Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.
 
       
 

The intolerant war on ‘parochial pensioners’
In forever fretting about the ‘bigoted attitudes’ of ordinary people, Britain’s political class exposes its own prejudices.

When it comes to describing everyday people, the words ‘extremist’ and ‘bigot’ are an integral part of the British political establishment’s vocabulary. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg might have hurriedly recalled a press release that branded opponents of gay marriage as bigots, but that only demonstrated that his minders have told him to keep his real views to himself. Poor Gordon Brown’s ‘Bigotgate’ moment, when, during the 2010 General Election campaign, he referred to a 65-year-old woman who asked him about immigration as a ‘bigoted woman’, was more compromising, because TV journalists recorded his outburst. Unlike Clegg, Brown couldn’t say ‘it wasn’t me!’.

Politicians’ promiscuous use of terms like bigot and racist to describe members of the public is not simply an affectation. Many of them sincerely believe that a significant section of the population - especially members of the white working classes and the elderly - are irredeemably prejudiced. Brown and Clegg’s throwaway remarks speak to a belief that people who refuse to accept the political class’s social etiquette and cultural assumptions about Europe, multiculturalism and family life are morally inferior. Today’s elite views ‘those people’, sometimes called ‘tabloid readers’ or ‘white van men’, as a kind of cultural enemy within.

The terms bigot and racist are frequently coupled with the word ‘extremist’. Why? Because, as a think-tank report published last week claimed, ordinary people have a natural disposition towards extremist ideology and causes.

Thankfully, unlike many parts of Europe, Britain has been more or less an extremist-free zone for a very long time. Now, however, a report published by the Extremis Project, an advocacy monitoring group devoted to discovering the extremist under your bed, warns against complacency on this issue. It asserts that, in fact, British people have a natural inclination towards supporting right-wing extremist parties. Its survey of 1,750 people ‘discovered’ that 41 per cent would be more likely to support a party that promised to end all immigration. Only 28 per cent indicated that they would be less likely to support such a party.

Matthew Goodwin, spokesman for the Extremis Project, says the research shows that there is a strong disposition on the part of the British public to support right-wing extremists. To substantiate this claim, he says: ‘Consider this: 66 per cent of respondents in our survey would be more likely to support a party that promised to stand up to political and business elites; 55 per cent would be more likely to back a party that pledged to prioritise British values over other cultures; 41 per cent would be more likely to support a party that pledged to halt all immigration into the UK; and a striking 37 per cent – or almost two-fifths of our sample – would be more likely to endorse a party that promised to reduce the number of Muslims in British society.’

What is interesting about these comments is that Goodwin clearly believes that any rejection of the cultural values of the political and cultural establishment can be described as a ‘far right’ attitude. His implicit definition of an extremist is anyone who is uninhibited about expressing their disdain for such values.

That is why he exclaims: ‘Consider this - 66 per cent of respondents in our survey would be more likely to support a party that promised to stand up to political and business elites.’ So, people who wish to prioritise their own cultural values over those of others, especially the elite, are perceived as suffering from some kind of moral deficit. For Goodwin, it seems that any kind of populist rejection of the establishment and its values represents a dangerous kind of political malady. It is striking that the Extremis Project assumes that populism is intrinsically a marker for right-wing extremism; perhaps it has never encountered radical, left-wing or plain old conservative populism.

Goodwin can barely suppress his outrage that so many of his fellow citizens would support a party that stood up to the political and business elites. Of course, he is fully entitled to his pro-establishment opinions. But it is worth noting that, historically, standing up to the political elite was an act associated with radical forces, from trade unionists to the Suffragettes all the way to radical movements of both the left and the right. What the Extremis Project’s report does is construct a new definition of the words ‘extremist’ and ‘far right’ that flatters the sensibilities of the current political establishment.

