Author Archives: Phil

On the (non-)existence of international law [re-up]

[Updated and moved back to the top 13th August]

I’ve just finished the paper I’ve been working on for the last couple of months (or years, depending how you look at it). I think it’s pretty good, but it’s a bit of a departure, even from the last few things I’ve written (which are broadly about how best to approach political extremism under the rule of law). When you consider that I’m employed as a lecturer in Criminology, this paper is – well, ‘departure’ is scarcely the word. Any (constructive) suggestions as to what to do with it will be welcomed!

It’s also ratheralmost certainly far too long (23,000 words), so some surgery may be required. (Ironically, the sprawling beast I’m looking at now was originally planned as the first part of a two-part paper; in part two I was going to (and indeed eventually will) explore the implications of assuming that international law does exist, a question that I promise you is more theoretically fruitful than it sounds.)

I do think it’s pretty good, though. For info, it divides up as follows:

Introduction: 500 words
Austin and ‘positive morality’: 1000
Kelsen and ‘primitive law’: 1800
Hart and secondary rules: 2700
Realism and neo-realism in IR (Morgenthau and Waltz): 3600
Koskenniemi and the force of the dichotomy: 6200 (!)
Miéville and Pashukanis: 3600
Conclusion: 2700

Here’s the abstract:

New maps of denial: On the (non-)existence of international law

International law is unlike other areas of law in the regularity and confidence with which its existence is called into question. International law’s effective existence has been denied by scholars from multiple traditions, with different presuppositions about the existence conditions for a legal system; their convergence in challenging the existence of international law suggests that entrenched ideological rivals may share certain unexamined foundational assumptions.

This paper will review some of the main ways in which contemporary scholarship challenges the existence of international law, assessing the strength of the arguments advanced to support these challenges, the underlying assumptions of those arguments and the implications which follow from them. Prompted by Miéville (2004a), the paper will consider critiques of international law advanced by Austin, Kelsen, Hart, the Realist school of International Relations, Koskenniemi and Miéville himself. Respectively, these have denied (or have been cited as denying) that international law qualifies as law; that it is law in the same sense as municipal law; that it constitutes a legal system; that it exerts a determinant influence on nation states; that it can offer any coherent and non-contradictory guidance; and that it can be a force for emancipation and progress in the world.

In conclusion, the paper will identify the assumptions required in order to consider that international law does in fact exist – and exists as a coherent legal system with the potential to deliver emancipatory reforms – and the implications of doing so.

and the very end of the conclusion:

As a social achievement, international law is both imperfect and precarious; it is both law “in the making” (Lesser 2014: n.p.) and law which risks being unmade. International law’s relative lack of institutional underpinnings highlights the grounding of law in normative practice:

law ‘governs its own creation’, but not in the sense that the creation of law is made possible by higher legal rules: rather, the idea of law governs its own realization. Law, we may say, is the process of its own becoming.
(Simmonds 2007: 11),

International law must needs wear its normativity on its sleeve, in other words – and it is this, perhaps, which explains why it has proved so enduring a target of sceptical attacks, whether informed by legal positivism, foreign policy realism, deconstructionism or Marxism. The discourses and practices sustaining and reproducing international law are thoroughgoingly normative discourses and practices, impossible to fully understand or even demarcate without some adoption of a Hartian ‘internal point of view’. It is understandable that critics unwilling to buy into what they see as liberal illusions, and alert to the role played by international law in sustaining and ratifying an unjust global status quo, should decline to adopt that point of view – but the effect is to overstate the strength and coherence of the ideological underpinnings of the status quo, and to discard a potentially powerful set of normative resources for change.

and, to give you some idea what area I’m working in, the references:

Austin, J. (1832), The province of jurisprudence determined. London: John Murray.
Balbus, I. D. (1977), “Commodity form and legal form: An essay on the relative autonomy of the law”. Law Society Review 11(3).
Benjamin, W. (1921), “Zur Kritik der Gewalt”. In Benjamin, W. (1965), “Zur Kritik der Gewalt” und andere Aufsätze. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Binns, P. (1980), “Law and Marxism”. Capital and Class 10.
Brierly, J. (1955), The law of nations (5th edition). Oxford: OUP.
Brierly, J. (1958), ‘The basis of obligation in international law’ and other papers. Oxford: OUP.
Derrida, J. (1990), “Force de loi: Le fondement mystique de l’autorité”. Cardozo Law Review 11(5-6).
Finnemore, M. and Sikkink, K. (1998), “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change”. International Organization 52(4).
Fischer Williams, J. (1929), Chapters on current international law and the League of Nations. London: Longmans.
Fischer Williams, J. (1939), Aspects of modern international law. Oxford: OUP.
FitzMaurice, G. (1956), “The foundations of the authority of international law and the problem of enforcement”. Modern Law Review 19(1).
Forsyth, M. (1992), “The tradition of international law”. In Nardin, T. and Mapel, D. (1992), Traditions of International Ethics. Cambridge: CUP.
Garfinkel, H. (1967), Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Gihl, T. (1957), “The legal character and sources of international law”. Scandinavian Studies in Law 1.
Hart, H. L. A. (1957), “Dias and Hughes on jurisprudence”. Journal of the Society of Public Teachers of Law 4.
Hart, H. L. A. (1961), The concept of law. Oxford: OUP.
Hart, H. L. A. (1983), Essays in jurisprudence and philosophy. Oxford: OUP.
Henderson, E. (2013), “Hidden in plain sight: Racism in international relations theory”. Cambridge Review of International Affairs 26(1).
Imbusch, P. (2003), “The concept of violence”. In Heitmeyer, W. and Hagan, J. (eds.) (2003), International Handbook of Violence Research. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Jenks, C. (1964), “Fischer Williams – The practitioner as reformer”. British Year Book of International Law 40.
Jones, J. (1935), “The pure theory of international law”. British Year Book of International Law 16.
Jütersonke, O. (2010), Morgenthau, Law and Realism. Cambridge: CUP.
Kelman, M. (1987), A Guide to Critical Legal Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kelsen, H. (tr. Wedberg, A.) (1945), General Theory of Law and State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kelsen, H. (tr. Knight, M.) (1967), Pure Theory of Law. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Kennan, G. (1951), American Diplomacy, 1900-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kennedy, D. (1978), “The Structure of Blackstone’s Commentaries”. Buffalo Law Review 28(2).
Kennedy, D. (2001), “A semiotics of critique”. Cardozo Law Review 22(3-4).
Knox, R. (2009), “Marxism, international law, and political Strategy”. Leiden Journal of International Law 22.
Koskenniemi, M. (2006), From Apology to Utopia (second edition). Cambridge: CUP
Lesser, A. (2014), “H.L.A. Hart on international law”. Kritikos 11.
Macnair, M. (2006), “Law and state as holes in Marxist theory”. Critique 34(3).
Marx, K. (1976 [1867]), Capital, volume 1. London: Penguin.
McDougal, M. (1952), “Law and power”. American Journal of International Law 46(1).
Miéville, C. (2004a), Between equal rights: A Marxist theory of international law. Leiden: Brill
Miéville, C. (2004b), “The commodity-form theory of international law: an introduction”. Lieden Journal of International Law 17.
Morgenthau, H. (1940), “Positivism, Functionalism, and International Law”. American Journal of International Law 34(2).
Morgenthau, H. (1948), Politics Among Nations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Morgenthau, H. (1951), In Defence of the National Interest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Morgenthau, H. (1954), Politics Among Nations, second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Morgenthau, H. (1973), Politics Among Nations, fifth edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Murphy, G. (2010), Shadowing the White Man’s Burden. New York: New York University Press
Nadel, S. (1957), The theory of social structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Pashukanis, E. (2002 [1924]), The General Theory of Law and Marxism. Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Payandeh, M. (2011), “The Concept of International Law in the Jurisprudence of H.L.A. Hart”. The European Journal of International Law 21(4).
Perelman, C. and Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969) (tr. Wilkinson, J. and Weaver, P.), The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press
Powell, S. (1967), “The legal nihilism of Pashukanis”. University of Florida Law Review 20(1).
Quinn, A. (2013), “Kenneth Waltz, Adam Smith and the Limits of Science: Hard choices for neoclassical realism”. International Politics 50(2).
Radcliffe-Brown, A. (1952), Structure and Function in Primitive Society. New York, NY: Free Press
Sampson, A. (2002), “Tropical Anarchy: Waltz, Wendt, and the Way We Imagine International Politics”. Alternatives 27.
Scobbie, I. (1990), “Towards the Elimination of International Law: Some Radical Scepticism about Sceptical Radicalism”. British Yearbook of International Law 61(1).
Scobbie, I. (2010), “Principle or Pragmatics? The Relationship between Human Rights Law and the Law of Armed Conflict”, Journal of Conflict & Security Law 14(3).
Siltala, R. (2011), Law, truth, and reason: A treatise on legal argumentation. Law and Philosophy Library 97. Dordrecht: Springer.
Simmonds, N. (2007), Law as a moral idea. Oxford: OUP.
Slaughter Burley, A.-M. (1993), “International law and International Relations theory: A dual agenda”. American Journal of International Law 87(2).
Tucker, R. (1952), “Review: Professor Morgenthau’s theory of political ‘realism’”. American Political Science Review 46(1).
Waldron, J. (2009), “Who needs rules of recognition?”, New York University School of Law Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper 09-21. New York, NY: New York University School of Law.
Waldron, J. (2013), “International law: ‘A relatively small and unimportant’ part of jurisprudence?”. In Duarte D’Almeida, L., Edwards, J. and Dolcetti, A. (eds.) (2013), Reading H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law. Oxford: Hart.
Waltz, K. (1979), Theory of International Politics. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Waltz, K. (1990), “Realist thought and neorealist theory”. Journal of International Affairs 44(1).
Warrington, R. (1980), “Standing Pashukanis on his head”. Capital and Class 12.
Wendt, A. (1995), “Constructing international politics”. International Security 20(1).
Wetlaufer, G. (1997), “Gunmen, straw men, and indeterminacy: H.L.A. Hart, John Austin, and the concept of law”. Iowa Law Review 82(5).
Wittgenstein, L. (1953), Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Advertisements

Swings and… swings

We’re not still going on about the European elections and what happened to the Labour vote, are we. That’s a statement, not a question, and actually I’m quite disappointed that we aren’t; as soon as minor-party voting intentions dropped below 20%, and the shouting about ‘four-party politics’ subsided, people seem to have lost interest in what happened. But, while we are clearly back in the world of two ‘main’ parties, the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems do seem to have put quite a large dent in both the Tory and the Labour vote; it would be worth knowing whether this is likely to fade between now and, oh, say for example the end of October.

Fortunately, the Euro elections have been run before (who knew?) and – as I said in an earlier post – voters have shown a tendency to use the Euros to “send a message” before now. But what does this mean in practice? If we compared the Euro election vote with the previous General Election, we could establish that the Labour vote had dropped from 40% of a 69% turnout in 2017 to 14% of a 37% turnout in 2019, but what did that actually mean – particularly when Labour’s vote at the previous European election had been 24% of a 36% turnout, which was down from 35% of a 65% turnout in the previous General Election, which in turn was up from 15% of a 35% turnout at the Euro election before that? (Labour on 15% of the vote, eh? Dreadful! To be fair, Wikipedia says that Gordon Brown “faced calls for him to resign” after this result – but the linked news story shows that what he faced was calls to resign as Prime Minister, from the Leader of the Opposition. There doesn’t seem to have been any internal opposition to Brown – or if there was they kept their traps shut.)

Anyway, I tried for some time to work out the significance of 24% of 36% vs 40% of 69% vs 14% of 37% – or, failing that, to work out a way of representing the relevant figures in a readable chart so that I could see the significant bits – before it hit me that the only way to do it was to ditch the percentages and go back to the raw numbers. Which gives us these two little beauties. (Complete with titles. I’m spoiling you, I really am.)

Top Tip #1: look at the X axis – and in particular look at the origin. The Y axis is not centred at zero – for reasons which will be obvious when you look at the Y axis. Everything above zero is an increase in votes – or rather in millions of votes – as compared to the previous relevant election; everything below the line is a decrease, in millions of votes. The first big thing to take away from these charts is just how asymmetrical they both are. At all but one General Election from 1997 to 2017, around 15 million more people turned out to vote than had done at the previous European election; the exception is 2005, and even then the rise in turnout was over 10 million as compared to the previous year’s Euros. The negative difference between General Election turnout and turnout in the next European election varies more widely, but again mostly ranges between 10 and 15 million; the exception is the 1999 European election, where turnout was down 20 million on the General Election of 1997. (There’s a story there – or a sub-plot – about voters getting swept up in high-enthusiasm, high-turnout elections, and coming down to earth when they’re asked to vote again a couple of years later. (“What, another?”)) The main point here is that the story of the difference between a Euro election – any Euro election – and the previous General Election is not a story of swings and voter movements; it’s primarily a story of voters staying at home, or rather of who stays at home. Who stays at home, and who goes out muttering “voting? damn right I’m voting, this‘ll show ’em…”.

Top Tip #2: trend first, anomaly second. Is there a trend? We can’t understand what people are doing now without having some idea of what they were doing previously. Were voters behaving in a particular way for the run of Euro elections before 2019, and/or the run of General Elections before 2017? Fortunately in this case the trend is pretty clear; look at the columns for 2004, 2009 and 2014 in the first chart, and those for the General Elections in the following year – 2005, 2010 and 2015 – in the second chart. What do you see? In 2004, 2009 and 2014, between thirteen and seventeen million people who had voted for one of the three major parties in the previous General Election – four to seven million ex-Tory and ex-Labour voters and two to six million ex-Liberal Democrat voters – didn’t; while about four million people who hadn’t voted for the Greens or UKIP at the previous General Election, did (in a ratio of a million Greens to three million Kippers). Some people stayed loyal; a lot of people stayed at home; a minority of people cast a protest vote – and that minority was made significant by the low turnout. The chances are that most of the Euro Kippers had voted Tory rather than Labour or Lib Dem at the previous General Election – and that the opposite is true of the Euro Greens – but this is less important than the scale of these numbers: the main thing that happened at all those elections was abstention. Relative to the previous General Elections, the Tory vote fell by between half and two-thirds, Labour’s by between half and three-quarters and the Lib Dems’ by between half and five-sixths. For the most part this wasn’t a swing to anyone; the total combined Green and British nationalist vote at each of those European elections was, at most, half of the Tories’ vote at the previous General Election.

Now look at the second chart. Relative to the previous years’ Euro elections, in 2005, 2010 and 2015 the major parties are up thirteen to seventeen million votes. (Labour: up five to six million; Tories: up four to six million, and seven million in 2015; Lib Dems: up three to five million, and one million in 2015. That coalition was powerful stuff.) The Greens and British nationalists, on the other hand, are down a total of three and a half million in 2005 and 2010, and one million in 2015. Again, we can assume that these voters went back to their ‘home’ parties – and we can assume that the British nationalists probably went back to the Tories and the Greens probably didn’t – but, again, this is much less important than the change in turnout, which in each case was up by 10-15 million as compared with the previous European election. The swing away from UKIP and the Greens was far less important in determining those results than the swing away from the sofa.

So those are the trends. What about the last couple of elections? 2017, as you may remember, saw an unusual election campaign and an unusually high degree of polarisation between the two main parties. Relative to the 2014 European election, the Labour vote was up by nearly nine million and the Tories’ by nearly ten million, three or four million more than the increase in 2015. The Lib Dems, by contrast, only put on a million relative to 2014 – and, since I’ve measured both elections relative to 2014, this was effectively the same million that they’d put on in 2015 (in other words, the party’s vote was almost completely unchanged from the previous General Election; in fact it was down a bit). The Green and British nationalist votes fell by a total of five million relative to 2014 – but, again, the main swing was the swing away from not voting at all: overall turnout was up by nearly sixteen million. These were familiar changes, in other words, but on a larger scale than usual: compared to the 2014-15 vote changes, the rise in turnout, the rise in Tory and Labour votes and the decline in British nationalist votes were, respectively, 1.5 million greater (+11%), 2.3 million greater (+30%), 3.6 million greater (+67%) and 3.3 million greater (+330%). Presumably some Euro-election Kippers swung to Labour in 2017, but the numbers won’t have been huge. The main effects were turnout effects, as usual, but on a larger scale: the Tories were better than usual at getting out the vote, while Labour were a lot better than usual. Also, thanks to the EU Referendum seeming (temporarily) like old news, both parties did better than they had done in 2015 at calling roving Kippers home.

What happened in 2019? Those bars look pretty big, but I wonder if there’s less there than meets the eye. Over and over again, we’ve seen what are at first blush fairly huge movements of voters, between General Election and the following European election, followed at the subsequent General Election by an equally huge movement in the opposite direction; the burden of proof is surely on anyone maintaining that this time is different. So, this time, Labour and Tory vote shares – having gone up by 8.9 million and 9.8 million between 2014 and 2017 – are right back down again, dropping by 10.6 million and 12.1 million respectively; so too the British nationalist vote share, having gone down by 4.3 million between 2014 and 2017 – is up again, by 5.2 million. There’s a story, perhaps, in the ‘extra’ four million votes that the big parties lost, and the extra 0.9 million British nationalist votes; polarisation is increasing, even if it’s only at the margins. But it is at the margins – once again, there are some relatively small voter movements which have been made to look much bigger by the one big movement, the (usual) slump in turnout. (The Brexit Party topped the polls with 5.2 million votes; a party gaining that many votes would have been in a narrow third place at the General Elections of 1997 and 2001, and a firm fourth place in every other General  Election from 1983 to 2010.) There’s also a story in the results for the Lib Dems, who – for the first time ever – appear to have been seen as one of the ‘alternative’, ‘insurgent’ parties, and actually increased their vote as against the General Election; they put on a million votes as compared to 2017. But, just as the crash in votes for Labour and the Tories needs to be set against the unusually high votes for those two parties in 2017, the Lib Dems’ result needs to be set against their own crash in 2015 and their non-recovery in 2017: their total of 3.4 million votes, although higher than the party’s vote in those two General Elections, is lower than any other General Election that the party has ever contested. To find a General Election vote lower than 2017’s 2.4 million you need to go back to 1970, and even that represented a higher proportion of the (then) electorate than the 2017 result (5.4% vs 5.1%); in those terms Farron plumbed depths that the Liberals hadn’t seen since the 1950s and Jo Grimond’s leadership. All credit to the Lib Dems for their outstandingly clear – if opportunistic and misleading – positioning in the Euros; arguably they’ve reaped a deserved reward. But it’s also arguable that there’s only so low that the Lib Dem vote can go – Farron’s 2.4 million was lower than the party’s vote in four of the previous eight European elections. Really, after 2017 the only way was up – just as, for both the Tories and Labour, the only way was down.

What of the narratives? What of Theresa May’s Brexit strategy hitting the rocks and Farage moving in to pick up the survivors? What of Labour’s Brexit fence-sitting and the Lib Dems’ positioning as the party of Remain – what of the potential Remain Alliance, the Lib Dems and Greens piling up the votes while Labour’s vote plummeted? I think you’ll find it’s a bit less exciting than that. The 2019 results showed both Labour and the Tories doing a bit worse than might have been expected, the Brexit Party doing a bit better (at the expense of the Tories) and the Lib Dems doing substantially better (at the expense of both Labour and the Tories). But they’re not wildly out of line with earlier trends. Perhaps polarisation is increasing, but only at the margins: the main trend at this European election was abstention, just like it always is. Vote flows are a pain to model, but arithmetic is a limiting factor. The Labour and Tory votes were down (relative to 2017) by ten and twelve million respectively; the total votes for the Lib Dems plus the Greens, on one hand, and BXP plus UKIP and all the minor British nationalist parties, on the other, were 5.4 million and 5.8 million respectively.

What that means is that, in and of themselves, these figures don’t give any reason to believe that voters won’t be returning en masse to Labour and the Tories at the next high-turnout election – just as they did in 2005, 2010 and 2015, as well as 2017. In particular, if the next election follows the pattern of 2017, with a highly polarised campaign and a focus on getting out the vote – and why wouldn’t it? – we could easily see a similar bulge in the Labour vote. And if that’s followed by yet another slump – complete with the obligatory prophecies of doom and calls for Corbyn’s resignation – at the European elections in 2024, that’s a price I’d be prepared to pay.

John Gardner: two responses

Like many, I was deeply saddened to hear of the (early) death of the legal philosopher John Gardner. While I never knew him, I’ve found Gardner’s work consistently lucid, thoughtful and challenging.

