A Review of Covenant: The New Politics of Home, Neighbourhood and Nation by Danny Kruger
On 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.
These are high phrases. They go well beyond retail politics, or even the fate of any particular country. But permit me a parochialism. Let’s take a look back at the last 25 years of selfish individualism, just in the U.K.
In 1997 Britain renounced liberalism in both theory and practice. Tony Blair had come to power on a philosophical prospectus, which was to banish the spirit of corrosive individualism brought on by Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. Blair’s ‘favourite’ philosopher was the Scot John Macmurray (1891-1976). He told a journalist in 1994: “If you really want to understand what I’m all about… you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray.” Blair and his contemporaries’ grasp of Macmurray’s work may have ultimately been less than complete (mine is nonexistent), but, according to the journalist John Rentoul, they took the following lesson from his writings on community and the individual:
Macmurray saw his purpose as being to challenge the starting point of modern philosophy, the idea that people are individuals first who then choose how to relate to others. He insisted that people exist only in relation to others… he argued that the liberal self was incomplete, because people’s personalities are created by their relationships to their families and communities
To Blair and his circle, then, the individual did not precede society – as Hobbes and Locke had it. People are born into an existing social compact and have obligations towards it that they do not necessarily choose. Other figures in New Labour’s stable of philosophers included Anthony Giddens, who offered the phrase “no rights without responsibilities” as the slogan of the Third Way, as well as the communitarian theorist Amitai Etzioni.
New Labour proceeded to govern in this spirit, with the political strategist Philip Gould crystallising these ideas into a policy agenda. The New Labour years saw the beginnings of Stakeholder governance, which envisages society as a compact of chartered interest groups – faiths, ethnicities, capital, labour – who have a right to be consulted on all matters of public policy. This is an anti-liberal idea: it formally dispenses with the individual citizen as the primary political unit, and denies the rights of voting majorities – a basic premise of liberal democracy. The establishment of protected characteristics is another example; it was premised on the idea that, in the eyes of the law, you were a member of a community first and an individual second.
Community soon became the sine qua non of governance at a national and local level. The civil servant Gus O’Donnell has famously recounted how he lobbied for continuous mass migration, not so much because it benefited the British people, but because the British belonged to a wider human community, whose utility they had an obligation to help maximise. The legislative coup de grace of communitarianism was delivered in 2010 with the Equality Act, which ended the right to free association – an old liberal freedom – because it, too, conflicted with the higher duty to preserve harmony between different faith and ethnic communities. In the city of Rotherham, investigations into child grooming gangs of Pakistani origin were buried ‘for fear of upsetting community relations’.
These anti-liberal ideas have survived multiple changes of administration. Surveying the nation in 2010, David Cameron concluded that the problem with British society was too much selfish individualism. His ‘Big Society’ scheme was designed to fix this; it owed a little to Burke, still more to Blond and Glasman, who had by now emerged as prominent figures. The Big Society aimed to formally establish community groups as intermediaries between state and citizen. During Cameron’s premiership, the powers of – and state funding to – these groups was greatly expanded. The most notable example of this was Camila Batmanghelidjh’s Kids Company, which was chartered to provide child services throughout much of London. The Postliberal and communitarian ethos of Theresa May, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill are well-documented: once more the slogans were of individualism run riot, the need for new solidarities, and a third way between capitalism and socialism.
By the 2020s these anti-liberal and communitarian ideas could be taken for granted. The idiom of communal obligation was so strongly asserted in Britain that from 2020-21 the population was locked down, at the cost of £350 billion, to shield their elderly neighbours from the effects of COVID-19. Such a course was not followed during the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu pandemic, which occurred at the height of the paternalistic postwar consensus. In 2020s Britain, there is now almost no conception of any essential antagonisms between different parts of society – between for example, capital and wage-labour, or political parties. Any breakdown in relations is seen as a disruption of communal harmony, which is to be solved, not with the victory of one side, but through all parties getting around the table. It is now impossible for the British state to exercise even its most basic functions without scrupulous reference to chartered Stakeholders. When the Notting Hill Carnival got out of hand in summer 2023, the Metropolitan police could only intervene after “consultation with community representatives and partners“, who, needless to say, nobody had ever voted for.
