Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Convergence Election

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I wanted to put together some thoughts on why the Conservatives did well in last week’s election. Almost everyone I know has focused on why Labour’s vote shrank, but logically that can’t be more than half the answer. There is an old Eric Hobsbawm quip about histories of the left, that they risk telling you only what radicals did, what their thinking was, but they never look at the other side, until what’s left is like watching a footage of a boxing match in which you see but one of the fighters punching into a vacuum. Which might as well be the story of our past week. The left has produced many accounts of why we lost, hardly any of why the other side won.

As of six months ago, the Conservatives had a series of obstacles to face, each of which made it unlikely that they would win a majority. The most important barrier was incumbency – most voting is negative, and the longer they are in power the greater the anger aimed at incumbents. For seventy years of two-party competition, British politics has followed essentially the same pattern. In general, a party is elected with a certain core idea (build council housing, the white heat of technology, monetarism, education education education…). That idea, in combination with the unpopularity of its exhausted opponents, gives the party a majority. Over successive elections, the governing party generally loses its majority until it is time for a new party to govern.

Absent the Brexit referendum and what “should” have happened by now is that Cameron and Osborne, having won elections narrowly in 2010 and 2015 would still be defending the ideas with which they were most closely associated (i.e. austerity) but they would be intellectually exhausted, mired in corruption. Their majority would have narrowed to the point at which they started losing in parliament, the Labour Party should have chosen an anti-austerity candidate and the 2019 election would be the ideal opportunity for austerity to be consigned forever to …. (you get the picture).

Brexit, obviously, changed that. Among all its many effects, perhaps the most important has been to create a void space, so that 2010 didn’t happen, 2015 didn’t happen, 2017 didn’t happen and politics was reset as if to zero – and Johnson could say in seeming good faith, as he did whenever he was questioned on his government’s track record of cuts to school, hospitals and libraries, “I have only been in office for three months”.

In truth, Brexit’s impact was deeper – it was, and remains, among other things an attempt to reascribe the blame for austerity onto foreigners in general and the EU in particular, so that people who are annoyed about the collapsing state of our social infrastructure can blame it on something outside and distant, not the Tories, definitely not Boris Johnson, not even Labour, but someone outside, so that the clock is always being reset, and the conservatives can face the voters with the eternal sunshine of a spotless record. Don’t think for a second that we on the left are incapable of the same wilful innocence – but Johnson is doing it now, and Brexit allows him to get away with it.

There are other reasons why Johnson was able to win. During the election campaign, I had a much beloved friend who responded to every day’s reports of Johnson’s campaigning by posting a single recurring message to the effect that Johnson was a formidable campaigner, a rare politician to whom ordinary people connect and had real charisms. My friends made the point ironically, and repeated it so many times that in the ends the words collapsed apart and became just a raspberry jelly trifle of utter meaninglessness. Unfortunately, the satire was on all of us.

Johnson, it turns out, is a formidable campaigner. He does have real charisma. Our inability to see it was our weakness, not his.

I am interested in why so many friends didn’t “get it”. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that if you think about our notions of leadership, they do unfortunately operate with an exaggerated literality. So that a good left-wing politician is one who comes up with previously unconsidered policy proposals. And persuades his party to adopt them, and his electorate to vote for them.

This isn’t the only kind of political leadership though, on the right or at all. Sometimes, an effective political leader is one who goes into a hostile situation, and focuses simply on neutralising anyone else’s attack points. Actually, Johnson did this. It is why he made the point of being so repeatedly photographed visiting hospitals. Because he grasped that the mere repetitive image of being seen in that location would be a more effective way of presenting Johnson as a “pro-healthcare” politician than any amount of saying “I will not privatise the NHS” (a promise which in any event, could only operate as a hostage to fortune as soon as the inevitable US trade deal is announced). He chose to make his commitments fuzzy and general, and they were effective.

In the rest of this piece I want to talk about the contemporaneity of Johnson’s politics. To explain that, I want you to think what would have happened if Labour had won a week ago. Corbyn would be praised. We would be writing of the way in which he had moved the Overton window, i.e. changed our mutual understanding of what set of politics are acceptable to the majority of voters.

But one reason why Johnson was able to win is that his politics – his hyper-conservatism – was already within the Overton window, so that it seemed natural and normal, even though any number of Conservatives have spent the last six months insisting that it is different, shocking and offends against what mainstream Conservatism was supposed to be about.

Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, there will be different parts of this which mean most to you. They might include: his personal deceit to the point of blatant lying (think of the way he pocketed Joe Pike’s phone), his willingness to dump long-term allies who prop up key tenets of Conservatism (the DUP and the union), the appointment of non-Conservatives to key posts (think of Dominic Cummings and the way in which he has been allowed to run Johnson’s private office as a Continuity Vote Leave private fiefdom), his rejection of the normal ties of loyalty to party leadership and to colleagues which make parties possible as vehicles for the promotion of shared interest, his toleration of Conservative candidates with grim records of racism and anti-semitism,  and the encouragement of a kind of far right entryism within the Conservative party, so that even perpetual weathervane Tommy Robinson has applied formembership.

There is a common pattern here, which his of opening up the Conservative Party to people, to ideas, and to money, from those historically outside the Conservatives and to their right, with a view towards reshaping politics. The left used to warn about neoliberalism, but the politics of our present day is to the right of neoliberalism in its diminished toleration of social democracy or indeed democracy itself.

And while Johnson is willing to make noises to the effect that the NHS will continue, in some form, there will still be schools – the greatest risk to our shared social fabric will come not from anything in the manifesto but from the relationships of clientelism with the socially-untethered rich which will undoubtedly characterise Johnson’s future administration.

One reason why no one in Britain was shocked by this is that it seems in global perspective to be frankly, quite a tepid version of the politics that we have seen already in Egypt, in India, in Eastern Europe, and most recently in Brazil. But all these moves had a history. And in accepting them as normal, in tolerating them silently (if that’s we do), we all collectively lose something.

(If you enjoyed this piece, you might like my book The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, which tries to puit the electoral shocks of 2016-8 in global perspective: https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745338156/the-new-authoritarians/)

On being principled when the world falls in

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Some tips for people who want to get through a shitstorm with their dignity intact

Don’t post Chomsky. Really *don’t*. If you don’t know why he’s a tainted source try googling Chomsky / Faurisson

Don’t post articles telling me that x percent of British people think Jews are great. Donald Trump is an anti-Semite who thinks Jews are great.

Stop make excuses for people recirculating racist myths; the slave trade was run by Jews? No, it wasn’t.

Stop pretending that the left / Labour / Corbyn has simply not put one foot wrong on this issue in five years. This is our scandal. Start owning it.

Stop being so defensive. We’re living in the biggest upturn in global antisemitism in decades. Of course a left which is being deliberately, and rightly, populist is vulnerable to far-right ideas finding a home in it.

Do *not* stop talking about Palestine.

Learn from the younger generation of British Jews in their 20s (ie much younger than me) who have not invested their whole lives in Labour or the left and are willing to admit when something’s in front of their face

Learn from the things that previous generations got wrong. There were nationalists among the Spanish anarchists, antisemites in the KPD, “left-wing” arguments for the anti-Dreyfusards. We remember these as minorities because people were principled, argued with antisemites, defeated them

Do not think because your mate is Jewish and leftwing they are incapable of getting this issue wrong. All oppressed groups have moments of doubt, moments when we hear the nonsense outside and internalise it and use it against ourselves

Admit it, confront it, defeat it. That’s our only hope.

Game of Thrones: One show, two approaches to life

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A while ago I went through a course which was intended to train people to be novelists. We learned a lot about sentences, but never about story. The only people who understood that were screenwriters. They had a very clear idea of how to write. With its language of “inciting incidents”, “midpoints”, “innermost caves” and “rebirth”, their understanding of story was as clear and as dogmatic as ang ideology. Sure, we novelists-in-training would answer but what about us? Do we have to follow the same sequence? Obviously, one lecturer would tell us. God no, the next would say.

This difference of approach helps to explain the subtle change that took place in Game of Thrones at the end of series 6 and culminated in this week’s episode.

Up to the end of series 6, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were working with George R R Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire. Essentially, their approach was to follow the plot narrowly and literally, at least at the start, although it wasn’t long before they were cutting whole subplots (eg in the novels, Catelyn Stark is brought to back to life and fights the Lannisters silently from beyond the grave – not thankfully on TV).

