Time Out with Nick Cohen

In his search for England, Julian Baggini expected to find racism, sexism and fear. He found somethi

Julian Baggini seems a standard member of the liberal intelligentsia. The books he reads, the clothes he wears and food he eats match those of tens of thousands of others. He stands out because he has done what very few of his contemporaries are prepared to do and confronted England. Not by denouncing its government or letting out long sighs about its lack of sophistication, but by living among people he wouldn't ordinarily notice, in an attempt to understand the core beliefs of the England which doesn't listen to the Today programme.

It is a simple idea, and I'm surprised no one has thought of it before. Polly Toynbee and Fran Abrams have written poignant accounts of life on the poverty line, while the Sunday Times wasn't exaggerating when it described Michael Collins's The Likes of Us as an "absolutely essential" guide to London's white working class. There are also thousands of academic studies of the national character - from the British Social Attitudes Survey to Kate Fox's Watching the English.

But Baggini wasn't interested in the poor, of whom there are too many yet who are the exception, nor did he follow Collins by staying in London, a separate country, as everyone says. He determined instead to concentrate on the mainstream English who can't be found on the minimum wage or living in the capital, but among the homeowners of the prov inces. The piles of academic research and opinion-poll findings helped him, but they couldn't give him the feel of England. For that, he had to uproot himself mentally and physically.

He asked the computer analysts who compile demographic profiles for the Acorn marketing company to give him the postcode of the English district that was closest to the national average: the town or network of streets where he could find, in microcosm, the mixture of wealthy people and poor pensioners, struggling families and single men and women that best encapsulated the country. They consulted their databases and told him to head for S66 on the outskirts of Rotherham. Its working men's clubs, as-much-food-as-you-can-cram-on-to-your-plate restaurants, out-of-town shopping centres and local radio stations are indeed typical, but they are also about as far away from Baggini's liberal England as it is possible to get without crossing the Channel.

"Three of the last four constituencies I lived in went Liberal Democrat at the last election," he said, as he tucked into an un-English vegetarian breakfast. "And the Lib Dems only lost the fourth by a few hundred votes. I have been in a parallel country for most of my adult life."

Baggini expected to find sexism, racism, homophobia, celebrity worship, provincialism and unreasonable fears about crime. What makes his Welcome to Everytown: a journey into the English mind (Granta) a thought-provoking book is not that he didn't discover illiberal prejudices in Rotherham, but that he managed to come to terms with and, in a few instances, sympathise with them. For Baggini isn't quite the standard middle-class liberal. His mother is from the Kent working class and his father from an Italian farming family. His Italian side meant that he "never really felt entirely at home in this country", while his working-class background distanced him from the public-school boys and girls of the London intelligentsia. More important, I think, is that he is a member of a group of freelance intellectuals who gather round the Philosophers' Magazine and live by their pens. None has the security of a university job, and all are suspicious of intellectual orthodoxy. (Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, two of Baggini's colleagues, produced an attack on postmodernism, whose title, The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, sums up the group's approach.)

Baggini's background and philosophical training gave him the intellectual honesty to be as critical of the biases he and his friends shared as he was of the biases of others. Even before he went to Rotherham, he was wary of the thoughtless anti- patriotism that lay behind David Hare's cry that "most of us look with longing to the republican countries across the Channel. We associate Englishness with everything that is most backward in this country."

Baggini told me he had noticed that when his friends went overseas "they always found something to delight in. They would tell me how wonderful it was to share a glass of wine with the old boys in a rural French bar, and not realise that if those old boys were speaking English they would probably be saying, 'That Jean-Marie Le Pen, he's got the right idea.'"

He moved to Rotherham, rented a modern house by a main road, bought a car, and read the newspapers and watched the television programmes his neighbours read and watched. He encountered many prejudices he disliked, but gradually his views on popular attitudes softened. Only the Daily Mail was too much for him. Six months of reading it turned a mild distaste into an unappeasable loathing.

The regulars of Rotherham pubs and clubs deserve credit for the softening. They didn't allow the strange, bookish southerner to sit by himself for long. But Baggini also realised that what he had taken to be idiotic views had a comprehen sible philosophical underpinning, even if it was a working-class philosophy that didn't always appeal to him. His reliance on the explanatory power of working-class attitudes may unnerve some, but his argument seems well grounded to me. Although the polls which report that almost six out of ten people still regard themselves as working-class invariably produce middle-class guffaws, Baggini says you only have to listen to the radio programmes he heard and go to the bars he drank in to realise that working-class culture dominates England. Many people may have more money than their parents had, but that does not mean that working-class attitudes have changed. Central to them is the importance of place.

