People don't like being told what to do, which makes a figure like Clarkson so appealing
He also happens to be wildly popular. Last year Top Gear averaged 5.3m viewers per episode, hitting a peak of 6m viewers, a figure I suspect is not solely down to an obsession with four wheels.
A petition to have Clarkson reinstated by the BBC currently has well over half a million signatures – more than the number of all political party members combined. In 2008, 50,000 people presented a petition to Number 10 calling for Clarkson to be made Prime Minister and, according to YouGov, he is more popular than either Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage among first-time voters.
But why? To begin with, Clarkson is a 21st century rebel who happens to be rebelling against things which are on the whole good – political correctness, anti-racism and the environment. Yet although few liberals will admit it, this formula – of giving gratuitous and boorish offence as often as possible – is successful not despite this, but because it sticks a middle finger up at decency and the so-called liberal establishment.
Key to understanding the Clarkson phenomenon is to recognise that his popularity is synonymous with the rise of the po-faced left. Despite the prevalence on Top Gear of politically incorrect views – and often deeply unpleasant views – the Clarkson bandwagon isn’t really about that. The real target for Clarkson and his fans are superior liberal types with their organic foods and “we know best” attitude (in this instance they do know best, but that isn’t my point).
George Orwell once wrote that “On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.’ And it’s a point the left – with its minimum alcohol pricing and tirades against smoking and gambling – seems perpetually unable to grasp.
Not everyone wants to spend time away from their soul-destroying office job reading books about polar bears and teaching the world to sing. Many, in fact, want to melt into the sofa with a beer and a fag and laugh at someone ripping through sacred National Trust land in a 4×4. In essence, they want to rebel; to stick two fingers up at “do-gooders”, even if it is only for an hour on a Sunday night.
As a thought experiment, try to imagine what a left-wing Top Gear would look like without summoning up dreadful images of too-clever-by-half types in hemp cardigans lecturing people on the benefits of eco-cars. The nearest thing the left has to a Clarkson figure is probably the comedian Russell Brand who, revealingly, becomes less funny the more he talks about politics.
According to the Guardian’s Zoe Williams, Jeremy Clarkson is on the “wrong side of history”. And so he is – but unfortunately lots of people quite like being on the wrong side of history; or at least they like living at a tilt to those who would water down their beer and ban the car. Not everyone wants to be conscripted into somebody else’s version of progress, however much it might have going for it.
The sooner we on the left recognises this, the closer we will surely be to ridding our television – and our politics – of crass buffoons like Jeremy Clarkson, before they do some real damage.
James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.