If you think Jacob Rees-Mogg"s home being vandalised or Trump mask-wearers trashing a socialist bookshop is funny ...
A socialist bookshop ransacked by fascists. The home of Jacob Rees-Mogg daubed with offensive graffiti. The now routine threats of death and rape on social media. The well-documented rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks. Mosques and Jewish graveyards desecrated. Talk of betrayal and treason over Brexit. The fevered speculation about Tommy Robinson, the continuing terrorist plots hatched by Islamists and British “nationalists”; the EDL, mistrust of “mainstream media”, attacks on journalists, at least in America, as well as the assassination of Jo Cox MP during the EU referendum campaign, a moment that should have been a turning point, but turned out not to be.
I’ve even had it myself, taking a call only last week from someone who sounded like they were trembling with rage about Tommy Robinson, Brexit, “uncontrolled immigration” and the “mainstream media”, full of conspiracy theories about black people conspiring to kill him. I did my best to allay his fears and talk reason, and explain the difference between patriotism and nationalism. He thinks the press is covering up more child abuse rings, even though papers such as The Times broke the stories. I tried to deflect him, but what was most disturbing was how the familiar soundbites of the Trumpists and the Farageists and alt right YouTube stars came right back at me, as in an echo chamber.
This young man had got through to me, a supposed member of the media elite, and I couldn’t just dismiss him, Gordon Brown-style, as just some ignorant, bigoted racist. He wanted to know why his community had been so damaged by globalisation, and that’s a perfectly good question. He blamed immigration, which too many do.
That was where the argument has long since been lost, with consequences we will have to live with for a long time. He also employed the “whataboutery” techniques in argument, which is now the way of Twitter – play the man, not the ball. So if you say immigration can be good for public services or economic growth, you get a line about it being OK for the rich, and so on. It’s just like when Alastair Campbell, say, challenges Aaron Banks on Twitter about the EU Leave campaign: Banks just hits back with stuff about Blair and the Iraq war. It is an attack style of “debate” familiar to students of the press – personal assassination, not argument, like the “openly gay ex-Olympic fencer” Supreme Court judge who voted the “wrong” way on Article 50. The editors of the Mail, Murdoch and Express titles have much to answer for.
So now I ask you as much as my caller asked me: what is happening to our poor old country?
Migration isn’t the problem – it’s the media.
For people to feel enraged enough about what is happening to them and their communities, they need the worst of propaganda and the worst of leadership. Step forward our tabloid press, all happy to furnish any quantity of scare stories about Muslims and gypsies, about terror arriving with child refugees, about scroungers and paedophiles, about “hypocritical” media luvvies, about crooked EU bureaucrats and British politicians, about capitalists only out to fleece you, about celebrities who are too fat or too thin, too rich or too poor, too grand or too common – anything, anything, anything at all, to give their readers something to hate. They are far more effective hate preachers than Abu Hamza was.
Their reach is immensely larger nowadays, thanks to the internet, and they are now joined by an increasing number of bogus news sites. All of these websites, old and new, give the impression that no one – not the BBC, the churches, the courts, MPs, the civil service, celebs, Meghan Markle’s dad, Ed Miliband’s dead dad (who supposedly hated Britain), Gary Lineker, your GP or the lollipop man – can be trusted or respected.
It is one thing to hold power to account; quite another to provoke hysterical paranoia. Now, though, like so much else, the phenomenon is instant and globalised, funded and transmitted across borders. And stupid: the leader of Ukip, Gerard Batten, veers from the nasty (his views on Islam) to the clownish when he calls for a boycott of Walkers crisps, so incensed is he at Lineker, who you may remember does telly ads for them sometimes. But he has a stronger voice than before because no one edits his barmy copy.
Social media, even now only a decade old, is the great incubator for the propagandists of today – a paradise where anyone can become their very own proprietor, editor and journalist with the aid of a smartphone and Twitter account (and not just Donald Trump). These thousands of keyboard warriors feed on the tabloids and the “alternative facts” news sites by sharing their lies; and they, in turn, pick up and amplify “Twitterstorms”, and pour their bile into the comments sections of news websites (please see the DM Reporter Twitter feed for some alarming examples of the type).
