If you take some of our national papers’ front pages at face value, you might think we were living in a neo-Nazi land where foreigners are thought of as scum. And where those who stand up for a more reasonable view risk being forcibly silenced.
Did the Brexit vote in the summer – unexpected and shocking as it was at the time, inevitable as it looks in retrospect – suddenly alter our national character for the worse? Or did it just give licence to an unpleasant minority to start exhibiting their views in public?
The truth is, surely, somewhere between the two.
In my experience, most people are reasonably well disposed to one another most of the time. We mostly go through our daily lives rubbing along OK together. Even people who express appalling views about “Them” in general terms are likely to behave kindly towards an individual person.
But it’s also a horrible truth about humans that most want to fit in with those around them. So much so that whatever happens to be the public mood of the moment seems to most people as if it’s right and inevitable. And that going against it is criminal.
I have a gut-wrenching feeling that the public mood here and now is turning very unpleasant indeed. Encouraged in that direction by some unscrupulous individuals, both in politics and in what used to called Fleet Street.
The ability to sway the public mood has always been the tool of power. Shakespeare was very good at demonstrating that. And there have been plenty of stark examples since.
Here are some quotes, cynical but accurate, which seem uncomfortably relevant to the way we are right now.
“A lie, repeated 1,000 times, becomes a truth. The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.”
“Propaganda works best when those being manipulated are confident that they are acting on their own free will.”
The author of those phrases knew what he was talking about. He was Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.
And there’s this: “It is always a simple matter to drag people along, whether it is in a democracy, or a dictatorship. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”
That was Hitler’s vice-chancellor, Hermann Goering. What worked for him in Germany in the 1930s, and for Stalin in Russia at the same time, is at work in the UK today.
I’d like to think we’re better than that, but people aren’t. Not really. Not anywhere.