In the old days, the simmering jealousies and neighbourhood hatreds of small town life were played out in tea-rooms and in the pub, down at the jam factory or in the post office queue. There were at least rules of the game. You didn't actually insult and abuse people to their faces, unless you wanted a clout in return. Instead you gossiped and whispered, smiled to their face and ran them down behind their back. Happy days.
It's all different now. Ledbury's gossip machine stills purrs away in the background spinning stories of illicit liaisons and broken promises. But the go-to place for verbal fisticuffs has to be Facebook, and its evil orphan, the wildly inappropriately titled 'Voice of Ledbury'. Here, two thousand seven hundred people look on in appalled fascination at the antics of a handful of social media headbangers. Such is VoL's noteriety that when there's a good ding-dong, folk claim to settle down at the screen for the evening with wine and nibbles.
As I write this, reports are coming in of 'killer clowns' stalking the Deer Park housing estate. Halloween is drawing near. Someone is visiting family and is shocked at the poor state of the town's roads: "my goodness the road through town is in the most awful condition, dips, and lumps and bumps and patches. Is there a plan to re surface?" she asks innocently. Please! Don't get us started on potholes. There's a dog on the loose and dog shit on the cricket field, a lady is advertising her charity fundraiser, there are 'lots of police on the Full Pitcher roundabout and in the Rugby Club, heaven knows what's going on!!', somebody wants a good hairdresser. All the usual surreal random banalities of town life.
But Voice of Ledbury isn't really about such endearing topics as these. At its dark, cruel heart, it has an ulterior goal, a political agenda. It claims to speak for the "silent majority" and offer a place 'to give them a voice in the future of Ledbury.' It was set up by a small group of right wing activists, including the current town mayor Debbie Baker. (She jumped ship from UKIP and stood for the Conservatives at the last election, clever. The Tories were delighted to have a foothold in Ledbury's social media universe and a champion of the working class to front them up.)
Those few energetic, prolific posters, the founding members of VoL have a distinct and extreme outlook. They are angry, frustrated and aggrieved. They hate Herefordshire Council, the EU, political correctness and being 'belittled' and condescended to, favourite words. They have no faith in the police or mainstream politicians. They are chippy, emotionally sensitive and sense a put-down at a country mile. They hurl abuse and lambast their political enemies with gusto, but shout bully! at the slightest retort. Like rats in a sack, they might serially hate each other, but they hate outsiders more. There aren't many of them, but enough to make a lot of noise.
'We know from experience', says VoL's little manifesto, 'that there are a large number of people who, for what ever reasons, will not put forward their concerns and ideas concerning Ledbury. This groups [sic] aims are to engage those people in conversation and find out how we can represent them to the relevant bodies.'
The Silent Majority
Who are these silent majority, and who uses that phrase? Our crooked friend, Richard Nixon famously reached over the heads of the swirling anti-Vietnam movement, the civil rights activists and the druggy counterculture in 1969 to address the great white homeland of the US: 'And so tonight - to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans - I ask for your support.' They gave it him. He gave them Watergate.
When conservative voices face protest and insurgency, when they sense that things are running out of their control, they often seek to exploit the fears and frustrations of the silent majority. Cameron did it in the Scottish referendum. 'We’ve heard the noise of the nationalist few, but now it is time for the voices of the silent majority to be heard', he said. Wrong again, he was hoping that same silent majority would vote to stay in the EU.
And so to Trump. Rousing the crowd of white, disaffected working class voters in Phoenix Arizona he said: 'The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take our country back'. Build a wall. Ban Moslems from entering. Put Hillary in jail. Make it ok to "grab pussy".
No surprises that UKIP's Nigel Farage has jumped on the Trump bandwagon. At the launch of the referendum he declared, 'for the next three months our national campaign is about being the voice of the people, the silent majority. This is our big chance to deliver a blow to the political class from which they will never recover.'
There is a thread that runs through all of these appeals to the silent majority. It is right wing populism. In this skewed world, paranoia is weaponised. They're out to get us. The liberals and the academics, the social workers and the thought police, lefties, the Eurocrats, the Germans and French, the Moslems and Jews, the gay mafia, climate change scientists, traitors, all of them. Let's take back our independence.
It's as old as organised politics, the gambit by powerful politicians of mobilising a disaffected, misinformed, reactionary populace against a shadowy elite. Social liberalism is presented as a clever ruse to rip off the long suffering masses. Socrates was condemned by the anti-democrats in ancient Greece for spreading dangerous ideas of freedom among the young. Julius Caesar dismantled the Roman Senate by appealing to the mob and crowned himself Emperor. The Nazis and Italian Fascists did the same brilliantly, of course. Mao unleashed his brutal Cultural Revolution to consolidate his grip and destroy his rivals. Welcome Donald Trump: is he the world's next populist dictator?
Even democracy is not exempt from their bile. Three weeks out from the poll, Mr Trump explains that if he loses the Presidential election it will be because Clinton's cronies have rigged it.
In a sense of course, the resentments and fears which these demagogues attach themselves to and exploit, have some justification. It's true, people have had enough. The tragic hero of the movie Network, Howard Beale said it a hundred times: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore". Watch this clip.
The world is and has been ruled for millennia by shadowy elites who respect no national borders, and no conventional moralities: the druids, the family dynasties, the nobility, the church, the generals, the mafia, the bankers, hedge fund managers and transnational companies, the oligarchs and the super-rich (like Donald Trump). They're in it for themselves.
Ledbury has also been controlled for a long time by its own elite, the old 'squirearchy' who have not just run all the farms hereabouts, but also are the beating heart of the old county political establishment. They still go hunting, supply the MPs and Lord Lieutenants, own the lands, run the County Councils, and make the money. Meanwhile, Herefordshire has desperately low levels of income, very little social housing, pitiful levels of inward investment and very few new well-paid jobs. Energy poverty and social deprivation are facts of life here. Educational achievement is below average. Young people, especially the bright and ambitious, are moving out, leaving an unsustainable aging population.
On first glance, our quality of life might look good. But the unspoilt scenery and touristy towns and villages conceal an underclass of poverty, low aspiration and thwarted hopes.
When you keep people down, exploit and degrade them, they get angry, they look for scapegoats, they become putty in a demagogue's sweaty palm.
Racist, nationalist, xenophobic, suspicious of education and evidence, Trump's supporters might be bigoted and crude but you have to feel sorry for many of them, as you do some of Nigel Farage's. They have been sold a false prospectus. Trump and Farage are liars and imposters. They are the embodiment of the cynical elite which they continually denounce. But their message is credibly attractive for people who feel angry and left behind.
Ledbury's alt-right attack dogs on VoL, fired up by populist right-wing rhetoric, willingly go along with the conspiracy agenda. They believe their traditional way of life is being snatched away from them by incomers, their jobs by immigrants and their town council by a bunch of egotistical outsiders, selfish meddlers who have no right to express an opinion on the future of the town or to participate in the democratic process. Bizarrely, they would rather the Council be left in its parlous, feeble state, achieving very little for the town, than have it challenged by anyone who isn't of their clan. The Council might be crap. But it's our crap Council. The boy racers are a menace on our streets, but don't you dare criticise them. They are our boy racers.
One of the recently departed town councillors unwittingly summed up the political nihilism that pervades Ledbury's own left-behind communities. In his resignation letter, Phill Bettington bemoaned the 'unnecessary grief' suffered by town council staff from 'certain' councillors and individuals, but conceded that that 'in their own minds [these councillors] believe they have the town at heart with their own agendas wanting everything done their way under the banners of "Democratic" "Openness".' You say that like it's a bad thing Phill.
Is Mr Bettington really implying that it is better to be done with democracy and transparency in the interests of a happy staff team, a harmonious but ineffectual council, a peaceful little town which comfortably eschews foreigners or outsiders while trumpeting a virulent patriotism? I am reminded of TS Eliot's potent phrase: 'these fragments I have shored against my ruins'.
Far from representing the silent majority, the loudest, most rabid elements on Voice of Ledbury are out of step with the modern town. In successive elections, UKIP has been trounced and the increasingly hardline Conservative establishment carpeted, as they will be again in 2019. To the chagrin of Ledbury's old right wing, the town shines a beacon for humanitarian regard towards refugees, comes out against racism and xenophobia, champions sustainable energy, has risen up to hold on to its independent shops and vibrant town centre and is a hotbed of community cooperation. None of these progressive forces have sprung from the Town Council, but rather have flourished despite its sullen, tradition-bound habits and sour attitudes.
The rage of VoL's hard-core and its Town Council accomplices is a cry of desperation for a disappearing world of old fashioned political deference, cultural uniformity, and tribal cohesion. The town is changing beneath their feet.
Meanwhile, on Facebook more than two and half thousand reasonable, informed, hard-working people look on with a mixture of amusement and horror at the poisonous discourse which passes for political debate in this town. Perhaps they are the real silent majority?