Team Conservatism

Maybe it’s an unjustifiable optimism on my part, but I am loathe to accept the idea, floated by a fair few commentators in recent days, that Ireland is a passive, timid, and conservative country. On the face of it, the proof of the truth of this statement can be found in electoral voting since whenever. But in the rush to find an all-encompassing account of why things are the way they are in Ireland, I think the danger is that we make assumptions about why it is that people, from our own point of view, vote conservatively. Not least on account of the risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

Radical Irish republican socialist Oscar Wilde observed in the Soul of Man under Socialism that there is only one group that worries more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. What Wilde shows us here is that you can have two groups of people who share the same concern, but for rather different reasons. Poor people worry all the time about money because they need it to meet their animal needs, whereas rich people worry about money because they believe they need it to meet their human needs.

So when you see a bloc of voters, whom you might expect to move left in the wake of the disaster wrought by neo-liberal policies and no small amount of corruption, switch instead to another right-wing party whose only difference from the other right-wing party is a more convincing claim to moral hygiene, you can’t just explain it away in terms of, oh, this is an innate conservatism, or they are a timid people, because it ignores the fact that people vote for right-wing parties for a variety of reasons, and one person’s reason for voting for Fine Gael may well contradict the reasons of another person for so doing.

Let me give a very crude example. Peter Sutherland will probably vote Fine Gael, assuming he lives in Ireland, because he knows it will assist in fashioning the economy to meet the needs and vision of the class of people he represents: his clientele at Goldman Sachs, his friends at the IMF and so on. And then there was a pregnant woman I was speaking to last week, who worked for an SME and who had had her wages cut, only 18 months after being made redundant from a previous job. We were talking about maternity leave and she was saying that she was afraid of taking no more than three months in case she began to appear a burden to her employer. When I suggested that there ought to be more substantial provisions for maternity and paternity leave, she didn’t disagree, but when I suggested that firms who claimed that they couldn’t pay for it could, in fact, pay for it, she didn’t accept this, saying that she found it highly unlikely that her employer could afford it, under present circumstances at least. Now in so far as you have people like this, who work for small and medium enterprises and as such are very fearful to any sort of measure that might affect their future employment prospects, they are likely to identify very much with people who claim to be on the side of business. So I reckon she might vote Fine Gael.

I don’t think you can describe such people as conservative. I don’t think you can say that she and Peter Sutherland share a common political philosophy. You might venture, as Fintan O’Toole does, that such people are timid, but if so you need to ask: who is doing the intimidating?

7 Responses to “Team Conservatism”

  1. 1 LeftAtTheCross February 24, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Agree. My wife tells me regularly that “people are afraid of change”, it’s not that they don’t want change, it’s that they are afraid of what it will bring to their lives. Fear is the key.

  2. 2 CMK February 24, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Truly outstanding analysis, Hugh. I say that after reading Diarmaid Ferriter and Elaine Byrne in today’s Guardian. Facile in the extreme, to be nice and polite about it. When elite groups have put 90 years of dedicated effort, never slacking for an instant, into constructing and maintaining the narrowest possible political parameters, then it should be no surprise that most people are going to vote FG in 2011.

    After all it is an orthodoxy of political commentary that FG (with or without Labour) and FF do represent ‘alternatives’. Hundreds of thousands who are going to mark ‘1’ for a FG candidate tomorrow really, genuinely, believe they are voting for change. That the act of writing that simple number on a ballot paper is the first step in things getting better, of the nightmare lifting. That’s what you believe when you’re trying to survive and make the best of life and all you have for information is RTE, Independent newspapers, Newstalk and the Times. And lest that comes across as sneering and condescending, it’s not meant to be but is merely a reflection of my political interactions with family, friends, workmates and others over the past few weeks. When a much loved family member declares a readiness at the weekend to give FF another chance because Michael Martin ‘seems like a decent fella’ then you realise what a lifetime’s immersion in the Sindo and RTE can result in.

    The election after tomorrow will be the real battle. Tomorrow is just a change in receivers.

  3. 3 kenoma February 25, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Or take someone working for a multinational dissuaded from voting for the left because of their position on corporation tax. Does that worker believe 12.5% is some sacred and inviolable formula for economic success? Do they believe some slight nudge upwards in the rate would lead to massive capital flight & the terminal destruction of all Irish industry forever and ever?
    Not at all. They’re not morons. What they know is that a corporate tax rise would be yet another alibi for redundancies, wage cuts and slashed benefits.
    Do such people ‘believe’ the current corporation tax rate is economically just, sensible or necessary? Our survey says yes, because our survey is engineered to register nothing more than dumb grunts of approval or disapproval

  4. 4 Hugh Green February 25, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Thanks for the comments, people.

    CMK, I agree 100%. One thing I’d say about the ‘sure he’s a decent fella’ school of political choices is that it’s a perfectly rational thing to do, from the place that many people are coming from. If you want to trust people so that they’ll do the right thing by you, why wouldn’t you opt for someone who resembles someone who has been good to you?

    kenoma, you’re absolutely right. I know plenty of people working for these firms, and most of them are completely cynical about what these firms do and how they are treated by them, but when it comes to voting they will still incline toward whoever’s most likely to make sure their own position is not rendered any more precarious.

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February 2011

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