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Thursday, October 06, 2005


Howard's End

Who would have thought that I would use such a poor pun? Well, I have.

I have just watched Michael Howard’s speech on BBC News 24, and I have a couple of points to make.

First; Howard railed against the rise of individual rights, bemoaning the Human Rights Act. I will not concentrate on the sinister undertones of a speech that places all of society’s ills at the door of ‘human rights’, except to say that such an argument seems to be a root to popular authoritarianism. What I will say is that such a complaint is pretty rich, certainly so when we consider that he did not acknowledge the reason that individual rights are ‘turbo-charged’. There was once a party whose leader insisted that there was ‘no such thing as society’. There was a party that deliberately and persistently fostered the ideology that all that there is, and all that there ought to be, are individuals in competition, selfishly pursuing their own ends. There was a party that denied society and solidarity parts in its political ontology.

Have the Conservatives changed? If they have, they should be honest and acknowledge the wrong turn that the party pursued as deliberate, celebrated policy. But they have not changed. This talk of the negative consequences of individual rights is really about the rights of certain people, and certain groups of people. As always, the Conservative ideology, whatever the mask it currently wears, is about the rights of capital and the capitalised classes and the responsibilities and duties of those whose labour is bought by, and who pay rent to, these classes.

But, if I am wrong, let us hear a real statement of their philosophy. How do they see society working? What objects exist in society, and what are the obligations of government?

Second; Howard banged on about ‘human nature’. Human nature means nothing, and if it is possible for a statement to mean less than nothing it is the assertion that human nature is the equivalent to Conservative values. The use of ‘human nature’ is a sure sign of either intellectual poverty or an orator determined to mislead. It ignores the role of society is determining our character, our desires, our goals and our capabilities. And this was marvellously illustrates when Michael Howard tried to make a joke. After insisting that we are each born the capabilities to do more or less than other people, he said; “Sandra [his wife] was always more likely to succeed as a model than me.” Whoah, knock down example. Who could argue with that, eh?

Except that this statement, pretending to be an argument for the biological determination of our capabilities to achieve in society, concentrates on the first part – the biological – and ignores the second part – the social. Sure, in the West during the 20th Century Sandra Howard was more likely to be a model than Michael Howard. But if this were the West during the Renaissance then we could say that this situation would be reversed. As uncomfortable as it is to imagine, Michael Howard would have been more likely to be a model – posing for painters rather than photographers – possibly standing in as a substitute for nude women.

What we can say is this; Michael Howard was always more likely to be leader of a political party than Sandra Howard. If you want to argue that this likelihood is a result of biology [alone] then I am afraid that you are a fool; for one thing, political parties are social constructs and the rules that govern them are likewise. Government must concentrate on the social – attempts to change the biological are inevitably repressive and anti-democratic.

By concentrating on the biological rather than the social Howard expresses his disdain for society as an object of concern. A concentration on the biological is the ideological ally for rampant individualism. So why does he do it? Because he is a fool? Or because he is a misleading orator? He can decide, if he wishes.

As he could have done in this instance, a previous rejection of society. Pity that he did not respond to that, but then he does have a history of illogical argument hiding a nasty ideology.

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