The science of ourselves

Seventy years ago this week, a letter in the New Statesman launched the Mass-Observation project. It

It all began with a letter published in the New Statesman 70 years ago, on 30 January 1937. The letter was jointly written by three diversely talented young men: Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (a painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (a poet and Daily Mirror journalist). It invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, an "anthropology at home . . . a science of ourselves". Its list of suggested topics for investigation read like a surrealist poem on the hidden strangeness of mundane life: "Behaviour of people at war memorials . . . Shouts and gestures of motorists . . . Anthropology of football pools . . . Beards, armpits, eyebrows . . . Female taboos about eating".

The letter announced the founding of Mass-Observation, an organisation that aimed to investigate daily life in modern Britain in the same way as anthropologists were studying remote, tribal societies. It soon acquired an enthusiastic army of lowly paid or unpaid researchers. They interviewed people in the street, wrote down conversations overheard in pubs, factories and public toilets, and observed people carrying out ordinary activities such as smoking, drinking and dancing. Baffled journalists dismissed these quotidian researchers as "busy-bodies", "snoopers" and "psycho-anthropologic nosy-parkers". The NS's critic joked that the typical mass-observer must have "elephant ears, a loping walk and a permanent sore eye from looking through keyholes".

But there was a point to all this nosiness. Mass-Observation wanted to plot "weather-maps of public feeling", to make ordinary citizens' lives and thoughts better known to the people who governed them. It was less than a decade since every adult over 21 had won the vote, and there were few systematic attempts by either politicians or the press to find out the views of electors. Ordinary people were rarely seen or heard on film or radio: the newsreels did not bother with vox pops, and Lord Reith's BBC was staunchly upper-middle-class and dinner-suited. Mass-Observation was annoyed by the lazy assumptions about "the man in the street" by this media/political elite - "a tiny group, with different habits of mind, ways of life, from those millions they are catering for".

Mass-Observation produced some fascinatingly quirky domestic anthropology, but never quite lived up to these ambitious political aims. It churned out millions of words on countless subjects, from the contents of sweet-shop windows to the way that smokers held their cigarettes - far more than it could ever get round to collating, never mind interpreting. After the Second World War, the project petered out as its volunteers dispersed and its founders moved on to other projects.

By then, academic sociology had taken over some of the same territory. Compared to the more rigorous sampling techniques of social science, Mass-Observation's statistical obsessions - using stopwatches to time people drinking pints in pubs, say, or working out the percentage of men wearing caps on a Sunday - seemed somewhat lacking in scholarly rigour. The general democratisation of cultural life after the war also made it more awkward to look at people anthropologically. Harrisson's stated aim of applying anthropological methods to the study of "the cannibals of Lancashire, the head-hunters of Stepney" now carried a whiff of Old Harrovian hauteur. Standing in public toilets to make field notes takes a certain kind of self-assurance; and it would not survive the scrutiny of an academic ethics committee today.

But the fizzling out of Mass-Observation after the war was more than an academic question. It is also a story about changing understandings of British politics and culture, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. After the war, as daily life became more comfortable and less politically contentious, non-academic social research shifted away from anthropological observation towards the narrower analysis of consumer choice. Mass-Observation gave way to the new growth industry of market research, which was also interested in recording the views of ordinary people, but which understood "public opinion" to be the statistical aggregate of lots of different private opinions. It saw people as the autonomous authors of their own lives, calmly making rational choices as individual consumers; it was not interested in deciphering their unconscious collective habits. Mass-Observation bowed to the inevitable in 1949 and itself became a market-research firm, reduced to conducting consumer surveys of products such as soap powder and fish fingers.

The same methods of deciphering individual consumer choice began to take over British politics. Harrisson railed against what he saw as the new "holy sanction" of opinion polls which were interested only in bald yes/no responses and treated the growing number of "don't knows" as a mere statistical residue. Politics was not just about putting a tick in a box, he claimed, but about participating in or feeling excluded from political culture as a whole. Simply recording people's opinions treated them as "slot-mechanical spectators semi-supine on the sideline".

It is sometimes assumed that voter apathy and cynicism are recent phenomena. But Mass-Observation was conducting pioneering studies of public distrust and ignorance of politics as early as the late 1930s. It explored the ways in which new forms of mass culture such as astrology, ballroom dancing and all-in wrestling created a sense of democratic participation conspicuously lacking from general elections. It noted how new working-class enthusiasms such as the Pools and newspaper "spot the ball" competitions caricatured the rituals of elections, asking participants to use their skill and judgement to put crosses in particular places, just as they did on a ballot paper. The Pools companies even managed to persuade people to pay to register their "votes", when many of them refused to do so in elections at no expense to themselves.

