What follows is my review of four of the most important cultural and political events that happened in 2019.
1. Climate Activism
2019 saw the issue of the climate rise to the forefront of UK politics in a major way.
Of course, it had been there throughout the decade in election manifestoes and government policy.
But I think it’s fair to say that 2019 brought with it a more vocal, more active set of actors on the environmental scene.
The most vocal of the climate activist protest groups was Extinction Rebellion who called for the UK parliament to accept that the globe is facing a climate emergency. “The Truth”, as ER see it, is that we are on the brink of a mass extinction.
Among their demands are for the government to recognise this emergency, and, in light of it, to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 (a mere 5 years from now).
Foremost among the climate protest movements was the now-famous, teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. This unlikely hero projected herself to fame by leading and inspiring waves of young protesters across the globe to take to the streets on Fridays. One of the moments of the year was her impassioned speech before the UN Climate Action Summit, in which she levelled her frustration and anger at the inaction of world leaders.
Let me begin with what I take to be the positives from the climate activist movements in the UK.
We need to acknowledge that we are in a significant period when it comes to our future as a planet. Just have a read of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Global Warming and you’ll see what I mean. When it comes to climate activists, more specifically, there is a fearlessness and a desire to tell the truth regardless of how horrific it appears. I find that impulse brave and commendable (even if I disagree with the 2025 target that is being proclaimed).
At the same time, the ER movement has not taken enough care both in terms of the claims it has made and the means by which it seeks to achieve its ends. This is a movement that has, frankly, overstretched itself.
Let’s start with its methods.
This is a movement that has frequently employed questionable means to meet its ends.
I found this out personally over the Summer. Bus routes were not operational due to the protests resulting in tube stations filling to the brim. Faced with no other choice, I taxi’d across town.
I also object to the endangering of people’s lives through trespassing onto airport run ways or using drones to prevent aircraft from flying. And the disruption of public transport, as we saw in Canning Town, was just nonsensical to say the least.
Disruption to major producers of fossil fuels, I can at least understand, even be sympathetic towards. But to obstruct the lives of ordinary citizens (sometimes with tragic results) doesn’t induce my sympathy. To be quite honest, and I know others that I have read and spoken with with feel similarly, it can induce the opposite.
All of this might be excusable if we were facing imminent death. In fact, one would have to applaud ER for its consistency—faced with global mass extinction, the least we could do is endure a bit of mild discomfort to our daily consumption, a scaling-back to our ordinary travel habits, right?
Except, we aren’t.
Which takes us back to to that crucial IPCC Report. Full disclosure: I am not a climate scientist. But I trust this report. It represents an international consensus of expert climate scientists. Importantly, it advises that governments seek to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.IPCC, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments (Oct 2018)
So, we are in a crucial period. But we aren’t facing the apocalyptic doom promised by ER and others. As David Aaronovitch has put it,
Some people, of course, get off on hellfire. But it can frighten or alienate more than it energises. So when we look at what Thunberg claims and compare it with what we know of the science of climate change, we have to conclude that she exaggerates.
Most importantly, and as Peter Franklin has argued, we need to begin discussing solutions. More to the point, we need to start discussing realistic, economically sustainable ways of reducing our carbon emissions. William Hague has compiled a list which will be required reading for policy-makers
We also need to acknowledge that progress is being made. 2019 was the year the UK started producing more renewable energy than fossil fuels.
We’re still far off our 2050 target, though. And so we can’t get complacent. And when it comes to the environment, let that be the lesson we take into the 2020s.
- IPCC, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments
- Ed West, Why Conservatives Should Capture the Green Movement, Unherd
- David Aaronovitch, The disturbing spectacle of Greta the Great, The Times
- Peter Franklin, Greens Need to Start Talking Solutions, Unherd
- William Hague, The time for denial is over. Conservatives have to take the climate crisis seriously, The Telegraph
- Simon Evans, Analysis: UK renewables generate more electricity than fossil fuels for first time, Carbon Brief
2. The Brexit Election and The Re-Alignment of British Politics
On the Brexit front, 2019 seemed to drag on and on without much resolution.
