Public Discourse in Britain

Brexit has opened a can of worms in more ways than one. I must say I had little idea of the sheer nastiness of many of my compatriots until I started looking more closely into the dark side of the current public debate: mainly the Daily Mail, pro-Brexit websites, and ‘below the line’ postings on blogs. I commented on ‘btl’ here a year ago: Since then the public mood, expressed in all these different ways, has worsened. The latest is the Daily Mail’s ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ headline today.

Why are the Brexiters so angry? After all, they won. And why so rude? This isn’t the level of public debate I’ve been accustomed to in Britain. (And, no, the Remain side aren’t equally bad.) I’m becoming ashamed of being British, for the first time in my long life. Even imperialism didn’t do that to me.

But I’m presently watching it all at a distance, from Sweden, via the internet. My impression isn’t being softened by any personal acquaintance with my British friends. I suspect – and very much hope – that the sound and fury are simply that, and misleading, as they have been at other times in history. The example that leaps most readily to my mind – as a historian of these things – is the wave of ‘jingoism’ that accompanied the South African War of 1899-1902 (the Mail participated in that too); which, loud and violent as it was, did not in fact express the views of the majority of contemporary Britons, who were cooler-headed: which might explain why the ‘jingoes’ felt they needed to stir them up. The insults and hatred were a symptom of lack of confidence in their cause. You can’t judge the popularity of any cause by the noise it makes. Maybe that should be borne in mind today.

The most ‘jingo’ newspapers, after all – Mail, Express, Sun, Telegraph – are owned and edited by only a small minority of rich expatriate proto-fascists, who hardly personify the best traditional qualities of the British. Brexit’s political leaders are equally unrepresentative, and may well be half-mad. (Just look at Nigel and Boris.) The people who voted for them were, by and large, under-educated, stupid, motivated by a whole host of issues besides ‘Europe’ – see  and fooled. Of course one can’t say any of that publicly, for fear of being branded as ‘élitist’; but it’s true. It may be only a small minority of them who stalk the blogsites pseudonomymously with their self-evident rubbish and obscenities – I’ve always imagined them as pimply adolescents in their bedrooms – which would make them unrepresentative, too.

When I return to England in a couple of weeks’ time, safely gathered into the bosoms of my Guardian-reading friends, I may be at least half-reassured. We’re not all Daily Hatemailers. But I’m still saddened by the fact that it’s the vile tabloid press and those other idiots who are being widely taken as representing my country ‘over here’. It’s all I can do – in a very tiny corner of Europe – to put them right. And I’m not completely convinced myself that we haven’t, as nation, suddenly – or maybe not so suddenly – turned bad.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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2 Responses to Public Discourse in Britain

  1. TJ says:

    The right wing tabloid press in Britain injects a poisonous atmosphere into public discourse that has got worse, particularly the Sun and Daily Mail. Narrow-minded ‘Little Englandism’ has always been its main feature, sometimes fuelled by ex-socialists who claim to have seen the light, such as Robert Blatchford during the second South African war and after, David English ex-editor of the Daily Mail and Paul Dacre, current editor (who claims to have been a socialist or Maoist at Leeds University) (see ‘Mailmen by Adrian Addison 2017) In the past journos of left-wing sympathy were often on the staff of right wing tabloids, especially the Daily and Sunday Express under Beaverbrook, which may have had some moderating effect, but those days are long gone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely. I’ve immersed myself in turn-of-the-20th century newspapers too, and have always been impressed with how informative, intelligent, fair and balanced they were (except possibly for the Harmsworth ones) than today’s.


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