Mr Eugenides has written a very insightful post about the root causes of left and right attitudes towards the Ian Tomlinson affair. He takes his cue from James Graham’s shudderingly evocative empathy with what Tomlinson went through, and theorises as follows:
I think that some of us on “the right” take the view, usually subconsciously but sometimes explicitly, that our most cherished civil liberty is simply the right to be left alone. What tends to vex us most is those instances where government tries to impinge on that right – through a national ID scheme, for example, or punitive taxation, or petty officialdom.
Because “protest” has traditionally been a tool of the left – the average Tory does not go to many demos, no matter what government is in power – it is something that many on the right simply don’t and can’t identify with.
Mr Eugenides cannot control his subsconcious, and simply does not have the same visceral reaction to the video of the assault as James G did, much though his reason tells him it is a clear and shocking curtailment of civil liberties.
This is a neat theory, certainly backed up by some of the more characteristic responses on both left and right – contrast the anguish of Laurie Penny with the lofty moralising of Letters from a Tory, for example. The former assumes a connection between the fall and the heart attack which is not currently supported by hard evidence, and the latter uncritically accepts the Daily Mail’s position that being shamblingly drunk makes one more deserving of attack from behind by a policeman with a big stick.
Soak up the generally cynical tone of the posts on Liberal Conspiracy (which on the whole I share, though I was careful to keep Lib Dem Voice‘s coverage on the restrained side throughout) and marvel, if you will, at Danny Finkelstein’s unfortunate attempt before and after the event to paint various Lib Dem MPs’ involvement as legal observers as “an extraordinary insult to the police” which “misjudged the public mood”. He hasn’t been seen since, poor man.
But actually what has struck me most forcibly about the online chatterati’s reaction to the affair is the precise opposite to what Mr E is talking about. I am amazed by the sudden faultlines everywhere. I’ve never seen people like LFAT and Dizzy get such a drubbing from commenters who normally agree with pretty much everything they write – and the latter express their own astonishment at this too. Suddenly the libertarians are lying down with the left. Or something. The fact that libertarianism (where it is not a poorly worn excuse for the protection of existing privilege) is in many ways a distinctly left-leaning philosophy suddenly looks less awkward
It’s not all one-way traffic either. There are fewer examples of leftie blogs I have come across taking the police side (please do point me towards them) but exhibit A is of course the still silent Labourlist, top-down tool of the left at its most authoritarian. Sadie Smith’s overall attitude to the protestors (though divorced from the context of Tomlinson’s death) also echos much of what the pro-police right-wingers say, for all that she appears to be taking a diametrically opposite view (“trustafarians” being her disparagement of choice, as opposed to “unwashed rabble” or similar).
It’s a pretty rum set of reactions, in other words. I think I just heard the sound of a hairline crack splintering into a jagged gap you can get your thumb into. I think one of Mr E’s commenters has it right, referring to the contention that “some of us on “the right” take the view … that our most cherished civil liberty is simply the right to be left alone.”
I wonder if that makes us ‘right’ or whether those distinctions are now outdated.
Commentators have been referring to the death of left and right, with no real conviction, ever since Labour came to power, but have never found a narrative that sticks. We have come to understand over the past couple of years that they were looking in the wrong place. Because left and right were defined, ultimately, by economic attitudes, they focussed on the shifting sands of an economy that we do not, never have, and never will control completely through the tools of either side to the satisfaction of all.
It has taken a series of quite serious blows to liberty to make the new faultline visible. For some of us, liberalism versus authoritarianism (or the y axis, in political quiz terms) has been the real divide, the one that matters, for quite some time. That goes for me and most Liberal Democrats, some Tories and some ex-Labour people too. How else would members of the former hard left ever have ended up in the same conference centre as a man who favours the return of capital punishment?
I have found the divide between the liberal and the authoritarian becoming still more real for me over the last week. And as it grows, there will be a certain amount of jumping for various people to do. In five years’ time, what will the political blogosphere – and the political landscape – look like? Me, Mr Eugenides and Laurie Penny versus LFAT, Dizzy and Sadie? What an entertaining thought.