Gardner’s work was – and is – thought-provoking in the truest sense: it makes you think. By way of evidence, here’s a blog post I originally wrote in January 2013, when a couple of lines in papers by Gardner had provoked thoughts that wouldn’t let me alone till I’d written them down. (The blog post is as far as they went, unfortunately. I emailed Gardner to let him know about it, but never heard back.)

I hadn’t known, until reading his death notice, that Gardner was ill; on a more trivial note, I hadn’t known that he was younger than me. (Truly, an infant prodigy!) I guess I’d better get some writing done.

Here’s the post from 2013.

1. Oh you shouldn’t do that

The opening paragraph of John Gardner’s 1996 paper ‘Discrimination as Injustice’ makes an interesting claim about torture – the wrongness of torture, in particular.

Reasons of justice are reasons for or against altering someone’s relative position. The word ‘relative’ is of the essence here. One may have reasons to alter someone’s position which do not make any essential reference to anyone else’s position. For example, the fact that a prisoner is being tortured is reason enough by itself to write letters of protest, with the aim of improving the prisoner’s treatment. Torture is inhumane. But isn’t torture also unjust? Doesn’t one also have a reason of justice to protest? Perhaps. As part of one’s protest, one might relate the position of the torture victim to the position of other people (other prisoners, people of different political views, the torturers themselves, the torture victim’s victims, the government, etc). In that case one may be trying to give a reason of justice for the torture to desist. It may buttress the reason of humanity. But of course it may also fail to do so. The authorities inflicting the torture may accurately reply, in some cases, that they are inflicting it with impeccable justice. Yet still, on grounds of its inhumanity, the torture should cease, and the protests should go on if it does not.

Gardner returned to this point more recently, in his 2011 paper ‘What is tort law for? Part 1. The place of corrective justice’.

Norms of justice are moral norms of a distinctive type. They are norms for tackling allocative moral questions, questions about who is to get how much of what. Some people think of all moral questions, or at least all moral questions relevant to politics and law, as allocative. But that is a mistake. As a rule, allocative questions are forced upon us only when people make competing claims to assignable goods. Many morally significant goods, including many relevant to politics and law, are either not competed for or not assignable. They include goods such as living in a peaceful world and not being tortured. … Of course it does not follow that there are no questions of justice that bear on the resort to torture or on the quest for a peaceful world. The point is only that many moral questions about the resort to torture and the quest for a peaceful world are not questions of justice. If, for example, we say of someone who was tortured by the secret police that her treatment was unjust, she might well say, if her moral sensitivity has been left intact, that this misses the point and marginalizes her grievance. She is not complaining that she was the wrong person to be picked out for torture, that she was a victim of some kind of misallocation by the secret police, that she of all people should not have been tortured. She is complaining that torture should not have been used at all, against anyone. Her complaint is one of barbarity, never mind any incidental injustices involved in it.

Torture is inhumane or barbaric – there are other words we could use, such as ‘degrading’ or ‘brutalising’; the core meaning has to do with attacking or invading another person’s humanity or personhood. Morally, it should stop, both universally and in any given case – but it is not, of itself, unjust. The moral question raised by torture isn’t a question of allocating it justly. One distribution of torture may be prima facie less just than another – the torture of randomly-stopped motorists would arouse more outrage than the torture of convicted rapists – but the less unjust distribution is not less immoral. A regime which reserved torture for people found guilty of heinous crimes would still be morally repugnant. Any torture – for anyone – is bad torture; in an absolute sense, any torture – for anyone – is as bad as any other torture.

Gardner sets torture alongside position-relative justice, and the freely competing subjects of law-governed society, to make a point about the limits of allocative justice. No distribution of torture (or of absolute poverty, polluted air, reduced life-expectancy, etc) is more just than any other. This is both because torture is not a good to be appropriately allocated and, more importantly, because the absence of torture is not an assignable good and hence not subject to constraints of scarcity. The question of who should be exposed to torture, instead of the current victim, doesn’t arise. There is no reason, in principle, why there should not be enough non-torture for everyone – and, here and now, it will always be better if our actions do not add any more people to those already suffering it.

But there’s a bit more going on here than that. There are any many ills whose absence is not an assignable good. To put it another way, there are any number of areas in which life could in principle be made better for everyone, or (to put it in less ambitious terms) where making life better for one person doesn’t require making it worse for another: health, clean air, peace, Pettit’s ‘dominion’ (a condition of resilient non-intererference’). Depriving someone of a non-assignable good is morally wrong, without necessarily being unjust. Allocative thinking in a negative form may well be involved in the infliction of such an ill: it may be motivated precisely by the desire to improve one’s own relative position at the expense of the victim. However, allocative questions do not have to be involved in their rectification: there is in principle no shortage of clean air, so the harm of air pollution is not rectified by ensuring that the air the company directors have to breathe is equally polluted.

Actions of this type are, by definition, characterised by a lack of respect for the equal entitlements of others and ourselves. Since they don’t profit the person carrying them out (also by definition), they tend to have a character of gratuitous or vindictive malice. The definition does not, however, imply that such acts are all inhumane or barbaric. If I jammed my neighbour’s TV reception so that they were unable to receive BBC 4, this would certainly be a maliciously cruel act, but it would be a stretch to classify it as barbarity. Indeed, much of what tends to fall under the heading of anti-social behaviour consists precisely of the deliberate or reckless deprivation of others of non-assignable goods – goods like the ability to sleep undisturbed by noise or to walk to the shops unperturbed by vandalism. Depriving others of non-assignable goods is a bad thing to do, and there is no situation in which we should not, morally, strive to do less of it – but it is not generally barbaric or inhumane.

Obviously torture makes a much better example for Gardner’s purposes than anti-social behaviour, both because it’s more extreme and because it’s commonly carried out by state authorities rather than by next-door neighbours. But I think the use of torture as an example also points to a different argument about justice and moral wrongs. Consider the first sentence quoted above: “Reasons of justice are reasons for or against altering someone’s relative position.” Norms of justice, Gardner argues in the second extract, are appropriate for tackling those questions which we face “when people make competing claims to assignable goods”. There’s a fundamental concept of personhood lurking here: a person, we can infer, is someone whose position (however defined) can be measured relative to the positions of other people; someone who can successfully claim assignable goods; someone whose self-interested claims can compete with those of other people; and someone whose disputes with other people can be adjudicated, and whose relative position can be altered, through the process of law, in other words by applying public norms using socially recognised procedures. And – at the risk of sewing a shirt onto a button – a law-governed society is a society composed of such individuals; and when we say ‘law’, we mean the kind of law through which such a society, and such individuals, can govern themselves. Clearly, the terms Gardner used would not work well in a feudally-ordered society, or a society run along religiously-validated caste lines, or the small-c communist society which was to follow the withering-away of the socialist state. We are talking about a society composed of formally equal individuals, differently endowed with personal resources, but each capable of making claims to assignable goods; entitled to expect that those claims will be respected; and entitled to attempt to vindicate them through the law.

We can see how this model of personhood relates to an allocative model of justice by looking at some scenarios. If my neighbour encroaches on my back garden, I may sue him and let the courts adjudicate our competing claims to the assignable good behind my house. If he takes our dispute personally and steals my property or assaults me, justice is involved in a different sense. Restitution will certainly be required, bringing allocative justice into play; however, my neighbour is also transgressing in a more serious way, improving his relative position by socially disallowed means. Theft and personal violence can be seen as ways of gaining an unfair advantage or nobbling the competition. (Gardner also suggests that criminal justice is allocative in the sense that it turns on the correct allocation of the status of criminal, which seems valid if rather ingenious.)

What about if my neighbour gets his revenge by a more indirect route, swearing at me in the street or disturbing my rest with loud music (or jamming my BBC 4 signal)? In such a case, given that the good in question is non-assignable, justice in Gardner’s terms may not be involved. Even so, the courts are likely to take the view that my entitlement to a non-assignable good has been needlessly infringed. (Not that this is a simple proposition, as we can see if we remember Hohfeld. If I am entitled to quiet nights – and why should I not be? there is, in principle, no shortage – does this mean that I hold a privilege as against all my neighbours, with a correlative duty on each of their parts not to disturb my rest? Can this be generalised, to cover mutual obligations among neighbours and entitlements to other forms of domestic tranquillity? I think this would be very problematic. Make these duty/privilege relationships unwaivable and everyone involved would be encumbered with a vast array of duties to abstain from potentially disturbing behaviours. Make them waivable, on the other hand, and the effect would be to destroy the universality apparently offered by the discourse of rights: all we would do would be to translate different individuals’ widely varying levels of entitlement and grievance into the language of waived and unwaived rights.)

Setting these broader considerations aside, the main point here is that deliberate deprivation of a non-assignable good can be grasped in terms of (allocative) justice, essentially by assimilating it to the ‘unfair advantage’ model associated with criminal justice. Indeed, we could rework the ‘unfair advantage’ model itself in terms of the deprivation of a non-assignable good. Laws criminalising physical violence, for instance, can be seen as protecting the non-assignable good of bodily integrity. In terms of acquisitive crime, if individuals A, B and C are all planning to bid for a valuable object at an auction, but are prevented from doing so when I steal it, what I have deprived them of is precisely the non-assignable good of a fair competition. A similar argument could be developed for the theft of an article on sale, or (less directly) of something in private possession. (We can see here, incidentally, how far removed the principles of allocative justice are from any redistributive model of social justice; in allocative terms, mere ownership of a resource at a given point cannot be unjust. Allocative justice and social justice must always be in tension, this side of the revolution.)

The principle here is that the autonomous, self-interested individuals on which our legal model is predicated need – and hence are entitled to – certain non-allocative goods if they are to play their competitive, law-governed part in society. One such good is the rule of law itself; others are bodily integrity and property rights. We can extend this model of entitlement – and hence of rights which can be vindicated in the courts and disputes which can be adjudicated according to law – to other non-assignable goods, including the good of eight hours’ sleep or an evening in front of BBC 4. In practice, many non-assignable goods are difficult to deal with in this way, as witness the vagaries of anti-social behaviour legislation: the baseline entitlement to a non-assignable good (such as peace and quiet), the level to which others are responsible for upholding that entitlement and the degree to which offending behaviour infringes it are often hard to establish. However, this is not to say that relationships between one person’s anti-social behaviour and another’s unmerited suffering can never be established; in practice they very often can. My neighbour is not going to be able to fly under the law’s radar by making sure that all he deprives me of is the non-assignable good of a good night’s sleep – any more than if it were the non-assignable good of an unbroken nose.

But what is my neighbour doing in the (mercifully, highly unlikely) case that he tortures me? Here, I think, a different relationship between justice and personhood obtains. If we think of bodily integrity as a non-assignable good (and certainly your good health does nothing to impair mine), then the victim of torture has been deprived of a non-assignable good, and may be unable to play a full part in society as a result – but, as stated, this is no less true of the victim of a random assault at pub closing time. We can say that torture is more likely to have traumatic effects, and this seems significant: certainly if we think of other experiences which are likely to produce trauma (rape, battlefield stress, partner abuse) the word ‘torture’ is never far away. Torture, then, is one of the things that inflict trauma, in a way that a beating in the pub car park generally isn’t. But why is this a significant distinction? The point, I think, is that torture is an attack on my personhood. Personal violence can often be understood in terms of enhancing the attacker’s relative position by depriving the victim of a non-assignable good, making it harder for that person to play a role in society. Pace Gardner, the immorality of torture is not grounded in its depriving the victim of a non-assignable good. Torture is not about enhancing the torturer’s position relative to the victim, even with respect to the non-assignable good of freedom from pain. Torture – and other forms of traumatic assault – can be seen as an attack, not on the victim’s capacity to function in society, but on the victim’s basic recognition as a person who might be entitled to any such capacity. More simply put, causing pain for no reason is not something one person does to another; torture thus situates the victim as less than a person. It’s interesting, in passing, that Mill characterised rape in very similar terms – “the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclination”. To commit rape, in this line of thinking, is not to deny someone the good of freedom from rape, but to deny her the status of a person entitled to freedom from rape (and entitled, as a second-order right, to live her life on the basis of an assumed freedom from rape).

I think Gardner’s distinction between the immorality of torture and the wrongs which can be understood in terms of allocative justice is valid and powerful, although not quite in the way that he uses it. What I think it points to is the ways in which people can be reduced to something below the status of personhood – through torture or brutalisation, but also through homelessness, institutionalisation or becoming a refugee – and the powerlessness of the language of justice to address these very basic, fundamental wrongs. If the law is about justice, and justice is defined in terms of the correct adjudication of competing claims among autonomous individuals, how can it address – how can it fail to overlook – those people who are shut out of the game entirely, by being denied the status of person in the first place? And if the law can’t be invoked, what can?

2. Did you read the trespass notices, did you keep off the grass?

A bit more Gardner, from the 2011 paper on tort law. It’s quite a complicated thought, so the quote has to be on the long side:

Let’s allow … that tort law often helps to constitute the correctively just solution. What doesn’t follow is that tort law’s norm of corrective justice should not be evaluated as an instrument. On the contrary, to fulfill its morally constitutive role, tort law’s norm of corrective justice must be evaluated as an instrument. It must be evaluated as an instrument of improved conformity with the very moral norm that it helps to constitute. To see why, think about some other laws that are supposed to lend more determinacy to counterpart moral norms.

Quite apart from the law, for example, one has a moral obligation not to drive one’s car dangerously. The law attempts to make this obligation more determinate by, for example, setting up traffic lights, road markings, and speed limits. If the law does this with sound judgment, the proper application of the relevant moral norm is changed in the process. A manoeuvre that would not count as dangerous driving apart from the legal force of the lane markings at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel may well count as dangerous driving – and hence a breach of the moral norm forbidding dangerous driving – once the lane markings are in place. But this holds only if the law proceeds with sound judgment. It holds only if relying on the lane markings assists those who rely on them to avoid violating the original moral norm. If the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel has profoundly confusing lane markings, reliance on which only serves to make road accidents more likely, failing to observe the lane markings is not a legally constituted way of driving dangerously. It is not immoral under the ‘dangerous driving’ heading. That is because, if the lane markings are profoundly confusing, driving according to the lane markings does not and would not help to reduce the incidence of dangerous driving.

The lesson of the case is simple. A legal norm cannot play its partly constitutive role in relation to a moral norm unless it also has some instrumental role to play in relation to the same moral norm, unless conformity with the legal norm would help to secure conformity with the moral norm of which the legal norm is supposed to be partly constitutive.

We start with the “moral obligation not to drive one’s car dangerously”. Laws – embodied in road markings – are put in place to support this moral norm. In doing so they also constitute it, make it “more determinate”: if road markings are being generally observed, failing to observe them may amount to driving dangerously in and of itself. However, road markings – and laws – may defeat their own purpose. If road markings are so confusing that attempting to rely on them would make the driver more dangerous to other road users rather than less, failing to observe them will not amount to driving dangerously. Similarly a law may instantiate a moral norm, but do so in such a “profoundly confusing” way that someone attempting to observe the law will be more likely to violate the norm. If this is the case, anyone committed to observing the norm will be best advised to disregard the law which purports to embody it. “A legal norm cannot play its partly constitutive role in relation to a moral norm unless it also has some instrumental role to play in relation to the same moral norm”: road markings put in place to help prevent dangerous driving may themselves define dangerous driving, but only if observing them actually leads to less dangerous driving.

Three relationships between moral norms and the law are envisaged here. In one, the law embodies and gives substance to a moral norm. In the second, the “proper application” of the norm is redefined by reference to the law, leading to a changed perception of the norm itself. The third is identical to the second, except that in this scenario the “proper application” of the norm has been redefined to the point where the law does not assist observation of the norm, and may even impede it.

There’s a problem here, relating to that word ‘instrumental’. It seems to me that there’s something inherently problematic in judging the success or effectiveness of laws in consequentialist terms – in terms of the outcomes which they produce or appear to produce. Firstly, assuming that the moral norm to which a law relates can be straightforwardly identified, there is the question of what should be counted as success. Bad road markings, in Gardner’s image, are those for which “driving according to the lane markings does not and would not help to reduce the incidence of dangerous driving”. However, it is a commonplace of debates on sentencing that the criminal law can modify behaviour – both individually and at the level of society – in many different ways; what type(s) of behaviour modification should be counted as success is an open question. Is a law prohibiting practice X at its most effective if the incidence of X-ing is reduced to zero? Or is the effectiveness of the law to be judged by the appropriateness of the punishment dealt out to X-ers, or by the opportunity it gives the community to express their repugnance at X-ing, or by the degree to which it raises awareness of the plight of victims of X-ers? A case could be made out for any of these, not all of which can be reconciled easily or at all. Secondly, it’s not always clear that the moral norm underlying a law can in fact be readily identified, still less the body of moral norms underlying the law (or an area of the law, such as the criminal law or the law of tort). The point here is not that the law is necessarily obscure, but that it is necessarily multivocal: it’s always possible for different and competing claims to be made as to the underlying moral rationale of a law or laws. This in turn raises the question of who is to do the identifying – and whether what they identify can change over time. Suppose that an elected government, facing a long-term economic depression, declares that poverty is a higher priority than crime, and that the law should generally not be used to impoverish poor offenders further. Or suppose that an elected government, facing a rise in crime figures, declares that the chief menace facing the country today is lawless behaviour by immigrants, asylum seekers, Travellers and people of no fixed abode, and that wrongdoing by individuals with no stake in a local community should be treated more harshly. Would these programmatic announcements represent authoritative clarifications of the body of moral norms instantiated by the law, the criminal law in particular? Would we expect the judiciary to ‘read down’ legislation to ensure compliance with these policy stances? If not, why not?

As in the case of torture considered as deprivation of a non-assignable good, I think Gardner’s analogy here pulls in a different direction from his stated argument. Road markings modify behaviour in a distinctive way and in a distinctive context, neither of which maps easily onto the law in general. To drive a vehicle is to put others at risk and accept the risk imposed by others; driving safely rather than dangerously benefits both the driver in question and other road users, in a way which is true of few other ‘virtues’ in driving. In effect, driving safely is the solution to the key co-ordination problem posed by collective road use – and it is a simple, readily available and generally acknowledged solution. Moreover, road markings constitute the moral norm of driving safely in a peculiarly authoritative way, which is perhaps only possible because the norm itself is so generally agreed. Road markings do not typically take the form of recommendations or advice; even to call them instructions would understate the force they have in practice. Rather than advise (or instruct) a driver to make certain choices, road markings typically operate by excluding certain choices altogether: they do not influence behaviour so much as structure it. As such, road markings are not open to be technically observed or observed in spirit or ingeniously circumvented: they are observed or not. Both the moral norm underlying road markings and the criteria for their observance are self-evident, in a way that is seldom true of the law.

Are we committed to abandoning any ‘instrumental’ evaluation of the law, or of individual laws, by reference to their outcome? This conclusion would be unfortunate; not only would it necessitate abandoning Gardner’s insight on the reflexive relationship between laws and norms, it would make it impossible to say whether any law was making the world a better place. A narrower reading of Gardner’s analogy may provide a solution. The situation in which road markings are “profoundly confusing”, such that “reliance on [them] only serves to make road accidents more likely”, can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The implication could be that the road markings are so confusing that it is effectively impossible for any one driver to follow them. Alternatively, it could mean that the markings can be followed, but only at so great a cost in time and attention as to force the driver to disregard other road users, so that observing the markings made his or her driving more rather than less dangerous. Lastly, it could mean that the markings are confusing in the sense of allowing widely diverse readings; markings which could plausibly be followed in multiple different ways would not make any one person’s driving more dangerous, but would greatly increase the likelihood of accidents.

All these forms of confusion can be readily envisaged as flaws of badly-made laws or legal systems: the law so complex and confusing that it is impossible to observe; the law whose demands are so extensive as to make it hard to carry on the activity the law is intended to regulate; the law whose vague or contradictory wording causes more social conflicts than it resolves. Any one of these flaws will make a law less effective, either in guiding individual behaviour or in resolving co-ordination problems; as a result, the moral norm underlying the law will be less effectively constituted in social practice, or (at worst) not constituted at all. However, these are all formal flaws: the failure of the law to constitute a moral norm can be inferred from the failure of the law as law. The realisation of the moral norm underlying the law does not need to be measured as an outcome – indeed, it is probably better if this is not attempted, for the reasons given above.