Hobbes and Locke seem far away. The question we must ask, then, is what Postliberalism now hopes to achieve? Or maybe we should cast that differently: what has Postliberalism not already achieved? Aiming to answer that question is Danny Kruger, the Conservative MP for Devizes, in his new book Covenant: The New Politics of Home, Neighbourhood, and Nation. Kruger trades on the Postliberal assumptions about modern Britain that we have just outlined – Glasman, Goodhardt, et al. are all listed as influences in the opening chapter. But, as we shall see, he also departs from these ideas in a number of interesting ways.
One way in which Kruger does not depart from Postliberalism is in his use of language. There exists a distinct Postliberal prose style; it involves inventing vast glossaries of new terms, which are breathlessly introduced and then quickly forgotten. In this regard Kruger is no exception. Here’s how chapter three, ‘Oikism’, begins:
A better society is possible than the pornworld and the deathworks.
We never hear from either the pornworld or the deathworks again, though ‘The Technium’ makes one more appearance later on, if memory serves. This is a short book with a lot to say, so we move at a gallop; the diction careens wildly from flourishes like “all the charming exaggerations and contradictions with which we buff and polish the truth to make the light dance around it” to “the U.K. tech sector”.
Two terms do stay with us throughout Covenant, these are: “The Order” and “The Idea”, which are Kruger’s own coinages. The Order is Kruger’s shorthand for:
The arrangement of society around a common conception of the way to live … a culture whose god was outside the self-created related and ‘relational’ beings… it stipulated and ensured that you lived for other people. My sense of myself derived from people other than me, with whom I was linked by the ties of love, service and dependence.
That means, in practice, the nonelective bonds of community, nation, faith and family. The great enemy of The Order is The Idea. The Idea is “the inner tyrant”, the notion that “there exist autonomous agents, called individuals, who both self-determine and self-moralise”, something that is, again, ultimately ascribed to Hobbes and Locke. The Idea has bred a corrosive individualism, whose only law is “do as thou wilt”; the ultimate consequence of this for Britain has been the gradual breakdown of society as familial bonds fray and shared meanings disappear.
At times one gets the sense that these terms are a little too elastic, and The Order is simply anything that Kruger likes – towards the end of the book, the specific model of healthcare provision that Kruger favours is given the mantle of The Order, with all others dismissed as species of The Idea.
But the real problem with this formula is that, as a diagnosis, it is dangerously wide of the mark. As we have seen, there is now almost no trace of liberal individualism anywhere in modern Britain. In the Britain of 2023, the language of obligation is everywhere. The British people are not permitted to vocally disagree with the egalitarian ideas expressed in the Human Rights Act (1998) and, still more, the Equality Act (2010) – doing so will bar you from all public sector employment and may land you in prison. It will increasingly preclude you from private sector employment, and even banking services – something that not even the highest of high Tories would have ever dreamt of inflicting on the Protestant Dissenters. The spirit of the age isn’t transgression but orthodoxy, rigorously enforced. Obligations and duties pile up, one after another: duties to ‘Stop the Spread’; duties to refugees of uncertain provenance; duties to the human rights of murderers and sex criminals; the duty to pay recompense for the country’s imperial project; duties to ‘Our Obligations’ and ‘Our Commitments’; the duty of parents in Nottingham and Rotherham to toe the line for the sake of community relations – these spirits and spooks stretch the modern British ever thinner; they, to borrow from a partisan of The Idea, “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living”.
Seldom do these obligations flow in the other direction. During the pandemic we heard precious little about the duties of the old towards the young; and in 2023 little is made of the duty of asylum seekers not to commit violent crimes against those whose hospitality they seek. To meet all these obligations the British will soon pay the highest tax burden seen since the Second World War.
The British do not suffer from anomie; they do not suffer from ‘liquid modernity’; they do not suffer from ennui, Emma Bovary-style. Their big problem is that they are ruled by a series of dogmas which demand their fealty and are making their lives worse – dogmas that are enforced by a governing class which, in many cases, manifestly does not wish them well.
The British public have voted against this whenever they’ve gotten the chance. They have elected to free themselves from these particular ‘shared meanings’, which are inane and hostile, and to replace them with fresh thinking. Over the past 13 years, every Government has been elected on a manifesto that at least gestured towards lower immigration, lower taxes, a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and crackdowns on crime and illegal landings. As we’ve seen, each of these administrations then proceeded to inform the British people that what they really needed, after all, wasn’t these measures, but a Postliberal ethos of community and obligation. They just needed to believe a little harder, and, inevitably, pay a little more. The most dramatic example of this occurred after 2019, when Boris Johnson’s huge mandate – achieved through straightforward Right-wing populism – was magicked into something about regional inequality and the need to address it.
