British politics is full of false taboos

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“Wit is inside one hell of a mess,” said Chris Patten, a former Tory minister and key founder, managing the state of the country. Inflation, slow economic growth and tax-money monetary policy had criticized the country, he said on “Question Time”, a current affairs show. “It’s also, and this is a word that shouldn’t be used anymore, it’s also because of Brexit.” The Leicester audience nodded. Finally, someone had said it. The big Brexit taboo had been broken. !

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If discussing the benefits of Brexit is taboo, people have been chasing it for years. Leaving the them has dominated political discourse for nearly a decade. Economists and analysts have looked at its economic impact, filling newspapers, television and social media. Reporters cry about it every day. Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, took pride in solving the major problems that Brexit caused for Northern Ireland. Labor has pledged to plug the glaring holes in Britain’s relationship with the them. For a word that people shouldn’t use anymore, it’s used a lot.

British politics is full of false taboos: topics that are supposed to go unmentioned, but are endlessly debated. From the reform of the National Health Service (nhs) to cut immigration and Brexit, politicians and voters engage in the fiction of some subjects verboten. It is a useful tool. Unpopular comments can be launched as prohibited. Impractical schemes can be painted as merely criminal rather than stupid. Pretend that taboos cover multiple failures. If there is a taboo in British politics, it is admitted that most political taboos do not exist.

Figuring out has many benefits. A false taboo can hide hard questions. Flawless return on the them, as offered by poll question, would indeed be popular. About half of the voters would support it, and a third would be against it. But it is also impossible. The same problems that drove people to leave, such as free movement and the fundamental question of sovereignty, would come back into play. Would British voters still support re-entry if that meant Schengen or the euro? It is much easier to cry taboo than to deal with the truth.

Leaving the them it’s just the latest fake taboo. Ever since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 predicting racial strife, immigration has seemed to have no limits. But Britain, somehow, has been arguing about it for 50 years. When statisticians revealed a record net immigration of 606,000 in 2022, those on the right insisted that cutting immigration was beyond the political limit. This is backwards. Cutting immigration is the stuff of political consensus: both major parties say it’s too high, as do most voters. If governments are supposed to do what they say they will do, immigration policy has failed. It is better to wear a taboo against that.

This is a common technique. Consider the poor performance of white working-class boys in schools. “Why has it become a taboo subject to speak out on behalf of the poor? ” wondered Ben Bradley, a Tory on the backbench mp, on the subject. But sharpening white working-class boys has been the goal of every government for a quarter of a century. In 1996 Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, called it the “worst” problem in education. In the David Cameron years, mps on extending the school day to boost their performance. All over the world, white working-class boys have remained near the bottom of the class. Every government has targeted them. Everyone has failed.

Sometimes pseudo-taboo is an excuse for inertia. Any criticism of the nhs no, some politicians say. If it is religion, as the cliché goes, blasphemy is on the rise. The nhs has become the basis of a joke. TikTok is full of spoof videos about grumpy receptionists telling sick people to get lost. More Britons are dissatisfied with the nhs than at any time recorded.

Reforming the nhs, which is free at the level of use, apparently, another taboo. Sir Tony Blair and Gordon Brown spent years fighting over debates that now seem pointless. nhs structures; Mr Cameron promised there would be no top-down restructuring nhsthen he noticed that his health secretary had, in fact, carried out a top-down restructuring of the nhs. A wholesale move to a European-style insurance model is not taboo. It would only be expensive, difficult and unpopular. It is better to pretend that something is forbidden than to be sorry or hateful.

It is cheaper to break supposed taboos than to solve the problems that hide them. Politicians regularly talk about the need to “reduce the stigma” around mental health. In an interview Mr. Sunak revealed that his mental condition was improved by the family dog. At the same time, Sir Mark Rowley, head of the Metropolitan Police, said the force would no longer respond to mental health calls, in a change that is part of building resources and part of acceleration. Ensuring that the police and hospitals are able to deal with psychosis is costly. The stigmata song is free.

So controversial, so brave

Constructing an imaginary taboo and then breaking it has become a tactic of the populist fringe. “But you can’t say that!” is a line from the How To Speak Populist phrasebook. But now it is used by all wings of politics. Populist parties were once influential like the uk The Independence Party may all be dead. Those politicians who played along, especially Boris Johnson, were expelled. But the style of politics they spoke to – of enlightened voters speaking truth against the wishes of a complacent elite – lives on.

And no wonder. Crime is the pleasure of a lifelong man, like Lord Patten. Establishment figures can paint themselves as rebels, daring to speak truth to power. Even the best events, such as attending a pro-them rally, enjoy an extra frisson if an idea is, apparently, forbidden. Middle of the road comments – “Brexit isn’t going well, is it?” – can be launched as a very transcendental thing. Why do publicists get all the fun?

Read more from Bagehot, our British politics columnist:
Britain’s new political wizard: The Fairy of Reform (31 May)
British voters want more immigrants but less immigration (May 25)
Truss Tour: 2023 (May 17)

Also: How Bagehot’s column got its name

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