Benn v Jenkins Panorama 1975

This essay, on contempt for the electorate and degradation of political debate, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on passport checks in Oxford.) It was published on 24 November 2019, under the headline ‘Once, politicians treated voters as adults. Now they are contemptuous’.

Two men go head to head in a TV debate. They wrestle with Britain’s relationship to Europe, the meaning of sovereignty, the nature of global influence, the question of job losses. They listen carefully to each other and respond to the other’s points, fierce in defence of their arguments, but reasonable towards their opponent. It’s an illuminating discussion that makes one appreciate the issues more deeply.

No, not last week’s TV spat between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn (as if!) but an hour-long debate on BBC’s Panorama more than 40 years ago between Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins in the run-up to the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the Common Market. Both were cabinet ministers in Harold Wilson’s government, Jenkins an ardent supporter of membership, Benn a passionate opponent.

What is striking about the debate is that it could have taken place last week – the issues at the heart of the Europe question have changed little over that time. What is striking, too, is that the 40-year-old encounter is more illuminating, on both sides, than most discussions we have had since 2016.

Comparing the old Benn-Jenkins tussle with current political debates shows not just how shallow and vapid politics has become, but also how politicians’ expectations of the electorate have been transformed. Benn and Jenkins took their audience seriously and so considered their arguments, and those of their opponent, with care.

Today, political debates have become vacuous and insipid because politicians have become contemptuous of the electorate. Voters, many believe, are ignorant, swayed more by emotion than by reason, happy to accept lies and drawn to politicians with easy answers. So politicians prefer slogans to reasoned argument, dismiss scrutiny as ‘partisanship’ and treat truth as if it were a form of entertainment. It’s an approach rooted in a caricature of the electorate. It’s also one shaped by a shift in the relationship between working-class voters, education and politics.

In his magnificent book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose traces the struggles of working people to educate themselves, from early autodidactism through education reform to the Workers’ Educational Association and the Open University. Drawing on memoirs, diaries, oral history and social surveys, Rose provides ‘an intellectual history of people who were not expected to think for themselves’.

The miners’ institutes of south Wales, funded initially by a levy on wages, became ‘one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere in the world’. By 1934, there were more than 100 miners’ libraries in the Welsh coalfield with an average stock of 3,000 books.

Another triumph of the autodidact tradition was the Everyman’s Library, launched in 1906 by J M Dent, the 10th child of a Darlington house-painter, who left school aged 13, became a bookbinder and eventually a publisher, whose dream had always been to ensure that ‘for a few shillings the reader may have a whole bookshelf of the immortals’. Everyman’s Library did not publish just obvious works that might appeal, such as Dickens or Shakespeare, but such ‘lengthy and intimidating’ works as George Grote’s 12-volume History of Greece and six volumes of Ibsen, all of which found a ready audience.

Such reading provided not just cultural ballast but political hope, too, revealing the possibility of new worlds, and expanding horizons that might have been limited by the factory or the mine. ‘The Labour movement,’ a Coventry millworker observed, ‘grew out of mutual improvement societies.’

It was a tradition sustained by communities that helped cultivate dignity, organisations that nurtured the spirit of self-improvement, collective struggles that enlarged the range of the possible. Much of that has disappeared. The dislocation of working-class communities, the destruction of Labour movement organisations and the expunging of trade union struggles have all unstitched the relationship between knowledge and political change.

The political elite has often looked upon the masses with a combination of contempt and fear. But the social strength of working class and the existence of organisations that could give shape to the desire for self-improvement provided a counter-balance. No longer.

Education today, as the political scientist David Runciman has observed, ‘sorts us according to where we feel we belong’. As Western societies have become more technocratic, ‘empowering a new class of experts, for whom education is a prerequisite of entry into the elite’ – bankers, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, pundits, academics – so knowledge no longer seems to ‘speak for itself’ but ‘for the world view of the people who possess it’. Knowledge, instead, becomes a marker of the place one possesses in society. This has led one side to deride ‘experts’, the other to view the electorate as ignorant and incapable of deep reasoning.

That a 40-year-old debate is more clarifying about Brexit than one held last week reveals the degree to which politics has become hollowed out. We should take care that the contempt shown to the electorate does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


  1. damon

    Yes, that all sounds pretty good. The Brexit coverage is quite horrible.

    Here’s the view of one young black student – a member of the “Youth Parliament” I think, and I’m really looking to see someone engage him on his ideas. He’s talking about the recent banning of a film about the lives of young black Londoners by one cinema chain.

    “If we, the children of immigrants from all corners of the world, are capable of engaging with Shakespeare’s work, is it too much to ask for Britain to view our cultural additions in the same way we view their cultural canon?”

    He’s then written an article on the subject in an online magazine.
    Interesting stuff, but who’s really covering this – and maybe pushing back against these views – which were trending on Twitter?
    There’s even a call to boycott the cinema chain.
    He’s only a young guy, but these attitudes are now pretty mainstream across the culture.
    And by “ the culture” I mean that modern street culture which seems to have come to dominate in several of our English cities.
    Here’s just one example of it. A guy going by the name of Dave.

    To me he’s so young. Just a baby really. I have family in Streatham and used to sometimes pick my nieces up from primary school there. This Dave might have been one of the little boys in their class. It only seems like a few years ago. He and his friends have just taken the English culture that was there before, tossed it aside, and created a totally new one. Who can resist it?

    Anyway, my point is – who is doing proper analysis of this cultural shift?
    When I hear the talk of the streets (second hand mostly) I must say it sounds like different communities doing completely different things. Like we’re becoming more like the two communities in Northern Ireland.
    They live in the same place, mix to a degree, but are for the most part, divided along cultural and political lines.
    In Northern Ireland there is a great deal of discussion about the divisions between the two communities, but in England, where I see something similar has happened, there’s pretty much deathly silence.

    The way people talk (on Twitter) reminds me somewhat of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956.
    It’s a racial thing.

    One seemingly influential guy (a business entrepreneur) wrote “There was literally a mass shooting during The Dark Night Rises and that wasn’t pinned on White people and their media wasn’t banned? Absolute joke.”

    It’s just these small things like “their media” and the “we” and “us” stuff that I am hearing more and more, but I’m not hearing anyone address this cultural change in Britain. Least of all the Guardian opinion writers.

  2. damon

    “On the degradation of political debate”

    Yes indeed – but what’s brought it about?

    “That a 40-year-old debate is more clarifying about Brexit than one held last week reveals the degree to which politics has become hollowed out.”

    With this thought in the back of my mind, I came across this discussion that the YouTube algorithm served up to me as a suggestion.
    It’s an interview with someone who the progressives and liberal people would regard as an “arch reactionary”, but I thought his views were an interesting counterpoint to those from the Guardian writers. It’s the quite prolific Theodore Dalrymple, talking about “Britain’s Vanishing Culture & Character” – which does sound quite Daily Mail. But still, well worth a listen, just for the juxtaposition of opinion.

    You have to respect his life experience though. He spent fifteen years as a prison doctor in Birmingham.
    And has travelled widely in Africa and Latin America. Is he really such a terrible reactionary?
    He’s describing how our culture has changed from how he remembers it forty and fifty years ago.

    There’s another really interesting interview on that same channel, and that’s where Peter Whittle interviews Eric Kaufmann about immigration and identity. It’s pretty good in my opinion, and Kenan doesn’t agree with him at all. So that too makes a very clear divide in views on these subjects.

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