Posts

Let me demonstrate

At times it’s a struggle to keep up with modern Middle Class DOs: smile at minorities; encourage your daughter to date one, not just for the inclusivity points but she’ll “get it out of her system”; moderate your voice even when speaking to people who voted Brexit; confidently bypass the Quinoa and Kale sections in Waitrose because you’re ahead of the curve and on to Cassava; counter bigotry by bravely using the awkward silence or the slight nod and a “I hear what you’re saying,”– convince yourself this has nothing to do with saving a claim on your BUPA insurance from getting into a fight but because you’re passionate about free speech; oh and remember to follow a handful of right and left wing nutters with deplorable views on Twitter to keep your ‘bubble’ in check.

Virtue has its benefits; which has long been the argument against the possibility of true altruism – but does that mean you shouldn’t try?

To practitioners of the art of MiddleClassdom, it’s all just riffing on good old-fashioned Anglican-style pragmatic tolerance. But the Right call it “virtue signalling,” (as if virtue becomes a vice when it’s shown) the Left call it “bourgeois” (which in itself, using the French, seems tres bourgeois), while both see it as self-satisfied dissembling that perpetuates neoliberal elitism and economic inequality. In other words, they hate it.

One thing being Middle Class will have, up until now, excluded you from, is demoes, political rallies or protest marches. Why? Because being Middle Class also places you, give or take a little wriggle left or right, bang in a centrist political milieu which is ever the resting ground between the swings. Political isms come and go but in the end there’s always pragmatism waiting patiently to bury them. So who goes on demoes to support the orthodoxy? Aren’t they just a catharsis for the marginalised?

Demonstrations are a complex meme. They are at once, for the protestor, an acknowledgement that democracy isn’t working, and at the very same time, for the onlooker, a confirmation that it is; free speech being as central to democracy as the freedom to ignore it. A march on Downing Street always seemed to me, like golf to Mark Twain, “a good walk spoiled.”

But amassing in protest is, according to current bestselling Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, one of humanities finest achievements. “One on one, even ten on ten,” he writes, “we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000–2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding. If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square … the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places.”

A few protest rallies through history have become the tinderboxes for revolutions, but most of the time the officials in power barely twitch their curtains to gaze out at the rabble shouting slogans at the walls. The protest can be ignored because it’s not the ballot box. That’s where the sensible Middle Class lodge their displeasure before turning on the Archers on Radio 4.

Corbyn’s Momentum movement takes pride in its ability to assemble a horde whenever their leader is challenged. Right-wing activists are no less capable. Within hours of the Islam-antagonistic, English Defence League founder, Tommy Robinson being arrested a couple of weeks ago, a vast crowd of right wing protestors had mobilised and blocked Whitehall. They knew the ropes, they knew what would get noticed, they knew how to push the media’s buttons. Of course that didn’t stop Robinson getting a 13 month sentence, handed down by one of the Daily Mail’s “Enemies of the People,” AKA a judge. Even so, by then his supporters, as marginal as they might appear, had marshalled the internet to create an international pressure group with Change.org, hosting a petition to free Robinson, scoring half a million votes within days. Protest today is a 21st Century fusion of high tech crowd sourcing and good old-fashioned boots – hob-nailed or steel toe-capped – on the ground.

Pity then the poor moderate centrists who have no experience, or history, of protest; they’ve never had a reason to raise a mob, to march or storm the gates. But with Brextremists both in power and in opposition, centrists are realising that they need to learn. Fast. They have already been marginalised to such an extent the cool young left feel justified coining the shame name: “Centrist Dad”. Which means if you still believe in a middle ground, reasonable compromise or liberal values you’re basically old, in line for a hip replacement (and they know about hip) and way behind the times. You probably remember D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better and the Blair ‘third way’ with nostalgia; basically YOU, you moderate, you Middle Class, middle of the road, middle muddler, with your university degree and holidays abroad, you are the minority now… you just haven’t realised it yet.

And they’re not entirely wrong. The middle class meme is a late comer to human evolution, only really gathering strength in the 14th century, born out of the Black Death. With the sudden shortage of workers, peasant plague survivors began to take control of the economy, the feudal barons and kings could only watch as a merchant class emerged and prospered. Capitalism nurtured an ever-expanding band of people who neither worked the land nor entirely owned it. By 2011 71% of the country defined themselves as Middle Class. But in the last seven years, Austerity has taken its toll. Yesterday’s aspiring are, today, perspiring again, dragged back into working, or benefits, class survival. The “squeezed middle” has got ever tinier as the belt has inexorably tightened.

June 23rd 2018 saw a March for a ‘People’s Vote’, 100,000 people or more requesting a referendum on the final Brexit deal. Even the demand was pathetically reasonable: not a demand to stay in the EU, no full capitulation of a failing Brexit-frozen government, just a jolly practical, inclusive, ‘People’s Vote’ on whether the Brexit terms are actually a good idea or not. Veteran protestors from left to right, from Animal Rights activists to Poll Tax rioters, could only sit back and laugh into their balaclavas as these finally fired up, finally spurred, finally angry, moderate liberal (small L) centrist nouveau protestors, with only the sketchiest idea of how it’s done, marched on Parliament. How does one find one’s way from the prosciutto counter at Waitrose to the frontline of a mass protest? Do the Molotov cocktails require Maraschino Cherries? Is one’s Smythson A2 card rigid enough for a placard?