Does this sound familiar? It is a media truism that more people voted using premium-rate lines to evict housemates on Big Brother than for Labour at the 2005 general election (although the truism is not necessarily true, because no one knows how many votes on reality-TV programmes can be ascribed to multiple calls by the same person). According to recent research by Stephen Coleman on the 2005 election, the typical Big Brother viewer is actually no less likely to vote than the average citizen. Sixty per cent of sampled BB viewers voted in that election, almost exactly the same proportion as in the population as a whole. Among younger people, those who watched Big Brother were more politically active. Only 39 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds voted, compared with nearly half (49 per cent) of BB viewers in the same age group.

Coleman concludes that "the image of Big Brother as a refuge for a politically distracted generation, which squanders its precious votes on televised popularity polls while refusing to meet its civic obligations at the ballot box", is misleading. Voters do not have finite reserves of political energy; ringing up to vote on Big Brother eviction night makes you no less likely to exercise your democratic right at elections. They are simply different activities. The conventional model of pol itical participation treats electors as rational, deliberative citizens, making clear-cut choices at the polling booth. Yet people do not always engage with public life in this way: they can be emotive, irrational and more interested in gut responses than in reasoned debate. Reality-TV voting caters for these melodramatic impulses, directing them towards fairly banal issues, such as who did the best rumba on Strictly Come Dancing. Yet these phone-in votes also engender the kind of public fascination and sense of national community that Mass-Observation found in the Pools, and which are still missing from political culture.

There is one area of modern politics where this interest in popular intuitions and passions survives: the focus group. In some ways the focus group is the direct descendant of the Mass-Observation project. It has the same chaotically eclectic mix of sociology, psychology and anthropology, the same sense that politics is not simply about measuring fixed opinions, but about uncovering more nebulous thoughts and feelings. However, unlike Mass-Observation, which made its findings publicly available, focus-group researchers conduct their work in secrecy. Their interest in what people think and feel is limited to getting a small number of target voters to change their choice at election time. So focus-group politics comes up with cartoonish approximations of average voters - Basildon Man, Worcester Woman, Pebble-dash People. They are another example of what so irritated Mass-Observation's founders: the tendency of elites to invent versions of "ordinary people" for whom they could then presume to speak.

Joe Moran's "Queuing for Beginners" is published by Profile Books in May

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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The biggest blunder of them all

It was a catastrophic error of judgement that produced the referendum – and now the British political class is paying the price.

AAs dawn broke on Friday morning and I turned over in bed to grab my phone and Twitter, I thought immediately of G K Chesterton’s poem from 1915, about the secret people of England:

 

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget.
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

 

Well, they have spoken now. This was a quietly devastating revolt by the English heartlands – southern and western suburbs; the urban sprawls of the Midlands and the north; former mining areas and devastated ex-industrial towns – against London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the so-called elites. Looking at the numbers, one sees that it was a revolt also by older voters against younger voters and by poorer against richer, better-educated voters. It was, of course, a great democratic moment. Apart from the hideous and probably unconnected murder of Jo Cox, it was accomplished peacefully, and by a majority of well over a million. That sets it aside from Chesterton’s vision, which moves on from benign, bucolic defiance to outright anti-Semitism and warnings of blood-drenched revolution. Well, that’s the beauty of modern democracy . . .

The decision by the British people to leave the European Union is this country’s single biggest democratic act in modern times – indeed, as far as I can make out, the biggest ever. But it is also one of the elite’s most significant blunders, provoked by the most senior politicians for the wrong reasons and then pursued in what (to use a crude but apposite phrase) is the biggest establishment cock-up in my lifetime.

We should not fall into the trap, though, of seeing this as a purely British story. It is also about the EU, now looking more fragile than at any other time since the 1950s, and about what is still our common European home. There are calls for national revolt against the EU coming from across the continent. Far too many of the continent’s leaders welcoming our decision were the wrong sort of people. Mostly, the congratulations are coming from far-right parties, whose most lurid and upsetting rhetoric has emerged from central and eastern Europe. If you think I’m exaggerating, go on to YouTube, type “Visegrad”, and spend ten minutes watching. If this vote presages a process of messy and angry dissolution, it’s a story that will have started here. But that is only the beginning. If Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election, then a French exit from the EU looks very likely – and that really is the end of it all.

