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Coffee House From the archive

Clacton to Ukip, Britain’s anti-politics were long in the making

11 October 2014

4:30 PM

11 October 2014

4:30 PM

Talking to people in Clacton-on-Sea this week, there was a sense that, as much as they thought there were too many people in Britain, they felt politicians had it too easy. Over and over again people told me that MPs in Westminster didn’t understand working people. Politics is becoming less about policy and more about empathy; voters just don’t want to be ruled by aliens. In a famous article in 1955, Henry Fairlie described the chasm between the aliens and normal people:

I have several times suggested that what I call the ‘Establishment’ in this country is today more powerful than ever before. By the ‘Establishment’ I do not mean only the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in Britain (more specifically, in England) cannot be understood unless it is recognised that it is exercised socially. Anyone who has at any point been close to the exercise of power will know what I mean when I say that the ‘Establishment’ can be seen at work in the activities of, not only the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Earl Marshal, but of such lesser mortals as the chairman of the Arts Council, the Director-General of the BBC, and even the editor of The Times Literary Supplement, not to mention divinities like Lady Violet Bonham Carter.

More recently, Peter Oborne argued that the Establishment had been replaced by something worse:

Members of the Political Class, even when they come from apparently rival parties, have far more in common with each other than they do with voters. They seek to protect one another, help each other out, rather than engage in robust democratic debate. This is why the House of Commons is no longer a cockpit where great conflicts of vision are fought out across the chamber. It has converted instead into a professional group, like the Bar Council or the British Medical Association.

The most important division in Britain is no longer the Tory versus Labour demarcation that marked out the battle zone in politics for the bulk of the 20th century. The real division is between a narrow, self-serving and increasingly corrupt governing elite and the mass of ordinary voters. The distinction between those in and out of ministerial office has become blurred, and general elections have become public stunts, whose primary purpose is an ostentatious affirmation of Political Class hegemony.

Michael Vestey blamed Tony Blair’s administration for creating a parallel reality. Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson were particularly at fault, but the rot had set in across Westminster:

What astonished me last Friday was the sudden outburst of the BBC’s political editor Andrew Marr at the end of the Today programme. Having listened to a discussion about why politicians lie so much nowadays, he indignantly told us, ‘I’m seething! I’m seething!’ It sounded a bit like the beginning of a pop song. He went on to say that he was fed up with people who didn’t enter politics saying so glibly that all politicians lie. ‘It’s just not the case.’ This was revealing in several ways. First of all it told us that Marr identifies more with the political class than with the electorate, which makes me wonder if he is actually there for them. It also made me think that he is so close to politicians that he can’t see that they’re lying. Does he really believe that they tell the truth all the time? Perhaps sometimes they do, but we know that after the election many of the things Blair said he wouldn’t do will come to pass. We know it. Doesn’t Marr? And is Marr suggesting that those who choose not to participate in politics have no right to tell politicians they’re lying? Who do you have to be?

Just before Tony Blair’s second term in office, Bruce Anderson detected a change in people’s attitude to elections:

On previous occasions, one obviously encountered electors who had decided not to vote. But they usually kept quiet about it; they were prepared to give a tacit acknowledgment to the moral superiority of the electoral process, even if they had no intention of taking part in it. Not any more. This time, people are happy to admit that they will not be voting, and I do not believe that many of them will be persuaded to change their minds. This reaction is a blend of apathy and antipathy: a settled conviction that politics is an irrelevance tinged with dishonesty.

I knew intellectually that all the party HQs were like artillerymen firing blind at distant positions in the hope that some tiny proportion of their shells would hit their targets. But now that I have been out among those targets, I realise just how true this is, and that the artillery’s task is becoming steadily more difficult. Social changes have made it harder for the parties to identify their targets. Tribalism is not what it was, and the old-fashioned working class, Labour’s former hard core, has largely disappeared. Part of it has fallen into the underclass.

I have spent some time in the sort of housing estates where six-year-old boys wear earrings. Mum is a haggard slattern of 25 going on 45 — though she does keep some sort of a household afloat: she might have been a decent girl if she had been given the chance — and Dad was a biological accident in a pub car park. Oddly enough, the inhabitants of those estates know that they are not Tories, but this does not mean that they are Labour. They have simply dropped off the political ladder. As far as they are concerned, all the politicians might as well be talking about life on another and distant planet. They cannot conceive that any politician could ever do them any good (why are they wrong?).

What makes the current paralysis of the mainstream parties so odd is that they seem to have been blindsided by the attack from Ukip. They didn’t see it coming, this potent combination of anti-mainstream politics and anti-immigration. Even in 1992, after talking to people in pubs, Andrew Gimson pointed out that politicians might avoid talking about race, but that wouldn’t make it go away.

In three of the four Vox Pub reports published during this election campaign, race has emerged, to my surprise, as the issue about which people feel most strongly. I don’t think the racism I found while researching this series of articles was superficial. Because racism is a subject more often raised by journalists on the Left, whose eagerness to apportion blame can make them too tiresome to read, let alone believe, journalists on the Right may have overlooked how racist the British are.

I do not hold that a `get it out in the open’ approach is always the best way to cope with matters which touch our deep emotions, but I do wonder if our inability to talk freely about race has prevented us from knowing what we are really like. My impression is that our race relations industry exists on sufferance, and would only have to intrude a little more to provoke a furious reaction from the British of native descent. But perhaps everyone closely involved with policy in this area knows this, so they think, in the English way, that it does not need saying.

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