Let me tell you a story

Together with a great many other people I’m trying to make sense of last Thursday’s election results. How can an incumbent Conservative government so tainted by sleaze and deceit be so successful, especially in what has been traditionally regarded as strong Labour areas? Some of the anecdotal evidence is even more puzzling. One voter from the former North Eastern ‘red wall’, for example, who I heard being interviewed by the press, justified his support for the Tories by pointing out how, under a Labour controlled council both the Police and NHS had been struggling for resources – resources supplied by a Conservative national government! Another praised the Tory government because, under them, the number of food banks had gone up! How can sense be made from all this?

Well, I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that most people make sense of life and politics through the use of narrative or story. We develop stories, complete with heroes, victims, villains and plot lines, that makes sense of our life experiences. These stories do not need to be true, they only require an internal logic and dynamic that appears to unify these experiences into a coherent whole. And the themes for two of the most dominant plot lines, I suggest, have been supplied by Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

For some of the most economically deprived areas of the country Brexit supplied a story line with a happy ever-after ending. The villain of the story was the dark bureaucratic figure of the EU; a faceless character, democratically unaccountable, who breathed fire in the form of an abundance of rules, regulations and paperwork, that stifled the hard working ‘ordinary’ people of this country. These people, the victims of the story, were offered hope by the arrival of a blonde haired knight who had always dreamed of leading ‘his people’. His promise of slaying the dragon and leading his people into a future free from foreign control captured the imagination of those people who could see no other reason for their lack of riches. They immediately forgot the actual help this particular beast had supplied to various parts of their once great country. He became the reason for their poverty and the lack of current national greatness. Once slain by the great blonde hope all would be well again.

A second, overlapping narrative has been supplied by the Covid pandemic. Here, very obviously, the villain is the virus – a foreign virus that has invaded our shores and deprived us of our liberty. Once again, in general, the ordinary people of this country are the victims, but it needs to be remembered that these narratives are usually told in the first person. It is my own personal freedom that has been taken from me – it is my livelihood that is being threatened. And once again, for some inexplicable reason, the hero of this story is the same blonde haired buffoon. In the popular imagination he has led the development and roll out of vaccines that will restore freedom to the besieged population. Never mind that this was an international effort or that the UK had greedily stockpiled vaccines, depriving the populations of other countries their fair share. Never mind the earlier chaos concerning the purchase and distribution of PPE. Never mind the earlier ignoring of medical advice. No, all that matters for the personal story lines is that liberty is in sight, and that BJ has restored it.

OK, I’ve gone a little over the top in how I’ve described these two stories, but from my perspective they do supply the main thrust of how voters in many parts of the country have made sense of events. The irony in all this, of course, is that the latter story has obscured the closing scenes of the former. The full outcomes of our leaving the EU has been overshadowed by over a year of repeated lockdowns, by a year in which Covid has not just infected large numbers of the population but our popular news as well. For most of the last year there has been no other news. This, I can’t help feeling, has been very fortunate for the government, in as much as the full consequences of our leaving has not entered the news narrative. But, to repeat a constant theme in these posts, what I find most concerning is the lack of critical thinking being exercised. Far too many of use seem incapable of, at the very least, asking questions about the stories we are being fed – of not only challenging the stories that are told by others, but of having our own stories challenged in return.

There is though, one other aspect to all this – the need, the desperate need, for a counter narrative. Traditionally this has been supplied by the opposition party in Westminster. In the dying years of the John Major government the Labour Party, under Tony Blair, put forward a vision that captured the public attention. I am by no means a fan of Blair (quite the opposite in fact) but you have to admit that, as an opposition, they did get their act together. The same cannot be said of the current parliamentary Labour Party. Even if you are a Conservative supporter you must surely admit it’s healthy for the government to be challenged by an effective opposition – an opposition that can provide a different narrative, one that helps people make sense of their experiences in a different way. There has never been a greater need for a change of story.

An open letter to Chris Loder

I must confess that I enjoy eating meat. Having said that, I also openly acknowledge that there is a powerful argument for eating substantially less meat. If we are going to not only achieve net zero-carbon emissions, but actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to the levels required to prevent us reaching a climate tipping point, we may well need to seriously consider a predominantly vegetarian diet. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, meat and dairy accounts for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and many scientists argue that if the world is to meet its target of limiting global warming to well below 2C, some degree of diet shift will be necessary. My point here is not to argue the case for a vegetarian, or even vegan diet, but to simply suggest that, at the very minimum, there is a good case for at least considering such a diet. Why then have you, as my MP, been so offended by the long-running BBC children’s programme, Blue Peter, and its Green Badge initiative that includes the challenge to try a vegetarian diet for two weeks?

I think that one reason is that it helps to build your image of being a farmer’s son and champion of rural life. Apparently, farm leaders across the country have accused the BBC of adopting an anti-meat agenda by allowing the initiative. However, by asking why the BBC was allowing the programme to “demand children not to eat meat in order to get their Blue Peter Green Badge” you grossly distorted the nature of the challenge. As a BBC spokesperson pointed out, not only are other options than avoiding meat available to choose from to gain the badge, but the challenge is to simply not eat it for two weeks. They are not asking the children to stop eating meat for ever, and using the word ‘demand’ invokes an degree authoritarianism that is just not there! If, after just two weeks of abstinence, the young person taking the challenge decides that they would like to continue with the diet their attachment to meat could not have been that strong in the first place. And I see no harm in having a debate about our diet, a debate that can only be informed by having some experience of alternatives. But, perhaps even more importantly, it just may be the case that the nature of farming needs to change – that how we use our land for agriculture needs to acknowledge the fast approaching climate crisis and adapt accordingly.

I think that another reason is the belief amongst certain people on the right of politics that the BBC has a left-wing bias. Your tirade against the broadcaster included the accusation that they have a “woke agenda”. Okay, it’s time for a second confession. I am getting increasingly annoyed, and not a little perplexed, by the derogatory way the term ‘woke’ is being used by many Conservatives and their supporters. The term originated in the African-American culture as an expression of being awake to social injustice. And what is wrong with that? Surely we should all be trying to be awake, to being aware and conscious of social injustices? I would really like someone who uses the term as a pejorative, as a way of dismissing an opinion they do not like, to explain exactly what they mean by the term. And if the BBC does have an agenda of being awake to social injustice then perhaps they deserve our support rather than criticism. The mission of the BBC, as set out in its charter, is “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.” Social injustice, by its very nature, is not in the public interest and is not impartial.

But this accusation of left-wing bias from the right is mirrored by accusations of right-wing bias from many on the left. I know many people who regard themselves as being on the left of the political spectrum and who think that our favourite auntie is biased in the other direction – though in fairness this is often aimed at their news coverage (and a particular political editor in particular). It seems to me that many of us are all too prone to finding a quick way to dismiss an argument that we either do not like or find inconvenient to us; we seem to prefer ridicule and insult the messenger than critically engage with the message. We would rather label an opinion or action as ‘woke’ or ‘biased’ than properly listen to the argument, explain why we think differently, and be open to amending our position in the light of evidence. I am fast coming to the conclusion that collectively we need to find a way to open our minds to a much higher degree of critical thinking.