What I draw from Gardner’s analogy, in short, is a restatement of the intimate connection between morality and the formal virtues of law. To say that a law or body of laws is coherent, comprehensible and followable is not simply to say that it is well-made. A well-made law is also one which is well suited to embody a moral norm – and, crucially, to refine and specify the proper application of the norm in social practice, playing “[a] partly constitutive role in relation to a moral norm”. Whether or not the formal virtues of law have any moral content in themselves, I think this argument suggests that there is at least an irreducible affinity between law and morality.

Build A Better Yesterday

How could the film Yesterday have been improved? Over the fold, ten and a half possible improvements. Continue reading

Something happening here

But what it is, ain’t exactly clear…

The European elections sent a very clear message to both Labour and the Tories. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily the message that politicians think they’ve been sent.

1. The Forward March of…?

Here’s a very scary chart.

I don’t need to tell you what those regions are, or what those colours stand for (the dark grey on the end = ‘others’). The cyan-faced Brexit beast stalks the land, polling in the high 30s, relegating the main political parties to second and third place, leaving the staunch Remainers of the Liberal Democrats in the dust… oh, wait.

Sorry, wrong figures. That’s what happened the last time the European elections were run, in 2014. These are the results from 2019. (The new pale grey column is Change UK, bless ’em).

As results go these are, obviously, even worse than the first lot, and it would be obtuse to say that there isn’t much difference between 2019 and 2014. But it’s important to recognise that there are an awful lot of similarities between 2019 and 2014 – in particular, of course, the toweringly strong performance of Brexit parties in every English region except London. (Note the phrasing; I’m specifically not saying “everywhere in England except London”. London’s unique in being a city-region; the Brexit party came second or third in a number of other cities, Manchester included, but none of those cities was big enough to determine the voting pattern of its respective region.)

To underline the point, here are the two charts together – 2019 then 2014. Methodological note: as well as the main Brexit party (UKIP in 2014, BXP in 2019), the cyan column includes all minor ‘Brexit’ parties and all far-Right parties – UKIP and English Democrats in 2019; An Independence From Europe, We Demand A Referendum Now and the BNP in 2014, plus a couple of other odds and sods. (I hesitated over including the far Right, but given that people are willing to bring Alternative für Deutschland and Rassemblement National under the “populist nationalist” banner these days, we can’t really have a fit of the vapours every time somebody lumps Liberty GB in with BXP.) For simplicity I’ll refer to all of these as “British nationalist” parties from now on.

So, 2019 was pretty bad – across the country, British nationalists got 34% of the vote (30.5% for BXP alone), with Labour on 14% and the Greens and Lib Dems on 31% between them. But 2014 wasn’t exactly brilliant; British nationalists got over 30% (28.5% for UKIP), pushing Labour and the Conservatives into second and third places with 24% and 23% respectively – and the Greens and Lib Dems got less than 14% between them.

(I say “across the country”; these are UK-wide vote shares. I’ve left the Scotland and Wales EU regions off these charts for simplicity, and because I don’t know a lot about what motivates a nationalist vote in those countries – and I’m damned if I know what motivates a British nationalist vote in those countries, although clearly something does.)

2. Turning It Off And Then On Again

Is this the new order, if you’ll pardon the expression? Is Farage’s hollow shell of a party just going to mobilise and keep on mobilising, to the point where the Tory Party finally splits and passes on its majoritarian bonus – the over-representation of the two leading parties in our electoral system – to BXP? Even if Labour does win the next election, is Corbyn going to be taking PMQs from Claire Fox and Annunziata Rees-Mogg? I don’t think things are quite that bad yet, if they ever will be. The Euro election results actually offer some reasons for cautious optimism, as well as some cause for alarm.

First off, remember 2014 – and remember what happened next. Here’s another chart, which should again be fairly self-explanatory.

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 15.31.08

The dates, of course, are those of the last five General Elections, and the last five European elections. I think it’s fair to say that there are some patterns. Look at what happens to the main party vote shares in 2004, 2009 and 2014, and look at how transient it is. Notice how in 2005, 2010 and 2015 the Labour vote bounces back to something close to the level of the previous general election. Look at the similarity between the combined Tory+nationalist votes in 2014 and 2015; for a more dramatic version of the same effect compare 2017 and 2019. (In 2004 and 2009, it could plausibly be argued that British nationalist parties were eating into Labour’s vote as much as – or even more than – the Tories’. But it didn’t last.) In 2017, Labour alone got a similar vote to the total for Labour, the LDs and the Greens combined at the Euro election of 2014 – and the combined Labour+LD+Green vote in 2019 is very nearly as high as it was in 2017, despite a rather different distribution between those parties.

As dramatic as the fluctuations are, the figures also tell a more important and less dramatic story: a story in which both Labour and the Tories can usually rely on around 30% of the vote; in which a period of highly polarised party-political campaigning can (temporarily?) drive both parties’ vote shares up to 40%; and in which a period of highly polarised campaigning not based on normal party politics can (temporarily) eat into both main parties’ votes. James Butler commented recently, “as Brexit increasingly defines the political conversation, both ends of Labour’s electoral coalition begin to fray”. I’d rephrase that by saying that if and when Brexit is allowed to define the political conversation, Labour’s electoral coalition does begin to fray; and if not, not. Look what happens to the Labour and Green votes in 2009 and 2010, and again in 2014 and 2015. Not allowing Brexit to dominate the conversation is a bigger ask in 2019 than it was in 2010 or 2015, admittedly – as witness the disappointing local election results – but there’s still a serious difference of degree between Euro and Westminster elections.

If it even is a difference of degree; there’s a strong – and familiar – argument that it’s a difference in kind. At general elections, people vote for the next government; at European elections, people (in this country at least) vote expressively, to “send a message”. And if you’re sending a message you’re sending it to somebody, unless your addressee is God or Father Christmas; implicitly or explicitly, you’re voting on the basis that your usual representatives will get the message and act on it, whereupon you can go back to voting for them. As, by and large, people do.

Digression on European elections in the UK. This tendency to use the Euros for “expressive” purposes is, of course, a problem; arguably it’s the problem, or at least a symptom of it. Consider: I’m a Remainer, who thinks that the 2016 referendum result was a disaster and actually going through with Brexit would be catastrophic; I believe in British membership of the EU and (by extension) British participation in EU institutions. I haven’t given up hope that we won’t leave at all, although I can’t see how we’re going to get to that conclusion just at the moment. More particularly, I’m a Labour voter, but I can’t see how Labour policy is going to stop Britain leaving the EU.

Now, why on earth would I vote Green or Lib Dem? Consider the evidence:

  1. I support the Labour Party. In general elections and council elections I vote Labour; I don’t vote Green, and I’d sell my granny before I’d vote Liberal Democrat. (I didn’t spell this last point out to begin with, but talk to a few Labour supporters and you’ll see.)
  2. I believe that the European Parliament, whatever its flaws, is an important institution which does valuable work.
  3. I hope and trust that the UK will remain a member of the EU for the next five years.
  4. Given the last two points, I believe that any MEP I help to elect will be doing significant work on my behalf for anything up to five years.
  5. I am concerned that Labour may not do enough to stop the UK leaving the EU.
  6. I intend to vote for the Green candidate.

How’s that for a shock twist? Even with point 5, points 1-3 just don’t support the conclusion: if you’re a Labour supporter and you believe in the EU, why wouldn’t you want Labour MEPs representing you? If we remain, you’ve got Labour MEPs for five years; if we leave, at least you’ve got Labour MEPs until then – and even if leaving is (in some undefined sense) Labour’s fault, Labour MEPs won’t be trying to advance the Brexit cause while they’re actually there. They’ll be trying to advance party policy – you know, the policies of the party you support, the one you always vote for in preference to the Greens and never mind the Lib Dems…

I suspect the weak link here is point 2. In this country, at least, we really don’t know what the European Parliament is or does – it’s seldom reported on at all, and almost never accurately and honestly – and it’s easy to assume that it doesn’t do very much, or that whatever it does isn’t very important. And if you make that assumption, then a vote in the Euros literally doesn’t matter: it’s not part of the democratic fabric in the way that Westminster and council elections are, it’s just this additional democratic… thing… that you can use if you want to, without any real consequences. From there it’s only a hop and a skip to an expressive vote, sending a message, standing up and being counted and the rest of it.

The inevitable result of all this is that people vote differently – and for different reasons – at the Euros compared to Westminster elections.

3. The Forward March of… the Liberal Democrats?

This in turn means that there’s no point comparing the 2019 Euro election figures with the 2017 general election, let alone extrapolating from those two data points to what might happen in the next general election. 2015 wasn’t identical to 2010, but it looked nothing at all like 2014; equally, 2014 looked nothing like 2010, but it looked quite a lot like 2009. For 2019, the real point of comparison is the 2014 Euro election.

When you do that, and plot gains and losses in vote share between 2014 and 2019, you get these two – final – charts.

These show the gains and losses between the elections of 2014 and 2019, in additive and proportional form. Taking London as an example, the first chart tells you that the Lib Dems put on 20% between the two elections, while Labour lost 12% and the Tories 14%. The second chart tells you, in effect, how serious these changes were: it tells you that the 2019 Lib Dem vote was 400% of the 2014 vote, while the Labour and Tory votes were around 75% and 35%, respectively, of their previous figures. In other words, the Lib Dems’ extra 20% – being a gain of 300% – was a much bigger deal than either of the major parties’ losses, while the Tory loss of 14% was much more serious than the Labour loss of 12%; despite being similar in absolute terms, the Tory loss represented 65% of their previous vote, but the Labour loss only represented 25% of theirs.

It’s this second chart that most vividly illustrates quite how bad the Tories’ result was this time, right across England. Tory losses are mostly between 10% and 20% in absolute terms. These are big losses, but it’s the proportional calculation that tells you just how big: in relative terms their losses range from 60% to 70% – around two thirds of their 2014 vote. As the second chart shows, these losses are consistently worse than Labour’s; even in the North East, where in absolute terms the Tories lost 11% of their vote share compared to 17% for Labour, in relative terms they lost more than 60% of their vote to Labour’s 45%. Outside the North East, Labour’s losses are in the 5%-15% range in absolute terms; in relative terms all Labour losses are in the 30-50% range (which is not a great range to be in, admittedly). The proportional chart also shows the Green Party’s gains clearly; 40% in London, 100% in the West Midlands and 50-80% everywhere else. As for the Lib Dems, London was an outlier, but we can see clearly that they had a really good election: gains of between 180% and 230% in six out of nine regions are not to be sneezed at.

4. Berkshire Diners’ Club Issues New Security Alert

The Brexit Party, of course, came from nowhere to top the polls, as its founder and sole proprietor has reminded us – albeit not to universal applause.

If we ignore the labelling and compare the votes for all British nationalist parties across the two elections – and that’s what I’ve been doing so far, so why would I stop now? – we see something interesting; which is to say, we don’t see very much. The aggregate nationalist vote is up across the country – even in London it’s up by 0.3%(!) – but there’s only one region – North East England – where the absolute increase is greater than 6%. Similarly, in seven regions out of nine the relative increase in the nationalist vote was in the 7-17% range; it was lower in London and higher – 29% – in North East England. Now, I am concerned about what’s happening up there – between BXP and UKIP 44.9% of people voted British nationalist in the North East, which is a great deal too high for comfort, even on a 33% turnout. But that’s the only region where this election suggests that BXP is making serious inroads – and even there the Lib Dems showed greater absolute gains (and much greater relative gains).

This in turn suggests two things. First, on the limits of the Brexit Party. I’m loth to underestimate Nigel Farage and his backers, and – to be scrupulously fair – annexing most of the UKIP vote and then adding some extra Tories (spoiler) is quite an achievement, even if it’s not quite the achievement he’s made it out to be. Whatever else you can say about UKIP, it is at least a party, with branches and members who can campaign for it, and that might have been expected to keep it afloat; you’d think that name recognition in the polling booth would favour the party, too, at least among people who’d voted for UKIP in the past. It wasn’t to be. Farage’s brutally simple message and his charismatic leadership style did the job, and UKIP’s loss of all but 3.2% of its 26.6% 2014 vote share became the Brexit Party’s gain – augmented by another 7% of voters.

Which brings me, by a roundabout route, to the point. The assumption that the voters in one election are the same people who voted in an election five years ago is obviously false – there’s demographic change, there are turnout differences, there are political factors which might encourage one group to vote and another to abstain. But, unless we have reliable knowledge of those things and their likely effects, we’re better off starting off by assuming a spherical cow than by building in assumptions that may be entirely out of whack with reality. So, as a starting point, let’s assume that The People turned out and voted one way in 2014, then turned out again in 2019 and voted differently.

Then the question is: assuming that 90% of the UKIP contingent of The People is available for the Brexit Party, who else is the new party drawing in? How’s the project of mobilising the 52% going? And it looks as if they may be hitting a natural ceiling – even if, at 30.5%, that ceiling is a bit more vaulty than we might like. Take 23.4% from the Kippers, add the 3% of the 2014 vote whose alternative British nationalist vehicles weren’t available this time – some of these may of course have gone to UKIP instead, in which case an even higher proportion of the old Kipper vote has gone to Farage – and you’re already approaching 26.5%. So far from rallying disgusted Tories and alienated Labour supporters, the Brexit Party only seems to have been able to attract a further 4% of unknown origin.

(I can’t write about this stuff for very long without needing to look at that clip again. “Clive Jenkins, Roy Jenkins, Up Jenkins – up the lot of them!”)

5. With and Against the Flow

Now, putting the UKIP vote (and the BNP vote) in the bag is all well and good, but what the Brexit Party really needed was a net rise in the total British nationalist vote; what it needed to do – and promised it would do – was recruit new supporters from the Tories and Labour, who had supposedly betrayed their respective constituencies by foot-dragging over Brexit. Did they do it? You be the judge; here are some figures, for a change from all those charts.

2019 Labour vote: 13.7%, down from 24.5% (-10.8%)
Conservative vote: 8.8%, down from 23.1% (-14.3%)
Total British nationalist vote: 34.1%, up from 30.3% (+3.8%)
2019 BXP vote: 30.5% = 23.4% (2014 UKIP) + 3% (2014 UKIP splinters/BNP/etc) + 4.1% (???)

Between them, the two main parties released 25% of the vote onto the market. The brand spanking new Brexit Party, with its cross-class appeal, its charismatic leader and its bracingly single-minded focus on the issue of the day, picked up 4.1% of them.

Once we realise we’re only looking at 4% of genuine ‘new business’ – which is to say, once we realise that BXP has only acquired a few more new voters than Change UK, even in a European election – the question of where they all came from is less pressing. (If we assume that (a) some BXP voters voted Labour in 2014 and (b) more BXP voters were ex-Tory than ex-Labour, the range of possibiilties runs from 16% of ex-Labour voters and 17% of ex-Tories (1.7% + 2.4%) to 1% of ex-Labour and 28% of ex-Tories (0.1% + 4%); it’ll be somewhere in there. Either way it’s not a whole lot of people.)

The real question is, where did all those votes go – the Tory votes especially. (And they must have gone somewhere – turnout was up compared to 2014.) Let’s assume that Labour’s contribution to the BXP 4.1% was small, and make up most of the increase from ex-Tories. Let’s also assume that the other ex-Labour voters went to Remain parties – the Greens, the Lib Dems, Change UK. And let’s revisit those figures.

2019 Labour vote: 13.7%, down from 24.5% (-10.8%)
Conservatives: 8.8%, down from 23.1% (-14.3%)
Lib Dems: 19.6%, up from 6.6% (+13%)
Greens: 12.6%, up from 8.5% (+4.1%)
UKIP: 3.2%, down from 26.6% (-23.4%)
Change UK: 3.3%
Brexit Party: 30.5%

Maybe it was something like this:

BXP vote: 30.5% = 23.4% (2014 UKIP) + 3% (2014 UKIP splinters/BNP/etc) + 1% (ex-Labour) + 3.1% (ex-Con)
Change UK vote: 3.3% = 2.3% (ex-Labour) + 1% (ex-Con)
Lib Dem vote: 19.6% = 6.9% + 4% (ex-Labour) + 8.7% (ex-Con)
Green vote: 12.6% = 8.5% + 3% (ex-Labour) + 1.1% (ex-Con)
Labour vote: 13.7% = 24.5% – (1% (BXP) + 2.3% (ChUK) + 4% (Lib Dem) + 3% (Green)
Tory vote: 8.8% = 23.1% – (3.1% (BXP) + 1% (ChUK) + 8.7% (Lib Dem) + 1.1% (Green))

The figures don’t add up perfectly, but it seems reasonable to assume that the real flows were something quite like that, give or take a few extra minor parties and flows I haven’t modelled (away from the Greens and Lib Dems, for example). Apart from anything else, the small scale of a lot of the figures imposes limitations: it would be difficult to make the Tory contribution to the Greens or ChUK much larger, or their contribution to BXP or the Lib Dems much smaller.

If this is right, though, it has some quite startling implications. It means that Labour lost nine times as much of its 2014 vote to the Greens, Lib Dems and ChUK as they did to Farage: 9.3% vs 1% – or nearly 40% of the 2014 vote vs 5% of it. More importantly, these figures also suggest that the Tories are in a similar position, as they appear to have lost more than three times as much of their 2014 vote to Remain parties as they did to the Brexit Party: 10.8% to Remain parties vs 3.1% to BXP – more than 45% of the vote vs less than 15% of it. The Euro election results have a message for the Tories – and the message is, move back to Remain before it’s too late. (The message for Labour is not dissimilar.)

To conclude, three questions. First, how has this been missed? (To ask the same question another way, have I got this wrong?) Second, should we be worried for Labour? Third, should we be worried for the Tories?

Why has everyone compared vote flows with the previous general election – if they’ve looked at vote flows at all – and missed what I believe is the real story? I can think of three reasons. Firstly, the apparent vote flows as compared with the 2017 election are much – I mean, much – more dramatic. 40% Labour and 42% Tory, down to 14% and 9%? if voters were gearing up to behave like that at the next general election, it would be action stations all round. Nobody wants to be the bearer of the news that it’s probably a lot more complicated than that, and a lot less exciting, although of course we don’t know for sure.

Secondly and more philosophically, people – perhaps especially people in the news media – have a reluctance to look at the world sociologically; to see stuff people do as, well, just stuff people do. If somebody votes Labour in 2010 and UKIP in 2014, that may mean they were Labour but now are UKIP, or it may mean they’re using their vote differently on one occasion than another; the evidence of voting patterns across European and general elections strongly suggests the latter. And, of course, that person may not be either Labour or UKIP: they may be a diasporic Welsh nationalist or an anti-state anarchist; they may not have a strong sense of being anything politically.

Brief philosophical digression. Imagine there’s a society where, once a year, everyone goes to a central location, has some blood drawn, declares publicly that they are Labour or Tory (Remain or Leave, Protestant or Catholic, United or City…) and then signs the declaration, in public, in their own blood. In between those times, how much would all of a person’s other political behaviours matter – voting, talking about politics, associating with some people and not others – when it came to knowing, authoritatively, what they were? Would any of those behaviours tell us who that person was, politically? Of course they wouldn’t – that’s why we have the signing ceremony, everyone knows that; in between ceremonies, there could be all sorts of reasons why you might choose to do such and such a thing on such and such a day. Now, imagine the same society without the annual ritual, the public declaration and the signing in blood; imagine those things never existed. Voting, talking about politics, associating with some people and not others – does any of those behaviours tell us who a person is, politically?

(If you got a momentary sense of vertigo then, congratulations – and welcome aboard.)

The idea that what people are can be inferred from how they vote – or that we are anything, politically speaking – is subjectivist to the point of being impossible to verify; effectively it’s meaningless. What matters is what you do – and people do different things on different occasions. (One way of thinking about political commitment is that it consists of tying one’s future choices to the mast of a cause, so as to produce the effect that one is, by nature, committed to that cause.)

Thirdly and least dramatically, I suspect that somebody out there is in fact looking at 2014-2019 vote flows, but that they’re doing it properly – rather than bashing an Excel spreadsheet for a couple of evenings and then speculating a lot – and that takes time.

6. The Tories’ Latest Nightmare (Which Nobody’s Noticed)

Should we worry about Labour? Shorter answer: no; look at 2009 – much worse than this year (in terms of flows from Labour to UKIP), and Labour came back from that. Slightly longer answer: no, except for the North East: up there, for whatever reason(s), British nationalist politics seems to be becoming embedded – and making real encroachments on Labour – in a way that we don’t see in the rest of the country, not even the East coast of Rochester and Thurrock. But the results certainly don’t suggest there’s any more mileage for Labour in appealing to Leavers, at least when it comes to keeping the votes Labour’s already got. Ironically, while the results do suggest that the Brexit Party is a threat to the two main parties, this is mainly in the sense that their failure to oppose it effectively is driving voters to make a statement by lending their votes to a more unequivocally Remain-aligned party.

