02/02/2012 08:08 GMT | Updated 02/04/2012 06:12 BST

In Defence of Political Correctness - And Freedom of Speech

The Great Recession has resulted in a political sea-change in Britain, with a Conservative-Liberal government replacing a Labour one. Just as with 9/11, the Great Recession has sucked the political oxygen from the atmosphere so that other issues not only struggle for attention, but get framed solely through the prism of the headline news. As a result, the change from what can be broadly termed progressive government - with very notable reservations - to conservative government becomes only about one party's approach to economic crisis versus another party's approach to economic crisis. We forget that when the political currents shift, one world-view is exchanged for another.

Among these shifts is a very different attitude to people, a very different approach to how people relate to each other, and very different ideas about change and how it occurs.

Consider this from a not un-typical column from Jeff Randall in the Telegraph: "We have lost control of domestic borders, ceded legal primacy to Europe and allowed the Storm Troopers of political correctness to stamp their corrosive version of right and wrong on British law." Notice how he manages to cram into one sentence fear of immigration, the European Union, fascism, political correctness, and a generalised sense of Britain being under siege? He is rhetorically efficient, you have to give him that.

This is not to knock Jeff Randall specifically. I respect an economic journalist who can put his ego to one side to admit to having been waylaid by 'slow horses and fast women.' But one of the most insidious effects of this change from progressive worldview to conservative worldview has been a drift toward black-and-white moralising, an intolerance of nuance, and generalised humbuggery towards those who are different. Does it really bear repeating that the losers in the recession rarely include affluent, white, Telegraph-reading men? Has political correctness really gone mad when people point this out, or raise concerns about what this means for our country?

The effects of this recession are being felt by all of us, but it is having greatest effect on the most vulnerable: the young, the old, the sick and the disabled. Not only should we talk about these things, but it is important to call people out when they use straw men to make arguments about society that bear little relation to its most immediate problems, and attempt to manufacture outrage in a world that contains much of it already.

'Political Correctness', in the sense that Randall uses it, is just such a straw man. The ease with which he segues between political correctness, distrust of foreigners, and the erosion of Britishness, without pinning any of these things down, ought to be an indication of how unfocused this sort of rage is, and how weakly defended the idea of political correctness is that it is only ever defined by its enemies. Can you think of an example of 'political correctness' being used as a positive term, and not as some convenient way to signal another attempt by a humourless, all-powerful, liberal 'them' to make life worse for a plucky, common-sense 'us'?

The use of the phrase 'political correctness' as short-hand for a liberal authoritarianism, is representative of a world-view that tries to mask reaction as common sense (another phrase beloved of those on the right - forgetting that Tom Paine's popularising of the phrase was in a political tract that was possibly the most revolutionary manifesto committed, at that point in time, to print.) It arose as an inverted reaction to deconstructionism, the consciousness of language as a delivery system for power through metaphor and symbols; and to post-modernism, the idea that ideas themselves are dead, and organised thought is a restriction of a free mind.

Political correctness is often criticised for attempting to criminalise thought-crime or hate-speech, as Orwell warned against in 1984. We should be free to talk about spastics, queers and dagos because we live in England, the thought goes, and every Englishman knows in his soul that we stand for freedom, and so we don't need do-gooders to tell us what to do like they might in France or Germany, or in those other places where the goose-steppers let things get out of hand.

Those on the right often bring up Orwell when talking about political correctness as the man is seen as an honourable leftie; quite different to the shrill neo-fascists who the right now think populate the left. But there is a category error here. 1984's Newspeak was an allegory of totalitarianism - and while Orwell's main target was the Soviet regime, for historical immediacy, his point was about freedom generally. This was a man who fought Fascism in Spain in the 1930s, and was against bullies, not against government, liberals, do-gooders or any other part of what constitutes the real oppressors in the regressive imagination.

Orwell was sceptical of government and authority generally, and his most immediate experience of it was when it shot at him. He was rightly cautious about when the instruments of state are commandeered by an unaccountable force, utopian or otherwise. But he was also a writer who was deeply moved by the dignity of civic patriotism at the heart of English democracy (The Lion and the Unicorn), and was motivated, morally, to bear witness to poverty and deprivation, and the corruption of the soul that follow from both (The Road to Wigan Pier).

