There are many grating phrases in modern British politics. ‘Best practice.’ ‘Fit for purpose.’ ‘Let me explain’ (just bloody well explain!). And that tendency of Labour politicians to preface pretty much everything they say with a schoolmarmish ‘Look’, as in ‘Look here’. As in: ‘You donuts know nothing, so I am going to put you straight.’
But even more grating than those, sat at the top of the pile of temperature-raising sayings, is ‘dog-whistle’. Everyone’s talking about ‘dog-whistle politics’. It has become the media and chattering classes’ favourite putdown of politicians they don’t like: to accuse them of indulging in dog-whistle antics, of making an ugly shrill noise — that is, saying something that we right-minded people think is a bit off — as a way of enticing… well, the dog-like sections of the electorate, canine voters. Beastly people who apparently lap up and act on prejudicial political ideas just as surely a dog follows its master’s orders. Nothing better captures the media and political elite’s contempt for the public than this notion that vast swathes of us are dogs, essentially, waiting to have our ears pricked and our prejudices stroked by some warped whistling politician.
The ‘dog-whistle’ accusation has been made against Labour following the immigration-mug fiasco. Scaremongering about immigration is a ‘classic case of dog-whistle politics’, said a writer for the Huffington Post, especially when it’s done on the side of a mug, from which one of the little people might now swallow some dog-whistlin’ political views. The Greens accused Labour of using ‘dog-whistle tactics’ and of ‘pandering to Ukip’. The New Statesman slammed Labour for using ‘rancorous language’ in order to win over the ‘average voter’, who of course isn’t nearly as switched-on or as immune to political rancour as the above-average voters who staff the NS.
Normally, though, it’s those on the right, especially the harder, unapologetic right, who are branded dog-whistlers. Nigel Farage is forever being slammed for his alleged ‘dog-whistle racism’. The trade union Unite recently accused him of pursuing ‘dangerous, crude dog-whistle politics’. Owen Jones lambasts Ukip’s ‘dog-whistle policies’, such as its desire to ban the burqa, which is apparently about ‘tapping into the poison of Islamophobia’. In short, Ukip uses coded, high-pitched noises that ‘They’, the Islamophobic public, might just respond to.
David Cameron has been accused of playing dog-whistle politics with both the middle classes – through his support for grammar schools – and with the hard Tory right, with some of the stuff he has said on immigration.
That so many observers can so casually, and frequently, talk about dog-whistle politics reveals a lot more about them than it does about any allegedly snarling, slobbering, mutt-like electorate out there. Officially, dog-whistle politics refers to that fashion among politicians for saying one thing but secretly communicating another. So he might say, ‘I think the burqa has no place in British society’, but what he apparently really means — or, more accurately, what will be heard by the super-sensitive, permanently pricked ears of the ignorant Islamophobic throng — is: ‘Muslims have no place in Britain.’
The obsession with so-called dog-whistle politics is really an unspoken panic about the stupidity and volatility of the voters, and the danger that some politician who ought to know better might wittingly or unwittingly tap into these voters’ dark, swirling prejudices by blowing a whistle in their direction.
The dog-whistle accusation is censorious and gobsmackingly snobbish. It’s censorious because it’s ultimately about limiting what it is acceptable to say; further shrinking the parameters of political debate, through taking sensitive stuff like immigration, burqas, multiculturalism and whatnot off the agenda in case ‘They’ interpret such discussion as a green light to being mad and racist.
And it’s snobbish because it is underpinned by the rotten assumption that the blob, the swarm, that dreaded ‘average voter’, is too mentally on-edge to be able to hear and think about all ideas, especially edgy or provocative ones. The real message of the anti-dog-whistle lobby is: ‘Politicians, put the whistles down and just say sensible middle-of-the-road stuff — otherwise you’ll drive the mutts out there crazy.’
So once again we have a situation where observers who fancy that they are advertising to the world their tolerance — through saying ‘Don’t be mean about immigrants!’ — are really exposing their intolerance, their own prejudices, their dark, inner fears. Not of immigrants, no, but of the heaving masses whom we stupidly trust to pick the government. I’m sorry, but if you think lots of your fellow voters are given to behaving like dogs, then it might just be you who has the problem, not them.