Moderation. A fairly bland word, typically used in relation to balance and carefulness. How are we told to eat? In moderation. How are we told to drink? In moderation. How are we told to exercise? In moderation. In these instances, moderation appears necessary but a little dull and a bit too strait-laced.
When applied to politics, however, is moderation now a dirty word? It conjures up images of a sit-on-the-fence, middle-ground attitude which can be interpreted as a fairly unphased approach to issues. In today’s political and social climate, where everyone appears to take a strong moralistic stand on just about any issue, it feels as if moderation is out of step with the times.
So, is it goodbye to moderation? Not so, according to Daniel Finkelstein, the renowned journalist, political commentator, and House of Lords member who puts forward a strong and convincing case for ‘everything in moderation’.
Why ‘everything in moderation’?
Lord Finkelstein and I Zoomed not long after the release of his first book, Everything in Moderation, published in late summer. It is a collection of his opinion pieces from when he started as a lead writer at The Times in the early 2000s and ends with an opinion piece in 2017, just after Theresa May’s resignation: a stretch of time when British life witnessed huge changes.
‘I choose this term, “everything in moderation”, to be a bit more out there with it’, he confessed, an indication that moderation is a word that you can only quietly mutter amongst certain circles but one he is eager to bring back in vogue.
So, why does he tout this mantra of moderation? To understand Lord Finkelstein’s philosophy, it is necessary to delve into his background. His parents and grandparents fled oppressive regimes: on his mother’s side it was the Nazis and on his father’s side it was Stalinism. So when his family settled in the UK, they were grateful to be greeted by calm, law-abiding, moderate people: a country where we have our own unwritten rules about queuing and all too often mumble a deferential ‘sorry’ even when it isn’t our fault. It is against this backdrop that, according to Lord Finkelstein, he decided it was his ‘primary goal to make the case for a liberal but stable market-orientated law-abiding society’.
when people begin to burn books, then they end up burning people
Lord Finkelstein sees such a society to be best served by the centre-right of politics. While he has spent the majority of his working life as a journalist, he has dabbled in politics, with his political pendulum swinging from centre-left in his youth, to the centre-right where he has now found his political home. But why has he settled there, I probed. He asserted: ‘the Conservatives were more reliable allies than the centre-left because the centre-left have an alliance with the left and my father’s experience with the left, with the Soviets, is part of that calculation’.
He came across as highly self-aware, recognising that his alliance with the centre-right is as much to do with his own attributes, as it is to do with external influences.
I found it to be an interesting choice of word, ‘allies’, when Lord Finkelstein explained his decision to settle on the centre-right. He also used phrases such as ‘picking your coalition’, and ‘consistent allies’. This vernacular felt indicative of an impassioned approach more akin to that of a politico than the ‘opinion journalist’ title to which he aligns himself.
Big ideas are not always good ideas
Given his family’s experiences, it comes as no surprise that Lord Finkelstein is very wary of extreme views or, as he puts it, ‘big ideas’.
Given his affinity to moderate politics, I asked if he sees a return to a more centre-ground politics anytime soon? He explained to me that upon reaching the age of 50, he compared his comfortable existence in stark contrast to what his parents had endured by the time they had reached that age, and felt confident that the UK’s social and political attitudes would continue. That confidence, however, has been eroded by his concern that the country has, at times, been swept away by ‘anti-Semitism or populism’. He believes though that we will not go down such extreme routes any further because, ‘there is a lot of power in a prosperous peace-loving country’ and there is still a large, albeit at times quiet, support for such a way of life. It was clear, however, that Lord Finkelstein’s usual glass-half-full character had been shaken by his observation that Britain is not immune to extreme ideologies.
‘Burning books, burning people’
One such ideology he is wholly against is the increasing trend to remove platforms from those with whom we disagree; aka, ‘cancel culture’.
