Sunday, June 17, 2012

British politics and the narcissism of small differences

Writing in the Guardian of Sir John Major's appearance before the Leveson Inquiry, Simon Hoggart said:
Perhaps the most moving moment came when he launched an encomium to Neil Kinnock. "The Neil Kinnock I knew was very honest, straightforward, and if something was said in private, it stayed private. If he gave his word, he kept his word. He was a much more considerable person than the media portrayed." 
This too had the ring of a simpler, a more decent past, when we regarded our opponents as rivals rather than enemies. And it was apropos of absolutely nothing!
Nostalgia is always a trap (and for this blogger more than most people), but it is remarkable that British politics are conducted with such bitterness today when the two parties agree about so much.

The Major-Kinnock era marked the end of an era when there were serious agreements between Labour and the Conservatives over the economy. It was the end of the days when Labour believed in socialism and wished to nationalise the commanding heights of the British economy.

Today the ownership of industry is off the agenda and both parties believe that spending must be cut - all that they disagree over is a the rate at which it should be cut and there is some dispute at the margin over what the total of the cuts should be.

Indeed, we Liberal Democrats are depressed over Labour and the Conservatives monolithic agreement over the need for more surveillance and curbs on our liberty in order to fight terrorism and crime in general.

So, given that the parties now broadly agree, why do they hate each other so much?

Part of the answer, I suspect, is that large parts of the Conservative Party now model their approach on that adopted in America. Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, for instance, two of the more thoughtful new members of the party's right, owe little to traditional British conservatism and take many of their ideas from American libertarian circles. Some of their less intellectual colleagues have merely adopted the paranoid tone of Tea Party campaigning.

But the answer must also lie in what Freud termed 'the narcissism of small differences'.

The term is explained in a California Literary Review interview by Freud's biographer Peter D. Kramer:
Freud coined the phrase to encapsulate an observation made by anthropologists, that often our hatred, fear, and contempt are directed at people who resemble us, while our pride is attached to the small markers that distinguish us from them. Freud referred to the idea during the First World War, but most famously in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929-1930), where he was describing an inborn aggressive stance in men and its application in ethnic conflicts, as between the Spaniards and the Portuguese or the English and the Scots.
I am not a great admirer of Freud - his fame owes more to Hollywood than anything else, but maybe he was on to something here?

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