We take it for granted that people who make their living in the performing arts are hostile – or at least unsympathetic – to conservatism. In modern British folklore, luvvies are Lefties.
In America, however, the word “luvvie” isn’t familiar – and even in Britain it is essentially a neologism. Until the end of the 20th century, “lovey” was a camp theatrical term of endearment. As Martin Harrison writes in The Language of Theatre, it was the preserve of “actorly actors, regardless of sex”. In the popular imagination, “Dickie” (Lord) Attenborough always called his colleagues “lovey”; that’s when he wasn’t tearfully grabbing a gong for his unwatchable film Gandhi. Then Private Eye started using “luvvie” as a collective noun for gushing thespians, many of whom – Dickie included – had taken to fulminating against the Conservative government.
The culture wars have not divided Britain in the way they have divided America.
The Eye was mocking their emotional incontinence, not their politics. But Right-wing tabloid newspapers saw an opportunity and slapped the label “luvvie” on anyone in the arts who combined a quietly civilised lifestyle with noisily progressive opinions. This did not go down well.
Actors, artists and musicians who longed to be denounced as dangerous subversives by McCarthyite Tories were mortified by the suggestion that they were dim “celebs” (another unwelcome neologism) who matched their fashionable indignation to their wardrobe – or, worse, merely an exotic variety of public-sector whinger. Offence was taken. Theatrical offence, indeed, which made the goading even more entertaining.
But was it fair? Recently I’ve been having qualms about luvvie-baiting, for two reasons. First, lots of people in the arts world – including creative writers and BBC executives whom the Daily Mail regards as honorary citizens of luvviedom – don’t fit the stereotype. Perhaps they once did, but now they are disorientated by the sectarian hijacking of their beloved Labour Party. Brexit, too. It’s most obvious in private: sitting around the dinner table, they’ll attempt a few Left-wing pieties and then dry up, as if they’ve forgotten their lines.
Middle-class luvvies, many of them now pensioners, look back in dismay, if not in anger, at the glad confident morning of May 2 1997, when Tony Blair won his landslide majority. They have no sentimental attachment to New Labour, and their enthusiasm for the European Union is an act. They don’t like Leavers but they are growing tired of applying the greasepaint of outrage every time Brexit is mentioned. When their children at university demand “safe spaces” and denounce “transphobia” they try not to roll their eyes.
One result of this is that there are now more luvvies on the Tory benches than on the Labour ones.
The luvvies are tired, bless them, and in any case there is another reason why Right-wingers should examine their consciences before trashing them. During the Cameron years, ambitious Conservative politicians never felt more comfortable than when they were air-kissing at the Ivy Club.
In the Tory battles over the referendum, Leavers as well as Remainers indulged in histrionics that would have appalled the stiff-upper-lip Eurofanatics of an earlier generation. Can you imagine Ian Gilmour hugging Ted Heath to congratulate him for an “awesome put-down” on Question Time?
Conservative journalists, meanwhile, become as thin-skinned as “resting” actors once the commissions dry up. Here I must plead guilty though, unlike some of my colleagues, at least I’ve resisted the temptation to mimic the grotesque antics of the US alt-right.
The culture wars have not divided Britain in the way they have divided America. We have imported some liberal fads via social media, but – being paradoxically both a more homogeneous and a more complex society – have spread them around. One result of this is that there are now more luvvies on the Tory benches than on the Labour ones. They don’t include Theresa May, whose determination not to shrug off her suburban manners runs deeper than any of her political convictions. Coping with the tantrums and virtue-signalling of her own backbenchers may, in the long run, cause her just as much grief as her negotiations with Europe.