At various points in the last quarter of the 20th century, the penny finally dropped among the political left in particular and progressives more generally that the advancement of humanity and the eradication of injustices were not going to be achieved by the collective ownership or central direction of the means of production and exchange.
The free market, the enabling effects of technology and the targeted application of welfare provision demonstrated that the 'capitalist model' could (and did) achieve a higher aggregate standard of living, notwithstanding the stubborn persistence of relative inequalities. Arguably, the very success of this model gave the left the freedom and the opportunity to apply its determinism to other parts of individual and collective human experience, aided and abetted by the march of the social sciences through the university campuses of the western hemisphere and into the world of personal life, cultural institutions and government. If the utopians couldn't nationalise the means of production, they'd nationalise people instead.
In the UK, the first sign of this Thermidorean reaction against the Chicago School revolution of Reagan and Thatcher came with the 'New Labour' administration formed in 1997. Tony Blair's Government was the first one with an explicitly moral purpose – after all, and as he told us, he was a 'straight kinda guy.' Not that this approach was in any sense anchored in the Western Christian tradition. Indeed, Blair's right-hand crony, Alastair Campbell said 'We don't do religion'. But he didn't mean that in the way that the Founding Fathers meant when declaring a Republic with freedom of religion and also freedom from religion. Campbell meant that he and the government would be entirely happy if religion was excluded from the public realm altogether.
The Blair Project also did away with or marginalised a number of the features of the constitutional arrangement of the UK which were deemed antithetical to it: hereditary peers, the Law Lords and Cabinet Government. Not even the monarchy was immune from Blairite presumption. The centralisation that had been such a feature of the last Thatcher years was retained and built upon. However, the biggest change was the acceleration of the process by which the proscriptive legal tradition of Europe was substituted for the more permissive legal culture of the Common Law and its Scottish variant. This was reinforced by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the adoption of which was a core part of the agenda of the political class gathered around Blair, who was himself a lawyer.
Naturally, progressives were delighted. A construct that had stood the test of time for nearly 1,000 years was going to be reconstituted with a thrillingly 'modern' framework that had only been in place since the end of the Second World War, specifically to deal with the appalling historic grotesque of a murderous Nazi regime which had nonetheless been legitimised by German law. And who on Earth could object to that? Fundamental human rights were 'in', the 'oppressive' construct of an ancient, tested and accretive legal corpus cunningly disguised as 'tradition' was on its way 'out'.
Yet, applying Newton's Third Law, if individuals have fundamental rights, then the society composed of other individuals must have a duty to satisfy them if they are to be meaningful. Happily, these duties are (or were) determined by democratic consent expressed via the ballot box. Alas, this is not how things worked out once the legal establishment started to apply the ECHR to cases. In the new dispensation, 'fundamental' human rights could and did trump all sorts of legal precedents, and matters which were understood to have been democratically decided. Think of the endless argy-bargy around the deportation of illegal immigrants with a criminal record and the conflict between the democratic mandate to control immigration effectively and the emigres right to protection and a family life under the ECHR.
It's no good blaming the judges, even though some critics have argued that there is some sort of pernicious process at work here, organised by the judicial elite. Think how Boris Johnson and his team tried to blame the judges for obstructing Brexit, the better to cover the intellectual hole at the heart of their negotiations. The ineptitude and lack of intellectual confidence of successive Conservative Governments has further emboldened the progressives. In the first place, fundamental rights have far greater elasticity than the precise boundaries set by law. Amorphous rights are much more in keeping with the Post Modernist contention that the meaning of something is whatever construction the individual choses to place upon it, and that objectivity and discrimination, whether in science, the arts, public culture and even family life, are all part of the 'oppressive' and patriarchal super-structure that needs to be overthrown.
Secondly, and as Jonathan Sumption has pointed out, 'Today, these (ECHR) rights are commonly invoked as a form of fundamental law designed to limit democratic choice. The mounting pressure to extend human rights into the area of positive rights... will ultimately marginalise the whole process of democratic consent'. Sumption characterises this as a form of judicial capture, but in fact it has been driven by an increasingly narrow and intolerant political and cultural elite, supported by the organs of the state.
There is, perhaps, no better exemplar of Gramsci's 'march through the culture' than Nicola Sturgeon's SNP. Unlike Irish nationalism in its earliest variant, the appeal of the Scottish nationalist movement is neither founded on cultural commemoration nor framed as an appeal to historic recollection. The collected and shared wisdom and experiences of the ages are seemingly irrelevant. It is instead a progressive project, geographically rather than culturally defined by what goes on north of the line between Eyemouth and Annan. It is also, for the purposes of beguiling us proles, presented as a moral programme where Scottish nationalism is always wholesome, civic, 'inclusive', 'diverse' and 'fair' but where English or British nationalism (such as it exists) is always and everywhere 'bad' (or 'inappropriate'). It is a narrative that is tacitly promoted day-in-and-day-out by a largely uncritical Scottish media that ought to know better.
