There used to be an inch of difference between the two main British political parties. But, as the Australian 1960s radical and Oz magazine editor Richard Neville said, it was in that inch that we all lived. By “we all”, I think he meant those of us who liked to say unpopular, unconventional and radical things. I don’t think much of what Mr Neville said and thought, and I expect this mutual. But that’s the point. We’d also (I like to think) both defend the other’s right to annoy, and assume that in a civilised country we could do so.
That inch has more or less disappeared. It hasn’t even been replaced by a foreign, EU-imposed centimetre. It’s just gone. And I already detect a dangerous narrowing of debate as a result. Since David Cameron conquered the Tory party for the left, anyone who takes genuinely conservative political positions will find public platforms less accessible. I have a small private barometer which measures this. It is called the BBC. For several years, I enjoyed a small but persistent income from various parts of the BBC, which in those days felt obliged — in the interests of “balance”, to give a few minutes airtime on news and current affairs programmes to spokesmen of a morally and culturally conservative sort. Each April I tot up the many small packets of money paid for these outings — usually in bizarre BBC quantities like £26.47 or £42.60 — and declare them to the Inland Revenue.
Since Mr Cameron’s triumph, they have dwindled to almost nothing. There are still one or two, and a few others who are more or less in my position are allowed near the microphone from time to time. But Mr Cameron has brought the two major parties so close together on these matters that ‘balance’ no longer requires my presence.
The BBC, which is a body with strong opinions of its own, Fabian, culturally leftish, pro-EU, republican, performs roughly the same role that the medieval church once did, and the established Church of England did when it was still powerful. It regulates what can and cannot be discussed where many will listen or see. Books are still published, and some newspapers still have powerful circulations — though these are mainly limited to groups of the like-minded, and so ensure that newspaper commentators are — more often than not — preaching to their own supporters. But real influence is conferred by access to the airwaves of Radio 4, BBC1 and BBC2. No regulator controls that access. The BBC decides, and it decides on the basis of a canny, ruthless and self-interested assessment of how things stand. I enjoy (and understand) the paradox that this narrowing of the spectrum has been accompanied by a much kinder treatment of the Conservative party. This is of course because it is no longer at all conservative.
There’s another problem linked to this. Anyone who writes anything controversial in this country will be used to the letters and emails which then arrive, in which the complainant claims to have been “insulted” by the opinion expressed. Of course she’s not (the alleged insultee is more often female than male). What she means is that she finds the expression of this opinion intolerable, and would like to prevent it happening again. In most cases, these complaints concern issues of conflict between traditional religious moral positions, and modern sexual and moral beliefs. Censorship of contrary opinions is increasingly popular, and desired as a morally defensible good aim (in their view) by growing numbers of people. All of them would say if challenged that they believed in free speech. But only when it doesn’t “insult” or “offend” them. In which case they don’t believe in it at all.
The dreary conventional wisdom of the “centre” in politics is therefore not just miserable in itself (as I contend). Its growing ascendancy over the political, media and academic classes means that many important and legitimate opinions are increasingly denied respectable outlets, and disconnected from reputable political movements. Our old adversarial system, which provided an inch of space in which the unpopular or unconventional could flourish, badly needs reviving.
The Broken Compass: How British Politics lost its way by Peter Hitchens is published by Continuum Books.