If you think all working-class culture is represented by flag-waving, then you’re the snooty one

Aloofness is no virtue, but second-guessing the will of the majority has a terrible history

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To the offences which daily proliferate in our thin-skinned society – offences of vocabulary and attitude: tonal, postcode, de haut en bas offences – can now be added showing insufficient respect to people who park white vans in their drives and drape their houses with the Cross of St George.

How “disrespect” has migrated from a street gang delinquency policed by easily offended young men carrying switchblades, to a moral atrocity for which politicians pay with their careers, is a matter for sociologists of sensitivity. But I don’t recall its being a sin of the greatest magnitude 10 or 20 years ago, when a refusal of respect for everyone and everything was a sign of a robust culture. So either we are more decent than we were, or we are faking one sort of outrage to conceal another.

That Emily Thornberry should have been forced to resign as shadow Attorney General I don’t question. Reader, she tweeted. And a parliamentarian who tweets forfeits our regard. Little, it’s true, remains of the dignity of political office. To talk of gravitas is no doubt to show disrespect to those who don’t know the word, didn’t go to a school where they taught Latin, don’t own a dictionary, and wouldn’t approve of the concept anyway, but if seriousness and decorum are too much to ask even of our politicians we might at least expect worldly wisdom. Act in haste, repent at leisure, and what’s more hasty than a tweet?

As for the matter of the tweet in question – a photograph of a flag-draped house, posted without comment (unless “Image of Rochester” can be construed as comment) – the damage it has caused is said to be seismic, though I am still to discover its intrinsic offence. I say “intrinsic” in order to make a distinction between the thing itself and what it occasions. You and I are not necessarily guilty of any offence, reader, just because our too-twitchy neighbour takes umbrage at what we say.

Words lose meaning quickly in the act of remonstrating. We call suicide-bombers “cowardly”, for example, though it must take uncommon courage to blow oneself up. “Cowardly” is thus a word we append in order to justify and ratchet up our anger. Words like “condescending” and “sneering” perform a similar function. Where we disagree we have to impugn those we disagree with. They must be liars, rogues, bigots, racists, snobs – they cannot simply be seeing this or that matter differently.

I am not so naive as to suppose that a photograph without comment doesn’t imply comment. Emily Thornberry didn’t tweet a picture of that house as she might have posted a picture of the first crocus of spring. The place and timing were political. This was Rochester and Strood, scene of a by-election that Ukip was pretty sure to win, in no small measure because of its stance on immigration. Whatever bears on immigration bears on patriotism, and the Cross of St George is a strong expression of the latter. Here, Emily Thornberry’s tweet was saying, is the version of it we are up against. Implicitly critical? Almost certainly. Sneering? I don’t see it, unless any attitude to patriotism which isn’t entirely approving is ipso facto a sneer.

Those who would hang, draw and quarter Thornberry automatically associate flag-waving patriotism with the working classes. It is they, therefore, who are guilty of condescension, since they assume sameness where it isn’t, and elide the choices implicit in the formation of a culture. This was nakedly clear in Tory chairman Grant Shapps’ response to the offending tweet. “I just think it’s extraordinary to say anything other than people who work hard, play by the rules, should be allowed to get on without politicians taking the mickey out of them.”

Hear hear to that, as a general principle. But where’s the mickey taking in this case? It is no disparagement of the working classes to admire some aspects of their culture less than others. A man can be revered for working hard and bringing up his family with honour and affection, but still be wanting in his attitudes, say, to foreigners. Poverty is never open to ridicule, but a point of view might be. One cannot help being poor, but one can help what one values. Alone of all cultures, is working-class culture to be sacrosanct?

That Ukip should have found Thornberry’s tweet reprehensible is no surprise. Of Miliband, too, one no longer expects any better. Of course he called the tweet “condescending and disrespectful”. It was another instance of panic overcoming principle. Fear now governs everything, and the overriding fear for Labour today – indeed the overriding fear for all parties, and all commentators, come to that – is being seen to be “out of touch”. To be out of touch comprehends being disrespectful, patronising and sneering, with the added imputation of being well-to-do, well-educated, and from north London. One can sneer, you see, upwards.

We have reached a perilous stage in our democracy when fear of being out of touch pre-empts distinguishing what we should be in touch with from what we shouldn’t. Aloofness is no virtue, but second-guessing the will of the majority – which in politics often means exploiting a prejudice – has a terrible history. These are savagely unjust times, in which the disproportionately fortunate don’t even have the decency to be discreet, but the more troubled our society, the more we need leaders who are exemplary; who can think their own thoughts, not ventriloquise the people’s; tell us what we never before thought, not what we think when we aren’t thinking at all.

Exceptional men and women who don’t tweet, don’t crave approval, don’t remind us of ourselves, and don’t suppose that hanging the Cross of St George from the windows of their mansions will again make us the one nation we never were.