No, there was never a Golden Age of genteel and elevated discourse. Never a time when the fate of the country didn’t seem to hang in the balance or when politics was ever played for anything less than all the marbles. Check old election-day copies of the Daily Mirror if you doubt this. Check the hammers and tongs with which Gladstone and Disraeli set about each other if you doubt this. Check the 1970s, when Britain seemed to be falling apart, or the early 1980s when terrorism and race riots and industrial action scarred the British political and social landscape. Politics is, and always has been, a contact sport and every generation has its low moment.
But can we agree this might be ours?
It is a reactive moment, nonetheless. A howl against the realities of modern Britain; a desperate cry for a reversion to an imagined earlier age when the world was a simpler, and better, place. A revanchist cri de coeur. Britain has changed and many people dislike that.
Nevertheless, it has changed for the better. This is a grander, kinder, more relaxed and liberal country than it was half a century ago. If you doubt that, ask yourself whether you’d rather be a woman, a homosexual, or an immigrant now or in 1966? It shouldn’t be a difficult question to answer.
The irony is that just as society has changed for the better, the barriers to prejudice have never been lower. Social media is, in many ways, a wonderful arena for discourse. It is the cause of what might be called our Great Togetherness. All of life is there and Twitter and Facebook are our virtual cathedrals; places where we gather to praise and, yes, sometimes to mourn. But that comes at a price. If you are black or asian, Britain really is a more tolerant place than it was and yet, thanks to social media, you’re likely to encounter more bile and hostility and outright racism than was the case 20 years ago.
Back then, in the distant pre-internet age, cranks and misanthropes wrote in green ink or subscribed to badly-typed newsletters of nugatory importance and precious little popularity. You might attend the occasional basement meeting but, on the whole, you were on your own. That is no longer the case; social media allows these people to discover they are not alone and it gives them a megaphone by which they may amplify their voice.
This in turn prods us towards despair. There appear to be more of these people than we thought. And perhaps there are, though it is hard to be sure about such things. Their ugliness is more easily discovered; their paranoia more easily injected into the mainstream.
Sometimes people are just brutes. But even tiny minorities can make a hell of a noise. It is beyond sobering to think of the number of MPs who receive threats of serious violence on a daily basis; it is galling, too, to think there’s been a noticeable uptick in anti-Semitic and anti-muslim prejudice and it’s reasonable to ask what’s caused this and what can be done to stop it.
That struggle is worth it, however. Because, on the whole, people are better than that even if the tone and temper of public discourse does not always encourage them to be. Too often, especially in these recent fevered days as an important and defining vote looms, the better angels of our nature go unheard and unheeded.
As it happens, I don’t think that Jo Cox’s murder should have any impact on whether you decide to vote In or Out, Remain or Leave. It doesn’t change the merits of the better arguments made on either side. There remain good arguments to be made against the EU just as there are solid reasons for voting to remain a member of the European club.
But it’s quite something to be told by so many people that the tone and content of political rhetoric has an obvious impact on how people think – and, perhaps, on occasion, behave – everywhere else in the world except in Britain. When there is an atrocity in the United States, or in France, or in Israel, or in Turkey or anywhere else we have no difficulty in seeing how, in certain circumstances, it’s possible to imagine how tone and content creates a kind of atmosphere in which the previously horrific and unthinkable becomes dangerously plausible and predictable. Apparently it’s different here; apparently there’s nothing to see here. Move along, now. Just a random, you know. A terrible shame, but what can you do?
So when a leading politician says ‘It’s legitimate to say that if people feel they’ve lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step,’ we shouldn’t read anything into it. We certainly shouldn’t worry that this kind of rhetoric normalises violence and nor should we think that it comes perilously close to excusing it. I mean, it would be ‘difficult to contemplate’ that kind of thing happening in Britain but, blimey, ‘nothing is impossible’. Know what I mean? Of course you do.
No, you didn’t make anyone do anything but nor did you do very much, far less enough, to stop it.
And, really, let’s not be having any lessons on politicising events from people who, in the aftermath of the horrific shootings in Orlando, released a poster depicting a group of Isis jihadis above the slogan: Act now before we see an Orlando-style here before too long. Sure, they pulled it but the important thing is they thought it first.
That, I confess, was a breaking point for me. Nigel Farage and his motley crew don’t speak for everyone in the Leave campaign and I feel sorry for the good and decent and intelligent and downright nice people who are on that side of the dispute but who do not much care for Farage and his game. But these are the people you lie with and that, in the end, is a choice.
What’s more, it’s hard to disassociate yourselves from Farageist excess when the official campaign prattles on about how Turkey is going to be joining the EU. And, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, you know what that means, don’t you? Of course you do. There’s a spectrum and if Farage and Arron Banks are at one end of it, there are plenty of other, more ostensibly respectable, people who are closer to Farage than they are to the centre. That’s a choice too.
Again, you are not responsible for actions performed in response to circumstances you helped create but you still might want to think about those circumstances and your role in their creation.
But, gosh, isn’t it also remarkable how the stout-hearted, truth-to-power, champions of muscular common-sense, those happy keyboard warriors who revel in saying the unsayable, dislike it when someone says the eminently sayable to them? My, how they squeal and whine and moan and cry it’s not fair. These, remember, are the people who prize toughness, the kind of people forever swanking around in their tough shorts and their tough boots. The people who can see clearly what others choose to avoid; the people who love nothing more than polishing their moral clarity until it dazzles.
I’m not certain about many things but one of those things is that pandering to these people, to this kind of prejudice, doesn’t help anyone. The answer to understandable concerns is not to say, in effect, Ukip are right: don’t vote for them while doing vanishingly little to actually address those ‘concerns’. It is to make the case for what you actually believe. If that demands allowing for nuance then so be it; if it means explaining that losses on the swings are more than offset by gains on the roundabouts and trusting that people can understand that life is complicated and sometimes messy, then so be it.
Make the argument for modern Britain and why, on the whole and despite everything, modern Britain works. Perhaps you’ll lose but you’ll do so with at least some dignity. And that has to be worth something.
Because the alternative seems much, much worse. There are many people who think that their country has somehow been stolen from them and that, consequently, this referendum is some kind of battle for national liberation and even, in extreme cases, survival. You have a choice here, too: do you encourage such sentiments or do you discourage them? Because if you encourage them, how can you expect the referendum to actually solve or settle anything?
If this really is about democracy and freedom, then we are asked to believe that none of the EU’s 28 member states are free countries. Each must exist in a state of bondage, held captive by Quisling elites all too happy to enjoy first-class seats on the gravy train of well-remunerated supplication. Party like we’re back in the EUSSR, everyone. Come on, enough with this.
And when you encourage people to think like that, to cast politics in terms of patriotism and treachery, how can you ask them to respect the result of a referendum that delivers – as it may – the ‘wrong’ result? How does politics return to ‘normal’ when the new normal has been poisoned in this fashion?
Because if, as I now dearly hope becomes the case, Britain votes Remain on Thursday that’s a question we are going to have to answer. All of us, no matter which side of the divide we find ourselves on.