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Nice/nasty matters more than left/right

Features | By William Cook | December 2019

JIm Callaghan, Cardiff South-East MP, 1964. He won a 7,841 majority that year

William Cook has never voted Conservative in his life but respects his opponents. We should all be less aggressive at the election, he thinks

‘You’re joking? Not another one!’

With yet another general election in the offing, goodness knows what Brenda from Bristol must be thinking now.

You remember Brenda. She’s that nice lady who captured the public mood last time Britain went to the polls.

‘I can’t stand this,’ she protested. ‘There’s too much politics going on.’

Well, Brenda – if you’re reading this you’d better turn the page right now.

The Oldie takes pride in being entirely apolitical – an oasis of equanimity in an increasingly divided world. Craig Brown captured The Oldie’s heroic, fence-sitting approach to politics perfectly in his 2017 eulogy for Alexander Chancellor, who would have been 80 on 4th January:

‘Deborah Maby, Alexander’s sub-editor, protested that The Oldie couldn’t just stand by during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. “I don’t agree,” said Alexander, “Standing by is exactly what The Oldie does best.”’

Still, in the current impasse, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain this detached and balanced view. As the old saying goes, you may not be interested in politics – but politics is interested in you. So when politicians come knocking on our front doors, what should we do?

In the interests of democracy, I’d like to propose a radical solution: why not vote for the candidate with the best manners? We may not know the way out of this mess, but at least we can tell who’s being polite.

Auberon Waugh, The Oldie’s founding father, hit the nail on the head. ‘My grand philosophical conclusion at the end of the day is that humanity does not divide into the rich and the poor, the privileged and the unprivileged, the clever and the stupid, the lucky and the unlucky or even the happy and the unhappy,’ he wrote. ‘It divides into the nasty and the nice.’

Bron was bang on the money, as usual. The word ‘nice’ may not carry much clout, but it really ought to. For after all, what’s more important than being nice?

For the last ten years (and especially since the Brexit referendum), those wise words have been my mantra. Nowadays I try to ignore all ideology and dogma. Instead, I seek out the companionship of people who are nice.

I don’t know how it’ll work for you, but for me it’s worked a treat. As soon as you heed Waugh’s dictum, everything else falls into place. You realise there are nice and nasty folk on both sides of every argument. You form alliances with people you disagree with. You stop deliberately spending all your time with people who share your views. Now I ignore people’s opinions, and focus on their personalities.

And the shocking revelation, to a lifelong leftie like me who has never voted Tory, is that most right-wing people are much nicer than me.

Because I grew up in a left-wing household, the idea that Conservatives could be nicer than socialists never even crossed my mind. For us, they were the nasty party, long before Theresa May coined the phrase. Maggie Thatcher/milk-snatcher was a witchlike presence throughout my childhood, someone to be greeted with boos and hisses whenever she appeared on TV.

I didn’t really notice at the time, but looking back I realise a lot of the people who were kindest to me in my youth were actually Conservatives.

My socialist friends talked a good fight, but most of them were all mouth and no trousers. And why did they all seem so cross? Of course they would have told you they were angry about inequality, but few of them did much about it.

It was conservative institutions such as the Church of England (aka the Tory Party at prayer) that did most to help. They didn’t make a big song and dance about it – they just got on with it, while my student pals put the world to rights over a subsidised pint in the union’s Nelson Mandela Bar.

It was the same story when I started working for a living. As a freelance hack, I soon discovered that the more left-wing a publication was, the worse it treated its workers. City Limits, an impeccably leftie London listings magazine, was the worst culprit. Apolitical magazines paid better (and paid on time) while right-wing newspapers actually covered your expenses.

These left-wing rags weren’t just mean with money. There were also constant feuds. I recognised that self-righteous indignation I’d seen among my student friends and my parents’ socialist peers. Were they grumpy because they were broke? Quite possibly (there’s no doubt that having money puts you in a better mood) – but there was more to it than that. Left-wingers are susceptible to cruelty, because they feel the end justifies the means. It’s easy to behave badly if you feel you’re fighting for a noble cause.

When I ended up at the Mail on Sunday as a feature-writer, I entered their offices with some trepidation, mindful of the horror stories I’d heard about the right-wing press. I needn’t have worried. Everyone was so nice! It was a tough job and I wasn’t very good at it, but no one was ever mean to me. For the first time in my career, I actually felt well treated.

At first, I wondered if these tabloid hacks were being kind to make up for the uncompromising things they wrote. There was an element of that, but I think the main reason was more philosophical: they knew they lived in a fallen world, with no higher purpose than to make the best of things as they muddled through from day to day.

As I followed Waugh’s wise words, I found the same thing in the wider world.

From the Conservative MP who solved my father’s housing crisis to the Anglican priest who lifted me up from the depths of despair, the nicest people were unencumbered by manifestos. They were just trying to help their neighbours.

For me, that’s what’s so spooky about our current politics. It’s drowned out the moderates. It’s forced people to pick a side.

There’s only one solution to our current schism. People need to step out of their comfort zone. Despite my leftie background, I’ve ended up writing for the Spectator. I’ve written for the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph

It wasn’t a deliberate decision, but it’s been really good for me. It’s forced me to think things through. If you’re a Conservative, why not try reading the New Statesman? You’ll find it’s really invigorating, wrestling with unfamiliar points of view.

Auberon Waugh took the principle even further, writing a column for the left-wing New Statesman despite his robust views in the opposite direction. He called the book of his collected New Statesman columns In the Lion’s Den (1978).

‘I would like to think that we both learned something by the experience,’ Bron said of his spell on the New Statesman.

We should all venture into the lion’s den from time to time, whatever political stripe we are.

I grew up in a socialist ghetto, and it took me a long time to break out of it. We all need to break out of our ghettos, if this sensible, centrist country is ever going to come together again.

This story was from December 2019 issue. Subscribe Now