Orwell's work, for me, is not just about freedom, but about what you have to do to be free. That there is no freedom without justice, and that grand schemes to remake the human condition need to preserve the autonomy of the human soul.

Those who rail against political correctness, and its attendant evils Health and Safety and the Compensation Culture, have clearly never lived under systems where real freedom is under threat. What are they really against? People being healthy? People staying safe? Somebody other than yourself having an interest in your well-being? A compensation culture arises when you have access to courts that have the power to enforce laws about person and property without fear of reprisal. A compensation culture does not exist in North Korea - I wonder why?

Ask a political scientist and they will tell you that real totalitarian regimes are comparatively rare - Stalinism came close, but had to buy off many of its enemies. China is not totalitarian: the Cultural Revolution produced a pragmatic deal between the Communist Party and capital that neither would fundamentally challenge the other. Totalitarianism is total: hence the name. It takes quite an extraordinary remaking of the state, command over the economy and the submission of culture to the needs of the party.

Does it really need pointing out that political correctness does not meet any reasonable test for totalitarianism or fascism, and that trying to equate them is intellectually feeble and morally confused? If the body of thought labelled as political correctness has no intellectual validity, why bother equating it to anything at all, and certainly why go to the trouble -as Jeff Randall does - to describe its practitioners as 'jackboot egalitarians'?

We should be able to say when we think problems are manufactured to distract attention from real issues, and we should be expected to robustly defend the case that such distractions are being made in order to advance one world-view at the expense of another. And we should be able to do so without the other side using cheap and lazy clichés.

Here are a few facts for your consideration, that I think are important, and that I suggest are more worthy of the attention of the media.

Corporate tax-avoidance costs the UK economy £25bn a year, roughly equivalent to the total transport budget, but only half the defence budget, and only a quarter of the cost of replacing Trident over the next thirty years.

This is at a time when the country's social welfare budget is facing cuts over the life-time of this Parliament by a quarter. Slashing a £60bn annual budget by 25% is not trimming the fat - it is a structural change with political consequences. These consequences are either intended, or entirely unanticipated. Either way, we should be politically concerned.

Unemployment has topped 2.65m in the UK, with 1m young people (under 25) out of work. Can you imagine a more potent political and demographic time-bomb if the political consensus that this is just an ordinary recessionary cycle turns out to be wrong, and this is not an awkward pause before a return to equilibrium and growth?

The economy is teetering on the brink of recession for the second time in four years - the announcement of a second quarter of negative growth now seen as a formality rather than as a possibility. Even more worrying, the 'recovery' between the last recession and this is hardly worthy of the name, with reports now that the rate of recovery for the British economy being weaker from the last recession than following the Great Depression. We still hear, however, nothing but the conventional tropes about a return to growth and boom and bust rather than sustainability. As if all we have to worry about is an indifferent few quarters for our pension funds, rather than a more fundamental question such as will people under 30 ever get to have a pension?

All of this while, incidentally, we only have 40 years of oil left, all of our vehicles run on it, nearly all of our everyday objects are made from it or transported by it, and most of our human infrastructure from telecommunications to healthcare, to the food we eat, to how we build our homes, depend on it in some critical way. (The most depressing thing about this is that it is only ever of incidental concern.)

I wouldn't want to second-guess E F Schumacher, but I have a feeling that he would see through orthodoxy masquerading as heterodoxy. To subvert Margaret Thatcher, the point of truly heterodox economics is to change the soul. The attack on political correctness and what it represents - a political left that has gone intellectually soft - is an attempt to recruit general feelings of anger and helplessness in the service of a particular political worldview. One that attempts to make an ideology out of not having an ideology, and reduces freedom to nihilism.

There are many enemies right now, political and real. Freedom is under threat, and not just from fundamentalists. Those who don't give a name to their ideology, who hide behind non-ideology, or who claim to be post-ideological make an ideological claim just as surely as if they declare themselves to be communists or fascists; and will keep on distracting us with straw men, unwilling to draw a line in the sand, to say - this is what I believe.