Hurrah, many people will say: but we should reflect that this will demand negotiation of many individual trade deals with the leaders of angry and fractured European nations, which will clearly be a lot harder than any single deal with the EU. And then, there are the darker forebodings about Europe, which has never managed to stay at peace with itself for long as a constellation of independent countries. Immigration pressures and the Russian threat are just a couple of possible sources of future conflict.

But there are better outcomes. For the UK the optimal one now is clearly “Norway-plus”: meaning, in essence, restrictions on the free movement of people but access to the single market. Unless the victorious team of Brexit Tories is bonkers, this is what they will try to negotiate. It would minimise the threat of all-out economic disruption, which has already begun, and answer the biggest complaint from Leave voters. To which the obvious retort is: “Why in a million years would they give us that?” Well, as leaders in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries contemplate their own populist insurgencies, they must know that a rethink of freedom to work across borders is their best card against the insurgent right. There is a slim, but not entirely negligible, chance that a much wider rethink across the EU will now be prompted by the British decision.

This is not something that will be decided here. Is it possible that leaders in Brussels will eventually react, once the anger has cooled, to take a different path: to listen much more acutely to the sounds of pain caused by the euro experiment; to do a proper deal for Greece; to reassert democratic accountability (much more Council of Ministers, much less Commission); and to reassess free movement? Writing it, I know that I sound like a deluded optimist, but the possibility deserves to be filed alongside all the grimmest alternatives.

Keeping all this cautiously in mind, let’s look at the British establishment cock-up. According to one of those involved, this all started at a pizza restaurant at Chicago O’Hare Airport at the time of a Nato conference in 2012, when David Cameron and his closest political allies decided that the only way of scuppering Ukip and the Euro-hostile right of the Conservative Party was to give the British people a referendum.

The brutal way of putting this is that Cameron decided to put party management and tactics ahead of grand strategy, grossly overrated his own negotiating skills, and has been badly bitten in the bottom accordingly. He has often looked like a chess player who plays the next move brilliantly yet fails to see three moves ahead. There is, however, a more generous explanation – which is simply that this referendum was inevitable; that it was more than time for restless British voters to reassess their membership of a union that has changed dramatically since we joined, both in extent and in depth.

***

At any rate, whatever his mixed motives, Cameron believed that he could negotiate a deal with his EU partners so good that he would win a subsequent referendum. A great deal of this was based on a second huge miscalculation – about his friend Angela Merkel.

As a result, the whole referendum process was fixed around the negotiation. In other words, the feeling was: “Give the plebs their plebiscite. It’s pretty safe. The Continentals will be scared enough to give us a great deal and, therefore, the people will vote for Nurse.” As soon as it became clear that Mrs Merkel was not prepared to countenance an end to the free movement of people, the plan began to fall apart. I vividly remember interviewing Cameron as the details of the negotiation became clear and thinking to myself, between his explanations: “This isn’t nearly enough.”

This mistake was followed by another – one that the Scottish National Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, publicly warned against months ago. Those running the Remain campaign always believed in “Project Fear”; that a barrage of warnings by the Treasury, big business, banks and international organisations would simply terrify ordinary voters – pensioners and workers alike – and pulverise the arguments for leaving.

It had worked, after all, hadn’t it, in Scotland in 2014? A close confidant of the Prime Minister told me, when I questioned him about the wisdom of this: “On the contrary, we need more fear. Fear is the only thing that can win it for us . . . We need lots of fear. We need as much fear as we can get.”

But the Scottish parallel proved to be a delusion. First, this kind of “you will lose your pensions, you will lose your jobs” warning infuriated many Scottish voters in 2014, who stuck their fingers in their ears and moved over to the Yes campaign. Second, although in the end threats of doom may have swung things, Scotland was a country of five million people, suffering from a falling oil price and taking a decision about a union that had been around for three centuries. If, right at the end and by a narrow margin, Scots voted two years ago to stay inside the UK, that was not a close enough comparison for this referendum; there were far more people involved, a bigger country, a much looser and more recent union.

It was the specificity of the Project Fear warnings that did most damage: households £4,300 worse off, house prices falling by 18 per cent, and so forth. By being incredibly detailed, the Remain campaigners lost the ear of a dubious public. That meant that the much more frightening warnings by business leaders, talking about companies they knew and understood, didn’t get enough traction. Granted, we still don’t know; Project Fear may be vindicated yet. (The early falls on the money markets and stock markets tell us very little – they may be an overreaction to previous and recent complacency.)

