Hobson’s Choice

August 30, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Posted in Conservative Party | 3 Comments

Or ‘In Which I Defend Conservatives from Theo Hobson‘:

On Any Questions recently, someone asked the panellists whether they intended to cut down on their meat consumption, for environmental reasons. There were a couple of hesitant, nondescript answers and then Ken Clarke calmly guffawed at the whole idea. Like I’m going to cut down on my merry feasting, he basically said. And the audience found his cavalier confidence sort of reassuring, and laughed. Here, it struck me, is the very nub of the Tory soul: it enjoys showing its lack of angst. And such confidence impresses people. Let us be ruled by these Nietzschean strong souls, we cravenly feel, who are too busy living well to entertain cowardly moral scruples.

Y’know, misrepresenting the motivations of your opponents might not be one of the worst characteristics of an ever-corroding political debate, but it is one of the more grating. Whilst I’m sure the liberalism Theo Hobson subscribes to is suitably right-on and resplendent in its idealism, it still pales when compared to the bold (and apparently naive) ideal of treating people on the other side of the debate like human beings.

The distinction Hobson draws here – between the environmentally-aware, socially just and eternally earnest liberal and the arrogant, self-interested Tory with no regard for anyone but himself – is so crude as to be unworkable, even as political rhetoric. All we would have to do for Hobson’s dichotomy to fall apart would be to locate just one Tory who agrees with him on an issue he holds dear. In fact, he need only ask the aforementioned Ken Clarke, whose preference for European integration and prison reform is ground upon which a Tory and a Bleeding Heart can share.

Nor is it at all accurate to insinuate that Tories possess such a serene sense of calm that they’re exercised by nothing other than their own tax rate. Of course there’s such a thing as Tory Guilt, it’s just that those fears are differently located from our own, and we have far more pejorative descriptions for it: racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, Catholicism, climate denial and milk snatching.

There will be occasions when some of those descriptions are true and occasions when they’re not, but as irritating as it might be to have my rational, well-grounded arguments for Nice Things dismissed as ‘liberal guilt’, I’d do well to admit that I get off pretty lightly.

Plus, it’s not like the types of topics Tories worry about is any kind of secret; just open up the feverishly anxious Daily Mail on a given day and you’ll find plenty of proof. They worry about family, and think the breakup of the nuclear ‘ideal’ will have troubling consequences for society. They worry about education; they long to see a return to discipline, selection & more traditional subjects. They worry about the state; they believe states should be small, that tax burdens should be low and that encroachments into the public’s private life should be avoided. They worry about immigration, and fret about what increasing numbers of foreign men & women will do to the cohesiveness of society.

Obviously, I share few of these concerns. I think some are overblown, some unfounded entirely, some based in reasoning or faith which I don’t share. Nonetheless, they are fears which are often as genuine and deeply-felt as our own, and simply believing them to be wrong doesn’t make them vanish. Nor will simply mocking those concerns make anyone more susceptible to your point of view – tempting though that often is.

In the long run, of course, we’re all dead, but if we want to go out of this world with a little deeper an understanding of humans than we currently possess, if we want to gain a broader understanding of the beliefs and principles that guide the people around us, if we want to edge just a few inches closer to the better societies we profess to want, it would be useful for us to take the time to understand our opponents rather than ascribing unfairly miserly, misanthropic attributes to them. That goes for the left and the right.

Update: Also read this.


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  1. Interesting thoughts on guilt in Jonathan Franzen’s new Freedom – or, at least, this review of it:


    In less than half-hearted defence of Hobson: The Mail could well be seen as a typical petit-bourgeois paper, and Hobson’s caricature of Clarke as something a little different, more high Tory-ish, though I think both mentalities find great pleasure in catching-out supposed hypocrisies amongst ‘sanctimonious elites’. Think of Jeremy Clarkson as a bridging figure.

    Much Mail-esque anxiety could be interpreted as a fear that the Clarkeian joys of life are imperilled by others (capital O?) who, it is believed, have no connection to the production of such abundance, or claim thereto.

    I.e., a bit like what Mr. Tomasky gets at here:


    So long as the negative externalities are properly priced in and the background conditions of society are broadly just, or being moved that way (minor conditions, no?), I would be more comfortable with shiresquire gusto in consumption in explicitly political contexts. i.e. I’d agree with you.

    Caricatures like Hobson’s, like political cartoons, have their place. I fear your standards are a tad too high here, but I guess that’s a matter of taste. Looking back at the Mail’s – and many other papers’ – histories, one sees egregious positions faced with much earnest hand-wringing about how these must be understood on the part of opponents with higher standards (I’m sure I’ve done it, for one).
    That arguably patronises their readership too much: it seems to imply to me that they are beneath mockery; to suggest that their anxieties are always genuine and not sometimes malicious, a contention which a long history of such rags, or a moment of two’s thought about their current proprietors/editors, would surely reject. In a sense it accepts Clarke’s implicit contention that he and other ‘Real Britons’ or ‘Middle England’ are removed from the ludicrous concerns of Green weirdos or the world’s poor, and we must accept his definition of what’s normal rather than rendering it ridiculous and grotesque.

    • Caricatures like Hobson’s, like political cartoons, have their place. I fear your standards are a tad too high here, but I guess that’s a matter of taste.

      Ah, but political cartoons are nice to look at, and don’t require more than 30 seconds of my precious time! I think caricatures are better placed in satire or the fiction to which Hobson refers. There’s more opportunity for subtlety and humour. In those contexts it can be devastating. In this? Meh.

      It’s also completely fine in raging polemic, but Hobson wasn’t writing one of those, either.

      Thanks for the Franzen link! CANNOT wait.

  2. Shameless plug here, but a take on the same article is here: http://thelamp.posterous.com/

    Agrees with much of this content but perhaps comes from a different perspective…

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