We are The Village Green Preservation Society
As the generational cycle of political change continues to evolve, Deputy CEO Nick Barron discusses the impact of tribalism on modern society
I went on my first march in 1992. I took the day off school to protest on behalf of Britain’s coal miners, whose pits faced another round of closures.
I didn’t know anything about coal mining. I had never been anywhere near the pits or the villages that relied on them. I didn’t understand the economics of the industry. What I did know was that the Tories were determined to see them close and many innocent, working class people would lose their livelihoods as a result of Conservative callousness.
The other thing I knew a little bit about was climate change and its man-made causes. This was also the year of the Rio Earth Summit and the Climate Convention — a landmark moment in the history of environmentalism.
I would have described myself as an environmentalist — and so would most of the people I marched with. But we were content not to join the dots between the demise of the coal industry and the need to fight climate change.
Back then, we could put a sympathetic face to the victims of pit closures and identify the villains of the piece: Tories, natch. The victims of climate change, by contrast, were merely numbers — and the villains were harder to pin down. So 150,000 marched through rainy London for the coal industry.
Many of those schoolkids I marched with were back out on the streets as adults in 2018, to protest against Donald Trump. First among the many reasons they gave for marching was that Trump was a climate vandal, who put the interests of coal mining communities above the needs of the planet.
Why was the 1992 marchers’ concern for miners righteous, while Trump’s 2016 concern was evil? In the intervening years, a few things had happened.
Firstly, our understanding of anthropogenic climate change has improved. Three decades of research and discussion has successfully crystallised the issues. However, we also knew plenty back in 1992, and the science had already found its way in to my school classes.
Secondly, environmentalists have succeeded in putting a face on climate change’s victims and cast Western governments, businesses and consumers as the villains, guilty of inaction. Environmentalism now has a powerful emotional core, which it lacked in the 90s.
Thirdly, and most importantly as far as my marching friends are concerned, the coal mining industry had become part of the out-group: American, rural, reactionary and, worst of all, backed by Trump, making them axiomatically unsympathetic. They are the wrong kind of victim.
As a result of these shifts, my friends now marched against the same arguments they once marched for. Their tribal identity as left-wing, compassionate people who would take to the streets to fight for what is right was fixed, but the arguments that supported that worldview had flipped 180 degrees.
As our marchers illustrate, if you want to change a tribe’s mind, you have to show how your arguments line up with their values, giving them heroes and villains that match their understanding of the world.
Within the tribe, ideas can change, but values are constant.
This phenomenon is why it’s a mistake to think that history is linear, with the forces of progressivism tearing down conservative shibboleths one -by-one. Both left and right wing commentators make this error.
Progressives believe that ‘the arc of history bends towards justice’ and that they are on ‘the right side of history’, while reactionaries believe that ‘Conservatism is just Progressivism driving at the speed limit.’ Over the long-term, both sides argue, Western society is moving towards a political end state — it’s just a matter of how quickly we get there, and whether that goal is heaven or hell.
But political change is a pendulum swing, not an arc. Go back far enough and you can see the patterns. Exhibit A: The lyrics of The Kinks’ ‘Village Green Preservation Society’:
We are the Village Green Preservation Society, God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety. We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society, God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties.
Preserving the old ways from being abused. Protecting the new ways, for me and for you. What more can we do?
We are the Draught Beer Preservation Society, God save Mrs. Mopp and good old Mother Riley. We are the Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium. God save the George Cross, and all those who were awarded them.
We are the Sherlock Holmes English-speaking Vernacular. God save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula. We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity. God save little shops, china cups, and virginity. We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliates. God save Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards.
The Village Green Preservation Society represents the forces of reactionary England, seeking to defend a world being swept away by the Sixties cultural revolution and its hipster outriders.
But the reactionaries of the 60s sound a lot like the hipsters of the 2020s.
Any self-respecting Hipster would choose a micro-brewery or a little shop over sanitised, globalised lager and retail brands. Jam and cake making? That’s called a side hustle. Vaudeville, Desperate Dan, china tea cups and billiards? Sounds like the ultimate Hoxton pop-up. Opposition to skyscrapers? They used to be the enemy of The Telegraph, but today they are condemned by the Guardian as sexist anachronisms. Virginity? Sexual inactivity is rising among young people.
Progressives will always stand against the status quo and the vested interests that preserve it. But as a result of their efforts, the world changes. And as it does, the progressives create a new status quo and new vested interests, for the next generation of progressives to tear down.
Once it was the left that promoted free speech, because the right held the levers of cultural power. Now it is the right that calls for free speech, and the left that cancels. In the 1990s, ‘colour blindness’ was a left-wing virtue, now it is a sin. Miners and similar left-behind working class communities have switched from left-wing heroes, to right-wing ones. The pendulum has swung.
If you want to know what the next generation will fight for in the name of progress, simply look at what the last generation fought against and won.