Unwelcome developments

I was only away for a weekend. But at some point between Friday evening and Monday morning it seems that it became acceptable to be an ignorant, xenophobic, isolationist bigot. And not just that. It’s now so acceptable that it’s even OK to go around boasting about it. And anyone who stands up and objects to this descent into idiocy is derided as elitist, out of touch and in thrall to a faded political establishment that has lost touch with the lives of real people. 

I am referring, of course, to the European Parliament elections last month. When I drove onto the Eurotunnel on my way to Germany one Friday, we in the UK had done our voting and there was an expectation that UKIP would do quite well. But by the time I came back on the following Monday, the rest of Europe had also gone to the polls and the results were out. And the news was somewhat less than good.

The big winners, as we know, were the far right and those parties that claim to support the common man. The National Front in France, UKIP in the UK, the Freedom Party in Austria, the People’s Party in Denmark and the neo-fascist Jobbik in Hungary all made major inroads, stripping votes and seats from the mainstream parties. While established party leaders from both left and right bowed their heads in shame, their populist counterparts waved national flags and quaffed champagne.

So does this – as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and others would like us to believe – spell the end of the established political system? Does it herald a new era of national politics and the downfall of the European experiment? On balance, I think perhaps not. But it does do one thing. And that thing is what worries me most of all.

I read some research a while ago that found that one way to promote particular social behaviours was to tell people that others around them had already adopted the behaviours in question. So rather than putting up a sign saying ‘clean up after your dog’, it might be more effective to put up a sign saying ‘84% of people here clear up after their dogs’. This approach works by promoting some kind of herd mentality, encouraging people to go with the majority and discouraging them from acting in opposition to the group norm.

So what impact does it have when we learn that a significant proportion of people around us have xenophobic, isolationist tendencies and an in-built dislike of anyone who is different from themselves? Not in a ‘closet’ kind of way, even, but in a ‘put a big banner across the front of my house’ kind of way.

Here’s what worries me. It says that it’s OK to be a little bit xenophobic. It says that it’s actually quite reasonable to want to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world. And it says that, if you hold these views, then don’t worry, because you’re not alone. What used to be a minority opinion, best expressed in a dark corner of some seedy bar, is now worn as a badge of pride.

Now, I really don’t believe that we’re a country of racist, xenophobic thugs. I don’t, for one second, think that we really want to kick out all foreigners and put a big sign saying ‘sod off’ across the white cliffs of Dover. Because deep down, we know that it’s not OK to be ignorant, to be xenophobic or to want to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world.

What we really want, of course, is for our elected politicians and the parties that they represent to take our needs and our concerns seriously. We want to register our protest at the blandness of party policies and the profusion of media-friendly soundbites. We want our voice to be heard. So in an election that doesn’t really seem that important, why not vote for the anti-establishment upstart who promises to stick it to the man?

It might all seem like a bit of fun. A way to stir things up a little. And I’m sure that many people would make alternative voting choices in a national election. We don’t really want to turn the United Kingdom into some kind of whites-only fortress, after all, or to turn the clock back to the 1950s. But with the shameful election results from last month, we’ve just made it that little bit easier for those who do. And all in one weekend.

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