Whether eugenic, elitist or just snobbish, the hard right are at odds with spirit of democracy, writes Joyce McMillan.
It’s over now; but for a couple of glorious days in the middle of this week, amid an avalanche of deeply damaging revelations, resignations and scandals, it looked as if the Conservatives and their allies might have completely lost control of the narrative surrounding the current general election campaign. Indeed if Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson had not chosen to announce his resignation on Wednesday – just before the Tories’ delayed, messy and unimpressive campaign launch in what looked like an underpopulated warehouse in Birmingham – it seemed as though the media campaign could have been lost, for the Tories, almost before it began.
Yet for those anticipating an easy Tory win on 12 December, there must be an uneasy feeling that some of the mud thrown up by this week’s series of disasters may stick; and in particular there is one word – Grenfell – that must give them pause. Last week’s publication of a first-stage report placing most of the blame for the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster on the fire service has already caused real fury among hard-pressed firefighters, and many others who have had enough of systemic failures in our society being blamed on ordinary workers rather than real decision-makers.
And then, on Tuesday, all hell broke loose when Jacob Rees-Mogg told an LBC programme that Grenfell residents should have used “common sense” and left the building, instead of listening to fire service advice to remain in their flats. The implication was that they lacked the common sense and initiative that Rees-Mogg would have used to save his own life; and matters were made much worse when right-wing Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, trying to defend his hero, seemed to agree with an interviewer’s suggestion that Rees-Mogg saw himself as more intelligent than the average Grenfell resident – and was therefore, in Bridgen’s view, better qualified to “run things”.
Now it is difficult to know where to start with this car-crash of an incident. As Jeremy Corbyn put it in a concise tweet this week, there are three things “common sense” tells us about the Grenfell fire. The first is that highly flammable cladding should not be used on people’s homes. The second is that it is dangerous to make deep cuts in the fire service. And the third is that residents should not be ignored when they say that their home is a fire-trap.
Fundamental idea of human equality
Yet every one of these things happened at Grenfell, the first two demonstrably driven by the Tory love-affair with “austerity” in public spending (now apparently over, for the duration of the election campaign at least), and the last by the same attitude so chillingly revealed by Rees-Mogg and Bridgen on Tuesday; that attitude which unthinkingly assumes that the residents of a council tower block like Grenfell are where they are because of stupidity, or laziness, or some other form of social inferiority that makes them barely worth listening to.
Of course, these views are shocking to everyone – including many Conservatives – who takes seriously the fundamental idea of human equality, and believes that people’s life-chances should not be dictated by the wealth or otherwise of their parents. Yet during a recent debate about private education, I heard some right-wing commentators seriously arguing that it is acceptable for the privately educated to dominate most major professions in the UK, because those who can afford to educate their children privately obviously represent a genetic elite, selected by ability and determination, who are likely to pass on those superior genes to their children.
The idea that brilliant, high-achieving people might choose not to prioritise monetary wealth and the buying of privilege for their children, and instead to express their gifts in some more meaningful and generous way, never seems to cross the minds of people who have succumbed to this kind of ‘money-brain’. And with this ultra-Thatcherite obsession with money as the measure of all things comes the equally absurd conviction that anyone who is wealthy and privileged must also be clever; when in fact – to judge by the recent performance of successive Tory governments – there is substantial evidence of the exact opposite.
Wasteland of lost rights
So let’s be clear; whatever this kind of thinking is called – eugenic, elitist, aristocratic, or just plain snobbish – it is clearly undemocratic and authoritarian, often paying public lip service to democratic institutions, while privately seeing formal democracy only as a useful smokescreen through which voters can be manipulated into supporting the latest elite scam. The Prime Minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings pulled this off once, as chief executive of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign; and if the same players, with the same backers, succeed in winning the current general election, then there can – given all the above – be no doubt that dark days lie ahead for anyone who truly believes in the rights and dignity of ordinary people in Britain, who may well be left with little to console them, in the post-Brexit wasteland of lost rights and privatised services, beyond the barrage of lies and myths fired at them by the practised propagandists of the right, from the Daily Express to Number 10 itself.
This week, I went to the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh to watch Rufus Norris’s fine production of the musical Cabaret, set in Berlin in 1931. It ends with the young American hero, Cliff Bradshaw, starting to write his story. “There was a city called Berlin,” he says, “in a country called Germany, and it was the end of the world. I was dancing with Sally Bowles; and we were both fast asleep.” This is an election where the people of the UK must choose whether to sleep on, or to wake up, and tell Boris Johnson’s Government of lying, self-serving, and none-too-bright millionaires to pack their bags and go, taking their billionaire backers and their post-democratic attitudes with them. I know which way my parents and their wartime generation would have liked us to jump; but I fear that once again, the temptation to down another sleeping-pill, and allow those already in power to continue marching us towards disaster, will finally prove too strong.