But the most significant reason Project Fear failed was that it was confronted by a larger project of fear: the fear of uncontrolled and uncontrollable migration running, cumulatively, into the millions for many years ahead. Frank lies were told. Gross exaggeration ran riot. This was a fight between people who like living among migrants from Europe and employing them, on the one hand, and those competing against migrants (and failing) for jobs and wages. Neither David Cameron nor Theresa May seemed to have a plausible response to “uncontrolled immigration”. That may be because, inside the EU, there wasn’t one. Jeremy Corbyn responded with interesting ideas about wage rates and employment laws which did not address, at all, central fears about numbers and identity.

It is on this, above all issues, that “the plain people of England” spoke most compellingly against the elites, from Westminster politicians and Whitehall mandarins to London actresses, pop stars and media grandees. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage were absolutely right to point out that immigration from eastern Europe – though it has hugely benefited people who employ drivers and domestic servants, and who want to pay less for their electrical or plumbing repairs – keeps down the wages of indigenous working-class people and, in many cases, makes it harder for them to find work in hotels, in restaurants, on farms and elsewhere. Aggregated economic statistics mean nothing compared to personal experience. If you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. (Well, in fact, you have got something, but it feels that way.) When George Osborne warned of an economic apocalypse, people with nothing who felt they had no opportunities just put their fingers in their ears and went “la-la-la”.

There were people who saw what was happening and understood that disregarded Lower and Middle Britain was fed up to the back teeth and ready to revolt: some trade union leaders – whose job it was, after all, to represent them – and some Labour MPs.

***

The Labour leadership, however, seems to have got the message far too late and far too weakly, and that was a function of its own political philosophy. Labour leaders of the Jeremy Corbyn era don’t like to talk about immigration and have based much of their inner-city politics on the rights and causes of migrant communities already in the UK. The menacing noises about a leadership challenge grew louder by the hour and then turned into open revolt.

There is something tragicomic about this. The Corbyn revolution was about the overthrow of the last remnants of the Blairites, accused by party activists of not thinking enough or caring enough about ordinary Labour voters – of becoming too rich, too close to the elites, and infatuated by neoliberal, post-Thatcher economic solutions. The Corbyn movement began as an anti-elitist rebellion. But now, from their base among Londoners and students whose politics are a million miles away from the views of angry, white, non-metropolitan, working-class voters the Corbynistas, too, found themselves unable to get a hearing.

So, what is the result of all this? Wherever one looks, the British political class has come close to destroying itself. There is no source of authority. As Kenneth Clarke has noted, we have a hole, in effect, where a government should be.

The Remain faction of Tory MPs has no leader now. Many of them are bruised and livid against the triumphant Brexiteers. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and the rest now have to deal with outraged Tories who accused them of lying, a panicky and angry City, big business leaders who feel betrayed, and an EU in a dark mood. All of this is taking place during the inevitable turmoil and struggle of a Conservative leadership campaign. It is no doubt hyperbole to say we have absolutely no government at the moment: there is still a prime minister, there is a cabinet, and there is a party with a paper majority in the Commons. But if “government” means a group of people with a mandate and a plan, and the parliamentary authority to carry it through – well, we certainly don’t have that.

What happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland now adds to the sense of crisis. Nicola Sturgeon has this problem: she would very much like to secure terms for Scotland staying inside the EU before the rest of the UK leaves. That would minimise disruption, give Scots a secure alternative haven and prepare perfectly for a successful referendum on independence. The problem is that the EU is unlikely to countenance this. First, Scotland may be a country but it is not a nation in EU terms, and therefore has no locus. At the very least, under current EU law, Scotland would need to be a customs union – which it isn’t.

The alternative is that Scotland leaves alongside the rest of the UK and then has to reapply, after an independence referendum. The problems here multiply: Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP may have lost momentum and because new applicants have to join the euro, and will be under great pressure to ­accept the Schengen Agreement, she would be going to the Scottish electorate offering an independent Scotland using the euro (not the world’s most popular currency at the moment, to put it gently) and requiring a hard border with England. This seems to me a hard sell to Scottish voters, especially long after the initial Brexit shock will have faded. What we don’t know is how enthusiastic the rest of the European Union would be about bringing in an independent Scotland briskly, to punish Westminster, and how threateningly Spain’s Catalan/Basque difficulties will loom.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is calling for an all-Ireland referendum. There is now a border problem there as well, for the first time since the 1998 peace agreement. Tory ministers dismiss this but the dynamics of Irish politics, too, have been dramatically changed by the Brexit vote.