I’m not worried about the feasibility of Labour going Remain, in the sense of adopting remaining in the EU as a goal, while keeping most of its Brexit-leaning voters; a rueful concession that Brexit can’t be made to work after all has always been one of the most plausible end-points for Labour’s Brexit strategy. I am worried about the possibility of Labour going Remain, in the sense of deliberately trying to polarise around Remain:

Resisting Brexit is fighting Fascism – and it’s a “culture war” in which “appeals to class solidarity” are useless? This is reckless stuff. Labour aren’t in power yet; to win the next election the party will need both to maintain its existing coalition of support – including all those Labour voters who went for the Lib Dems and Greens last Thursday – and to build on it. And that’s going to mean appealing to people who didn’t vote Labour in 2017 – and did vote Leave in 2016. “We’re Remain, you’re a bunch of racists and we don’t care if you get the sack” doesn’t seem like the most obvious way to reach those people.

But these worries are nothing compared to the situation confronting the Tories. Perhaps because they’re looking at flows from 2017, perhaps because of the sheer scale of that 30.5% vote, the Tories individually and collectively seem convinced that their lost voters went to the Brexit Party last week – when in fact 3/4 of them went to the Lib Dems and Greens, because of the Brexit Party.

If the Tories continue to treat Farage as a threat that needs to be appeased – if they continue to act as if the Brexit Party stole 60% of their vote single-handed – the relatively few Tory voters who lent their vote to BXP for the Euros will come back to the fold, but they would have done anyway. The danger is that the voters who voted expressively by jumping ship for the Lib Dems – and, perhaps, the Greens and ChUK – will feel that their message hasn’t got across, and that their party isn’t the party for them any more. In other words, the Tories’ reaction to the Euro results could make them much more of a threat to the party than they would otherwise have been.

Oh well, the decomposition of the Conservative Party continues.

Update 1/6/19 Another thought about vote flows: I’ve said that more than three times as many 2014 Tory votes seem to have gone to Remain parties as to the Brexit Party (it looks as if nearly three times as many went to the Lib Dems alone), but what if it’s more complicated than that? What if BXP didn’t pick up all the 2014 UKIP voters who abandoned the party in 2019? In particular, what if some Kippers went Tory at the same time as some Tories – perhaps a lot of Tories – went Brexit? Might the Tories have lost as many votes to the Brexit Party as to Remain parties – or more votes, even?

Here are the figures, one more time:

2019 Labour vote: 13.7%, down from 24.5% (-10.8%)
Conservatives: 8.8%, down from 23.1% (-14.3%)
Lib Dems: 19.6%, up from 6.6% (+13%)
Greens: 12.6%, up from 8.5% (+4.1%)
UKIP: 3.2%, down from 26.6% (-23.4%)
Change UK: 3.3%
Brexit Party: 30.5%

Earlier, I assumed that 10.7% of the Tories’ lost votes had gone to Remain parties and 3.1% to BXP (for a total of 13.8%; that’s as close as I could get the numbers to adding up). Assume that 10.8% of voters voted Tory in 2014 and BXP in 2019, and that this effect was disguised by the ‘churn’ between UKIP and the Tories. Can we make the figures add up?

BXP vote: 30.5% = 15.7% (2014 UKIP) + 3% (2014 UKIP splinters/BNP/etc) + 1% (ex-Labour) + 10.8% (ex-Con)
Change UK vote: 3.3% = 2.3% (ex-Labour) + 1% (ex-Con)
Lib Dem vote: 19.6% = 6.9% + 4% (ex-Labour) + 8.7% (ex-Con)
Green vote: 12.6% = 8.5% + 3% (ex-Labour) + 1.1% (ex-Con)
Labour vote: 13.7% = 24.5% – (1% (BXP) + 2.3% (ChUK) + 4% (Lib Dem) + 3% (Green)
Tory vote: 8.8% = 23.1% – (10.8% (BXP) + 1% (ChUK) + 8.7% (Lib Dem) + 1.1% (Green)) + 7.5% (UKIP)
UKIP vote: 3.2% = 26.6% – (15.7% (BXP) + 7.5% (Con))

It’s possible, just about. Note, however, that I can only make it work by assuming that a third of the 2014 UKIP vote would now rather vote for Theresa May’s party than Nigel Farage’s, which seems like a very strong claim. Moreover, this is a bare 50:50 split between Tory-to-Remain and Tory-to-BXP flows, with the smallest possible majority for the latter (10.8% vs 10.7%). The very highest Tory-to-BXP flow the figures will support is 12.1%; any higher and you end up with the Tories losing more than 23.1% of the vote, which of course is impossible.

All this, admittedly, is on the basis of 8.7% of votes going from the Tories in 2014 to the Lib Dems in 2019, a figure which does seem high-ish. However, it’s hard to reduce: the difference would need to be made up out of the 2014-Labour vote – which in turn would necessitate adjustments to the Green and ChUK vote flows, and we’d end up with much the same figure for the total Tory-to-Remain vote flow, just distributed differently between the three Remain parties. The key point here is that the Labour vote is much less malleable than the Tories’; there’s very little scope for cross-cutting vote flows involving UKIP. I’m not saying that Labour voters at General Elections don’t vote UKIP/BXP at the Euros – clearly many do – but doubting that UKIP voters from the 2014 Euros would switch to Labour in 2019.

But then, I doubt that UKIP voters from the 2014 Euros would switch to the Tories in any large numbers. All told, it looks as if the figures tell a very simple story: compared to 2014, the Brexit Party made very little progress, and both Labour and the Tories lost sizeable tranches of votes to explicitly Remain parties – very sizeable indeed in the case of the Tories. Taking into account the established tendency for ‘expressive’ voting at Euro elections, and taking into account the low and (apparently) age-tapered turnout, I think we can reasonably say that these were pretty good results. (Apart from the North East.)

The only thing that’ll make you see sense

Pardon the long silence. It has long- as well as short-term reasons, which I may get into in another post – nothing alarming, just some ruminations about the Vocation of a Blogger. In the mean time, the short-term reasons have more or less lifted, so let’s crack on.

Here’s a couple of Tweets that you may have seen recently.

 

I’ve got a few thoughts about this, but first:

1. Background reading

A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. … Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh.
– George Orwell, “England Your England” (1941)

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’
– P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters (1938)

We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, [Roy] Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation … what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. … the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.
– me, this blog (2005)

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
– Phil Ochs (1966)

2. The unbearable lightness of being liberal

There’s something odd about the apparent straightforwardness and consistency of the position Hinsliff (among others) takes here; three things, to be precise. First, let’s unpack. That Tweet lists five forms of “INTIMIDATION/STUFF THAT COULD TURN UGLY”, although I’ve expanded the list to six.

  1. “milkshake-throwing”: variant of “rotten tomato” tactic, which has been used against politicians for as long as there have been politicians and tomatoes; causes victims inconvenience and makes them look ridiculous, while involving no or minimal physical contact; currently being used against extreme right-wingers Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Nigel Farage
  2. “rape ‘joke’-making”: deniable aggressive tactic, used by misogynists against women; evokes serious physical violence so as to cause fear and intimidation, in both the direct target and other women; recently used by an extreme right-winger against a Labour politician
  3. “egging”[1]: variant of “rotten tomato” tactic (as above); may be responded to aggressively or with class (NB second approach appears more successful)
  4. “egging”[2]: smacking a politician in the head while holding an egg; aggressive physical contact, expressing anger by evoking a threat of serious physical violence; recently used by an extreme right-winger against a Labour politician inside a mosque
  5. “threatening to pick up rifle”: deniable aggressive tactic, evoking serious physical violence so as to intimidate all political opponents; used by Farage
  6. “punching Nazis”: aggressive physical contact, expressing anger and aiming to interrupt and inconvenience extreme right-wingers in public spaces

It should be reasonably clear that two of these things are not like the others. 2, 4, 5 and 6 aren’t “stuff that could turn ugly”; they already are ugly. Punching people is bad, and polluting political debate by suggesting that you might resort to rape or murder if you can’t get your way – in jest, of course! – is, if anything, even worse. Hinsliff’s list doesn’t work, or else it works only by juxtaposition: throwing a milkshake at Farage, or an egg at Ed Miliband, qualifies as “stuff that could turn ugly” for no other reason than that it’s been put together with a lot of other “ugly” tactics.

Second point: setting aside the first, basically innocuous form of “egging”, this is a list of three things that are currently only done by the extreme Right, and two that are only done to them. The general point about civility in politics which those Tweets are aiming for would work much better if the Left – any part of the Left – could be charged with punching people in general, or even punching their political enemies in general. But the evidence won’t support that, so “punching Nazis” it had to be. The historical context Hinsliff clearly wants to rise above won’t go away: we’re left with a list of three reasons to oppose the rise of the extreme Right and two tactics for doing so, one of which doesn’t involve direct physical violence. You’d think this would be a reason to welcome the use of milkshakes rather than fists, not to deplore both of them equally.

Third point: why is it “not pick’n’mix”? Certainly I’d hope that any left-wing organisation would kick out anyone indulging himself in “rape jokes”, and I can’t see physically attacking people behind closed doors as a viable left-wing tactic – but since neither of these things has recently happened or seems likely to happen, the point is academic. Beyond that, though, the rationale for Hinsliff’s position is obscure – unless she’s urging honesty and consistency on the extreme Right, whose adoption of tactics 2, 4 and 5 makes them ill-suited to complain about 1 and 6. Aimed at the Left it seems like an odd sort of ultimatum – either concede that rape jokes are OK or disown everyone who assaults a Fascist – and I have to come back to the question, why? Where is this demand for consistency coming from, and who is likely to listen to it? I don’t have any trouble saying that I would rather bad things happened to my political enemies than to my allies, if they’re going to happen to anyone; I don’t think many people do.

Perhaps this argument only makes intuitive sense if you’re equally disengaged from both sides. That’s not a good place to be, though. These are dangerous times; the extreme Right is on the rise, in Britain and around the world, and it needs to be resisted by every appropriate means. (Vote Labour, by the way!) In an ideal world I wouldn’t want anyone hit with anything, but in practical terms I struggle to see the difference between Farage’s milkshake and Ed Miliband’s egg – other than that the milkshake was more effective in making its target look ridiculous, and sent the additional message of bracketing Farage with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as extreme Right-wingers. And, if an extreme Right-winger like Farage feels that he can’t show himself in public without hearing the Voice of the People saying, in effect,

Look at that frightful ass Farage swanking about! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?

that doesn’t seem like a situation we should regret.

3. Don’t talk

Two inter-related arguments are often advanced against the use of physical force tactics, and have surfaced again since the Farage incident: we’re told that we shouldn’t provoke them, and that we should defeat them in debate.

Debate is great, of course, but only on two procedural conditions: that you have some kind of shared principles with your opponent, and that neither one of you is looking forward to the complete defeat and elimination of the other. If the first of these doesn’t apply, debate is pointless, as it can only (and invariably will) lead to the two sides restating their own principles at each other and/or trying to make each other look bad, using the ‘debate’ solely as a platform for appealing to the audience. (So many political debates in the media take precisely this form that it’s worth pausing here for a moment, to remind ourselves that (for example) “a fully-funded health service or a reliable NATO partner?” isn’t actually a debate – any more than “blue or large?” would be.) If the second condition doesn’t apply, debate is positively dangerous, as it gives credibility to those absolutist and anti-political goals, and gives that side space to rally support for them.

Fascism has the peculiar quality that much of its content is procedural; fascism is defined, in other words, not by the proposals it puts forward within the political arena but by its opposition to the political arena itself. Fascism isn’t alone in having a procedural payload – one element of the Thatcherite agenda was to reshape British democracy, greatly reducing the role of some stakeholders (trade unions, council tenants) and increasing that of others (shareholders, home-owners) – but the corrosive negativity of Fascism takes this element of politics to an extreme. As such, Fascists are quite impossible to “defeat in debate”; they share no principles with democratic opponents, have no commitment to a continuing political dialogue, and generally have no interest in debate, except as a platform to gain support. Moreover, since their position is primarily negative, exploiting debates as a platform is not hard: all it takes is aggression, tenacity and the ability to make their opponents look more ridiculous than they do. We don’t debate with Fascists; we don’t give their positions respectability; we don’t give them a platform. It’s worth noting that both Hinsliff’s examples of anti-Fascist violence are, precisely, aimed at denying extreme Right-wingers a public platform – and making them look ridiculous.

As for provocation, three thoughts. Firstly, in purely tactical terms a general caution against provocation makes no sense; sadly, we are long past the stage where a sleeping extreme-Right dragon might be roused by incautious Leftist aggression. If there is a case against provocation, it must be either a case-by-case assessment or a general ban on non-tactical grounds – but if those grounds aren’t based on absolute pacifism, I’m not sure what they would be based on. Secondly, it’s true that making life difficult for one’s opponents to speak in public is a provocation; you could also call it a challenge. The message it sends is, come back and do better, if you can; come back in big enough numbers that we won’t be able to stop you… if you can. (The other thing you could call it is a gamble.) What liberal observers don’t tend to factor in is that, despite their self-image, not every extreme-Right organisation has determined leaders and huge numbers of footsoldiers; if anything, it’s rather the exception to the rule. In most cases, the challenge – or provocation – will be quietly declined, leaving public spaces Fascist-free. Yes, it’s a gamble, but it can be argued, in some situations, that the benefit is high enough and the risk low enough to make it worth taking. Thirdly, and most importantly, provocation in this sense doesn’t seem to be how things work; there simply isn’t that much evidence of relatively peaceful extreme Right-wingers reacting to violent leftist provocation by taking up violence. Extreme right-wingers do react violently to provocation, it’s true, but what they consider provocation isn’t generally anything to do with violence. Carl Benjamin threatened a woman with rape in response to ‘feminism’; John Murphy assaulted Jeremy Corbyn in response to Parliament’s failure to enact Brexit; Darren Osborne drove his car into a group of Muslims in response to their being Muslims; Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox in response to her being an anti-racist Labour MP. The violence – the aggressive violence – is already there; it’s primarily on their side; and – returning to the first point – it has been for some time: the time to worry that the extreme Right might get violent in future is long gone.

My attitude to physical force tactics hasn’t changed since I wrote that blog post in 2005 – generally speaking, I’m agin ’em – but I can’t endorse the apparent consistency of Hinsliff’s position; if anything, I’d say that its consistency is what makes it lose any relevance. Consistency, or absolutism: essentially it’s a conflation of two different questions, Do you oppose the use of physical force in politics in principle? and Do you oppose the use of physical force in any political situation whatsoever? Answering Yes to the first one doesn’t mandate answering Yes to the second, unless you’re advocating absolute pacifism – which is a consistent position, to be fair, but only as long as it’s not sheltering behind the police and armed forces’ monopoly of force. If you’re happy sending in the police to drag protesters away and the army to put down riots, that’s not so much pacifism as passivity – or status quo bias.

Sure, once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Says who?

1. Gedanken für das Experiment

Let me be the first to say that I’ve got absolutely nothing against Catalans. Although, of course, my saying that immediately creates precisely the suspicion I want to dispel. Really what I want to say is that there’s no reason why anyone should imagine that I’m anti-Catalan in the first place – although even saying that…

Start again. I don’t remember the Catalan influx, of course, but my parents told me some quite vivid stories. When what was euphemistically called ‘Unification’ finally absorbed Cataluña into Franco’s Spain – extinguishing a republic that had been approaching its third centenary – Britain was commendably quick to help. (To help the refugees, at least. The government in exile found that its relationship with our government rapidly went sour; for Britain to take a stand against the Generalissimo was not on anyone’s menu.) The Catalan nationality rapidly became Britain’s second largest minority community after the Irish, a position it has held ever since.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, particularly to begin with. A particularly unfortunate incident involved a Catalan man who drove through a red light, and who told the court in mitigation that he was colour-blind. If you’ve ever wondered where all those jokes that hinge on Catalans being colour-blind came from – and if they had any factual basis – there’s your answer. Catalan men were also thought to be effeminate, I’ve no idea why. And, of course, the Catalan language has often been the butt of what can loosely be called jokes, often from people who don’t consider themselves racist or anti-Catalan at all. (Yes, they use the letter X a lot, including at the beginning of words. Big deal. “Shall I get us some ksurros to go with the ksocolate?” Grow up.)

But in the last 30 years or so, anti-Catalan prejudice hasn’t really been an issue, by and large; by the 1970s British Catalans had suffered the ironic fate of all minority communities who are accepted by the majority, effectively disappearing from view. (If you ever have the misfortune to see an old episode of Love Thy Neighbour, keep an eye out for the couple who live next door to Jack Smethurst’s racist suburbanite, on the other side from Rudolph Walker: the characters are called Pau and Joana. In one episode they go up to London to celebrate Republic Day, but that’s about it.) You do occasionally hear suggestions that so-and-so’s Catalan name had held him or her back, but generally they’d be talking about somebody who’d got three-quarters of the way to the top instead of all the way – and usually the institution where they’d been held back was one that you’d expect to be unusually socially conservative (the Army, the Daily Express, the Conservative Party…) I’m not saying – it’s not my position to say – that everything was fine, but I think anti-Catalan racism was a long way down most people’s lists of pressing social issues, until very recently.

The other piece of background that needs to be filled in, of course, is Second Start. If you see a news item about the Catalan community, nowadays, the chances are it’ll mostly be about the Second Start Ministry of New Beginnings in Christ, to give the church its full name. It’s worth remembering that this association hasn’t always existed. It goes back to the successive waves of religious enthusiasm which briefly lit up the second and third generations of the Catalan community, and which led to some unlikely links being forged with the US evangelical Right. I don’t just mean Billy Graham, who played to a wide range of audiences (I saw him once myself); I’m talking about the likes of Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart. They didn’t leave so much as a scratch on the surface of mainstream religion in Britain, but in the British Catalan community they were a sensation.

And that prepared the soil in which Second Start, in turn, would grow. The survey data is phenomenal: the church claims the allegiance of approximately 4% of non-Catalans in Britain – and 92% of Catalans. I’ll leave it to sociologists of religion to explain why a heterodox offshoot of the US Southern Baptist Convention could be just what the British Catalan community had been waiting for, but there’s little doubt that that’s what it has been. Everyone who is anyone in the Catalan community – including the Ambassador himself – is a member; listen to anyone who’s asked to speak representing British Catalans, and you’ll almost certainly hear someone representing Second Start. Listen to an anti-Catalan racist, on the other hand – and yes, there are still a few – and you’ll almost certainly hear attacks on Second Start, or at best a ludicrously distorted portrayal of the church.

Which is how I – a Catalan speaker with Catalan colleagues and friends, and a lifelong anti-racist – now find myself accused of anti-Catalanism; credibly accused, to judge from the number of people who do in fact believe the accusations. I’m a Catalanaphile, but I’m also a secular leftist; I know the history of the British Catalan minority, but I also know the history of the US evangelical right. It hasn’t always been pretty. (Look up some of those names.) I see the faith British Catalans have put in Second Start, and I see how little they’re getting back for it. I see the social and political conservatism preached from Second Start pulpits, and I wonder how it can be doing the British Catalan community any good. And I see the money (not to put too fine a point on it) flowing out of the British Catalan community into Second Start, and I see how little of it stays in Britain, let alone among the Catalans.

Let’s be frank: I hate Second Start; I think the church is a noxious influence on the Catalan community in Britain and always has been. I think the wave of criticism the church is now receiving is long overdue – and the idea that it’s all down to a resurgence in anti-Catalanism is absurd. If I attack Second Start – if I critique its politics or question its funding – this is in no way an attack on Catalans

…or is it? 92% of British Catalans are in Second Start, remember, along with hardly anyone else. What do journalists writing about the Catalan community write about? Second Start. What do representatives of the Catalan community see as a key British Catalan institution? Second Start. What’s been part of the cultural furniture for a generation of British Catalans, for all their lives? Second Start. And what do anti-Catalan racists attack? Second Start.

I, and others like me, can attack Second Start from the secular Left, and feel quite sure that we’re not making a racist attack on British Catalans. But a British Catalan – many, many British Catalans – can hear an attack on Second Start, even from the secular Left, and be entirely sure that it is a racist attack on British Catalans. And who are you going to believe? When it comes to recognising racism against British Catalans, who’s the authority?

2. What you is is what you are

Can you be mistaken about how you feel? No.

