Fraser Nelson

The pessimism of the left

The pessimism of the left
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Like David, I’m a fan of Polly Toynbee. Every compass needle needs a butt end, after all. She is 180 degrees wrong on most things: but splendidly, eloquently, passionately wrong. I’d like to pick up on one aspect of her column.

“Social democrats are the world's optimists, knowing human destiny is in our own hands if we have the will to change. Leave pessimism to the world's conservatives, ever fearful of the future and yearning for a better yesterday.”

Now, I have also seen this as a fundamental difference between left and right but (needless to say) the other way around. And it all comes down to your views of human nature. Do you think people are inherently kind, wise and compassionate? I do, which is why I describe myself as a conservative. I think society will be better, stronger and more socially cohesive if money is left in the hands of people who earn it, to distribute as best they see fit. The likes of Polly see ordinary people as rather dim, and selfish: this is why they must have a chunk of their earnings confiscated by the state so an elightened elite can put it on priorities which – left to themselves – these stupid, selfish people would not address.

Polly’s column today illustrates this pessimism rather well, laying into the lumpen masses. “Most leaders in Copenhagen were out ahead of their people. Most understand the crisis better than those they represent, promising more sacrifice than their citizens are yet ready to accept.” What ignorant, heartless citizens. She goes on: “If voters cared about people drowning in Bangladesh, more aid would have been sent decades ago.” Oh, the cold hearts of the working class! Bruce Anderson once said of someone (I forget whom) “he would do anything for the working class except like them”. This quote often comes to mind when I am reading Polly. She goes on: “News editors yawned as Copenhagen failed,” she said – again, seeing life through the prism of the elite rather than the masses. News editors, of course, judge stories by what is likely to maximise their readership: has it occured to Polly that the average person is more interested in flying home for Christmas or seeing their family rather than some summit ending in predictable collapse? But in Polly’s world, people are stupid and believe whatever the press tell them. “Many think the science is still in dispute. Why wouldn't they when the maverick billionaires who control most of our press keep pumping out climate change denial day after day?” Ben Schott’s 2010 Almanac – a book which I heartily recommend – has a figure that 22% of people read a daily newspaper now, a rate which has more than halved since the 1970s. Newspapers don’t control what people think, and I have never met a journalist who thinks otherwise.

That’s not quite right: I have met Polly. She is charming, intelligent, spirited and every column of hers I read triggers a stream of objections like the above: this, of course, is the mark of a good columnist. So I can at once salute Polly’s skill, and say that I believe her worldview is about as wrong as you can be. She does brilliantly illuminate the errors of old leftism – and, often, the misanthropy which lies at its core. This is where I think left and right disagree. A Tory government should place its faith not in schemes or plans, but on the courage and the character of the British public. Devolving power to the people (and letting them keep more of their cash) is an essential part of the kind of conservatism that I believe in (and by the way, I’d place Tory paternalists in the side of the bad guys, and Milburn/Adonis Labour reformists on the side of the angels). Let's leave the pessimism and misanthropy to those who think power is best left in the hands of the elites.