The unbearable uncoolness of being liberal

`What we should do`, says my drinking partner, `is set up garrisons on the border. Then just shoot the buggers when they come in.`

I make squeaking noises about international law, but he will not be stopped.

`Pfff! I once believed in all that flim-flam. But times change`.

He slams his beer glass down, flushing.

`These days I am pretty much a fascist!`

My best mate forms a part of a new social demographic – the Trendy Neo-Rightie (T.N.R). Back in the day, how we laughed at the `Right ons`. Those he or shes who stuck Save the Whale stickers on his or her methane driven cars and gave non –gender specific dolls to their `young adults`. These have long been superseded by Grumpy Old ideologues who, in their forties and fifties have decided that the main problem facing the world is `liberal shibboleths`.

These people do not represent the forgotten white working-class that we have been hearing so much about. On the contrary, well educated and with reasonable jobs they dwell in the leafier areas of cities and, if my own friends are anything to go by, many are expats.

Twenty years ago, they could be heard cocking a snook against emerging Political Correctness – and often with validity-, such as the identity politics with its man/white/Brit bashing corollary, and the no-platforming of opponents.

This remit, however, has since burgeoned into an embittered anti-globalism in which nationalism is disguised as healthy patriotism. Like the Chief Inspector in The Thin Blue Line they `have no time for fannying about` with due process, compromise, realism or any kind of cultural relativism. They have thrown away their rose tinted spectacles. Not that they are Blimps you understand! No, they are `outside of the left-right continuum` or are former lefties who have stayed put as the world has gone further left around them. And their springboard is popular cultural journalism.

The Republican court jester P.J. O’Rourke set the template. One of his essay collections is called Give War A Chance (1993). Do you see what he did there? It’s a topsy-turvy world, right?

Since then the likes of Jeremy Clarkson have made themselves rich by Saying What You Are Not Allowed To Say again and again in popular newspapers.

Rod Liddle is the corporate professional in this industry. His diatribes follow the formula: take an acknowledged world problem, focus instead on the sillier responses to it, then throw in an easy dig at `Guardian readers called Sebastian who knit their own yoghurt`. Then serve it up in a facetious tone to indicate that this need not be taken at face value – and voila! -another T.N.R product hot off the production line!

Against this undercurrent of flippancy, the very strengths of liberalism – the distrust of gut instincts and willingness to consider the other side – can be lampooned as flakiness. A fair few of us have hardly a pot to piss in, but we are the `Establishment` and there are now no Bernard Shaws in our corner with the wit to say otherwise.

Times change though. Many of these hardy protestors have hitched a ride with the runaway juggernaut that is the Trump administration whilst others have been cheerleaders of the messy break-up that is Brexit. It remains to be seen where these experiments will take us: for sure, though, the T.N.Rs will be called upon to accept responsibility for the outcome.

Rewind to the Eighties. There was a TV advert for Babycham in which a posh retro looking young debutante enters a bar populated by trendies and hipsters.

`I’d love a Babycham`, she coos. There follows a stunned silence, which is broken by a Mr T/Grandmaster Flash look-alike clicking his fingers and saying: `Hey, I’d love a Babycham`. The room then erupts into a mass of orders for the same drink. Then comes the kicker: `Babycham: It’s so out, it’s in`.

Could liberalism be on the point of becoming the Babycham of culture? It’s a topsy-turvy world, right?

* Edward Crabtree is a Lib Dem member who lives and works in Russia.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Temperance, true Liberalism is temperance.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Feb '17 - 1:50pm

    This is perhaps why we need to be aggressively Liberal (in a non-violent way of course) and not just flimsily liberal.

  • I disagree about Rod Liddle. He’s more like Julie Burchill. He’s diatribes often seem fuelled by genuine hate rather than a desire to just make jokes. They both have that former Marxist anger thing. Were as I would argue that Jeremy Clarkson comes closest to the corporate professional reactionary presenting unpleasantness as a sort of genial old buffer pose. Also none of them are considered cool.
    There are plenty of Liberal and Left leaning versions notably Stewart Lee, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. Even Frankie Boyle is mostly liberal in print if not on stage. There are plenty more.

    Really, I think this article is kind of straining for a point. The reality is Trump won because there’s always a 50/50 chance of a republican winning on paper and after two terms the opposition usually wins in the US. There’s nothing new about the new Right. They’ve always been there and always will be. I think the issue is that for various reasons what is broadly seen as the Left came to believe in the Neo Liberal concept of the End that history narrative flowing one way and have been pulled up short by the reality that politics is fought nationally on national issues because it’s based on the structures of the nation state, not globalism and interconnectedness. To get elected you ultimately have to appeal to locals and most people are to an extent soft nationalist and a little nativist. They’re not really that interested in esoteric soul searching about the minutiae of identity or voting data , but in what you are going to do for them. You have all these arguments about whether or not you can balance liberalism with nationalism or whatever when most people simply don’t really care and would rather know what your policy on potholes or GP waiting times was.

  • Thanks for the responses!

    Rather than `straining for a point`, this article was based on real, concrete experience: on people that I know, and rather like.

    Re the propagandists: As well as Clarkson and Liddle you add Tony Parson, the once hip young gunslinger into the mix and -oh, say – David Thomas (who used to be a cracking journalist back in the Nineties, but is now a standard `why-oh-why` hack scribbler for the D.M). Space did not permit me to go into the the whole Trendy Neo-Rightie thing (the piece could have been a whole lot longer) – but I can assure you that to many, these spokespersons *are* considred `cool` , in a way that the other voices you mention are not. (N.BII am taking all this in from a distance – another country -and those other voices – some of who I don’t even recognise – just don’t have the same presence on the net that the T.N.R brigade do, trust me).

