British political culture is caught in a whirlwind; a tornado that has sucked up all our assumptions, all our conventions, everything we thought we knew about how politics works. They’re currently being spun around and thrown down and it is going to be quite some time before we see where and how everything has landed.
One of the many swirling gusts in the twister is a sprawling discourse around civility and hostility within political debate. This has been gathering steam for many years of course, most notably in the realms of gender politics; it was a prominent subtext to the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, but it really hit the foreground over the past six weeks or so with the Brexit referendum, the ructions within the Labour party and, most significantly, the horrifying murder of Jo Cox MP.
The Guardian’s ‘long read’ today allows Archie Bland to detail at length the supposed coarsening of political language while anchoring his points, both causally and consequentially, to the death of Jo Cox.
I have a couple of profound objections to Bland’s piece. The first is a crucial political point. From everything we know thus far about Cox’s death and her (alleged) killer, the murder appears to have had little to do with Twitter spats or malicious Facebook exchanges, and everything to do with a well-trodden path of Fascist extremism, with links to some of the planet’s nastiest white supremacists going back decades. Of course it is by no means unlikely that the febrile tone of the Brexit debate and the heightened levels of xenophobia and racism it fostered contributed to his decision to launch a murderous attack that particular day, but to conflate his bluntly overt and ideologically specific motivations with the general hubbub and crudity of everyone from Momentum activists to trashy tabloid headlines merely dissipates responsibility and lets Fascist ideology off the hook.
My other objection to Bland’s piece is more nuanced and difficult to express, but bear with me. At no point in his article does the author acknowledge that people have a right to be angry. In fact, I would go further – people have a duty to be angry.
At this point you can take as read a litany of the human costs of austerity, the misery heaped upon the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the disabled, the marginalised by Tory and coalition governments; the unfathomable scale of slaughter unleashed by decades of aggressive foreign policies, if you know my beliefs and know my politics then you know the script.
But left/right politics aside, I have always been deeply distrustful of people who can do politics without anger. There has always been a strain of the British establishment that has insisted that politics be played according to the rules of the Oxford Union or Eton College debating society with all the right honourable whatnots and jolly old chums at the member’s bar after the division bell. It is a tradition that has been passed down from the patrician Tories and Whigs of yore and has somehow survived the intrusion of universal suffrage and democracy. It strikes me as a badge of extreme luxury and privilege to be able to afford to call for mannered etiquette when arguing about issues that are, quite literally, life and death for many.
Anyone long enough in the tooth to recall politics in the 1980s or earlier will have smiled bitterly at the quote in Bland’s article from Labour advisor Ayesha Hazarika that “I’ve never known it as brutal as it is now.” We could tell you some stories, believe me. Even
the Guardian itself sells [until this morning The Guardian sold] a T-shirt carrying Nye Bevan’s quote from 1948 that Tories are “lower than vermin.” Less well known is the speech from which it is drawn, delivered in Belle Vue, Manchester, the night before the official launch of the National Health Service. In his address, Bevan relayed tales of his early life of unemployment, how he had been told he would have to emigrate if he wanted to work, how his father had died in his arms from pneumoconiosis like so many other miners of his era. When criticised by the press for calling his opponents rude names, he retorted that “men of Celtic fire” were necessary to drive great reforms like the NHS. The anger which had driven his choice of words was the exact same anger which had driven his political career and it was that precise same anger which had inspired the creation of the NHS.
Another great hero of mine, Kurt Vonnegut, once wrote a brilliant essay about the nature of obscenity. In it, he mused on Queen Victoria’s infamous distaste for anything earthy or scatological.
“What would Queen Victoria really feel in the presence of what she had declared to be obscenities? That her power to intimidate was being attacked ever so slightly, far, far from its centre, was being attacked where it could not matter much as yet- was being attacked way out on the edge. She created arbitrary rules for that outermost edge to warn her of the approach of anyone so crude, so rash as to bring to her attention the suffering of the Irish or the cruelties of the factory system, or the privileges of the nobility, or the approach of a world war, and on and on? If she would not even acknowledge that human beings sometimes farted, how could she be expected to hear without swooning of these other things?”
I cannot help but suspect that something similar is going on here. If people are now longer allowed to use angry language, are they allowed to express their anger? If they are not allowed to express their anger, are they even allowed to be angry?
As I have written many a time before, I have zero sympathy or common cause with those who would abuse their presumed free speech to bully, harass, dogpile, intimidate and threaten others off shared platforms on the internet or anywhere else, typically using misogyny, racism, homophobia or whatever other weapons they can drag out of their arse(nal). I cannot stress enough that this is NOT what I am talking about or defending here. At the same time, I am not prepared to throw out the vituperative baby of justified anger with the filthiest bathwater of the internet.
The truth is that the internet has not created armies of angry people yelling insults, obscenities and abuse, but what it has done is make those outbursts audible to their targets (and others.) People used to hear politicians or pundits say things on the news and shout “SHUT UP YOU USELESS FUCKING CUNT, WHY DON’T YOU JUST DROP DEAD!” at the TV set. Now they shout the same thing on Twitter to rather different effect. I see why this is a problem. I don’t see anyone offering a workable solution.
What we surely cannot allow is for the understandable urge to temper these consequences to become a broader call to excise anger from politics, which quickly transmutes into a call to excise angry people from politics. Again, this is not a left/right point, there is an evident disdain from the political establishment towards both UKIP-leaning right wingers and Momentum-leaning left wingers. Both are apparently considered beyond the pale, simply not how we do things in this country, old chap.
We have had 25 years or so in which mainstream political parties gravitated to a shiny-suited, indistinct, focus-group-approved consensus. It became a cliché that one could turn on BBC Question Time and it would be impossible to tell which interchangeable platitudinous suit nominally represented which party. The ultimate consequences of that have been Brexit, the Scottish Labour wipeout and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. [see HetPat passim]
We still don’t know how the 2016 whirlwind will deposit what is left of British political culture, but it seems likely that when it does, righteous anger will once again be part of the mix. I am by no means sure this is a bad thing.