And yet they came out on that Saturday afternoon, feeling a bit Pankhurst or Ghandi, railing against both a Government and an Opposition that nearly all of them voted for, one way or the other, in the last election. And, although these new naïfs to the world of protest represented 48% of the country; and by most recent polls in this failing Brexit environment, a lot more, as far as protesting went, these rally virgins who could only presume ‘kettling’ refers to whose turn it is to make the tea, were given a soft ride. Police kept a pro-brexit rally of a few hundred stoked people half a mile away. One elderly vicar I met on the march, a veteren of Anti-vietnam and poll-tax marches was saddened by the lack of conflict. “It’s important,” he said, “it’s how you get noticed. It shows how passionate we are.”

We’ve come a long way for people to have to protest for some common sense, some moderation, some centrist middle of the road rationality. But finally we’re starting to make our voice heard – at a moderate volume of course.

 

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in

shortlink: https://wp.me/p1NVro-T6

Democrafatigue

It’s raining. I’m upstairs on the no. 49 to Clapham Junction in a humid breath fug. Two gents are sitting in front of me, “May 3rd. More bloody elections. Might as well move in to the voting booth I’m in there so often.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s bigger than most flats round here anyway.”

“And you get a free pencil.”

“I don’t understand why MPs can’t decide anything on their own without asking everybody to go and vote all the time.”

I groan slightly at the luxury of their Democrafatigue and they shut up. But I’m left with a couple of thoughts: Democracy’s clearly not getting the respect it used to and, it’s been over a hundred years since he was cited in the Court of Appeal but the man on the Clapham Omnibus/Routemaster is alive and well and reeking of Old Spice.

On the other hand, Democracy in the internet age seems much less robust.

For a start, the technology – a piece of paper, a pencil and a balsa wood booth – is centuries behind most other opinion collating mechanisms. According to the Office of National Statistics, “90% of men and 88% of women” and “virtually all adults aged 16 to 34 years (99%)” are internet users. Compare that to the historic high voting booth user rate of just 68.8% in the last election.

Most of the UK has access to instant polling and voting on everything from a blue/gold dress to feeding celebrities live cockroaches and they attract more voters than your average election. More people know how to use Facebook than a voting slip. If we cherish democracy, rather than just give it lip service, and expect it to be relevant, we really need to help it adapt to modern life. For my university-aged kids, visiting a school hall with makeshift booths – that don’t even take whacky photos to upload to Instagram – is akin to entering some ancient church. You go there out of respect for an historical idea but everyone knows it’s barely fit for purpose when, in their pockets, they have the ability to instantly connect to the 65 million other people who live in the UK, to say nothing of the rest of the developed world.

You might think that the enforced slow speed of our pencil and paper democracy might encourage serious contemplation of the issues being voted

Plato knew a thing or two

on but, nowadays my opinion changes seven times before breakfast. I scroll through headlines on my phone before I get dressed, listen to the radio as I shave, and before the first oat hits the bottom of my bowl I’ve encountered countless arguments and I’m ready to voice my outrage, or support, for things I had no idea existed an hour before, let alone cared about.

The system has problems. Even back in its early days, when chaps with beards were still working out how to plague generations of schoolchildren with fiendish calculations for working out hypotenuses and other tangents, Plato spotted the fundamental flaw in democracy. “The insatiable desire of [freedom],” he says in his Republic, “introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny. … When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them.” Democracy, Plato argues, naturally leads to tyranny unless democratic leaders are benign. He recognised democratic voters elect personalities not policies. We vote in our image. We vote for people. Which means that the policies of those with charisma, or sheer force of personality, always trump (forgive the pun) boring people with ideas of good governance. Democracy leads to populism, populism is a cult of personality and the ultimate personality is a demagogue, a tyrant, a dictator.

Democracy is one of humanity’s most sacred memes, even Popes get elected. It’s an idea that’s been around so long you’d have thought we would have a handle on it by now. Yet it remains so nebulous Wikipedia just says “No consensus exists on how to define democracy, but legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics.” Like ‘Art’ its lack of definition is both its strength and its weakness. We can’t dismantle it but we can’t enshrine it either. It’s anything we want it to be. A chore in Clapham, a liberation in Soweto. Whether it’s to elect another bunch of narcissists into Parliament or rip away our European citizenship, it can be both inane and profound.

On Thursday 3rd of May, on the face of it, all we’re doing is electing a bunch of faceless Council bureaucrats to oversee our parking permits and deny us planning permissions for our basements. But, in reality, this is the last official democratic opportunity to put our opinion to Parliament before Brexit.

It can’t be overstated how important this local election is. If it doesn’t matter what colour of politics runs your rubbish collection, if you believe that British sense of decency and fair play means tolerance even of bally foreigners, if your life (like mine) only exists because immigrants were allowed to escape here from war-torn Europe, if you’re happy being a European, if you were born a European, if your family are European, if you have children who may need the work opportunities that a 27 country bloc can offer, if your property is losing value as London loses international significance, if you want the Troubles in Northern Ireland to never return, if you want the economy to turn around, if you want the focus of our politicians to go back to genuinely pressing domestic issues like the funding of the NHS… then only vote for a party that definitively supports a referendum on the final Brexit deal: Vote Lib Dem, Vote Green, Vote Renew, Vote Remain. Send a message and use democracy like it’s still in fashion.

This article first appeared in