Alex Massie

The saga of Ed Miliband and White Van Man reveals a politics based on grievance and cowardice

The saga of Ed Miliband and White Van Man reveals a politics based on grievance and cowardice
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Say this for the current state of British politics: it keeps finding new lows. A while back I made the mistake of suggesting voters might already have priced-in Ed Miliband's shortcomings. The leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition might be a doofus but we know that and, if not exactly tickled by the thought, can cope with it. Reader, I think I may have been mistaken about that.

Recent events suggest Miliband's haplessness exists on a higher plane than anyone previously thought possible. One can only assume he secretly doesn't want to win the next election. This, at any rate, seems the only sensible verdict to reach based upon the evidence presented to the court.

We have entered a new phase. A veritable Carnival of Dumb. Miliband's White Van agonies are the stuff of gast-flabbering nightmares.

It may be that Emily Thornberry's infamous tweet was ill-judged. A snook-cocking piece of fatal - and fatalistic - smugness and unearned superiority. Perhaps so. But it was not anything like as ill-judged as Miliband's frankly unhinged reaction. The Labour leader, we were told, had never been so angry. Never!

Some people are moved to tears by Shakespeare or Elgar. Some by kittens. Ed Miliband's Respect Klaxon sounds each and every time he sees a White Van. Or a Cross of St George. It is a sombre, haunting klaxon whose sound lifts and nourishes the questing Miliband soul. Respect, mate.

At this point it is traditional to observe that Mr Miliband has moved beyond parody. The combined talents of Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan have been routed by Miliband's Dadaist reality. For once the tabloids have it right: you couldn't make it up. 

Especially as - surprise! - it turns out White Van Dan comes to us straight from the Kelvin McKenzie School of Central Casting. He wants to repatriate immigrants and he approves of battering children. He's mightily concerned by the non-existent plague of Poppy-burning too. And, naturally, he favours higher spending and lower taxes.

As Mr McKenzie put it years ago, White Van Man is:

[T]he bloke you see in the pub, a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he’s afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers.

Respect. The salt of the earth also ran. I mean, as Dan says himself:

"I will continue to fly the flags - I don't care who it pisses off. I know there is a lot of ethnic minorities that don't like it.

Extraordinary respect. 

Look, there's nothing wrong with ostentatious displays of flag-waving. Nothing necessary about them either. But most people think Hello! not Respect! when they encounter such things. And that's true whether the flags displayed are the cross of St George or the Saltire or banners pledging allegiance to, say, Glasgow Rangers or Glasgow Celtic. It's all very well and good but also, you know, often all a little odd. It is not a guarantee of Zoomerism; it's still a leading indicator.

And so White Van Dan becomes a kind of British version of Joe the Plumber and British politics moves ever-closer to an American-style politics of culture wars dominated by endless grievance. This, more than anything else, is what the twin ascendancies of Ukip and the SNP reveal. A politics of identity and exclusion in which the centre seems weak and hopeless and the extremes - of one sort or another - enjoy the luxury of passionate intensity.

A revolt, too, against a lily-livered, out-of-touch, metropolitan elite that's now besieged from all sides. There's Russell Brand for the yoof, there's Nigel Farage for the olds and there's the nationalists for the Jocks. What larks. Westminster, you see, is the new Washington DC. The place which you run against.

London - large, liberal, cosmopolitan, dizzying, over-mighty London - is the subject of envy and fear in what you could almost term Red State Britain just as Manhattan and Hollywood have long been the Scylla and Charybdis for a certain kind of resentful American populism.

The revolt takes different forms, of course. Despite its name Ukip wraps itself in the Cross of St George, not the Union Flag while north of the border the SNP swaddles itself in the saltire. Questions are an affront and, worse, an insult to your identity. The symptoms are different but the diagnosis is much the same: modern Britain isn't working. Worse, it might actually be a kind of cesspit.

Questioning Ukip insults the plain and patriotic people of old England; questioning the SNP amounts to talking Scotland down. The LibLabCon alliance at Westminster has betrayed Britain; the LibLabCon Unionist alliance is fundamentally, irredeemably, anti-Scottish. The particular details of all this grievance differ - and differ considerably - but the sentiment reaches similar conclusions. A plague on all their houses.

In such circumstances truth becomes less important than perception. Now, for sure, perception matters in politics but sometimes the truth is important too. So Miliband fires poor Ms Thornberry for giving what he says may have been a misleading impression and never mind that he also says she may not have meant to sneer at Flag & Van Man. What matters is what is felt, not what is actually done. Causing offence is the worst thing you can do, you see, even if that offence is trumped-up and hysterical nonsense. Such is the grievance-seeking temper of our times.

In this way, the Scots are victimised by Westminster, the poor old English - a mere 85% of the population - are somehow also an oppressed minority and the hapless Welsh make do on thin rations because everyone always forgets about them. Everyone has cause for complaint and everywhere there is a hideous sense that someone else, somewhere else, might be doing better than you. Which is offensive, obviously.

No wonder politics lurches from one fine mess to another; no wonder a cheap populism proves so potent. Pandering to everyone is a tough business and a thankless task. Thank heavens we enjoy a political leadership blessed with the fortitude to do so.

Respect, innit?