The main target of the report’s enmity is the elderly. Goodwin argues that Britain’s older generations ‘appear relatively clear and resolute in their desire for a party that adopts a tough, populist stance toward elites [and] immigration’, whereas ‘younger Britons are significantly less favourable toward this narrative’. No doubt there is a significant generational divide between the elderly and the young on a variety of political issues. However, from a sociological point of view, it seems pretty clear that these divergent attitudes spring from differences in generational experiences and from very different uses of language. Clearly, the elderly experience change differently to young people and are likely to find adapting to new circumstances more difficult than their children find it.

However, a generational divide on specific policies should not be taken as evidence that older and younger people have fundamentally different attitudes towards political life. Old-aged pensioners who are uncomfortable with change, but who have voted for mainstream parties all their lives, are unlikely to constitute the shock troops for a new extremist paramilitary force. Similarly, young people who are more attuned to what can be said to pollsters are more likely to express opinions that they think the interviewer wants to hear; like Nick Clegg, they know the virtues of censoring your real views.

Cosmos vs the plebs

What is most interesting about the Extremis report is what it reveals about its authors. It speaks to a profound dissonance between two different worlds: that of the establishment and that of the plebs. This is especially vivid in another report published on the Extremis Project’s website, titled Parochial and Cosmopolitan Britain: Examining the Social Divide in Reactions to Immigration. Written by Robert Ford and published in June 2012, the report makes a crude distinction between backward-looking elderly people and the apparently more open-minded younger generations. The ‘younger, more cosmopolitan voters’ are represented as being more morally with-it than ‘the more parochial older generation’. Throughout the report, the term parochial is used to describe the elderly, whereas the young are categorised as ‘cosmopolitan’.

However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that the generational difference flagged up by the Extremis Project is really about class. So the elderly who are hostile to immigration are not simply old - they are also ‘less-educated’ and ‘parochial’. And in contrast, the ‘tolerant’ young cosmopolitans are ‘highly educated, economically secure, and used to effortless travel across borders and regular mixing with people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds’.

The report concludes that: ‘Many of the factors that predict attitudes on immigration - age, education, migrant heritage and financial security - tend to overlap with each other. The result is a strong social division between the “cosmopolitan young” - highly educated, ethnically diverse and relatively comfortable with immigration - and the “parochial pensioners”: older, homogeneously white respondents who are deeply alarmed by the settlement of migrants.’

Here, the Extremis Project is drawing attention to the different moral outlooks of those who have benefitted from socio-economic changes and education and those who have lost out. And like Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted’ pensioner, the people who have lost out serve as uncomfortable reminder of communities that are best written off as parochial fodder for extremist parties.

Inevitably, the question that preoccupies the crusaders against parochial pensioners and other working-class ‘extremists’ is how to prevent them from exercising influence over the more enlightened, cosmopolitan generations. Matthew Goodwin counsels that the best way of proceeding is ‘to avoid a short-term and kneejerk response to the older, angrier and more hostile generations, and think about how best to support the “rise of the tolerants”, and channel these more accepting generations into the political process’. Logically, this policy demands the constant cultural devaluation of the life and experiences of ‘parochial pensioners’. This is essential for immunising youngsters against the insidious influence of their grandparents.

The writing off of significant sections of the electorate by policymakers and politicians is widespread today, as an anti-democratic malaise comes to dominate public life in the West. US presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s divisive statement that it is not his job to worry about the 47 per cent of the electorate who regard themselves as victims is one version of this contemptuous attitude towards huge swathes of the electorate. A huge number of politicians and policymakers now regard their fellow citizens as intolerant bigots.

But prejudice comes in different shapes and forms. In the end, we have to make a decision about which form of prejudice is genuinely harmful today. Is it that of an anxious and insecure pensioner worried about making ends meet in a world she no longer fully recognises? Or is it the attitude promoted by smug members of an elite that openly refers to itself as ‘cosmopolitan’ and to anybody who refuses to embrace its virtues and values as parochial bigots?

First published by spiked, 24 September 2012