Can you be mistaken about how you feel about somebody else’s speech or conduct? For example, can you be mistaken about whether you’re offended or not? Again, no.

Can you be mistaken, if you’re a member of a minority, about whether somebody else’s speech or conduct offends you as a member of that minority? No.

If the other person claims not to bear you any ill will, should you cease to be offended by what they said or did? No – “no offence” is the oldest get-out clause in the book, and probably the weakest.

The moral of all these questions is, what you feel is what you feel. If you’re offended, you’re offended.

Now: if you are offended by somebody’s speech or conduct, does that mean the speech or conduct is offensive? And, following close behind: if you’re a member of a minority, and somebody else’s speech or conduct offends you as a member of that minority, does that mean that the speech or conduct is offensive to that minority?

This is where I think we need to start treading carefully. “I feel offended” and “this is offensive” seem to go together as naturally as “I feel hot” and “it is hot”, and perhaps they do – but the reason they go well together is that both pairs of statements are elliptical, omitting key pieces of information which can be assumed in any actual speech situation. “I feel hot”, if we took it at face value, would tell us that the speaker habitually feels hot, wherever and whenever. The meaning of the phrase is “I feel hot [in this room/bath/crowd/etc]”. Similarly, “it is hot” omits a key piece of information, even if we replace ‘it’ with the particular setting: who’s saying that the experience of being in this room/bath/crowd is hot, and where are they getting the information? In short, the grammatical inverse of “I feel hot [in this setting]” is “it is hot [to me]”. Similarly, we’re never just ‘offended’, and nor is anything absolutely, always-and-everywhere, read-it-off-the-dial ‘offensive’; the grammatical inverse of “I feel offended [by this]” is “this is offensive [to me]”. Now, you can hang your hat on that – what you feel is what you feel; what offends you, offends you; what’s offensive to you, is offensive to you, and other people should care about that. But generalising from “I feel offended” to “this is offensive”, without more, seems to me to be going too far.

Offence is something that people should care about; offence caused to members of a minority, in particular, is something that non-members of that minority should take very seriously. If someone tells me – and especially if a lot of people tell me – that they, as members of a minority, are offended by some statement of mine that I myself find unproblematic, it’s incumbent on me to take that seriously and consider what I’m saying carefully: it’s strong evidence that I may be mistaken. But it’s not conclusive evidence – and there may be evidence to the contrary.

As for what would constitute evidence to the contrary, consider part 1 of this post. In that world, how would we evaluate a vocal critic of Second Start? I’d say that someone who was highly critical of Second Start but had never previously shown any interest in evangelical religion, and who attacked an institution dear to Catalans and avoided socialising with Catalans, might well be motivated by anti-Catalan racism. Someone – like my narrator – who’s highly critical of both Second Start and other evangelical churches, and who attacks an institution dear to Catalans but has Catalan friends… probably not.

In this world… well, I’m not going to point any moral; I’ll leave that for yourself.

 

 

It could be you

In February 1974, my school held a mock general election, just for laughs. A friend of ours was into politics and told us he was standing for Democratic Labour; he told us all about this exciting new breakaway from the Labour Party and its (one) MP, Dick Taverne. It sounded great. He came second last in the school, with six votes. In October 1974 the school repeated the exercise; our friend didn’t bother this time, but a group calling itself the School Reform Party stood with a platform of actual demands on the school, on the basis that even winning a mock election would give them standing as the voice of the kids. They came second, unfortunately, and life went back to normal. (This isn’t relevant to the post, but it shows you what giving people the habit of democracy can do.)

Dick Taverne, Reg Prentice, David Owen… Chuka Umunna? Lately we’ve been hearing rumours of splits again; BBC Political Correspondent Ian Watson writes:

Some people close to the Labour leadership believe a breakaway is all but inevitable – but that it will be small.

Well, we were promised one resignation on Thursday night and we didn’t even get that; breakaways don’t get much smaller than zero.

But let’s assume – in the teeth of the evidence – that Chuka and friends are going to jump at some point. Watson points out that scattered and disorganised resignations of the whip are much more likely than a big breakout in the SDP mould. Commentators have got into the habit of talking about “pro-European dissenters” as if they were a coherent group, but as Watson points out there are actually four groups of Labour MPs here:

  1. Pro-Remain but on the Left; probably the largest single group. Not going to defect.
  2. Pro-Remain, raring to go, just waiting for a signal
  3. Pro-Remain but waiting till Corbyn has Brexit well and truly hung round his neck
  4. Anti-Corbyn, raring to go but (I hate to mention this) not actually pro-Remain as such

Imponderables include: how big each of these groups is; what kind of signal is going to satisfy group 2 (and who’s going to give it); how long group 3 are prepared to wait; and whether either 2 or 3 is prepared to work with group 4 (and, indeed, whether group 4 wants to work with those posh metropolitan gits). None of these groups – with the exception of group 1, which isn’t really in the game – seems to number in double figures. All in all it’s not a promising launchpad for a party capable of repeating the successes of the SDP – let alone a party capable of achieving a bit more than keeping the Tories in power for 15 years, wasting huge amounts of money and effort, then slinking back into the Labour Party and trying to claim credit for changes that had happened while they were away. (I’ll say many things about Peter Mandelson, few of them complimentary, but he never went near the SDP.)

There’s also the C-word: career. Perhaps our doughty centrists won’t be dissuaded by the thought that leaving the Labour Party that got you elected is the act of a cynical turncoat scumbag, but they should consider that it could be a very bad career move. Consider the evidence.

In 1948, Alfred Edwards and Ivor Thomas left the Labour Party and subsequently joined the Conservatives. Neither resigned to trigger a by-election. Both stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1950, and were defeated.

In 1961, Alan Brown left the Labour Party and subsequently joined the Conservatives. He did not resign and trigger a by-election. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1964, and was defeated. He later rejoined the Labour Party.

In 1968, Desmond Donnelly left the Labour Party to form a new party, the Democratic Party. He did not resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1970, and was defeated. He later joined the Conservatives.

In 1972, our mate Dick Taverne left the Labour Party to form the Democratic Labour Party. He resigned and triggered a by-election, which he won. In February 1974 he defended his seat for the Democratic Labour Party, and – perhaps surprisingly – won again. Unfortunately he lost the seat in October 1974.

In 1974, Christopher Mayhew left the Labour Party and joined the Liberals. He didn’t resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in October 1974, and was defeated.

In 1976, Jim Sillars and John Robertson left the Labour Party to form the Scottish Labour Party. They didn’t resign their seats. Robertson didn’t stand at the next election in 1979; Sillars stood and was defeated. (He later joined the SNP, and was elected to Parliament at a by-election in 1988; he was defeated at the next election in 1992.)

Also in 1976, John Stonehouse – awaiting trial for fraud – left the Labour Party to join the English National Party. After being found guilty, he resigned as an MP but did not stand in the subsequent by-election.

In 1977, Reg Prentice left the Labour Party and joined the Conservatives. He didn’t resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1979, and was elected; he was re-elected in 1983.

And then there was the SDP. Two bits of anecdata seem relevant here. One is Steve Bell’s defecting Labour MP Ned Lagg. Bell, of course, had no sympathy for the SDP at all; Ned Lagg was a vain, complacent old soak, who’d got comfortable on the back benches and didn’t see why being deselected by a bunch of Trots should change anything – the voters loved him, didn’t they? Successive strips showed him doing the bare minimum of campaigning – little beyond driving around the constituency in a speaker van, “I’M NED LAGG, YOUR MP. VOTE FOR LAGG ON THURSDAY.” – until the catastrophe of election night. Rejected by “his” voters, Lagg got more and more drunk and more and more angry, eventually taking to the road in the speaker van: “I’M NED LAGG AND YER ALL A BUNCHA BASTAAARDS!!!!”

Of course, no resemblance was intended to any defecting Labour MP, and I’m sure none of the people I’m about to name would do any such thing. Although the story of [name redacted] and the trout is worth mentioning. It’s 1983, it’s election night, it’s 9.00, and in the SDP campaign office all is frenzied activity. In walks [ahem], previously the sitting Labour MP for the constituency, carrying something wrapped in newspaper. He goes into the kitchen and unwraps a large trout, which he proceeds to gut and prepare. It’s an hour before the polls close. One of the campaign volunteers plucks up the courage to go and ask him, politely, what the hell he’s doing: wouldn’t this be a good time to be double-checking the canvass returns and getting the last few votes out? The MP beams and says that it’s been a very long day, and he thought the volunteers would like something nice to eat. Apparently these are the thoughts that go through your head at 9.00 on election night, if you’re an MP in the kind of seat where they only need to weigh the votes. (He did win the election that night – by 100 votes.)

In 1981, Tom Bradley, Ronald Brown, Richard Crawshaw, George Cunningham, Tom Ellis, David Ginsburg, John Grant, John Horam, Ednyfed Hudson Davies, Edward Lyons, Bryan Magee, Tom McNally, Bob Mitchell, Eric Ogden, Bill Rodgers, John Roper, Neville Sandelson, Jeffrey Thomas, Mike Thomas and James Wellbeloved left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. They did not resign their seats. They stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1983, and were defeated.

Also in 1981, Bruce Douglas-Mann, James Dunn, Dickson Mabon and Michael O’Halloran left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. Douglas-Mann resigned his seat and triggered a by-election, at which he was defeated. Dunn, Mabon and O’Halloran did not resign. Dunn and Mabon did not stand at the 1983 election. O’Halloran was not selected as the SDP’s candidate in his old constituency, Islington North; objecting to this decision, he stood in 1983 as an Independent Labour candidate. He got 11% of the vote, coming in fourth behind Labour, the Conservatives and the SDP. The new Labour MP was Jeremy Corbyn, who has held the seat ever since.

Also in 1981, John Cartwright, Robert Maclennan, David Owen and Ian Wrigglesworth left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. They did not resign their seats. They stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1983, and were re-elected. Wrigglesworth was defeated at the following election in 1987; Cartwright, Maclennan and Owen were re-elected. Following the 1988 merger of the SDP and the Liberals, the (continuing) SDP was wound up in 1990; Owen resigned from the Commons in 1992, while Cartwright – standing as an Independent Social Democrat – was defeated. Maclennan, now a Liberal Democrat, was re-elected in 1992 and 1997, before retiring from the Commons in 2001.

In 2001, Paul Marsden left the Labour Party and joined the Lib Dems. He didn’t resign his seat. He re-joined the Labour Party shortly before the next next election in 2005, but didn’t stand for re-election.

In 2005 – shortly before that year’s general election – Brian Sedgemore left the Labour Party and joined the Lib Dems. He didn’t resign his seat and didn’t stand for re-election.

That’s a total of 40 defectors from Labour, most of whom I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of. (All male, for what that’s worth. Only two women MPs have voluntarily left one party for another (there’d be stronger female representation if we included expulsions and MPs sitting as independents); one (Emma Nicholson) defected from the Tories, and the other (Cynthia Mosley) is before our time-frame.) 37 of the 40 crossed the floor without triggering a by-election; one triggered a by-election but didn’t stand in it; and one of the two who did put his mandate to the test lost his seat for his pains. (I respect his principles, but otherwise I can only tell you one thing about Bruce Douglas-Mann: the Guardian by-election sketchwriter pointed out that his surname is an anagram of Glumsod-Nana.) Five of the remaining 39 retired at the next election; 28 were defeated; six were re-elected. Only four – Cartwright, Maclennan, Owen and Prentice – served in the Commons for ten years or more under their new party’s colours; and two of those careers were ended by the dissolution of that party, or what remained of it. David Owen hasn’t done badly out of politics overall – Christopher Mayhew and Bill Rodgers haven’t done too badly, come to that – but overall it’s really not a record of success.

The question for today’s potential defectors – John Mann? Neil Coyle? Angela Smith? – really is, do you feel lucky? Do you think you’d defy the odds? Do you think you’re the next David Owen or Bob Maclennan? Or is it more likely that you’d be the next Desmond Donnelly or Edward Lyons – or Michael O’Halloran? And yer all a buncha bastaaards…

But then – coming back to the ‘career’ question – political success isn’t the only form of success in politics. No fewer than 11 of the 40 people I’ve listed ended up in the House of Lords – Prentice for the Tories, Owen as an “independent social democrat”, Crawshaw, Horam, Maclennan, McNally, Mayhew, Rodgers, Roper, Taverne and Wrigglesworth for the Lib Dems – which must be four or five more than the same group would have achieved if they’d all stayed in the Labour Party. Thoughts about small ponds and big fish (sorry Ian) go here. And Lord Umunna does have a certain ring to it…

Don’t tell me that it doesn’t hurt

Here’s what I know about Seumas Milne. He’s probably an old tankie; he’s certainly gotsome of the reflexive anti-imperialist instincts which used to characterise tankies. Show him a foreign policy crisis and he’ll ask

  1. Is it the result of past Western intervention?
  2. Is it being promoted to justify current or future Western intervention?
  3. Is it being promoted to distract attention from other, more pressing examples of past or current Western intervention?

The anti-imperialist framing always comes first; if there is any element of the current crisis which fits that framing, that’s the element to focus on. If not… well, should we really be devoting our time and attention to crises our government has nothing to do with?

Back in the 1980s – when tankies were tankies – I did a lot of reading about Eastern Europe & was genuinely interested in the different trajectories towards liberalisation and “modernisation” being experimented in the different states: Hungary was trying out free markets and their dissidents seemed quite advanced in their thinking, but could we really trust either them or the government? the Polish unions were strong, of course, but was the democratic socialist current getting lost? might Yugoslav ‘self-management’ represent a genuine third way? Naturally I had very little time for those who maintained that imperialist encroachments on the USSR’s sphere of influence were the main issue here, what with the Soviet Union being a bulwark against Western imperialism.

But you didn’t have to have any sympathy with the Soviet Union to view the world in terms of Western imperialism. Milan Rai’s Chomsky’s Politics quotes Noam Chomsky putting the case in fairly blunt terms:

I’ve been in 10,000 teach-ins in my life, I don’t know how many. Every one of them is about something happening somewhere else. I go to a teach-in on Central America, a teach-in on the Middle East, a teach-in on Vietnam. That’s all nonsense. Everything’s happening in Washington. It’s just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world.

This way of thinking to me was heresy, and intellectual heresy at that: heresy against my faith in knowing more about stuff as a value in itself, as well as my conviction that the world wasn’t – couldn’t be – mono-causal as well as unipolar. I still held that view when Yugoslavia was torn apart by pan-Serb expansionism, ratified by the West; I still held that view when an illegal war was launched by NATO against Serbia and the bulk of the British Left rallied, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to the side of Serbia. (I’ve no idea what Seumas Milne said about Kosovo, but I somehow doubt I’d agree with it.)

But Kosovo was a turning-point, as it was for a lot of people: Attila Hoare has said that he opposed the intervention at the time – supporting Workers’ Aid for Kosova instead – but came to the realisation that he’d been wrong. It was the other way for me: knowing the Serbian & Kosovar background, I detested the Serbian government, was repulsed by what they were trying to do and began by supporting the intervention – in principle. As the details of the intervention came out – how it was being conducted, its basis in law, the Rambouillet treaty, etc – it gradually dawned on me that I supported an intervention against the Serbian government, but not this one: this one was being carried out by the wrong people, using the wrong weaponry, against the wrong targets, with the wrong (lack of) legal basis and the wrong war aims. And, since the right intervention wasn’t available – the Workers’ Aid initiative was probably the closest thing – it turned out that I was opposed to the intervention, like everyone else. It was a learning experience.

The point of all this is that the mindset that sees the world through an anti-imperialist lens – and applies something like the checklist I set out earlier – has certain definite merits along with its flaws. The main one is that it’s not (very often) actually wrong: there are very few countries in which Britain (or the US) is interested, where Britain (or the US) hasn’t in the past stirred the pot pretty hard. Going anti-imperialist isn’t just a short-cut, saving you all those tedious ‘teach-in’s about different things going on in different countries; it will, generally, give you something you can work with. Which brings us to the second point: anti-imperialism is – almost by definition – relevant to domestic politics. People like me may genuinely want to know which Syrian tribal faction is historically associated with which strand of Islam, but people like me are academics. If you can point to a treaty, an arms deal, an investment vehicle – something that explains our government’s actions, and by the same token something that our government has leverage over – then you’re doing something politically relevant. It can also be argued, lastly, that anti-imperialist politics is excluded from the mainstream, so this angle is worth pursuing just to strengthen those voices. (However, this on its own is the weakest and most contentious of the three points – if you think it’s hard to get an anti-imperialist angle into the papers, just try getting a column out of “government policy overlooks complex but interesting history of region (again), says jaded academic”.)

Coming back to Seumas Milne: what all this tells us is that, to the extent that he’s retained the anti-imperialist instincts of his tankie youth, this

(a) doesn’t tell us anything about his current politics – other that he’s on the Left(!) – and

(b) isn’t actually wrong, particularly for someone whose day-job is being a political operative

Which brings us, finally, to the extraordinary hatchet-job recently printed in Private Eye (issue 1489). I’m going to extract sections from this and sort them into chronological order, for reasons which will become apparent.

The Communist Party opposed the Common Market not only because it was a bosses’ club but also because it would “consolidate the military power of the so-called Western Alliance against the Socialist countries”, as the party said in 1962 when then PM Harold Macmillan raised the prospect of British membership. European unity had to be opposed because it challenged the Soviet Union.

Seumas Milne was born in 1958. He was never a member of the Communist Party.

“We would withdraw from Nato and the EEC,” schoolboy Seumas wrote in his manifesto as the Maoist candidate in a mock-general election at Winchester College in 1974

Milne would have been 15 or 16 at this point.

The old Communist Party was anti-European. In the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EEC, it allied with Enoch Powell and the National Front to fight for a “no” vote.

What ‘Ratbiter’ omits to mention here is that the Labour Party also campaigned for a No vote (despite the Labour government advocating a Yes vote – it was messy, albeit highly democratic). Of course, none of this constituted being ‘allied with’ those elements of the Right that also advocated No.

In 1979 Milne became business manager of Straight Left, a secretive faction in the Communist and Labour parties.

Straight Left was the (unofficial) publication of a tankie faction within the Communist Party of Great Britain, some of whose members joined the Communist Party of Britain when it split; the faction also had sympathisers in the Labour Party. Milne was never a member of either of the Communist Parties. Something else our author omits to mention here is that Milne left Straight Left after two years to join the Economist, where he worked from 1981 until he joined the Guardian in 1984.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Milne transferred his loyalties from Soviet communism to the Russian gangster capitalism that succeeded it. In a 2014 Guardian piece he assured readers the Ukraine war was not Putin’s fault but that of the EU, whose “effort to woo Ukraine is closely connected with western military strategy”.

Quite a lot to unpack here. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Milne was motivated to take the job at Straight Left, back in 1981, by ideological sympathies – that he (like a surprising number of others on the Left in the 1980s) genuinely believed that the USSR was a socialist bloc and a force for peace. We’ve no evidence that he still held that belief at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall (in 1989). Also, it’s both lazy and defamatory to convert an ideological belief into a (potentially treasonous) “loyalty” (“go back to Russia!”). Lastly, seeing the world – up to and including the war between Russia and Ukraine – through an anti-imperialist lens is simply what an anti-imperialist will tend to do; it’s not evidence of positive sympathies with whoever is targeted by the West, let alone of “loyalty” to Putin’s Russia. (If ever there was an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence…!)

Rival Marxist factions understand Milne’s importance. The Alliance for Workers Liberty, a Trotskyist group, commented in 2017: “The Article 50 fiasco, and Labour leaders’ waffle about a ‘People’s Brexit’, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left.”

The AWL is a tiny group with a long and chequered history, characterised mainly by ruthless factionalism and sub-Spiked contrarianism. There are some good people in there, but it’s the last group you’d go to for a reliable opinion on other parts of the Left.

To those who understand the power struggles on the left, Milne’s dominance was assured when Simon Fletcher, Corbyn’s campaigns chief, resigned in 2017 after clashing with Milne over Europe. Fletcher was a former aide to Ken Livingstone, and within days of his departure Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin published a thunderous piece rebuking Milne by declaring: “There is no socialist or even people’s Brexit.”

Simon Fletcher has been named in connection with another (even smaller) Trotskyist group, Socialist Action, which Livingstone has worked with. The main contributor to Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin is Tom O’Leary, who wrote the piece mentioned; it doesn’t mention Milne. Joining the dots is fine, but this is more drawing than dots.

