One of the oddest aspects of the Brexit Kulturkrieg has been very rich white men depicting themselves as an oppressed minority standing up, heroically, to “the Elite”. Rather than laugh their lungs raw, much less privileged Brexiters have leapt to the defence of the Rees-Moggs and the Johnsons suggesting that it is outrageous to “blame” them for going to Eton when their parents sent them there, as if young Rees-Mogg, who wore a monocle at an age when most of us are more concerned about acne, might have been Danny Dyer if his father hadn’t insisted on his going to public school. WTF, says half of Twitter, WTAF?
I think I get it, but to explain it I need to take you back to England in the 1970s. It’s impossible to see the past clearly now because it has been the subject of such determined revision. A decade has been boiled down and left at the bottom of the pan are clichés: flared trousers; punk; recession; angry unions and “Mind Your Language” on TV. Beyond the fact that for many older Leave voters the 70s were their heyday, it’s difficult, spooning disappointedly at the thick cliché gravy, to work out why they seem to yearn for it. In the interests of insight let me take you to a particular moment. It’s 1976 and my father has come back from having a pint at the Memorial Club ahead of lunch. He has a joke he’s heard that he wants to share with us. I can’t remember the details, but it involves two Irishmen: Paddy and Seamus. They have been drinking and are crawling along a railway line. The joke involves a dialogue. My father plays both parts. He puts on an accent. The accent isn’t Irish as such. It’s an accent intended to convey not just Irishness but stupidity, though in his mind and in television comedy routines those two things are indistinguishable. Everyone understands that Irish people are “thick”. The punchline involves Paddy complaining to Seamus that, however much he climbs, he doesn’t seem to be able to reach the top of the ladder. It went down well in pub. My father is laughing for all of us. He’s laughing for his Irish wife and his half-Irish children. He’s not trying to cause offence, because who could take any? That Irish people are thick is as universally understood as the fact that Englishmen are noble and clever; that the Scots are canny; that the French are dirty; that the Spanish are lazy; and that you can only see black people in the dark when they smile.
Elsewhere, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 is in force and the Race Relations Act 1976 has joined it on the Statute book, but neither piece of legislation is looming large for my father. He’s a ship’s pilot. They are all men and they are all white. Women’s equality is an utterly fanciful concept. It represents a failure to understand the real world — the world of Common Sense. In the animated opening credits for “Mind Your Language” (first broadcast in 1977) teaching English to a group of stereotypical foreigners is interrupted by the arrival of a large pair of breasts with a French woman attached them.
The cartoon men undergo an immediate attack of lust.
When the actress appears during the first episode, the audience literally wolf-whistles. It’s unlikely any of this is surprising you. This is before “political correctness” had “gone mad”.
My father read the Telegraph during the week and the Sunday Express at weekends. His politics were Tory with a leaning to the authoritarian. Like almost all of his friends he believed every political or social problem had a simple answer. The language was soaked in aggression. Problems and problematic people needed “sorting out”. Sorting something or someone out invariably involved getting “tough”. Short, sharp shocks for the young, tougher sentences for all, hanging for murderers and being tied to a bomb for terrorists. These measures would “soon put a stop” to whatever he was complaining about. The solution was at hand, it just required the will. This was a belief that survived, untroubled, the ceaseless demonstration of the ineffectiveness of the proposed solutions.
A decade later and things had shifted. I was at university. We had a poor relationship and our family was about to break up. There were, I suppose, specific reasons for him to be upset and angry but he had always been inclined to rage. When I was a child, he had scared me. I didn’t like his anger and, consequently, I didn’t much like him. With a lot of distance now, I see a pattern to it. His authority was essential to him. He was the son of a reform school headmaster and was himself a former ship’s captain. He believed in a chain of command and respect expressed as obedience. I can see now that having a lippy smart-arse for a son would have been a problem and I recognise that what I was tripping over was his insecurity. What was true of him was true more generally. When I recall the laughter now about the Irish; about “women’s libbers” and immigrants, I can hear a fear in it that I was deaf to at the time. To use words that would have horrified my father, it was a defence of sorts; a defence against the challenge to privilege.
The cartoonist in the Sunday Express was Cummings. Here is cartoon of his from the mid-80s.
It’s astonishing to look at, but its message is clear. It’s an image that is wringing wet with fear. British society was under threat from malign forces that believed in things like “anti-racism” and not discriminating on grounds of sexual orientation. Here’s the thing though — it was. Although I do not pretend we are an equal society, the argument that we should try to be prevailed. We won.
During one argument over an evening meal, my father denounced me as a “do-gooder”. He did not care for do-gooders. They had been sapping away at former certainties and in our household and more widely the clearest sign was that the Irish joke had vanished. I cannot say when it happened. The long tradition of “thick Paddy” jokes just collected its shabby raincoat and slipped away without a goodbye.
What angered people of my father’s generation about do-gooders and political correction was that they could no longer talk in derogatory stereotypes and expect to have them met with laughs and nods. “You can’t say anything these days” they would complain. “Call a spade a spade and you get arrested”. You didn’t get arrested, but the steady evaporation of the social affirmation of prejudice had left them feeling ashamed to express prejudices that had once got them a backslap and a laugh.
There are different ways to react to this experience of shame. One is to acknowledge the concern and take on the struggle of overcoming your own biases and prejudice. Rather than assuming that you are nothing more than the aggregate of the things you reflexively feel, you commit to change. I make it sound easy, but I acknowledge that it isn’t. Another response is to leave the prejudices undisturbed but unexpressed. You live with the discomfort of knowing that you are no longer free to say whatever you want. That a war was declared and you lost it before you could get your boots on. That will, of course, chafe. You will feel that others get to decide what you can and cannot think and say. Those others are the dreaded Metropolitan Elite. The people you will resent are not the people who have the money and the political power, but those that have the power to determine what is and is not socially acceptable: the people on the telly, the lefties on marches, that busybody in HR. They are the real bigots. They’re the ones who want to put a policeman in your head. They know but don’t care about the daily grinding humiliation of being told you should feel ashamed for the way you feel about foreigners, or women, or Scots or whoever you feel is being advanced at your expense. Worst of all, because they preach at you, they are forever implying that they are better than you.
For me, it’s not that I can’t understand why people may feel the way they do, its that having lived through the last 50 years, we are a better off being a tolerant and liberal society. I can understand the point of view but refuse to allow it to become accepted as a truth. Racism has not vanished, but if people feel they can’t say the “N word” out loud in company, well, good. If there are women leading political parties, sitting on the Supreme Court, running hospitals, in fact doing anything other than being judged on the size and “perkiness” of their breasts, that is an unqualified good. Our progressive to-do list is so long that we can easily lose sight of how much we would all lose if we turned back the clock even 40 years.