We had a serious of Meaningful Votes on May’s deal. In the first, May faced the largest ever defeat inflicted on a government. Two further defeats followed along with two votes of confidence. May held on both times. Steely resilience characterised her premiership (and, as Matthew Goodwin has argued, her contribution to Johnson’s win in 2019 should not be downplayed).
Fast-forward to the end of October (a lot happened in between of course–May finally stood down, Boris Johnson won the leadership race, faced a series of parliamentary defeats, moved for parliament to be suspended, successfully got a new deal) and we faced a Christmas (or Advent?) Election.
The results were persuasive (at least as far as England was concerned). Johnson got his “stonking majority” and with it the largest Conservative majority since 1987. Labour crumbled, and nowhere more so than in the northern heartlands. You can read more about that important election night, here.
What I want to dwell on, though, is the fact that this election represents a re-alignment of British politics. As Matthew Goodwin, David Goodhart and others have argued, the Conservatives skilfully read the public mood which, in general, leans slightly left on economics and slightly right on issues of culture.
What it means to lean left on economics is fairly transparent; a commitment to public spending on NHS and the various components that make up the safety net of the welfare state.
The meaning of “leaning right” on culture is less apparent. Cultural conservatism doesn’t equate to Victorian social mores, or an illiberal backlash in terms of civil liberties and freedom of choice.
In fact, both assumptions unhelpfully conflate social conservatism and cultural conservatism. Peter Franklin helpfully distinguishes between them in this way:
social conservatism concerns matters of personal responsibility, while cultural conservatism concerns matters of collective identity — i.e. the former is about behaviour and the latter about belonging.
On social matters, most would agree that each individual is deserving of fair and equal treatment, irrespective of their race, sex or sexual orientation. As Matt Singh points out,
on the specifics, there are points where reasonable, non-bigoted people disagree. Besides the prioritisation there’s the question of what equality means in practice (is that formulation racist, is that advert sexist, and so on), to what extent equality has or hasn’t been achieved, what (more) should be done to achieve it, what happens when the interests of different protected groups conflict, and so on.
Leaning right on culture is similarly nuanced. It often constitutes not a resistance to change but a desire for a slower pace of change. On immigration, to take one issue of culture, this is not a drawing up of the drawbridges, but a plea for a system that takes greater care as to who enters one’s borders with a view to limiting the number of people that do.
The 2019 General Election resulted in an emphatic victory for those who lean right on culture.
One of things this means moving forward is the need for bridge figures on the (cultural) left and the (cultural) right. From personal conversations with those on the cultural and social left, I sense that it is important for those who are culturally right to assure the socially left that we will not be witnessing a backlash against hard-fought civil liberties for minorities. How one acts when in power is absolutely key, here. And the burden lies with those in the political ascendancy to offer important assurances in this regard.
With the cultural and social left, on the other hand, what is required is a greater attentiveness to the trends that have got us to where we are as a nation, and careful consideration of the nuances of the positions of those who have voted differently.
What 2019 (and the three or four years previous to it) have shown us is that issues of culture and belonging urgently require discussion. So far, we have as a nation collectively flunked this test. But there is still the distinct possibility of rapprochement. Conversations across difference are difficult, but the alternative—bitter division—is far worse.
- Matthew Goodwin, Nine lessons from the election: Boris was lucky – but he also played his hand right, The Spectator
- Matthew Goodwin, Why Labour Lost, Triggernometry Podcast
- Peter Franklin, Three Myths About Social Conservatives, Unherd
- Matt Singh, What does shifting right on culture actually mean? , CapX (the matters Singh considers to be ones of “culture” are better read as “social” issues, under Franklin’s definition).
3. The Maya Forstater Trial
2019 was the year that the transgender debate came to my attention.
I first became aware of the issue when noticing trans women’s presence in women sports (I suspect that sports is the entry point into the issue for many men). I was and am persuaded by the evidence (see, for a start, here and here) showing that even with hormonal treatment, men who transition to become women possess a variety of advantages that come from the skeleton as shaped at puberty. I fully expect this issue will be one that is discussed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Beyond sports, however, the issue has recently risen to broader prominence with the case of tax expert Maya Forstater, who lost her job for tweeting that a man cannot change his biological sex and for expressing her concern over self-ID law. Forstater subsequently lost her employment tribunal, after the judge ruled that her “approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society”.
