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Summary of the week: the nativist right is losing control
They first faced the England team. Then they lost. And now, in their infinite wisdom, they are taking on the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). They will lose that too.
It seems that the nativist right, which for five years has dominated the debate in this country, is losing its touch.
Much of this comes down to instinct. In newspaper columns and blogs, we often talk about the more complex structural and technical aspects of a topic. But the general political debate is often based on an instinctive sense of what is right and what is wrong. And that’s a judgment that the nativist right has previously proven very adept at winning.
In so many recent debates, liberals found themselves on the wrong side of people’s instincts. Brexit is the most obvious example. The arguments in favor of the single market were relatively complicated. It was so much easier to just say “regain control.” The same goes for human rights laws. It is much easier to say ‘this horrible person should be punished’ than to argue that the rules that protect the worst of us will certainly protect the rest of us. The pattern repeats itself for all kinds of issues: the last night of the proms, benefits, immigration, and the list goes on.
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Time and again, the longest and most complex conversation fell victim to the easiest emotional one. And liberals found themselves at the rear of a national conversation against opponents who knew how to use that instinctual sense against them.
So the last few weeks have been interesting. It started when English footballers knelt. Once again, the nativist right saw an opportunity to drive a wedge in the population, throwing most of the good old English patriots against the metropolitan elites out of touch. Kneeling is new and unusual, and is seen to be innately linked to social justice movements. Then they attacked him.
Priti Patel endorsed the England fans who booed him. Johnson tacitly made it clear that he felt the same way. The phalanx of nativist commentators, in their traditional regiments in right-wing magazines, newspapers, and radio shows, lobbied hard against the team.
But for once, they were wrong. They made two mistakes. The first was facing the national soccer team, which is frankly crazy, but it gets crazier when they reach the final of an international tournament. The second was forgetting that the public is anti-racist. You can motivate the right people on immigration, free movement and asylum. But when it comes to basic anti-racist sentiment, the vast majority attribute it.
Now we are seeing something similar happening with the RNLI. Nigel Farage attacked them for saving the migrants. Nativist bloggers and Brexiters came out to support him. And based on previous evidence, they would have good reason to think this would work. After all, it is difficult to defend asylum seekers. Liberals have to explain the conditions in their own countries, our obligations under the refugee convention, why people can choose to leave France to come here. It’s a two-step explanation against the simple emotional saying ‘stop the ships’.
And yet it didn’t work. Once again, they chose the wrong target. The RNLI is one of the most respected charities in this country. We have all grown up surrounded by the charity boxes that they have in each city center. They correspond to something basic in an island nation. And their feeling had purity: that they save anyone, everyone, without asking questions. Even if you are critical of asylum, that is a difficult case to answer.
Suddenly, it was the nativist right that expressed two-step thought processes: if we stop saving them, then lower the pull factor and then fewer ships come. That is false, by the way, and does not correspond to any evidence. But it is also complex, whereas the statement “we save all lives at sea” is not.
What’s going on here? Is it overconfidence? Tactical? A broader change?
It’s almost certainly a bit of all of them. There’s a hint in this week’s More in Common report on the culture war, which found a tremendous amount of consensus on what are supposedly highly divisive issues. “Most people in Britain see culture and change very differently from those who fuel the flames of culture wars … We found a surprising amount of common ground and, among most people, a desire to balancing competing views and concerns, including on alleged cultural issues. ‘flash points’ “.
That includes many of the views that are dismissed as part of a metropolitan elite, such as wanting “a fuller set of facts” about Britain’s history and being glad the country has “become a fairer, more egalitarian and more tolerant. ” . But this sense is overshadowed by “an industry of conflicting entrepreneurs in politics, media, technology and elsewhere, profiting from division and conflict.” They have ruled out common ground in favor of “the ‘us versus them’ culture wars.”
The nativist right got used to winning. You can see the complacency in the ministerial response to kneeling and the bloggers’ decrepitude about the RNLI. It has made them lazy and overconfident. They do not see the ground moving under their feet.
What they now face are powerful cultural totems: key British institutions that cannot easily be dismissed as out-of-touch liberals, yet reflect the values that nativists try to associate with that imaginary group. Strong, trustworthy and uncontroversial national symbols are beginning to emit a more compassionate and generous form of identity, which nativists struggle to deal with.
There is a key lesson to be learned here. It’s about how you frame a debate and who fights it. But it is also something more, something deeper. The country is changing. Beneath all the angry noise and cynicism, and hidden by an electoral system that benefits conservatives, he is becoming more socially liberal. The divisions on which the nativists depend are increasingly ineffective.
After five ruinous years, we began to see a certain vulnerability in the nativist right. And in that vulnerability, you can glimpse the first signs of their ultimate defeat.
This is my last week of review for Politics.co.uk, as I move onto new pastures. It has been a privilege to have this space to write for you over the years, as we have been through some frankly gruesome nonsense and some good news, certainly more isolated. Thank you for giving me your time. It is deeply appreciated.
This site has given me a lot: a space to develop my journalism and the support to deliver it. It is a proudly independent space in an online world full of agendas. I will continue to be an ambassador for it and I hope you are too. See you out there.