In truth, very few right-wing bloggers seem capable of expressing genuinely classical conservative ideas and values – Tim (aka Conservative Party Reptile) is one of the few I’ve come across who does, and does so intelligently. Of the rest, or rather of those who are sufficiently intelligent to be worth reading, most are more of a classic liberal/libertarian bent, and all the better for it.

What it is, all too often, is a particularly virulent and debased form of US-inspired rabid anti-intellectualism that masquerades as conservatism, one that has, sadly, grown massively in influence within the Republican Party, in particular, as its progenitors in the evangelical Christian right have carefully manoeuvred  themselves in position as the party’s ‘core’ constituency. Call it an offshoot of clerical fascism – and despite Orwell’s comments on the use of fascism as another ‘something bad’ it does, in its full US incarnation, have all the main hallmarks of classical fascism; i.e. the building of a mass movement,  the rigid, reactionary and authoritarian ideology, personality cults and charismatic leadership, overt and aggressive nationalism, etc. – or call it ‘Trailer Park Toryism’ if you want to give an Anglo-American slant, its signature and defining characteristic is that it actively sponsors in its followers and foot-soldiers an entirely monochromatic world-view in which wilful ignorance is the primary ‘virtue’.

These people aren’t just dumb and ignorant, they’re dumb, ignorant and proud of it. In fact they revel in it to extent that what passes for debate in their circles tends to bear more of a resemblance to a shit-flinging contest at a chimp’s tea party than anything one might reasonably consider an argument.

Its a view of the world in which anything that’s labelled ‘liberal’ is automatically ‘the enemy’, which, given what liberal actually means the context of economics, tells you everything you need to know about the level of economic literacy to be found amongst the rank and file of this particular group. ‘Liberal’ is an insult after the fashion of  ‘Commie’, ‘Socialist’, ‘Lefty’ or the British favourite, ‘Trot’, not that cult members have the first idea about what any of these things actually mean. They certainly don’t read liberal or left-wing texts for fear of getting infected by ‘alien’ ideas – liberalism is contagious and best dealt by completely isolating yourself from the real world and anything with the merest shred of intellectual content – in fact a fair number of the American variety just don’t read at all, except, perhaps for the Bible, which they believe is the literal and absolute truth, even the bit about the universe being created in seven days. In reality almost all would be far better advised to bank on Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection being right as it least that gives their offspring a fighting chance of raising their intellectual capacity somewhere above that of a flatworm.

Despite the best of efforts of the Daily Mail and The Sun to reduce the conservative discourse to the level of a loosely related collection of monosyllabic grunts, enough of the British right-wing blogosphere remains refreshingly free of this kind of American McBrainDamage to make for a worthwhile intellectual contest, largely due to the prevalence of classical liberal and libertarian views amongst the best the right has to offer – although there are certainly exceptions to this general rule who are best avoided. Nevertheless, this particular brand of pre-packaged, freeze-dried dumb-ass anti-intellectualism is creeping irritatingly into the public discourse, poisoning the conservative well as it goes, most noticeably in regards to the BBC.

The near-constant stream of attacks on the BBC for its supposed liberal bias, with or without the corollary that ‘this is all a vast left-wing conspiracy’ amounts to no more than a temporary diversion for an altogether more painful truth; that British conservatism is slowly, but surely, going the way of the fabled Norwegian Blue and dying on its arse.

Intellectually its already in a state of near-terminal decline, more so for being blind to its own failings, which are perhaps best summed up in the all to common practice of its remaining adherents describing themselves as being:

…an economic liberal and a social conservative.

Well, if that’s how you like to describe yourself then congratulations. Bully for you. You’ve made an interesting lifestyle choice but in no sense can you call that a political philosophy.

‘Liberal conservatism’, the absurd notion that one can create a coherent political philosophy out mixing the aspirational drive of free-market capitalism with the hair-shirted self-denial of social conservatism is the canker the heart of British conservatism, the cancer that’s slowly eating away at what’s left of classical conservative thought. As a lifestyle choice its a perfectly serviceable way of making your way in the world but dressed up as a political philosophy its an incoherent jumble of mixed messages and abject confusion. ‘You can have it all’ meets ‘Don’t do that, it’s immoral’ in a sketch by Abbott and Costello.

You can try and kid yourself that it’s really the Liberal Democrats who operate in a state of perpetual intellectual uncertainty, that economic liberalism and social liberalism are the opposing forces that can never, ever, be brought together in a state of peaceful co-existence, but that’s just a nonsense. It’s perfectly possible, easy even, to unify economic and social liberalism – its called libertarianism – and the sole reason that this simple conclusion escapes the Lib Dems is simply that they lack the courage of any of their convictions  – they lack the balls to follow their intellectual pretensions to their logical conclusion for fear of losing their capacity to be all things to all people at all times, on which they’re founded their only hope of grabbing a few crumbs of power from the big table these last eighty years or so.

