In politics, a lot of time is devoted nailing adjectives to nouns so that eventually muscle memory will treat the adjective as part of the noun.
Muscle memory. Guilt by association. Trying to prise some of those adjectives away from those nouns is essential for critical thinking. The main guilt by association that everyone’s talking about these week is May’s denunciation of liberals and metropolitans as “elitists”. If you don’t share certain prejudices – then you’re a snob.
May’s horrible horrible speech involved an appeal to a strange constituency called “ordinary people” and a denunciation of “elites”. It was passionate about a thing called “meritocracy”. These are just words of course. Britain now has about the lowest rate of social mobility in the so-called “Western World”. The advantages of inherited wealth are now so tremendous and the barriers afflicting those who stupidly exit the wrong birth canal are so immense – that it might seem astonishing that we’re talking about “liberal elites” rather than hereditary elites.
May herself was a grudging supporter of “Remain” until the vote in June. As part of her consolidation of “Leave” political capital, however, she now insists that the 48% who voted with “Remain” shut up and respect the “will” of the British people. The idea that people who lose a vote have lost the right to express themselves is itself terrifying. Majoritarian tyranny is as frightening as minoritarian tyranny, as John Stuart Mill observed. May had the nerve to invoke Edmund Burke in her speech – but Burke frequently defended “minority” positions within the House of Commons.
If you can’t defend a minority position then there’s an end to discursive democracy – and end to deliberate representative government. Is PMQT to consist of the opposition being told “you lost so shut up” in answer to every question?
And facts aren’t always majoritarian. I thought the Leave case was terrible before June and I think it’s terrible now. I have no right to impose my views on others but I have the right to express them. Unless, you think expression is a form of imposition, which the deeply authoritarian May probably does. Indeed, May is now exploiting a very Trumpian post-truth rhetoric whereby what’s important are not “facts” but “feelings”. If people “feel” swamped by immigrants, then those feelings are self validating and any attempt to allay those feelings represents a form of oppression. If you don’t like bigotry you’re a snob.
Putting “liberal” and “metropolitan” in front of “elite” constructs a wholly spurious demography. Implicit in May’s speech is that ordinary, decent working class “real” people voted “Leave” while smug over privileged people voted “Remain”.
As a generalisation this is false. And she knows it’s false.
Lots of working class people voted “Remain”. And swathes and swathes of well off Conservatives voted “Leave”. Some Labour voters voted “Leave”. More voted “Remain”. But if “elite” means anything other than “people who I don’t like whose substantive arguments I don’t want to engage” – then there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that on the whole Remainers were any more elitist than Leavers – if we’re talking about access to wealth and privilege.
The sinister implication of the speech is that being anti-racist is an elitist fetish. And entrenched within this implication is the deeply prejudiced assumption that the working classes are generally racist and that anyone claiming to represent the working class needs to be racist too. Some on the Left have fallen into this trap – failing to tackle racism if it’s seen to be authentically “working class”. And from all sides of what often seems a suffocatingly narrow so-called “spectrum” you hear the weasel words “we need to be mindful of peoples’ very real concerns…” which translates in practice as “we need to prostrate ourselves abjectly in front of prevalent lies”. Concerns might be “real” in the sense that people have them, but unreal in the sense that they are not grounded in real threats. Just a thought.
Ethically, there’s a lot of clarity to be gained just by saying “racism is bad” – wherever and whenever you find it. It’s wrong on the streets of Sunderland and it’s wrong in the dining clubs of Westminster. Does racism thrive in poorer neighbourhoods? Sometimes. Does racism thrive in leafy suburbs and among people living in big houses in the country? Oh yes. By proclaiming liberalism “elitist”, May is saying that those who aren’t elite are never liberal. That basic values of generosity, tolerance, and the ability to empathise with people who are different – cannot be found among those who are struggling on a fixed income, as far as May is concerned.
Now I’m not trying to reverse May’s categories – claim that those on low income are all paragons of tolerance and the privileged classes are all bigots. I’m trying instead to suggest that adjectives are not nailed to nouns. To do so, you need to detach “liberal” from “elite”?
Is not Boris Johnson a member of an elite of some kind? What about Prince Philip? If these people aren’t representative of elite privilege then who is? So when they spout racist nonsense you can either reason that there must be some strand of racism that comes naturally to people from privileged backgrounds – or – you can believe The Daily Mail and suggest that casual racism indicates that these toffs actually have “the common touch”. And implicit in that formulation is the notion that bigotry is a proud badge of ordinariness – a necessary and sufficient indicator of showing how “in touch” you are with “real people”.
If racist paranoia really is an absolute pre-requisite for being a real human being then humanity is of course doomed.
Now of course, May is not saying that people should be racist. Of course not. Being a racist is a bad thing – therefore it’s wrong to call anyone a racist. May is not elevating some notional “everyman” or “everywoman” who is avowedly racist but rather notional people who want to be as racist as they like without ever being called on their racism. “How dare you call me a racist” is the defensive posture that is now being vindicated at the highest levels of
“I’m fed up with being accused of racism just because I hate foreigners. I’m also, by the way, fed up with being accused of burglary just because I break into people’s houses and take all their stuff. I’m sick and tired of it.”
I’ve read more than one proud defense of “the liberal elite”. Such things are amusing, and in their own way, valid. But more important than sticking up for the liberal elite is attacking the presumption that the elite is liberal at all or at any rate more liberal than so-called “ordinary people”.
As with all variants of Tory populism, an ideal of “ordinary hard working people” is simultaneously elevated and denigrated – praised and patronised – eulogised and shockingly over-simplified at one and the same time.