This essay, on how the demand for a more civilised discourse has itself become a weapon in a polarised debate, was my Observer column this week.  It was published on 21 April 2019, under the headline ‘From David Lammy to Roger Scruton, we rush to damn our opponents’.

‘We can’t carry on like this, where disagreements over political issues become so visceral that those on the other side of a debate aren’t only mistaken but are evil, pernicious and wicked.’ So wrote Labour MP David Lammy in 2016 in the wake of Jo Cox’s murder.

It’s a sentiment that has become almost incontestable. Virtually everyone accepts that politics is unhelpfully polarised. That we need a more civilised public discourse. That, in Lammy’s words, ‘Fanning the flames of the ‘us-them’ tribalism that pervades our discourse at present is not only wrong but downright dangerous.’

The trouble is, the demand for a more civilised discourse has itself become a weapon in the polarised debate. The insistence that abuse has no place in public life is too often translated as: ‘My views are reasonable, but yours are abusive.’

Consider Lammy himself. At a recent anti-Brexit rally, he compared Tory conciliation of Brexiters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. When challenged by the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Lammy doubled down, insisting, if anything, the comparison was ‘not strong enough’.

I have long argued that mainstream rhetoric (and not just of conservatives) helps entrench anti-migrant sentiment and aids the far right. It’s one thing, however, to condemn politicians for such views. It’s quite another to portray them as the far right, or as Nazis. To do that is to do what Lammy warned against three years ago. The demand for a more civilised debate is often less a call to reshape public discourse than an attempt to claim the moral high ground. It’s also often a means of avoiding scrutiny.

Earlier this month, New Statesman deputy editor George Eaton conducted an interview with the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. It was a wide-ranging conversation, taking in China and George Soros and Islamophobia, but curiously of little depth. Apart from a series of damning quotes, one learned little about Scruton’s views. It was as if the interview had been conducted for the purposes of eliciting the quotes.

Eaton tweeted about the interview, in which he truncated some of the quotes, making Scruton sound even more bigoted, and leading to him being sacked from a government architectural commission. Critics decried Eaton’s ‘journalistic dishonesty‘. Eaton stood by the interview, but acknowledged that ‘the way I promoted the interview on my personal Twitter account was a serious error of judgment which I profoundly regret’.

It is right that Eaton should have been called out for his attempt to snare Scruton. It is equally right, however, that Scruton should have been called out for what he actually said. Such as, for instance, his claim that Hungarians were right to be ‘extremely alarmed by the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East’.

This was no slip of the tongue. Scruton has a long history of such views, going back to his days as editor of the Salisbury Review in the 1980s. In a 2006 essay in the American magazine New Criterion, he defended Enoch Powell, lambasting ‘the proposition that pious Muslims from the hinterlands of Asia would produce children loyal to a secular European state’. He worried, too, that ‘the people of Europe are losing their homelands’.

Most of those who excoriated Eaton replayed parts of the interview that made his tweets look misjudged but ignored the uglier parts of Scruton’s views. Like Eaton himself, they seemed more interested in feeding the outrage machine than in illuminating debate. So we have a curious situation in which Scruton is sacked for his comments, there is ire at how his comments were presented by an editor on Twitter, but little discussion about his actual views, their context or consequences.

Part of the problem is that the conditions for fruitful public debate involve many elements, some of which may seem contradictory: a willingness to be robust in one’s critique while also being charitable in interpreting our opponents; refusing to portray opponents as simply ‘evil, pernicious and wicked’ while also not ignoring that which is so; being committed to free speech but also to a kind of speech that allows debate to flourish.

Balancing such elements, especially in societies as polarised and fragmented as ours, is difficult. I am not so sanctimonious as to imagine that I often don’t fail to do so myself, or that I don’t fall into tribal thinking. But for all of us, such failure only makes urgent the need to view debate not as a means of eliciting outrage but as a process that might change minds. Including one’s own.


  1. damon

    I’m trying to figure out who was worse – David Lammy for his outburst, or Enoc Powell for his 1968 speech.
    I’d have to say that Lammy was the more ridiculous – if only for him having the benefit of so much contemporary hindsight. Powell was reacting to a scary potential future and maybe getting it wrong about how things might work out. But they were such a different generation from us today. They’d all lived through the war, and any experience of diversity was known mostly from the Empire.
    Or from the United States – where major rioting had taken place in several cities just a couple of weeks earlier.

