James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Developing cultural policies to appeal to those just about managing.
The explosion of coverage on just about managing voters has rightly focused on economics. As I wrote in my last column, how to extend the middle class is the central question of English politics. But culture matters too – above all, political policies designed to promote fairness in society. I recommended the Government repeal the Human Rights Act with this in mind. What other cultural policies might appeal?
I’d look at the concept of “political correctness” – and specifically the idea that people seem frightened about airing mainstream views that might be described as traditional or old fashioned. They’re probably wrong to fear prosecution in all but the most extreme circumstances, but they’re right to fear humiliation or hostile judgement – in part because of politicians’ endless willingness to condemn relatively innocuous comment. It’s undoubtedly a fringe issue, but could go to the heart of what people consider to be “fair” in society.
Political correctness and attitudes towards it are complex and opinion research on it is sketchy. Most people are supportive of – and comfortable with – multicultural Britain, the equal participation of women in the economy and society and gay rights. They don’t favour complete freedom of expression – not, for example, if it promotes extremism and / or violence.
But many are worried about the recent limits placed on free speech – not just through the way legislation is being enforced and interpreted, but because of the regular and often ludicrous public outrages where people are attacked for example for clumsy language or risqué comments.
Forget an assault on equality legislation. It’s not the right thing to do – and incidentally wouldn’t be popular. Instead the Government should start talking about free speech.
The most extreme approach to political correctness in relation to free speech now takes place on University campuses. As Spiked show with their University free speech rankings, Universities and student unions are regularly limiting mainstream debate in the name of security or because certain topics proposed for discussion might breach so-called “safe space” policies.
It’s easy to laugh at the sensitivities of modern students, but it’s an important issue. If large numbers of people leave University thinking that free expression should probably be restricted, it’s surely inevitable this attitude will find its way into public policy in the future.
I’m generally sceptical about the power of Government campaigns that don’t have a legislative or regulatory element to them. But this is one area where it seems legitimate for the Government to take a public view. While not one for the Prime Minister, it should be the role of the Universities Minister to make the Government’s view known that on campus there are practically no limits to intellectual discussion.
This would not only be a useful service in itself but it would also send a message to the public that the Government was keen to curtail the excesses of political correctness. It would make it clear the Government was happy to see robust public conversation but without Government politicians having to defend the latest idiot to have said something appalling.