In biblical times it was straight forward. A bush, burning but not consumed, altars set ablaze by a prayer, a walk on the water - all pretty clear indications that you were dealing with someone who you ignored at your peril; so on your knees, chum, and listen to what the man says. But signs of this sort are a rarity nowadays and the best guide to the nature of the speaker is usually his own words. That makes things much more difficult but sometimes those words speak so loudly that the light cast on the speaker is every bit as bright as the light thrown by signals from on high. Take, for example, the open letter to Mr Blair from Neal Lawson of Compass which "The Guardian" published on New Year's Day, and which contained the following criticism of Blair's government: "the tent was too big and you spent the next ten years trying to keep the wrong people in it: the very rich, for example. What meaningful project includes everyone?"
You don't have to be a paid up member of the Disraeli fan club for that to sound a bit odd. For many years politicians have talked about "pulling together" and "sharing the burden" and, generally speaking, the public has taken to its heart those who espouse an inclusive centre ground. Yet here we have a suggestion of a sectarian form of politics which reaches out to some whilest consciously excluding others. It doesn't smell very British, does it? But to see why you have to step back to a more general point.
If you were to ask politicians of different hues to sketch the sort of Britain they would like to see, the replies you would get would be remarkably similar. They all want people to be able to live their own lives in security and safety. They all believe that everyone should be given the opportunity to flourish, to use his or her talents, to realise his or her dreams. They would all like to see a prosperity that is shared in by all. Where they differ is on how all this can be achieved. Historically, at least, the left has gone for more direction, with a reallocation of resources from rich to poor. The right puts the emphasis on growing the cake so that everyone's share will be greater. Of course it is much more complicated than that with most people trying to combine different bits of the two approaches and everyone having a soft spot for systems which will bring advantages to his or her pet lobbies. Still, in the end the main battles are not so much about the society we would like to see achieved as about how to achieve it and often there is not much difference there either . That is why discussion in the House of Commons can look like a pantomime. Often that is just what it is, a quarrel manufactured for the amusement of the public between people who do not really disagree with each other very much.
Mr Lawson's comments, however, are of a different stamp altogether. He is happy for parts of society to be excluded from the tent - presumably because he considers them to be in some way beyond the pale. That is an approach one instinctively associates with the tribal politics of the third world where those of different beliefs, different race, different political views, different means, different sexual orientation or what have you are so alien that there is no point in trying to reach out to them. Actually I have some experience which bears on this and it is instructive.
Many years ago I stood as a Conservative council candidate in the London Borough of Islington. As is often the case in that sort of election, a number of friends and colleagues came to canvass for me although they were normally on the other side of the political fence. One of them, an Irishman, lived in Catford, then a rather insalubrious part of south London, and he suggested that as a respite from the campaign I should come and have a drink with him and a few of his friends after canvassing one evening. Accordingly I set off for Catford with a copy of the A-Z clutched firmly in my hand and a blue rosette still pinned to my coat. When I entered the flat, my fellow guests shrank back against the walls. They were all members of the Socialist Workers Party who had never met a Conservative before but they did know one thing. Conservatives were on balance slightly worse than the devil and the most depraved of Conservatives typically wore a blue rosette.
It isn't often that you get the opportunity to make such an effective entrance but, once we had recovered from the drama, we all looked each other up and down and wondered what to do next. As we were guests at the same party there really wasn't much choice. We had to try to make polite conversation. I forget who it was who made the first joke but it was quite good one and, slightly tentatively, we laughed at it together. Ten minutes later there was a bit of teasing and, suddenly, the atmosphere thawed, as it will when a group of men in their late twenties are drinking together, and we all found that we were enjoying ourselves thoroughly.
Soon, when we were all on good terms and comparing political theories, I turned to one of the more radical of my fellow guests.
"Have you ever met a Conservative before?" I asked him. He confessed that he had not, so I pressed the advantage. "Well, now you have, what do you think?"
"Actually, you seem rather normal and your views are quite interesting," he said, "but then you are not a real conservative, are you?". I explained to him that I was a Conservative candidate, the vice-chairman of the local association and on the approved list of parliamentary candidates. "Yes, I understand all that," he responded, "but you're still not like the others."
Of course you could get the same reaction but the other way round, if you were to listen for a moment in the lounge of an old peoples home in In Bournemouth. "Those socialists are awful people - except of course for that nice boy who helps us with the luggage, but then he's not really a socialist. He just thinks he is one."
It is not hard to imagine the evolutionary pressures which leave us demonising those with whom we disagree but we should discipline ourselves into suppressing those instincts. "Outside the tent", "beyond the pale", "not one of us"," not our tribe", use whichever tag which you wish but, if it is being used to exclude a part of the public from political consideration, then folly it remains.
Many of those who reject large parts of society do it out of ignorance. Their attitude may change with experience. Some, however, do it out of meanness of spirit. I really do not know what can be done about them.Suggest a correction