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Why we need a gentle radical revolution

Our social arrangement needs to prioritise human relationships, argues MP Danny Kruger.

Danny Kruger is the Conservative MP for Devizes.  He is the author of Covenant: The New Politics of Home, Neighbourhood and Nation.

A group of people stand in a field by a fence and a railway footcrossing.
Danny Kruger with a campaign group in his Devizes constituency.

Democracy divides us. The political system best calculated to hold together a diverse society is also one that exacerbates differences and obscures our common opinions and interests. A two-party system - and all Western politics is largely binary, split between conservative and progressive parties or groups of parties - encourages vicious disagreement across the aisle, and polarises opinion in the country.  

The paradox is that, despite our party disagreements, the most popular opinion with the public is that ‘they're as bad as each other’. The view held in common across the country is that ‘they’re all the same’; that ‘there’s nothing to choose between them’. And deep down, the public is right, but in a good way. Fundamentally the parties share a worldview, which derives from our common inheritance as the heirs of the Christian tradition. 

That tradition taught us that individuals are intrinsically, personally, valuable, without reference to the identities of sex, household, tribe or race which, in pagan cultures, gave people their only worth (or for most people, their lack of it). It also taught us that, despite our individual personal value, our mission in life was other-facing. Our object of worship was outside the self. God’s will was made material and meaningful through the institutions of our common life, in what we came to call civil society. These institutions in turn, especially the institution of the law, worked to protect the individual and make diversity safe.  

This tradition split into two parts in the modern age, as an old, anti-Christian idea, which Christianity had expunged, crept back in. In my book Covenant I call it ‘the Idea’, as opposed to what I call ‘the Order’. The ‘Idea’ is that I am god, with the creative power to order reality and decide for myself what is right and wrong. This ancient heresy has been refreshed in our times precisely by the principle of individual rights and freedoms that Christianity gave us. This is because we have steadily degraded the other side of the Christian bequest: the other-facing, institutional life that gave individuals a more textured sense of who they were, i.e. members of a community with something to live for outside themselves. The consequence is both the narcissism of self-worship and the rise of identity culture - a return to the pagan belief that your value is determined by your sex, race or tribe.  

In the age of tech we can create a decentralised, responsive and personalised system that will give us both belonging and agency. 

Individual value and dignity, made safe and meaningful by a social arrangement which emphasises solidarity, peace and care for the stranger - these are the elements of what I call the ‘Order’. They are not absolute principles: even individual rights to life and liberty must be constrained in certain circumstances, and other-facing generosity likewise needs to be limited in order to be sustained. To take a current example, ‘care for the stranger’ does not, in my view, mean offering a home in the UK to anyone who manages to arrive on our shores and claim asylum. It does mean treating every asylum seeker humanely, whether we admit them or remove them, and it means committing part of our wealth and power to preventing, or mitigating the effects of, war and natural disaster in other parts of the world.  

How does such a covenantal politics approach other policy areas? The principles that Graham Tomlin set out in the report he compiled after the Grenfell Tower fire, after listening to local voices, are a helpful guide. We need to ‘humanise welfare’, dismantling the inefficient bureaucracies which see people as units to be managed, rather than as people to be helped and given responsibility and agency, and build instead relational systems of social support. We need to ‘provide homes’, which means so much more than the sterile term ‘housing’: it means attractive, affordable, safe buildings where people can live both with privacy and in community. As this suggests we need to help people ‘become neighbours’, with the means and the motivation to connect with others who belong to different identity groups. We should ‘notice faith’: as happened after Grenfell, it is local community faith groups which more than any official agency provide support, belonging, cohesion, and practical change at a local level.  

And lastly, overall, we need to ‘renew democracy’. In Graham’s words, ‘we need to find ways to enable people, especially in more deprived areas, to have more of a say in issues that directly affect their lives, rather than politics happening at a distance by competing parties remote from local life.’ The sense of this is both deeply conservative (small-c) and deeply radical. Of course, we need power to be close to the people; this was the traditional way of things before the Durkheim and his followers  decided that the centralised state, not local civil institutions, was the proper place for managing human services. In the Middle Ages, according to Robert Tombs’ history of England, fully a third of men, of all classes, played a responsible role of some kind in the management of their neighbourhood. Yet a return to this model would be radical, because it involves upending Durkheim’s assumptions - shared by his heirs in the school of New Public Management beloved of the Blairites - about the proper arrangement of society. 

We need a gentle revolution: a return to some old ideas about social organisation that prioritise human relationships, the organic and the natural over utility, efficiency and equality of outcome; ideas which actually lead to a more useful, more efficient and genuinely more equal system. These are the ideas of what I call the Order, derived from theories of the social covenant that lie deep in our history but which are also best fitted to the modern world.  

In the age of tech we can create a decentralised, responsive and personalised system that will give us both belonging and agency. We can recreate a more localised economy, but this time more fair, equal and capable of supporting a larger and more diverse population than the pre-modern world knew. And we can make a democracy that more closely reflects the principle that we all, whether progressive or conservative, share a common inheritance and belong to a single political community. 

 

Covenant: The New Politics of Home, Neighbourhood and Nation is published by Forum Press. 

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10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.