At the start of the year, a Facebook friend messaged me, telling me that she and a chum had been asked to leave their north London book group (how I hugged myself on reading those words!): she for posting a link on Facebook to a Spectator piece by me — pleasingly and rather reasonably headlined ‘The Brexit divide wasn’t between young and old but Ponces and Non-Ponces’; her friend for liking it. I was naturally fascinated, my curiosity driven by righteous indignation and unrighteous glee. I asked for more information and Judith — my penpal’s suitably heroic name —wrote back: ‘The last line from the email of the man who runs the book group was “I am therefore asking you to resign from the group. This would be the honourable course for you to take.”’ Judith, he claimed, was ‘unable to engage in rational discussion’, an accusation levelled by men at women who dare to disagree since the dawn of time.
Judith’s like-happy chum Jane, a charming, pretty novelist, was so shocked by the book group’s behaviour that she decided to write a play about it. Would I like to be a co-author? I would.
That was January; in April the Prime Minister called a general election; by May our play was written, and in June the people went to the polls and a nation once more woke up, looked at the person sleeping next to them and thought: ‘Who are you?’ To say that these are interesting times is like saying Sarah Vaughan could carry a tune. I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of the phrase ‘The personal is political’, but when Relate relate that one in five of their councillors has worked with couples who have fought over Brexit, we know that times have rarely been more interesting.
Who knew, either, that there was so much hate within the left? Growing up in a communist household, I thought ‘Tory’ was a curse word till I was a teenager. My father was the kindest and, yes, most noble of men — maybe the fact that his socialism was a product of being genuinely working class, rather than a pose struck to impress/shame others, had something to do with it — but I had no idea until Brexit of the bigotry that lurks within the Brotherhood of Man. We are often reminded of the ‘hatred’ the referendum and recent election ‘stirred up’ in our society — warned off democracy by those who would control us for our own good, as if we were wayward children eyeing the biscuit tin. What these sorrowing sad-sacks fail to add is the hate comes largely from their side. Too much democracy has merely flushed the poison out. Brexit did indeed unleash hate — but the hate it unleashed was not that of the British for foreigners but rather of the liberals for the masses.
It sounds strange coming from someone who has made a lovely life out of peddling vitriol for pleasure and profit, but I’ve been amazed — and not a little amused, comparing their swivel-eyed social media savagery with their mollycoddling manifestos — at the level of nastiness that the Great and the Good (or, as I think of them, our Betters and Wetters) have displayed over the past year. During my entire career of evil, from 17-year-old enfant terrible to 57-year-old grande dame, I only recall wishing death on one person — well, two: the Eurythmics. But my dad, when he shouted ‘Tory!’ at the TV, was content to leave it at that.
What my dad didn’t do, unlike Alastair Campbell, was compare those who thought differently from him to jihadists. He wouldn’t, unlike Julian Barnes, have wanted those who thought differently from him ‘punished’ by an unelected club of bureaucrats. Unlike Ian McEwan, he didn’t look forward to a time when those who’d voted differently from him were ‘freshly in their graves’. He wouldn’t, as Paddy Ashdown did, have referred to those who disagreed with him as ‘Brownshirts’.
My dad left school at 14. He had no privilege. Yet he knew more and was capable of far more decent behaviour than these privileged, highly educated men. He was from the working class, so he knew better than to dismiss the working class for thinking that they deserve something better than sleeping six to a room and working weekends for the minimum wage. If he’d seen the tax-avoiding multi-millionaire Bob Geldof and his boatful of Remainer mates mocking a flotilla of men worried about making a living under EU rules, he’d have known which one was the ship of fools.
What is this alt-hate, this caring, sharing cruelty? When comedians had to stop telling jokes about non-whites, I felt no need to hear jokes which demonise the old, the Jews and spirited women instead, but weirdly a number of comedians seem to feel the need to tell them. And these are also the most frequent victims of hatred from the alleged left. There’s something reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Two Minutes Hate about it:
The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within 30 seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
Brexit — and the wounding of Mrs May — seems to have brought out the beast in the most mild-mannered herbivores. And unlike those of us who have always enjoyed malice and spite as small parts of a balanced emotional diet, those kept in check — castrated even! —by their membership of the Brotherhood of Man seem highly susceptible to getting high on their supply of the new taste-thrill of hatred. They call people who don’t agree with them Nazis — or eject them from north London book groups even! — at the drop of a hat.
So our play is not just about Brexit, but about the intolerance of those who define themselves as tolerant. We’re anticipating it won’t be the easiest thing to sell — the arts world is probably 99.9 per cent Remoaner — but Jane and I remain emboldened by a review from the estimable Susannah Clapp, theatre critic of the Observer, of the shockingly bad anti-Brexit play cobbled together by the Poet Laureate: ‘It is old hat… We are in a different, more obviously dark condition, the closest to civil war than any time in my life. Old friends cannot bear to be in the same room with those who voted differently. That is the country I’d like to see on stage.’
And here we are! Ms Duffy may have the National Theatre and the BBC on her side — but we have the truth. Who will buy?
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues