General election time in Britain invariably means one thing: lots of Labour, Green and Lib Dem posters displayed outside people's houses and in front windows but hardly any Conservative ones. In my 11 years living and travelling around Kent, I haven't seen a single one. The last time I saw one was in the Holland Park area of West London in the early 1990s. If you live in a city centre, they are a rare species indeed. So where are the 'vote Tory' placards?
Their absence has been the norm for decades now, especially since the Thatcherite 1980s. This was when Rik Mayall's character in the comedy The Young Ones popularised the notion that Tories were 'capitalist scum' or 'fascists' (even though the character was an imbecile, and actually a send-up of student radicals). By then it had become the popular consensus that Tories were selfish and money-obsessed and that to vote Labour was an act of supreme virtue and altruism. In the last election, I found myself in the affluent north London area of Crouch End. Nearly every house was festooned with a Labour poster. These were not houses that had any material interest in seeing a Labour; quite the reverse. But I bet it made them feel as one and feel good.
As Twitter has also paradoxically illustrated since, some left-wing people armed with an unshakeable sense of their own moral righteousness, can be quite nasty at times. There has always been that second thought that spiteful people with a grievance and who lack a sense of doubt might put a brick through a window bearing Conservative poster.
A few years ago, James Bartholomew of this magazine coined the term 'virtue signalling', to indicate people voicing an opinion, usually a left-wing one, and often without sincerity, to ingratiate yourself with your peers.
I like to think I got there first, at least in the context of British society, having written a short book in 2003 which described what I called 'conspicuous compassion'. This phenomenon had shown its roots back in 1985 with Live Aid, where people successfully joined in something bigger than themselves, sung along with Status Quo and Queen.
The real watershed came in 1997. Like many people I found the public outpouring following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales unreal. There were signals that displays of emotion, combined with ostentatious, unconvincing and indeed menacing signs of 'compassion' were becoming the order of the day. 'Show us you care!', some demanded of the Queen
The 1990s was the decade in which Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, playing the unctuous DJs Smashy 'n' Nicey, would liked to boast: 'we do a lot of work for charidee … but we don't like to talk about it.'
In real life, ribbons for all manner of causes began to proliferate. Remembrance Day poppies got bigger and bigger and were sported earlier and earlier. Minutes' silence began to be held for tragedies that were diminishing in gravity. Politicians like Tony Blair were apologising for historical sins, an act that cost them zero in emotional investment.
Anti-war marchers seemed less interested in actually stopping conflicts, but keener to brag about their personal distaste for them. 'Not in my name' was their slogan. This was compassion inflation, mourning sickness. It was not the sign of a more caring society. It was the symptom of a cynical, atomised one that would seize any opportunity to bond with strangers.
Of course, neither 'virtue signalling' or 'conspicuous compassion' described something new. The ideas have their origins in Charles Darwin's 1871 book, The Descent of Man, which describes how saying or doing the wrong thing is all part of the sexual selection game. Quite simply, you are not going to get a girlfriend at university if you declare yourself a Tory. Conversely, once you get to middle age you don't really care what anyone's going to think of your political views.
By the new millennium I was reading a lot of Friedrich Nietzsche. One quote from Human, All Too Human convinced me he had predicted the future and that I had to write a book about the cranky old German: 'Observe how children weep and cry, so that so that they will be pitied... Thus the thirst for pity is a thirst for self-enjoyment, and at the expense of one's fellow man.' Somehow his infamous loathing of compassion no longer seemed so perverse.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)