The UK could, naturally, survive all of this completely intact. But the possibility, at least, of a relatively lonely England is something that the new and victorious Brexit Tories now have to confront.

In usual circumstances, we would expect an early general election. There is a strong basic democratic case for one: otherwise, we get a prime minister, never chosen by the country, attempting to enact a manifesto no party has ever stood on in a general election. But we don’t really have the political parties to contest it, do we? Ukip is in chipper form. Like so many nationalist movements, it may survive achieving its goal. But the Conservatives are hopelessly divided. The outgoing Prime Minister believes the likely incoming Tory leader – a certain flaxen-haired fellow – is going to put a bomb under the British economy and has told outright untruths. He is trying hard to stop Boris but Boris may well be unstoppable. Another (former) prime minister, Sir John Major, tells us we cannot trust the National Health Service into the hands of Johnson, Gove and Duncan Smith. The amiable Alistair Burt, the MP for North-East Bedfordshire, has promised Brexit Tories that what is to come will make the Maastricht rebellion seem like a tea party.

No, on the whole, they don’t look like a party aching to face the electorate. You might expect the Labour leader to fight for an early election and try to rally the Commons to his side. But then Jeremy Corbyn faces his own rebellion.

At the moment, the coup against him seems to face insuperable hurdles. There isn’t a plausible alternative candidate so far. Above all, he retains the support of most Labour members, and it is they and trade unionists who will have the final say, whatever the Parliamentary Labour Party does.

If Corbyn sees off the plotters, what next? A united Labour opposition could go into a general election saying explicitly that it rejected the Brexit decision – that the vote was based on lies and scaremongering – and that, if elected, they would not implement Article 50: in effect, not leave the EU. That is what the Liberal Democrats are doing. For Labour, it would be a huge gamble. It would be a slap in the face for the majority who voted on 23 June and could lead to a different kind of revolt. But it would give the Labour Party a very clear purpose and agenda that could reach out into parts of Britain Corbyn has no chance of reaching just now.

Naturally, the politicians have noticed all this. So we are hearing a great deal of optimistic whistling from leading Conservatives, insisting that they can work together happily and cordially for the rest of this parliament – trying to persuade us that they’ve forgotten everything they said about each other during the referendum campaign, and that people who believe Brexit is an economic catastrophe will nevertheless roll up their sleeves and . . . er . . . make it happen.

Clearly, the best hope for the Conservatives is that such warnings turn out to be piffle and that we are soon enjoying an economic upswing, even as the EU continues to struggle. If Boris Johnson or another leader is indeed able to achieve “Norway-plus” then the Brexiteers are close to being home free. Yet there are signs already that the Boris camp is slightly panicky – as well it might be – about a rash of racist and xenophobic politics immediately after the results. He is right, of course, to call for inclusion and calm, though it is fatuous to suggest that immigration was not a critical issue in the campaign. If he wants to win long term, he has to get a different deal from Brussels, much better than the one that Cameron got – a long shot, but not impossible. For the Brexiteers, time is very short. They have to stay together, and yet there will be tensions: Rupert Murdoch is running Gove against Johnson, or, at any rate, would like to.

My guess is that parliamentary chaos and an overwhelming sense of drift at the centre of politics will nevertheless propel us into an election later this year or early next year. If so, that will mean that, tactically, the Brexiteers, who don’t want to trigger Article 50 just yet, must do so before the people are asked for their view again.

And, of course, if it turns out that George Osborne’s blood-curdling warnings about jobs and investment turn out to be even half accurate, then those same cheerful gentlemen will have many personal apologies to make to people who do lose their jobs, or see prices rise and their pensions fall. There is plenty of anger still to come.

That’s not so surprising: after all, this was a kind of revolution. It has been a very British revolution, accomplished through the ballot box and after a great deal of nonsense spoken on all sides. The plain people, of England, mainly, have spoken at last and their voice has blown over not just a constitutional link with the European continent but also almost the entire political class – and most of the pollsters – and oh, go on, then – us clever-Dick journalists as well.

Andrew Marr presents “The Andrew Marr Show” on BBC1. His Brexit thriller, “Head of State”, is published by Fourth Estate

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies