I ought to be interested in our upcoming General Election here in the UK, but I’m not really. I’ll be quite interested in the outcome of an election that has been described as People versus Parliament, but I just wish it would soon be over. Will the Parliament conform to the People, or will the People conform to the Parliament? My guess is that it will be more the former than the latter. I think that the British people have been becoming more conservative in recent years – a trend that seems to be almost global these days.
What is it that drives these gradual changes in public opinion? Some would say that it’s all driven by “opinion leaders” in the mainstream media. And in Britain I think this was probably true when we only had two or three TV channels, and five or six newspapers of note. But it seems to me that now, in the internet era, there are hundreds of opinions available, and thousands of rival would-be opinion leaders.
I suspect that what really drives opinion are the countless interactions that people have with each other, and it is this rather than anything else that makes for slow sea changes in outlook.
In Britain 70 years ago, there was a Conservative party that was the party of King and Empire and the established aristocratic social order. And there was an upstart Labour party that was populated by progressive socialists of one kind or other, dominated by trade unions. But over the ensuing 70 years both the Labour and Conservative parties gradually metamorphosed into quite different entities. With the loss of Empire, the old Conservative party began to disintegrate. And the old imperial class increasingly threw in its lot with the rising European state that was emerging across the English Channel. But at the same time, the decline of the trade unions resulted in the disintegration of the old Labour party. Tony Blair’s New Labour was in many ways a far more conservative party than Old Labour. And the New Conservative party was far more progressive than the old Conservative party. Conservative and Labour became more and more alike, quite possibly simply as a result of rubbing up against each other for 70 years, and gradually adopting each other’s ideas.
The result is that we now have a progressive political class that is a) wedded to Europe, b) antismoking, c) environmentally aware (or is it “woke”?). It was David Cameron who re-invented the Conservative party as almost a new Green party. And it was also Cameron who sanctioned gay marriage. How much more progressive can one get? David Cameron may as well have been a socialist.
But at the same time it would seem that the British people have been going in the opposite direction, and becoming gradually more conservative, and more traditional. The same seems to be happening everywhere else with the rise of “national populism.” It may simply be a reaction to being lectured about Europe and smoking and the environment and climate change and everything else. People have had enough of it all. They’ve stopped listening. They no longer want to know what Prince Charles thinks (did they ever?), or what David Attenborough thinks, or any of the rest of the Great and the Good.
The set of opinions that anyone holds is as much a marker of their social class as the set of clothes they wear. One is expected to have the right set of opinions just like one is expected to wear the right set of clothes, and the two are perhaps interchangeable. Both indicate that you are a member of some club. And in these clubs strong efforts are made to ensure conformity of both opinion and clothing. And in the most tight-knit clubs, the members are like individual bricks in a wall, holding each other in place, correcting even the slightest infraction of the accepted conventions.
But in Britain over the past 70 years, all these tight-knit clubs have been gradually coming apart. The walls have all come tumbling down. And into the cracks all sorts of strange new ideas have grown and flourished. Could any British Conservative Prime Minister of 60 or 70 years ago have entertained ideas as outlandish as Climate Change? It was probably quite literally unthinkable.
Nevertheless the slow currents of changing opinion throw up these sorts of surprises all the time. To many Americans Donald Trump seems like a throwback to a former dark age, not only in the opinions he holds, but also the clothes he wears, and the hairstyle he maintains. And all of it tells them that he’s not an American progressive of the kind they approve. He has all the wrong opinions. And yet many Americans share his opinions. They’re tired of being lectured all the time as well.
We’ll find out in a few weeks whether the British people are continuing to become more conservative while the British political class has been becoming more progressive. There could well be a conservative clean sweep. But I won’t be betting on it.