Identity politics and individualism

I was involved in a conversation about identity politics the other day. I hadn’t intended to write anything about it (and still don’t intend to say much more about it). But I did hit upon this interview with William Clouston, who leads the resurgent SDP. He speaks into these issues. If you have the time to listen, I would encourage you to do so.

Just as Giles Fraser noted here, liberals essentially broke the left. The big divide in British politics is between those who believe in communitarianism and those who believe in liberalism. The two-party system has been dominated by liberals who strongly favour the individual as über alles.

Fraser rightly asserted, Thatcher was not a Conservative at all but ‘a turbo-charged classical liberal who believed that the freedom of the individual, and most especially the economic freedom of the individual, trumped all other moral considerations.’ The Labour Party – particularly under Tony Blair – conceded the Thatcherite victory and began to organise themselves as a semi-progressive liberal party. Fraser notes, ‘at the price of ditching socialism, Blair established an electorally powerful, but intrinsically unstable, alliance between traditional Labour supporters and a newly empowered liberal middle class.’ He goes on to document the slow descent into fulsome liberalism to which the Labour Party is now in thrall.

The SDP New Declaration section on community states:

We believe in a more equal society, free of prejudice. However, a society which possesses no unifying values cannot build the solidarity to succeed. We must be one – irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation or creed and we must engage with fellow citizens as equals. We reject the current obsession with grievance and identity which divides our society into hostile and opposing camps. We favour strengthening the common bonds which unite us and, in so doing, re-enforcing communitarian impulses in public life.

It is mistaken to view every departure from ethnic, class or gender proportionality as prima facie evidence of discrimination. Some group differences merely reflect free choices and preferences in a open society. We hold that civilised toleration of such differences is necessary if we are to avoid descent into bitterness and conflict. We believe the shared ‘identity politics’ of both the far right and far left to be inherently divisive and self-defeating. For many years the liberal-left has abandoned the politics of solidarity for those of individual emancipation, without realising that putting differences above common bonds can harm mutuality.

We believe ‘fraternity vs division’ to be a key watershed question in all Western societies. Fraternity must prevail.

We regard kindness and mutuality as a political rather than a legal achievement which relies on free consent rather than legal obligation. Excessive individualism – of both the social and economic variety – has regrettably led some citizens to believe they don’t share a common fate with their neighbours. They do.

New Declaration

It goes on in its section on cultural renewals asserts:

Too often the narrow politics of individualism take precedence over the interests of the wider community, with some being quicker to demand rights than to assume responsibilities. Welfare and public services should be used responsibly. If not, the mutuality upon which they depend will be eroded.

A widespread values and virtues-led cultural renewal is needed, aimed at improving citizens’ happiness, health and well-being. Government – along with civic society – must play its role. We are communitarians. We reject laissez-faire libertarianism as indifferent and ineffective.

If nothing else, this is an interesting interview worth a bit of your time.