Such an approach is, of course, doomed to failure because, as Abraham Lincoln sagaciously observed:

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.

Unless those people – conservatives – are busily fooling themselves and operating, for the most part, in state of near complete denial.

Why is the BBC not more supportive of conservatives and conservatism? Because its a rats nest of assorted Marxists, Trots and damn dirty liberals as seems so often te suggestion?

No. It’s because the BBC is, and always has been, the mouthpiece of ‘the establishment’ and, after three election failures and ten years in the political wilderness, the Conservative Party is no longer ‘the establishment’. It has ceased to be the ‘natural party of government’ as it once – and in some quarters still does – hubristically thought  of itself and is gradually drowning in its own conceit.

The elephant in the Tory room is simply that you can’t play mix and match with  Hayek and Moses. At the level of political philosophy is simply doesn’t work because you’re dealing with forces that pull constantly against each other.

In another Shane Greer piece over Iain Dale’s blog he makes the observation that:

When for example Cameron talks about social breakdown he talks like a conservative; rolling back the state, empowering the individual, allowing communities the freedom to support themselves. But most importantly he talks about those things with compassion – in a way that connects with the wider electorate – without angering the base.

He’s also talking nonsense most of the time.

The Tories two policy documents on family breakdown – an interim and a final report – weigh in at a hefty 250+ pages in total and yet for all their efforts to account for the changing patterns of family life in Britain over the last forty years and advance the spurious notion that marriage is the panacea for all manner of social ills, at no point in either report to they acknowledge the two most significant social changes which, more than any other, account for the long terms trends in Britain’s marriage and divorce rates.

One of these is a purely social change – the demise of the shotgun wedding.

Throughout the latter part of the 1960s and right through to 1970/71, a little over 70% of all first live births to married women under the age of 20 occurred within the first seven months of marriage. By 1991 it had fallen to around 20%. Over the course of twenty years, women generally, and young women in particular, ceased to get married just because they’d fallen pregnant and the overall marriage rate fell accordingly.

The divorce rate, however, did something a little different. Between 197o and 1985-86 the divorce rate rose year on year, and it rose significantly. However, in 1986 is stabilised, bumped along at around the same level for five to six years and then, from 1992, began to head downwards, falling by 15% over the period from 1992 to 2003/4.

Now if you believe the Tories then the declining trend in the divorce rate over the last 10-15 years is, in part, a consequence of the introduction of the Child Support Agency which, fall its manifest failings and record of abject incompetence, is held to have acted to deter men, in particular, from leaving the family home (and marriage) to seek a divorce.

If you look at the actual data on marriage and divorce over this period, making allowances for the time it takes for a marriage to fall apart and end in divorce, then what quickly become apparent is that the long term trend in divorce rates pretty closely follows the trend in the decline in shotgun weddings.

With the liberalisation of the divorce laws in 1969 the divorce rate rose through the 70s and early 80s as couples who had married for the ‘wrong reasons’ (i.e. pregnancy) during the 60s and early to mid 70s found their way into the divorce courts until, by the mid 1980s, the fall in the number of shotgun weddings over the same period began to cancel out the statistical effects of these unstable marriages hitting the divorce statistics and then, after a short period of relative stability, the falling trend in marriages started to pull the divorce rate downwards.

Much of what the Tories claim to be evidence of the positive benefits of marriage amount to not much more than the effects of self-selection. The economic and social benefits identified in the report are by no means unique to marriage, they are enjoyed by any two-parent family (heterosexual or homosexual – there’s no difference) that manages to form a long-term stable relationship/family environment and the apparent statistical superiority of marriage over cohabitation, particularly in terms of the longevity of relationships, is almost entirely a function of the least stable relationships self-selecting into the cohabitation group where once, particularly on pregnancy, the discarded social convention of the shotgun wedding would have propelled them into married group, fouling up the statistics in the process.

The second key factor is an economic change, which the Tories tiptoe up to at several points in the report only to shy away from making the obvious conclusions explicit for what, once explained, will be obvious reasons. That factor is the increasing level of economic independence enjoyed by women.

In simple terms women, over the last forty years, have largely ceased to be wholly dependent on men for their, and their children’s, economic and financial well-being, primarily due to structural changes in employment and the introduction of laws providing for equal pay and outlawing gender discrimination plus, to a much smaller extent, both the safety net provided by the welfare state and the general predisposition of the courts in favour of women undergoing a divorce when it comes to custody of children and the division of family assets. (That last equation is simple enough – ex-wife gets kids = ex-wife retains family home).

For the talk of ‘welfare dependency’ from the political right, particularly surrounding lone parents, the evidence from the divorce statistics doesn’t really support such a view.

Between 1991 and 2000, the median length of marriage at time of divorce for women who married for the first time at the age of 25 or above remained stable at around seven years. For women marrying between the age of 20 and 24, it rose slightly, from 9 to a little over 11 years, while in the youngest age group is rose by almost 50%, from 12.7 to just over 18 years.

