Remember when Margaret Thatcher died in April? ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead!’ they rejoiced on the streets and on social media, the recalcitrant losers of the old left uniting with today’s self-styled radicals, for whom Thatcher was a semi-mythical creature from the past who had wronged their ancestors. The Iron Lady was a mean old bitch, they cried, her creed of individualism being responsible for today’s troubled times.
A few months later, the hero of the left dies. Where was the comparable vitriol from the right, as was expected, about ‘Nelson Mandela the terrorist’? Sure, there was the odd, fringe UKIP fruitcake (isn’t there always?), but for the most part there was warmth and praise. Some, like former UK prime minister John Major, even said that the Conservatives were wrong on South Africa in the 1980s. Even the right-wing press has been quiet on Mandela’s real legacy and South Africa‘s future. Curiously, only the Guardian - in articles by Simon Jenkins and Slavoj Žižek - has really questioned the saintly status accorded to Madiba (though not nearly as well as spiked has done, of course).
Indeed, the only tangible vitriol to emerge has come from old lefties themselves, complaining on social media when David Cameron paid homage. How dare the Tories try to appropriate a foreign leader to make themselves appear virtuous? We bagsied him first!
Politics isn’t meant to be this way. Right-wing people are meant to be horrid and selfish and left-wingers caring and nice. Yet, episodes such as this seem to suggest, once again, the opposite. It’s one of the paradoxes today that the liberal-left is often far nastier, more vitriolic, censorious and egotistical than the ‘selfish’ Tories they profess to loath.
There has always been an egotistical element in progressive politics. As I wrote 10 years ago in my book, Conspicuous Compassion, Why Sometimes It’s Cruel To Be Kind, public displays of virtue are often motivated by vainglory. Remember Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s DJs, Smashie and Nicey, who did a lot of work for charity - ‘but didn’t want to talk about it’?
Remember Live Aid, when the First World came together to sing in front of images of emaciated African children? Consider the act of giving money to a beggar to soothe your conscience and feed his habit. Recall the guest on The Day Today raising money for a jam festival. (‘The only reason you’ve done it is to make yourself look important!’)