In the American imagination, Britain is an old-fashioned country, where the rules of chivalry, courtesy, civility and general politeness are rigorously enforced. The myth of a kind Britain is sometimes believed by the British, who contrast our manners with the boisterous, rude and unnecessarily outspoken personalities of our American cousins. This is certainly the myth Britain’s cultural elite would have you believe, as they export period dramas of a wealthy elite adhering to Victorian values.
However, both the humble Americans and snobby Brits are wrong: Britain, like America, is a mean country. And nowhere is this clearer than in the realm of British politics. If public discussions were ever polite and measured, they certainly aren’t now. This is because of two waves of political correctness.
The first wave took place during the Blair years. Now Blair came to power because people were sick of the Conservatives, who were not only ridden by scandal, but held some highly anachronistic attitudes regarding the EU, devolution, sexuality and constitutional reform. For many, Blair was a breath of fresh air, bringing in a new age of liberalism. But there was a darker side to New Labour. In popular culture and polite society, questioning the liberalism of the age became taboo. You couldn’t question the merits of devolving so much power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You couldn’t question the historically high levels of immigration, nor the extension of the EU into Eastern Europe that had contributed to it. Those who pined for tradition and a return to the old way of things were sidelined. Working class communities were told they were being listened to, even as many were left behind, however unintentionally.
The second wave of political correctness was essentially an overreaction to the first wave. After the 2015 election, the advent of majority Conservative government gave the hard-right a new voice, unshackled by the limits of coalition. Emboldened by the referendum on EU membership to be held the following year, the hard-right contextualised the EU as part of the broader malaise that was social liberalism. They used the political correctness of the Blair years to demonstrate that the British people were being oppressed by a metropolitan elite, intolerant of the working class and their natural patriotism. They appropriated the language of class warfare, promising to fight for the poor against the indulgence and complacency of a privileged few. At the same time, they lied about sharing the same economic interests as their constituents, espousing a populist agenda of an increasingly generous NHS and welfare state, despite having voted consistently to diminish both.
But it was not until after the referendum won, that the mantra of the Eurosceptic Right became political correctness. Overnight, the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage became the new establishment. The relatively liberal PM, David Cameron resigned, to be replaced by the opportunistic Theresa May, who promised to deliver the ‘hard’ Brexit demanded by the hard-right. All of a sudden, right wing populism became the ‘will of the people’, with opponents of Brexit or even a ‘soft’ Brexit, branded ‘traitors’, ‘enemies of the people,’ or part of the metropolitan elite. Prominent members of the Leave campaign, which was deceitfully ambiguous about what sort of Brexit it wanted, now demanded withdrawal from all aspects of European policy. Emboldened by the apparent continuity of British economic performance from prior the referendum, Brexiters became overconfident, accusing their opponents of being scared. ‘You’re afraid of losing’, they insisted, believing that Brexit will be a near-certain success disregarding the overwhelming evidence and opinion of economists to the contrary.
Now, the atmosphere is toxic. The tabloid press spew out an uncompromising dichotomy: either support the hardest Brexit possible, or have your patriotism and basic decency brought into question. When not engaged in fascistic gloating, Leave leaders hurl vitriol and abuse at anyone who espouses an alternative point of view. Arwa Mahdawi quite right labels this phenomenon ‘populist correctness’, where supporters of liberalism are deemed the establishment. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/19/populist-correctness-new-pc-culture-trump-america-brexit-britain) However, the political establishment is whoever holds power. During the New Labour period, and perhaps even during the Coalition, the establishment was liberal. But now, that establishment is gone. Instead, we have a conservative-nationalist establishment, backed up by a powerful press. They are resolutely committed to exit from the Single Market and Customs Union, preferring to trade on WTO terms until new agreements can be sought.
For the overwhelming majority of economists, such a strategy is economic ruin. So the hard-right has a plan: turn Britain into a tax haven, which is what they’ve always wanted to do anyway. Allow the oligarchs and despots of the world to park their ill-gotten gains in the UK. Never mind the decimation of public services and infrastructure as a result of falling revenues. Never mind the fact that 70% of British GDP is services, which will suffer immeasurably from leaving the Single Market, and won’t be compensated for by trade deals because they typically don’t include services. And never mind the fact that this wasn’t what the people in Leave-voting working class strongholds such as Stoke or Sunderland voted for. This is the end product of the new political correctness. And accompanying the resulting collapse of economic equity and social solidarity, will be the decline of any sort of public civility. The myth of small-c conservative Britain will be definitively exposed. Even the Americans will see it.
Next week, civility in the American polity.