Brexit - conservative and liberal thought


We know from our own experience that some people are inherently more resistant to change than others. We call those most resistant to change ‘conservatives’ and those at the opposite end of the spectrum ‘liberals’ - in each case in the non-political sense. And now it seems that there is neurological basis for this distinction. Those who had scored high on psychological tests for one extreme or the other were found to demonstrate that same trait in neurological tests. Conservatives were more likely to react as they had before in superficially similar situations than judge each situation on its merits. And so they got the answer wrong more often than the liberals. EEG’s done at the same time showed that liberals had twice as much activity in a region called the anterior cingulate cortex. This area of the brain seems to help the mind recognize those slightly different situations where following the usual course of action is not the right thing to do.

And so liberals would seem to be able to react to what goes on around them in a more appropriate and flexible way than conservatives. But is such a trait always a good thing? Conservatives argue that liberals spend to much time thinking about things and not enough time doing. What I think they mean is that the hyper-liberals spend so much time pondering the variables that they find it difficult to come to a conclusion sufficiently firmly to act upon it. Conservatives have no such difficulty. You do the same again. And then there is the criticism that many liberals want change for the sake of change - the opposite of the conservatives who want things to remain the same because... well, just because!

Which brings us to why we have such a diverse range of thinking in the first place. Although evolution does not always get it right, I think that perhaps, in this case, there may be an underlying benefit. You have the uber-conservatives on the one hand, desperate to cling to life as it always has been and the liberals wanting, as they see it, to put the world right, to progress, to engage in new forms of art or challenge accepted scientific or philosophical thought. Now such free thinking may be and has been a driving force for development of our society, but it has not always worked well. It has taken us down many blind alleys - to mention only the current crop of contemporary artists. A willingness to change one’s mind does not always mean that there is a well-though out case for a particular change. Too often, liberals get swept away on a tide of woolly thinking. Conservatism helps preserve a certain stability in the world, by preventing the wilder excesses of the liberals, obstinately requiring them to justify the changes they are proposing. Life needs to have a system of checks and balances and the conservatives are the necessary, if to me sometimes annoying, inertia in the system.

But. But it seems to me that there is now a political situation in which conservatives from all sides of the political spectrum are in a position to triumph, and this in a very costly way. I am talking, of course, about Brexit and the possibility of a Brexit without agreement or a Brexit 'Lite' agreement. The history of the European Union and the United Kingdom has been very fractious. Political parties have adopted various policies at various times. Churchill and the Americans, after the second war, encouraged the formation in 1950 of the Coal & Steel Community. This was of course an attempt to encourage commerce, but not only to promote economic growth. It was also intended to decrease the likelihood of another war. Churchill did not see the need for us to be part of this group. We had the 'Commonwealth' to trade with. When it became obvious that the Commonwealth was not a very profitable trade block in the post-war period, opinion changed and we instead promoted EFTA, a European free trade area. When this too failed to shore up our economy, we finally took the long and winding road to EU membership in 1973. According to the figures, our economy has benefited a lot from being part of the most powerful economic group in the world after the United States.

But there are those, apparently in the ascendant, who do not see this as a clear advantage. The ultraconservatives of the Conservative Party are opposed to the idea of being part of a federation of countries. In their version of history we were of course never controlled by Europeans. I don’t think they can have read “1066 and All That”. And they are convinced by the idea that even the modest form of federalism involved in being part of the EU prevents us from being an even bigger commercial nation. They see the centuries before Victoria and, certainly, during the reign of Victoria, as a period when we were the main nation in the world. According to them, and ignoring our dependence on the colonization of so many countries, our success was based simply on free trade. And this is the model for a bright future in which we regain our title. It is typical of the conservative mentality. You see everything as the same when it is obvious that it is different.

But Jeremy and Co are not convinced either that continuing to follow EU rules would be acceptable. The disadvantage for them is that European rules do not allow state aid, except for a limited time and in exceptional circumstances. The EU also requires a competitive system that greatly limits nationalization, not just of industry or mines, but also services such as trains or the water supply - an integral part of the left's vision. We have seen the results of state ownership: a scenario of chronic under-investment and commercial decisions made for political reasons. But the Socialists are convinced that, given that the current system produces an income for shareholders, it must be against the interests of the public. They say we have to go back to the solutions of the past and abolish the involvement of private investment. It is the only road to take. They cannot see that there are perhaps other solutions in a global commercial world. We can therefore say that the Socialists of the extreme left are very conservative. How very ironic.


October 2018

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