At this point, I won’t comment any further, except to say this: the problem isn’t in Forstater’s assertion of biological reality (which seems so obvious as to be banal). Rather the problem, as I see it, lies in arbitrary, erroneous and harmful gender stereotypes promulgated and perpetuated by those on the Petersonian right and the trans-activist left.
Or, as former Olympic athlete Sharron Davies, more positively puts it:
“Whereas gender today is a social construct, an ideology, a feeling, totally changeable, I believe we cannot change sex but can live happily expressing ourselves outside of any stereotypes.”
- Sarah Hilton, A Woman’s Place is on the Podium, A Woman’s Place UK
- Tom Chivers, Of Course Biological Reality Exists, Unherd.
- Ross Tucker, On Transgender athletes and performance advantages, SportsScientists
- Is it fair to allow transwomen to compete in female sport?, Fair Play for Women
- David Brown, Maya Forstater: I’ve been abused for my beliefs about trans people, The Times
- Maya Forstater, I Lost My Job For Speaking Up About Women’s Rights, Medium.
- James Kirkup, In just a few words, JK Rowling has changed the transgender debate, The Spectator.
4. The Impeachment Trial
Objective reality not only took a hit on the issue of biological sex. Donald Trump, a man who has endowed us with phrases like “fake news”, is on trial for requesting a probe into Democratic Presidential nominee, Joe Biden from Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky (in return for offering him a state visit to Washington).
My take on the whole issue is that Trump appears to have well overstepped the boundaries of his office. Whether that constitutes an impeachable offence will obviously be a matter for the Congress. So far, the House has ruled in favour of impeachment. An overall positive impeachment verdict looks extremely unlikely, however, as the Republican controlled Senate looks set to vote against it sometime in early 2020. With this is mind, the Democrats would do best to reflect on how they might go about winning the hearts and minds of Trump voters ahead of November 5th.
More significant for the Saeculum, is the response of Christian leaders to the Trump impeachment trial. Mark Galli, editor of the evangelical periodical Christianity Today boldly and measuredly called for Trump to be removed from office, either by impeachment or electorally.
To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?Mark Galli
The response from Trump was swift and revealing. Christianity Today was branded a “far left” periodical. “They would rather a radical left non-believer who wants to take away your religion and your guns”. The President’s reference to “your religion” was, I thought, chilling.
The response from Trump-supporting evangelicals was yet more revealing. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham (a founder of the journal) and hardline Trump supporter, revealed that his father had, in fact, voted for Trump. The very thing Galli had warned evangelical leaders of—the uncritical hitching of the evangelical wagon to that of the Trump administration—was playing out before us.
As Tim Costello of the Australian-based, Centre for Public Christianity notes, “the burning question is, does faith shape one’s politics or does politics capture and determine one’s faith?”
None of this is to deny that Trump has achieved important domestic and foreign policy objectives—his tough stance on China, to take just one example, is admirable and has proven effective so far. To fail to grant that Trump has scored some important victories for, among other things, the US economy and religious freedom is to be severely unbalanced in judgment.
What I find most disconcerting, however, is the uncritical support “rendered” to Trump by the leaders of the evangelical churches in the States. To fail to even feel even a twinge of inner conflict about the character of President Trump is to be equally unbalanced in judgment.
As Mike Bird puts it, such an ideology—such a Trumpology—is lamentable indeed
because it presents a God with partisan mercy, who expects men and women to ignore their moral compasses, to call the wicked good and the good wicked, in order to keep themselves positioned in the court of earthly power.
- Andrew Buncombe, Trump ‘asked former Ukraine president to announce Biden investigation in exchange for state visit’, The Independent.
- Tim Costello, Can Christian faith be independent of politics? , The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia).
- Mark Galli, Trump Should be Removed From Office, Christianity Today.
- Mike Bird, Trump, Grudem and Hermeneutics, Patheos.