It might seem that there’s not much more to be said about the Daily Mail’s week of horror after the embarrassing flailing of its staff and supporters in various media outlets and Mehdi Hasan’s bravura monologue on Question Time. But one thread that’s worth pursuing is the Mail’s persistent defence of its smear on the grounds that if you are a socialist you must de facto hate Britain.
I am not convinced that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but I am sure that claiming patriotism for a single political ideology is. The Mail insists that because Ralph Miliband criticised such institutions as public schools and the House of Lords he hated Britain, whereas showing contempt for another set of British institutions (the BBC, the welfare state, trade unions) and values (tolerance, generosity) is the noblest form of national pride. The absurdity should be obvious but I’m not sure the people at the heart of the Mail realise that their hardline Manichean view is profoundly out of step with the public it claims to represent.
Polls suggest that around 20% of the electorate is instinctively very conservative. These voters support Ukip or the Tory right-wing represented by the likes of Daniel Hannan. They are not concerned with political theory so much as with being left bloody well alone: pub garden libertarians. They resent red tape, taxes, political correctness, do-gooders, vegetarians, feminists, environmentalists, foreigners and speed limits. A friend suggested to me that most Ukip supporters are essentially more bothered about parking restrictions than they are about immigration or Europe.
Within that cohort is a much smaller percentage, spiritually aligned with Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society and the dark corners of the Establishment that considered mounting a military coup against Labour in the 1970s (I recommend Andy Beckett’s brilliant Pinochet in Piccadilly for more on that weird episode). They include Paul Dacre, Melanie Phillips and the tormented souls who haunt the Telegraph comment section. They are prey to paranoid, apocalyptic visions of a communist takeover, obsessed with the Cold War and the 70s (when many of them were great admirers of General Pinochet), terrified about reds under the bed and the imminent collapse of western civilisation. But what keeps them up at night is comically irrelevant to most Britons: most Mail readers come for the gossip and voyeurism, not the Cold Warrior hysteria. Dacre believes he represents the heart of Middle England, when in fact he represents a single artery, clogged with rage and fear.
Most voters hold a mixed bag of beliefs. On immigration, crime and welfare they swing to the right, so much so that the majority view bears little relation to the facts. On taxes, the minimum wage, trade unions and privatisation, as the New Statesman’s George Eaton illustrates, they favour the left. Naturally, the Mail and its allies venerate the great British public when it toes the line but as soon as it swings the other way it is a “mob”, seduced by crude “populism”. Hence Quentin Letts’ fantastical Question Time vision of the Mail as a gang of anti-establishment guerrilla idealists, defending the underdog against the powers that be. I’d like to think he was just improvising wildly, but I’m scared that he truly believes it.
The Miliband story will fade as the news cycle moves on. I can’t quite believe Gavin Haynes’ eloquent argument that it will bring down Dacre, although my fingers are crossed. What’s important, after this week, is to insist on two things: that the Mail’s core values, laid bare this week, are alien to all but a small, embittered corner of Britain; and that progressive patriotism not only exists but has broad support.
A nation is a marvellously plastic thing, constantly changing, forever fought over, shifting this way and that, accommodating all kinds of contradictions while remaining fundamentally true to itself. At heart I love Britain but I want to change aspects of it for the better, just like Ralph Miliband or Paul Dacre or just about anyone else who lives here. The Mail tried to insist this week that only one vision was valid and it was a lie defended by more lies. In Alastair Campbell’s pungent phrase, it is “the worst of Britain posing as the best,” and that has never been clearer.
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