Cosy liberal consensuses beware: Claire Fox is hovering behind you ready to take her hammer of impassioned free speech, irreverence and controversy to your skull. In the current climate, anyone who will defend bankers, the News of the World and Richard Littlejohn with eloquence and flair is that little bit different. Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas, an organisation with a brief to “get people to challenge and think about the big social, political and cultural issues of the day and to challenge the orthodoxies around them.”
She’s a regular guest on Radio 4’s the Moral Maze. She also appears on other comment shows such as Question Time, often arguing firmly against the grain, and as such attracts a lot of vehement anger. She mentions the tirade against her following a column she wrote in the wake of the Savile scandal, arguing “We shouldn’t reorganise society around child protection”. For these comments she was condemned as “a paedophile apologist, full of hatred for the victims of abuse.”
Challenging orthodoxies definitely seems to cover it; she’s highly critical of what she sees as the modern political consensus, where “the big rows don’t happen anymore” and political debate mostly consists of “managerial tinkering around”. But if she stands firmly outside the centrist spectrum, it’s equally hard to establish at which end; her views are hard to box into a right or left-wing framework. Her earlier political life was certainly radically left wing; she was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and used to publish LM, the re-launched version of the magazine Living Marxism, and it was out of this basis that she founded the Institute of Ideas. While she still identifies as a Marxist in some respects, she believes that today “you can’t have a relationship with Marxism in an organised sense, because there’s no organised expression of it”. She explains how the “vibrant culture” on the left dissapated in the 80s because “when the Berlin Wall went, symbolically people believed there was now no alternative to capitalism… so there was a real shaking up on the anti-capitalist left; a lot of left-wing groups folded, not because they felt there was no alternative, but it felt like everything got stuck.”
These days, however, she acknowledges “sometimes I’ve got more in common with the people on the Right than I have with the Left”, mostly, it would seem, due to a common currency of Libertarian thought. She says the Institute is “committed to overcoming the barriers for people to discuss freely, but then to live freely.” Does she accept the label ‘Libertarian’? “It’s not that I’m embarrassed about it, but it has connotations, usually associated with the free-market” — which she wouldn’t say she conforms to.
Talking to Claire, it is certainly refreshing to hear someone trying to have “the big rows” again; someone not only with an unapologetic conviction in their values, but also a deep commitment to rational, intelligent analysis, rather than what she describes as “whinging.” Her assertion that “a lot of politics has been reduced to attacking the rich, or attacking bankers, or getting preoccupied with who pays what tax” strikes a chord especially; it can be wearying witnessing the same tired and not particularly imaginative debates and identity politics being played out over and over again in the media. She argues this is out of line with the history of progressive left-wing thinking; “The point isn’t whether people are rich, the point is whether it’s a system which can move society forward, that’s what the critique was, not a kind of shrill, ‘beat-up the rich’ attitude… It’s an immature kind of name-calling, that’s not politics”.
The main focus of her attentions, however, is undoubtedly not the economic system, but defending freedom, or fighting for more of it. It’s a debate that has been of particular importance to her recently in light of the Leveson Inquiry, which she is an uncompromising critic of. She states passionately, “If anything, even prior to Leveson, we didn’t have enough press freedom. I don’t think we had too much freedom, but too little.” She is convinced that the result will be “a journalistic class who are walking on eggshells and worried that they’re going to say the wrong thing: it’s not going to create a climate of real dedicated investigative spirit and truth-seeking.” In fact she thinks the whole premise for the inquiry was dubious, for most of the actual abuses perpetrated were illegal and should have been dealt with by the law, but the term ‘press culture’ became one on everyone’s lips. “It gave the green light to Leveson, an unelected warlord, to set up a wide-ranging commission, appointed by a Prime Minister, and investigate ‘the culture of the press’. If that was happening in some authoritarian regime you’d be suspicious… Once you say ‘what do you not like about press culture’, everyone was queuing up with complaints, and it got wider and wider a remit.”
She also attacks what she sees as hypocrisy in the process: “It was fine for Leveson to read everyone’s emails and text messages and read them out aloud… You couldn’t make it up. They were alright, because they were the good guys; that was the assumption.” She accuses the liberal press of a similar hypocrisy; “They imagine that they’re the right-on journalists, and anyone else investigating anything is down in the gutter… Nobody complains, in those circles, about the kind of tittle-tattle on Have I Got News For You, or in Private Eye, because that’s our kind of people talking about our kind of people, not those grubby people over there reading tabloids with the wrong kind.”
That’s fair enough, but surely there has been a real insidious nastiness in elements of the press that was completely legal: I ask, should we do anything to try and eradicate this? I put to her the Lucy Meadows case, in which a transgender teacher committed suicide shortly after receiving attention in the national press, and the Mail’s branding of Mick Philpott as a ‘Vile Product of Welfare UK’. She acknowledges there can be nastiness in the press, but says “journalism’s not some nice, polite activity… partly it’s about trying to give the public access to the greatest truth you can possibly have about everything… At the core of it is this idea that you will need to be able to say the unsayable, and pursue things which people don’t want you to pursue.” It is interesting to hear her defend press freedom in these fairly absolutist terms, even admitting, “Sometimes the media tell lies, and they sometimes destroy lives. I know that. Of course I know that.” Yet she maintains “the alternative of state censorship is not one I’m prepared to countenance.”
It’s a recurrent theme in her politics, the determination to “prioritise freedom.” To quote Marx, she says, “You can’t pluck a rose without its thorns.” And it is so with freedom; the thorns may be Richard Littlejohn, people finding out how to make bombs on the internet, drink-driving, child abuse. “If you want a free society, it means that you have to put up with the possibilities of freedom.” Yes she believes in the law, which can deal with people who commit these crimes, but in a sense she thinks they have to be free to make them, unless we are to build a society built on “distrust”, with a danger of “organising things around victims.”
Aspects of her politics may seem to lack compassion, and to dismiss some of the concerns of the liberal centre base a little too easily. This is, I think, not simply on moral panic and the infantilising of the public, but also a genuine concern for the wellbeing of the individual. While I think her ideology may need to take more account of this before I’d find it fully convincing, Fox is in person warm, funny and engaging. When we discuss left-wing journalists she cackles “I don’t like ‘em, I wouldn’t have them round for dinner, and I don’t take them too seriously.” This embodies her attitude to politics; sure it’s a serious business, but it’s one that should be free, interesting, surprising, and maybe just a little bit fun along the way too. She thinks that post-Leveson, no journalists will be willing to “rock the boat.” I’m sure she’ll still be at it, though.