Hysteria, vilification, a spurious 'victim': welcome to the age of anti-politics

Thornberry broke one of the golden rules of politics. While voters can be rude to politicians, politicians can never be rude to voters

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Emily Thornberry’s tweet of a flag-draped house, her resignation and the deification of the owner who lived in the house form one of the great emblematic narratives of our time.

Every part of the sequence is fuelled by anti-politics hysteria and the equally frenzied fashion for turning nonentities into national celebrities.  The tattooed, shaven-haired “victim” becomes a noble patriotic hero. The elected politician loses her job and is still vilified in spite of being punished in a way that could kill off her career. 

Desperately trying to build bridges with flag-waving white van owners, Ed Miliband declares he feels respect when he sees St George’s flags and vans. This is not enough to contain the storm. An over-excited newspaper sends the owner and a white van to the homes of Miliband and Thornberry. They are supposed to be snobbish and out-of-touch whereas White Van Dan speaks for England.

Thornberry broke one of the golden rules of politics. While voters can be rude to politicians, politicians can never be rude to voters. But Thornberry is not an insulated freak in regarding an ostentatious display of St George’s flags as depressing or alarming rather than inspiring. Far-right groups parade the flag on their marches as if it belonged to them. However innocent the patriotic motives of most who display it, the flag has come to symbolise something more. We all know this but Thornberry is freakish in that, as a politician, she is not allowed to express such negativity, even in the form of a photo on Twitter.


What followed her tweet reflects the extreme insecurities of those that are elected, a dark irony given that the Ukip surge is partly explained by voters’ assumptions of lofty arrogance in the so-called Westminster bubble.

Like so much of this emblematic narrative, the opposite is closer to reality. Reading the polls, focus groups and the rest, leaders in the Westminster bubble are so in touch with the level of discontent that they try too hard to please, appearing to accept the premise that both Europe and immigration are the source of all the UK’s problems when they know this is not true.

For some of the angriest voters or non-voters there is no reciprocal arrangement. They do not try to please the politicians by reflecting on the dilemmas and challenges faced by flawed leaders. It spoils the fun of feeling angry and betrayed. They are the great patriotic ones. White Van Dan even wears the shirt of the England football team as he knocks on Thornberry’s door, a sign of stoic patriotism.

White Van Dan is a victim, but of a newspaper seeking to use him to torment elected politicians. Evidently he and other voters do feel disconnected, not surprisingly when they face the nerve-racking consequences of the financial crisis, economic insecurities, housing shortages and still fragile public services. The loathed politicians agonise and differ over what to do about these big issues, but few notice. Thornberry has gone for taking a photo. White Van Dan is a celebrity. The main party leaders feel gloomy about being loathed and yet are perceived as arrogant and indifferent. Welcome to the mad world of British politics in a dangerous state of flux.