A not particularly insightful thought occurred to me yesterday as I watched the ugly scenes around Westminster. My opposition to the far right is as much a physical reaction to their kind as it is an intellectual position I’ve found myself taking throughout my life.
I hasten to add that this doesn’t mean I’m not opposed to their politics. I just mean that politics rarely ever arise. It never gets so far where I have to argue for a pluralist worldview. There’s never a point where I hear them say something lucid enough to make me stop and consider my position. When some bonehead starts spluttering about “Inglund, right” and gesticulating with his tin of Carlsburg, I don’t feel like I need to get out of first gear to get well ahead of him. The argument that “their” culture is better than some other culture is patently false when the representation of that culture has already pissed his pants or had a swastika tattooed on his chest. Given a choice between the country on display in Liverpool where protestors were dancing and having fun, or that on display in London, I know which I choose. Enoch Powell should have warned about the “rivers of piss” rather than the “rivers of blood”.
There are, admittedly, a few among their ranks who think of themselves as the spokesmen of the movement. Those are the types who buy male grooming products aimed at “Today’s Handsomer Dictator”. They all look the same: hair sculpted at 45 degrees in black marble, TV-ready smile, and with a fine line in pre-moderated racism. It’s not about hate, they say, but about pride in our country. The bit they never explain, the bit parenthesised by their very actions is that pride in “our country” is defined by a narrow subset of that nation’s people and that subset has an extraordinarily bad grasp of history.
I accidentally tuned in to LBC for about a minute this morning. Heard it long enough to listen to a caller repeat the oft-repeated phrase about the protest march being ruined by a minority. Perhaps it was but, if so, I’m not sure what the rest of this particular protest looked like. Everywhere I looked via the TV news and social media, I saw the same thing: that toxic working-class masculinity that you can spot a mile away. They’re bald, heavily tattooed Phil Mitchell types, left them inflexible because of too many steroids, which have also buggered up their vocal cords. They all sound like they’ve inhaled a ping pong ball and have the testicles of mice. Or perhaps it’s inhaled mice and have ping pong balls for testicles…
If you’ve survived any comprehensive in the country you’d have met the type. It’s a parody of masculinity; boys wanting to be like their fathers but never quite achieving it. They haven’t had a war to fight or hardship to overcome. Their manliness has never been tested so they direct it elsewhere. Searching for meaning, they are swept up in groupthink, defined as much by fashion and friendships as it is by ideas. It was noticeable how many of the protestors yesterday were wearing Fred Perry shirts, which have always been the uniform of the neo-Nazis in the UK. It might be guilt by association but I’m still happy to call it guilt.
The saddest part of all this is that we all know these people are bad types in the same way as those on the extreme left are bad. Both are indoctrinated with ideologies of hate because they know they are on the losing side of history. Their violence is an expression of rage against a system that is unwilling to change; a battle they’re never likely to win. On the left, it’s those anarchists who can’t believe that people might like the material products of capitalism. On the right, they’re the ethnonationalists who thought they’d found acceptance through the Brexit vote but now see Britain sympathetic to a message of racial unity. It’s not the great Other they fear as much as the realisation that it is they who are inferior. It’s the decadence that usually follows the collapse of any great empire; people exhibiting the exceptionalism they didn’t earn, lording it over others who understand the meaning of struggle.
In a properly decent politics, both extremes should be called out for what they are, but we hardly have decent politics. What we get instead are little more than coded warnings to the extremists to “keep it down”. These are the people “rightfully angry” who took it too far. They are “concerned citizens” who shouldn’t stop taking the law into their own hands. They are generally “good people on both sides” but with a few militants to break the law.
It’s all bullshit. Mainstream politicians fear the extremes almost as much as they find them useful. They don’t condemn them as they should because they know they represent a small but still significant percentage of their voters. They are also a useful way to protect their flanks.
It might sound cynical but this kind of politics is so familiar as to have a name. It’s populism. It is politics rooted not in hope but fear. Both sides do it. Don’t play fair with us, they warn, and you’ll find far worse will take our place. They rule through the mandate of the angry. You could say that yesterday’s violence was a reminder of that. Yet, perhaps, it might also have been a reminder that the threat is an empty one and that we have been accommodating the idiots on the fringes for too long.