Urban freedoms are being menaced by determined extremists

Urban freedoms are being menaced by determined extremists

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 19, May, 2020

LAST WEEK the libertarian politician Douglas Carswell came near to admitting that decentralisation measures introduced in Britain over the last twenty years had gone badly awry.  He tweeted:

“Let’s be honest, it’s not been a great moment for us localists, this crisis. Police commissioners have been invisible. The Scottish and Welsh devolved authorities have let their nannying tendencies rip – without taking effective steps. London’s mayor useless at every opportunity.”  @DouglasCarswell

There is mounting evidence that  devolution is liable to backfire unless the communities affected have a nucleus of politically aware citizens and fully independent civic groups ready to resist any power-grabs by minority interests.  If civil society is weak or easily colonised by radical groups committed to enhanced state control then local democracy can easily turn into  the plaything of left-wing oligarchies.  

For a range of different reasons, decentralisation in Britain has occurred in tandem with a decline in active involvement in politics. The privatisation of society has left the field open to people with an extremist agenda to acquire influence from the civil service and the universities to the medical world and even parts of the police.

Long ago, their zealotry and ruthless tactics in the face of moderates enabled them to take over much of the trade-union world. The Blair government’s  promotion of regionalism and devolution further enabled radicals usually unable to win elections to go far.  

Decentralisation has been a recipe for confrontational identity politics in London.  Under the tenure of Sadiq Khan the capital’s mayor, 149 people were murdered in 2019 but his response has been lethargic

He has, instead, engaged in non-stop virtue-signaling. He set up  an ‘Online Hate Crime Hub which investigated 1,612 cases over two years but had secured only six convictions.

A long-running feud with Donald Trump has rumbled on. This March Khan declared himself a ‘proud feminist’ unlike the US President, claiming that climate change “impacts women and girls more than anyone else’.

In April, he declared that  ‘structural racism’ in Britain has led to more racial minorities dying from the Coronavirus illness.

Finally, this month,  central government decided it had enough. Whitehall effectively took over the running of Transport for London (TfL). The city’s  transport system had been run in an increasingly high-handed and inefficient manner under a mayor whose attention was clearly elsewhere.  During the current medical emergency services were slashed, leading to crowded buses and trains. Downing Street has now placed its own officials on the board and insisted on a resumption of full services and a review of finances  in return for a £1.6 billion loan.

New York City’s  mayor, Bill di Blasio is very much a facsimile of Khan.  He has done nothing but politics since university and the same soft-touch approach to crime and the privileging of radical ethnic minority groups has marked his tenure.  Few other cities have been as badly affected by Coronavirus as New York  and di Blasio was widely criticised both for his erratic handling of the pandemic and for having unwound the planning measures for a major medical emergency previously in place . 

He stoked controversy with a tweet on 29 April, demanding compliance with the lockdown in which he singled out Jews for special attention:

‘My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.’ 

Outrage ensued and he has been sidelined  in the state-wide approach to stemming the pandemic.  

Unfavoured minorities, the property-owning middle-class, small business people, conventionally-minded working class people and others liable to be affected by top-down change often driven forward with minimal consultation, are brushed aside by the new breed of activist mayors.

Municipal radicals are less concerned  with effective government than with managing and instructing those whom they  answer to. It should not be a surprise that this didactic approach to city government  has brought to the forefront, academics, lawyers, charity bosses, and environmentalists. They comprise a clerisy, a term coined by Samuel Coleridge in the 1830s ‘to define...people whose job it was to instruct and direct the masses.’ 

People who project a sense of moral superiority are very useful for socialists whose ambitious top-down agenda of state control of the economy and increasingly of culture and society often repels those for whom it is intended.  Now that socialists have increasingly dropped economic transformation, it is the entrenchment of their own progressive beliefs that matters most.  

The environmental agenda, once hardly confined to any wing of politics, has been monopolised by the left.  It involves major changes in lifestyle and the use put to public spaces. Bureaucrats and managers aplenty are needed to supervise the green transformation of society as they were the passage of the economy into fully state hands.   Some of the more zealous left-wing urban authorities, such as to be found in Scotland’s two largest cities, have resolved to restrict car use as much as possible by imposing cycle lanes, pedestrianising major thoroughfares, and steeply raising parking fees and withdrawing exemptions. 

