What is sensed at the edges, comes closer. Evidence is here, from a report called 'The Politics of Belonging' by the conservative think tank Onward – or Backward, if you want to be droll and, having read the report, I need a laugh. It is accompanied by polling – of 5,000 British people – that says the following.
The idea that “freedom is security” has passed out of fashion. Two-thirds of people want a society that “focuses on giving people more security”, rather than a society that “focuses on giving people more freedom”. Some 71 per cent think too many people live in cities; 66 per cent think that too many of people – do they mean themselves? – are over-educated; 63 per cent of people think that marriage has fallen due to a “decline in family commitment and values”.
Backward did not ask the question: “Would you, personally, like to live in Downton Abbey if it was real?” I wish they had. I forecast 82 per cent wanting to live in Downton Abbey if it was real, and 98 per cent if it wasn’t.
But people wishing to live in 1912 – or rather an imagined 1912, because 1912 was not really like that – is not the worst of it.
This is the worst of it: 58 per cent of Britons would like “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Parliament”. That means, although I think they don’t know it, they would like a leader who does not have to bother with them.
So the fashionable quasi-tyrant chic – those photographs of a topless Vladimir Putin herding goats and Donald Trump shouting about immigrants – has had an impact. So has the Avengers franchise. People clearly think Iron Man is real. Let’s name it autocracy advertorial: steal my style, and I’ll steal everything. They say they want democracy - 84 per cent! - but they think only Iron Man can deliver it
Elsewhere in crazy-land, by which I mean the UK, 26 per cent us would like the Army to run the country. The Army? Why the Army? Why not, I don’t know, actors? There was a clue to this touching faith in the Army to deliver a functional social democracy in Backward’s report. Eighty per cent want “experts”, not government, to run the country. The Army are expert. But not at governing. Not in the way we are used to.
That wasn’t really the worst of it. I was joking about that earlier. This is the worst of it: among 25- to 34-year-olds – the young, the glib, the lovely – a whopping 36 per cent seek Army rule. That is more than the governing party, or the opposition, is polling. Are they drunk?
I long for more details of how, exactly, these 25- to 34-year-olds think military dictatorship would impact on them personally. Do they think they will get to ride on tanks painted with rainbows? Will everyone get a house for free?
Meanwhile, 26 per cent think that democracy is a bad way to run a country, and 66 per cent would like some form of “strong man” leader. I put “strong man” in scare quotes because they are rarely strong. What they really are is angry. Even so, that is what 25- to 34-year-olds have been thinking about, when I thought they were merely writing novels made of emoticons while taking selfies and ordering pizza by drone.
They were dreaming of military dictatorship and tyrants patting children’s heads while locking up unfriendly journalists. Do they know that tyranny does not have a fair returns policy; if you do not like it, you cannot just take it back?
They should listen to the over-75s who, having watched their parents die for democracy, think that, though sometimes exhausting and disappointing, it is rather a good thing. Only three per cent dislike it, which, considering their age, adds a new dimension to the concept of the dying of the light.
This, then, is the tolling of the bell, and the only thing I can think of to cheer me is that Jacob Rees-Mogg, under advisement from his special advisers, might start dressing like Hermann Göring, and John McDonnell like Benito Mussolini, which will be amusing for about 15 seconds.
I know they are frightened – of the housing crisis, the gig economy, ebbing public services, the despoiling of the planet and much else. They are weaned on slick solutions and the illusion of too much choice. I give you this for tyranny: it is decisive. Will it in, and they won’t have to make another decision for some time.
If they feel powerlessness now – well, wait a little. You will have a real lesson in powerlessness.
“This research marks a break with 60 years of liberal consensus,” said the Tory peer Lord Shaughnessy, who advises Backward. And I can only say, as they do in The West Wing, the US drama that gave viewers a liberal, Nobel Prize-winning president in the George W Bush years as a palliative, because we are back to actors - you think?