On communitarianism

For some reason this column from July last year for the Press and Journal didn’t get published on their website. It happens. I’m posting it here because I see the shadow of communitarianism in the Race and Ethnic Disparities report published by the government today (March 31)

Any lingering doubts that the current Westminster regime is populist to the marrow surely went out the window last weekend.

There was the announcement of plans to build landmark national infrastructure, backed up of course with precious little detail.

There was the briefing that the government wants a fitter, healthier nation – the hallmark of both the vilest and silliest regimes in history.

And most bizarre of all the PM was pictured doing press ups part way through a press interview. 

When it comes to populist bingo Boris Johnson only needs to drop some crocodiles in the Trafalgar Square fountains for an Idi Amin full house. And if you think that sounds far fetched bear in mind this is a man who, as Mayor of London, funded a cable car over the Thames. At least crocs would be cheaper than white elephants.

But perhaps most concerning was the sacking of Sir Mark Sedwill from his twin posts of chief civil servant and national security adviser. The latter post was immediately filled by a Number 10 chum, David Frost. 

It’s not quite clear why the PM and his Brexiteer chums are so fond of ‘Frosty’. He’s currently negotiating terms with the EU but he’ll be familiar to some in P&J territory as the one time head of the Scotch Whisky Association. He’s qualified to recommend a suitably stylish dram to James Bond, but little else when it comes to overseeing the nation’s spooks or interpreting their intelligence.

A regime that surrounds its leader with cronies and favourites looks more like a medieval court than a healthy democracy.

Sedwill quit after some nasty briefing against him. He will have read last week in the newspapers of his own imminent departure. Again, that’s the sort of stuff that happens in basket case nations.

The move to boot Sedwill speaks to the Brexiteers rhetoric against elites. The idea that civil servants are an out of touch mandarin class when in fact they are the ones at the coal face of policy and how it impacts people. And this is where populism goes awry. If a nation is being run by a crooked and autocratic elite then harnessing the populace to improve or unseat it is for the good. The problem with populism is when the ‘people’ are ranged against the ‘elite’ by the elite. And that’s what’s going on here. No-one could describe Boris Johnson or his right hand man Dominic Cummings as anything other than elite, their background is defined by money, privilege and opportunity but not fear of failure.

They are using the hopes and anger of those less fortunate to fuel their project and fulfil their esoteric aims. Next to none of those 17 million Brexit voters gives a fig for civil service reform. But they can get on board if it’s sold as taking down an elite that’s holding them back.

The paradox at the heart of populism is the idea that some elites are better than others. 

And that divisiveness is key to the latest ‘ism’ catching on in Westminster. Communitarianism sounds inclusive, but it’s another case of us versus them.

One of the most vocal advocates of communitarianism is Nick Timothy. As Dominic Cummings is to Boris Johnson so Timothy was to Theresa May. Quite why he gets a hearing given he managed to muff what ought to have been the easiest election ever is a mystery. Johnson proved hammering Jeremy Corbyn at the ballot box is an easy feat. But Timothy famously made social care key to the Tory manifesto in 2017 and tried to win an election on an unlikely ‘we’ll tax you when you’re dead’ ticket.

Still, top Tory advisers seem a shameless bunch. Just before Cummings set off to test his eyesight by taking his family for a drive Timothy published a book on Conservative philosophy and it’s received a fairly warm welcome.

The gist of it is that communities are the building blocks of society. Empower communities and you achieve the small state that many Conservatives crave while creating a safety net and equality of opportunity because folk in the same community will be driven to look after their own.

Given we’re all supposed to be more community minded courtesy of the coronavirus experience it’s a philosophy that seems designed for these times. Plus it doesn’t have the negative connotations of populism. Which is why quite a lot of Conservatives are keen on it. Watch out for it gaining currency in the weeks and months to come.

But be wary. For it fails on two fronts.

First, the idea that we’re all more community driven looks shaky. Those punters making for Bournemouth beach last week were more concerned about their own sweltering than either their own community or the one they trashed at the seaside.

And ultimately just as populism needs an ‘us’ and ‘them’ to survive so the whole concept of community is susceptible to ugly definitions of who belongs to any given community and who does not.

If communitarianism is to catch on it is in fact because it fits the defining character of our times – division.

Coronavirus has been a great leveller, it infects without prejudice. If some groups have suffered worse outcomes, particularly black and minority ethnic populations, it’s because society is discriminatory not the virus.

The shared experience of this pandemic could be used to bring us together and heal wounds inflicted by the politics of the last decade, particularly the referendums of 2014 and 2016. Sadly the signs are that the administration in Number 10 is embracing ‘isms’ that divide. 

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