That video of Allegra Stratton laughing about a Downing Street Christmas party last year shows that the government is taking for fools those who observed the law – even to the point that it meant leaving relatives to die alone. There is indeed “one law for us and another for them.” Naturally, this has aroused widespread anger. As Adam Smith wrote, “All men, even the most stupid and unthinking, abhor fraud, perfidy, and injustice, and delight to see them punished.” This poses the question: what is the disease of which Stratton’s laughter is a symptom? I ask because to someone formed in the 1980s the sight of a Tory showing contempt for the law is perplexing. Thatcher often and loudly proclaimed the importance of the rule of law; I can’t imagine her laughing about illegal parties in
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That video of Allegra Stratton laughing about a Downing Street Christmas party last year shows that the government is taking for fools those who observed the law – even to the point that it meant leaving relatives to die alone. There is indeed “one law for us and another for them.”
Naturally, this has aroused widespread anger. As Adam Smith wrote, “All men, even the most stupid and unthinking, abhor fraud, perfidy, and injustice, and delight to see them punished.”
This poses the question: what is the disease of which Stratton’s laughter is a symptom?
I ask because to someone formed in the 1980s the sight of a Tory showing contempt for the law is perplexing. Thatcher often and loudly proclaimed the importance of the rule of law; I can’t imagine her laughing about illegal parties in Downing Street. What we have here is another example of how today’s Tories are anti-Thatcherite.
Instead, I want to suggest that this reflects something else, something found in Adam Smith.
We are, he wrote, naturally selfish: “we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men.” But, he said, this selfishness is restrained by an impartial spectator who lives within us – what others call conscience. It is this spectator who “shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice”, and who reminds us that if we act unjustly we will “render ourselves the proper object of the contempt and indignation of our brethren.” The fear of such contempt keeps us honest, thought Smith. And even if our misdeeds go undetected by others, this “man within” will give us an “inward disgrace.”
D.D. Raphael summarized Smith’s theory thus:
The approval and disapproval of oneself that we call conscience is an effect of judgments made by spectators. Each of us judges others as a spectator. Each of us finds spectators judging him. We then come to judge our own conduct by imagining whether an impartial spectator would approve or disapprove of it (The Impartial Spectator p 34-5)
The fact that Stratton saw flagrant injustice as a matter for laughter rather than shame suggests that, within her, the impartial spectator is weak.
And not just in her. One purpose of the spectator, said Smith, was to remind us that “we value ourselves too much and other people too little.” But this over-valuation – what Smith called self-love – is evident in others: in Johnson attempting to place himself above the law; in the Luckhurst’s contempt for their customers at Durham University*; in Rees-Mogg thinking the party was a laughing matter; or in Geoffrey Cox’s disregarding his constituents in favour of more lucrative employment. Indeed, we could see the cult of shareholder value and profit maximization as examples of capitalists generally acting in an anti-Smithian way, by “prefer[ring] the interest of one to that of many.”
And of course, if one’s peer group are pursuing self-love there is no shame in doing so oneself. What Smith considered to be a great restraint upon selfishness – fear of disgrace in the eyes of others – thus disappears.
But why is the impartial spectator so weak? I’d suggest three reasons.
One is the decline of religion. One difference between the Queen and Johnson is that she is religious, and has thereby acquired a greater sense of duty and (a Smithian word) propriety.
A second force is the rise of a perceived meritocracy. When he coined this word in 1958, Michael Young meant it as a warning:
If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and, if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. (The Rise of the Meritocracy, pxvi)
You might think that Stratton and her like have little merit. But that’s not the point. They think they have, and so become “insufferably smug” as Young predicted.
A third factor is that recent decades have seen an significant form of increased social distancing. For a long time, the ruling class was dominated by men who had done military service and so come into close contact with working class men – an experience which reminded them of their own good fortune and taught them respect for that class. For them, the “man within” at least occasionally spoke with the voice of a working-class soldier. The Times’ obituary of Lord Carrington wrote:
He found himself sleeping in a hole beneath his tank with his four crew who came from poor backgrounds and had suffered hardship during the pre-war years. The experience shaped his politics, he said later. “You could not have got a finer or better lot than they were. They deserved something better in the aftermath of the war.”
Something like this attitude persisted into my adult lifetime. In my first job most equity salesmen had army backgrounds and so were accustomed to working with the working class. It might be no accident that some of the Tories most critical of the government, such as Tobias Ellwood and Tom Tugendhat, are army men.
It’s not just the decline of military men that has weakened the impartial spectator, though. Perhaps the decline of manufacturing has had a similar effect. Factory bosses who encountered working class men on the shopfloor had some arrogance knocked out of them in a way that those who travel the private school-Oxbridge-professions escalator have not.
Of course, in saying all this I don’t mean to romanticize the past: exploitation and injustice have always been with us – although remember that inequality was lower in the post-war era than it is now. All I’m suggesting is that class arrogance and over-entitlement is more obvious and egregious now than it used to be.
Which is a counterweight to calls for Johnson to resign.
Maybe he should. But what we also need to be rid of is the mindset which he represents. And disposing of that is a much bigger task.
* Yes, customers. If you are charging £9250 a year you are in the customer experience business, not the vigorous debate business.