On the June 13th 2023 a West African migrant murdered three people in the city of Nottingham. What followed was a testament to the strength of the social order that each of them had lived under.
On the 15th, the families of the victims appeared at an official vigil held in the centre of town. While on stage, they found themselves flanked by a host of ‘local faith and community leaders’, who had in 2017 organised themselves into Nottingham Together – a collective body formed to tackle prejudice. Clericalist displays like these weren’t new, nor were they unique to Nottingham. They were part of a pro forma action plan, dubbed ‘Controlled Spontaneity‘, that each city council in Britain has on the books in case of events like these. Faith and communal worthies are one feature, as are the “I heart [city name]” posters and stickers, printed and ready to go. So too are the hashtags, “#[city name]together”, and the music, invariably Noel Gallagher’s Don’t Look Back in Anger – also performed after the 2017 terrorist attack on a pop concert in Manchester which killed 23 people. As one of the authors of Controlled Spontaneity ruefully noted, the purpose of the action plan is not to commemorate the victims, or their families, or even to reflect on the tragedy itself. We are here adrift on stranger tides. The purpose of Controlled Spontaneity is to shore up relations between different communities, relations which events like these have the potential to fray. The relatives hadn’t been invited to commemorate the victims, but to play their part in the defence of a social order.
Play it they do. The families have not been made privy to Controlled Spontaneity. This scarcely matters. In her speech, one of the parents asks the audience to “please hold no hate that relates to any colour, sex or religion”. This plea was completely unprompted. No communal violence had been forthcoming. The parents clearly believed that this event had a political dimension, but simply felt that they had no right to bear any kind of political grievance from the deaths of their children. This was only their duty as responsible citizens.
Two of the victims were 19 years old. To stop the spread of a virus that manifestly did not affect them, they had just spent two years locked indoors – a little over a tenth of their lives.
Down the road from the vigil, the Britannia Hotel has been all booked up by the Home Office. It’s being used to house illegal migrants, whose presence here is mandated by international treaty obligations, enforced by a court in Strasbourg. The collective cost of this system to the taxpayer is £8 million a day.
‘Postliberals’ look at this society and conclude that its big problem is an insufficient sense of duty and obligation. Postliberalism is an ideology that emerged during the Brown years. It is devoted to the proposition that a society isn’t a collection of individuals, but a compact between different communities, bound together by mutual responsibility. Originally confined to academic circles, its first leading lights were suitably worthy: Baron Maurice Glasman, the philosopher Philip Blond, the social scientist David Goodhardt and the theologian John Millbank. They have latterly been joined by, among others, the writers Mary Harrington and Paul Kingsnorth, the academic Adrian Pabst and the cleric Giles Fraser. Postliberalism provides the basic editorial line of the online magazines UnHerd, Compact, and to a lesser extent the Critic. It is Postliberalism, rather than some kind of Thatcherism, that now furnishes the house doctrine of the Tory Right. To Postliberals, what ails modern society is a spirit of corrosive individualism – both in its permissive Class of ’68 and Neoliberal forms. For this, Hobbes and Locke are to blame: they invented the ‘liberal subject’ in the 17th century, an idea that has redefined political and social life in contractual terms. To liberal subjects, human relations can only be justified on the basis of consent. The consequence has been the slow destruction of the non-elective social bonds that we all need for happy lives. To Postliberals, the solution, then, is for the state to recreate these bonds, chiefly by recognising communities, rather than individuals, as the basic unit of political life.