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Scandal follows scandal these days in Westminster. We seem to be facing numerous instances where the Government, one of its ministers, departments or officials say one thing and do something different to what they say.
The world has witnessed the spectacle of Boris Johnson resigning just barely ahead of a damning report on his conduct in the ‘Partygate’ scandal. Partying while the rest of the country locked down and suffered many types of privations is a clear example of what J. K. Galbraith once called “private opulence and public squalor.” Partygate is squalid and is nakedly a ‘we did one thing while demanding other people do the opposite’ sort of scandal. It is brazen hypocrisy.
In my own experience, I have stumbled into the Government’s policy of blacklisting of external speakers who might say – or retweet – something that someone in government doesn’t like. This happened to me, as I’ve written about in these pages previously, by a Government that literally proclaims it is against ‘cancel culture’. This same Government has promulgated a draft bill against ‘de-platforming’ in universities and has appointed a free speech ‘tsar’ in the same month that I have been struggling against literally being cancelled from speaking at a conference. My allies, who are many, point out the obvious hypocrisy at play.
For the vast majority of people I have interacted with, the hypocrisy involved in both Partygate and the blacklisting scandal have been fairly obvious. My own circle of centrists and I are by no means the only ones to see it. But why does the charge not stick? Why cannot the perpetrators see or, in the case of the blacklisting, even attempt to hide the hypocrisy?
The broad charge of hypocrisy doesn’t seem to stick very well these days. It gets ignored or shrugged off by the targets. A cynical public begins to assume thoughts along the lines of ‘well, what do we expect from these people?’ as expectations of moral and ethical conduct have been gradually eroded over a decade of vexatious politics.
But I think that fatigue among the public is only part of the problem. The rot runs deeper.
Something is going on here. We are looking at a set of morally bankrupt behaviours.
One possibility is that a decade or more of operating with lax moral and ethical standards has bred a lack of introspection, which has combined with a tired electorate which has largely lacked the opportunity to intervene in the form of a general election.
A pattern of behaviour that lacks negative reinforcement for bad decisions can easily breed hypocrisy. But my working hypothesis is grimmer: what if hypocrisy is seen by some as a deliberate tactic – not some sort of error or failing? Is it possible that they are doing it on purpose?
As a young international affairs Master’s degree student many years ago in Washington, I read a book that I keep coming back to time and again: The Moral Basis of a Backward Society by social scientist Edward Banfield.
Banfield conducted significant field research in rural southern Italy, studying local societal norms there. He observed that people in that region of Italy behaved with a strongly bipolar set of social mores. He coined the term “amoral familism” to account for this phenomenon.
He observed that the conservative society of rural southern Italy at the time observed a very rigid and tight set of moral and ethical expectations within the bounds of extended family networks. However, outside the boundaries of extended family, a dog-eat-dog ruthlessness prevailed.
You could, and were expected to, engage in rougher, harsher, less moral behaviour against other parts of society. There were two codes of behaviour – a strict one for one’s own tribe; and a harsh, amoral, one for the broader world.
Banfield went to great lengths to unpack this and come up with explanations, but a key feature of this was that nobody who lived in this system would readily acknowledge the open hypocrisy and cynicism that was so nakedly on display for outsiders to see. In Banfield’s view, this omnipresent amoral familism prevented people from working together towards a common good.
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Has British politics come to resemble the region of Italy that Banfield studied? Have UK tribal politics within the major political parties spawned a British political variant of amoral familism?
Certainly, we can see some of the symptoms Banfield witnesses in extended families in Italy. We do not see the ability of the major political tribes in the UK to work with other tribes to promote the common good. Inside the larger parties, this tribalism may even extend to various groups within a party. After all, we’ve seen the fratricidal conflicts between pro-Brexit and pro-Remain factions within several of the political parties. We have witnessed the conflicts within Labour between pro- and anti-Corbyn wings of the party. It takes a three-dimensional data plot to work out the various rifts within the Conservative Party at present.
It is my fear that we are seeing more than just fragmentation and tribalism. Some of these political factions appear to engage in other features that Banfield would have recognised.
For someone to be stung by a charge of hypocrisy, they have to actually care a bit and think that being hypocritical is wrong. But if someone does not see anything wrong with saying one thing and acting in a different way, they have immunised themselves against charges of hypocrisy. They can shrug it off and say ‘so what?’
We certainly can see the degradation of civil society described by Banfield is certainly starting to creep into our daily life. Have we reached a ‘Banfield point’ in public discourse? It should be noted that the signs and symptoms of degraded tribalism are by no means confined to a single segment of the Conservative Party.
Such hardened attitudes as defending Boris Johnson from Partygate or the ‘free speech versus blacklisting’ issue are signs of the hypocrisy baked into tribalism. Such hypocrisy may even serve to energise a faction’s hardcore supporters.
To people deeply afflicted by political tribalism and less encumbered by morals and ethics, the ability to say one thing and then do the opposite may look like a show of strength. But hypocrisy is a callous tactic.
I fear that it has become a feature, not a glitch.