Iain Dale has an acute grasp of the present and a defective sense of history. At the start of this book he laments “the growing trend towards rudeness and hatred”, which has been exacerbated by “the internet, and social media in particular”.
Manners, he insists, have got worse: “Over the years, I have grown hugely frustrated and a little bit angry about the decline in the way we talk to and debate with each other.”
He quotes a tweet in which Simon Schama calls Boris Johnson “fatso”. According to Dale, A.J.P.Taylor or Thomas Babington Macaulay would never have been so rude about the Prime Minister.
But one of the delights of reading Taylor or Macaulay is that they are rude about anyone who incurs their displeasure. It is true they are wittier than Schama.
The right to be as rude as we like about other people, and especially about people who consider themselves superior to ourselves, is at the heart of our understanding of liberty.
Consider Chaucer: a very rude writer. Or John Wilkes, a libertine who was also one of the fathers of civil liberty, and was so rude about the Scots (whom he actually rather liked) that angry Scots army officers would stop him in the street and challenge him to a duel, and Scottish children would burn him in effigy.
Or recall what The Times wrote of George IV after his death in June 1830:
“There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”
Politics too used to be rougher, and drunker. Just now we are having an argument about Ireland. Before the First World War we were on the brink of civil war about Ireland. Here is Winston Churchill, in his essay on Asquith, published in 1934:
“It was this sinister influence of eighty Irish votes – now happily for ever withdrawn from the House of Commons – making and unmaking Governments, swaying the fortunes of both great British political parties, which poisoned nearly forty years of our public life. The unconstitutional resistance of Ulster will be judged by history in relation to the fact that the Ulster Protestants believed that the Home Rule Bills were driven forward not as a result of British convictions, but by the leverage of this Irish voting power. That the lawless demonstrations in Ulster were the parent of many grievous ills cannot be doubted; but if Ulster had confined herself simply to constitutional agitation, it is extremely improbable that she would have escaped forcible inclusion in a Dublin Parliament.”
One cannot refrain from admiring Churchill both as a writer, and for the loyalty with which he defended his incendiary and almost unbelievably rude father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who in 1886 coined the shockingly unconstitutional words, “Ulster will fight; Ulster will be right”.
Talk about inciting people to break the law. The truth is that we live in an uncommonly polite age. We are more polite than we used to be about the monarchy, our football hooligans have become less violent, our trade unions less able to bring the country to a grinding halt, our book reviewers less keen to tear some respected author limb from limb, Private Eye inspires less fear than it did, foxes roam town and country undisturbed, and there is not a single parliamentarian who is as rude as Lord Randolph was about Gladstone.
Lord Randolph, as his son wrote in his life of him,
“flouted venerable leaders and mocked at constituted authority with a mixture of aristocratic insolence and democratic brutality”
We have lost the aristocratic insolence, suppressed the democratic brutality, and submitted ourselves to a tyranny of virtue organised and policed by the most sensitive members of the middle class.
I am myself a repressed and timid member of the middle class, who strives not to inflict unnecessary pain. But I cannot help feeling we have lost something.
What a neutered people we have become, terrified of giving offence to just about anyone, and forbidden by law from being rude about various groups of people who in my youth (I am 62) were the subject of wounding but not always malicious jibes, some to be found in the rhymes we were taught in the nursery.
Those rhymes have since been purified, to bring them into strict conformity with modern standards. We think of ourselves as free, and ignore the censorship to which we have consented, which in later ages may come to seem as ridiculous as anything Thomas Bowdler did to Shakespeare’s plays in order to make them fit to be read to children.
Then came the internet, and social media. The censorship collapsed, no one was in charge, and every brute who wanted to have his say could do so.
No sooner had we hailed a new birth of freedom than we witnessed, with horror, a tidal wave of filth and cruelty sweeping through the internet.
A comparable horror was felt at the end of the Victorian period, when high-minded advocates of universal literacy found that by teaching people to read they had paved the way for the yellow press.
The previous repression had been so effective that when a new outlet – the internet – became available, it became a sewer, anything pure contaminated by contact with muck.
What is do be done about Twitter? This is where Dale comes in. He says he is not writing “an intellectual book” but “from experience” and “from the heart”.
These qualities are familiar to readers of his Friday Diary on this site, and make him a successful broadcaster. When he started in radio, he relates, “for the first time in my life I was doing something I felt completely at home with”.