Lord Finkelstein came across an early form of cancel culture when he was a student at the London School of Economics in the early 1980s. There, the student union had a no-platform policy for those they deemed racist or sexist and it used this policy to turn away a number of speakers. He found this practice to be dangerous since, taken to its logical conclusion, it could be extended to anyone who doesn’t conform to social norms. Part of the richness of life is to hear from various people. Lord Finkelstein asserted that we would ‘lose a lot in society’ if we barred people from speaking, ‘because a lot of people have quite eccentric or even unpleasant views’. It is these unpleasant views that, if gone unchallenged by dint of barring them from being heard, can result in them going underground or being found on the fringes of society, leading to greater societal discord.
Today’s cancel culture, he concluded, is a ‘disproportionate and sinister’ reaction to people who don’t conform to social norms. He took the instance of J.K. Rowling and her recent tweets and comments about gender identity. While he was eager to point out that he ‘respectfully disagrees’ with many of her views, he found the reaction she received to be abhorrent and was highly concerned with the rise of mono-thematic attitudes to issues such as gender identity ‘when there is more than one tenable, compassionate view’. But the trouble is that many take it, ‘as if it was a settled one in which there was only this view’. He stated that gender identity is a highly pertinent topic that needs input from all sources. In true moderate form, he questioned why society at large couldn’t have opened up a debate on J.K. Rowling’s views in a respectful, mature manner instead of attempting to ‘cancel’ her through a refusal to work with her or her once adoring fans now burning her books. In recognition of his family’s experiences, Lord Finkelstein warned: ‘when people begin to burn books, then they end up burning people’.
It is the same with the issue of statues, which have been a hot topic this year. Lord Finkelstein was adamant in his belief that statues of controversial historical figures in the UK should not be taken down. He stated: ‘to expect that the priorities and positions of historical figures should be the same as ours is ahistorical in itself and denies not merely the history of the individual but the whole process of history itself’.
He believes it right to review our history, but to take down statues is not the answer to tackling uncomfortable elements within it. The defacing of Winston Churchill’s statue was of particular personal sadness to him. He was at pains to point out that if it weren’t for Churchill’s refusal to make a peace deal with Hitler in 1940, then ‘I wouldn’t be talking to you now’. He recognised that Churchill is a ‘vexed’ figure. On the one hand, he is Britain’s war hero; but on the other, he believed in racial hierarchies and such ideas, even during his time, were received with unease. But this is where being a moderate helps, ‘because you can accept that both those propositions are true’ and approach the issue of Churchill, and indeed of historical figures more generally, with common sense, pragmatism and maturity; rather than knee-jerk reactions that can create greater divides.
I mentioned that during the fall of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, citizens in those countries tore down, with liberated zeal, statues and memorials of past oppressive leaders. We still learn about, and know of, the horrors that many endured during the communist era without the physical reminder of statues — so why can this not be the case here? Lord Finkelstein wouldn’t relent, stating that this country’s history has, largely, all been ‘towards progress and civilization and everybody who has a statue has made some sort of contribution to that’.
Lord Finkelstein expanded on this notion of continual progression by having ‘faith that this country is continually improving itself and even more improvement can be achieved with reflection about those things in our history which are mistakes’. It is this reflection that should prevail, and not the ‘completely ludicrous attempt to pull down statues and close museums’.
cancel culture is ‘disproportionate and sinister’
Freedom of speech’s sister: Moderation
Throughout the conversation with Lord Finkelstein, while moderation was the theme, the unspoken undercurrent was his absolute commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. He is so vehemently committed to these not only because it is in his nature as a journalist, and politico, to enjoy discussion and debate but also because his family’s experience demonstrated that when such rights are suppressed, people’s lives are put at risk.
Moderation plays an integral role in the right to have freedom of speech and expression because, as Lord Finkelstein explained, it allows for open discussion and debate.
Moderation is anything but dull, weak, or lacking in conviction. It takes time to listen to the other side; compassion to understand where others are coming from; strength to stand up for your own views; and maturity to alter your views following a discussion and debate.
If we want to sustain and continue a democratic society, then practicing ‘everything in moderation’ is a good place to start.