Philip Hensher writes on the claustrophobic effects of tribalsim in today’s Independent.
He describes going to a reading by a Welsh poet who cannot imagine writing from the perspective of a Tory MP. He asks why not and tells her
It’s just,” I say, “that I once wrote a novel which was narrated by Mrs Thatcher – I found in practice that she made quite a good omniscient narrator.”
I mean it as a sort of conciliatory joke. But her expression goes from disdain to a sort of contemptuous triumph, having established what sort of person is questioning her.
“I could never, ever even physically touch a book like that,” she hisses. “Oh. Okay,” I say, wondering how somebody got to be as rude as this on so little cause.
Of course, I knew perfectly well how the exchange would go as soon as I asked what was wrong with Tory MPs. The assumption – not even the assumption, but the firm knowledge – that no Tory could possibly be regarded as human, worth arguing with, worth speaking to or putting in a work of imaginative fiction under any other terms than the grossest caricature is still held by many on the left in quite unapologetic terms.
An interesting new book by Nick Cohen, What’s Left, excoriates many of the delusions and deliberate evasions of the left over the past decades; some of them barely credible. One of the most evocative moments in the book, however, is a memory from his childhood, when at 13 he learnt that his English teacher voted for the Conservatives.
“Logic dictated that there had to be Conservative voters. But it was incredible to learn that my teacher was one of them when he gave every appearance of being a thoughtful and kind man. To be good, you had to be on the Left.”
This firmly-held belief, familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1980s, not only permitted the denials of Balkan massacres and support for deeply oppressive regimes catalogued in Cohen’s book to go on unquestioned, it created an attitude to Western democratic politicians without parallel. Much of this focussed on Mrs Thatcher.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in his book on the decline of the modern Conservative party, has a good deal of fun with what some people said about Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s – her suburban quality, her perceived gentility and vulgarity – in place of engaging in any kind of argument.
That attitude hasn’t gone away – continuing the conversation with the Welsh poet last Thursday, she assured me that she was going to “have a party” when Lady Thatcher died, and was evidently surprised when I said how disgusting an idea I found that. It is impossible to imagine anyone on the other side of the political spectrum planning to hold a party to celebrate the death of a Labour prime minister, and whatever one feels about Tory MPs, it must be said they have much better manners towards their political opponents. That degree of loathing and hatred, pursued on an entirely visceral and personal level, seems to be the prerogative of the left.
It’s odd, since only the most extreme of leftists would now propose to reverse most of Mrs Thatcher’s reforms. It would be hard to find anyone who seriously thought that exchange controls, wage policies, the closed shop, or state ownership of car companies and airlines should be reintroduced. Most of the liberal left who make such a point of loathing Conservative governments have benefited very directly from their policies.
There are things to be said for and against the Thatcher revolution, and for and against the Conservative party today. Those on the left who confine their arguments to looking forward to the party they are going to throw on her death discredit their own cause, and limit their own participation in active politics.
What Nick Cohen’s book brings home very forcibly is the degree to which political belief went on being a tribal affair of membership far longer on the left than elsewhere. Everyone remembers the uneasy laugh that went up at one of Blair’s first Labour conferences when he remarked that if their success carried on, they’d soon start to see Tories voting for them. That was a little too close to home.
And, speaking to my Welsh poet the other day after the event was over, I was told that “your experiences in life have obviously been very different to most people’s”. Actually, I wouldn’t have thought myself any more privileged than the average, but the meaning – “we wouldn’t have someone like you in the club anyway” was pretty clear.
“I expect it’s just a generational thing,” I said, matching her rudeness. But in reality, I don’t think what lies beneath these atavistic shudders, the reverse of a serious political position, could be explained away as simply as all that.
His Welsh poet is not alone in her myopia. My complaint about the writers of nearly all modern political theatre and television drama since Iraq is that they can’t imagine an honourable point of view outside the liberal consensus and dramatise it. Shakespeare was so good at getting into other people’s minds scholars continue to argue about his true beliefs — was he a closet Catholic? — to this day. There will be no disputes about Sir David Hare.