It was a brief Twitter storm, by 2019 standards; but it was a vehement one, and fairly typical of the daily shouting matches that now dominate large areas of our social media. Last weekend, a Scottish newspaper announced in a sensational headline that Mark Meechan, a UKIP member and professional comedian best known for his criminal conviction for uploading a Youtube video of his dog giving a Nazi salute, had been given a job as a regular late-night chat show panellist on the new BBC Scotland television channel.
For a few hours, comment raged, with many taking the view that the BBC must have taken leave of its senses, while others talked of a draconian culture of political correctness, and how Meechan should not be silenced; needless to say, there was little dialogue between the two groups, beyond the odd exchange of insults. Eventually the BBC backed down, although it remained unclear why they had invited Meechan in the first place, far less why they had changed their minds; and the social media circus moved on, to other arenas of fury and outrage.
For all its relatively small scale, though, the Meechan row showed many of the key features of current political debate; including the erosion of any sense that our society holds a common set of values, to which everyone is expected to adhere. There was a time, in the UK, when no-one would have thought of presenting far-right political opinions as entertainment. They were seen as too destructive of democracy, tolerance, and any idea of equality to have a place in constructive debate; hence the uproar, back in 1968, when Enoch Powell made his notorious “rivers of blood” speech. This broad agreement on values, at least among the nation’s elites, was known as the “post-war consensus”; and for 30 years after 1945, it formed a strong and serviceable basis for one of the most sustained periods of growing prosperity and social equality in Western history. Indeed even today, the official policies of governments across the West tend to follow the great codes laid down in the postwar period, in the UN Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Ever since the 1980s, though, those basic values have gradually come under attack, as a more brutal, cash-driven, and superficially populist economic system took hold at national and global level. Frontal attacks on the idea of equality remain rare; but sniggering jokes about “political correctness”, sneers about “virtue signalling”, and a growing tendency to regard loud-mouthed chauvinists like Nigel Farage, or professional haters like Katie Hopkins, as somehow entertaining, or fun, or good value for money, has gradually eroded the useful core idea that people are fundamentally equal, and should at least in theory be treated as such.
And since the financial crisis of 2008, and the lamentable response to it of those middle-of-the-road parties most closely associated with the old social consensus, all bets on those values are now off. Now we have a President of the United States who is a proven liar, a harasser of women, a casual racist, and worse; and millions of Americans who have demanded that he and his supporters show shame for his actions now find that the levers have gone, and neither Trump nor his supporters give a damn.
We have a party like the British Conservatives held hostage by a bunch of extremists who successfully sought to smash the UK consensus on remaining the EU, while blatantly and shamelessly having no idea what to put in its place. We have a Northern Ireland Secretary who understands so little about her own job that in a few casual words she blows apart the eloquent statement of apology for the Bloody Sunday killings made by David Cameron in 2010, and further damages the whole subtle structure of peace in Northern Ireland; and apparently feels no shame at all, or not enough, as I write, to tender her resignation.
As the admirable broadcaster Sarah Dunant has pointed out, in other words, in her current powerful radio series on shame, it seems it is almost impossible to inflict real social shame, even when it is richly deserved, in a society where there is no agreement about values. As a woman of the left, I naturally take the view that the liberal social consensus should be defended, and indeed that most of it, by this time, should be beyond question; I have also learned from experience that a good measure of consensus on basic aims and values is necessary, if a society is to make real progress, or to build anything substantial at all.
Yet what I observe is that our society has gradually become vulnerable to a creed that frames all consensus as oppressive, even when it is – by historical standards – evidently benign. It’s a creed that wants to see societies fragmented, incoherent, and lacking in direction, the better to open them up to economic exploitation and perhaps to new forms of authoritarianism; it’s a creed that wants governments weak and divided, strong political structures like the EU torn down or subverted, and the rule of law, both national and international, reduced to a joke. It is the apotheosis of the world of the right-wing American novelist Ayn Rand, so popular among extreme neoliberals; a politics of lawless disorder and might-is-right beloved of international far-right operators like Steve Bannon and his associate Arron Banks, who so lavishly funded the Brexit Leave campaign.
It is also, of course, about as bleak and loveless a political creed as it is possible to imagine, incapable of offering any viable future for us, or for our civilisation. And as we confront this dire moment in Western politics, there is one thing we can do for ourselves, right now. We can learn to save our breath, when it comes to demanding expressions of shame from those who have deliberately chosen this path of shamelessness and reaction; and face the fact that they will continue to pursue it until some new coalition of human decency and hope finally formulates the strong consensus on which it can act, and moves to stop them in their tracks.