    Yes, the Right has always existed but the *Trendy Neo-Right* IS new because it has usurped the countercultural trappings of what was once the liberal left and thus uses a different point of entry into people’s sympathies – they would not be overtly anti-gay or racist for example, and they love `decadent` mass culture such as rock music.

    I wasn’t commenting on the American election per se – just some T.N.R commentators responses to it. It is interesting, though, to note that P.J O’ Rourke endorsed Hilary in that election: perhaps he just didn’t want to be answerable to the mess that his kind of politics actually makes in the real world!

    I can’t agree with you on your last point about people voting on `pot-holes`. Many people have now joined the Lib Dems on the basis of the Brexit issue and are motivated by inter/national concerns. Throw too much pavement politics at them – although this does have a place -and you risk turning them cold.

  • No they are not considered “cool”.
    Cool is a very specific concept based on ideas born in the counter/youth culture. By and large it actually favours the left. Christopher Hitchens is a “cool” figure. Peter isn’t. You are mistaking having a media presence for cool. If you look at Brexit, It is not full of hip youngsters. Its old people and unhip people. Middle England v metropolitan. The suburban v the urban and so on. There is nothing trendy about it. So to me you really are straining to fit an L7 peg into a round hole.
    My experience of the internet is that it reflects what you put into your searches.
    The rest of it I stand by, precisely because it’s based on boring humdrum reality. People vote mostly on local concerns, which is why liberal internationalist are in a state of shock. They’ve kind of inherited the Marxist idea adapted by neo-liberals that history is leading one way. But history shows that ideas and identities (religion etc.) last for thousands of years and are not that easily dismantled because they are also adaptable.

  • Tony Greaves will well remember that in the old Liberal Party days there used to be a party body called the Liberal Party Council, which was like a mini-Conference that met 3 or 4 times a year. One of the constitutional duties of Party Council was to promote “militant Liberalism” throughout the country.

    Perhaps it’s time we saw some more militant Liberalism.

  • Glenn: sorry to be a broken record player, but on the coolness of the cultural new right…Take a show like `Top Gear`. I think we can agree that the general tenor of that programme is a conservative one; I think we can also agree that the show is (or was) hugely popular – and certainly seen as `cool` by its many, many global fans – even if none of them wanted to actually dress like Clarkson!

    All it takes is for Clarksy-boy to make one throwaway `joke` like, I don’t know, `electric cars should only be available at shopmobility` or something like that, and everyone sniggers along – and, in one fell swoop, a hugely important industry that produces automobiles with zero emissions is stymied by being rendered…`uncool`.

    I just can’t think of any liberal (or green) popular product that has anything like that kind of influence.

    As regard to the prominence of things ont he net – well, unless you want to spend hours going from site to site in search of an echo chamber, we tend to get what we’re given, not unlike in the old medias of radio and TV. Trying typing the words `migrant crisis` into a search engine and whose name comes up first – Katie Hopkins,s or Bill Mahler’s?

    As to your point about liberals buying into the myth of the `End of History` – you might have more of a point here. Clever people call this `panglossian determinism` – the view that society progresses naturally in an evolutionary way. Yes, there’s a fair bit of this in liberal thinkng – I’m using the word `liberal` very broadly here – and, yes, we’re being reminded of its limitations right now. But this has little to do with my dismay and irritation at the Coolness of the Trendy Neo-Righties (T.N.R)*

    (*I’m going to get that phrase into popular parlance if it kills me!)

  • David Evershed 19th Feb '17 - 11:33am

    Top Gear used to have a Cool Wall where cars were classified in a subjective manner on a scale from super cool (uber cool?) to super uncool.

    The three presenters used to debate where on the scale the cars came with some agreement and some disagreement.

  • Edward C.
    I’m also a broken record player. Sniggering along and having mass appeal is not a sign of cool. Cliff Richard outsold Grandmaster Flash. Cliff Richard was not cool and so on. The other problem is the definition of liberal . I would argue that socially liberal attitudes are dominant and taken for granted as cool. Reactionary socially conservative opinions on most issues are not seen as cool.
    The thing about search engines is they are increasingly based on frequency of the user’s searches. I type in migrant crisis and I mainly get the Guardian or the Independent. The only times I’ve ever got Katie Hopkins is when I’ve typed in who is Katie Hopkins or looked on gossip driven news sites like MSN. Type in Donald Trump or George Bush and you won’t fin that many supporters. I get a lot of Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Henry Rollins on my Youtube searches.

    Now my argument would be that socialistic economic views tend to be drowned out by Free Market views and that comments sections tend to attract angry people of all stripes. But non of it has anything to do with “cool”.

  • Edward

    “they `have no time for fannying about` with due process, compromise, realism or any kind of cultural relativism”

    Take away the “cultural relativism” and you have a good description of many who now push identity politics.

    ” the very strengths of liberalism – the distrust of gut instincts and willingness to consider the other side -”

    Are not displayed by those promoting identity politics, in short they are not liberal but often claim to be but also very often use the term “progressive”.

    If you are struggling to understand your friends reactions look at what they are reacting too. We have an increasingly authoritarian right who have grown in addition to the authoritarian left, Both are wrong, but on the plus side it appears that they are all abandoning the liberal position (and label) and leaving it open for the LibDems.

  • Glenn

    What is “cool” is rather subjective, but one thing I think almost anyone would agree with is, explanations provided on political message boards are not going to be authoritative.

  • PSI
    I agree. To an extent. My point is if you look at the history of cool. It’s traditionally been based in youth culture or the counter culture and actually has mainly derived from Black American sub cultures. Whatever Cool is, it has most definitely never been conservative middle England, Jeremy Clarkson or Rod Liddle ! Is all I was saying.
    My guess is Grime music is considered cool.

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