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.