Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
Consider recent news.
JK Rowling criticised the expression “people who menstruate,” leading to accusations of “transphobia”, numerous authors quitting her literary agency, and staff at her publisher refusing to work on her new book.
Various controversies have followed the Black Lives Matter protests. Liverpool University will rename a building named after Gladstone. UKTV deleted an episode of Fawlty Towers making fun of a racist character. The RFU is reviewing the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.
These stories illuminate a new division in our politics. It’s not left vs. right, but is uniting conservatives and liberals against something new, which we need to give a name to.
“Woke” is the most common term, and laughing at its excesses is part of the cure. But we also need to take it seriously. Paul Staines calls it “Neo-puritanism”, which captures the absolutist, quasi-religious nature of it – the urge to “police” others behaviour.
Like puritanism, it’s strongest in America, but powerful here.
So what is Neo-puritanism?
First, Neo-puritans want to change the balance between free speech and censoring offensive speech.
The embodiment of liberalism is the slogan: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Neo-puritans feel a duty to “call people out”, often pressing for people to be sacked or shunned.
Don’t debate JK Rowling – “cancel” her. They see debate not as a chance to test and exchange ideas, but as unwelcome, wearying, maybe impossible.
Neo-puritanism has tightened the boundaries of free speech. Like Amber Rudd being “no platformed” by Oxford students. The NUS trying to block Peter Tatchell from speaking. A school dropping plans to name a house after JK Rowling. A DJ sacked (now reinstated) for denying he has “white privilege.” An Oxford professor given security guards after threats from transgender activists. Sheffield University paying students to police “micro-aggressions”. Hundreds of Guardian employees attacking Suzanne Moore’s “transphobia” for writing: “Female is a biological classification.”
Second, Neo-puritans believe in “hard” quotas and targets.
Conservatives and liberals often support increasing numbers of women or ethnic minorities in certain roles. They favour outreach programmes, mentoring, open days, etc.
Neo-puritans want quotas and sex/racially defined scholarships which other groups can’t enter. For example, Reni Eddo-Lodge argues that “when there are no hard targets for programmes of positive discrimination, they will always run the risk of looking like they’re doing something without achieving much at all.”
Examples include Cambridge University’s scholarship scheme (worth £18,000 a year) solely for black British students and Oxford’s Arlan Hamilton scholarships for Black undergraduates. UCL has scholarships for BME postgraduate students. The Bank of England has scholarships for African Caribbean students.
Third, Neo-puritans (i) think people are defined by their group, (ii) say people have “false consciousness” about our society and (iii) attack the liberal idea that people can be neutral.
A wave of bestselling books by Neo-puritan authors ramp up the importance of group differences Whether we’re talking about “White supremacy”, “White privilege”, or “White Fragility”, it’s not that some people are racist, but society.
For Neo-puritans, not only are people defined by their race, but race is defined by behaviour in an almost mystical way. The founder of “decolonise the curriculum,” Pran Patel, said: “Priti Patel is the perfect example of whiteness inhabiting a different coloured vessel”.
Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge academic, tweeted: “White lives don’t matter. As white lives” and “Abolish whiteness.” This isn’t just divisive and unhelpful. The concept of “whiteness” – that there are certain ways of behaving that are “white” – is intrinsically racist.
This explains why Neo-puritans think it’s OK to attack Conservative MPs from ethnic minorities as “coconuts” or “bounty bars” Robin DiAngelo argues there is deep false consciousness in our society: “Our racial socializatition sets us up to repeat racist behaviour regardless of our intentions.”
Neo-puritans see the “colour-blind” ideals of liberals as part of this false consciousness.
Reni Eddo-Lodge argues: “Colour-blindness is used to silence talk about structural racism while we continue to fool ourselves with the lie of meritocracy.”
A headteacher in Sheffield agrees, writing to parents: “Our society is built upon white supremacy… the world’s systems and structures are built on this bias, and this therefore creates White Privilege.”
Finally, Neo-puritans have a particular take on history, with the emphasis on criticism.
The self-styled “leader” of the BLM protests says Churchill’s statue is offensive and should be taken down. A university lecturer argues: “Churchill must fall”, because he was an “imperialist racist,” “hated” by the working class. Maya Goodfellow argues: “The way Churchill is remembered in the UK has always been tied up with ideas of white superiority.”
Nor is it just Churchill.
Take the student union leader who vowed to paint over a First World War memorial: “Mark my words – we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.”
Or the Oxford lecturer who hopes Oxford researchers don’t invent a coronavirus vaccine first because: “it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.”
So what’s the problem with Neo-puritanism?
First, I worry hard quotas lead to resentment; undermine those who succeed (am I only here because of my race or gender?); and lead to unfair, arbitrary decisions: can a scholarship for black students be awarded to a mixed-race person?
Second, there’s an abuse of language here. Apartheid South Africa and the Confederacy were states with an ideology of “White Supremacy”. Britain isn’t.
Third, relentless emphasis on group membership plus tighter boundaries on speech will lead to a society not at ease with itself. Instead of the colour-blind world liberals hope for, we’ll end up in a world walking on eggshells, where more and more we’ll see each other primarily as members of groups.
Fourth, I worry about the counter-productive effects of this conversation. If the “core function” of the police is racism, why should anyone non-white join up?
A 13 year old boy recently pleaded guilty to kicking a police officer on the head as he lay on the ground because of protests he’d seen on TV. Ideas have consequences.
If you claim our society is built on “white supremacy”, this will be heard by some people with fragile mental health. I know of a case of a young person who feels oppressed by all around her, seeing offers of friendship and help from white people as disguised attempts to hurt her.
Compared to a world in which you tell kids – ‘you’re all just the same, you just have different coloured skin’ it makes it more difficult to have natural relationships, and friendships without hangups.
Overemphasis of group differences is disempowering. Katharine Birbalsingh, head of one of the country’s top performing state schools says it: “undermines much of the work we do at school in trying to empower our children to take personal responsibility and grab life by the horns.”
Finally, healthy countries need a balance of self-criticism and self-confidence. Self-loathing is unattractive, but might also have bad practical consequences. People are often called on to do things for the greater good of the nation, from paying tax to fighting for their country. If Britain is basically shameful, why bother?
Neo-puritans sometimes highlight important problems. But though there is more to do, the big picture is one of progress. Sexism is down, racist attitudes are declining and ethnic minorities are steadily getting better off. Neo-puritanism won’t accelerate that, but instead risk a whole set of new divisions.