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‘Those Who Enjoyed the Post-1945 Social Progress of the West Were Made Complacent By It: We Forgot Its Price is Vigilance’

AC Grayling explores the factors that have driven the rise of ‘illiberal democracy’

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in December 2023. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/AP/Alamy

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On New Year’s Day 2024 ‘DEI’ will end at all 33 publicly-funded higher education institutions in Texas. ‘DEI’ stands for ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ and is the programme aimed at ending racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination while promoting multiculturalism and inclusion. Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the anti-DEI Bill into law in June, and already many institutions have dismantled their DEI resource centres and reassigned their staff.

As a move in the culture wars, this is pretty blunt – only one step short of banning people of colour or difference of sexual preferences from campuses outright (people who do not feel welcome will ban themselves; that’s part of the plan), and – in my view – two steps short of lynching them, which was once, and not that long ago, the option of choice in the US’ southern reaches. This fact has to be mentioned because the direction of travel indicated by ending DEI points that unpalatable way – for the simple reason that it’s the direction from which conservative moral thinking comes.

‘Conservative moral thinking’ is a kind way of putting it, because thinking is not what underlies moral conservativism.

What underlies it is feeling: emotions not of empathy and kindness, understanding and acceptance – but of tribalism, xenophobia, racism, fear of change, fear of difference.

Simplistic binaries – white-black, good-bad, male-female, right-wrong – lie at the source and limit of these feelings. Any gradations or nuances upset conservatives and must therefore be stamped on.

One of the major attractions of religion to conservative moralists is that it offers strong rules in relation to anything that does not observe the binaries – the more simplistic the better.

The political wing of conservatism is not, however, quite so unthinking.

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From its followers’ point of view, the great inconvenience in life is what they regard as the wrong kind of liberty. Whereas being free from taxes and federal laws, free to carry a pistol and own several assault rifles, free to exploit workers, free to cheat customers, and free to say hateful things about people different from them is the kind of freedom they like – they do not like protests and strikes, people voting in support of their opponents, the law protecting people unlike themselves, and they emphatically do not like paying taxes for other peoples’ health care or education.

This point of view has been frankly and openly voiced in America for decades. But it is only in the last decade or so that this agenda – from 1945 a mostly sleeping virus in Europe’s immune system – has broken through the skin like leprous ulcers in the form of Hungary’s Orbán, Italy’s Meloni, the Netherlands’ Wilders, Austria’s Kickl, France’s Le Pen, Germany’s AfD, and the enablement of the British Conservative Party’s capture by the UKIP/Brexit Party. 

The current UK Government has placed limits on protest, set out to ban strikes, introduced mandatory voter ID, shifted billions of pounds from public service budgets into cronies’ pockets, allowed the NHS and local government to wither (so that they can be bought cheap by ‘private providers’ one suspects), protected the Thatcher-sold utility companies with profit-gouging and poor services matched in ambition only by the further billions of debt that have accumulated in order to pay dividends, plan to introduce dozens of ‘freeports’ and ‘special economic zones’ in which private corporations will be effectively be the government and will sell to the local population, for profit, what once were public services – and so wretchedly on, in full asset-stripping, civil-liberty-limiting, anti-democratic mode.

Rishi Sunak attended a gathering in Italy recently, along with Viktor Orbán and Steve Bannon, as a guest of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Bannon’s presence is significant. The ‘Bannon playbook’ for right-wing politicians is brutal in its simplicity and effectiveness. It is: cause chaos, disrupt, frighten and anger people about immigrants, wokeists, gay people coming for their kids; roil them up; embroil them in difficulties caused by anarcho-capitalism (privatisation on steroids) which makes them paddle faster and harder in the rising waters of debt and insecurity, and put the blame for their plight on the immigrants (mainly) and the wokeists, bien-pensants and ‘liberals’. 

Anarcho-capitalism, very bad for the have-nots, is very good for the haves – there’s profit in chaos, lifting bonus caps and selling public assets cheap. While this is going on ‘the state can be rolled-back’ and those pesky civil liberties and democratic restraints that make governing difficult can be ‘disapplied’.

The aim is to reverse the idea that government is the servant of the people’s interests; the people are to be made to serve the governor’s interests. Rulers must rule – without following any rules – and the little people must not get in the way. Their role is to be milked, ceaselessly, mercilessly, impotently.

We see all of this unfolding before our eyes, plain and clear. There is a mighty battle already under way.

Donald Tusk in Poland, Pedro Sanchez in Spain, and Keir Starmer in the UK appear to buck the Bannoning trend. The EU is structured on the progressive and liberal principles of the post-1945 immune time, but in the 2024 European Parliament elections a Bannonish majority might win. Alas: those of us who enjoyed the increasingly open and inclusive social progress of the West after 1945 were made complacent by it; we forgot that its price is vigilance.

‘One of the World’s Most Cyber-Attacked Nations’: Parliamentary Report Confirms Russian Interference Attempts in UK Elections – and Slams Braverman’s Inaction to Prioritise ‘Stopping the Boats’

The former Home Secretary showed no interest in urgent threats to the UK as the National Security Strategy Committee reveals that Vladimir Putin made attempts to interfere with the last General Election

Though highly allergic to conspiracy theories, I find it ever harder to resist thinking that there might be something to the allegations of a Russian connection with the Bannoning of politics in the democracies of the West. Putin, Orbán, Trump, Republican reluctance to help fund Ukraine’s war, Boris Johnson and the Lebedevs, Russian donations to Britain’s Conservative politicians, Russian interference in elections, Russians murdering Russians on British soil without much consequence – these are a spattering of dots that beckon one to wonder whether they join up.

If there is a connecting line it is to be found in the answer to this question: who stands to gain most by disunity in, even the fragmentation of, Europe? The answer is: Vladimir Putin.

It is a longstanding and well-known aim of his. To some, it is plain that Brexit was his first great success in this endeavour, with the added bonus of considerably weakening the UK itself. The UK, when both in the EU and a strong ally of the US, was once a formidable thorn in would-be resurgent Russian flesh, if you look at it from Putin’s point of view. Now it is a rusting hulk drifting offshore, and the task of picking off others in the convoy is easier.

The connection between moral and political conservatism? Attacks on immigrants and wokeism and the rest do a double job and do it beautifully: they fire up the base, and distract them from the agenda of making them the subjects to an anarcho-capitalist system in which they have few rights, but pay for everything with and beyond their last pennies.

It is not too late to resist what is happening.

Get the UK out of the Putin-helping (whether intentionally or not) Bannoning trend, return to the task of helping to build a strong and Europe committed – as it constitutionally is – to human rights and civil liberties, and resume vigilance thereafter. This is the least we must do.


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