Virtue signaling is a term that has recently caught on in Britain. Coined in The Spectator (the magazine I work for) by James Bartholomew, it refers to the way that people seem to think that being good means expressing fashionable liberal opinions. To be considered—or to consider yourself—virtuous, you don’t have to do; you just have to say. One doesn’t have to take a Syrian refugee into one’s home, for instance. It is sufficient to log on to Facebook and say that the government must welcome many more Syrian refugees, and then add that those who think differently are bigoted.
It is the second part, the denouncing of those who disagree, that is more important. As James says,
It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, “I care about the environment more than most people do” or “I care about the poor more than others,” your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious. . . . Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.
American conservatives will be familiar with such aggressive moral peacocking, but virtue signaling is more pernicious on this side of the Atlantic. Over here, it has pedigree. George Orwell noticed how British socialists were prone to ostentatious displays of anger. In Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air, the narrator, George Bowling, attends an antifascist book-club meeting and observes “the same thing over again. Hate, hate. Let’s all get together and have a good hate.” In Britain today, getting together and having a good hate has become the standard pattern for public discourse. It is the modus operandi of our media and political elites. Journalists and officials, left and right, never miss an opportunity to heap scorn on those whose opinions they deem unacceptable. We particularly enjoy venting our abhorrence of cultures that we don’t understand but know we don’t like, such as the American right. Which is why, in response to the emergence of Donald J. Trump as a serious Republican presidential candidate, British virtue signaling has gone into overdrive.
During the Summer of Trump, when the preposterous orange tycoon went about saying that Mexicans were rapists and making nasty jokes about women, the British made a national pastime out of being shocked by The Donald. The same thing happened across the Atlantic, of course, but in the United States outrage was tinged with embarrassment. In Britain, Trump’s boorishness, and the stupidity of his supporters, made us feel better about ourselves. We comforted ourselves that that sort of behavior is beyond the pale over here. And like everyone else, we enjoyed tittering at Trump’s epic vanity. Yet after he issued his call for a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the United States, that mildly anti-American amusement transmogrified into a barrage of righteous anger.
Trump made matters worse by citing Britain as an example of Islamic immigration going too far: “We have places in London and other places that are so radicalized that police are afraid for their own lives.” That reminded everyone of when, in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, a rather overexcited FOX News analyst said that “In Britain there are not just ‘no-go zones,’ there are actually cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in.” How little these right-wing dumb-dumbs understand multicultural Britain, we said to ourselves.
Nobody wanted to acknowledge that Trump might have had a point. There are indeed heavily Islamic areas in several British cities that police officers are frightened to patrol. As a Lancashire officer recently told the Daily Mail, “There are Muslim areas of Preston that, if we wish to patrol, we have to contact local Muslim community leaders to get their permission.” Another officer from Yorkshire said that he and his colleagues were asked to cover up their uniforms in certain places for fear of being attacked. Trump, he said, had “pointed out something that is plainly obvious, something which I think we aren’t as a nation willing to own up to.”
So we didn’t dwell on Trump’s remarks about London. We focused instead on his proposed moratorium on Muslim immigration to America. Myriad Brits took to social media to express our moral outrage at such an illiberal idea. David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, said that he found Trump’s views “divisive, stupid and wrong.” Other politicians competed to sound more apoplectic. Zac Goldsmith, the man hoping to be the next Conservative mayor of London, called Trump “utterly repellent” and “one of the most malignant figures in politics.” Jack Dromey, Labour’s home-office minister, said Trump should not be allowed within 1,000 miles of Britain’s shores—though he did not say precisely how he would enforce this exclusion. The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, declared that Trump, whose mother was Scottish and who owns golf courses in Scotland, would be stripped of his “membership of the respected GlobalScot business network”—and everyone pretended that was a big deal.
Then came the internet petition to “block Donald J. Trump from UK entry,” on the grounds that
The UK has banned entry to many individuals for hate speech . . . [T]he same principles should apply to everyone who wishes to enter the UK. If the United Kingdom is to continue applying the “unacceptable behaviour” criteria to those who wish to enter its borders, it must be fairly applied to the rich as well as poor, and the weak as well as powerful.
Internet petitions addressed to Parliament have to be signed by 500,000 people before they may be debated in the Palace of Westminster. The proposal to ban Trump skipped over that bar with ease, and was duly debated in the lower chamber of Her Majesty’s Parliament on January 17. By then, the initial flush of virtuous anger had dissipated somewhat, and only 40 MPs bothered to show up to discuss the motion. Nevertheless, the subject managed to take up three hours of parliamentary time and show British politics at its most petty.
The debate, which took place not in the House of Commons but in a small room in Westminster Hall, was a futile exercise from the outset. None of the elected representatives present had the power to block Donald Trump. The only person who could do that would be Home Secretary Theresa May, and she had already said she had no intention of enforcing a ban—though, this being Britain, she felt obliged to say that she, too, thought Trump “absolutely wrong.”
The worst aspect was not the pointlessness, however; it was the humiliating silliness. As Daily Telegraph sketch writer Michael Deacon put it, “the debate was broadcast on US TV. Now that the Americans have seen this, we’ll never be able to affect intellectual superiority over them again.”
The standard of argument would have embarrassed a minor university debating society.
Labour MP for Newport West Paul Flynn kicked off proceedings with a ridiculous speech, in which he urged Parliament not to give Trump “the halo of victimhood” or the “accolade of martyrdom.” “I think we may already be in error in giving him far too much attention,” he said, with Widmerpoolian earnestness. Remembering the American audience watching at home, he was also eager to point out that
in showing disrespect for Mr Trump, it might well be interpreted by supporters and others in America as showing disrespect to the American nation. This is not what we’re saying. It’s one individual that’s involved in this.
Other MPs took turns repeating what an awful individual Trump is. Every speaker seemed to be straining for effect, desperate that his or her slur would be the zinger that made the headlines. Tory Victoria Atkins said, “If he met one or two of my constituents, they would tell him he’s a wazzock!” Move over, Benjamin Disraeli.
Jack Dromey repeated his call for a 1,000-mile no-Trump perimeter around the British Isles. He said that a Trump visit
would embolden the EDL [English Defence League, a far-right, anti-immigrant group] on the one hand and fuel the flames of terrorism on the other hand. Donald Trump is free to be a fool. But he is not free to be a dangerous fool in Britain.
Labour MP Naz Shah said that, far from banning Trump, she would take him for a curry in her Muslim-heavy constituency of Bradford, in order to teach him the wonders of multiculturalism. “Given that it is Martin Luther King day,” she concluded, “I leave everyone with his words: ‘I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.’”
One Tory MP, Adam Holloway, did make a pertinent observation: “this motion . . . makes us look intolerant and totalitarian,” he said, and Parliament “should almost apologise to the people of the United States. It is for them to decide on Mr Trump’s views, not us.” This sensible point was lost amid all the blather.
After 180 cringe-inducing minutes, junior home-office minister James Brokenshire attempted to sum up the position of the government. “Where there are clear differences of opinion, the most effective way to influence our America partners is through a frank and open exchange of views, in taking on those arguments,” he said. “And today’s robust debate has, I think, provided a platform to do just that.”
In the end, the political consensus was that, while it was proper to let Trump know that we the British people don’t like him at all, we should not stoop to his level by calling for a ban. The Guardian, Britain’s leading left-wing publication, which honored the debate with a live blog, said in sum, “One of the functions of a parliament is [to] allow a nation to let off steam and effectively that is what happened this afternoon.”
That’s one way of looking at it. Another might be to say that such a monstrously idiotic episode showed the British to be a nation of chronic virtue signalers.