12 March 2008

Why I do not call myself a conservative

I describe myself as a liberal person. I am happy to be described as very liberal. I was recently challenged to be clear about what I mean by liberal in contrast with conservative.

As a counsellor, I recognise that everyone constructs their world, the world, in their own, unique way. I do not believe that there is a correct way to understand the world. I am happy to admit that there are more and less functional ways to understand the world. For example, to believe that the moon is made of cheese may be imaginative, but is probably inaccurate. If, like Wallace and Grommit, one were to visit the moon in the hope of finding hunks of Wensleydale cheese lying around, the chances of coming away disappointed are high. I believe that many people are ignorant about many aspects of the world about which they hold views, and just as many people make only pitiable attempts (if any) to find out the facts. In this sense, therefore, the uniqueness of their construct is based on ignorance and prejudice. However, even were this not the case, every person would still have a different life story, a different set of experiences, a different collection of interests, giving them a different way of describing the world: a childless couple who are career-focused is likely to describe the world differently from a single-mother with five children; a white, male, middle-aged Surrey stockbroker is likely to describe the world differently from a young North African woman living in the banlieux of Paris; a dairy farmer in New Hampshire is likely to describe the world differently from a personal escort in Tokyo. As a counsellor, I would be unable to make a value judgment about the relative superiority of any description of the world. I believe that this position marks me out as liberal. To me, a conservative person is someone who considers either that there is a correct view of the world, or considers that their own view of the world has greater validity than the views of other people.

In the UK, the Conservative Party identifies itself as party that upholds family values. What this position refers to, however, is a narrow view of family: a man, married to a woman, with a number of children born within that marriage. Ideally there will also be grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins and nieces in an extended family. There is something very 'blood' about this. There is also an 'ideal', from which many depart.

I am not an uncritical fan of the family. My family of origin fitted this narrow, 'ideal', view, and was dysfunctional and abusive. Dysfunctionality and abuse are also significant aspects of the family experience of many people who I have counselled. I have a preference for a Lilo and Stitch view of family: "Family means nobody gets left behind" even when the family consists of two sisters and an alien. For me, family consists of the people we live amongst, the people who frequent (albeit 'virtually' in some cases) our lives, the people we choose. Within my own extended family there are half-people, step-people, adopted people. There are marriages, divorces, second marriages, and cohabitees. There are 'aunties' and 'uncles'. There are straight people and gay people. There are Canadian, French, Monagesque, German and English/Welsh people. I celebrate this diversity, and reject the notion of an 'ideal'. I guess that on a significant plank of Conservative Party policy, I fall well outside the boundaries of their core support.

It is usually the case that conservative people feel and express a sense of national pride. In the context of a world of nation states, this national pride often expresses itself as nationalism (pledging allegiance to the flag, singing Rule Britannia or La Marseillaise) or nationalistic aspirations (the separatist/secessionist agendas of the Scottish National Party [Scotland], the Vlaams Blok/Belang [Flanders], Lega Nord [northern Italy]).

More liberal people, on the other hand, appear typically at least more skeptical about, and often even hostile towards, expressions of nationalism. In the UK at least, liberal views and politics are more likely to be associated with internationalism and expressions of support for supranational organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the European Court of Justice, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights. In Israel, as I understand it, the conservative people are keen to strengthen the borders they have delineated, whereas the more liberal people tend to look towards dialogue with the Palestinians and neighbouring states (although I am sure that the situation is much more complex than I am suggesting here). In the United States, as presented on news and current affairs programmes on television and the radio in the UK, the 'Neo-Cons' do not trust the United Nations, dislike the idea of US military personnel being tried in an international court, and appear to be indifferent about the effect of the US economy on global warming and climate change (that is impacting on the entire world); whereas "Since leaving office, Clinton has been involved in public speaking and humanitarian work. He created the William J. Clinton Foundation to promote and address international causes, such as treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS and global warming." (Wikipedia: Bill Clinton), and Al Gore has become internationally famous for the high profile movie he presented against cavalier industrialisation at the expense of the world's climate An Inconvenient Truth.
... (to be continued)

