Friday 22 January 2016


Going back around twenty five years or so pop stars, celebrities, and other people who were famous for being famous began to wear baseball caps. It started in America. It became cool. If you wore your baseball cap the wrong way round it was even cooler. It spread to Europe and the UK and before long everyone under thirty was wearing a baseball cap. Even the fact that William Hague, the (then) young leader of the Conservative Party wore one wasn’t enough to put people off. This is sometimes called “fashion” or “the latest craze”. It’s what happens when people whose brain power isn’t sufficient to blow their hats off decide it’s probably safe to wear one. People yearn for a sense of belonging, and so the wearing of a baseball cap became a way of signalling “I am one of you”.

But this desire to signal to others that you have joined their tribe, or to castigate others who haven’t joined yours, isn’t limited to harmless sartorial fads; it applies to ideas and in particular it applies to moral ideas. Some people like nothing better than sitting in judgement of how other people live their lives. TV soap operas have trained them in how to do it. And if they can wag their fore-finger at other peoples’ behaviour, whilst advocating a “better way of life”, then not only does this provide them with a means of occupying the moral high-ground, it thereby signals how virtuous they are. 

“Virtue-signalling” is very much in vogue at the moment. We’ve seen numerous examples of it in recent months. For example, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, who chairs the Commons Select Committee on Health, is an inveterate virtue-signaller. Her one-sided trial of the sugar industry predictably resulted in a call for the government to introduce a “sugar tax” on fizzy drinks. She was aided and abetted in this by poster-boy Jamie Oliver who has applied a sugar tax to such drinks in his restaurants. This is a classic example of virtue-signalling, because if you look at the amount of sugar in his Eton Mess you can clearly see that his actions are designed to send out a “me too” signal of virtue whilst hoping no one notices that he isn’t really serious (about anything). 

Virtue-signalling, like fashion fads, has all the characteristics of a virus. It spreads to people who haven’t got good intellectual immune systems. And so it is that we hear that the NHS is about to introduce a faux tax on sugary drinks in its hospital eateries. No doubt someone will produce a mathematical model that shows how effective this has been in tackling the “obesity crisis” which threatens to “bankrupt the NHS”. This will be used as a means of persuading government to introduce it more widely. Meanwhile Public Health England can puff themselves up with self-righteous moral virtue at how they are leading by example (at some financial cost to patients). If you’re forced to cancel hospital parking charges I guess you have to recoup the money somehow.

And then there is the dogged determination of the SNP government in Scotland to introduce minimum unit pricing. It must have been so gratifying for them to attend the conference of the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance (temperance cranks), which they hosted last year in Edinburgh, and be acclaimed as “Scotland the Brave”. Let’s hope this is some solace for them because in the wake of this the European Court of Justice effectively ruled minimum pricing contrary to EU trade law.

Finally there is our hapless Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies. Sally was prepared to abandon ninety years of science that proved the protective health effects of moderate drinking in order to justify new “low risk” drinking guidelines of just 14 units a week for both men and women. Virtue-signallers love simple messages because they instinctively believe that ordinary folk are too thick to understand anything even slightly complex. I can’t decide whether Sally did this to signal to the other members of the “public health” racket that she is one of them, whilst knowing that this was bunk, or whether she was leaned on to compromise the science in the name of creating a new factoid: “there is no safe level of drinking”. Predictably, all the other fuss-buckets who earn their livings from flapping around in the unhappiness of others signalled their agreement – Alcohol Concern, the Institute for Alcohol Studies, Professor Gilmore from the Alcohol Health Alliance, and countless foot soldiers from local councils who have now been placed in charge of “public health” – all said “me too”.

You could be forgiven for thinking they were all engaged in a conspiracy. But actually you don’t need to imply a conspiracy when they all think alike. I quite like baseball caps now that they’re no longer fashionable. I wonder how long it will take for virtue-signalling to go out of fashion. It can get awfully cold up there on the moral high-ground.

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