There’s a scene in one of the forty million episodes of?The West Wing in which Toby and Josh are arguing, for the forty millionth time, about policy in an elegantly expositional way, and Josh is complaining about how they can’t get a certain policy passed because most people in America don’t actually want it and what a terrible thing that is, and Toby says something along the lines of ‘we don’t get to choose what people think.’
That one line (which I’m probably misremembering) is something worth remembering when reading about today’s list of 40 proposed bills from right-wing Tory MPs, catchily titled ‘The Tory Taliban’ by the excellent LabourList. There’s some real shockers in there, but even the phrase ‘real shockers’ exposes me for what I am: a left-wing, urban-dwelling, right-on kind of fellow who would just like everyone to get on with each other.
I won’t list the proposals here. All I will say is that each and every one of the Tory MPs signing their name to them represents several thousand constituents, and that’s worth remembering. The peculiar make-up of British democracy does have this one characteristic: MPs can claim to be speaking directly for their constituents (at least the ones who voted for them), and in some ways this is perhaps more true of provincial conservative MPs than it is of urban Labour MPs, whose constituencies are often more tribal and more rooted in a vanished trade unionism communal ethic (this is why it’s somewhat easier for Labour to parachute in bright young professional politicians of the Miliband stripe into old working class constituencies, safe in the knowledge that the locals will vote for anyone with the red rosette).
It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognise that some of us hold views others violently disagree with, and that those views have the ability to enrage and to sicken. I’m quite sure my own views on gay marriage would sicken a fair few Tory constituents, and I know for certain that the views expressed by locals opposed to a London state school opening a boarding school in Sussex seriously led me to consider proposing poisoning their water supply. But when I took the time to think about it, what surprised me most about that boarding school story was not the appalling views expressed, but the genuine surprise of those expressing them when it was pointed out how appalling their views were. You could hear it in their voices: ‘but?everyone thinks like this down here.’
And there’s the rub. Increasingly, I think, we choose where to live not just on the basis of the attractiveness of the view or the quality of the schools, but the acceptability to ourselves of the political views of those around us. I choose to live in London because, on balance, the views of most of my neighbours would fit into the same band of tolerance and active statehood as my own. It’s inevitable that this is the case – you have to have those views to live in London. So our constituency map grows ever deeper-coloured: safe Labour seats and safe Tory ones, communities of shared politics and shared views. This isn’t a good thing, by the way. It’s an ossifying process, and lies behind some of the basic problems the country has over stuff like planning laws.
I once worked at a company where the secretary was a Londoner of several generations standing who lived in Streatham. One day she said to me she was moving out to Morden. When I asked why, she replied: “Too many blacks in Streatham.” And then looked astonished when I expressed violent dislike for what she’d said. I still dislike what she said enormously, but I wonder if she quite meant it. I wonder if she meant that Streatham didn’t have enough people who had the same politics as her, however poisonous those politics were, and she wanted to find somewhere that did. It isn’t quite the same thing.