We thought we’d won, didn’t we? You, know, us: the good people. The non-prejudiced, socially aware, separating the recycling, Scandinavian telly, shop-local, buy-free-range-when-we-can-afford-it people. We had Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House (very definitely people like us) and the Camerons in Downing Street (people like us’s token Tory friends, but, you know, not real Tories
But somehow, in 2015, everything went mad. Our token Tory friends turned out to be, y’know, actual Conservatives who really believe the dismantling the state stuff. To our alarm, most of the country appeared to agree with them. That nice Ed Miliband oversaw a disastrous election for the centre left, and in confusion and anger the left returned to its comfort zone of placards and trestle tables and petitions. So many petitions. Meanwhile, in the United States, they seem to be taking an actual fascist, a man who could not be more different from the Obamas, seriously as a presidential prospect. The Middle East is a colossal mess that no one has a clue what to do about, and jihadist terrorist attacks seem indistinguishable from lone-wolf gun massacres in their unreason and unpredictability.
The consensus we thought we’d agreed has disappeared, and we've been powerless to do anything. We want it to stop.
This, I believe, is the impulse behind one of the predominant themes of the year: the endless calls for bans on, well, everything from Germaine Greer entering a university to Donald Trump entering the country.
The latter first: this week, Labour politicians including Caroline Flint and Jack Dromey have backed the sentiment of a petition, now signed by over 500,000 people, to bar Donald Trump from entering the UK. This in spite of the fact that Trump has not shown any intention to enter the country any time soon. Trump’s call to bar Muslims from entering the United States is the worst demagoguery, and his suggestion that there are police “no-go” areas in London, turned over entirely to radical Islamist movements, is a plain falsehood. But Labour are in now in the realm of backing a hypothetical ban on a hypothetical visit. Exclusion orders are complicated things. Governments have a right to say who can and cannot enter the country, but it’s undesirable that people are barred for their political views: it happens too often already, and if Labour is genuinely interested in being an alternative to the Conservatives, it should not be calling on Theresa May to be more authoritarian than she already is.
What of the various campus bans? People of my generation and older despair at the new commissars we imagine patrolling our universities. When we were that age, we sigh over pints in the saloon bar, we didn’t want safe spaces! We were edgy and cool and free, and all the kids now are uptight and censorious and they probably don’t drink enough either.
But when we were at university, we were not told, every day through every outlet, that we had no future. The message to the average undergraduate now is that they will struggle to get a decent job and probably never get a house, no matter what they do. Imagine the rage that would rise in one’s soul. So what do you do? You assert your power in the only way you can see available to you: you ban stuff, shut it down.
Not long ago, the Guardian ran a weekly feature in which various notables were asked to imagine what they would do if they were king or queen for a day: almost everyone asked mentioned the things - other people’s words, expressions, behaviours - that they would ban. We appear to equate power with banning things, censoring the world. When he have no real power, in a world stacked against us - whether we’re undergrads or Labour MPs - calling to ban something, anything we don’t like is the only way of expressing our impotent fury we have left.