As Brexiteers and Right-wing voters are dismissed as ‘gammon’, BRENDAN O’NEILL reveals why Britain’s elites hold ordinary people — and democracy — in such contempt
The swinish multitude is back. Only we call them gammon now, not swine. A couple of centuries ago, at the dawn of the modern democratic era, the rabble that wanted more of a say in public life were looked upon as pigs. Today, they’re looked upon as pig meat.
I’m fairly sure that’s a demotion. At least pigs are alive, and pretty intelligent, too. Gammon, in contrast, is inanimate flesh, unfeeling, unthinking, liable to decay. That’s us, apparently. That’s the throng now.
Gammon has become the insult du jour of the British left in recent years.
They use it to refer to a certain kind of voter. Right-wing, pro-Brexit, angry, red about the face — hence ‘gammon’.
These gammon-cheeked scourges of electoral politics, who are normally working class or lower-middle class, are held responsible for all the supposed political ills of our time, especially populism.
Gammon has become the insult du jour of the British left in recent years. They use it to refer to a certain kind of voter. Right-wing, pro-Brexit, angry, red about the face — hence ‘gammon’
These ‘flushed, middle-aged Brexiteers’ look like cuts of a ‘hearty pork steak’, says one observer, and they’re ruining the political life of the nation with all their ‘ranting about Brexit and immigrants’
These ‘flushed, middle-aged Brexiteers’ look like cuts of a ‘hearty pork steak’, says one observer, and they’re ruining the political life of the nation with all their ‘ranting about Brexit and immigrants’.
People with some knowledge of British history, and in particular of the historical struggle for democratic rights, might find all this talk of pig meat a little familiar.
The metaphor of pigs has stalked the debate about democracy in Britain for hundreds of years. Indeed, one of the great democratic journals of the 1790s was actually called Pig’s Meat.
Why? Because it was a response to the anti-democratic prejudices of the establishment and in particular to the political thinker and philosopher Edmund Burke’s handwringing over ‘the swinish multitude’.
Burke viewed the revolutionary masses as the hoofish destroyers of culture, and radical pamphleteers responded with satirically piggish indignation. We demand ‘The Rights of Swine’, said Pig’s Meat in 1794.
Burke introduced the pig trope in 1790 in his Reflections on the Revolution in France — a deeply conservative attack on the tumult across the English Channel.
‘Learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude’, Burke warned.
There it was. The nightmarish vision of the swine, of the pig-like, unlearned crowd, overpowering what Burke described as ‘the spirit of [the] gentleman, and the spirit of religion’.
Gammon has become the insult du jour of the British left in recent years
Radicals in England, stirred rather than horrified by what was happening in France, responded with great ferocity to Burke’s piggy jibe.
In 1793, there was the publication of an anonymous pamphlet titled An Address to the Hon. Edmund Burke from the Swinish Multitude.
It giddily ran with the pig metaphor, contrasting the economic difficulties of the ‘poor porkers’ of England with the lives of luxury enjoyed by ‘lordly swine’ such as Burke. It was hugely popular, sold under the counter in bookstores and pored over in taverns.
There was also Hog’s Wash, published by radical journalist Daniel Isaac Eaton between 1794 and 1795. He revelled in giving voice to the swine. Imagine pigs, he wrote, ‘demanding that political liberty shall be the same to all — to the high and the low, the rich and the poor — what audacity!’
He also published a piece in Hog’s Wash that said we should ‘rid the world of tyrants’. It was interpreted as an attack on King George III and Eaton was hauled off to court. But the jury acquitted him, to wild public acclaim. People celebrated in the streets and even cast medallions in honour of this spokesman for swine.
Alas, the law eventually caught up with the swinish rebels. As the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Bindman describes it, ‘by the end of 1795, the government [of William Pitt] had got its act together’. It passed two new laws against the heresy of radical agitation.
Radicals recognised the jig was up for the swinish multitude. One poetically wrote: ‘Having destroyed the best men in the nation, / we SWINE if we are not mistaken / must screaming and gnawing our tongues for vexation; / be butcher’d and made into bacon.’ Bacon — that’s how the swine of England ended up during the Age of Revolution, fried and sizzled by the reactionary rulers of the day.
Fast forward a couple of centuries and now they’re gammon. Pig talk is back.
Of course, today’s fretters over democracy, and especially populist democracy, are too sophisticated, or at least too politically correct, to use phrases like ‘the swinish multitude’. And yet, strikingly, they have been drawn back to swine-like language.