He had “no formal training” as a journalist, but this did not matter, for what he did have was the ability to react instantaneously and with deep emotion to some breaking news story.
His listeners know he shares and expresses their feelings, and ring in to tell him theirs. He enters into what is happening, or what he has just heard is happening.
He is very good on grief, and confesses that “Somewhat bizarrely, I feel more comfortable talking about grief on the radio than I do to people close to me.”
In this book, we get a glimpse of Dale as a student at the University of East Anglia, woken by someone shouting through his door, “Oh, you’re still alive then.”
On waking up and going into the communal kitchen, he sees in The Daily Mail that a Welsh Guardsman, Ian Dale, aged 19 from Pontypridd, has been killed in action in the Falklands:
“It was like being hit in the solar plexus. Tears streamed down my face, as they were to do many times over the next few weeks. Nothing else could have brought home to me the terrible waste of war like this did. I was the same age. It could have been me.”
Like many of the best journalists, Dale is a bit naive. He is surprised and outraged by events, rather than worldly wise and resigned. He talks the story up.
These invaluable qualities are accompanied by enormous energy and plentiful political experience. He fought North Norfolk for the Conservatives in 2005, despite being warned by Chris Rennard, the Liberal Democrats’ election supremo, that Norman Lamb, who had captured the seat from the Tories in 2001 by 483 votes, would this time “get a majority of 10,000.”
Dale is a gifted and indefatigable campaigner who loves knocking on doors. Lamb gets a majority of 10,606.
In this book, Dale claims that in 2018 “political discourse…plumbed poisonous new depths”. He complains that Question Time has become “a bear pit” which is “almost unwatchable”, and that interviewers are so intent on achieving some “Gotcha” moment that the interview becomes more about them than about the politician whose views they are supposed to be discovering.
Brexit has divided us into opposing camps which will not listen to each other, and Twitter is roamed by mobs who, for example, attacked with repulsive virulence the female Labour MPs who dared to make a stand against anti-semitism.
Many people will agree with all this. Such horrible things happen on social media that there is a temptation to avoid it altogether.
But I have the impression that the worst outrages have in the last few years prompted a reaction in favour of the decency and good manners which most readers, listeners, viewers and voters would for most of the time prefer, and that it has become easier to avoid various kinds of obscenity.
Dale himself detects “a real appetite for respectful debate nowadays, in a way that maybe there wasn’t in years gone by”.
Actually, the two appetites, for dignified and undignified behaviour, have always co-existed. I can’t be alone in having enjoyed the sight of Dale some years ago rolling around on the seafront at Brighton with a protester whom he was trying to stop interfering with a television interview – an event to which several pages are devoted in this book.
It was not the most elevated piece of footage we had ever seen, but for a day or two it took its place in the national pantomime and put a smile on people’s faces, not least because we recognised the unavailing sincerity of what Dale was trying to do.
At the end of his book, Dale offers a list of “50 Ways to Improve Public Discourse”. Many of these are sensible. He would like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube “to ban anonymous accounts and ensure all accounts are verified”.
What he doesn’t quite say is that if you want to purify social media, you have somehow to reintroduce the editorial function, enforce a house style and suppress antisocial behaviour.
A good letters editor on a traditional newspaper ensures that merely boorish letters aren’t published, and that the readers get the ten most interesting letters, not hundreds of semi-literate ravings which only a maniac would take the time to read.
The cure can, unfortunately, be worse than the disease. It is expensive, and although it raises the tone, and encourages good writers to think it might be worth contributing their thoughts, it can also reduce freedom of expression.
I recall working for a newspaper where the poor, conscientious letters editor supposed it was his duty to suppress any letter which would upset some member of the paper’s staff.
In the late 1930s, the editor of The Times, a paper of high seriousness, supposed it was his duty to suppress any news which might upset Hitler.
So we are unlikely ever to reach the state of perfection which we imagine to have existed in a past from which we recall only the highlights. In my opinion, only Robin Day was able to make Question Time a pleasure to watch.
But meanwhile Dale’s book will delight his innumerable fans, who relish his throwaway manner and know that he at least understands their dismay at the dismal state of our culture.
“O tempora, O mores!” – “O what times, O what habits!” – as Cicero put it in 63 BC.