Monday, June 28, 2021

England, my England

England's a nice country. The weather's crap though, I'll give you that. 

Yet, journalists are addicted to painting it as some sort of nationalist hell-hole, sunk in flag-waving nostalgia, and full of callous people reeking of xenophobia. It's not true. Though the country smiles, part of it presents itself with a snarl and that's what we see. Football supporters abroad, young holiday makers bingeing on cheap booze, sunshine, and freedom from restraint, and the Brexiters. Our dysfunctional and unpleasant government has joined in the snarling too. It has released a barrage of abuse at the EU though balances it with horrible and gullible obsequiousness towards any non-European who will do a trade deal with us. 

Here's the government negotiating the Australia trade deal

And here's the government after reading the terms of the deal it has just signed.

In all the coverage it's easy to see the snarl but miss the smiles, especially when they're hidden behind self-deprecating grumbles in the drizzle. And this is the problem with politics at the moment. Everyone is obsessed with trying to please the snarlers. And they do so because they share three assumptions, none of which are wholly true. The first is cultural pessimism. 

This line, by the Blue Labour guru, Maurice Glassman, written more than a year ago is a classic example. 
The loyalty of the working-class to Labour is the fundamental reason that our country did not go fascist.
Eh? There is absolutely no evidence at all that this is true. Not a single competent social historian would make that claim. The working-class did not go fascist because they were not fascists. Fascism had no appeal. Besides, the class base for fascism was the lower middle class, together with some wealthier fellow travellers. If you add age into the equation, this was also the base for the Brexit vote. 

Blue Labour have a vision of a regressive, conservative working class wanting to stick it to the Europeans with their authenticity. Glassman's support for Brexit has nothing to do with the impact of the public policy, but the symbolism of the act. It's a common view, but Blue Labour types take it further by saying that their mythical workers are right and that they are incapable of change. The result is that rather than being representatives, they think that the Labour Party has to be the agent of white working-class anger. 

Once again, it isn't true. We don't have a snarling working class needing to be appeased by making foreigners suffer. The working classes are not homogenous - white, male, and unpleasant. This was something Hobsbawm pointed out in the late 70s. You would have thought that politicians would have caught on by now. The most important thing is that values do change, and as Sam Freedman points out have changed radically. 

The second is polarisation. Hans Rosling shows why this is based on common false assumptions.
Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time...

The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement. 
We see the snarling polarities clearly. They are the zealots, Brexiter ultras and their Corbynite placard waving, self-righteous equivalents on the left. Yet the poles are not flourishing the way a hyperbolic press would suggest. For example GB News is sinking in a sea of indifference. But if we follow the noise or confine our observations to Twitter, we miss the ambivalence and variation that makes up the majority. People's views are fluid, rather than fixed. They are open to difference and change. Nor are they certain. People asked a question on an issue they know little about, will provide a gut instinct answer. It won't be informed or permanent. The referendum was like that. The leave campaign presented Brexit as meaning 'the same only a little bit better.' It was enough for a fragile majority to think, 'Why not?' We have treated that impulse as binding and the division as entrenched. If you fear the committed, you don't see the vast ranks of the sympathetic and persuadable. 

The third fallacy, linked to this, is the failure to appreciate that most people aren't listening. This piece by Jonathan Chait brilliantly shows why America was never Trump writ large. It's lessons apply just as much to the UK.
Just how a man like this managed to eke out a narrow victory in 2016 has been a source of torment for his critics. It is easy to understand if you begin with the fact that most Americans — and especially the most persuadable Americans — spend little or no time following political news. Many of them have stressful lives that do not leave much room for it. Deciding which candidate to cast their vote for is like trying to follow the plot of a television series they have never seen and have only heard discussed in snippets over the water cooler. 
 This is why he can say that: 
 America, by and large, never wanted Trump to be president. 
It's the same with Brexit. Few of the leave voters lay awake at night craving Brexit, few understood it and the same can be said for many remain voters. It just seemed like a good idea on the day and once we had the vote we were stuck with it. Remain politicians were cowed by the referendum and refused to challenge an indecisive and narrow majority, while the zealots of leave used the mandate to radicalise their demands after the result. We are where we are because of a fundamental failure in representation, blown apart by a misconceived referendum. 

So, when the left sees the stubborn Conservative lead in the polls, their first instinct is to accuse the electorate of being uncaring or stupid or worse. It's the same analysis as Blue Labour. Both think that the people are brutes, only one of them thinks that they are to be scolded rather than appeased. If they want the real answer to their question of, 'Why can't they see what we can?' The answer is that they are not looking. And if the opposition wants them to look, it must point it out in a way that they will notice and then offer something better, something nicer, something in their own image. 

A cloud of timidity has settled over opposition politics. It's the fear of giving offence combined with liberal self-doubt. Instead, we need an opposition that recognises what a nice country we are and gives us a politics that reflects it. Sam Freedman again:
Instead of running scared of the right’s culture warriors, Labour should acknowledge that the public is largely on their side. That doesn’t mean being needlessly provocative or indulging in every spat. But progressive parties have the opportunity to build a popular counter-narrative about an out-of-touch, anti-science and intolerant right. Backing away from the fight is a terrible strategy; especially when you’re winning the war.

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