Do you hate the Tories? Or perhaps Labour? Or (heaven forfend) maybe even the Liberal Democrats? Or — deep down — did you breathe a secret sigh of relief at the rise of the BNP, as, now at last, there was someone you could legitimately hate without being diminished as a person by that hate?
When I was sixteen, I once told my (then) girlfriend “I really hate mods”. Mods, at that time, were not first year Oxford University exams, nor modifications to video games or other software, but were the fashion alternative to ‘rockers’. “Oh dear,” she said. “I don’t hate anyone”. We later split up, and while I, through many pathways and byways, became a politician, she successfully pursued her dream of being a diplomat. Of course, I didn’t remotely ‘hate’ mods. I didn’t even really know what mods were, and it turned out later that some of my friends were mods. But, at the moment, it seemed to establish me more as a ‘rocker’ if I said I hated them.
Many years later, I was having dinner with my ex-fiancée (not the same person as the former girlfriend) and another friend. I mentioned that I was going into politics, and, knowing that she was a skilled and passionate person, I asked if she would consider running my campaign. “Oh.” She said. “Which party?”. “The Liberal Democrats,” I replied. For a moment a shadow appeared to pass across the sun (which was impossible, because we were in a Chinese restaurant in Soho where the sun never came). All the Oxford-London fell from her voice, as she said in horror, with as deep a Rhondda valley accent as I’ve ever heard from her: “The LIBERALS?” She appeared to rise to her feet (though she has since assured me that she did not), as she said again, in a voice which seemed to fill the restaurant with centuries of astonished grief and hurt. “THE LIBERALS?”
She later confided in me that it wasn’t the Liberals she hated (we’re actually the Liberal-Democrats), but the Conservatives. She later went off and joined the Labour party, and became a Labour parliamentary and European candidate. We’re still friends, and, no, this was not why we split up, which was, in any case, ten years earlier.
Especially in politics, we use the word ‘hate’ rather freely. But there are times when our distaste for our foes is really no more than ‘I hate Marmite’, and times when it is rather more. Ann Widdecombe famously said that she went into politics to fight socialism. ((She also, equally famously, appeared on Doctor Who in support of Simon Pegg’s John Saxon, aka The Master. If she had waited long enough, she could have joined Tony Blair’s New Labour to fight socialism.)) I always found this odd. If she had said ‘to fight communism’ I could have understood it. But socialism? Really? I remember that hatred between the Socialist Workers Party and the National Front in the 70s. And, of course, the undisguised hatred of the National Front for anyone who did not look exactly like them. As Britain, we somehow learned during the 1970s that hate based on race, then known as ‘racialism’, but now known by the catchier term ‘racism’, was simply wrong. But, in 2001, it suddenly became fashionable and acceptable to hate one particular category of foreigner, the ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. It didn’t take long for the term ‘bogus asylum seeker’ to be melded in the popular conscious with, simply, ‘asylum seeker’, so that anyone who came to these shores fleeing persecution could look forward to disdain, disgust and derision from those they met.
It’s always easier to get people to do things if you can stir up strong passions. Hatred of the BNP will doubtless bring many people into politics over the next few years. But hate is a uniquely destructive attitude. It causes us to obsess over our enemies, to see conspiracy theories, to misinterpret innocence, to categorise other people into the hated group simply because they look or sound similar. Hate causes us to mistrust, to pre-judge and to misjudge. It develops double standards in ourselves, which become embedded in a persona of hypocrisy. It causes us to skew our own positions. When we hate, we lose sight first of truth, then of honesty, and, finally, as the rot really sets in, of plausibility. We see the entire world as a battle between what we hate and what we use against that which we hate. As times moves on, those who refuse to take sides garner even more of our malice than those who are the original object of our detestation.
Hatred twists the most normal, sensible people into a horrific parody of themselves. I’ve found things written about me on websites, or said about me in meetings, by people who have never met me, never heard me speak, and (possibly) never read a word I’ve written. And yet, simply because I belong to one party rather than another, they see me as fair game for whatever they choose to throw. But these same people are, in their ordinary lives, quiet, sensible, law-abiding, the kind of person you would be quite happy to see as a magistrate or a school-teacher, or (until you found out), your town councillor.
Not all politicians are like this. In fact, it seems to me that it is more often supporters of politicians rather than politicians themselves who pursue hatred as a vocation. After I first stood for public office — as a councillor, in a seat I couldn’t win, and didn’t want to if I did — the Labour councillor who did win came up to me and said ‘Well done lad’. After the 2001 General Election, the Tory MP who won the seat came up to me and told me that he thought it was highly likely I would become an MP sooner or later, and gave me some advice on my campaign. Not sneering, measly-mouthed advice, but sensible, valuable advice, which he had learned himself, and which I have taken to heart.
All politics is made up of temporary alliances of people who agree on some important things, and disagree on others. Part of the reason we are locked into a seemingly endless cycle of boom-and-bust electoral landslides in the UK is that our parties have become virtual armed-camps. The rhetoric of Prime Minister’s Question Time makes this quite apparent. You cannot pretend a man is the devil one day, and then plan with him how the country could be served and improved the next.
Whenever I talk about this, people start to be nervous. “If we cannot hate, should we just roll over and let our opponents have whatever they want”, they start to say. Of course not. But we need to rediscover our vocabulary. We can disagree, dispute, rebutt. We can dismantle a flawed policy, discredit a misleading piece of information, decry an unworthy attitude. At times we may denounce an opponent who has, for example, claimed for a mortgage that did not exist. Not hating barely has an impact on the range of means by which we can oppose. You can love and respect someone, and yet be quite clear they are entirely wrong. You can recognise the good in someone’s motives, and yet also recognise they are completely incompetent. And you should. The duty of opposition is to oppose. It is an honourable duty, and serves the public good. But no good is served by hating them ((that is, hating a person — it is entirely right to hate injustice, hate people trafficking, hate cancer, and so on)).
It is time to take the malice out of British politics.