Following the British general election, in which the center-right in the form of the Conservatives and UKIP parties completely outperformed the predictions of every pollster, pundit and media outlet, those same pollsters and pundits are earnestly exercized with trying to understand how they got it all so utterly, consistently and massively wrong.
Two dominant explanations have been offered: first, that the British electorate changed their political preferences in the last couple of days before casting their votes; and second, that people who vote Conservative (by far the largest party in England by representatives in parliament and by popular votes) were too “ashamed” to be honest about their intentions to those who ask.
As a Brit who has maintained a strong interest in British politics, but lives abroad, I am pleased to be able to save these navel-gazing pundits a great deal of time.
Let me start with a thought experiment.
Consider the statement, “Some of my best friends are UKIPpers.”
Now replace UKIP in that sentence with any easily identifiable group in society like “black”, “gays”, “women”, or (for the sake of being politically current,) “Scots”. The statement immediately becomes an unpleasant attempt to proclaim one’s progressive disposition while actually demonstrating its opposite – since the very fact of needing to say such a thing admits a regressive, chauvinistic paradigm from which the speaker feels the need to distance himself (in the spirit of “the lady doth protest too much”.)
But as written, with the word “UKIPpers”, that sentence could be said at almost any dinner party in England (assuming that no UKIP voter is invited, of course,) and would likely get a genuinely curious, “Really?” from well-meaning Labor-voters and Liberals, as the start of a conversation about just how shocking people’s views can be … and how genuinely fascinating it is that humanity can include people who maintain such obviously unjustifiable or misguided views.
In other words, many young, educated, middle-class adults (I am one of those) would respond to the statement “some of my best friends are UKIPpers”, not with the horrified silence that the statement, “some of my best friends are gay” would elicit, but more the wondrous curiosity of a person contemplating an exotic and perhaps somewhat dangerous animal.
Why? Fortunately, as a regular listener to the British media who doesn’t live in Britain, I can easily explain.
Although the United States, my adopted country, gives me most of what I need to be very happy, there are some things from Blighty that I can’t do without, like good tea and Marmite. Chief among them is the BBC, and specifically those great Radio 4 comedies that I often play at the end of a busy day as I wind down to sleep… sketch shows, quiz shows, stand-up shows… Many of them are brilliant. The writing is invariably witty; the comedians are invariably talented; and I am always grateful for (and a little bit proud of) this export from my native land.
But all of these shows – all of them – have something else in common. Whereas they would never, ever make jokes at the expense of any of the groups I identified above (with the occasional exception of the Scots – but watch that change now that they have identified themselves as a victim group), they all play off the unstated but unhidden understanding that the Tories are mean or callous or evil, and UKIPpers are all of those things or perhaps just too stupid to know better.
The same is true of comedy and other entertainment on TV in the UK. Shows that do not purport a political point of view but are written with mass appeal for reasonably educated people nevertheless include politically motivated comedy that always comes from the same overtly Left-wing direction. It’s utterly predictable. I still love the shows, but with a recurrent disappointment that well-meaning, clever and funny writers and performers, whose work both arises from, and determines, Britain’s “cultural normal”, do not even care to understand that what they take for granted is not so obvious to a large part of the culture that thinks differently. And worse, the part of British political culture that our mainstream performers, entertainers and comedians don’t get and can’t write jokes for (rather than against) is actually the majority of British political culture.
Most political tribes sacralize something, and the Left tends to sacralize victim groups. Believing their politics to be the only reasonable political manifestation of inclusiveness and compassion, many self-identified left-wingers look down on Tories and Ukippers for other-izing (treating as essentially “other than themselves”) victim groups, such as welfare recipients and immigrants, respectively (just to pick a couple of examples).
The obvious irony is that in so doing, the British Left, through the mainstream and alternative culture, other-ize those they perceive as guilty of the unconscionable offence of other-izing. Left-wing other-ization always manifests as a kind of condescension – a soft shaming that pervades British popular culture in the form of both jokes and serious accusations that go unremarked, about the meanness of Tory voters and the ignorance of Ukippers etc. They always get a laugh and no one thinks anything of it, even though the very same jokes about gays, blacks, women, foreigners would be utterly anathema.
Just as progressives are quite right to point out the meanness and ignorance on which other-izing always depends, they surely display their own meanness and ignorance when they other-ize those who vote differently or have different ideas about what social and economic justice mean, or what social structures make for a happy society over time.
And before I am accused of other-izing the Left, I should say, with my tongue only half in my check, that “most of my British friends are Labor voters”, and I don’t other-ize them at all. I don’t think worse of them. I don’t assume moral superiority that allows me to lump them altogether and then make jokes about them. I understand that decent people have different views – even if I believe to my very core that those views would be extremely damaging if fully implemented – just as I expect some of those friends think likewise about some of my views. And that is absolutely fine.
So, then, without other-izing, I offer the following just as a cultural observation and a large part of the answer to the question that is currently exercising British political pundits.
A Leftish in-crowd culture pervades the UK, and especially its airwaves.
Here’s another thought experiment: can you name a few mainstream British comedians who take an explicitly Tory, classical liberal or (God forbid), populist UKIP-like perspective from which they make jokes about icons of the modern Left in the same way every Radio 4 comedy or TV quiz show naturally takes pot-shots not just at Cameron and Farage (who are fair game because they chose to seek power) but at entire swathes of the public who support them? Not only can such comedians not be named (because they don’t exist): it’s almost impossible to imagine what their acts would even consist of.
Sure, the News Quiz or Have I Got News For You make jokes at Miliband’s expense, but when did you last hear a put-down of “Labor voters” or “Labor politicians” as a block like the ones you’ve hear repeatedly made at the expense of all Tories or Ukip voters and politicians?
Our mainstream culture not longer allows moral condescension based on sexual orientation, skin color, gender, place of birth etc. But condescension based on political disposition is fair game – if and only if the disposition is perceived to be to the right.
If the post-mortem of the elections is anything to go by, the bulk of both Britain’s media establishment and its providers of alternative culture are so saturated in the soft tyranny of pseudo-intellectual condescension against those they perceive as the other-izers, that they cannot see the self-contradiction inherent in their chauvinistic other-izing millions – literally millions – of people.
I am sure there are mean Tories, but all the ones who I know vote conservative because they believe there is more compassion in a hand up than a hand out if the hand out becomes a destroyer of dignity, aspiration or basic fair play. I am sure there are racist UKIPpers, but all the ones I know vote UKIP because they believe that the EU is undemocratic and that freedom of thought and speech (and therefore the ability to determine one’s own destiny) depend on being able to talk about the causes of social and economic problems without being immediately marginalized because they are talking about a sacralized group or issue.
Sneering at the chauvinism of entire groups of people who differ politically, without knowing their stories and reasons, is chauvinistic. Yet, that particular chauvinism saturates British popular culture – whether represented by Russell Brand’s aggressive populism or by Radio 4’s more decent intellectualism – or anything in between. (Murdoch’s papers are just about the exception that proves the rule.)
In other words, under the banner of “We Know Better Than to Other-ize”, the British Left, has other-ized the Rest.
In 1969, American President Nixon was the first to talk about the silent majority.
In 2015, the UK today has something a little different – a silenced majority.
So the real question is not, “Why were the polls and media wrong?”: it is, “why did you expect them not to be?”.
Answer that question and you’ll really understand British political culture.