Changes in general trends in marriage and divorce can, and do, account for part of this trend but not all. The women showing up on these statistics for the lowest age group (under 20s) were in the main those who were still getting married at that age during the late 70s and early 80s because they’d fallen pregnant. These were women who moved rapidly from school into marriage and parenthood without gaining the qualifications or employment experience necessary to support themselves and their children by their own endeavours and were, therefore, most likely to be economically dependent on their husband to an extent that acted as a clear deterrent to divorce.

What the age group data show is that this kind of economic dependency declines as women get older until, by the time we reach the group that enters marriage in their mid to late 20s, the effects of economic dependency disappear entirely. If it were all just a matter of being able to fall back on welfare benefits then the difference in median length of marriage at the time of divorce between those marrying in their teens and those marrying in their early 20s would be much smaller, if not non-existent. However the scale of the difference – some 11 years by the year 2000 – plus the stability of the figures across all age groups from 25 upwards indicates that what makes the difference is not the knowledge that you can fall back on benefits but rather that you have, overtime, developed the capacity to survive by your own means; you’ve acquired and education, built-up a career you could return to, gained experience in employment that will stand you in good stead or the future.

Nowhere in either report do the Tories make either connection explicit. The shotgun wedding data is simply ignored, while at several points the report dances around the question of the effect of women’s economic independence while making every possible effort to turn their limited discussion of economic factors affect marriage and divorce rates over to the suggest that what they claim to be economic disincentives to divorce, like the CSA, encourage men to behave better within marriage.

The socially conservative message around marriage, which lays the blame for family breakdowns at the door of social liberalism, might well be attractive to the Tory ‘base’ but its only because the Tories have gone to great lengths to avoid making explicit the extent to which its actually economic liberalism and its impact on the income and earning potential of women, that turns out to be one of the biggest causes of divorce and family breakdowns.

After all, where would Cameron’s much talked about appeal to women voters be were he to put up the honest and factual argument that one of the most effective ways of keeping families together is to ensure that penury and poverty are the fate of women who decline to take their appointed role at a man’s side and make the best of things no matter what marriage brings.

Not the kind of message that would play well with, at least, the 17% or so of women who file for divorce each year on grounds of domestic violence and abuse in the home.

Faced with such a conundrum, the basic and irreconcilable incompatibility of the core elements of their own political values and beliefs, its little wonder that many choose to adopt the ways of Trailer Park Toryism and blame ‘liberal bias’ for all the ills of the world, and especially their own party. Such an approach may be flaccid, vacuous and intellectually dishonest but it at least has the virtue of concealing an unpalatable truth; that British conservatism is in near terminal decline as a political philosophy and exists today as a hollow shell and a shadow of its former self. Worse still – and here’s the real kicker for the dose faithful – if one if forced to name the assassin and bring to light the architect of the downfall of British conservatism then one can look to one name, and one name only.

Step forward, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.

To conclude, I guess I should comment briefly on what the future may hold for British Tories. Does the demise of British conservatism mean the final eclipse of political right in Britain.

Nah, of course not. Who could even believe that we’d be that lucky? 😛

Seriously, here seems preciously little evidence to suggest that classic conservatism, especially that of the ‘one nation’ variety will make much of comeback any time soon for all Cameron’s pretensions of moving to the centre ground. It seems more likely, at this point in time, that what remains of classical, and especially social conservatism will eventually be overtaken and supplanted by the much more vital and intellectually vibrant credo of libertarianism, although this will not be without its associated traumas or the risk of the Tories retreating fully into something not dissimilar to the errant and small-minded anti-intellectualism of the American Christian Right in an effort to ride out the storm.

Of the two, personally I’d take the former and hope its the libertarians that win through – we may well differ markedly in over view of economic policy but, at heart, both they and myself and social liberals and have much more in common that either of us have with the uber-Christian social conservatives.

If nothing else, that would guarantee that I still could get a intelligent and intellectually stimulating debate when I’m in the mood without the need tobecome fluent in monosyllabic grunt.

  • David Worth

    Any comments likely to be forthcoming about the fact that Boris Johnsons blog and web-site have been taken down following a legal action by Alisher Usmanov?

  • Yes – 10-15 minutes.

  • redpesto

    One difficulty for the Tories is the apparent lack of a Xian right ‘base’ in the manner of America, as well as the fact that social liberalism is far more politically, culturally and legally ‘entrenched’ here than in the US (cf the 1960s legislation on divorce, abortion and homosexuality, as well as the 1990s/2000s legislation on sexuality). Think back to that momnet when Widdecombe thought she was a leadership contender. (Pauses for gales of laughter.) Equally, how do you square the Single Market (hello Maggot once again…) with rampant Europhobia? In other words, the lazy imitation of the US right’s ‘culture war’ may be all that the Tories have going for them.