    This is the kind of reality that those Birmingham Tories would have struggled to come to terms with ….. Handsworth in Birmingham in the 1980s. Most of the people who heard Powell speak that night, might have found living in this environment very challenging. How and why it got like this so quickly is a subject for a different day I think. But it is a candid snapshot of the kind of future those people in 1968 might have had in mind.

    David Lammy has been protected from the harshest of criticism and hasn’t been consigned to infamy in the way that Powell was for his comments, and it makes Powell’s use of the term “whip hand” in his speech sound a little bit prophetic, though not particularly in the way he was thinking.
    Lammy has benefitted from some “teflon privilege” due to his race I think.

  2. damon

    I would defend Roger Scruton to a degree, because we all have our different ways of looking at the world and his opinions are legitimate ones I think – even if you strongly disagree with them.
    He’s a certain kind of British person and looks at the world through a certain kind of old fashioned “romantic” lens.
    I remember a documentary he did about England, the English people and the countryside, where he was filmed taking part in a fox hunt, riding a horse and wearing the hunt uniform. He was “waxing lyrical” about the landscape of the fields and villages he was riding through and how they had been unchanged for centuries.
    Throw in an old painting of those same views across the fields, with a church in the distance, or some poem of that same countryside from the 18th century and you have quite an appealing image that forms in your mind.

    Many might view that as hogwash and have no time for it. A majority even, particularly if that means you start getting reactionary when it comes to describing modern Britain in all its complexity and diversity.
    But I accept Scruton as being that particular sort of English person – because in a diverse society, you’re supposed to accept difference of world views.

    For many people though, he’s beyond acceptable. The Guardian’s Zoe Williams had a go at him yesterday and had no sympathy for him losing his position. Because to her, he’s crossed boundaries of what is acceptable in today’s society. The modern “line” goes that you can’t be too critical of the multicultural project.
    Which is never static and settled, but always ongoing.

    One heretic that Scruton highlighted back in the 1980s was the Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford.
    Honeyford was another of these particular kinds of old fashioned Englishmen (born in 1934) who was having great trouble dealing with the change being brought about in our society by the effects of large scale immigration.
    But instead of just castigating him as “a racist” – I think we should have some understanding of how many people struggled to deal with the kind of “transitioning” places like Bradford we’re experiencing in those years.
    Suddenly you had schools which were 90% Muslim and there was a lot of cultural and religious accommodating to be done on all sides. Not everyone can do that as easily as the next person, and Honeyford and people like Scruton were making their misgivings quite public.
    The question for me is, did they have a point at all? Was anything they were saying based on reality – or at least the reality from a point of view which did have a legitimacy?

    Liberal modern society has said that “No” they didn’t have anything legitimate to say on these issues of the multicultural transformations taking place. They were just racists and Islamophobes.
    I don’t know if “that” word existed then by the way, but I see that it’s just been defined – and is going to become official in Scotland at least.

    I don’t know if that is a good development. Are you allowed to quibble about it or do you just have to accept it in its entirety? It’s the kind of thing that Scruton and Honeyford would have been against.

    When I read strong leftists and anti-racists giving their views, I do also think of people like Scruton and Honeyford (and millions of people from previous generations who might not have got this new society either).
    Here is one on his twitter the other day, retweeting a short video from a Muslim woman in Luton about how hard it is to be a Muslim woman in Britain toady.

    Is it really that bad? If it is, then something has obviously gone wrong with the project of transforming Britain through introducing such diversity.

    The guy who tweeted that is heavily critical of right wing individuals and Islamophobes like Tommy Robinson etc.
    Now he’s found some new villains, in a couple of UKIP candidates standing for the EU elections. (David Lammy has joined in at being appalled by them).
    I like to juxtapose ardent anti-racists like him and Hope not Hate, with people who take a totally opposite view like Scruton, and to try to work out where any of them have some valid points, and also where they lose it and start being really negative and wrong.
    To me it’s not that clear cut. I find that I can like a lot of people who I disagree with, more than some other people I might actually agree with more. I can’t help being more sympathetic to people like Scruton, than those who slam him for being such a bigot. Which would make me a “supporter of bigots” in many people’s eyes I guess.
    I don’t think I am though. The conversation is too polarised.

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