Last year I was fortunate enough to work on a project that involved me talking to young, right-wing men in the UK, exploring the main problems they believed the country faced and what they felt was causing them. One of the most startling things I learnt from this fascinating project was how much their views had in common with those of the liberal left.
One of the aspects of my job that I love is talking to ‘ordinary people’ week in and week out and learning about their lives and perspectives, enabling me frequently to debunk the perceptions of other members of the ‘educated, middle-class, liberal elite’, of which I would have to confess to being a member. However, I must admit to a degree of nervousness as I knocked on the door of a 25 year old pipe fitter in Armley, recruited to the project on the basis of being against immigration and religious tolerance.
However, as we drank our tea and he talked about the problems in his country and community, I soon discovered that our perspectives had more in common than I would ever have imagined, a finding reinforced by every other interview I ran.
What do young right-wing men see as the major problems we face as a society? Homelessness, poverty, a shortage of affordable housing, violent crime and insufficient resources to support elderly care, the NHS and emergency services. In short, they see the same problems as I do: a society that has become increasingly dysfunctional through their lifetime, with no sense of direction or prospect of positive change.
The difference comes when you talk about what has given rise to these issues. While those on the liberal left might point to a complex cocktail of neo-liberal economics, the narrow class background of ‘the establishment’ and over a decade of austerity, for young right-wingers the answer is simple: immigration.
They believe that all of these issues track back to the demand placed upon the UK’s limited resources by letting in too many of the wrong type of ‘foreigners’. In their narrative, the UK is “too soft” and allows in people who do not integrate, “sponge off” the taxes of hard working ‘British’ people, are given priority over “us” for homes and care, and get involved in crime.
So, while the liberal left and young right-wingers have very similar perceptions of the problems we face as a society, they have very different perceptions of the causes.
However, there is another respect in which these two supposed polar opposites are very similar, and that is in the contempt they have for the political class.
- “The biggest problem is the crock of shit in the Houses of Parliament. That’s where the ultimate responsibility lies.”
- “The government doesn’t give a fuck.”
Politicians are seen as “completely out of touch” with ordinary people, and the problem is felt to exist across the political spectrum, with all parties being seen as equally self-serving and ineffectual. They feel no-one represent them and no-one will make things change, rendering voting in elections pointless.
Although they voted to leave the EU, Brexit has only deepened the disdain for politicians felt by young right-wingers, who see the delay and disarray following the referendum as laying bare the duplicity and incompetence of politicians. With there being no alignment between party support and voting for Leave or Remain, young right-wing men feel that the traditional political conventions of Left vs Right have broken down and that society is no longer divided on the lines of political allegiance. Once again, this is a view widely shared by liberal commentators in the UK media.
When asked what is good about the UK, the almost universal answer from young right-wing men was Britain’s history: an image of a ‘golden age’ when Britain was the greatest colonial power and “commanded respect” the world over. It is this taking of refuge in an imagined past that provides the clue to the way out of the mess we all feel we are in. People glorify the past not just because they see the problems of the present, but also because they can see no prospect of a better future.
The final point that the liberal left and right-wingers would agree on is that this country and its politicians display a crippling lack of vision. Young right-wing men talk of the absence of any sense of direction for the country or of what we are trying to achieve as a society. Perhaps another clue came in the citing of Leeds United Football Club as a positive element in the community, for the reason that football was felt to bring diverse people together behind common cause. It struck me that there is an absence of an equivalent to football in broader life and society – no sense of a shared societal goal that we can all can get behind, regardless of race or religion
While the divergence of opinion regarding the causes of our problems is tricky, it is important to recognise that immigration has become the scapegoat for a huge part of society that feels ignored, dismissed and disempowered. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if that vacuum is not filled by a clear, coherent and appealing vision, it gets filled by the poisonous voices of Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson.
Having talked to people ostensibly at the other end of the political spectrum to me, people whose beliefs I would have expected to fundamentally oppose, I now truly feel that there is more that unities us than divides us. The need is for someone to define and communicate to the nation a tangible vision for society that we can all buy into, giving us a clear shared purpose. Only then will we be able to let go of the past, because the future is somewhere we all want to be.
The question then becomes: how can such a person emerge from a political system that has been exposed as being unfit for purpose?
- Although my research focuses on helping brands develop effective positioning and communications, in the process I frequently find deep-seated issues with significant implications for society, politics and social policy. In other articles inspired by brand research you can read about ‘3rd Generation Can’t Cook’, how the first time many people think about the nutritional quality of what they eat is when they have a child, and how learning to eat well is empowering; plus, the awkward truth about Gen Z’s ‘heightened environmental consciousness’ and the way digital technology was already eroding the connection between parents and children before the explosion of social media.