Jeb Bush, baby Hitler, and the right-wing blind spot

Jeb Bush, currently vying to become Republican candidate in next year’s US Presidential election, admitted this week that, if he could, he would go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler whilst the future leader of the Third Reich was still a baby [LINK].

Now, it would be easy to poke cheap shots here, given Jeb Bush’s opposition to abortion. And so, some have [LINK]. But it also throws a light on the way conservatives think; in particular their refusal to consider individuals within a wider context.

Even Jeb Bush conceded that “it could have a dangerous effect on everything else”, but carried on to say he would kill baby Hitler anyway — as did 40% of New York Times readers. This is, as I’m sure you’re aware, to view Hitler in isolation. For sure, Hitler was clearly an evil person. But to assume that without him everything would be fine (or, at least, better) is a gross oversimplification. The conditions in 1930’s Germany enabled Hitler’s rise to power, following as they did the previous world war and a depression. If it wasn’t him seizing power, it could very well have been someone else; even possibly a more ruthless, more deranged leader. If you were going to go back in time and do anything, your efforts may be better spent trying to derail the Treaty of Versailles. Improve the quality of life for Germans, and perhaps there is no need to kill little Adolf. In other words, the context is important, not just the individual.

Right-wingers struggle with this as an idea, not just in fantastical time-travelling infanticide scenarios but more generally — they are inclined to view everything through the prism of the individual.

As a very obvious example of this, consider the response whenever there is a shooting in America. Various theories are put forward as to why this might keep happening that relate to the context in which it occurred; huge availability of guns, lack of adequate mental health provision, extreme inequality and poverty, violent culture… Yet conservatives always fall back on the “bad apple” story. The shooter was a bad person. We need more good people to have guns to stop the bad people. The question as to why there are so many bad people in America compared to, say, Canada, goes unexplored. Some people are bad and will do bad things, and no more needs to be asked.

We here in Britain have systemic issues of our own. 7% of the population go to private schools, and yet around 40% of Oxbridge students are privately educated. From there, Oxbridge provides 82% of barristers, 78% of judges, 45% of leading journalists… [LINK]. And, of course, the number of Old Etonians making it to the upper reaches of British politics is amazingly high. This will be familiar to most people. Clearly, the context in this country is that it is far, far easier to reach the top of many lucrative professions by knowing the right people and going to the right schools.

In his conference speech earlier this year, liberated from the shackles of coalition and emboldened by having no parliamentary opposition, David Cameron strode across the political spectrum. He claimed that he believed in

“equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome. Not everyone ending up with the same exam results, the same salary, the same house — but everyone having the same shot at them.”

This is fairly standard Conservative stuff. The belief that, if you are good enough, you will make it to the top with enough hard work and sacrifice. They are the party on the side of the strivers. This is the idea. If the individual is good enough, they will make it.

Except, the flip side of this is that they don’t think they should support anyone and help them climb the ladder. Not only that, but despite this professed belief in equality of opportunity, Cameron’s government has set out to kick the ladder away at every turn.

Here’s some things the Cameron governments have done since 2010:

- Higher inheritance tax thresholds, which help preserve wealth in the hands of the rich [LINK].

- Scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance, which supported poorer students through A-Levels

- Significant increases in tuition fees

- Increasing VAT, which hits the poorest hardest [LINK]

- But reducing corporation tax, which boosts coffers of big business [LINK]

- And of course, the mooted cuts to working tax credits, which will hit the working poor most of all

The Tories may talk all they want about individuals having equality of opportunity, but it is clear from their actions that they are only interested to preserving the status quo. All these policies tilt the system against the people that they claim to support. How is an individual, however talented, able to rise to the top of their chosen field, if they are not born into wealth? There are signs, with the recent working tax credit changes, that people are beginning to see this.

How clever George Osborne must have felt, pledging to find a fiscal surplus by 2019/20 and making Labour look like financially incontinent idiots. How clever David Cameron must have felt, claiming to be the party of equality. Slowly, it may become apparent that these two ambitions are completely irreconcilable. A surplus in 2020 is going to involve much, much more in the way of cuts, which, given the Conservatives’ record, will make the dream of “equality of opportunity” ever harder to achieve. The playing field will become ever less level.

George Osborne loves nothing more than setting traps for his opponents. He may find with the pledges on budget surplus and equality of opportunity, he has set a huge one for himself.

If the Conservatives continue, like Jeb Bush, to be unable to understand not just the individual but the limitations put on them by the context in which they operate, they are going to face some huge problems in the years ahead. If they truly want everyone to have the same shot, they might want to think about why that is currently not the case, and how their actions in office may have affected that. Create the right environment and individuals will flourish. Tilt the system back towards people. It’s not rocket science. Or time travel.

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