Monday, 18 July 2016

How wrong was Leave? [part 5]

We are, you will be relieved to hear, coming to the end of this series. You may recall that it started with Matthew Parris telling a story about Brexit being a shocking revelation of an unpleasant national character. I want the story of Brexit to be something much more pleasant and, as I have shown, there is plenty of evidence from which a far more pleasant story can be constructed.

This post, however, deals with something a little different: assuming that I am wrong in everything I have said so far, to what extent should the leaders of the Leave campaign, not themselves xenophobes, feel personally guilty for having ridden a wave of xenophobia? My answer is: not at all. All is explained below.


This is a philosophical question that can be addressed quite generally: what do we think about the apparently decent politician who is supported by bad people or for bad reasons?

First, let's note that there are a number of possible variants: the cynical dog-whistler who slyly, subtly and knowingly encourages people to support him for bad reasons; the man who turns a blind eye, not enquiring too deeply as to why his supporters are so vociferous when his declared policies are so reasonable; the closeted victim of bigotry, who calls down hatred on himself out of secret shame or to hide himself; the closeted bigot, who is too scared to express his own bigotry, but secretly revels in that of others; the high-minded patriot, who knows that his success relies on the baser instincts, but who justifies that to himself, as revolutionaries must, on the basis that the greater good requires his success by fair means or foul. Perhaps you can think of more. We might pass different moral judgments on each of these people.

Second, let's take the low-hanging fruit, i.e. some quick conclusions. By and large, if X is supported by patently bad people who express bad reasons in support of X then there is a good chance that X is a bad lot. Any X who finds himself in that position should examine his conscience very carefully. On the other hand. it can be very hard to make judgments about someone in the position of X without the power to look into others' souls. We can agree to admire Bob Marshall-Andrews asking people he disagrees with not to vote for him.

These are not stupid points and they might be useful in real life but they do not grapple with the central question: there is a policy which is itself a perfectly reasonable; indeed, you consider it both moral and expedient; you need supporters to bring the policy into effect; you find that (a material number of) your supporters support your policy for some ulterior motive, i.e. because bringing your policy into effect will allow or make it easier for them to take some further step which would be wrong or inexpedient; are you obliged to stop pursuing your policy in those circumstances? Do you have to do a Marshall-Andrews?

My answer is no. Powell's answer to Parris' question was a glib one given on a light-hearted occasion, but it contained truth. Democratic politics is a rough-and-tumble business and one mustn't be too precious about it. Some people support tax cuts to boost economic opportunities for all; others might do so because they want more cash to devote to augmenting their own collection of [insert something you find repellent here]. Some people support more funding for the NHS out of a desire for a cost-effective and equitable health service to serve the nation; others might do so because they want to be free from the financial cost of repairing their self-abused bodies. That's life. You find your democratic coalitions where you can: landowners who love subsidies join environmentalists on wind-farms; when it comes to halal meat, animal welfare activists find common cause with people who are not too keen on Muslims.

Indeed, this is not just a difficulty for democratic leaders; sometimes individual voters have to hold their noses when they vote, hoping that a bad man will do a good thing, or at least prove the lesser of two evils. They are not demeaned by doing so.

But I think there's a more principled answer than that, at least in certain cases including the present case.

Various policies (let's call them Power-Transfer Policies) are designed to (or will foreseeably) transfer control over something of value from one group of people (transferors) to another group of people (transferees). They include devolution (which transfers powers from a higher to a lower level of state power), tax cuts (which transfer control over income from the public sector to the private sector); tax rises (the reverse); privatisation (which transfers control over certain assets from ministers and civil servants to directors and shareholders); free schools (which transfer powers from LEAs to school governors); and so on and so on. Moving control over immigration from EU to national level is a Power-Transfer Policy.

Now, it is implicit in any Power-Transfer Policy that the transferees might mis-use their new power and/or might use it worse than the transferors. Proposing such a policy must involve accepting that risk. Any rational supporter of a Power-Transfer Policy must say, for example, that while Scotland might run itself worse than Westminster, nonetheless it should run itself, or that while individuals might use handguns to shoot each other, nonetheless they should have the right to buy them.

