Monday, 11 May 2015

So what does the election result say about the British people?

My previous post was about the political parties' election campaigns, but election campaigns only explain so much and there are many people out there who believe that the way the general population (or a proportion of them) voted says something profound about the nature of society. And whilst those (like me) on the left may be heartened by the upswell of social consciousness north of the border we are in danger of descending into misanthropy when considering what the election appears to have revealed about our fellow citizens in the rest of the country. Faced with the evidence of the Tories' anti-immigrant, anti-poor, pro-rich policies they voted for more of the same and the Guardian readers amongst us have reacted with something like disgust.

The difficult point though is that, if your sensibilities are democratic then the use of that 'they' is problematic. If we believe that the English are fundamentally self-interested and illiberal then what are we supposed to do? Emigrate? Establish a dictatorship? What? These people don't deserve the vote, do they?

By coincidence, there was an item on the Today programme this morning about the Bradford stadium fire, in which  a doctor who had treated some of the victims commented on the extraordinarily uplifting atmosphere amongst those waiting for emergency surgery. And as he described their unselfish good humour and patience I reflected that more than likely a lot of those football fans would have been UKIP (or at least Tory) voters, holding forth in the pub about fucking immigrants and fucking benefit scroungers.

Certainly, history shows that there is in the English character (if such a thing exists) a strong impulse towards mutual supportiveness, consideration for the underdog and rejection of illiberal dictatorship. Yet there is an equally strong strand more recently for Little Englander insularity and a what-I-have-I-hold lack of generosity towards the 'undeserving' poor. How can that be?

It has often been said that what the right wing parties tap into is a sort of selfishness born of fear. Certainly fear was a powerful weapon for both the Tories and UKIP this time round. UKIP's support is fundamentally dependent on whipping up fear of immigrants and the EU whilst the Tories were all about fear of a Labour-SNP coalition and a descent into the abyss of financial crisis.

However what the Bradford City example (and countless others) show me is that when faced with real and overwhelming fear the British people generally seem to respond nobly and well. In the really tough times they never supported a Hitler or a Stalin (not even a Putin) or turned on their own minorities and the vulnerable within their populations. So why are they apparently doing the latter now?

Well actually I think it is because the fear that the Tories and UKIP evoke is NOT real and NOT immediate, and whilst real fear and real danger can bring about nobility and selflessness the prospect of fear and danger somewhere down the line rarely does. Take immigration for instance. It has come to appear almost a given that the English fear immigration and vote UKIP to protest about it. Yet in the place where immigration has actually been the highest, and had the greatest effect (London) the UKIP vote was the lowest. It is in places near but outside the capital that fear of immigration is at its highest. People from the Home Counties and East Anglia for whom a visit to London is something of an occasion look at the bewildering diversity of ethnicities in the capital and it terrifies them. People who live in the midst of that diversity are relatively much more at ease with it.

Or take the fear of economic crisis and poverty. It is a fact easily ignored, but amidst all the talk of austerity and hard times and financial crises there is a large swathe of the British electorate who have done just fine over the last few years. Yes, their salaries might not have increased, but their mortgage payments have gone down, prices in the shops feel more affordable than they have ever done and their house has shot up in value. Most people in this country aren't on zero-hours contracts. They haven't had their benefits slashed. They probably haven't even lost their jobs, or necessarily know anyone who has. So while everyone has gone on about the economic crisis they have quietly wondered, what economic crisis?

Meanwhile all around fear is being whipped up about the dire and far-reaching consequences of economic ruin and a seed of fear has lodged there, but it is a sort of theoretical and abstract fear- not one that forces its way into their faces and brings out whatever fundamental decency they have deep down. Instead it turns them inwards. Makes them feel grateful that none of this seems at the moment to have affected them too badly and makes them want things to stay that way. So they have voted out of something like cowardice. They don't actively want policies that will lead to a dismantling of the Welfare State and the creation of an entirely unprotected underclass, they just want to ignore all that because, for the moment, they are doing fine and all that talk emanates from a scary parallel reality which they really don't want to think too much about.

My hope is that once the reality of Tory policies start playing themselves out people may start recognising that it is not some parallel reality at all, but their country and their people who are affected, and that may start triggering the fundamental nobility and decency that has served the British so well in times of actual crisis. Once they have seen the implications of the removal of Human Rights legislation, the sell-off of social housing, the £12.5 billion cuts to the last rump of benefit payments, the removal of schools from local democratic accountability, the triumph of insularity over internationalism on the EU question, and more.

Then maybe they will realise that they have sleep-walked into something they really cannot stomach and someone will be able to channel their shame and disgust into a genuinely progressive politics.

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