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May 08, 2008

Richard D. North debates Lincoln Allison's The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy - and remembers what a conflicted bunch conservatives are

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North challenges, debates and enjoys Lincoln Allison's The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy. The views expressed here are those of Richard D. North, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

The Disrespect Agenda is an extremely useful squib. It's an unexpected firework, you might think, coming from where it is. Here's one conservative 60-something who gets quite strong impulses to daub graffiti and professes a taste for roaring crudities with the crowd at a football match. In short, he likes the primordial unruliness of the English. He criticises "rat-boys", and superannuated Young Fogeys too. But the joy of this book is that it is positive: it likes the majority of the modern British experience.

Dr Allison can't abide the "respect agenda", not least because it was for a while a big plank in the wobbly New Labour platform. You'll have gathered that this book doesn't have the Daily Mail's neuroses. That said, one of the many seeming inconsistencies of the piece is that Dr Allison thinks parents don't deserve respect but does repeatedly insist that children need two of them.

It doesn't matter that such a book is not wholly coherent. Its non-trivial larkiness is a fair exchange.

Dissing respect
On the face of it, Dr Allison is embarking on a standard critique of the "politically correct". He wants to knock down institutionalised, empty and soulless politeness. He says there's too much respect knocking about, especially in the wrong places. Noting that black gangstas bang on about wanting lots of it, he goes on to say the whole enterprise has long been debased. He suggests that we stop respecting such undeserving objects as teachers, parents and politicians. Indeed - and here I think he is plain wrong - he says:

The fundamental ethical law is that those who want respect should receive contempt - just for wanting it.
What next? Shall we deny profit to capitalists, applause to actors and honour to heroes? I accept that no-one who claims virtue or spirituality can have them. I understand that those who demand respect don't often deserve it. But wanting respect is perfectly respectable and often an engine for good. And we should note this: gongs are cheaper than cash.

But don't be fooled. Dr Allison doesn't think we should only respect people and institutions that have earned our obeisance or admiration. He thinks the monarchy deserves respect, and not least because that's what it's for, whether there’s any merit in the monarch or not. Rather similarly, he dislikes most government, but thinks you had better obey the state, because that's what it's there for. I think he's a bit of a Hobbesian. Who isn't?

Dissing humanism
From the off, this is a bumpy ride. But it gets bumpier. Dr Allison thinks that we misdefine and deify respect because we've got a rights agenda which flows from a humanist agenda. This is to say that we anchor our thinking in the rights of the person - any person, whether they be monster or fool.

This is very nearly a philosophical book. Dr Allison quotes and likes Hume and Mill and quotes but doesn't like Bernard Williams. Lincoln Allison is a happy Utilitarian and counterposes that doctrine with the humanism which he assumes always weighs the rights of the person too heavily against the happiness of the greater number.

This is useful stuff, but may not hold all that much water. I cheerfully define myself as a humanist, and do so on the basis that my cast of mind was mostly established by being taught, and accepting, that Erasmus and Sir Thomas More were terrifically important. They were humanist as opposed to obscurantist. I find it very hard to abandon an underlying affection for their way of thinking, even though it was much more religious (never mind better educated and cleverer) than any of mine.

Actually, Dr Allison's utilitarianism is a version of humanism. After all, utilitarianism is just one way of balancing the all-important rights of persons.

I'm not sure whether Dr Allison's ambitions are philosophical. They may be, since he accuses two other conservatives (one of them, Christie Davies, a Social Affairs Unit regular) of not being philosophical enough. Actually, I doubt this is a very philosophical book. It leaves too many stones unturned, too many paths unexplored. Its author may hope to achieve all kinds of things with The Disrespect Agenda, but to my eyes at least, its main value is that it lays out the archipelago of contradictions which is modern - perhaps any - conservatism. Using it, you can work out where you are and (to over-do the mapping idea) decide how to get to where you might like to be. We meet lots of writers and ideas, often in anecdotes and all briskly, and get a better grip on our own inclinations as we go.

Modern morals and manners
This is an important book for the Social Affairs Unit because it will help friend and foe understand the kind of argument this think tank is engaged in. The undogmatic Social Affairs Unit is trying to help people think through "morals and manners for the twenty-first century" and does so from what many would say is a broadly conservative point of view. Oh dear. You may say: how very New Labour. Doesn't the Social Affairs Unit's mission translate as "Traditional morals and manners in a modern context"? So be it. At least the Social Affairs Unit isn't frightened of the nation's back-story.

And whatever else we are, it isn't socialist. But as Dr Allison says, it is no longer enough for conservatives merely to define themselves as fighting socialism. We have won that one (at least unless there's a colossal recession). We know that we are for the idea that a good society depends on the voluntary activity of individuals and their myriad associations. We want more of that stuff, dangers and all. After that, we are fractured.

My own line is to stress that the conservative is always conflicted as between his authoritarian and his libertarian inclinations. (And between tradition and progress; and the rich and the poor.) Most of the time Dr Allison seems cheerfully keen on the freedom bit of that equation. Indeed, he really plants his flag firmly on a hill marked "libertine". He has spotted that the English are in some special and rather good way uncivilised.