The majority of the English still live within five miles of where they were born, and the attachment to locality keeps England a communitarian country. They want "local jobs for local people", local radio, local papers and raffles for local good causes. Complementing local pride is the strong notion that you can't enjoy England's benefits without belonging. Baggini got into endless arguments about the Human Rights Act, but his attempts to persuade his new friends that foreign terror suspects should never be deported if they could face torture always got nowhere. The new Labour slogan "you can't have rights without responsibilities" was the view of the English mainstream, he found. "It's an illiberal thought," he told me. "Liberals believe that you have rights on the basis of your membership of the human race. But most of the English aren't liberal. They believe that you only have rights if you are a fully paid-up member of this society. That's why they will be very illiberal about 'Muslim preachers of hate' and say, 'We don't care about their rights. What about ours?'"

Although he met a few real racists, Baggini doesn't see such beliefs as racist in themselves. Instead, he draws on the image of the "hefted" sheep of northern fells, whose instinctive knowledge of where they can and can't graze means they never stray from their patch of land, and uses it to explain the desire of the English of all classes to keep their little worlds intact.

"Frankly, I didn't believe it when people in Rotherham said they wanted immigrants to fit in. That's not quite right. If you go to Manchester or London, there are Chinatowns that advertise their differences, but no one ever says that 'the problem with these bloody Chinese is that they don't fit in', because there's no threat or no perceived threat. The multicultural agenda is that everyone must respect each other, but I don't think that's possible. We need to be far tougher with the minimal demands that people don't threaten each other and must respect the rule of law.

"On its own, upholding the law won't lessen what people call racism because sometimes threats are inevitable. People who have lived in an area all their lives are uncomfortable if the character changes because of a large influx of immigrants. But that doesn't make them racist. They just want their locality to stay the way it was. No one calls families racist when they object to large numbers of students moving in to their street or says that the residents of Hampstead were racist for wanting to live in an area without McDonald's."

He is far less sanguine about sexism. Watching the way women tried to please men in Rotherham clubs and reading semi-pornographic lads' mags didn't make him think that the reassertion of traditional stereotypes was "natural" or harmless fun. There is, he says, nothing natural or fun about a country where most women say that they are deeply unhappy with their appearance.

Baggini refuses to adopt the declamatory style of the polemicist. His writing is refreshingly self-deprecatory. At one point in Welcome to Everytown he says he had to leave Rotherham to visit London. Once in Islington, he couldn't resist the lure of "proper food". He went to an Italian restaurant, ordered pasta, olives and a glass of wine, then buried his head in a book. Minutes later, he looked up to see another man of his age and class come in and order pasta, olives and a glass of wine, and then bury his head in a book. "In Rotherham, I lost a certain sense of superiority I had about food, holidays and the things I did to enjoy myself. I now find it hard to say that liberal middle-class culture is better than looking after your garden, going fishing and watching ice hockey. There's nothing intrinsically less in that than in listening to opera. Some of the world's worst people have been opera buffs."

I was glad to find that he had not overreacted and become an inverted snob. He doesn't pretend that he would like to spend the rest of his life in S66. He's got his world and the mainstream have theirs, and he's not going to play the hypocrite by pretending to be something he's not. But he has relaxed.

After he had finished his breakfast, I asked if he felt more comfortable with his country. "I think I've learned that most people here are fine with you as long as you treat them fairly. I'm very pleased that my book has gone down well in Rotherham, even though I was unsentimental and didn't hide my disagreements. That speaks well of the people I wrote about, and so, yes, I feel more at peace with England."

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

RALPH STEADMAN
Show Hide image

The age of outrage

Why are we so quick to take offence? The Private Eye editor on Orwell, Trump and the death of debate in post-truth politics.

Anyone who thinks that “post-truth politics” is anything new needs to be reminded that George Orwell was writing about this phenomenon 70 years before Donald Trump.

