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The Rich see only what they want to see

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_rtimages'>rtimages / 123RF Stock Photo</a>In a 50-year involvement in politics and 20 years in the House of Commons, I found that friendship is perfectly possible with people of very different political views from my own, Indeed, some of the more stimulating and amusing companions came from the ranks of those whose political views I abominated.

I have often puzzled over the fact, therefore, that people who are so agreeable in personal terms can hold views that are so unattractive. People who are kind to animals, generous to their friends, and supportive of family members who need help, can often exhibit a breathtaking – and at times cruel – lack of generosity, compassion and understanding when it comes to those who are a little more distant from them in social or cultural or ethnic terms.

My explanation of this apparent paradox is that people who hold right-wing views (excluding those who are just plain nasty) often suffer from a simple failure of imagination. Their impulses are fine and generous when they relate to people who are recognisable and close to them. But they are unable to project those commendable responses on to a wider scale because they simply cannot understand that society is made up of people who are just as dear to others as their own friends and family are to them.

The rich and privileged are even more prone to this limitation that most of us. Like most people, they are more than capable of seeing only what they want to see and ignoring what they wish not to see. The advantage they have is that their wealth allows them to indulge these idiosyncrasies to a much greater degree than the rest of us.

The starting, or default, position for many people, in other words, is that looking after themselves and their immediate families is the first priority. It requires real effort to persuade them that they can afford what might be seen as the luxury of thinking of others. People are often reluctant to lift their eyes from the immediate and close at hand, and to understand that taking the wider view can lead to a better life and a stronger society for everyone.

Even when that effort is made and greater understanding of others arrived at, the prospect of hard times is often enough to send them hastening back to base. When crisis threatens, the hatches are battened down and the wagons are circled to face the enemy. Any thought of social concern is abandoned; self-preservation is the first consideration.

That is, I think, the explanation of the otherwise inexplicable fact that, in the midst of recession, when it would seem even more important than usual that people should recognise common cause and support each other, the response is in the opposite direction, and many become more fearful of other similarly disadvantaged people, more focused on self-protection and self-preservation and less generous towards the claims of others.

Roger Scruton (in the Guardian) seems to agree with me. His explanation and defence of what it means to be a Conservative – with its emphasis on the supposed imperatives of identity and attachment – is little more than a re-statement, in slightly more elegant language, of the traditional Tory preoccupation with the differences between “us and them”.

The “way of life” enjoyed by “who we are” – those with whom, Scruton says, we identify and to whom we feel an attachment – begs all the obvious and age-old questions. Whose “way of life” are “we” talking about? Do we mean just those of us who are more than ready to join with us in defending the status quo and the privilege we enjoy at the expense of others? Do we exclude from the definitions of “us” those who, because they are different or are perhaps – according to our criteria, less worthy – do not share “our way of life” as we choose to define it?

Scruton obligingly helps us with the answer. “Attachment,” he asserts, “is a form of discrimination and therefore a way of giving preference to those who already belong.”

There is little of philosophy here. What we have is after all just another expression of self-interest and exclusion. Are his “attachment” and “identity” not just different ways of applying and emphasising difference from others? And no prizes for guessing who, in Scruton’s brave old world, will have the power to decide the criteria that will identity those who are or are not “one of us”.

Even if we accept Scruton’s identification of the threats to our “way of life”, is it really the case that looking inwards is the best form of defence? Which is likely to be the stronger and, in the long run, more successful – a society that is fearful of change and difference, that instinctively excludes rather than includes, that divides and weakens, or one that embraces and values all its members, that builds its cohesion and therefore its strength?

And should we really weep many tears for the poor hard-pressed Conservative, who finds it so difficult, Scruton says, to persuade people to think only of themselves? Perhaps he should try, for once, to see how easy it is to ask them to lift their eyes to a wider horizon.

Image Copyright: rtimages / 123RF Stock Photo

5 Comments

  1. jeffrey davies says:

    when i look down on him on benefits i think
    when i see my mate with his millions i think
    but sadly ive made that bilions and its my right
    to rule you all yep about right jeff3

  2. seagullnic says:

    I agree with so much of this. Thank you for blogging on it.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Brian Gould’s explanation for how basically decent people can hold right-wing views is that unlike us lefties they don’t see the bigger picture. He says

    “Their impulses are fine and generous when they relate to people who are recognisable and close to them. But they are unable to project those commendable responses on to a wider scale because they simply cannot understand that society is made up of people who are just as dear to others as their own friends and family are to them.”

    If only it were that simple: basically the are less able than us to look beyond the immediate. I don’t think that this sel-congratulatory view will bear much examination. Can we say, for example, that Edmund Burke lacked finer feeling or the bigger picture?

    It is not a matter of lacking concern for others beyond one’s immediate circle. Rather it is a question of one’s basic assumptions about how society works.

    And here’s the thing, it is precisely the idea that a generous spirit and concern for others is enough of a basis for decent politics that lies at the heart of Labour’s problems. If that is the basic grounds for a different politics then one simply has to look at society as is and then devise policies to make it better. But there is no way to just look at society as it is. We always look at it through theories and interpretations. If we imagine that we do not then we are merely slaves to theories we have never consciously evaluated.

    And if one imagines that a generous spirit and a willingness to consider others is enough then there is no need or responsibilty to critically evaluate social theories to develop a clear account of how society works. All one has to do is to borrow uncritically from current social theories. And that is how Labour ends up with broadly the same neo-liberal pre-conceptions as the Conservatives.

  4. Robert says:

    Blair right winger, Progress the main political group in labour to the right, most of the labour front bench are either ex chair’s of progress or are members of the progress party.

    ATOS, UNUM, Provident, workfare, labour party, says it all really labour is now a party basically in waiting for maybe Scotland to go it alone and I think Progress will make it’s move and labour will have a small battle and the Unions will be battling to recover the name as the Progress One nation party is born.

    Labour is not socialist any more it’s Tory Lite only the Lite bit could become a major Tory party making the Tories look to the left…

  5. swatantra says:

    I’m afraid ‘the rich’ will always be with us, so we might as well get used to it

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