Manoeuvres like these are part of the reason why the British are now a mistrustful people, whose relation to the state has become vexed. Danny Kruger himself has played a minor part in this transformation. As an adviser to David Cameron, Kruger was a partisan of the Big Society, authored the ‘hug a hoodie’ speech and cautioned the new administration against a policy of “bashing burglars and sending immigrants home and cutting taxes”.
Kruger can beseech his readers to imagine society as a covenant rather than a narrow contract. He asks the British to unselfishly devote themselves to their communities. “This is your neighbourhood,” he tells them, “take responsibility for it.” But the precondition of this kind of voluntary spirit is the feeling that the – dare I say it – basic Hobbesian contract between society and state is being carried out. The British people are paying nearly half their income to a state that has decriminalised low-level offences and refuses to enforce the border. At some point the wheels come off and people stop caring, and it is simply unkind for people like Kruger to chide them for doing so. People wonder why they should bother, and for good reason. Why establish a cute little ‘take a book, leave a book’ library if a yob is going to smash it? Why take an active role in town life when the British state can transform it overnight through immigration? Why clean up trash when it will reappear an hour later? What normal person would now want anything to do with local governance in Rotherham? Talk of communal revival is barren if basic standards of first-world living aren’t being enforced. Enforcement would, in practical terms, mean a demagogic law-and-order appeal to the middle and lower-middle classes. It is, therefore, precisely the kind of Norman Tebbit hang-’em-and-flog-’em boilerplate that would restore some sense of community in Britain, the kind which Kruger once asseverated against.
To his credit, Kruger has latterly come to recognise this, and outlines a number of policies in Covenant to this effect. See if there isn’t a whiff of the pinstripe to the following: gut the Human Rights Act; gut the Equality Act; cut immigration; cut taxes; replace the NHS with a hybrid system of social insurance. There isn’t anything Postliberal about this prospectus. It includes none of the usual fare: devolution and more taxpayer money to people like Ms. Batmanghelidjh. More profoundly still, such an agenda would relieve the British people of a number of duties and obligations, and would drastically reduce the power of ‘community’ in their lives. It would declare that they had no obligation to believe in egalitarian and multicultural ideas, and that their community of interest does not have to extend to humanity writ large. Kruger and his circle thus find themselves the inheritors to, not so much a generational struggle against John Locke, but a perfectly respectable tradition of lower middle-class demagoguery; they should embrace it.
These policies do not represent any kind of grand philosophical vision. Unlike communitarianism, such a programme doesn’t claim to solve man’s quest for meaning in the 21st Century. But taken together, it would represent a social revolution, one no less profound in its consequences than the Reform Bill or the repeal of the Corn Laws. The repeal of the Equality and Human Rights Acts would mean the end of the social order established by New Labour; with its legal and symbolic prop removed, the entire edifice would come crashing down.
The historical task of Kruger and his allies isn’t careful stewardship, but the smashing of old idols. It is they who must make a virtue of transgression. The social revolution of 21st Century Britain will be carried through by people who owe little to Burke, even less to Goodhardt, and a lot to Thomas Cromwell. At the beginning of Covenant, Kruger claims to want a new Elizabethan Settlement between ‘The Order’ and ‘The Idea’. But the whole point of the Elizabethan Settlement is that it was a slight retreat from the Henrician settlement: that is, the destruction of the old society by an ideologically-committed clique, and the creation of an entirely new one.
By the way, here’s an example of real and authentic community in 21st Century Britain. After the expansion of Ulez to outer London last month, a group of enthusiasts took it upon themselves to knock over the sensors used to levy its charges. These individuals, with no hope of reward, are risking criminal prosecution to protect their friends and neighbours from these obnoxious fines. Four hundred and fifty of the 1,762 cameras have been destroyed or vandalised, City Hall is in disarray, and public opinion is on their side. The ‘Bladerunners’ – anarchic, destructive, yet altruistic – do not fit neatly into Danny Kruger’s schema. But they are not to be ignored as a human possibility. In their latter-day night-time heroics, we see an example of what the historical moment might demand of us. Organised transgression is all that is left.