Martin, famously, has stalled in finishing off the books. Only five novels out of an intended seven have been published, the last of them eight years ago. He used to tell interviewers that when he started the books he had begun with lots of people in one place and as they split apart more and more characters joined them. At some point they would start moving back together. “I think I’m reaching the turning point,” he wrote in 2011, “that’s starting to happen now.” The rest of us are still waiting.

In all of series 7 and the first three episodes of series 8, you could see Benioff and Weiss imposing the urgency of professional plotters on what had been previously Martin’s discursive, divergent story. One of the show’s two main protagonists Daenerys Targaryen was dragged from Dragonstone to King’s Landing, then north of the Wall and to Winterfell at a pace which would previously have been unthinkable. The Wall collapsed, with the significant exception of Cersei Lannister all the major characters were taken to Winterfell in order to fight a final, decisive battle with the Night King.

Even in episode 3, you could see the same approach at work – a screenwriter’s sensibility. The episode was plotted as a sequence of alternate moments, with good rising then bad, until just when everything seemed lost…

The opening cast the battle through the terrified eyes of Samwell Tarly, the writerliest (i.e. biggest coward) of all the soldier characters. In the middle parts of the episode, once the army of the undead had conquered Winterfell, there were moments of real horror – the spots of zombie blood falling on Arya. The denoument was a beautiful piece of “backwards writing” (i.e. when you start with a scene – the death of the Night King, and plot a route to it from the conclusion). A series of potential “good assassins” were tried but each defeated: Theon with his war charge, Danerys with fire, Jon trapped too far away to be any use at all. It was a bravura piece of writing to keep Arya off-screen for a full 25 minutes as each hero was defeated.

If you could take this single episode and see it in its own terms, it worked.

But did it? If you think of that moment with Arya above the Night King – flying in the air, jumping almost unnoticed: the scene itself requires us to assume an almost supernatural ability for the character to cover long distances through hunting zombies, then to move around Winterfell at almost inconceivable speed – before finally leaping from the snow (trying doing this at winter without losing your footing…). It requires us to imagine her, in other words, having almost superhuman powers. If an audience is willing to give Arya that credit it’s because we’ve been through the previous seven episodes with her, watched her apprenticeship as a Faceless Man at the House of Black and White. It’s because, in other words, Benioff and Weiss were able to trade off a great deal of pre-empting done prior to series 6.

And this was the pattern throughout the episode (as indeed it has been, ever since they took over). The scriptwriters keep on taking from a reserve of goodwill that the previous six series had built up. They never give back.

There was never a “Hodor” moment when you learned something about a character and their story surprisingly, gloriously, made sense in the end.

So in episode three there were repeated moments when characters, having played a role which the whole previous show had built towards – then added nothing to it. The Dothraki horsemen (the series’ principal black characters) rode out to battle and were slain, pointlessly. The Night King died without adding in any way to our understanding of where he came from or who he is except we learned the very mundane fact he couldn’t be killed by fire.

One way to read this is as a bunch of Hollywood scripwriters doing what they excel at – simplifying a complex story, allowing it to end. On that technical score, they seem to outperform the slow novelist.

But there’s a second, deeper sense in which Martin’s novelistic consciousness offers a much more interesting idea about how people could live.

The joy of A Song of Ice and Fire is that beneath a cynical exterior (the near-killing of Bran, the Red Wedding), there was always a subtle possibility of change. It was in the same family as “ignore your family and do what’s right,” but it went deeper than that and took in a heady dose of redemption. In the books, this was reflected in the character of Theon – stupid, selfish, and then subject to such long and cruel and humiliating punishments, that you felt maybe he could do alright in the end.

A novelist can wait for this kind of redemption, a film-maker can’t.

The Theon arch was so obvious that even Benioff and Weiss managed not to ruin it (although with their references to “home” and “good man” they did their best).

What they seemed to be doing throughout was steering away from Martin’s notion of a hard-earned transformation in favour of a well-meaning and vaguely liberal attitude towards life in which the small characters win because they are small. In which characters just do what they do. They make mistakes (this isn’t a superhero film), but the misakes have no real weight.

So you end up with the banality of Lyanna Mormont’s death, a sequence in which the baddest of zombie monsters brings a dying hero close to it for no comprehensible motive other than to facilitate its own death.

Or the survival of Tyrion and Sansa in the crypt: after the cleverest character in the show puts an army of children in a situation of utter terror – without any effect, the zombies don’t do anything there – no one dies.

