The 2015 general election will likely be remembered in years to come, not so much for political reasons, but for a few farcical news stories of the sort usually confined to the pages of gossip magazines: Nigel Farage establishing his image as a man of the people by holding a fag and a pint; David Cameron forgetting which football team he is supposed to pretend he supports; an unflattering photo of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich, repeatedly adduced in order to demonstrate his supposed inadequacy.
To a degree this style of gutter-press journalism is to be expected during an election. Yet I struggle to remember a time before now when the newspapers have behaved quite so transparently self-interested, and with such hysterical disdain for whichever party they oppose most. Having received the tireless support of almost all of the major newspapers, the Torys are now hailing their victory as some sort of great triumph. They’re like a street brawler who, after resorting to stamping on his opponents head, turns to a gathering of onlookers and shouts “justice!”: as much as nobody could deny that a victory has taken place, few people could honestly, and equitably, describe the outcome as a triumph.
When I say this, I don’t mean to make an overt criticism of the Conservative party or its politics; and it should be noted that no party, in my opinion, has emerged looking good from this election. This time the Tories led the negative campaign. But it is quite possible that in five years time another party will be the one using the press as its mouthpiece. The only thing we can be quite certain of is that the next general election, as in keeping with recent trends, will be even more maliciously contested than the last, with more name-calling, shit-slinging and meaningless rhetoric designed to spread fear and enmity among the general public. This seems to be the way things are heading in the British press: a sort of throw everything and see what sticks mentality, the idea that absolutely anything, however ridiculous, can be used to discredit and shame a party leader.
One suggestion, repeatedly put forward by the newspapers this time round, is that certain political figures—that is, the ones representing the wrong political parties—somehow hate the country that they are campaigning to govern. This is an insane accusation; for, though it can easily be made against anybody actively involved in politics, it is absolutely meaningless and impossible to prove one way or the other. Moreover, the only way for a politician to defend himself against it is to resort to rhapsodising on the sort of generic British tripe always trotted out on these occasions: the Royal Family, football, propaganda posters, Branston pickle, the union flag, tea, etc. But what’s the point? Anybody can say one thing and mean another. It’s as futile as calling somebody a bigot: chances are the person isn’t going to think he’s a bigot, regardless of whether he is one or not. It’s a debate worth avoiding altogether.
Nevertheless, the newspapers ostensibly feel that patriotism and politics should go hand in hand. They have even distilled this idea into a worthless term that they can manipulate however they please. They call it British values: a vague manifesto, whose aims and policies are forever changing, though can always be relied upon to dress up unpopular opinions. I cannot be any more specific in describing what exactly British values are. I doubt even the newspapers could give a concise summary. But the term is a useful one, since it suggests familiarity and tradition. It implies that these values, opposed to nasty foreign ones, have sustained Britain for centuries, and will continue to sustain Britain for as long as people support them, whatever they may be exactly.
The term is all the more ridiculous when you consider how politically divided the country is at the moment. The newspapers were quick to disavow the smaller parties: they dismissed UKIP as racist, the SNP as pettily nationalistic and the Greens as incompetent idealists. But clearly there is a growing belief among the general public that the two-party system that the press so ceaselessly support is no longer working. It suggests that few people actually conform to the same values as one another; that there is no general consensus or one-size-fits-all set of ideals. Gone are those recent times when what separated Tory and Labour was a relatively minor difference in opinion. If the papers are to be believed there is no common ground between the parties any more: one represents unbridled affluence and harmony, and the other incompetence and despair. It’s an effective way of pretending that the two parties don’t operate more or less on the same ideology.
I suppose to some extent all parties, regardless of political leanings, are trying to appeal to voters whose understanding of the world does not align with its own. This seems to me particularly true of UKIP, a party that has been able to not only secure votes from conservatives, but disillusioned Labour voters too. Despite sharing few beliefs with UKIP, these former Labour voters somehow feel able to put their trust in UKIP. To them it seems like a viable option: the party of working people, the party of common sense, the party who oppose political correct nonsense and open-door immigration. As ambiguous as the term “British values”, the party’s strategy may seem dubious to some, but it is undoubtedly brilliant. It operates on the same logic that the Republican Party does in the United States: that a party that champions tax cuts for the rich can also portray itself as the party of the working class.
Here in Britain we have not yet begun to describe the working class as middle class, as has long been the common practice in the United States. But increasingly working class people are adopting the belief that, because they can afford (or borrow to afford) the sort of luxuries their parents could not, and have access to higher education, they are in fact middle class. On the one hand this is good thing: it seems to suggest that the less fortunate in our society are climbing the social ladder, and that people are less defined by the class into which they were born. On the other hand, it suggests only that our perceptions of what it means to be working or middle class have changed; that what separates these two classes is a cultural difference and not necessarily a financial one.
I personally find the whole situation deeply confusing—not least of all because it leaves me feeling uncertain of my own ranking in society. My family are working class: although we never struggled to a great extent growing up, both of my parents had working class jobs, and I grew up feeling significantly less privileged than my friends. Nevertheless, I attended a comprehensive school at which most of the pupils were middle class; I was the second person in my family (after my sister) to go to college and then university; and since graduating I have worked (in a very minimal way) in journalism and publishing—two industries that are dominated by the middle classes, and particularly, I would say, by people who were educated at private schools.
Although the class system might have changed over time, people’s prejudices remain as rigid as they have always been. British politicians as a result still endeavour to pretend that they are something they’re not: an admirer of certain band, a consumer of pints, a regular chap, etc. This is not, I don’t think, so true of politicians in the US, where the class system isn’t founded on hundreds of years of social injustice. An American politician may leap at the opportunity to be photographed while bowling or kissing a babies head, but all he hopes to prove is that he’s affable and non-threatening; a British politician, typically a Tory, often tries to disassociate himself from his upbringing. He seeks to understate the very things that have propelled him to his position—his education and heritage—and assume the likeness of somebody who has been afforded neither of these privileges. It goes without saying that few politicians try to overstate their ranking in society: as much as being born into affluence must further a person’s political career, wealth and privilege are not always going to sit well for the British public, however much the PR teams spin it. A politician who has worked his way up from the bottom is, by contrast, a far more attractive prospect. But regrettably there are few of those in politics today.
Of course, the most attractive prospect for voters is the always one that looks too good to be true: the politician who is at the very least able to inspire, even if there is little substance to what he says. Well, there was no such politician in the 2015 election, and furthermore nobody who seemed capable of even inspiring confidence in themselves. For non-partisan voters, the entire campaign was wholly depressing. It was like watching conveyor belt in sushi restaurant go round and round, and then having to conclude, after many hours wasted, that nothing, not so much as a morsel, was ever going to appear. The choices were pitifully weak throughout the campaign, though the newspapers, more brazen in their prejudices than perhaps ever before, were telling a different story. As far as they were concerned, the parties that seemed so intolerably bland to us were in fact quite the opposite: apparently they had intentions to ruin the country. Apparently they wanted to ruin the country.
All in all it was the sort of election that, far from inspiring people to engage with politics, encourages them to start a new life from themselves in some remote part of Patagonia. That at any rate is how I feel.