They have reached, once again, for the metaphor of the hog. They are, in a repeat of history as farce, talking about the plebs as pig meat. Gammon, like Burke’s swines, are viewed as the enemies of culture: unrefined, insensitive, lacking in due regard for the expert class. So widespread was the use of the gammon slur in liberal and Leftish chatter post-Brexit that, in 2018, the Collins English Dictionary chose it as one of its words of the year. ‘Gammon: a person, typically middle-aged and white, with reactionary views, especially one who supports the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union.’
Pig meat became a byword for what the metropolitan elites view as those small-village Little Englanders who make deficient democratic choices.
The fallout from the British people’s vote for Brexit and the American people’s vote for Trump was extraordinary. Views that were once only expressed in the privacy of a boozy dinner party exploded into public life
And however much the deployers of the gammon jibe say it’s only a reference to a person’s complexion, so calm down, the fact is it echoes the old loathing of swine remarkably well.
Gammon, like swinish multitude, is fundamentally a reference to people lower down the social ladder: culturally stunted, uneducated, too dim for politics.
One Left-wing writer describes encountering a ‘nest of gammon’ on social media — nest: are they pigs or insects? — and says these soulless creatures require ‘regular spoon-feeding from the trashy tabloids’ to tell them what to think. Gammon ‘[spit] out talking points found in fascist organs like the Daily Mail — or, for those preferring something less intellectual, the Daily Express’, runs a much-quoted online definition.
Brexit may only have been a ballot box revolt rather than a full-on revolution and it might not reshape our epoch quite as thoroughly as the French revolutionaries did theirs. But it was a historic democratic moment and one which, yet again, reanimated the pig phobia of the establishment.
It is striking that for all of today’s discussion about so-called cancel culture, about whether it’s acceptable or not to ‘cancel’ the speech of the offensive and the ignorant, one of the most terrible acts of cancel culture is rarely mentioned — the cancellation of democracy.
We are living through a furious carnival of reaction against the democratic ideal. The populist moment has dragged into public view the cultural elites’ extant terror of entrusting political decision-making to the people.
The fallout from the British people’s vote for Brexit and the American people’s vote for Trump was extraordinary. Views that were once only expressed in the privacy of a boozy dinner party exploded into public life.
People who once would only have dared to hint that the masses are pig-like in the comfort of their own homes, while clinking glasses with a like-minded highbrow, were now giving utterance to such corrupt thoughts in the public sphere.
We are no longer successfully keeping ‘the mob from the gates’, said Matthew Parris. We now know, he said, that ‘huge numbers of voters’ can be ‘horribly if temporarily misled by false prospectuses, by lies, by unreasonable hopes and by sudden fears and hatreds’.
A pro-EU former adviser to the UK Conservative Party wrung his hands over the ‘democratic extremism’ of the Brexit era, for it ‘takes a noble idea, that everyone’s political views should count equally, too far’.
What an interesting concept — democracy going too far.
Brexit may only have been a ballot box revolt rather than a full-on revolution and it might not reshape our epoch quite as thoroughly as the French revolutionaries did theirs
This was a recurring theme of the post-Brexit and post-Trump intellectual meltdown — that rule by the people is fine, but rule by dumb people, by the uninformed, by people who have been ‘swayed by prejudice and emotion’, is another thing entirely.
The people unleashed is the great terror of the elites. Under the cover of attacking populism, the cultural and political classes are really attacking democracy.
Populism’s sins — its granting of too much power to the uninformed; its treatment of the passionate view of the pleb as equal to the knowledgeable view of the professor; its cultivation of a public sphere in which information, including misinformation, enjoyed free rein — were really democracy’s sins.
A few days after the vote for Brexit, a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University put it as plainly as it could be put in Foreign Policy.
‘It’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses’, the headline declared.
The divide of our time, he said, is between the ‘sane [and] the mindlessly angry’, and right now the mindlessly angry are winning.
There it was in black and white, or red in tooth and claw, perhaps: the informed must wrest decision-making back from the dense; the 21st-century nobility must take back power from the swinish multitude.
Such elitism wasn’t just talk. In the UK, the establishment agitated for the voiding of the vote for Brexit, of 17.4 million ballots, and the holding of a second referendum. In the U.S., Trump was depicted as an illegitimate president, installed in power by illegitimate means — thus a false ruler.
There were moments in the past seven years when it genuinely felt as though democracy might be overturned. We were continually on the cusp of the most appalling cancellation in this era of cancel culture: the cancellation of democracy — and by extension of freedom itself.
