As if it wasn’t dark and threatening enough already, the EU referendum campaign has taken a much darker turn this past week. I don’t want to comment specifically on what has happened, but to have a quick look at what the sources of this darkness might be in general.
Sometimes I am reminded of the comedy programme ‘Two Point Four Children’ in which, under certain circumstances, one of the main characters would exclaim ‘It’s bloody Thatcher!’ and go into a rant about the many and varied ways in which it was all Margaret Thatcher’s fault. I often feel like doing this too. Part of our national darkness, surely, stems from the fact that all the traditional industries have been dismantled and there are large sections of the population who would in the past have worked in them who are now unable to find work anywhere.
Even where there is still some employment, the drive everywhere has been for efficiency savings, so that one person is doing work that several people would have done in the past. This is particularly evident in areas such as transport, where, for instance, one person wheels the refreshment trolley, makes all the announcements and checks all the tickets on the train whereas in the past there would have been several people doing this. Stations too are run either by no-one or by one person part-time. Even on buses, one person usually drives as well as selling tickets, where there would once have been a driver and a conductor.
When I was still at primary school we all thought that increased automation would result in everyone working much shorter hours, but in fact it has resulted in certain people working harder and longer, and others not working at all. Thatcher’s rule also contributed to greater inequalities in the distribution of wealth, so that there are people with more money than they know what to do with, and others trying to exist on benefits and/or the so-called ‘living wage’. The resentment about all this has been building up for quite a long time.
In sync with this, the internet has allowed people to express all sort of feelings, including irrational and violent ones, in an open way that in some cases has given them a spurious validity. A gulf has opened up between the restricted, defined way in which people can express their political views via the ballot paper and the flexible, random, irresponsible way in which they can express them in newspaper comments, in blog posts and online forums. They have begun to expect to have these random, irrational views treated as seriously as those of politicians and political pundits. In some ways this is a positive thing, encouraging engagement with politics and democracy and challenging accepted values. But it is also potentially very dangerous. There seems to be an increasing disrespect for authority and expertise. I am not personally all that fond of authority as such, having had one or two run-ins with it in the past, but I do think expertise and intelligence should be valued in a civilised society.
The internet is also a good way to spread half-truths and downright lies and to have them believed by lots of people, especially if the people spreading them make more noise and fuss than the people struggling to have the truth listened to. It’s a sad reflection on the education system across the UK that many of the opinions to be found in comments sections and on social media demonstrate a lack of general knowledge, particularly in the area of history, and of basic logic. These happen to be the two things I probably value more than anything else, so I find this extremely worrying.
And what this all adds up to, I’m afraid, is populist fervour, which, as I have already mentioned elsewhere on this blog, can culminate in violent revolution. Whether or not anyone consciously wants that.