Once upon a time this kind of scale of amplification of bar-room prejudice was impossible, not because the nutty ideas weren’t around – from the inchoate Jewish international conspiracy to theories of racial superiority they have a long, inglorious history – but because the technology for it didn’t exist. If you were unlucky enough, you might find a bunch of neo-fascists or revolutionary socialists trying to sell their overpriced, underpowered “newspapers” on a street corner or outside a football match on a wet Saturday afternoon. Or you might get a leaflet through the door of an evening calling for “compulsory mass repatriation” or for capitalism to be “smashed”, while all you want to do is watch Corrie. But that was about it. They, far left and right alike, tried, with limited success, to infiltrate the mainstream, but they were beaten back. They were tiny; they had little access to broadcast media, nor the press.
We know that the internet has changed everything, and not the least of it is to spread both leftist and rightist propaganda, but most of all the nutcase stuff. We now live in a world where Abu Hamza says he’s a fan of Donald Trump; and David Dukes, of the Ku Klux Klan, praises Jeremy Corbyn. I am not claiming equivalence between the two, except insofar as they both endanger rational debate and proper liberal democratic values. Which they do.
Usually I resist the temptation to take a few fragmentary pieces of evidence, stitch them together and create some kind of unifying narrative. “Joining the dots” isn’t always the answer. I’ve lived long enough, too, to recall episodes of violent political action in the past. National Front marches in the 1970s; counter-demos and the death of the activist Blair Peach in Southall in 1979; the anarchist “Angry Brigade” who sent letter bombs to cabinet ministers; the violence of the miners’ strike and the Wapping dispute; race riots in the 1950s and 1980s; the poll tax riots in 1990. Peer further back in British history and you’ll find the Peterloo massacre, the Suffragettes, a naval mutiny, Mosley’s blackshirts and the Cable Street riot, a civil war and much else, and that’s aside from Ireland. British political life has always been a rougher game that we’d like to think.
Yet there is a new thing going on here, and it’s this. What we have now isn’t the occasional “set piece” demo or riot, or epochal change, but a generalised increase in low-level violence – violence of language and gestures usually, but sometimes more, and now much more routine than once it was. It’s sad.
I really never thought I’d feel sorry for Jacob Rees-Mogg, the fabulously wealthy eccentric Conservative MP who, in their eccentric way, many in his party would like to make prime minister. I fancy he doesn’t need my sympathy. Yet the images of the vandalism at his home in Somerset were upsetting. True, there was no violence against the person (the Rees-Moggs – all eight of them, or maybe more were on a break in New York while Somerset’s finest were daubing “scum” on their Land Rover Discovery and leaving condoms around the place, presumably a protest against Mr Rees-Mogg’s views on abortion). “Shut up and die” was scrawled on the garage, along with the puzzling slogan “politics = death”.
Momentarily the incident put me in mind of the time Alan Partridge found that someone (“scum, sub-human scum”) had graffitied his Rover 800 with the slogan “COCK PISS PARTRIDGE” so that he found himself “basically driving around in an obscene publication”. Alan – quite smart, this – altered the graffiti to read “COOK, PASS, BABTRIDGE”, so maybe the Rees-Moggs could make the Land Rover read “STUNNING”, pending the respray.
But of course this is no laughing matter, any more than the thugs who turned over the socialist bookshop wearing Trump masks – a hardly coincidental message. It is ugly violence, and you only need to ask how you would feel if some did that to you. Where will it all end?
It won’t, most likely, as it is becoming the new normal, even when Brexit is over. In fact, especially when Brexit is over, because the likely economic disruption it will cause – house prices crashing, a large increase in joblessness, generally less money around – will provoke an orgy of blame-throwing, and someone will have to take the role of scapegoat because, after all, we can’t admit it was our own fault.
We know from the Sky News FOI request from local councils that many are making contingency pas for “civil disturbances” and they’re right to do so. We will have more such low level attacks: on media offices, on MPs and their property; on big companies that “don’t pay their tax”; on government buildings, on party offices, on mosques and temples, on synagogues and churches and, indeed, on socialist bookshops.
This will be the new level of background noise to British politics. It does not mean we’re heading for Prime Minister Tommy Robinson, or even Ukip and its current extremist leadership. It is not like the last days of the Weimar Republic or the Romanovs, or something. In the 1970s there were books written asking if Britain had become ungovernable, thanks to a combination of union and corporate power, and the rise of Trotskyist and neo-Nazi extremism. That didn’t come to pass, and nor will it now.
But we will find ourselves getting acclimatised to what they once in Northern Ireland called “an acceptable level of violence”, about which little can practically be done and which we will just have to get used to, along with the occasional terror attack and political assassination. As Donald Trump himself might say: Sad.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.