Audiences listening to President-Elect Trump’s extraordinary disregard for anything resembling objective truth – and his astonishing ability to proclaim the absolute opposite today of what he said yesterday – will be forcibly reminded of the slogans that George Orwell gave to his political ­dictators: Black is White, War is Peace, ­Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength (the last of which turned out to be true in the US election). But any journalist trying to work out what the speeches actually mean, amidst the mad syntax and all the repetition (“gonna happen, gonna happen”), cannot help but fall back on Orwell’s contention that “political chaos is connected with the decay of language”. And the sight of Trump praising Secretary Clinton for her years of public service in his post-election victory speech while the crowd was still chanting his campaign catchphrase of “Lock her up” was surely a perfect example of Doublethink.

No wonder Trump is an admirer of Vladimir Putin, who is an admirer of the Soviet strongmen whom Orwell satirised so well. These echoes from the past are very strong in America at present but there are plenty of them reverberating through British and European politics as well. Our Foreign Secretary managed to accuse other European leaders of a “whinge-o-rama” when they issued qualified statements of congratulation to the new president-elect, even though he himself had previously accused Trump of being “nuts”. Black is White, Remain is Leave, a Wall is a Fence, two plus two equals five: but Brexit means Brexit.

You may find this reassuring, in that we have been here before and survived – or distressing to think that we are regressing to a grimmer Orwellian age. But one of the worrying developments attached to these “post-truth” political figures is the increasing intolerance in public debate of dissent – or even disagreement – about what objective truth might be.

A great deal has been written recently about the influence of social media in helping people to become trapped in their own echo chambers, talking only to those who reinforce their views and dismissing not only other opinions, but also facts offered by those who disagree with them. When confronted by a dissenting voice, people get offended and then angry. They do not want to argue, they want the debate to be shut down. Trump supporters are furious with anyone who expresses reservations about their candidate. Pro-Brexit supporters are furious with anyone who expresses doubts about the way the process of leaving the European Union is going.

I edit the magazine Private Eye, which I sometimes think Orwell would have dismissed as “a tuppeny boys’ fortnightly”, and after the recent legal challenge to the government about Article 50 being put before parliament, we published the cover reproduced on page 25.

It was a fairly obvious joke, a variant of the “wheels coming off” gag. But it led to a large postbag of complaints, including a letter from a man who said he thought the cover was “repulsive”. He also said he wanted to come around and smash up the office and then shove our smug opinions so far up our arses that we choked our guts out.

There was one from a vicar, too, who told me that it was time to accept the victory of the majority of the people and to stop complaining. Acceptance was a virtue, he said. I wrote back and told him that this argument was a bit much, coming from a church that had begun with a minority of 12. (Or, on Good Friday, a minority of one.)

This has become a trend in those who complain: the magazine should be shouted down or, better still, closed down. In the light of this it was interesting to read again what Orwell said in his diary long before internet trolls had been invented:

 

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.

 

This was in 1942, when the arguments were about war and peace, life and death, and there were real fascists and Stalinists around rather than, say, people who disagree with you about the possibility of reconciling freedom of movement with access to the single European market.

Orwell also made clear, in an essay called “As I Please” in Tribune in 1944, that what we think of as the new online tendency to call everyone who disagrees with you a fascist is nothing new. He wrote then:

 

It will be seen that, as used, the word “Fascism” is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee [a Tory group], the 1941 Committee [a left-liberal group], Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

 

When Orwell writes like this about the level of public debate, one is unsure whether to feel relieved at the sense of déjà vu or worried about the possibility of history repeating itself, not as farce, but as tragedy again.

The mood and tone of public opinion is an important force in the way our society and our media function. Orwell wrote about this in an essay called “Freedom of the Park”, published in Tribune in December 1945. Five people had been arrested outside Hyde Park for selling pacifist and anarchist publications. Orwell was worried that, though they had been allowed to publish and sell these periodicals throughout the entire Second World War, there had been a shift in public opinion that meant that the police felt confident to arrest these people for “obstruction” and no one seemed to mind this curtailment of freedom of speech except him. He wrote:

 

The relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.

