Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Choose your bogeyman

The politics of grievance requires a 'bogeyman'.  An all-purpose evil on which can be blamed everything that is wrong with life – and the only thing that stands between us and a vague promised utopia.

Bogeyman Politics asks you to believe that there is one simple cure for all of the interconnected problems of messy, complicated, fragile day-to-day life.  Can't get a hospital appointment?  Blame the Bogeyman.  Wages don't stretch far enough?  Blame the Bogeyman.  Can't get on the housing ladder?  Blame the Bogeyman.  Marriage breaking up?  Blame the Bogeyman.  It is a crass oversimplification, peddled by charlatans who want you to think that they alone, in this big scary world, are on your side.  It is a con.

For some, the Bogeyman is 'bankers', or 'neoliberalism'.  For others, 'Westminster'.  For many, it is 'immigration'.  For the majority of people who will vote to leave the European Union tomorrow, it is the EU that fills that role; the EU is the Bogeyman, responsible for everything bad about Britain, and the one and only thing that's holding us back from being truly great (or, if you are of a nostalgic bent, 'great again').

Real life is more complex than that.  More difficult than that.  Anyone selling you the idea you can fix all your problems with one fell swoop is not telling you the truth.

Which is why it is sad to see campaigners for the 'Remain' camp in the EU referendum rebutting the 'Leave' campaign's Bogeyman Politics with a few choice Bogeymen of their own.  All day today I have watched a steady stream of smug, supercilious Tweets and Facebook posts along the lines of "Oh, you think single issue x is to blame for everything bad? Ha! You fools! Can't you see that single issue y is to blame for everything bad…?"

No doubt the people posting this stuff think themselves very clever.  They aren't fooled by the narrative that the EU is the root cause of all our nation's problems!  They can see right through that!  They know what the true cause is.  But they have allowed themselves to be duped by a different narrative – one which is just as seductively simplistic, and just as destructively wrong.

As with most things, there is no one simple answer.  The 'Bogeyman' concept is attractive because it is comforting.  It is less frightening to be told you are a basically 'good' person who has been a victim of some malign conspiracy – and that you have it within your power to rise up and take back what is rightfully yours from those who have done you wrong – than that you are adrift on a rolling sea of entropy in the ever-changing, unforgiving, big wide world.  Having someone, or something, to blame – giving it a form, a name, a face – makes life easier to cope with.  At last, the question "Why do these things always happen to me?!" seems to have an answer.

It is an understandable, human reaction.  But political movements based on grievance, where politicians knowingly perpetuate the 'Bogeyman' narrative to mobilise great swathes of the general public, have a long and ugly track record of turning very nasty indeed.  And when campaigners for 'Remain' offer up an alternative Bogeyman as a focal point for the mystified anger of 'Leave' voters, they are guilty of it just the same.

The trouble (for both sides) comes afterwards – once the Bogeyman is slain.  The Bogeyman may have been defeated, but the problems of ordinary life have not gone away.  The hospital waiting times, the tax bills, the energy prices…  These things have not disappeared overnight.  The sunlit uplands of utopia glibly promised by the politicians who cynically played on people's fear of the Bogeyman to win votes seem as far away as ever.

And so, the search for a new Bogeyman must begin.  Something has to fill that void.  Something, or someone, has to be to blame.  Who do we think that might turn out to be?  When Britain votes to leave the European Union, and people's lives are not magically improved overnight, the public anger which did so much to drive the anti-EU movement won't just vanish – we should all be very concerned about what (or who) that ire might end up focused on next.

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