Margaret Thatcher’s recent death caused an explosion of amateur political comment in offices, pubs and social media feeds. As expected, the ‘Billy Elliot’ view of her premiership as a steady attack on the poor found its voice again – but so did equally superficial analyses in confident support of her actions in power. It’s not surprising that most of us lack the knowledge for profound commentary on 1980s history: there are (arguably) more important things in life. I hear that stamp collecting, for example, can be a thoroughly gratifying hobby. But why do so many people imply their opinions are authoritative when they are so ill-informed?
It’s particularly easy to complain noisily about a Conservative government without the supporting evidence to back up one’s opinion. This arises out of a peculiarity in political philosophy: it’s simple to dismiss Conservatives as malevolent, but correspondingly hard to rebut their opponents on ‘the Left’. So let me suggest why your Conservative friends seem so ‘nasty’.
The actions of Conservatives in government appear harsh. The varied philosophies underlying modern day Conservatism all tend to eschew direct government intervention in favour of more natural, and therefore (they say) more sustainable solutions. We only see the results of this philosophy in their policies: Thatcher’s government privatised industry where possible, so that the profit motive would act as a guarantor of efficiency; they limited the power of unions, believing that short-term resistance to reform in unprofitable industries led to longer-term decline; they sought to lower direct taxes even on the wealthy, arguing that the effect of individuals freely spending their money was more effective than government spending in creating economic growth and therefore jobs too. Thatcher’s policies, and the varied philosophies of her successors, aimed at positive consequences at the expense of outright popularity. Therefore, identifying the positive results of their actions requires an eye to the long term, and a much deeper knowledge and analysis of complex consequences than most of us have time to form as we sleepily tune out with the 10 O’Clock News. But opposing Conservatives is no bother: just look at how nasty their latest idea is!
On the other hand, those on ‘the Left’ benefit from the opposite situation. Their policies are instantly popular because they tend towards immediate and noticeable government intervention. Over the last year we’ve heard calls for a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ on financial transactions to punish the bankers’ dangerous profligacy; legislation to ensure a gender balance on company boards; and suggestions that no budget cuts should be made to treasured public services. Any political party espousing these simple solutions seems ‘nice’, and identifying any negative results of their actions requires a deeper knowledge and analysis of labyrinthine consequences than most of us have time to form.
So Conservatives struggle to succinctly justify their views, and are prone to superficially persuasive attacks on their actions. Whereas ‘the Left’ enjoy the opposite situation: their views are already persuasive, but very difficult to oppose unless you are intricately well-informed. The result is poor quality discussions in the pub, at the office and on social media. It’s frustrating for Conservatives, because they face what they know to be unjustified challenges and lack the resources to argue back. It’s also frustrating for the Left, because they fruitlessly oppose what seems like stubborn nastiness in their Conservative friends.
There is a way out of this trap: we must assume that people generally hold political beliefs with good intentions. What if Conservatives oppose the Robin Hood Tax not because they’re receiving backhanders from the banking fraternity, but honestly think that such a tax would harm one of this country’s largest export industries and that everyone in the UK would be poorer as a result? What if they oppose legislating gender balance not because they’re misogynists, but see the benefits of more diverse boardrooms and think that encouraging natural equality promotes better candidates more sustainably? What if their keenness to cut public spending is borne not out of disregard for the poor, but to avoid rising government borrowing costs which would make us all significantly poorer through rocketing interest rates and inflation?
Assuming that both sides have good intentions might just calm some of the spewing indignation exhibited on all sides of politics. Sometimes we’ll have been wrong to assume the best in our opponents, but the debate will have been calmer anyway. Most importantly, we might avoid the kind of hysterical one-upmanship that so easily obscures crucial analysis.