I agree with that but only when I'm in the mood to remember that conservatives have to wrestle with the real vitality of the country they say they love. I didn't agree whilst I read Dr Allison's passages on a train and a nearby nihilist hooded oik played music on his mobile in loudspeaker mode. The oik was probably on his way home to a nice semi in Horsham, and that's what really ticks me off. What is it with this widespread emulation of the gormless? Oh, I know. It's a deep resentful kick against compulsory but unenforceable un-meant niceness. Which is Dr Allison's point.

Disinhibited and disrespectful
For my money, Dr Allison is weak, or rather, unthoughtful, on the thorny matter of how order and freedom are in a perpetual tussle to create liberty. The British are famous for their reserve and stoicism: that's how we got the Civil Service, the Stones, Shakespeare and the SAS. I like Jane Shilling's remarks in The Times on how Britain is now "disinhibited".

She might have said that we are now super-disinhibited. We always were a curious mixture of reserve and expressiveness. Perhaps Dr Allison would argue that we should shed more inhibitions. For my part I wish he had said more about the way misrule, in its better forms, is temporary and quite limited and that we have rather lost that sense of contractual naughtiness. It is hard to dispute that we are less well-mannered than we once were. The issue becomes how to balance the need for control versus chaos. And that often becomes a balance between institutions and individualism.

Sorry - but we should respect politicians
And here's my real beef with the book. Dr Allison says we should never respect politicians. I simply don't understand this. Rather as in the case of the monarchy (or the state), we should go out of our way to show that we respect the political process even whilst we see the flaws in its day to day reality.

Come to that, Dr Allison is less funny (or less insightful) than he thinks in his writing on parents and teachers. He certainly, for instance, doesn't help me work out what a person owes his not-especially loveable elderly mother. If not love, then what? Duty? Respect? Charity? Dr Allison says we should be nice to our parents because it makes for a nicer world. Wouldn't it be utilitarian to suitably compensate the world for one's failure to one's own? So why does it seem obvious to me that one “owes” something to one’s parents which hasn’t necessarily been earned and which can’t be discharged by any amount of generosity to anyone else? It seems feeble not to recognise that filial duty (or whatever) is a very big deal.

Respecting the past? Or moving on?
Moving on, Dr Allison lets us poke about in other matters which divide conservatives. One is the degree to which we are nostalgic, and as such rather keen on old-fashioned social mores. One of his heroes is Samuel Smiles, whom he rightly identifies as a liberator. As anyone who reads Smiles' Self Help will have to admit, his was a celebration of social mobility and the inherent human quality of enterprise to be found anywhere in society. Dr Allison suggests that Smile'’ view is that respectability

has an enormous propensity to decay into a kind of pseudo-respectability, in which materialism and hypocrisy are major components. And, even more fundamentally, it establishes structures in which petty tyrannies and repressions flourish.
So the bit he most likes - curiously - is Smiles talking rather as Richard Layard and Oliver James do. Anyway, we are lightly touching on the other but linked great divide in conservatism: is it commercialist or the reverse? The vulgar assumption is that conservatives stand up for capital against labour, but for all kinds of reasons that's always been conflicted. (Myself, I'm sticking with the capitalists, crassness and all.)

It is often assumed that conservatives are necessarily middle or upper class. This made some sense when the lower classes divided themselves into the untroubling sort who respected those above them (and sometimes succeeded in joining them), and the troublesome sort who argued and struggled for the abolition of the upper classes (and sometimes succeeded in joining them). Dr Allison notes that the working class were at least as respectable (even the non-conservative amongst them) as the middle classes, and sometimes even more prone to outbreaks of unruliness. The point is that Dr Allison finds as much merit in the working class as in the middle class and that usefully reveals a further conservative complication.

Unpopular conservatives
In reminding us of the sheer variety of conservatisms, Dr Allison helps remind us how silly it is that modern conservatism is widely perceived to be a minority sport. It seems to be the preserve of admirable if prickly types - anally-retentive purists and prigs, at their worst - who have endangered the Conservative political party and allowed New Labour's mush to seem almost attractive.

Actually, of course, conservatism is more or less what almost all adults live by. It is more or less capable of coherent expression. But conservatism is complicated because it is most of society. It is where one is when one isn’t a revolutionary or a radical. It is conflicted and contested because it is the widespread habit of building a rule-based society. It needs to chafe as little as possible and to be capable of change.

The politics of the country doesn't stack up that way. The Tories still have the problem of “entitlement” and Labour can still play the underdog. As Dr Allison might put it, the Tories are thought pompous and to demand respect. In his book, they are bound to be deserving of contempt. Labour plays to that by insisting on everyone's right to sneer at the Tories. So the old stereotypes persist. Tories crave respect and look undeserving; Labour offers resentment and is forgiven its chippiness.

If it were just another diatribe against political correctness, this book wouldn't be new or much use. It isn't especially constructive, in the sense of giving us a recipe for the good society. But it is of value because it forces us conservatives to reconsider the necessary dark heart of our dislike of the politically-correct. We who are inclined to lament the "retreat of respectability" have to remember that politeness won’t build the world we want.

Lincoln Allison's book is a delightfully un-neurotic, unfussed account of many of the contradictions which ought more to entertain than daunt the conservative.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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