In the days after the death of Princess Diana, when the whole country appeared to have succumbed to a mass hysteria and we old-fashioned Brits were beginning to feel like we no longer knew our own country, I met a like-minded friend in a cellar bar.
As we sat in a dark, wooden booth, lowered our voices and talked into our pints, one of us remarked that we felt like Czech dissidents before the fall of communism, articulating heretical views in empty beer cellars. Contemplating this seemingly huge movement of the nation’s emotional dial, we likened our dissent to that of a courageous resistance movement. There was, of course, no comparison. Secret police were not waiting to arrest us for the inadequacy of our grief. We were not so much heroic as bemused and sorry for ourselves.
I recalled that drink when reading a Spectator blog post, in which the author – a man I like and once worked for – mischievously opined that such is the ridicule and opprobrium heaped on opponents of gay marriage that they are now as brave as those gay men and women who came out in the 1970s, after legalisation but well before acceptance. The writer is too intelligent to really believe this analogy. He knows that, while they may be mocked by Frankie Boyle, traditionalists do not get beaten up in the streets for appearing overly conservative. The Carlton Club is not routinely raided by police and The Spectator is not being prosecuted under the obscenity laws.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps across Britain people are leading double lives, keeping their secret position on gay marriage from their families. Maybe homes are being torn apart as husbands and fathers come out against equal marriage. “We just thought he liked wearing tweed,” sobs a family member. “We used to think he was out canvassing; now it turns out he was ‘meeting friends’ at the golf club.” Others live a lie, sitting at home pretending to enjoy The Graham Norton Show, but secretly watching Jim Davidson online when their partner is asleep.
Indeed, if we are benchmarking bravery, why stop at the 1970s gays? Why not seek comparison with troops in the trenches of the Somme? “OK, Norman, the word’s come down the line – we’re going over the top on gay rights. Oh and listen, if I should die, think only this of me … ”
The comparison is as ludicrous as my samizdat moment. But the blog post is illuminating, not least because it deploys the same arguments advanced, for example, by Ukip and even the English Defence League – namely that the country is being stolen from them by minorities and metropolitan elites. This is not, I hasten to add, to liken opponents of gay marriage to the racist yobs of the EDL – merely to say that they have succumbed to a similar sense of persecution.
The rhetoric is essentially the same. Traditional cultural norms are being eroded and the salt-of-the-earth people of England are forced to surrender their values. Mourning a lost England, they develop a martyrdom myth and see themselves as victims of political correctness/feminism/multiculturalism/the sexual revolution (delete as applicable) gone mad.
Thus the people who actually enjoy most privilege in society – white, male Christians – engage in victim envy, convincing themselves that, in losing some privileges, they are in fact the ones being discriminated against. A group that has had its own way for centuries suddenly grasps what it must be like to be on the wrong end of history, and it doesn’t like it. But rather than move on, having an argument, they prefer to seek reassurance in the comfortable cloak of the dispossessed. In the victimhood Olympics they refuse to be also-rans.
A week after my cellar drink, the Diana tumult died down. In the despondency of the moment, we had lamented the land that had deserted us and cast ourselves in the role of dissidents. But within days the country, like an old-fashioned Englishman, suddenly rather embarrassed at a momentary display of emotion, stiffened its upper lip and was again the nation I recognised. The dial, in truth, had moved but a whisker.