Everyone loves Gary Lineker, right? Laddish enough to be a man's man, charming enough that women also warm to him, the footballer-turned-Match-Of-The-Day-presenter is the stuff of which national treasures are made. Just the sort of guy the tabloids wouldn't dare go after – at least, until he publicly despaired on Twitter of the “hideously racist” reaction in some quarters to child refugees fleeing Calais. And then the heavens opened, just as they did on Lily Allen after her tearful encounter with a 13-year-old stuck in the infamous French refugee camp known as the Jungle. Because, in post-Brexit Britain, apparently this sort of thing is no longer socially acceptable.
The Sun ran a front-page story suggesting the BBC should sack Lineker, UKIP and Tory politicians piled in and, a week later, the row is still smouldering. “Luvvies always have a voice but who on TV dares speak up for the rest of us?” the former Sun editor and columnist Kelvin MacKenzie thundered, for all the world as if the referendum never happened and “the rest of us” didn't now have an entire government speaking for them, vowing to stop immigrants coming to the UK at all costs.
Will nobody think of the real victims here, the truly vulnerable and oppressed, ie people who don't like immigration and will make grudging exceptions for children only if they're adorable eight-year-old girls and not hulking teens in hoodies?
There are some hard lessons here for liberals, now learning how it feels to be hounded for views that were once normal – like wanting to give vulnerable people the benefit of the doubt
Because that's what they don't seem to get, the people now hounding Lineker or trolling Lily Allen. They don't get that they won. They don't get that they're not the downtrodden minority now, but increasingly the downtreaders. They can't let go of their own victimhood and see that they're now doing what they always said “the establishment” was doing to them, namely trying to shut down conversations they don't like.
Dare to say in public – or even, as chancellor Philip Hammond found, in the privacy of Cabinet – that Brexit has downsides and you'll be howled down as an enemy of democracy, as if the definition of democracy was never debating anything again. And if Lineker's getting flak on Twitter then imagine what's thrown at MPs like Stella Creasy and Yvette Cooper, both veteran campaigners on the refugee issue, or prominent Remainers like the Tories' Anna Soubry. Nothing gets the trolls going like a feminist defending immigration, bringing everything they hate together in one target.
Most shockingly of all, Tracey Brabin, the former Coronation Street actress elected to replace her murdered friend Jo Cox as Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was loudly heckled during an emotional acceptance speech last week by far-right opponents. These men lost the by-election by a landslide, but still claimed to be trying to drown her out in the name of “democracy”. And, while they may represent an extreme fringe of politics, in a world where a Tory councillor can launch a petition suggesting anyone defending EU membership post-Brexit be tried for treason, the extreme is creeping ever close to the mainstream.
There are some hard lessons here for liberals, now learning how it feels to be hounded for views that were once perfectly normal – like wanting to give vulnerable people the benefit of the doubt. It used to be grumpy old Victor Meldrews who moaned that the country was going downhill, and it's disconcerting to catch yourself saying something similar.
But all of this has a chilling effect. Some public figures looking at what's happened to Lineker or Lily Allen will undoubtedly think twice about standing up for unfashionable causes like refugees in future – why risk it, when you've got an album or telly series to sell?
Some MPs, too, will quietly pick less controversial battles. And, for everyone else, it starts feeling easier just to avoid the hassle of political arguments on Facebook or at dinner parties. There isn't really a word yet for the opposite of political correctness – the fear of being persecuted for saying something compassionate or liberal or egalitarian – but we're going to need one.