Conservative people typically have such a strong sense of belonging to a land that they usually appear to believe they have a right to exclude others. It is not hard to find conservative people talking about 'foreigners' who 'take our jobs and houses', and call for elected representatives to enact exclusionist immigration policies. Although at the extreme end of conservatism racist and xenophobic sentiments are easy to encounter, such attitudes do not characterise conservatism, which instead typically prefers that people 'live where they belong'. When conservative people have gone to live in a different country it has traditionally been as colonial superiors. Of the 270,000 'Brits' (hideous term) who live in Spain (as of January 2006), many make little attempt to integrate far into Spanish culture, perhaps not even learning more than the basics of the language, but instead choose to live in British enclaves in Alicante, Malaga, Murcia and Almeria, with their shops retailing British brands.

Liberal people, in contrast, tend to thrive in diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environments, grasp the necessity, for themselves and others, of economic transhumance, migration and emigration, recognise the necessity of accepting refugees and asylum seekers into more stable society, and value the resulting infusion of cultural energy.

Law and Order
Conservative people typically believe that there has been a decline in moral values leading to tensions in society - views expressed eloquently in the UK during the 18th (e.g. Hogarth), 19th (Victorians), 20th (the courtroom trial of Lady Chatterly's Lover, Mary Whitehouse, 'Back to Basics' [a Conservative Party campaign]) and now 21st centuries. A decline over the past three centuries should now have us in hell! Which, of course, is the picture that the conservative UK press would have us believe. For conservative people, the remedy is that there should be more police officers to enforce civil order and that punishment for transgression of civil order should be more severe (e.g. Conservative Party 'Short Sharp Shock' policy).

Liberal people tend to desire the liberalisation of society and its values so that fewer people are seen as being close to, at, or beyond the margins. The Liberal reforms of the early 20th century, under Campbell-Bannerman and Lloyd George (the foundations of the welfare state in the UK), and the introduction by Leo Abse (Labour) in 1967 of legislation to decriminalise homosexual acts between consenting men, are examples of this liberalisation. During the 1992 Labour Party conference, Tony Blair attempted to appeal to both the liberal and conservative wings of potential Labour Party voters by using the slogan "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" Liberal people are more likely to be interested in restorative, rather than retributive, justice, and are more likely to recognise the faults of imprisonment.

Money, wealth and property
That there is a divide between conservative and liberal people regarding attitudes towards money, wealth and property appears to be both self-evident and complex. The much misquoted biblical aphorism that the love of money is the root of all evil might offer a signpost. It is hard to imagine that many of the people who work in the upper levels of the banking, insurance and finance sectors of the City of London, or hew at the rockface of the Manhattan "goldmines", celebrate the same socio-economic analysis as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Examining the Times 'rich list' for 2006 regarding personal donations to political parties, of the top 31 most generous donors, 24 donated to the Conservative Party (approximately £7,000,000), 5 donated to the Labour Party (£1,455,000), 1 donated to the Liberal Democrats (£129,798), and 1 donated to the Scottish National Party (£100,000). The list also shows loans to political parties - Conservatives: £12,650,000; Labour £7,800,000. From these figures it is easy to conclude that the people with a considerable amount of money are more likely to donate some of it in support of Conservative/conservative values.

Monarchy, aristocracy, nobility, honours and hierarchy
Conservative people in the UK tend to be in favour of the British monarchy, whereas liberal people are less predictable about the extent to which they take an interest in and support the British monarchy. I have been a lifelong republican (not in the US sense of Republican), and dislike any attention being given to the Windsor family or the ceremonial roles carried out by an hereditary head of state. Several countries (Ireland, Germany, Greece and Israel) manage to elect a non-executive head of state, just as all UK universities manage to appoint a Chancellor.

Titles and hereditary peerages belong to a world of long ago. Although still important in the seventeenth century, the world of being born into a social station in life was already starting to dissolve, in part hurried along by the Civil War, but also ironically by the enclosures, which moved farm hands off the traditional pastures, and into the more egalitarian towns and cities. Whilst it is still required that commoners bow/curtsy to the aristocracy, about which conservative people are likely to be happy, compared to 350 years ago, Britain is a much more egalitarian country, about which liberal people are likely to be happy.

Relation to land

... (to be continued)

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