Today is Brexit day. It’s the end of the 3½ years of agony that followed from the 2016 EU Referendum. I won’t be celebrating. I’ll just be relieved that it’s over, just like hospital patients feel relieved when they recover from some long illness. Britain is becoming an independent country again.
I used to be a Guardian reader, back in the 1970s. I started reading it when the Times stopped being published because of a strike. Back then it was a broadsheet newspaper with about 20 pages, and no supplements. You could easily fold it under your arm. I bought a copy most days.
I stopped reading it about 10 years later. And I stopped reading it because it started having multiple added supplements, each one of which had as many pages as the main newspaper, if not more. There was no way it could be folded under an arm. It really needed its own briefcase. I had no interest in the steadily multiplying numbers of supplements – education supplements, travel supplements, local government supplements -, and so one day I stopped buying it, and started reading the Independent instead, which at that time was a simple broadsheet newspaper like the Guardian had once been.
I read newspapers not for the news, but for the opinions. I like to know what people are thinking. I might not agree with their opinions, but I’m always interested.
And yesterday I came across an opinion piece in the Guardian – The ‘anti-woke’ backlash is no joke – and progressives are going to lose if they don’t wise up – by Ellie Mae O’Hagan. Perhaps I was once a progressive, but I’m not a progressive any more. I don’t think that the direction that the progressives are going is actually any real progress. I don’t think the world they want will be any better than our current one. In fact I think it will be a lot worse.
The progressive tendency to regard “anti-woke” crusaders as aberrations is a hangover from the liberal consensus established in the late 90s. New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 didn’t signal just a change in government, but an ostensible change in our nation’s culture. Exhausted and demoralised by the polarising Thatcher years, British people were apparently ready for a more liberal and tolerant era.
The new received wisdom dictated that women and LGBT+ people were equal (sort of), and racism was to be condemned (unless you were a Muslim). The reason liberals still believe this consensus holds is that the politics New Labour ushered in was so dominant and all-encompassing that almost every opinion that existed outside of it was dismissed as the view of cranks.
The most salient example of this is the Conservative party, which under the leadership of David Cameron recognised it would have to lean in to socially liberal values in order to gain a hearing. The culmination of this was that the Tories – historically the party of homophobic legislation – would eventually outflank New Labour by overseeing the introduction of equal marriage. In 2006, the Conservative and Blair critic Matthew Parris conceded in the Times: “Britain is a nicer place than when [Blair] entered Downing Street. Something tolerant, something amiable…has left its mark upon the country.”
I highlight several passages because they demonstrate how progressives regard themselves: as “nice”, “tolerant”, “liberal”, and “amiable”. In this view, New Labour was the Nice Party, and Thatcher’s Conservatives were the Nasty Party.
I would probably have agreed with this summary up until 1 July 2007. But on that day the world turned upside down. For there was nothing “nice”, “tolerant”, “liberal”, or “amiable” about the UK public smoking ban that came into force that day. It was a thoroughly nasty, authoritarian, bullying, exclusionary, and mean-spirited piece of legislation. And yet it was the work of the “progressive” Labour and Lib Dem parties. Most of the “nasty” Conservatives in Parliament voted against it. And that was when the Nice Party started to look nasty, and the Nasty Party started to look nice.
And the progressive author of the Guardian opinion piece realises that the tide has turned against the progressive Blairite consensus, and that a new “potent political movement” has emerged.
…but as the tide of 90s social liberalism has ebbed, it has also revealed another group of people (primarily older, white homeowners and pensioners) who had never bought into the consensus in the first place, and are aggressively hostile to its newer, more radical iteration.
She’s talking about me: I’m 71 years old. I’m white. I’m a homeowner. And I’m a pensioner. And I never bought into the progressive consensus. And I’m also aggressively hostile to it.
They are the people that have enabled Brexit and Donald Trump to succeed
Yup. That’s me. I’m one of the 17.41 million. And if I’d had a US vote, I’d have voted for Donald Trump.
She understands that the tide has turned against progressives like her. But she doesn’t understand why. She seems to think that people like me have turned against her because we’re old, white, homeowning pensioners. But it’s got nothing to do with that. But for the multiple supplements, I’d probably still be a Guardian reader today.
Ellie Mae O’Hagan simply doesn’t understand that what happened on 1 July 2007 changed everything. She probably doesn’t smoke, and so she probably didn’t even notice what happened that day. But for 13 million British smokers, that was the day when they were “exiled to the outdoors”, comprehensively expelled from society, and became (and remained) exiles in their own country. But nothing like this ever happened to her. She has no idea what it’s like to have such a terrible thing done to her. You have to experience it for yourself to know the multiple impacts it has.
Smokers in Scotland and Ireland and Holland and France and Spain and Italy (and pretty much everywhere else in the world) have all shared this same nasty experience, to a greater or lesser degree. And you don’t really need to refer to “national populism” to explain why Europeans are turning against the EU, and nation states everywhere are turning against progressive globalism. All you need do is point to the hundreds of millions of smokers who have been expelled from society, almost everywhere in the world. They might not be the only people in revolt against top-down-controlling, authoritarian, one-size-fits-all globalisation, but they will most certainly make up a few legions in that revolt.
But Ellie Mae O’Hagan can’t see this. And she probably never will. She probably thinks that these smoking bans were simply much-needed, long-overdue health measures, and nothing else. She probably thinks that they were a very good example of the sort of Progress that progressives like her pursue.
And if Ellie Mae O’Hagan can’t see it, then the strangest thing of all is that nobody else can see it either. They can’t see the main driving force behind “national populism.” And it’s not just progressives like her who can’t see it. Neither can most conservatives see it either. They can’t see it even if they’re smokers themselves. Steve Bannon (cigars) can’t see it. Rush Limbaugh (cigars) can’t see it. Michael Savage can’t see it. Mark Levin can’t see it. Donald Trump can’t see it either. About the only person who just might see it is the canniest and most influential man in British politics today: Nigel Farage. He’s the only politician in Britain who has stuck up for smokers, because he is one himself. But I’m not sure that even he can see that “national populism” is the growing backlash to all these smoking bans. If he could see it, wouldn’t he say so? He never does.