Naturally, the assimilation of Post Modernist shibboleths (if such a thing does not sound too much like a contradiction in terms) has caused the SNP one or two problems. For example, neither Sturgeon nor her Green Party collaborator Patrick Harvie seem to be sure about the definition of a woman. Progressives who don't have to bear the responsibility of framing laws where such matters are entirely relevant are, however, delighted. Such confusion is all part of the counter-culture which denounces objectivity and elevates 'personal truths' above all others.
But if Sturgeon has mobilised the counter-culture to destabilise her enemies, she is also aware that one day, it may be turned against her. Some protection can be found in the use made of the language. 'Fairness' is a lot more enigmatic and nicer sounding that 'Re-distribution' or 'Expropriation'. The word 'inclusive' can happily be deployed to exclude the concept of merit or even capability. 'Inappropriate' is a far less judgemental word than 'wrong' and removes the need for the speaker to state clearly what transgression has taken place, while keeping the supposed offender in their place.
The biggest defences of all can and have been erected in the education system. Uneducated citizens are far easier to bamboozle if not actually control. But this does not mean that education can be denied. In the hands of the state, it can, however, be manipulated to achieve whatever the government deems to be its social purpose. Thus the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence aims to produce certain behaviours in children and young adults rather than knowledge per se. The intention is to provide pupils with the information and 'skills' which they need to be model (i.e. compliant) citizens in the new progressive utopia.
Alas, the Curriculum has not worked out as intended and has, according to the OECD, failed to achieve even the minimum standards to which a developed economy and society should aspire, particularly in regard to its less well-off citizens. The small amount of mainstream media attention that was garnered by the OECD's damning findings was astonishing – The Times
relegated it to page 16 of its Scottish edition. The seeming indifference allowed Shirley Anne Somerville to claim brazenly that the report vindicated the Curriculum as a 'philosophy' of education, but even she could not deny some of its more spectacular failings. Yet there was no hint of contrition for all those children let down by more than a decade of failure. Nor has there yet been a convincing explanation as to why the report's findings were embargoed by the Scottish Government until after the Holyrood elections.
The other way that the progressive state can nationalise people is to take them onto the public payroll as either employees or as dependents of welfarism. As the loyalties of the claimant can always be swayed by a better offer from someone else, co-option by employment is best. On that score, the OECD report on the Curriculum for Excellence identified over 40 government agencies, quangos and advisory groups, as well as 32 local authorities that were involved in the dog's breakfast that is Scottish education. Never mind the vested interests, think of all the salaries and perks that can be obtained from the blighting of a generation of the nation's youth.
The growth and intrusiveness of the state has been astonishing. One hundred years ago, when Britain also had an empire to administer, there was one civil servant for every 11,000 subjects. Today there is one for every 162, and that doesn't include the 300,000 employed by the 'arms-length bodies', some of which which have featured so prominently in the organisational shambles of Scottish education.
The personal economics of public service are attractive: in 2019 the ONS concluded that, on average, the public servant enjoys a remuneration package worth nearly 10% more than someone with equivalent skills and demands in the private sector. All that, and job security too. Max Hastings may huff and puff about the state being priced out of the market for the filling of its upper echelons, but lower down where employee incapacity and even incompetence are also preserved by official deference to 'fundamental human rights', the rewards are good.
The Covid crisis has expanded the remit of the state exponentially. Liberty has been severely curtailed, a whole new and intrusive 'bio-security' apparatus has been constructed at colossal public expense and Britain's national debt is now measured in trillions not billions. Naturally, the pandemic has allowed swathes of the public sector to take fully-paid downtime with pension rights preserved – never has inactivity been so lucrative for our public servants. In the mouths of both Sturgeon and Johnson, 'Living with Covid' emphatically does not mean that the individual citizen should take personal responsibility for assessing the healthcare risks associated with the exercise of their liberty. It means getting used to the sporadic and capricious withdrawal of liberty in any situation which may be deemed a public health 'emergency'.
Not even Kafka could have imagined a public body, which had been shielded by the very citizenry it was supposed to protect, getting a medal for 'valour'. But that is what has just happened to the NHS, awarded the George Cross. Only in British society does the queen bee get the medal for the bravery and forbearance of her colony.
When are people, increasingly enslaved by infantilism, going to wake up?
Jonathan Cobb studied History at Edinburgh University. He held a commission in the British Army until 1988, after which he pursued a career in investment management. He was awarded the Ministry of Defence Bertrand Stewart Award and received the Bloomberg/Daily Express International Fund of the Year Award in 1997. He now lives and writes in East Lothian and his first book, '
A Sword for Christ – the Republican Era in Great Britain & Ireland' will be published by Birlinn on 2 September 2021