May felt like the cruellest month this year. The European and local elections, the dismal responses from the other parties to the rise of Ukipery, the relentless harrying of migrants, the grotesque deeds of militant Islamists, internet barbarism, and the pushback against the EU and equality and diversity (the diversity that the nation owned and celebrated during the Olympics) made many of us feel discombobulated. The airwaves were filled with noisy, coarse and churlish voices all saying what they damn well wanted. The press seemed more shouty than ever. Freedom had become a lethal weapon. Polite discourse, such a part of this nation's character, was receding. Soon it will be a wistful memory of times past.
There was personal angst, too. A youngish friend, a teacher, had suddenly decided to thenceforth wear the hijab and jilbab – headscarf and full-length gown – both in lifeless grey. Why? Because she was a "Muslimah", a proper Muslim at last. So, those of us who don't cover up are not? In a dull, programmed voice she replied: "No. You can never be accepted by Allah because you don't obey his words, exactly. You question, think you can decide. That is unIslamic." She was gone, into the mists of obscurantism, her old self dissolving as she walked away. We would never again go to an Indian movie or cafés, laugh together as we tried to scour dating adverts to find her a man.
Then came some professional setbacks. After six months of trying to satisfy the whims and demands of a BBC commissioning editor, he dumped the ideas he himself had encouraged. Now, rejections are part of life, but this time, I felt I had been taken for a ride, humiliated. So, sitting in a café, I cried a little and started scribbling curses and ideas. And within half an hour this idea landed almost fully formed, like a well-crafted email. Sometimes, bleak circumstances and gloomy thoughts can light a creative spark.
It was the right time, I thought, for public debates based on evidence and genuine conviction, not the swell and surge of populisms or slick spin with a cigar in its mouth.
A new conformism is spreading across Britain. It is unchecked and unchallenged. No, I am not flogging that dear old hobby horse "political correctness", the Libertarian's demon. This is far more serious. People online and in real life are following trends and polls, joining crowd drifts, not interrogating politics, culture, lifestyle choices, messages or information. In our mixed society, there is another obstacle to open and frank debate. Over the years, the minorities have become used to not having their views or practices examined or challenged. Racism is a real and ever-present blight that is now used by communities to escape censure or fair disagreement.
Nigel Farage and Russell Brand have become pied pipers promising deliverance, and, as in the story, gullible millions are following them into chaos. Kate Middleton and her son are Madonna and child in largely godless Britain. Art shows, films and plays have become commodified and crowds rush to them because they are told they must, to be seen as cultured, or worse, as part of their lifestyle portmanteaus – or Louis Vuitton bags. The crowds overshadow the art and become artistic symbols of our vacuous age. Maybe it was ever thus. But never before did so many willingly give up personal agency and intelligent inquiry.
We do have some highly paid controversialists – Richard Littlejohn, Tony Parsons, Jeremy Clarkson, Jan Moir, Rod Liddle – who bluster about, yes, political correctness, and multiculturalism, feminism or patriotism, and some younger sharp and smart polemicists are coming up. But thoughtful, considered, iconoclasm is still too rare and increasingly punishable in the courts of public opinion. Like wildebeests, Britons deafeningly move in one direction. Individuals can't leave the herd without being trampled.
Take the First World War. Over the many months marking the end of that savage conflict, we citizens have been forced to accept the terms of this official history and the orgy of organised remembrance. The Guardian writer Jonathan Jones dared to ruminate on the Tower of London ceramic poppies, a blockbuster that drew huge crowds. For him, the memorial prettified and anaesthetised the blood and gore. Furthermore, by honouring only the dead of Britain, this sea of red became a symbol of inwardness, not of the bonds between all humans who had suffered losses. Many other Britons will have thought the same but didn't dare say. The onslaught on this art critic was shocking.
Margaret Thatcher's death was similarly managed. Detractors had to hide. It seems as if respect is now enforced and the dirtiest history cleaned and polished, like army boots. Are we really no better than North Korea?
Hilary Mantel, one of our greatest authors, critiqued the life and role of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who is canonised and objectified, seen and not heard. The furious reaction was grotesque. Undaunted, Mantel went on to write a short story: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. An apoplectic Lord Tim Bell hoped that the police would call on her.
Child-rearing methods are just as likely to provoke terrible storms, so, too, any suggestion that we need stronger measures to get a more equal society.
This restrictive public discourse needs to be shaken, the consensus must be broken. Herd thinking and intellectual buying is killing our democracy.
The author has edited a new series of short polemics called 'Provocations', which aims to encourage rebellious thought. Three are now available (Biteback, £10): 'Authenticity is a Con', by Peter York; 'The Madness of Modern Parenting', by Zoe Williams, and 'Refuse the Veil', by Yasmin Alibhai-BrownReuse content