Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
I had one of those glorious, time-stopping experiences over the weekend, listening to Simon Russell Beale reciting Prospero’s “Ye elves of hills” speech. Shakespeare’s verses can be, in the exact sense, enchanting. Even his most incidental lines seem to fill the speaker’s mouth with power. The sorcery of Prospero’s soliloquy lies in its music, not in its meaning: a succession of exquisite mind-pictures crash onto the listener like waves. A skilled actor can, with such a monologue, transport his audience to a higher, more aethereal place. And, for my money, there’s no more skilled Shakespearean actor at present than Beale, whom I follow from role to role like an awe-struck groupie.
I have to be discreet when doing it, though. Theatres are not friendly places for Leave campaigners at present. I won’t tell you where I watched that speech, but I had to keep out of the way of more than one prominent audience member lest I provoke a reaction that would spoil their evening.
Don’t think I’m complaining. There has never been a better place to see Shakespeare – indeed, plays in general – than contemporary London. A soft-Left attitude in the stalls and on the stage is a trivial price to pay. Even the slight risk of being harangued, Pence-like, is worth it.
Incidentally, I still smile at the idea of performers presuming to lecture Mike Pence on the US Constitution as if he were unfamiliar with it. The Vice-President, a decent and modest man, has summarised the role of the Presidency, and the implicit flaws of its current occupant, far more eloquently than most of his detractors:
“Its powers are vast and consequential, its requirements – from the outset and by definition – impossible for mortals to fulfil without humility and insistent attention to its purpose as set forth in the Constitution of the United States.”
Beautifully put, Mike. But I’m getting side-tracked. My point is that Right-wing theatre-goers need to learn to be inconspicuous. When I ran into a Tory peer during the interval of Book of Mormon a couple of weeks ago, we exchanged greetings furtively, as I imagine gay men might have done in the 1950s.
Even Sir Tom Stoppard, the greatest living playwright, the only foreigner to have been performed at the Comédie-Française, can’t admit to having voted Tory. (I infer his conservatism from his plays: other Tories familiar with his oeuvre will also have spotted the tells.)
To repeat, I’m not moaning about any of this. Actors have always leaned Left, and there is little evidence that we listen to them on subjects other than acting. It would be unusually silly to take our opinions from people who earn their living by reciting things that they don’t really mean. What we want from them, rather, are their wonderful performances.
All I’m saying is that conservatives have had to learn to function within a public culture that is hostile to their values. If you look at the bookshelves in a Tory house, you’ll see lots of books by Leftist authors. This is not because Conservatives are unusually broad-minded; it’s because they have few other options.
The reverse, though, is not true. If you’re on the Left, it’s relatively easy to avoid opposed opinions. This is clearest when we move away from news and current affairs into the broader culture. Watch a consumer affairs programme and the premise will almost certainly be that wicked corporations are defrauding innocent customers. Tune into a soap opera, and you’ll have endless plotlines about people overcoming homophobia or anti-immigrant prejudice; but it’s hard to imagine an episode of Eastenders about a market trader being over-regulated, or an Archers story that touched on the iniquities of the CAP. Go to Glastonbury and guess what sort of slogans will be chanted on stage. Listen to comedy and… oh, you get the picture.
A ConservativeHome reader, in other words, will necessarily have a rough sense of what makes the other side tick. A LabourList reader, by contrast, will have to make more of an effort to seek out opposed opinions.
Is there a way to measure this divergence empirically? As a matter of fact, there is. Suppose you presented a large sample of the population with a wide-ranging political questionnaire, and asked them to fill it in with their genuine opinions, and then as they imagine that a typical Left- or Right-winger would. Which side would be better at identifying itself with opponents?
Precisely such a test has been carried out by experimental psychologists and, sure enough, Rightists have a much better feel for what the other side thinks than Leftists have. This, Jonathan Haidt argues, is largely because the desire to stand up for the underdog, which is the chief motivator of Leftists, is shared by almost all human beings; whereas alternative conservative vectors that stress loyalty, sanctity and so on are alien to many on the Left. (I am necessarily summarising a much more complex and subtle thesis; do buy his book.)
Don’t pretend to be surprised. You experience the same thing online every day. All Tories, you will have been told, hate poor people and love big multinationals and blah blah fishcakes. You will have witnessed the unfeigned rage of the other side when someone steps out of line. Kate Bush likes Theresa May? Burn her albums! The BBC tried to be neutral during the Brexit referendum? Shame on it!
A couple of days ago, I tweeted, “Has any major novel since ‘A Town like Alice’ uncomplicatedly and unobtrusively celebrated wealth-creation?” This prompted an immediate snarl from the Observer columnist Nick Cohen: “Novelists must reflect my ideology – the political correctness of the right.” Eh?
I don’t want to pick on Nick Cohen; it’s just he likes to pose a uniquely untribal Leftie. I’m pretty sure that, in his own mind, he’s a contemporary Orwell, confronting other Lefties with their contradictions. Yet even he presents the most risible parodies of what his opponents are meant to think. In a recent column, he moaned that “Johnson, Gove, Hannan and all the rest of them who insisted that Brexit was not about immigration and race now talk as if immigration and race are all that should concern us.” Seriously? Race?
In politics, indeed in life, we are all prone to exaggerate the views of our opponents. Conservatives have no claim to superior objectivity. But we do have one advantage. Every time we go to the theatre, every time we switch on a TV, we sharpen our sense of perspective.