Like all liberals, I think of myself as being on the progressive side of British politics - but you've got to choose your allies carefully. Every once in a while, an article comes along that reminds me that the "progressive" left can be every bit as dangerous as the "conservative" right. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has an article in the Independent which strikes me as one of the most ill-judged bits of commentary I've ever read - from someone who's allegedly on the same side as I am when it comes to civil liberties, foreign policy and social justice.
Her basic thesis is that the right is on the rise, the left is in freefall, and it'll take another generation for progressive politics to come back. Not only does she manage to completely misread the significance of the Tories' recent successes, but along the way, she comes up with some arguments which border on the offensive:
"The sun now rises on the right and those of us on the other side are left despondent as we anticipate a prolonged winter of discontent. We, who believe in fairness, equality, human rights and universal justice, are of no consequence."
This sort of attitude really does hack me off. Nobody of a conservative bent remotely cares about fairness, equality, human rights and universal justice, do they? I may not agree with people on the centre-right on much, but to say that right-wingers hate human rights and justice is ignorant and simplistic. We don't live in a cartoon world of goodies and baddies. Do my Conservative friends really get up in the morning thinking "Haha, how shall I undermine social justice today?"
From experience, most people who get involved in politics, whatever their political persuasion, do so because they genuinely want to work for the common good. We may disagree about how to create a better Britain - or even what a better Britain would look like - but that's the whole reason for having a political debate in the first place! This sort of attitude, branding one's opponents as haters of fairness and justice, does nothing but promote cynicism towards the political process as a whole.
In Yasmin's world, like in any good cartoon, the normal rules of logic don't apply:
"Local election results show the country lurching right, in some parts even embracing the BNP. Instead of condemning the scum, Britons are instructed to 'understand' why these voters are 'driven' to vote for neo-Nazis. We are simultaneously warned to show no such understanding of young Muslims who are seduced by hate-filled Imams. White resentment of 'foreigners' is no more respectable than Muslim hatred of Westerners. Yet in our unequal world it is."
Please, please, tell me how we're ever supposed to beat the racism of the BNP unless we engage with the people who vote for them? How can we possibly win people back to the political mainstream if we refuse to understand what's made them drift away in the first place? It's bonkers. We help the BNP immensely by the hysterical way we react to them: condemning as "racist" anyone who tries to debate against them; accusing politicians of "pandering to racism" when they try and understand what motivates people to vote BNP. How else, pray, are we supposed to campaign against them?
The biggest problem with this argument, though, is that both halves of it are mutually exclusive. Either you can say that BNP voters and radicalised terrorist sympathisers are both "scum" to be hated and ignored, or you can say they're normal people with legitimate concerns who are exploited by extremists. But you can't have a paragraph that simultaneously condemns attempts to engage with the one group, yet calls for greater understanding of the other!
"The coup was complete when Boris took over our London ..."
Again, it's this breathtaking cynicism towards the whole democratic process! Look, I may not like it any more than you do, Yasmin, but Boris was elected legitimately by the people of London. He didn't march into City Hall with guns and tanks; he won the popular vote. What's the point of having a democratic system in the first place, if you're going to cry foul play the second it produces a result you don't approve of?
I think this is how most dictatorships start out, you know. An initially well-intentioned belief that the people sometimes make the wrong choice, and that they need to be controlled for their own good.
But then Yasmin moves on from cynicism to something far, far worse:
"Almost more depressing is the sight of black and Asian Britons following the wind blowing the Tories to victory. Boris has recruited Afro Caribbean 'leaders' who believe in physical chastisement and smart young Asians who deny the existence of racism and want an end to political correctness. The more old-fashioned Uncle Toms and their female equivalents are now expediently making themselves known to the Tories and right-wing think tanks."
Yasmin is effectively saying "If you come from an ethnic minority, you should vote for a left-of-centre party". I think this borders on outright racism, and it's equally insulting to both ethnic minorities and to white people. Why should your ethnicity have any bearing on how you vote? I'd like to live in the sort of tolerant and neutral Britain where people's ethnicity isn't an issue. The sort of Britain where we make up our mind on how to vote by reading the parties' manifestos and making our minds up, rather than on the basis of our skin colour.
Conservatism, whether you love it or hate it, is an ideology based on economics, on a particular social model, on a particular philosophy. If a person happens to agree with that philosophy, surely they're justified in voting Conservative. Exactly the same goes for Liberal Democrat and Labour voters. There's something very distasteful about putting emotional pressure on someone to vote against their intellectual viewpoint on the basis of their skin colour.
The comment about "following the wind blowing the Tories to victory" is pretty distasteful, too. It's suggesting that people are only voting Tory because it's somehow fashionable; Yasmin can't get her head round the idea that someone might make a positive choice to vote Conservative for reasons of principle. When people vote Lib Dem or Labour, fair play to them, we respect their views; but if they vote Tory, they're apparently doing it for spurious reasons rather than from genuine political belief. That's an undemocratic attitude.
As a Lib Dem, I believe in trusting the voters - and that means respecting them even when they make the "wrong" decision. The correct response to recent Tory successes is not to insult, patronise and emotionally blackmail the voters. It's to accept the people's decision, to work hard, campaign hard, and do our best to win the national debate in the future.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is supposed to be from the same end of the political spectrum as I am, but this article makes me feel every bit as far removed from the left as from the right. I may share her views on many of the key issues of the day, but when it comes to fundamental and underlying attitudes, I think she's on a totally different planet. Choose your allies carefully!