The new cleavage in British politics is not between left and right, but between liberals and communitarians. The elite is mainly liberal, believing rights are universal, while most people see them as conditional. But this divide is not insurmountableby Julian Baggini / January 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Two years ago, I began a project to try to understand better the beliefs and values of the English—their “folk philosophy”—from religious views to their conceptions of the good life. But it was what I learned about the political beliefs of “ordinary” people that I found most interesting, and most significant for the development of liberal democracy.
No one who wants to advance a progressive political agenda can dismiss the values of mainstream society. Whereas elected politicians have to pay attention to what people want, intellectuals are usually, at best, uninterested. This is one reason why intellectuals and commentators rarely remain friends of governments. As the philosopher Jacques Rancière points out, the line between hatred of populism and hatred of democracy is thin, and often unwittingly transgressed.
But how can we know what people really think? We are constantly being polled, but interpreting the results is not straightforward. Sociologists have identified “doorstep opinions”: views made up on the spot by people asked about a subject they don’t usually think about. Television maverick Chris Morris provided a demonstration of this in his satirical news programme The Day Today when he asked members of the public nonsense questions like, “Soul reversal—is that a good or a bad thing?” The obliging citizen would answer, straight-faced.
In an attempt to dig beneath polls and surveys, I spent six months living in a completely typical part of England. I was looking for an “Everytown” with the same mix of young and old, rich and poor, married and single as the country as a whole. The demographic calculator I used threw up the postcode S66, on the fringes of Rotherham, South Yorkshire.
I chose England as my unit. The English comprise 85 per cent of Britons, so surveys about the British tell you mainly about the English. Furthermore, I suspect much of what I found out applies to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland too, so I will venture to talk of the British, allowing that there will be some exceptions to my general conclusions.
To help find the wavelength of the British mind, I turned the dial from Radio 4 to Radio 2. I read only the Sun and the Mail. More importantly, I talked and listened. And what I found was this: that what looks from the viewpoint of the liberal intelligentsia like ignorant and inconsistent intolerance is actually something more coherent and challenging.