 

This is certainly true for the press today, whose reputation in the past few years has swung violently between the lows of phone-hacking and the highs of exposing MPs’ expenses. In 2011 I remember at one point a football crowd shouting out the name of Ryan Giggs, who had a so-called superinjunction in place forbidding anyone to mention that he was cheating on his wife and also forbidding anyone to mention the fact that he had taken out a superinjunction. He was named on Twitter 75,000 times. It seemed clear that public opinion had decided that his private life should be made public. The freedom of the press was briefly popular. Later the same year it was revealed that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by the News of the World, along with those of a number of high-profile celebrities, and the public decided that actually journalists were all scumbags and the government should get Lord Leveson to sort them out. Those who maintained that the problem was that the existing laws (on trespass, contempt, etc) were not enforced because of an unhealthy relationship between the police, the press and the politicians were not given much credence.

In a proposed preface to his 1945 novel, Animal Farm, Orwell wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

This is the quotation that will accompany the new statue of Orwell that has now been commissioned by the BBC and which will stand as a sort of rebuke to the corporation whenever it fails to live up to it. The BBC show on which I appear regularly, Have I Got News for You, has been described simultaneously in the online comments section as “overprivileged, right-wing Tory boys sneering at the working class ” and “lefty, metropolitan liberal elite having a Labour luvvie whinge-fest”. Disturbing numbers of complainants feel that making jokes about the new president-elect should not be allowed, since he has won the election. Humour is not meant to be political, assert the would-be censors – unless it attacks the people who lost the vote: then it is impartial and neutral. This role for comedy would have surprised Orwell, who was keen on jokes. He wrote of Charles Dickens:

 

A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. Dickens is able to go on being funny because he is in revolt against authority, and authority is always there to be laughed at. There is always room for one more custard pie.

 

I think there is also room for a custard pie or two to be thrown against those who claim to be outsiders, against authority and “the system”, and use this as a way to take power. The American billionaire property developer who is the champion of those dispossessed by global capitalism seems a reasonable target for a joke. Just like his British friend, the ex-public-school boy City trader-turned-critic of the Home Counties elite.

The emblematic quotation on liberty is from a preface that was not published until 1972 in the Times Literary Supplement. A preface about freedom of speech that was censored? It is almost too neatly Orwellian to be true, and in fact no one seems to know exactly why it did not appear. Suffice to say that it is fascinating to read Orwell complaining that a novel which we all now assume to be a masterpiece – accurate about the nature of revolution and dictatorship and perfect for teaching to children in schools – was once considered to be unacceptably, offensively satirical.

The target of the satire was deemed to be our wartime allies the Russians. It is difficult to imagine a time, pre-Putin, pre-Cold War, when they were not seen as the enemy. But of course the Trump presidency may change all that. Oceania may not be at war with Eurasia any more. Or it may always have been at war with Eastasia. It is difficult to guess, but in those days the prevailing opinion was that it was “not done” to be rude about the Russians.

Interestingly there is now a significant faction on the British left, allied with the current leader of the Labour Party, who share this view.

 

The right to tell people what they do not want to hear is still the basis of freedom of expression. If that sounds like I am stating the obvious – I am. But, in my defence, Orwell once wrote in a review of a book by Bertrand Russell published in the Adelphi magazine in January 1939:

 

. . . we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

 

Orwell himself managed to come round to a position of accepting that an author could write well and truthfully about a subject even if one disapproved of the author’s politics: both Kipling and Swift were allowed to be right even though they were not left enough. So I am hoping that we can allow Orwell to be right about the principles of freedom of expression.

In the unpublished preface to Animal Farm he writes:

 

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular – however foolish, even – entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes”. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?”, and the answer more often than not will be “No”. In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses.

 

One can test oneself by substituting contemporary names for Stalin and seeing how you feel. Putin? Assange? Mandela? Obama? Snowden? Hillary Clinton? Angela Merkel? Prince Harry? Mother Teresa? Camila Batmanghelidjh? The Pope? David Bowie? Martin Luther King? The Queen?

Orwell was always confident that the populist response would be in favour of everyone being allowed their own views. That might be different now. If you were to substitute the name “Trump” or “Farage” and ask the question, you might not get such a liberal response. You might get a version of: “Get over it! Suck it up! You lost the vote! What bit of ‘democracy’ do you not understand?”

Orwell quotes from Voltaire (the attribution is now contested): “I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Most of us would agree with the sentiment, but there is a worrying trend in universities that is filtering through into the media and the rest of society. Wanting a “safe space” in which you do not have to hear views that might upset you and demanding trigger warnings about works of art that might display attitudes which you find offensive are both part of an attempt to redefine as complex and negotiable what Orwell thought was simple and non-negotiable. And this creates problems.

