Britain needs more, not less, eccentric thought

The last thing Britain needs is a media that "guards against eccentric thought". The country is economically stagnant. Its institutions have declined. Its people are deeply dissatisfied. Why would people want the normal and the conventional?

The Critic’s Ben Sixsmith has written a great piece arguing the need for more, not less, eccentric thought in Britain’s increasingly insipid political culture, where politicians from all the major parties seem happy to accept as fait accompli the idea that the Overton window is now little more than a peephole, and a none too generously proportioned one at that.

Ben’s article was prompted by what he describes as an “interesting” sentence in “The Tory right’s radicalisation should trouble us all”, a recent article in the New Statesman by the journalist Lewis Goodall. One of the things Goodall has argued consistently across all his articles, and as a co-host of the podcast The News Agents, is that there has been “a slow, hostile takeover by the right of the Conservative Party”.

The sentence that interests Ben appears during a section of Goodhall’s latest article in which he describes as “esoteric” and “unpopular” the various policy ideas adopted by the ‘Popular Conservative’ movement recently established by Liz Truss, Lee Anderson, Jacob Rees Mogg and others.

Having lingered over the perceived failings of right-wing conservatives for perhaps a little longer than his argument strictly requires, Goodhall continues: “The media, both new and old, which should act as a guard against eccentric thought, is often where these ideas germinate.”

A guard against eccentric thought? Perhaps someone should draw Goodhall’s attention to the words of Lord Justice Sedley in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999): “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative providing it does not tend to provoke violence.”

Ben continues:

Perhaps it’s just a thoughtless choice of words – and we’ve all been there – but it could also be deeply wrong-headed and revealing. A guard against irrational thought? That would be fine. A guard against hateful thought? Understandable. A guard against eccentric thought? Weird.

“Eccentric”, of course, means unconventional and slightly strange. “Unconventional” has no necessary pejorative connotations. What is “strange”, meanwhile, is an essentially subjective judgement. Yet Goodall sees resisting the “eccentric” as the duty of the journalistic class.

I don’t care if you are on the right or on the left. Britain very obviously needs eccentric thought. It is economically stagnant. Its institutions have declined across the board. Its people are deeply dissatisfied. To be sure, this does not mean that an alternative must be better than the status quo. While most people are well-fed and relatively safe, things can always be worse. But politics is very clearly failing Britain. Why would people want the normal and the conventional?

Goodall’s thinking represents a strange form of conservatism in which Britain’s extrapolitical order — its courts, its civil service, its cultural institutions — contain such timeless value that to challenge them except in the most marginal terms is to illustrate your dangerous radicalism. “Anti-institutionalism… a belief that the established legal, cultural and political order is antithetical to conservative ends, has,” he claims, “gripped not just the Conservative Party but the wider ecosystem of the right.”

The breadth of Goodall’s judgement here is what makes it unhelpful. Of course, it would be dangerous and destructive to oppose our entire legal, cultural and political order — but there must be a distinction between challenging habeas corpus, for example, and challenging the Equality Act 2010. Agree or disagree with the latter, it cannot be claimed to be a foundational element of British law.

Needless to say, Goodall considers it inherently ridiculous to think that much of our “legal, cultural and political order is antithetical to conservative ends”, ignoring, for example, the institutionalisation of EDIwider curbs on unfashionable thought and speech and the guilt-ridden iconoclasm of historical and artistic institutions.

I’m not saying it is untrue that anti-establishment thinking can mutate into irrational and destructive forms. Yet however British institutional life can be restored, the solutions are bound to seem “eccentric” to someone whose idea of normality is so cramped. Eccentric times call for eccentric measures.

Worth reading in full.