Coming right up to date (possibly):

In conversations with journalists, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer says Seumas is the greatest single obstacle to his attempts to shift Corbyn to a pro-European stance. The shadow Brexit secretary adds, with a despairing roll of his eyes, that Milne wants Britain to leave and form a global alliance of anti-American countries.

But Starmer doesn’t seem to have said any of this on the record, so who knows?

And on the basis of all this, ‘Ratbiter’ signs off by dubbing Milne

an unrepentant communist

Or rather, an unrepentant Putinite, presumably – keep up!

I hold no brief for Milne; I’m quite sure he’s an anti-imperialist of a fairly crude variety & strongly suspect he was a Stalinist in his younger days, neither of which endear him to me at all. (I would also agree that he’s not the ideal companion for Corbyn when Brexit’s on the table, and hope that Keir Starmer has also made this point.) But fairly crude anti-imperialism isn’t that big a handicap for someone in Milne’s current role, and – as far as his current beliefs are concerned – anything beyond that is speculation and smear.

“I’ve met Communists,” a Communist said to me once, “and – you know what? – none of them had two heads.” As statements of the bleedin’ obvious go, this is one that continues to be relevant. The fact that someone holds unusual or ‘extreme’ views doesn’t make them an alien being – a ruthless political operator, a treasonous subversive. The Left – they may not have much time for art galleries and medieval towns, but in most other ways they really are just like you and me.

Calm down

I don’t entirely disagree with Simon when he warns

Corbyn is currently creating the conditions in which a new [centrist, pro-Remain] party could enter, and survive for long enough to cost Labour the next election.

As he says,

When Brexit happens there will be a lot of bitterly disappointed people around questioning where to go from here. … Unfortunately Corbyn has done virtually nothing for members and voters that closely identify with Remain. Hopes have been kept alive by Keir Starmer and occasionally John McDonnell, but neither attended Corbyn’s recent talks with the Prime Minister. The overriding impression given by the leadership and its supporters is that they do not want to antagonise Labour Leavers, and Remainers have nowhere else to go

But I think that – as so often – there’s a huge risk of confusing the trends that are making the news in a small, contained, well-informed and hyper-reflective group with those that are making the running in the country. And this is the case even where that small group consists largely of people whose intelligence, wisdom and public spiritedness is unimpeachable, such as the Parliamentary Labour Party (quiet at the back there)

Simon again:

As the vote of no confidence by 80% of Labour MPs after the referendum result showed, Corbyn is at his most vulnerable over Brexit. The 2017 election result may have wiped memories of this painful period, but to say that it shows the vote of no confidence didn’t matter goes too far. Unfortunately Labour still lost in 2017, as their powerlessness over Brexit shows. How do we know that the perception that Labour MPs were deeply unhappy with their leader did not cost Labour in 2017 the crucial votes that prevented them forming a government?

The trouble with this argument is that it conflates one, relatively trivial kind of vulnerability (being unpopular with Labour MPs) with another more important kind (losing the public). Labour’s polling averages before and after the Brexit vote were as follows:

April 2016: 32.5%
May: 32%
June: 31.5%
July: 30.5%

It’s a slow decline, which continued for the rest of the year – and indeed until the following April. It’s a continuous trend with very little variation – it doesn’t seem to show any obvious reaction to any political event: not the vote of no confidence, not Argh!, not Owen Smith, not even the Brexit vote itself. It’s very much what you’d expect to see if the same influences were continuing to be applied to Labour’s support in much the same way – press hostility, BBC hostility and hostility from the party’s own MPs.

As for Labour’s – regrettable – failure to win the 2017 election, look at these figures:

1997: 13.5 million votes
2001: 10.7
2005: 9.6
2010: 8.6
2015: 9.3
2017: 12.9

Raw figures are affected by population growth over time and differential turnout between elections, so they can be misleading – although it certainly looks as if Corbyn got three and a half million more people to vote for him than Ed Miliband had managed a couple of years earlier. So here are the same figures as %s of votes cast:

1997: 43.1%
2001: 40.5%
2005: 35.4%
2010: 29%
2015: 30.3%
2017: 40.3%

And, for completeness, as %s of the electorate:

1997: 30.6%
2001: 23.9%
2005: 21.6%
2010: 18.8%
2015: 20%
2017: 27.8%

As I mentioned above, Labour support ebbed away throughout 2016; by April 2017 the party was averaging 26% in opinion polls. The election campaign took the party from those mid-20s lows to 40% of the votes cast, in the space of a month and a half: Corbyn’s first General Election, sprung on him (and us) three years ahead of time, saw Labour’s vote share at its highest level since 2001, and its share of the electorate at the highest level since 1997. To look at that campaign[1] and ask why it went so badly isn’t just ungracious, it’s downright perverse. Corbyn’s leadership, and the movement it mobilised, achieved a share of the vote – and a level of turnout – that was far beyond the party under Miliband, or Brown, or even Blair (after 1997, once the country had had a proper look at him). May was only saved – indeed, the Tories since 2010 have only been saved – by the collapse both of the discredited centre and of a far Right left beached by the achievement of its flagship policy. Those are certainly successes for the Tories – I’m reminded of how Italy’s Christian Democrats drew a galaxy of minor parties into their orbit, drained them of voters and ideas, and left them shadows of themselves. But in the nature of things, those successes are unrepeatable: the former Lib Dems and the ex-Kippers are both in the Tory vote bank now. The next round will be a more even contest. (Unless some ill-advised centrists choose this moment to sabotage the Labour Party, of course. Mutter mumble useful idiots of the Right mutter…)

If the new party pledges to fight for staying in both the Customs Union and Single Market after we leave the EU, that will tempt Remain voters, because Labour only speak of a close relationship with the Single Market. There is a world of difference between being close and being in: ask any trading firm why. Staying in the Single Market requires Freedom of Movement, and this would allow the new party to attack Labour on immigration, where its recent actions have also made them vulnerable from the perspective of liberal Labour voters.

I agree that there’s a chink in Labour’s armour labelled “Single Market membership”. Exploiting that has two problems, though. One is that the various right-wing MPs and has-beens who are most likely to break away from Labour are more likely to play to the anti-immigration gallery than not. (The story in the Observer at the weekend cited ‘immigration’ as one of the ‘key issues’ on which they differ with Corbyn, but didn’t specify how.) Secondly, there are good political reason for Labour’s logic-chopping on the Single Market, painful as it is to follow sometimes. Rightly or wrongly, Single Market membership is widely seen as Brexit In Name Only, or even as a step towards not leaving the EU at all. Personally, I’d be delighted if that was how things worked out – but it will needs to be sold as the only possible way forward, advocated by a party unencumbered by Remain baggage. The ground still needs to be prepared: something else that polls tell us is that “repudiate the referendum result” is not a strong seller, and “hold a second referendum (so that we can get the right result this time)” doesn’t do much better.

What that means is that, if a centre party attacked Labour on this flank, it’d be pitching for the votes of two groups: Remain-sympathising Labour voters who are sufficiently well-informed to know what Single Market membership does and doesn’t mean; and Labour voters whose commitment to Remain is strong enough for them to be open to the idea of reversing the referendum altogether. Filter that through the reality of a majoritarian constituency-based electoral system, and you’re left with two subsets of those (already small) groups: those who have a candidate with a believable chance of getting elected (i.e. a centre-party-defecting MP whose personal popularity is credibly sufficient to get them re-elected against Labour opposition); and those who know that their vote will be wasted, while their withdrawal of support from Labour will tend to assist the re-election of May’s Tories – the party of Brexit itself – and who are willing to do it anyway. So that’s the “David Owen vote” and the “self-destructive fit of pique vote”. Good luck, as they say, with that. (Number of Labour MPs who joined the SDP in 1981: 28. Number re-elected in 1983: 4. Tory majority in 1983: 144 (up from 43).)

All of this will be academic if – as has been rumoured – Theresa May chucks in the towel and calls a June election, requesting an extension to Article 50 to allow the new government to get its feet under the table. This doesn’t seem terribly likely, admittedly, but that’s the rumour. Besides, I’ve thought for a long time that the government’s wildly irresponsible approach to Brexit could be explained on the assumption that May doesn’t intend to be in charge when it actually happens, any more than Cameron did; jumping out of the cab immediately before we go over the cliff would be very much in character.

But whatever happens and whenever the next election comes, the likelihood of a new centre party playing a major part in proceedings seems overstated – as is the vulnerability of the Labour Party to hardcore Remain attacks. I think the main thing we on the Left need to do at the moment is hold our nerve. Starmerism of the intellect, Corbynism of the will!

*A word which – as Simon himself has commented before now – is shorthand for ‘period of partial immunity from anti-Labour propaganda’.

Wouldn’t start from here

A quick question about Brexit (what else?).

Keir Starmer, 27/3/2017:

The biggest danger currently facing British businesses, jobs and living standards is the chance of the Prime Minister exiting the EU without a deal. This is the worst of all possible outcomes … Failure to meet the tests I have set out today will of course affect how Labour votes in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister should be under no illusion that Labour will not support a deal that fails to reflect core British values and the six tests I have set out today.

The six tests:

1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?

2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” (D. Davis) as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?

3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?

4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?

5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?

6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

Jeremy Corbyn, 6/12/2018:

This dreadful deal must be defeated … We are working with MPs and parties across the House of Commons not only to ensure it is rejected, but also to prevent any possibility of a no-deal outcome [emphasis added]. But its defeat cannot be taken for granted. In an effort to drag Tory MPs back onside, May is claiming that defeat for her deal means no deal or no Brexit, because there is no viable alternative. That is false. Labour’s alternative plan would unlock the negotiations for our future relationship with the EU …

A new, comprehensive customs union with the EU, with a British say in future trade deals, would strengthen our manufacturing sector and give us a solid base for industrial renewal … [and] remove the threat of different parts of the UK being subject to separate regulations. Second, a new and strong relationship with the single market that gives us frictionless trade, and the freedom to rebuild our economy and expand our public services … makes far more sense than the prime minister’s dismal deal. Lastly, we want to see guarantees that existing EU rights at work, environmental standards and consumer protections will become a benchmark to build on – not fall behind and undercut other countries at our people’s expense.

Starmer, 19/12/2018:

Even if the Government did choose to push ahead with a no deal [sic], I’m convinced that Parliament would stand in its way. The overwhelming majority of members in this House would not countenance a no-deal Brexit. … We have a Government that is now actively pursuing a policy that’s not supported by the Cabinet, not supported by Parliament and not supported by the country. It is reckless and irresponsible, it’s an indictment of a wasted year, even now I’d urge the Government to take no deal off the table and find a sensible way forward.

Corbyn, 21/12/2018:

I think we should vote down this deal; we should then go back to the EU with a discussion about a customs union.

Corbyn, 2/1/2019:

What we will do is vote against having no deal, we’ll vote against Theresa May’s deal; at that point she should go back to Brussels and say this is not acceptable to Britain and renegotiate a customs union

That’s the background. Here’s the question: how does Corbyn’s Labour Party, on the basis of its current commitments, deliver Brexit?

To answer that question, we need to review what those commitments are. The Labour leadership has made it clear that they believe in honouring the referendum result: that it was correct to trigger Article 50 in response to the vote, and that the government shouldn’t unilaterally call a halt to the process. To be more precise, they don’t believe that pressuring the government to revoke the Article 50 notification would be an appropriate or correct political strategy. This isn’t actually controversial: the democratic legitimacy of the 2016 referendum is accepted pretty much across the board – even the People’s Vote campaign is calling for a second vote (as the name implies), not for the first one to be overturned from above. So it’s odd that Labour’s insistence on not revoking Article 50 unilaterally, a position that hardly anybody is challenging, has been met with such dismay from the Remain camp, including those calling for a second vote – one of whose merits is precisely that it could supply the democratic legitimacy that a unilateral revocation of Article 50 would lack.

Nevertheless, dismay – or worse – has been the dominant tone. On the basis of this and little else, it’s been repeatedly alleged (argument 1) that there is no difference between Labour’s position on Brexit and the Tories’. When it became clear that Labour would vote against May’s deal on the Withdrawal Agreement, some assumed that this meant that Labour was in favour of leaving without a deal and speculated (argument 2) about the leadership’s covert attraction to ‘disaster socialism‘. When Labour’s leadership expressed equally firm opposition to May’s deal and leaving the EU without a deal, most centrist Remainers switched to criticising Labour on completely different grounds (argument 3): instead of sharing Tory policies and wanting to end the free movement of goods and people, or cynically wanting to crash the economy for socialism, Labour’s leadership were now supposed to be naive fools who didn’t really know what they wanted or what was achievable. Hence the curious insistence we’ve heard from many that May’s deal is the absolute last word, the only deal possible, the very best deal any British government could conceivably achieve – a judgment which sits oddly with the fact that Labour’s idea of a ‘good’ deal is radically different from Theresa May’s, and considerably less difficult for the existing structures of the EU to accommodate. Pressed on this point, centrists tend either to double down on the ‘naivety’ argument or switch to argument 1, maintaining – despite a dearth of supporting evidence – that ending freedom of movement is just as fundamental to Labour’s position on Brexit as it is to May’s. Subsequently, the centrist position has been complicated still further by those critics who have discovered (argument 4) that Labour’s leadership is actually demanding freedoms – on state aid, on ‘social dumping’ – which the UK has or could have as a member of the EU, meaning that Labour is unrealistically demanding the impossible while also absent-mindedly demanding things that are already available.

All this – like the dismayed reaction to Labour stating outright that they intend to honour the referendum result – is odd. Labour have been successively labelled as UKIP-lite Brexit enthusiasts, as Leninist coup plotters, as unworldly idealists demanding far too much and – now – as misinformed ideologues demanding far too little. These portrayals can’t all be accurate, and it doesn’t seem very likely that any of them are. Indeed, instead of reading these critiques as telling us something about Labour, we can ask what this scattershot approach tells us about the people criticising Labour. The people who claimed that Labour were intent on a clean break with the Single Market and customs union, or that Corbyn and McDonnell (usually in cahoots with Seumas Milne) were plotting to reap the whirlwind of a no-deal Brexit: has any of them expressed relief on discovering that Labour’s policy actually rules out both of these outcomes? If that’s happened, I haven’t seen it. Rather, the impression is that any Brexit-labelled stick will do: all right, so maybe Labour aren’t enabling Brexit out of commitment to cutting immigration, or as a cynical Leninist ploy; they’re enabling Brexit because they’ve got a wildly over-optimistic view of what’s possible outside the EU – or a wildly over-pessimistic view of what’s possible inside it – or possibly both – and anyway, whatever it is it’s just as bad. This in turn doesn’t do a lot to dispel the unworthy suspicion that centrist Remainers are less concerned with Brexit than with removing Corbyn and McDonnell.

Having said all of which, if Labour were enabling Brexit – for whatever reason – that would clearly be problematic, even if it would be an order of magnitude less important than the Conservative Party’s contribution to the process. (At the time of writing there are 317 Conservative and 10 DUP MPs, in a House where an effective majority is 322 (650 MPs including the Speaker and 7 absent Sinn Fein MPs). So May’s government could be stopped in its tracks if six Conservative MPs voted with a united Opposition. If half the effort Remainers have devoted to bigging up “Tory rebels” was devoted to pressurising those people to actually rebel…!)

So: is Labour enabling Brexit? This brings us back to the question I posed earlier: how does Corbyn’s Labour Party, on the basis of its current commitments, deliver Brexit? As we’ve seen, Labour is committed – on grounds of democratic principle – to letting the Brexit process run its course, rather than derailing it by unilateral executive action. Beyond that, Labour is committed

  • to apply Starmer’s six tests to any deal
  • to oppose any deal which fails those tests, and
  • to oppose leaving the EU without a deal

Corbyn’s (at first blush slightly alarming) talk of Theresa May going back to Brussels to “renegotiate a customs union” should be seen in this light: the only customs union which would be acceptable to Labour, in terms of the six tests, would be one which maintained EU labour law, made no distinction between Britain and Northern Ireland, and delivered (in a phrase which David Davis surely regrets coining) the “exact same benefits” that Britain currently enjoys within the EU. It is hard to imagine – on this point I agree with the centrist critics – that the EU27 would ever countenance such a relationship with a state that had left the EU; a ‘six tests’ Brexit is, surely, vanishingly unlikely. However, any other deal would be opposed by Labour, on the basis of its existing commitments. Leaving without a deal would also be opposed by the party, again on the basis of its existing commitments.

In short, Labour policy has developed to the point where Labour can simultaneously maintain that we should see Brexit through and set criteria which rule out any possible Brexit – all of this while making demands, in the name of Brexit, which can be met within the EU. Labour’s current commitments can be summed up as follows:

  1. Honour the referendum
  2. No to a no-deal exit
  3. No to any deal that fails the six tests
  4. The UK should push harder on state aid and on low-wage immigration than it currently does

This, frankly, does not add up to leaving the EU at all. The assumption that Labour are enabling Brexit only makes sense if we assume that they are going to abandon one or both of policies 2 and 3, while replacing #4 with some red-meat Lexitry. To misquote Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Why? Why would they do that now?

This post is partly about Labour’s Brexit policy and partly about how (if I’m right) it’s been misunderstood – which also means looking at why it’s been misunderstood. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Labour’s position has evolved in the way that its critics’ attacks on it would suggest – it’s not very plausible, given that the ‘six tests’ were set out in March 2017, but let’s go with it. Let’s suppose, in other words, that Labour’s position – or at least its public messaging – was originally “we want to leave so that we can make Britain great again”; that it then changed to “we want to leave, even though it will be bad for Britain, so that we can build socialism in the ruins”; and that it is now “we want to leave so that we can gain something that we already have, and we insist on leaving on terms equivalent to staying a member, so that leaving isn’t bad for Britain”. I can understand Remainers fulminating at the first two of these – I’d only debate the extent to which they were ever really a description of Labour policy. What I don’t understand is the way that people – in many cases, the same people – are fulminating at the third, which is Labour policy. Yes, of course it’s possible that Corbyn, Starmer, old uncle Barry Gardiner and all are idiots who don’t know what they’re doing – but if we assume that that isn’t the case, isn’t there another explanation? Doesn’t this look exactly like the kind of negotiating position you’d have if you were preparing to reverse course?

Looking at it from the other end of the process, it’s generally accepted now that the result of the 2016 referendum gave the then government a mandate to set the Article 50 process in motion, and that the referendum, qua referendum, can’t simply be ignored or set aside. What I think isn’t sufficiently appreciated is what follows from that, if you’re a potential party of government (and not a single-issue campaign – or a party of permanent opposition). Path-dependency plays a huge role. If Brexit is happening, that must mean that when we have a Labour government, Brexit is happening under Labour. If Brexit is happening under Labour, that must mean that Brexit fits in with the rest of Labour’s policies – that it’s in some sense a Labour Brexit. If the party’s committed to a Labour Brexit, that must mean that we know what one of those is – what kind of Brexit would be good for Labour and good for Britain. And if the answer’s ‘none’, there is no way the party can possibly admit it – not without going back on its endorsement of the referendum as a democratic process and all the commitments it’s made since the referendum. Heading towards March 29th denouncing the existing deal and demanding the impossible is probably as close to endorsing Remain as Labour – under any imaginable leader – can get, given the starting-point in 2016. (Which is to say, given that the Labour Party didn’t denounce the referendum and lead a campaign of abstention. I don’t recall anyone, in any party, taking that position, although I’d be fascinated to hear if anybody knows better.)

Why has there been so little acknowledgment of the last couple of points – and so much insistence that Corbyn is entirely free to make Labour policy, and is just doing a very bad job of it? It’s a question of empathy, I think, or the lack of it. I blame the atmosphere of permanent crisis that’s prevailed on the centre-left since September 2015 – a sense that we could get on with politics as usual, if only those people could be got out of the way. It’s been described as Corbyn Derangement Syndrome, and a surprising range of people have been affected by it. Empathetic understanding, of course, is the first casualty: why would you waste time asking yourself how the world looks from Corbyn’s desk, when all you can think about is how much you want him out of it? (Probably never at his desk, anyway. Probably out meeting Palestinians. Or down at his allotment)

Two final points. The idea that Labour in office would abandon policies which they have been developing since before the 2017 election, and which they are currently reiterating at every opportunity, seems to me like a strong claim requiring strong evidence. I don’t know why others find it so much more plausible; indeed, one reason for writing this post was to try and persuade at least some people to rethink that position. I wonder if one underlying assumption is that Labour’s ideologues are currently making policy in a vacuum, and will fold like a cheap suit as soon as they experience the reality of negotiating with the EU27. To anyone holding this assumption, I offer Keir Starmer’s comments from the 19th December debate quoted earlier:

I have had more conversations with people in Brussels than probably most people in this House about the question – the very important question – of what the position would be if the red lines that the Prime Minister laid down were different. The EU’s position in private is confidential. Its position in public has been repeated over and again. It has said that if the red lines had been different, a different negotiation could have happened.