It doesn’t sound like a large difference, but what the episode forgot was that even good people are capabale of such monumental stupidity that you find yourself gasping and wanting to rub your eyes. That mistakes carry consequences. That the monsters in our lives are more than an assembly of glass pieces that fall apart at the right touch. That redemption has to be earned, really, properly earned.

Links, round-up

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Back in May, I gave a talk at a London RS21 meeting with Jairus Banaji on the far-right. There’s a video of that meeting at that meeting here  and the text of the talk is on the Socialist Worker (US) site. I spoke to Quartz magazine post-Charlottesville, and some of my comments made it into the article here.

The big news for lawyers in the UK over the next few years will be the shift to an online court system. I’ve posted some early comments about it here, and was interviewed as part of a BBC programme about online courts here.

The leader whose time has come

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… The closer Brexit comes to reality, the more that centrist voters have rebelled against the idea that last year’s 52-48 majority for exit justifies a complete break from Europe and its model of social liberalism.

Brexit is *not* the principal reason for Corbyn’s success. He has done well because of a manifesto which promised redistribution and renationalisation, and because of a turnout by young voters engaged by Corbyn’s record and his relaxed, personal style.

But it has helped to neutralise the attacks against him. Brexit’s irrationality, its unpopularity with young voters, and its premise that what the country needs is to restrict the migration of foreigners: these have helped Corbyn – in contrast to the autocratic-seeming Theresa May – to look like the leader whose time has come…

Me for Africa is a Country

My student; the anti-Semite

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Later today, Paul Nuttall is going to replace Nigel Farage as leader of the UK Independence Party. This will be a strange experience for me. You will see in the coverage of his past career that Nuttall was once, briefly, a history lecturer. Before that he was a student, and in 1999-2000, I taught Paul Nuttall for a year. A year was long enough to get a good sense of a man who is going to be part of our lives rather more in future.
Nuttall was then studying at Edge Hill College on a History BA. I taught in the history department, where I was responsible for various courses including a one-year course teaching the history of fascism in Italy and Germany, for which he signed up. Nuttall struck me as bright and cynical. He was 23 years old – as old as the graduate students we taught, not our undergraduates, almost all of whom were straight out of A-levels. He seemed to have a stronger personality than any of his peers. While most of the students knew only what it said in the various course books, he had read more widely, in books and on the internet. He didn’t express his views openly but from time to time you felt he was testing the water to see what he could get away with.
In early December 1999, Nuttall’s cohort were set a standard essay on the causes of the Holocaust. I forget the exact title, but the question was something like whether the Final Solution was principally caused by Hitler’s anti-Semitism or by other factors related to the German economy or state. To my surprise, Nuttall’s answer worked in two footnotes to different books by David Irving. I wasn’t expecting this, because Irving wasn’t on the course reading list: this was after his libel trial and historians regarded Irving as an unpleasant, racist crank who was beyond the pale.
Moreover the references did not engage with the subject that Nuttall had actually been set: it felt rather as if he had written them in to see whether he could shoe-horn these views into an academic context and “get away” with them.
One of the quotes (for an essay about the Holocaust…) was from a book David Irving had written about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The message of the other Irving quote was that that anti-Semitism had been popular in Weimar Germany: the quote exaggerated the extent of anti-semtiism and carried the implication that it had been popular because it was deserved.
The incident was one of the oddest and most unwanted experiences I’d had as a teacher. I had taught fascism courses in different institutions over the previous three years including to A-levels students at Tower Hamlets college. Those students were under enormous and sometime contradictory pressures from their family, the mosque and the big trends in global politics that were heading in the direction of 9/11. But nothing they had ever written compared to this. I had never seen a student argue anything that could even remotely be characterised as “the Jews deserved it”. While Nuttall’s piece as a whole did not go that far, that seemed to be the message of the quotation he had used
I met Nuttall to discuss what he had written and he gave a tearful denial, saying that his girlfriend had downloaded the references to Irving’s book from the internet, blaming her rather than his own judgment. He accepted that the words could be construed as having an unpleasant, even racist meaning. But he denied that this had been his intention. He seemed shocked to be challenged about anything – like smug, arrogant, people everywhere he was most comfortable in a small bubble where no-one could disagree with him.

