It was quite a night in Middle England. There was Mehdi Hasan, the charismatic, young populist commentator, formerly of this Staggers parish, and rather fond of a Pilger-esque rant, though usually with a few more jokes thrown in. “Let’s have the debate about who hates Britain more. It isn’t a dead refugee from Belgium who served in the Royal Navy,” he said, before reeling off his charge-sheet against the Daily Mail, to clapping, shouting, nay indeed, whooping from his fans in the Birmingham audience for Question Time.
But I can’t subscribe in full to the Mehdi Hasan charge sheet, because the Daily Mail has its better angels too. I grew with the Daily Mail. It was the paper of choice of my Irish Catholic mother, whose green Irish political instincts were combined with voting Tory over here. I can’t pretend to have been its biggest fan. As a teenager, I probably formed many of my views in opposition to the Mail’s worldview.
Whatever its faults, the fact also remains that the Daily Mail was also responsible for the best, most courageous and most impactful newspaper front page of my lifetime.
Stephen Lawrence was six months younger than me. I probably thought about him most days in the late 1990s, not least because I was living on Eltham’s Well Hall Road, just a few yards from the plaque marking where he fell and died, when the inquest reported in 1999.
What is often forgotten now that it took four years for the murder of Stephen Lawrence on that south London street to finally attract the sustained attention of the national media and political classes. It was Paul Dacre who made that happen. If there are probably many unexplained mysteries about Dacre, one of them is how the bête noire of liberal Britain undoubtedly triggered probably the most important public conversation that Britain has yet managed to have about racism and discrimination, about opportunity and fairness.
It was his brilliant campaigning “Murderers” front page which did it, published the morning after the five suspects refused to answer any questions at the inquest, so that the jury unanimously declared that Stephen had been killed by a “completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths”.
The Mail’s campaign itself came to symbolise how the Stephen Lawrence case had become a wake-up call for Middle England, and how it began a broader discussion about opportunity, racism and fairness in Britain, which broke out of at least some of the traditional trenchlines, and built an incredibly broad coalition, albeit temporarily, stretching from the anti-racist black left through New Labour to the Daily Mail.
Some enjoy nothing better than an attempt to remain in the usual trenchlines, and import US style culture wars to Britain. The Mail and Mail on Sunday have clearly been up for a fight this week, albeit that it seemed to fire several shots into its own foot. Roy Greenslade objects to those mentioning the paper’s dalliance with fascism in the 1930s. Up to a point, because fair play surely demands that the Mail might need to desist from the chutzpah of attacking the Times for its 1930s editorial line too if it wants to let bygones be bygones.
And Alastair Campbell is clearly sincere in his loathing of the Mail, no doubt reciprocated. Yet the ferocity of Campbell’s unleashed fury must surely reflect, a little at least, how little interested his own government was in pursuing it. Even when leaving office, Tony Blair could not direct his challenge on media culture at his real target, choosing to take on the Independent instead.
But I am sceptical of the appetite for culture wars in Britain. Much of the evidence suggests that an all-out fight between liberal Guardianista Britain and Daily Mail England would be a rather more phoney war than either tribe might like to admit. Look at British Social Attitudes and the secret story of the last thirty years is one of convergence in attitudes. Britain has become considerably less racist, and more liberal, generation after generation, on gender and homosexuality.
Yet Britain remains a conservative country too: the monarchy remains precisely as popular as it did then, its role as offering a source of glue valued more, rather than less, in a more diverse society. Even as anxious older voters drive the rise of UKIP, over time, Britain’s long-term shift is towards liberalism, gradually, through the combined effects of age and increased education. But this expanding liberal tribe is not nearly as strident as the 1968ers might have anticipated half a century ago. Their long-term achievement proved not to be the abolition of family values, but rather their extension to gay marriage. There are few things more arid than Britain’s liberal tribe having a conversation amongst itself about how ghastly the Daily Mail is.
Much the more important thing for those who celebrate and welcome diversity in Britain would be engage those who feel unsettled by the pace of change about how we are going to make the reality of our shared society work. That might mean engaging with Daily Mail England, rather than appearing to seem contemptuous of its values, though also challenging it when it gets it wrong. Its coverage of asylum has rarely been balanced (despite its acceptance of our responsibility to protect refugees). The Mail accepted my critique that it was wrong to complain about the children of immigrants being counted as British in immigration statistics, apologising and printing my letter about why that was vital for integration.
The audience’s reaction to this week’s row might have been an example of where the country was not where the Mail instinctively might have guessed that it would be. That was true last summer too. The Mail misread the public mood badly with its confused ‘plastic Brits’ campaign, which began trying to question sporting bodies who stretched the rules, and ended up counting up every non-British born athlete – even Mo Farah and Bradley Wiggins – and declaring 61 of Team GB to be un-British.
The public felt very differently – the vast majority insistent they cheer for every Team GB athlete, without querying their birthplace, with just 13% preferring those GB athletes who were born here. So the Mail dropped the term – and gave away free Mo Farah posters after his gold medal victories.
Any successful conservative knows that, as di Lampedusa put it in The Leopard, they must be ready to change, if they want things to remain the same. When Britain changes, the Daily Mail must, gradually, change too. But don’t forget that it has listened to those better angels before.