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Guardrails of civilisation

If politics is downstream from culture, culture is downstream from the campus

Rooted in philosophical ideas from postmodern philosophers, the “Great Awokening” has come to define the cultural politics of the Anglophone West. The sacralisation of historically marginalised minorities has ushered in a new moral order that has now transcended the petri dish of the West’s higher educational institutions. An intersectional oppression matrix, where oppressed identities kaleidoscopically intersect, has thrown up new political coalitions.

From the rise of gender ideology and its erasure of the biological reality of sex differences to the race war rhetoric of critical race theory to the re-energised Islamo-left seeking post-October 7th radical decolonisation, these theories now profoundly shape the politics of the Western world. They propose a wholesale philosophical assault on previous certainties. Rejecting any notion of truth or objectivity, the historically dominant apex values of science, rationality and institutional authority are now said to be oppressive constructs. A righteous moral heat must melt all that is solid; identity becomes fluid, and the ultimate arbiter of what is true is one’s “lived experience”.  

How did the UK’s universities get to this point? 

First is the decades-long political cleansing of heterodoxy from the academy. Twenty years ago, self-defined conservative academics were one in three. Today, that figure is one in ten. Very few will put their heads above the trenches. The career and, often, psychological costs are simply too high. Those brave or foolish enough to do so have faced cancellation, litigation, and almost constant harassment, all backed by the imprimatur of Vice Chancellors and an administrative cadre eager to enforce ideological conformity in the name of being “kind”.  

Second, compounding these trends is the growth of DEI bureaucracies, which have grown in power and size across the University sector. These bureaucracies exist to police the implementation of the UK’s 2010 Equality Act and the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED).

Data shows that the UK has seen a 58 per cent increase in diversity and inclusion roles since 2015, most of which are at the most senior level. Today, “UK organisations employ twice as many D&I professionals per 10,000 employees than any country in the world and have the second largest number of D&I professionals globally, behind the US.” The PSED is the legal backbone of most of the “woke” mission creep across British institutions. The fact that it has been left unreformed by so-called conservatives is telling and a source of profound strategic cultural failure.

In an environment where discrimination is statistically insignificant, DEI commissars have turned to ever more inventive ways of pushing the cultural revolution and justifying their roles. For example, on today’s campus, DEI bureaucracies primarily police what are called microaggressions or perceived intentional or unintentional slights to those on the intersectional oppression matrix. 

What are some of the examples used to evidence campus microaggressions? Examples given include not praising or criticising somebody, giving somebody late feedback or not giving someone eye contact when talking to them. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, responsible for policing the Equality Act, even provided guidance stating that a lecturer’s body language and demeanour when talking to students could be used as evidence of racism. Responding to this pandemic of racist non-eye contact and white-supremacist body language, the lead organisation for British University leaders, Universities UK, states that universities now need to increase “staff and students’ understanding of racism, racial harassment and microaggressions and white privilege, through training developed from an anti-racist perspective”. This needs to move beyond psychological audits such as “unconscious bias training” to setting “targets for completion and carefully evaluate all training activities to ensure they have the desired effect”.

Third, these developments occur in a broader moral and institutional collapse across the Anglophone West. From custodians and stewards of our shared cultural inheritance, institutions have instead adopted the importance of emotional safety and judgemental relativism.  Nothing can be adjudicated as better or worse. Whilst ostensibly egalitarian and open-minded, this childish fantasy collapses the belief that because every human should be regarded as equal, the epistemological status of their beliefs must also be equal. 

As such, the civilisational guardrails of reality and truth have now been abandoned, lest anybody takes offence. On an existential level, these more profound beliefs pose the biggest threat to Western civilisation. The obsession with eliminating discrimination from society ignores the fundamental point that civilisation is based on discrimination: a separation or differentiation between different sets of preferences for what is desirable and what is pointless, inefficient, or undesirable. 

Intolerance has historically been a load-bearing structure with designated enforcement and gatekeeping guardrails. Civilisation is not natural. It doesn’t make itself but relies primarily on institutional custodianship of what has been loved and valued to pass on to the as yet unborn.

Maintaining the necessary enforcement of what works necessitates being unkind and causing some people distress. How can this be done if all authority is dissipated, with any act of assertion merely a subjective imposition of somebody’s truth? What can we use to adjudicate what must be done to create stability whilst excluding what rejects or hates our values? In our new moral order, passing judgment or informing people within the community that they can’t do certain things is unkind and cruel. We have elevated weakness as a moral virtue. 

This loss of moral confidence occurs in a broader Western geopolitical decline and rising competition between more culturally confident great powers. Only this month, the Economist reported that China is now the world’s leading scientific power. In 2003 America produced 20 times more of the leading high-impact scientific papers than China. But “from 2022, China had surpassed both America and the entire European Union (EU)”. As they power their civilisation forward, one wonders if the Chinese wrestle with the need to deconstruct science, truth, rational adjudication, and the pathological empathy now destroying the West. 

Is it possible to reverse these trends? There are faint glimmers. In the UK, I worked with a tiny band of “guerilla” academics that helped midwife the forthcoming academic freedom legislation that comes into force in August of this year. Across a broken landscape of almost 15 years of “conservative” rule, this legislation is a small glimmer of light to help protect pluralism and free speech on our campuses — a beachhead upon which further advances can be made. Still, even in this darkening hour, it may face being extinguished by a pre-August Labour super-majority government. The Conservatives couldn’t even get that right.

The primary mission of anybody who calls themselves a conservative is the preservation of Western civilisation

What is to be done? The Conservative Party have long viewed the so-called culture wars as gauche. In this, they have failed to recognise a point of existential importance: national self-understanding underpins a deeper civilisational will that carries profound political significance. A state’s foreign and domestic policy draws from a more profound cultural story linked to national identity. How can we know what we wish to bring into being through the national interest before we know who we are? 

Cultural stories enable and constrain action as powerfully as (if not more than) military or financial capabilities. They describe our place in the world, help order internal social relationships, and give purpose and meaning to action. 

Domestically, Conservatives have long ignored the more profound legal-value nexus Blair’s administrative state left for them. From legal innovations like the Equality Act that undergird wokery to the one-step removed forms of deep state quango governance, they have been playing checkers on a deeply embedded progressive 4d chess board. A likely Starmer government will only entrench these trends, with yesteryear solutions to a world order now in profound transformation. 

The primary mission of anybody who calls themselves a conservative is the preservation of Western civilisation: that is the lodestar. We will soon need hinterlands where we must ruthlessly diagnose, strategise, and map the vectors that will allow a reversal of the decline of the West. Its embers are now almost smothered; its hearth keepers are few and scattered. 

This article is based on a speech delivered at the “Win or Lose: The Strange Survival of Conservatism” symposium hosted by the Danube Institute and New Culture Forum in London on 10 June with support by the International Reagan Thatcher Society

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