Cartoon: "Voltaire goes to uni", by Russell and originally published in Private Eye.

We ran a guide in Private Eye as to what a formal debate in future universities might look like.

 

The proposer puts forward a motion to the House.

The opposer agrees with the proposer’s motion.

The proposer wholeheartedly agrees that the opposer was right to support the motion.

The opposer agrees that the proposer couldn’t be more right about agreeing that they were both right to support the motion.

When the debate is opened up to the floor, the audience puts it to the proposer and the opposer that it isn’t really a debate if everyone is just agreeing with each other.

The proposer and the opposer immediately agree to call security and have the audience ejected from the debating hall.

And so it goes on, until the motion is carried unanimously.

 

This was dismissed as “sneering” and, inevitably, “fascist” by a number of student commentators. Yet it was only a restatement of something that Orwell wrote in the unpublished preface:

 

. . . everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. Our Government, as I have already pointed out, still makes some show of respecting it.

 

This is not always the case nowadays. It is always worth a comparison with the attitudes of other countries that we do not wish to emulate. The EU’s failure to confront President Erdogan’s closure of newspapers and arrests of journalists in Turkey because it wants his help to solve the refugee crisis is one such obvious example. An old German law to prosecute those making fun of foreign leaders was invoked by Erdogan and backed by Mrs Merkel. This led Private Eye to run a competition for Turkish jokes. My favourites were:

 

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there.”

“The secret police.”

 

What do you call a satirist in Turkey?

An ambulance.

 

As Orwell wrote in even more dangerous times, again in the proposed preface:

 

. . . the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion.

 

I return to stating the obvious, because it seems to be less and less obvious to some of the current generation. This is particularly true for those who have recently become politically engaged for the first time. Voters energised by Ukip and the EU referendum debate, or by the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, or by the resurgence of Scottish nationalism or by the triumph of Trump, have the zeal of the newly converted. This is all very admirable, and a wake-up call to their opponents – the Tartan Tories and the Remoaners and the NeoBlairites and the Washington Liberal Elite – but it is not admirable when it is accompanied by an overpowering desire to silence any criticism of their ideas, policies and leading personalities. Perhaps the supporters of the mainstream parties have simply become accustomed to the idea over the decades, but I have found in Private Eye that there is not much fury from the Tory, New Labour or Liberal camps when their leaders or policies are criticised, often in much harsher ways than the newer, populist movements.

 

 

So, when Private Eye suggested that some of the claims that the Scottish National Party was making for the future of an independent Scotland might be exaggerated, there were one or two readers who quoted Orwell’s distinction between patriotism being the love of one’s country and nationalism being the hatred of others – but on the whole it was mostly: “When if ever will you ignorant pricks on the Eye be sharp enough to burst your smug London bubble?”

Those who disagreed with the SNP were beneath contempt if English and traitors if Scottish. This was matched by the sheer fury of the Corbyn loyalists at coverage of his problems with opposition in his own party. When we suggested that there might be something a bit fishy about his video on the lack of seats on the train to Newcastle, responses included: “I had hoped Private Eye was outside the media matrix. Have you handed over control to Rupert Murdoch?”

Their anger was a match for that of the Ukippers when we briefly ran a strip called At Home With the Ukippers and then made a few jokes about their leader Mr Farage: “Leave it out, will you? Just how much of grant/top up/dole payment do you lot get from the EU anyway? Are you even a British publication?”

In 1948, in an essay in the Socialist Leader, Orwell wrote:

 

Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.

 

In other words, the defence of freedom of speech and expression is not just special pleading by journalists, writers, commentators and satirists, but a more widespread conviction that it protects “the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of Western civilisation”.

In gloomy times, there was one letter to Private Eye that I found offered some cheer – a willingness to accept opposing viewpoints and some confirmation of a belief in the common sense of Orwell’s common man or woman. In response to the cartoon below, our correspondent wrote:

 

Dear sir,

I suffer from a bipolar condition and when I saw your cartoon I was absolutely disgusted. I looked at it a few days later and thought it was hilarious.

 

Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye. This is an edited version of his 2016 Orwell Lecture. For more details, visit: theorwellprize.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage