If you’ve got it, flaunt it! Hey, guys? I don’t mean your pins, I mean your lean social conservatism, your light-hearted anti-feminism! Get a life where you return to a time before political correctness, when you could reduce the most powerful women in the land to body parts. And when everyone laughed!
The reaction to the Daily Mail’s “Legs-it” cover may be over-egged but that is because it is indicative of something that we can feel in our waters, the ascendancy of a mood that counters attitudes many liberal types have taken for granted. The social conservatism now on public display marks the real end of David Cameron’s government and the pinning down of what May-ism will mean.
The counterblast from the Daily Mail was telling: a headline that says “censored by the left”. Nothing was censored by the left. This is a lie. A joke. Fake news. Not approving of something is not censorship. Yet the populist right absolutely depends on the discourse of censorship. There is a powerful idea that “ordinary” people are silenced by “others”, not even present, the metropolitan elite of quinoa-chewers.
The natural state of people, then, is to be sexist, racist and desirous of extremely bent bananas. Brexit, in this scenario, comes to represent not only saying the unsayable, but voting for it. Hello, death penalty! Hello, pounds, shillings and pence! Goodbye to Cameron’s wishy-washy liberalism.
Cameron’s loucheness and social liberalism were never trusted by parts of his own party. His reckless calling of a referendum that he lost has empowered the current, deeply conservative climate. Some of this is related to Brexit, but not all of it. It is certainly to do with Theresa May’s ungiving interpretation of it.
Whatever people were expressing by voting leave – and are still expressing by wanting this to happen – certainly undid any idea that “identity” is an irrelevance and that economics is everything. Right now, this identity is in flux and so all sorts of demons will rise. We do not know if the centre can hold. The UK may break up. We do not know where we will be in two years’ time. We don’t know what this new “freedom” will feel like.
What we do know is that there is indeed a newfound freedom to be sexist, racist or homophobic. It is now fine to collude with those who are openly so – Donald Trump. And it is fine to allow overt sexism to go unchallenged – the Daily Mail. May has done both these things. It is fine for the media and the governing class to operate as one. George Osborne at the London Evening Standard, Michael Gove at the Times, Andy Coulson at the Telegraph. All these things can happen in plain sight with total confidence as there is no viable opposition.
Still, it remains absolutely vital for them that parts of the right continue to feel they are embattled. To assert their supremacy is not always tenable because their support depends hugely on this sense of embattlement.
This feeling of loss is crucial to understanding Brexit. Yet the reaction of those who are dismayed about leaving the EU continues to be to lecture those who aren’t on abstracts such as austerity and globalisation. To see the intertwining of the cultural and the economic means understanding the desire for this kind of cultural protectionism even if you don’t like it.
Screaming at half the country that they are clueless idiots who have been duped does not seem a sensible strategy. We need to understand what has happened, and was happening long before Brexit: a retrenchment of rightwing values, a concerted backlash against feminism and escalating anti-immigrant feeling. The complacency of the liberal establishment was revealed precisely in its shock. Did we not know that each battle has to be fought again and constantly? Post-feminism did not happen because feminism did not happen. Gay “rights” have not been “won”. Structural racism is everywhere. The language of diversity and equality may well be annoying to white men but, without it, we go backwards. The “white self-interest” that David Goodhart writes about in his new book, The Road to Somewhere, presumes somehow that white self-interest does not already rule when it does.
Social conservatism depends on this denial alongside alongside accusing the left of silencing the masses through political correctness (or good manners, as I prefer to call it).
We find ourselves now in new times. If the left has no real economic argument that can break through, apart from being anti-cuts, then culturally it now has to fight for the things it is deemed to have already won. Too much of the culture is ring-fenced and removed. Otherwise, how else could the middle-class white man present himself as some kind of endangered species while kowtowing to his brother, the white working-class left-behind man? Social conservatism seeks to shore up these identities by denying the rights of others: women, black people, gays. There is no getting away from this. May cannot talk of protecting liberal values while she colludes in them being torn apart limb by limb.