Libby Purves (The Times 27/6/2016
As the culturati weep into their lattes while demonising the poor, old and insecure, the carry-on has been beyond parody
It has been a particularly grim couple of days for a soft-left newsaholic like me with a tenderness for the arts world. To quote one performing artist’s tweet — “Ashamed. Terrified. Shocked. Horrified”. Indeed: but it was not the actual vote that shocked, life having taught me that democracy has rough patches. It was the online squawk of reaction by my timeline, my tribe: cultural icons, colleagues, friends. If they feel “let down, betrayed, distressed” by the result, so did I by the mass response of the liberal media and arts sector to this vote against a 43-year-old administrative arrangement.
These are directors, actors, critics, cultural titans, intelligent lefties. Yet the carry-on was beyond parody: anguished bunker-mentality tinged with patronising, generalising hauteur about those who voted Leave. There had been nonsense from that general direction in the days before, alarm calls like panicked parakeets about how Brexit meant turning your back on Beethoven, Picasso and foreign cooking. This reached its apogee with the telly critic AA Gill decrying fuddy-duddy Britain as opposed to “the Renaissance, the rococo, the Romantics, the impressionists, gothic, baroque, neoclassicism, realism, expressionism, futurism, fauvism, cubism, dada, surrealism, postmodernism and kitsch”. He concluded that the only people thinking of Brexit were “old, philistine scared gits” (Mr Gill is 62 tomorrow. There’s a lot of down-wid-da- kidzery in all this).
On Friday an endlessly repeated Financial Times contribution mourned “the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied”, as if nobody ever had a foreign friend before Directive 2004/38/EC. Some were just upset: “In shock . . . the blackest of news . . . spent most of yesterday crying, couldn’t get out of bed” . . . “In a hotel room watching this s**t I feel very alone, Texting people I love telling them we’ll be OK” . . . “Angry and betrayed”.
The model Alexa Chung was one of many who tweeted a broken-heart emoji; JK Rowling mourned, “I don’t think I’ve ever wanted magic more”. Jim Al-Khalili, fine science communicator, sniffed, “Presumably as an immigrant I should hand my job back to whoever it is I took it from. A victory for xenophobia.”
So shock and sadness turned to blame. “Will find it hard today — walking up the street knowing over half of people responsible for causing a load of misery” . . . “How about every person who voted Leave be required to find a European & apologise to their face?”. The tremendous director Rupert Goold “can’t live with . . . the ugly face of this country’s spite”. Mini-celebs piled in: Richard Bacon with “So chippy. So economically illiterate”, though the renta-presenter might not be one’s economist of choice. Actually, plenty of the righteous tweeters seem vague on economics: one mid-rant expressing surprise that the governor of the Bank of England sounded “American”. Clearly not a keen business-page reader. Many re-tweeted the same few racist posters, as if BNP viciousness was brand new.
Many of these are people whose work is admirable or brilliant, and who mean well, yet elitism erupted like a poisoned boil. Of all the culturati the only sharp pre-vote voice was our Richard Morrison: “The arts world prides itself on its diversity, inclusivity, open-mindedness and constant efforts to reach out to all. Yet at the very moment when Britain decides its future, hardly anyone in the arts seems to understand, let alone agree with, the opinion of at least half the population.” Dramatists, novelists, comedians and songwriters are rarely celebrated for reflecting the concerns of the hidden millions rather than mocking. Once we had Orwell and Priestley: now, it is almost comic to watch the affluent metropolitan left being cross with the zero-hours strugglers of Sunderland for disrespecting the instructions of a Tory PM and big business.
Fair enough to despise politicians: Laurie Penny howls at “angry-looking whey-faced men in suits”, and they would be equally free to retaliate about Instagrammed cappuccino-chicks who couldn’t run a whelk stall. Bashing Farage, Johnson, Gove and Duncan Smith is routine politics. The really shameful thing is for those who purport to be socialist humanitarians to demonise 17½ million people: patronising them as stupidly “deceived”, or writing them off as racist, bigoted, malicious or just old: what Penny calls “the frightened, parochial lizard-brain of Britain”. Thank God for Peter Tatchell, a grown-up, swimming against the tide with: “The left must listen to Brexit supporters & their concerns. Very wrong to dismiss them all as racists & xenophophobes”.
Right on, Peter. They too have hearts and needs and fears and families, and at least they turned out, more than at any election for 24 years. Note that only 35 per cent of the 18 to 24-year-olds now being soppily mourned as “disinherited” even voted. Of under-35s it was still only 58 per cent. If youth was betrayed, as the indignant claim, they helped to do it. Straw polling at Glastonbury revealed that affording £232 a head doesn’t necessarily mean bothering to book a postal vote.
Respect voters, channel Chesterton: “Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget/For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”. OK, they may have spoken wrong and plunged us into difficulties. But it is not fair to blame them more than the arrogant, incompetent Brussels institutions and the decades when governments neglected inequality. Of course, there is racism to be fought. Yes, there was some disgusting campaigning by Farage. Yet that is no excuse for polishing your liberal credentials by making bogeymen of the poor, the old, the frightened and the insecure. They voted. Listen, engage, help.