Why a mention of Simon Heffer? Simply because as a Telegraph columnist he’s widely read and influential.
I can’t imagine he would feel comfortable with Amartya Sen. (It helps to read my last blog before this one!) Heffer’s philosophy focuses on free markets and individual responsibility, with few concessions to individual rights. He is a conservative in its most literal and uncritically Anglocentric sense. His philosophy may not be mine, but it has substance and a long history.
He’s the polar opposite to supporters of capability theory, where every individual has positive freedoms including the ability to take part in economic or political activity. Such freedoms require positive intervention by the state, of a kind anathema to Heffer.
Capability is about fulfilling ourselves as human beings but there’s something missing in what I’ve read on the subject to date, something that takes us to the heart of the problem faced by Western democracies, and that is a reference to the importance not just of participation in politics but of balanced debate. Too often these days the shrill and the vituperative squeeze out reasoned argument.
I read Heffer’s beautifully balanced appraisal of Polanski’s arrest a few days ago, and then by contrast another piece (the title of the article ends with the words ‘the last gasp of the charlatan’) on Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour Party conference. ‘Cynicism’, ‘pretending’, ‘rubbishing markets’, ‘disgusting act’ all tripped off the keys in his first paragraph. Later on we had ‘phoney smiles’, ‘charlatanry’ (again, this time Mandelson) and then we had a comparison with Goebbels. From a long-time writer for the Mail, famous for its dalliance with Hitler, that was a bit rich. It was also nasty.
It is key to the debate that must be at the heart of our ability to engage in political action that we show respect for other individuals and parties, however much we disagree. We can then debate issues, rather than engage in grandstanding. Where there’s real corruption or dishonesty we can highlight it and we’ll be listened to.
Heffer does huge damage by making his attacks so personal, and one only has to read the unpleasant comments on the Telegraph website to realise he carries a multitude readers along with him.
Curiously, alongside Heffer we have Mary Riddell as a Telegraph columnist, with her measured comments on Brown and Labour. She could indeed be writing for the Guardian, and it does mean that Telegraph readers get another point of view. And whipped up by their cheer-leader, many of them hate it, and hate her. Brave lady.
Politics can be rough, and get personal, and you don’t get involved unless you can take it, indeed enjoy it. But too much animosity and it impacts on debate not just in the political but in the wider community. Therein lies the danger.