“The EU’s position in private is confidential.” If that’s a bluff it’s a good one.

Lastly, the importance of what I’ve labelled policy position 1 – honouring the referendum – cannot, I think, be overstated. If we are to be saved from the pointless, gratuitous disaster of leaving the EU, at some point a lot of people are going to be disappointed – and democracies don’t flourish with millions of disappointed citizens. Simply throwing the switch on Article 50 – which we now know the British government can do at any time – would be the worst option, sending the clearest possible message that the political establishment knows best and doesn’t trust the people. A second referendum would in theory avoid this, but in practice I worry that intelligent and influential people would be working hard to create precisely this impression or something close to it, for instance by amplifying an association that’s already apparent between Remain and a comfortable middle class. Labour’s policy is to mould Brexit in the light of Labour’s goals for the country, and then, in effect, push it till it breaks: by the time a decision is made – by the government or the people – to Remain, it should be obvious to everyone that Labour has taken the referendum result seriously and tried to make it work. This approach has a good chance – perhaps the best chance of any – of squaring the Remain circle, enabling Britain to stay in the EU while minimising the depth and breadth of Brexiter disappointment.

I may, of course, be wrong. Starmer may be bluffing; Barry Gardiner may not know what he’s talking about; Corbyn’s long-term scepticism about European integration may have hardened into an outright Lexit position, which (for reasons best known to himself) he is currently only expressing in terms compatible with EU membership. Let’s just hope that we get to find out.

PS You’ll either know why this is here or you won’t. If you don’t, play it and find out.

I’ll Show You The Life Of The Mind

This account of an awful Oxford interview got a lot of attention recently. The process it describes is not so much an interview in any recognisable sense as a kind of upper-class hazing ritual, beginning with the bizarre seating arrangements

There are three people in the room; a woman is lying on a chaise longue by the door and, standing in the corner a man with a black moustache and curly hair, who I discover is the admissions tutor … There is an empty chair in the room, which when I sit makes me higher than everyone else, and behind this chair, slouched against a bookshelf, sits another man.

and continuing through the ‘shocking’, ‘outlandish’ questions thrown out to challenge the unsuspecting candidate

‘Why do you think people listen to the radio?’

This at least is a question I know the answer to …

“Erm, because they’re lonely.”

She smirks. Naive again, but what else should I say?

“So do you think that the radio should be under the auspices of the Social Services then?”

That kind of “épater les bienpensants” right-wingery seems an even clearer class marker than the chaise longue.

It rang a bell with Adam, even if his experience wasn’t quite so grotesquely awful:

 

For myself, I was warned by my English teachers that Oxbridge interviews were both tough and weird, with a kind of toughness and weirdness you might expect from gatekeepers of hundreds of years of privilege. One Cambridge interviewer supposedly used to sit reading the paper with his feet up on his desk, then glance across at the candidate and say, “Impress me”. My English teachers liked a good story – one of them specialised in stories beginning “When I was in the diplomatic corps” or “When I was in the SAS” – but even they never suggested that a college admissions interview might be conducted partly from behind the interviewee and partly from a chaise longue. Truth is stranger than fiction.

And yet. Perhaps the people I met at Cambridge had all been unusually lucky, but all that my wife recalls is a fairly ordinary office, with chairs at the same height, and a reasonably relaxed conversation (as much as it could be) about Macbeth’s moral universe, with a rather posh but friendly old man. (She’d applied to Cambridge as a lower sixth-form student at a college in Preston.) My best friend at the time had a slightly harder time of it; his specialist topic was Keats, and he’d armed himself with several quotations from the “Ode to Autumn” – which he confidently sourced to the “Ode to Melancholy”. He didn’t help his case, when the interviewer politely suggested that they turn to the “Ode to Autumn”, by insisting that it was the “Ode to Melancholy” he wanted to talk about. Still, he got in too. Me, I didn’t have an interview – I never found out whether it was in recognition of my performance in the college entrance exam or just an oversight.

Several years later – clearly – our children both applied to either Oxford or Cambridge, and they both experienced pretty much the kind of interview that Oxbridge colleges tell the world that they administer: friendly but persistent questioning, drawing the student out to the limit of their existing knowledge, then pushing them a bit further and seeing how they coped. The main difference from our time was that they each had two or three separate interviews, mostly with more than one person. One thought the interviews mostly went all right, one thought two of them were fine but the last was a car-crash; one got a place, one didn’t. (Not necessarily in that order.) But neither of them was scorned, deliberately humiliated, exposed to ridicule or ambushed in any way.

But I wouldn’t want to end the story there. Take that college entrance exam: I got in on, among other things,

  • an essay on doubled perspectives in Wuthering Heights (which I had just read)
  • an essay on Shakespeare based on Wyndham Lewis’s The Lion and the Fox (which I had just read)
  • an essay on late-Romantic poetry, focused entirely on Edward Lear

My method, in other words, was

  1. Read a lot (at the last minute)
  2. Come up with some mad idea that people may not have thought of
  3. Follow through said idea, taking it completely seriously

The first message I got from Cambridge was that this was in fact the way to do it – and that it was quite in order for me to value the ability to work this way, because Cambridge valued it too. This was also one of the last messages I got from Cambridge. My single best paper in Part II, at the end of third year, was the one where I compared a passage in Melville’s The Confidence Man (a character struggles to convey the precise meaning of the word ‘certain’) with a passage in one of D. H. Lawrence’s essays on American literature (Lawrence struggles with the word ‘nature’); in the same paper I made use of quotations from two separate essays which I’d only read on the morning of the exam (Eliot on Henry James and Henry James on Thoreau). I had fun.

So there was a certain[sic] amount of “Owl Post” about being admitted to Cambridge, for me, and an element of “sorted into Ravenclaw” on top of that; there was a feeling that, now that I was in, I no longer needed to conceal or apologise for the stuff I was interested in or the way my mind worked. What I did have to do was demonstrate that I could get results – and then demonstrate it all over again. Over the three years we were expected to work at a pretty high level, with little or no supervision, and to put in fairly Herculean amounts of reading. Typically you’d be given two weeks to write an essay on an author and then left to your own devices; the first step was to read everything they’d written, or have a good stab at it. A friend who was ‘doing’ Hardy was advised by his supervisor to swerve Jude and Tess and begin with a book neither of us had so much as heard of, A Laodicean. (He said he’d discovered that it was actually the first book in a trilogy – A Laodicean, A Quiet Icean and A Completely Silent Icean.) Given that that was how ‘Cambridge’ worked, the college entrance exam that we took – and, perhaps, the interview too – could be justified as a way of selecting for people who could work, and thrive, under those conditions.

But there was more to ‘Cambridge’ than that. On one hand, what you’d been selected for, or sorted into, wasn’t just an environment where you could get intellectual work done without distractions (although it certainly was that). It was a wealthy and luxurious environment, making it a privileged setting in itself; and it was also, unavoidably, a setting for the maintenance and reproduction of privilege in other forms. On the other hand, in a setting where studiousness and creativity are the price of admission, studiousness and creativity are weirdly undervalued: to stand out you needed to be really good, or else you needed something else to trade on. Flash helped; ‘front’ and a certain amount of extroversion helped; boundless self-confidence helped. (See above, ‘reproduction of privilege in other forms’.)

In the absence of those things you’d find yourself, sooner or later, relegated to the B team – and, labelling processes being what they are, once you were in that position it was hard to think your way out of it, or even to maintain the intellectual self-confidence that had got you that far. One of the English Fellows at my college was notorious among my friends for her unapologetic division of sheep from goats; several of our essays were damned with the faint praise of ‘solid’ (which, as the term wore on, she alternated with ‘stolid’). She was much more impressed by another student’s twenty-minute presentation on food in Shakespeare, which was mainly devoted to exploring the psychic resonances of food and eating through lengthy quotations from Lévi-Strauss and Melanie Klein, touching base with Shakespeare by way of what sounded like a trolley-dash through a concordance (“Come, let’s to dinner” – Henry IV Part II).

It’s odd how intimidating ‘front’ can be – particularly when the person with the front is succeeding and you’re watching them do it. Thinking of that presentation now, I think “lots of reading, check; mad idea, check; follow it through, check” – it’s not as if I didn’t know how the trick was done (see above re: Melville). At the time I felt thoroughly outclassed and resented it deeply: if I’d known that was what you wanted, I would have – well, I couldn’t have done that, obviously, but… I’d never felt overshadowed by the more ‘popular’ kids at school – I always felt that I was a roaring success at being me, and all I lacked was wider recognition of this accomplishment. At Cambridge, quite a large part of what I valued about being me was put in the scales, weighed and found… fine. Absolutely fine. Nothing wrong with it. Solid. Stolid, even. (What would a stolid essay even look like? Not that I’ve borne a grudge for the best part of 40 years or anything…)

By the end of first year Cambridge’s original, welcoming message to me

  1. It’s good to think the way you do, and care about the things you care about.
  2. There is a place where thinking the way you do is valued, and you’ve reached it.

had mutated into something less benign:

  1. It’s good to think the way you do, and care about the things you care about.
  2. There is a place where thinking the way you do is valued; not only valued, in fact, but rewarded with luxury and privilege. But it’s not for you.

By the time I graduated, I sincerely and straightforwardly believed all of this, and didn’t even think of returning to higher education for another ten years. (It wasn’t unusual to give up on the Life of the Mind after three years of Cambridge English, if the group of twelve I studied with were anything to go by; only three or four of us went on to further study, and out of those only one was actually studying English.) In the longer term I was left with two antagonistic – but complementary – convictions, both equally baleful: the conviction that somewhere out there, perhaps behind a green door in a sixteenth-century wall, is my ideal career, a career consisting almost entirely of deep academic thought; and the conviction that I personally don’t deserve anything like that and will never see it. (The last of these is almost certainly correct, of course.)

I don’t think that Oxford and Cambridge are just like any other university in terms of teaching, or that their students are no different from other students; I think that they genuinely promote high-quality academic work and that their admissions processes genuinely favour people with the ability to do it. But I also think that they do a lot more than promote high-quality academic work, and that they select for a lot more than academic ability – with the result that, if academic ability is your only strong suit, Oxbridge may make promises it doesn’t intend to keep. So I sympathise with everyone who didn’t get through admissions – everyone who was repulsed (in either sense of the word) by a selection process which was also a rejection process – but I also think that getting in was a mixed blessing for me. The selection process didn’t stop when I got in.

 

 

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (5 of 5)

Do you know how tall he was?
Because that’s all that really matters
Do you know his mother’s last name?
Don’t you think that he’s divine?
You’ve seen the film, you’ve read the book,
You’re drinking vintage Elvis Presley wine
– Elvis Costello, “Useless thing” (from the sadly underrated Goodbye Cruel World)

THE STORY SO FAR: six main ‘plot strands’ have been identified in the ‘Harry Potter’ ‘series’. But is that all there is to it? And what has it got to do with the ‘brass tacks’ approach to fantasy? All will be revealed, hopefully.

There are, as we were saying, a whole series of plot lines in the Potter books:

  1. The Cinderella Factor (the cupboard under the stairs and how Harry escaped it)
  2. The Power Of Love (Lily’s sacrifice and its longer-term effects)
  3. Handsome Devil (Lily and Snape and Lily and James and Sirius and Snape and Lily)
  4. Noblesse Oblige (how the Malfoys (nearly) got in too deep)
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (the Ministry of Magic and how Harry very nearly didn’t escape it)
  6. We Could Rule The World (young Dumbledore and his special best friend)

The nobility of victimhood, I think, is the red thread that runs through plots ##1, 2, 3 and 5, contrasting with plot #6 (the false nobility of mastery) and to some extent with #4 (the false nobility of aristocracy). To put it another way, plot #1 – the Matilda plot, which appeared to have been shelved by the time Harry got to Hogwarts – is the master plot of the whole series: Harry is the victim who triumphs. More specifically, Harry is the sacrificial victim who triumphs by embracing his own sacrifice – and triumphs thanks to the strength he draws from the sacrifice of others, who had themselves each embraced their own sacrifice (first Lily, then Dumbledore, then Snape).

Celebrations of noble sacrifice are an awkward, self-contradictory thing in life: the person who did the noble deed isn’t there, while the people celebrating haven’t done anything. I tend to think self-sacrifice is overrated, both as a motivation and as an achievement; I firmly believe that Emily Davison intended to go home after the Derby, and I wonder if her death really gained the WSPU more than she would have given it in another five, ten or fifteen years of activism. (Clarence doesn’t tell George Bailey about all the people he could have inspired by dying heroically.) Even in the world of Potter, the canonical nobility of sacrifice is qualified by its uncertain effect: Lily’s death keeps Harry alive, but the only person who benefits directly from either Snape’s death or Dumbledore’s is Voldemort. (And if the magic of Lily’s love for her child was as powerful as all that – effectively rebounding on Voldemort not once but twice – you have to wonder why Voldemort’s curse couldn’t just have rebounded off her the first time round; it would have saved an awful lot of trouble.) Moreover, in the character of Snape Rowling comes uncomfortably close to endorsing the position that sacrificing one’s own conscience, so as to commit evil deeds for the sake of the greater good [sic], can be a form of self-sacrifice – a line of argument which rather uncomfortably evokes Himmler.

Nevertheless, I think this is the core logic of the books: Dumbledore as a willing victim, compromised by his thirst for power, but redeemed by his faith in Harry; Snape as a willing victim, compromised by being a Death Eater but redeemed by his love for Lily; Lily as a pure willing victim, ennobled by her love for Harry; and Harry as the Willing Victim Who Lived, mistreated by everyone from Aunt Marge to Lord Voldemort, but ultimately buoyed up by all that love and faith. The extraordinary range and variety of people who bully Harry also makes sense in this context: what else do the Dursleys, Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, Rita Skeeter and Rufus Scrimgeour have in common?

I suggested earlier that, although a lot of fantasy looks as if it’s set in a type-1 world – “here’s my made-up world, here’s a map and here are some stories set in it” – in practice successful fantasy worlds tend to fall into types 2 and 3, the ‘numinous’ and the ‘parasitic’. Both of these, in different ways, are animated by the aim of reflecting the world we know: ‘numinous’ worlds are about the meaning of life, ‘parasitic’ worlds are about how to run a country. (Earthsea is full of maps, but plainly numinous; Discworld has its own history, sort of, but it’s fundamentally parasitic.) I also suggested that even type-4 worlds – bodged-up, inconsistent worlds, like Narnia and the Potterverse – may turn out to have an animating goal, which in turn could be numinous/religious or parasitic/political; at least, Narnia certainly does, and its world-building is as bodged-up as you like.

I wonder now if, thanks to my starting-point with Tolkien and Lewis, I defined the category of the ‘numinous’ too narrowly; perhaps you can use fantasy to ask what life is ultimately like without involving religion, or anything like it. Consider the Moomin books: an awful lot of those stories are precisely about what life is like. What life is like, they tell us, is ‘sad’ – but, crucially, sad in different ways: you can be sad like Moomintroll because your friend’s gone away, or like the Muskrat because you’ve chosen the wrong personal philosophy, or like Moominpappa because you feel that you’ve done everything, or like the Hemulen because you have done everything (that you could think of), or like the Fillyjonk because nobody appreciates the effort you make just to hold it together, or like the Groke because you’ve got a chip of ice in your heart that nothing will ever melt. And all of those different sadnesses can lift, and give way to different forms of happiness, even if only temporarily. (Sometimes the Fillyjonk dances; even the Groke dances, once.) Or you can be like Tooticky, keep yourself to yourself, take one day at a time and not fuss about sadness.

Similarly, perhaps, with Potter and victimisation (a word which here means both ‘the process of being made a victim’ and ‘being picked on and bullied’). That ticklish focus-pulling between mundane and metaphorical levels of description – that sense that what you’re reading both does and doesn’t have a deeper meaning – is seen most clearly in the depiction of Harry as a victim. Is Harry’s endless suffering at the hands of his various tormentors an ordeal to be borne with dignity – and for which he’ll receive a corresponding reward somewhere down the line – or is he just a teenage boy having a really rough time of it? (A rich, athletic and nationally famous teenage boy having a rough time, admittedly. It must have been awful for him.) Come to that, was Dumbledore’s death pointless – or Snape’s? Or does each man’s embrace of self-sacrifice endow his death with power and virtue, thanks to some wrinkle in the magical scenery? Right to the end, it’s never entirely clear. (At the very end, of course, we learn that Harry has named his first child after both Snape and Dumbledore – but that doesn’t answer the question, so much as rephrase it in the form Is that all there is?) Those two things – the glory and honour of the ‘noble victim’ motif, together with the knowledge that being a victim is horrible and the never-quite-staunched suspicion that it actually gets you nothing but pain – may account for a lot of the appeal of Potter. Just as the Moomin books are a meditation on life’s sadnesses, the Potter books are a misery memoir.

But this brings us back to the sheer strangeness of the prevalence of brass-tacks interpretations of Potter; nobody treats the world of the Moomins as if it were real, after all. Why is it that, if I go looking for discussion of Dolores Umbridge, the first (and second, and third) thing I find is an elaborate fictional back-story for this fictional character, complete with her mother’s maiden name and her age when her parents’ marriage broke up? And not, for example, a reference to Eichmann in Jerusalem or “In the Penal Colony”; or a discussion of that name (“Pain, Indignation”); or a debate about how successfully JKR walks the line between disgust at a female character’s play-acting of a sexist role and sexist disgust at a female character’s play-acting. (Not a new question, that last one. “Let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”…) I could also ask why, when I finally do find literary parallels being evoked on one of these pages, they aren’t Shakespeare or Kafka but Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death and Toy Story 3, but that’s a slightly different discussion.

The only parallel I can find for Potter fandom’s investment in the reality of ‘their’ world is Tolkien fandom. Perhaps that’s all there is by way of an explanation; perhaps literalist fandom is just the kind of thing that happens when you have a story which focuses on ordinary characters making a big difference to the world, written by an author who’s keen to fill in the background. I’m not sure; I think the differences between the two worlds, and the kind of detail that the respective fans invest in, are too great for us to conclude that Potter fans are doing the same kind of thing as TLOTR fans.

Pedantic digression on abbreviations.
I keep having to remind myself to write TLOTR instead of the more familiar abbreviation LOTR. But the trilogy is called The Lord of the Rings for a reason. It’s not about the general idea that, if there were some important Rings, there might be such a role as Lord of same; it’s about the Lord of the Rings – and how he was defeated. I wonder what the vastly greater uptake of “LOTR” as an abbreviation – 119 million hits for LOTR without TLOTR, 96 thousand for TLOTR without LOTR – signifies.

Moving along… There’s a big difference between investing in the reality of Middle Earth and investing in the reality of the Potterverse. Getting back to our typology of world-building, Middle Earth is very much type 2; the world-building is numinous with a capital Nu. The reality you’re committing to, if you immerse yourself in the Tyler Companion or pore over Tolkien’s own maps (those mountains! that lettering!), is a reality that is always already metaphorical, a world in which (what are basically) angels do centuries-long battle with (someone who’s basically) Lucifer. The entire story of The Lord of the Rings apparently began with the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, which itself began with Tolkien’s fascination with the seemingly paradoxical idea that an eternal being (whether Arwen or God) might feel genuine love for a here-today, gone-tomorrow mortal (whether Aragorn or… you and me). This in turn grew out of Tolkien’s personal experience of the paradox of death – that the death of a parent, a lover, a friend is the one thing that we can be absolutely certain will happen to that person, and yet is experienced as an unbearable, earth-shattering tragedy, the one thing we could never have prepared for. (Cue the Daniel Handler quote: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”)

Put all that together and you have a view of the world – this world as well as Middle Earth – sub specie aeternitatis. Ahab: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” Ahab, admittedly, was crazy – and I’m not too sure about Herman Melville – but I think there’s something of this philosophy in Tolkien, and perhaps in any Christian author. (This world is certainly a ‘pasteboard mask’ in the Narnia books – but ultimately so is Narnia. Further up and further in!) The facts of everyday life, in this way of thinking, are a mundane backdrop, temporarily shielding us from a story that’s told in much bigger terms – the joy of absolute love, the threat of absolute loss; and that story, even though we only have access to it in rare and heightened moments, is our story, the story of our lives. I’m not saying all that is on every page of TLOTR, but it is in there somewhere. And it follows that to say you believe in the reality of Middle Earth is also to say you believe in life and death, good and evil, God and… certain tendencies to turn away from God. Big stuff.

