Nick Cohen

Boris’s main opposition is his party’s ageing demographics

Boris's main opposition is his party's ageing demographics
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If you want to see why Britain’s future will be so decrepit, look at the dramas on ITV. Unlike the BBC or Channel 4, ITV receives no state protection. It must compete in the market, and is targeting the most powerful audience in the country: the elderly.

ITV has old soap operas: Coronation Street (first broadcast in 1960) and Emmerdale (1972). Agatha’s Christie’s Marple and Poirot always feature. Unlike the BBC with its colour-blind casting and willingness to tear-up and rewrite Christie’s stories until they suit modern sensibilities, ITV’s adaptations are traditional and its casts are typically white.

The Christie stories, like The Darling Buds of May, The Durrells, Endeavour, Foyle’s War, Grantchester, and Maigret are set in the past. Most were made years, often decades ago. Yet Morse and Midsomer Murders are so popular traditional viewers never weary of them, and the station runs them on a continuous loop. Morse on its own was so popular ITV commissioned two spin-offs: Lewis and Endeavour.

The typical ITV drama oozes an old dream of Englishness. It is set in a chocolate box village, country house, Oxford college or grand Edwardian hotel. Multiple murders ensure that not every character is pleasant. Indeed, it says much about the viewers’ tastes that often Morse, Foyle or Miss Marple are the only well-meaning characters on display. But however wicked they are, the characters, like the places, are familiar to the point of being stereotypes. The writers of Midsomer Murders, for instance, delight in turning every feature of imagined country life into a crime scene: the parish church, the village fete, the amateur dramatic society, the birdwatching club. The plots rarely make sense, but then the plots are nothing and nostalgia is all. English viewers, who look at the National Theatre or BBC and feel their own anger at cultural appropriation – “these characters aren’t meant to be black,” “that’s not how the story goes” – can wallow in a world they fear they are losing.

Brian True-May the co-creator of Midsomer Murders had to step down in 2011 after saying, ‘We just don't have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn't be the English village with them. It just wouldn't work. We're the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way.’

However crudely, he was telling no more than the truth. ITV shows an England millions feel comfortable in. I’m not scoffing at ITV, I watch its dramas along with so many others of my age. Nor am I denouncing it when ITV understands the 21

st

century better than most political commentators do.

They still think that economic self-interest drives electorates, as do I. Culture wars strike me as stupid distractions. The charlatans of right and left manipulate them to arouse their gormless supporters’ anger and keep them in line. I am not sure how much longer I can hold on to my beliefs. In Britain and the rest of Western Europe, the evidence is overwhelming that culture is creating divides as wide as sectarian religious differences. Values have trumped class. The politics of culture war has routed the hard truths of economics

In an essay in the current issue of the Annual Review of Political Science, Robert Ford and Will Jennings write of the “cleavages” between the tribes of the West that mere adjustments of the tax and benefit system cannot hope to bridge. The rival cultures that the expansion of higher education, mass migration, the growing ethnic diversity, the ageing of societies, the sharpening of generational divides, and the gulf between prosperous cities and their hinterlands are producing, have either destroyed the old parties or changed them beyond recognition.

ITV knows a valuable market when it sees one. Britain has about 12 million pensioners, and their numbers will only grow. They are more likely to vote than the young are, and to vote as a bloc – an unimaginable phenomenon even 20-years ago. In the 2019 election, 64 per cent of those aged over 65 voted Conservative, regardless of their class. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, over-65s were more than twice as likely as under-25s to want to leave the European Union.

Greying countries have novel features. As long as parties don’t touch their benefits, pensioners are not noticeably interested in economics. (And however willing they have been to harry the working age poor and disabled, even Tories have never dared take on grey benefits.)

Remainers believe the job losses Brexit will bring to the Red Wall seats that voted for Johnson will force Conservative voters to think again. But if a large proportion of Tory voters have retired from work, they are unlikely to care too much. Equally, the failure of governments across the West to tackle the housing crisis and climate change can be explained, in part, by older voters being disproportionately more likely to own their own homes and – to be blunt – disproportionately more likely to be no longer with us when a climate emergency hits. Their conservative values are not explained by age, or not by age alone. But by the statistical certainty that they are far less likely to have gone to university and far more likely to be white than the rest of the population.

The worldview and moral values expressed by graduates are so diametrically opposed political scientists talk of the GAL-TAN (Green-Alternative-Liberal versus Traditional Authoritarian-Nationalist) cleavage across Western societies. It’s easy to explain it away by saying the explosion of university education has produced an explosion of values that promote graduate interests. The EU, globalisation, and diversity suit graduates trained to navigate a complicated world. Graduates favour liberalism, openness and distrust of tradition because crude materialism tells them to. Many a tired conservative commentator has said that remainers just want free movement to keep the supply of au pairs coming and expected to be applauded for their wit.

But as Ford and Jennings say there is no evidence to support the jibe. The atmosphere of higher education, the exposure to new ideas and people, and the experience of the young of growing up in a multicultural society has produced liberal values. Most graduates, after all, cannot afford an au pair to raise their children. Many cannot afford a home to raise children in.

The failure to understand the new cleavages stunts political thought. On the left, it is still commonplace to say austerity drove working-class voters to support leave. They hated Tory cuts, just as the left hated them, and lashed out. The argument conveniently ignores motives the left dislikes confronting: nationalism, a reverence for British history and parliamentary sovereignty, and suspicion of immigrants.

Simon Kuper of the Financial Times provided a bracing centrist explanation when he said, accurately, that the middle-class shires provided the bulk of the leave vote. On his reading, provincials, who never went to the top universities, and who never had access to the top jobs or the world of metropolitan culture, envied and punished a London elite, that didn’t want them. When Dominic Cummings sneered at “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers . . . ”, he sneered for them.

There’s truth in this explanation too. The middle class has always dominated radical right-wing movements. But again, the explanation flatters as much as it elucidates. Just as socialists find it convenient to blame Brexit on austerity, so successful Financial Times readers will find it pleasing to blame it on the mediocrities they left behind when they moved from school to Cambridge to Goldman Sachs. In any case, if you want to see the true rage of a disappointed middle-class, look at graduates who left university with a mountain of debt and are stuck in jobs below their qualifications and expectations. They don’t vote for Johnson and Trump but for Sanders, Corbyn and Sinn Fein

The truth, as Ford and Jennings keep emphasising, is that age, ethnicity and education determine values now. A working-class voter, who went to university, was likely to support remain, a middle-class voter, who did not, supported leave.

The problems the new order poses for the left are well known. How can it keep its alliance of liberal graduates and socially conservative ethnic minorities together? Even if it holds onto both, how can it attract pensioners and white working-class voters who left education without a degree, and who may be suspicious of both?

Meanwhile, you shouldn’t even think of trying to lump “people of colour” together. Historically, members of all ethnic minorities have voted Labour, regardless of income, because of the party’s commitment to anti-racism. That has now cracked. Rather than moderate and attempt to calm differences between Jews and Muslims, Labour turned on the Jews, and I wonder how long it can keep a lid on tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

If I were a Tory, I’d still be worried. The party of business attacks the CBI because it has the impertinence to warn of the dangers of leaving the single market. A unionist party is becoming an English Nationalist party that appeals to the old and the uneducated rather than the young and qualified. Demography will ensure that the values Tories hate will triumph. The death of elderly supporters will ensure that the future will not belong to Conservatives, and one day even ITV will have to produce dramas that speak to the present.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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