Backlashes have occurred in different places. In the United States, the class of experts, regulators and managers is reckoned to comprise  no more than 2.4 million out of 320 million people according to the sociologist Charles Murray. During the Coronavirus emergency, there has been  a backlash in different states from  citizens angry that tough embargoes on social and economic activities are unjustified. Their earning power is being jeopardised and their heath adversely affected.  The crisis has brought into sharp relief disdain for what is seen as an overseer class  whose insistence that  their intrusions are motivated by commitment to the common welfare is increasingly treated with derision. 

In France, long before the onset of Coronavirus, inhabitants, workers and small business people went onto the streets to show their disdain for a moralistic President Macron. An  ally like the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo could ban smoking in the city’s parks but in the provinces, indignation spilled over into many months of unrest over environmental taxes which affected already precarious incomes.

Across much of the West, a middle-class-dominated political left has supported the sweeping restrictions on normal activities while their conservative opponents, increasingly sustained by working-class voters, prefer to ease the lockdown as soon as realistically possible.

The teachers unions in Britain backed by municipal figures like the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, are reluctant to see schools re-open even though the incidence of Coronavirus has been tiny among the very young. 

They have been deaf  to warnings that for many vulnerable children with no access to broadband and whose home circumstances might be precarious, schools are often a place of safety. With few on the left expressing alarm about the impact of months having elapsed without regular education, the pandemic has shed fresh light on the scant concern there often is for the working-class among the public sector left.

Radical activists who have ridden to power on a tide of social justice rhetoric in practice have ruled in close association with vested interests.  In Edinburgh, an SNP-Labour ruling coalition has presided over the despoiling of the city’s iconic Princes Street Gardens. Trees have been felled contrary to planning regulations,  and a large green area  has been turned into a scene from the trenches of the First World War. An events company made bumper profits and officials who gave them liberty to disfigure one of the most pristine spots in urban Britain have survived unscathed

Across in Glasgow, Susan Aitken the hardboiled politician ruling on behalf of the SNP, was unapologetic after it emerged that her  businessman husband was allowed to take charge of a fully refurbished shop in a central area for a nominal rent of £1 a year.  She has not hesitated to appease hardliners in her party to safeguard her position: on 20 January this year street clashes ensued after her administration gave permission for a hardline pro-IRA group to march.

Elsewhere, from Portland, Oregon, to London, administrations have acted in similar fashion. They have shown indulgence to extremist groups like Antifa and Extinction Rebellion and have been reluctant to uphold the rule of law when it is flouted.  Last winter, when Extinction Rebellion protesters attempted to bring the London Underground to a halt by climbing on top of trains, it was the last straw for ordinary members of the public who pelted them with rubbish and physically dragged them back to the station platform.

In the SNP’s urban strongholds the grip of identity politics on working-class voters who abandoned Labour in favour of the nationalists, means that  moderate citizens are at an acute disadvantage in face of municipal radicalism. The influential American social theorist Barrington Moore warned fifty years ago ‘no bourgeoisie, no democracy.’  If property-owning middle-class citizens and socially mobile working-class ones are penalised and harassed, then it may be hard  to prevent a new feudal order springing up, this time from the left.

Local democracy is indispensable in any society governed by the representative principle. For it to work in the way it was intended – enabling communities to elect people with the interests of the town or locality uppermost rather than the fulfillment of any abstract utopian principles – national government needs to box far more cleverly.  

The crucial requirement is for  it to be worth the while of civic-minded individuals to put themselves forward for local elective office. Having to confront radicals with power bases in universities, the Third Sector and the sympathy of the media – and even the police whenever they go too far – is a disincentive.  The Johnson government needs to think strategically. Balance, freedom and common sense need to be restored in institutions paid from the public purse but where authoritarian progressives increasingly hold sway. Extremists whose views lack public endorsement, have deformed key institutions for far too long.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divided his time between Cumbria and Scotland. He has written fifteen single authored books on Britain and Modern Europe. His next one, Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die will be published by Christopher Hurst in July. His twitter account is @cultfree54

Photo of Sadiq Khan by DAVID HOLT from London, England - London June 8 2019 (78) Eid Trafalgar Square Mayor Sadiq Khan, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79566611

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