For here’s the thing: every undermining of democracy is an undermining of the thing that makes democracy possible and real — freedom of speech. Anti-democratic sentiment represents one of the gravest erosions of free speech imaginable because it chips away at the foundational conviction of free speech — namely, that people, from the nobility to the multitude, from the elite to the gammon, have sufficient mastery of reason to be able to weigh up information and ideas and make moral judgments as to which ones are good and which ones are bad.
Our era’s dread of gammon, its fear of the rule of emotion over expertise, is rooted in a belief that people lack the moral and political depth to be able to withstand the deceptions of the powerful.
Brexit is the handiwork of ‘lobbyists and billionaires’ who were ‘wilfully manipulating the media and public opinion’, said a Labour MP in 2017. It is a tragedy for ‘liberal democracy’, said Nick Cohen, a writer for the Observer, that ‘demagogic arguments are proving so resonant to so many’. A view of the multitude as dangerously foolish has informed elitist contempt for democracy for as long as the idea of democracy has existed. Plato thought democracy had a tendency to undermine the expertise necessary to run a state.
In England in the 1640s, Marchamont Nedham, an adviser to Oliver Cromwell, responded to the Leveller idea of expanded democracy by describing the masses as ‘void of Reason . . . with an unbridled violence in all their Actions, trampling down all respect of things Sacred and Civill . . .’
In short, too emotional.
In the UK, the establishment agitated for the voiding of the vote for Brexit, of 17.4 million ballots, and the holding of a second referendum
A hundred and fifty years later, as France shook, we had Burke’s agitation with the swinish multitude. Fifty years after that, in the 1840s, one of the key arguments made by the elites against the Chartists’ fight for the right of working-class men to vote was that those dregs were the most likely victims of demagoguery, ‘more exposed than any other class in the community to be tainted by corruption, and converted to the vicious ends of faction’. And 70 years after that, when women demanded suffrage, so-called experts insisted that ‘woman is emotional, and . . . government by emotion quickly degenerates into injustice’.
Now, despite our societies’ payment of lip service to the idea of equality, we are still told that people are too moved by ‘prejudice and emotion’, too lethally believing, too exploitable by conmen to be able to make reasoned political decisions.
Right now, in the fires of populism, the elites’ fear of the mass media is nothing more than an extension of their fear of the masses. The untruths of the media concern them only inasmuch as they have a low opinion of ordinary people’s ability to withstand untruth. The argument of the anti-democrats, then and now, is that surely it would be better if society were governed by those in the know. Anyone but the swines, anyone but gammon, anyone but us.
The answer has to be no. First, because that just isn’t how democracy works. As David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, says: ‘The basic premise of democracy has always been that it doesn’t matter how much you know. You get a say because you have to live with the consequences of what you do.’
The second reason we should reject the rule of the knowers is the far more important one. It’s because democracy is not a means to an end. It is not some mere mechanism for arriving at what someone has decreed — often wrongly — to be the best way of running society.
No, the virtue of democracy lies in its mobilisation of the people to think and speak on issues of great importance. Democracy’s wonder lies not in its outcomes — some of which are good, like Brexit, others of which are questionable, like that third term for Tony Blair — but rather in its exercise.
Democracy invites us to find ways to make our voices heard, and to listen to other voices, and to judge the moral weight of all we hear. Democracy asks us to take ourselves seriously, and to take ideas seriously, and to enter the public sphere as citizens.
It demands that we take decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. Sometimes we make good choices, sometimes we make bad ones — it’s the act of making the choice that matters.
It strengthens our moral muscles, makes real our role as citizens and binds people together into a society of choosing. Democracy gives life and meaning to the freedom of the individual to think and decide for himself, and to the ties and connections that transform society from a place we merely inhabit into a world we shape and own and govern.
The poet John Milton understood this. Milton trusted people to use their reason. When God gave Adam reason, he wrote, ‘He gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing’
Heresy is choosing, too. That’s where the word comes from. ‘Orthodox’ comes from the Greek for ‘right belief ‘, heresy from the Greek for ‘choice of belief ‘. That remains the dread of the anti-democratic elites — our choosing of our beliefs and our choosing of our political path.
It remains the task of the heretic to defend choosing, ‘for reason is but choosing’, in how he thinks, how he acts on the world and what he wants the political destiny of his nation to be.
Pigs, keep fighting for the rights of swine.
Extracted from A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays On The Unsayable by Brendan O’Neill, to be published by Spiked on June 5 at £12.99. To order a copy for £11.69 (offer valid to June 17; UK P&P free on orders over £25). visit: mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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