Peter Picton (1934-2016)

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pete

 

My uncle Peter, who died on Thursday, was many things: an entertainer, a proud trade unionist, an author. As Pierre the Clown he was a fixture on children’s TV in the 1960s and 1970s. As the owner of the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car from the film, he performed in the 1980s and 1990s at hundreds perhaps thousands of Christmas events, weddings and local shows. He would drive Chitty through crowds in their thousands, waving back as the children in his audience waved at him. He became an honourary, working-class, Royal.

 

Pete never talked about his childhood. As he told it, his life’s story began in his teens when he went to stage school. In his holidays, he worked as a chef’s assistant. In time, he began a new career as the apprentice to Coco, the head clown at Bertram Mills circus. “Coco had a marvellous act, pies and custard, pasting up rolls of paper, rolling them up, rolling them down, so that the paste went everywhere. The humour,” he used to say. “It was all timing, you know.”

 

By 1954 Pete had adopted his stage name of Pierre the Clown. In 1956-7, weeks after the Soviet tanks had put down the workers’ uprising in Hungary, Pete was one of the first western acts to be allowed into Budapest. He worked there with another friend, an Italian clown called Cavalini, “Huge numbers came,” he said. “They love their circus in Eastern Europe, it was their main source of entertainment. For me, they were wonderful days, but the atmosphere was strained, you knew something was wrong.”

 

He had a favourite prop, a black Model T-Ford. Pierre would try to open one door but it wouldn’t and another swung open in its place. Then the doors would open, but they fell off. Miming between each setback incredulity, defeat, renewed hope, Peter attempted to drive the car from its back seat. The car would start before finally spilling him onto the floor.

 

The chef Robert Carrier worked with Pete, and sent him touring around schools talking about dental health. A special poster was commissioned, in typically sixties lurid blues, reds and yellows, “Pierre the Clown says End you meal with an apple. It’s nature’s toothbrush.” Pete was the clown handing John Lennon an apple at the opening of the Beatle’s Apple Boutique.

 

In 1967-8 Pete was now at the height of his celebrity. In 1967, by which time he was the father of a young son Jon, he released a pair of singles, Pierre the Clown in Nursery Rhyme Town and Pierre the Clown in Space Rhyme Town. They start with familiar rhymes, but the rhymes take detours. They become something new and wonderful and strange. He wrote The Gourmet’s Guide to Fish and Chips; and a children’s guide to Hastings.

 

He worked for the Rolling Stone on their circus tour. He was also at his most active within Equity, negotiating the clowns’ pay rates with the major circuses.

 

In 1968, Pete worked as a driver on the film ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. At the end of the film the props were auctioned off and Pete was able to buy the working car complete with its Gen 11 numberplate. The car was to become the mainstay of Pete’s working life, and for the next forty years he performed at countless shows acting Pete’s own creation, a mixture of Dick van Dyke dashing inventor Caractacus Potts and Lionel Jeffries’ eccentric Granda Potts.

 

In the early 70s, Pete met Susie and they were to live together more 42 years, in Belgravia, then in Shipston and for thirty years in Stratford. They married in 1988.

 

In 2013, Susie and Pete sold Chitty. It was an inevitable and a right decision. Pete  suffered intense arthritis in his hands and knees and found the work hard. But he fought retirement for many years. Even without Chitty, he was still a local celebrity: he couldn’t go to the bank or a shop without meeting or making a friend.

 

Pete was one of those rare adults who believe in children, who are aware of the powerlessness that the young can feel. A stream of youngsters came to Susie and Pete’s house, were given presents of sweets, make-your-own models of Chitty or Smurf stickers. “Here’s something,” Pete would say and they would leave with a five or ten pound note. 

 

Pete was one of those big, bold people whose lives evade categories. Someone who hated racism and homophobia and who paid his union subs years into retirement. But the newspaper he read, even in hospital, was the Daily Mail.

 

I visited him two days before he died, his face covered in an oxygen mask. He could communicate only in sign language and whispers. But he wanted to know how I’d travelled there, how my children were. His face creased in a broad smile when he heard that they were acting and dancing. All of sudden he waved, he pointed. I was wearing trainers, bright red running shoes beneath my grey trousers, my grey top. He pointed to them and he laughed. “I like them,” my uncle the clown said. Even in hospital, Pete was still thinking of other people rather than himself. Fighting for his life, he cheered us up by making a joke.