There are two sets of reasons why a proponent of a Power-Transfer Policy can support it in the face of the risk of misuse of power by the transferees. Type 1 reasons are reasons to believe that the transferees are more likely to use the power properly than the transferors. Type 2 reasons are reasons to believe that it is simply wrong for the transferors (or right for the transferees) to have the power in question. Privatisation and reforms to the NHS and schools are largely supported for Type 1 reasons (exposing it to market forces will make your airline more efficient), although proponents of privatisation occasionally invoke Type 2 (the State should not be in the business of running airlines). National independence, the right to bear arms in the US and liberalism of laws on sexual conduct are largely supported for Type 2 reasons (it's my body and I can do what I want with it).

My thesis is this. If you support a Power-Transfer Policy for Type 1 reasons then a person who supports you for bad reasons is someone who undermines your case: that might be outweighed by other reasons, but their support is itself an embarrassment. However, if you are open about supporting a Power-Transfer Policy for Type 2 reasons then you are entitled to enjoy the support of people who wish the transferees to have the new power in order to exercise it for bad ends.

Here are some examples. Freedom of speech: you don't believe in freedom of speech unless you believe that people should be able to say things you fundamentally disagree with. There is nothing odd about religious groups and Peter Tatchell joining together to fight laws restricting freedom of speech, and neither need feel embarrassed about the support of the other.

Or how about indigenous peoples' land rights? If the X people are entitled to their land then they are entitled to it even if they want to build, say, casinos on it. If you are fighting for the rights of the X people then you can take casino money to support your cause with a clear conscience: it's their land, not yours.

There are limits to these kinds of case, but not many. On freedom of speech, we are famously in shouting-'fire!'-in-a-crowded-theatre territory here. Under what circumstances is a colonial administrator permitted to keep the X people from their land? If he knows that the result of returning it to them would be genocide or some other moral catastrophe, perhaps. Merely foreseeing a future of, say, extensive forest clearance and increased levels of alcohol abuse doesn't seem enough to me.

Note that I am not presupposing that freedom of speech or the land rights of the X people are a 'good thing' tout court. My point is one about what matters are consistent with Type 2 reasons for supporting a Power-Transfer Policy. If you believe in (e.g.) introducing quasi-absolute freedom of speech then there is nothing inconsistent - nothing reprehensible or irrational - about having the support of people who wish to say unpleasant things: that is an acknowledged part of what you are supporting. (Now it may be that you wish to revise your views of the importance of free speech in light of seeing what people want to use it for, but there is no inherent reason why you should - and when you start to consider changing your principles, you should be careful that you are not succumbing to the temptations of paternalism: do you believe that all those imperialists were really in favour of independence for the colonies, but just not yet?)

(For the sake of completeness, we can also grant that there are some limits on the Power-Transfer Policies that any person can plausibly hold for purely Type 2 reasons. We do not need to concede that someone can honestly and innocently believe that the age of consent should be lowered to zero and be unconcerned by the nature of the people who support such a policy. But we are nowhere near such territory.)

I'll reiterate the point by reference to some moral principles we all share. When can you refuse to return the chainsaw you borrowed from your neighbour? If he is blind drunk, has already tied up his wife and is shouting threats to kill her then you are right to keep it from him. But if he's an irritable so-and-so with a tempestuous marriage? Then it's probably not your problem. If it's his chainsaw then it's his chainsaw, and returning it to him doesn't make you a bad man even if he is one.

So, are the Leavers entitled to come to the view that the question of who comes into the UK should be decided by the UK government and not by the EU? Yes. Are they entitled to think that, even if they think that the UK government is (very? highly? somewhat?) likely to decide that question in a stupid or wrong way that falls short of a moral catastrophe? Yes. I therefore do not think that they are obliged to disavow the support of people who wish to use that power in a stupid or wrong way.

Just to be clear - I am not at all suggesting that the leaders of Leave were in fact condoning a xenophbic immigration policy. They had every reason to think that a points-based system would be far more moral in balancing the interests of the current population and potential immigrants than one that gives huge inbuilt advantages to the citizens of our rich European neighbours, and in distinguishing those poorer countries to which, for historical reasons, we might owe more extensive obligations (Jamaica, say, or Pakistan) from those to which we do not (e.g. Croatia). I have no doubt that the proponents of Leave are motivated by such considerations and would urge them on their supporters. But ultimately, they need not be embarrassed by their supporters.

In short, don't knock Enoch.

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