Potter, not so much. The glory (or is it?) of the ennobling (or is it?) experience of victimisation (it definitely is) is the sore tooth that the Potter books keep going back to prod. But this cluster of ideas doesn’t really have any resolution; it only leads to savouring the put-upon wretchedness of being a victim, on one hand, and the vindictive pleasure of being a victor on the other. We aren’t brought up short by the sublime – confronted with something that exceeds anywhere that the hero, or the story, can go, in the same way that meeting God exceeds anything we can think and meeting death (or the Lady of the Cold) exceeds anything we can do. Rather, we’re left playing through an unresolved emotional conflict, with an endgame that reverses the players’ positions but leaves the conflict itself in place. Was everything Harry endured really necessary, or were people like Aunt Marge and Pansy Parkinson just really nasty to him? (And even if his suffering was necessary, did Dumbledore have any right to put him through it?) At the end of the series, does happiness reign, with people like Umbridge being punished appropriately, or has life returned to normal, with arrogant snobs like Draco Malfoy still contriving to fast-track their kids? If Umbridge is being tormented in Azkaban, is that something we can or should feel happy about? If Draco is still, well, Draco, is that something to feel unhappy about? There’s a satisfaction in playing it through, watching our hero repeatedly getting sand kicked in his face and then, eventually, turning the tables – especially when he tricks the system, turning the tables by being an especially good victim. But satisfaction isn’t resolution; there can be no resolution, because both sides of the opposition – victimhood and victory – are themselves impure, un-worked-through, unresolved. In short, an alternative title for Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass is Harry Potter and the Compulsion of Repetition. We have to keep going back to that world, and taking it on its own terms, for much the same reason that JKR keeps going back to it – because it’s not done yet. Another detail, another supporting character, another back-story plot-twist, another retcon, and it’ll be finished, perhaps… But it never will – or not without a change of narrative gear that would make the shift from The Subtle Knife to The Amber Spyglass look trivial.

Harry Potter will never approach the higher planes of meaning – big ideas entertained in tranquillity – frequented by Aslan, and Elrond, and Granny Weatherwax and Tooticky. The crushing revelation in book 7 that even Dumbledore was never really above the game – that he was a player, just as much as Rufus Scrimgeour or Narcissa Malfoy – eliminated that possibility. There is no good and evil in Potter, only people who dedicate themselves to the cause of good, or the cause of evil, with smaller or larger degrees of self-doubt and smaller or larger degrees of self-deception. Indeed, there’s a strong suggestion that those who don’t doubt themselves are deceiving themselves, and vice versa – Umbridge vs Dumbledore, Bellatrix vs Narcissa: “the best lack all conviction”, while the worst lack insight and honesty. What this means, though, is that both sides are impure; both can (perhaps) be forgiven for the bad, or condemned for their good, they try to do. It also means that the sublimity of death and glory is, for the most part, out of bounds; there is no noble victory and no obliterating defeat, only people fighting in the name of good things and people fighting in the name of bad things. We know how this goes: they’ll win, and lose, and win, and lose. Harry Potter will get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again. And then he’ll get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (4 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: four different types of world-building have been identified – the “nuts and bolts” without any underlying message, the “numinous”, the “parasitic” (political/satirical/utopian/etc) and #4, “bits of all of the above”. On further reflection some type #4 worlds have been found to be asking numinous questions, suggesting it’s not the world-building itself that matters so much as what the world-building is about. What of Potter?

What are the Harry Potter books about? The apparent thematic unity and continuity of the seven books seems to mask a whole series of overlapping stories, introduced, developed, suspended and resumed at different stages. In order of appearance:

  1. The Cinderella Factor. A mistreated orphan turns out to have magical powers beyond the comprehension of his surrogate parents, who can never hurt him again (although they do go on annoying him for quite a while). Book 1 (mostly)
  2. The Power Of Love. He survived because of his mother’s death! She died because of love – and her death gave him the power of love! His killer couldn’t kill him – but by trying to kill him, he put the power of evil in him! But he in turn put the power of love (which he had because of his mother’s sacrifice) in his killer, which means that if he dies (properly) then his killer will be killed too! But the power of love will actually keep him alive (again), because… well, anyway. That. Love, sacrifice, death; love, sacrifice, death… love. Books 1, 2 and 7 (mostly set up by the end of book 2)
  3. Handsome Devil. She was an ordinary girl – with a talent that could turn heads! Soon there were two guys interested in her, both with aristocratic backgrounds; one was a shy intellectual whose family had fallen on hard times, the other a popular athlete. The athlete was wealthy and well-connected as well as being popular, but he was also an arrogant bully – could they really be happy together? There was only one way to find out! Later, she heard that the shy intellectual guy had gone to the bad, but she always thought he had a good heart. She wondered if he ever thought about her. Books 3-7
  4. Noblesse Oblige. Their position had been sadly misunderstood. They didn’t bear anyone any malice; they simply wanted things to be the way they used to be, and a little respect for the position they rightfully occupied. These new campaigners had seemed to have the interests of people like them at heart. How were they to know that they were signing up for hatred, violence, thuggery and all round bad manners? One really did find it all quite regrettable. Books 4-7
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (incorporating Harry Potter In The Penal Colony). Who can our hero trust? His friends – perhaps – but nobody else: not the government, not the authorities which do the government’s bidding, not the press which dances to the government’s tune, not the elites who pull the government’s strings behind the scenes, and definitely not the government. Everyone (literally everyone, even his so-called friends) is out to stop him doing what he has to do – sometimes because they’re evil, sometimes because they’re stupid, but mostly because they still trust the government. Wake up, people! Books 5-6
  6. We Could Rule The World. They were young! They ran green! They kept their t… sorry, I’ll start again. They were young! They were powerful! They were finding out new things about themselves and the world – and each other! If they realised their capabilities, what could stand in their way? Not the law, not the rules made to bind inferior people, not death itself! How could it go wrong? Book 7

##2 and 3 are the main plot lines here; #1, #5 and #6 are mostly localised to one book each, and #4 is very much a sub-plot. #1 is a fine plot for a kids’ book (specifically, this one), but it was never going to sustain a seven-book series. Neither was #2 – as (by all accounts) Rowling discovered herself towards the end of the second book, when she realised that she’d basically set the scene for the final confrontation. (It’s worth mentioning here that the initial working title for book 2 was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.) An awful lot of the plotting of the rest of the books is driven by #3, the past-tense Lily/James/Snape plot, together with its satellite Snape/Lupin, Snape/Sirius and Snape/Dumbledore sub-plots; these plots are remarkable in that almost every event in them is told in flashback, including several events that had taken place within the time of the books. The same goes for most of #6, the Young Dumbledore plot, which is further reduced in intensity by being told mostly in hints and asides – but then, its overtones of gay fascist occultism would probably have overbalanced the book if it had been built up more. (That said, the pay-off of the entire series comes with the climactic collision of plots ##2 and 6 – and it is nicely done and genuinely powerful.)

As for the other two, plot #4 – the Malfoys’ sub-plot – is interesting but under-powered and woefully under-developed. From the moment that the school house of Slytherin was introduced – fairly early in the first book – Rowling was faced with a series of questions about “Slytherins”:

  • Are they all devious, self-centred law-breakers? (Not like Harry and his friends, eh readers?)
  • Are they all personally arrogant and cruel?
  • Are they all from ‘old wizarding families’ and proud of it?
  • In fact, are they all massive snobs and (wizarding-equivalent-of-)racists?
  • More specifically, are they all enemies to Harry and Dumbledore?
  • Crucially, are they all going to abandon Hogwarts when push comes to shove?

Given the plot mechanics set up in the first book, the answer to the first question pretty much had to be Yes, but the answers to the next three didn’t need to be as uniform as they are (viz. “yeah, pretty much”) – and the answers to the last two certainly didn’t need to be a resounding Yes. (Or “Yes, with one solitary exception, who may (in the words of Dumbledore himself) have been Sorted too early”.)

Plot #4 – “aristocrats belatedly regret involvement with reactionary thugs” – enlivens the seventh book in particular, and it’s certainly believable; it has a nice Third Reich quality to it, if that’s not too odd a phrase. But glimpses of human sentiment and human weakness at Malfoy Manor are thin gruel as far as addressing the Problem of Slytherin goes. After all, the Problem of Slytherin is ultimately the Problem of Good and Evil – if you’re born with an inclination to arrogance and selfishness, are you bound to go to the bad, or can you become a good person by doing the right things? To put it another way, if you have evil within you, can you save yourself through deeds, or will your own actions inevitably drag you further down? The books tend to suggest that bad people do bad things and good people good things, and that’s that; Slytherins are pretty much damned, while Dumbledore’s Army represents the Elect (hi Ken!). But the theology of Potter doesn’t bear too much examining, if only because the books’ uneasily post-Christian framing (“God rest ye merry hippogriffs”, indeed) has given us a world in which evil is definitely real but divine grace isn’t. The books’ only firm suggestion is that you can save yourself through an act of will, at the age of eleven, by talking to a hat. (Yes, I know it’s a special hat.)

Plot #5, lastly, is just weird, particularly from an author with Rowling’s background and politics. When Half-Blood Prince came out, an American legal academic wrote what purported to be a review of the book; the article’s titled “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy”, and it traces a right-Libertarian critique of government through the series. It can be argued, using positions deriving from “public choice” theory and/or the Law and Economics school, that the main function of government in contemporary society is the perpetuation of a caste of government bureaucrats, parasitic on the real productive forces in society; that these bureaucrats’ main aim in life is to preserve their role and their importance; and that interacting with government bureaucracy in any way is likely to be a negative experience, with outcomes ranging from time-wasting up to licensed theft, imprisonment and murder. The “Half-Crazed Bureaucracy” article shows how well these criticisms map onto Rowling’s portrayal of the Ministry of Magic and its representatives; it then goes through the defences that are put up against such a negative view of government, showing that Rowling’s narrative demolishes every one of them. Is government bureaucracy just a thin layer of professionals implementing democratically-decided policy? Plainly not: Dolores Umbridge has all but unlimited power and exercises it as she pleases. Can bureaucracy be reined in by democratic political accountability? by judicial oversight? by the press and public opinion? No on all counts: there is no democracy in the wizarding world (Fudge and Scrimgeour are appointed, not elected, although it’s far from clear who did the appointing). The courts are represented by the blatantly rigged Wizengamot – and wizarding public opinion, despite all the magical fact-finding resources that its members might be expected to have at their command, is routinely whipped in whichever direction the government chooses by the hopelessly untrustworthy Daily Prophet. The Ministry of Magic is judge (Fudge), jury (Wizengamot) and executioner (Umbridge), all in one. If all else fails – as, in book 5, all evidently has – will the dedication and professionalism of individual government servants enable them to resist the corruption of office and protect the public from their less scrupulous colleagues? Hardly: with only one exception, every Ministry of Magic employee we meet is a sycophantic careerist, an amoral hack or an outright fascist, and the exception is the likeable but ineffectual Arthur Weasley.

In short, by the time Harry has met – and been disappointed by – Rufus Scrimgeour, the Ministry of Magic has been utterly discredited, and discredited quite specifically by subjecting it to the narrative equivalent of a thoroughgoing right-Libertarian critique. Which, as I say, is a bit weird, knowing what we know about Rowling. The author of the article – who didn’t – notes that Rowling (a) lived on benefits for a while before (b) becoming mind-bogglingly successful by her own efforts, and concludes that she probably believes in individual self-help and hates the government bureaucracy which mistreated her and other welfare claimants; he further suggests that a Libertarian, anti-government mood was on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of writing (viz. the mid-2000s), citing in evidence an article suggesting that Tony Blair’s government was declining in popularity. The fact that it wasn’t government in general that was unpopular in Britain, but quite specifically that government, escapes him – as does the even more inconvenient fact that Rowling was and remains one of that government’s more prominent supporters. But that just makes this plotline, and the passion which appears to have gone into it, all the more baffling.

NEXT: so what is it all about, then?

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (3 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the Potter books has led to a typology of world-building, including a frankly undisciplined digression into the mechanics of the Discworld series. Back to Potter…

Rowling’s world-building in the Potter books isn’t a weak form of nuts-and-bolts world-building, or of numinous, alt-religious world-building, or of satirical or polemical world-building. It’s type #4: a hazy amalgam of all three, covered by repeated register-switching between them – snatches of magical history or supernatural zoology here, mystical invocations of Love and Courage and Sacrifice there, broad satire of bureaucracy and the press over yonder. Hence also the continual revelation of new plot-mechanical devices throughout the seven books – and beyond. By the time you’ve finished the series, it seems a miracle that anyone ever gets anything done in the Potterverse: the combination of Apparating, the Floo network, the Imperius curse, Polyjuice Potion, Felix Felicis and Time Turners would seem to create endless opportunities for common-or-garden crime, never mind more elaborate shenanigans involving conspiracies to corrupt and subvert. On the other hand, most of those things would make life a lot easier for the police – who would also find it very useful to be able to invade other people’s minds and extract their memories for permanent, world-readable storage – so I suppose it would all balance out.

If the magic is over-cranked, everything that isn’t magic is underpowered, dimly-lit, thin. The main currency is common-or-garden gold (arbitrage much?); children are educated from the age of eleven without any exposure to science, mathematics, English literature or foreign languages; and the very language of magic itself is… Latin. But not just Latin; it’s Latin with errors.

Brief digression on Latin with errors
David Langford suggested that the innermost sanctum of the Department of Mysteries is given over to the book of ultimate power in the Potterverse: a Latin dictionary. It’s a nice idea, but in fact Latin on its own wouldn’t get you very far. It’s true that “crucio” means, precisely, “I torture”, while “confringo” and “impero” [without an i] are close to their ‘wizard’ equivalents, translating as “I shatter [something]” and “I command [someone]” respectively. Similarly, “exspecto patronum” means “I await a protector”, while “sectum semper” roughly translates as “[something that’s been] permanently cut”. I remember a character in a kids’ book explaining his sudden fluency in Italian by saying that he already spoke Spanish, and “if you relax your shoulders and think about spaghetti Spanish sort of turns into Italian”. Speaking as a part-time Italianist may I just say, No, it really doesn’t – but if you don’t look anything up and stop stressing about the details, Latin does sort of turn into spell-language. But only ‘sort of’. “Expellimus” [without the ar] has nothing to do with one person disarming another, as it means “we drive [something] out” – and I can’t do anything at all with “wingardium leviosa”. Never mind the W (or the word ‘wing’ for that matter); never mind that ‘leviosa’ seems to be formed by bolting an adjectival suffix (-osus) onto another adjective (“levis” = “light”); just look at the word-endings. Is that -ium a neuter singular or a non-standard genitive plural? Either way, what’s it doing with that -a? Similarly, “prior incantato” is Latin, and a possible sentence fragment, although it doesn’t quite mean what Rowling wants it to – “the previous person [who did something] with the enchanted thing [is doing something]”? – but “priori incantatem” just… isn’t. The lack of grammatical agreement is painful once you notice it. Rowling’s recent announcement that not every person in animal form was an Animagus – that there was another, hitherto unsuspected form of theromorph, the Maledictus (“maledictus” = “cursed man”) – was irksome enough for anyone who dislikes the smell of wet paint; her subsequent observation that “Maledictuses are always female” was the grammatical icing on the cake.

It’s bodged, it’s slapdash, it’s thrown-together, it’s (perhaps surprisingly) not where the author’s heart is.

Compare A Wizard of Earthsea: everything in that book is about the journey of the young man at its centre, a man discovering his power, overestimating his strength and finding wisdom by coming face to face with his own death. It’s numinous world-building, a world built around the humming magic of a single big story. There is a nuts-and-bolts element to it, but it’s reined in; there are maps (and what maps!) but you only really care about the islands for the part they play in Ged’s story – and for the sneaking sense that other islands are the setting for other stories, just as meaningful and compelling as the one you’re reading. The message of the book pervades its world-building; the whole book sings.

The Potter books are nothing like that. They aren’t even very much like the Narnia books, which seem to offer a closer parallel: the evolving Narnia series exhibits a similar kind of wild fertility and reckless pluralism, and a similar tendency to veer between all three of the main types of world-building. (Even the books set in Narnia itself might as well be set in different countries, so different is the use they make of their shared setting.) And yet, and yet. Put it this way: do the Narnia books sing? Are there resonant characters, themes, images, scenes that seem to sum up an entire book, justify an entire book’s existence? In reply, may I simply refer you to the golden chesspieces in the long grass, in what turn out to be the ruins of Cair Paravel; or to Jill and Edmund trudging through the oddly laid-out stone passageways in the land of the giants (‘UNDER ME’) – or Prince Rilian with the madness upon him; or to the shabby apocalyptic double-act of Shift the ape and Puzzle the donkey in a lion’s pelt; or to Edmund’s dragon skin, or the Island of Dreams, or Reepicheep in his coracle; or to the Wood Between The Worlds… or to as many examples again from the first book alone. (I’m reining myself in now, but I can’t forbear to mention the mice and the ropes. The mice! The ropes! Blimey Charley.)

Ahem. The world-building of Narnia is clunky and full of register-hopping – here a stab at in-world history and geography, there a heavily signposted swerve into contemporary social satire, and always an unsystematic sprawl of mythical beasts and characters – but there’s something about Narnia itself that outweighs all that. It’s a numinous world, almost despite itself: it’s shot through with Lewis’s intimations of Heaven as a “land beyond“. Imagine a state of being that would encapsulate the most real and true experiences one could have in this world and make them more real still; imagine a state that one could only hope to reach through trust in the loving power of something immeasurably greater than oneself. And imagine Narnia – not as that place or that power itself, but just a bit closer to them… Further up and further in!

Potter, on the other hand… well, what is Potter about?

NEXT: OK, chief, what is it about? You tell us.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (2 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a meditation on the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’, non-metaphorical readings of the Potter books has led to the suggestion that the world-building of the ‘Potterverse’ may be at fault.

There are, I think, four main approaches to world-building in fantasy:

1. Nuts and bolts
A troll’s stolen your blanket. Where are you going to get a new one? Fortunately it’s Thirdday, and market day in Cedar Lake is Fourthday – and Cedar Lake is only twenty thryms away, so if you saddle up your quaghorn and ride all day and all night you’ll be there in good time. Unfortunately the road to Cedar Lake passes through the Merry Green Wood, which – despite its name – is dark and treacherous at night, so you’ll have to find another route… And so on. Nuts and bolts world-builders really do build a world – not only can they show you Cedar Lake on the map, they can tell you when and how it was founded, and about its longstanding rivalry with Willow Bank a thrym and a half up the river Hak. None of this need have anything to do – perhaps, should have anything to do – with anything we’re familiar with in our own world; there is no focus-pulling, no shock of recognition as the metaphorical import of a local detail hits home.

What’s interesting about this approach is that, although constructed worlds certainly don’t have to make sense, once you’ve accumulated a certain level of detail they do – at least to the extent that the edges all join up, and the world-builder can answer any question that may arise. (The real world isn’t that different: ‘Why Maundy Thursday’ is actually a perfectly good question, with an answer that makes sense on at least one level. (Latin, apparently.)) And there’s a certain satisfaction in that, even if after a while filling in the blanks gets to feel a bit like, well, filling in the blanks. Moreover, beyond a certain point what you have is, basically, a whole world, which in itself is asking to be compared with our own: here are the kind of things that people can do in this setting… Elaborate and painstaking though this type of world-building typically is (arguably has to be, if it is to be successful), in another sense it’s the most basic; it’s certainly the most undirected. You focus-pull the whole world or none of it.

Then there are two approaches to world-building that do relate to, or reflect on, our experiences in the world we know.

2. Spilt religion
We don’t have any experience of magic in this world, but we do – collectively – have experience of the supernatural, in the form of religion. Hence the second approach to world-building, which is light on geography and heavy on numinousness (is it numinousness, numinescence or numinosity?). This is the approach Mark Kermode is fond of lampooning in sword-and-sorcery films – “Lord Biddly-Bong armed with the Sword of Fiddly-Flop,” and so on. The grammar of a world like this isn’t religious, but it is religiose: it’s filtered through some combination of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Latin Mass. So if there’s a lot of kneeling in reverence, with people being addressed as supreme high lords and kings; if you’re dealing with a lot of hierarchies and/or family trees; if a lot of characters and things have Big Important Names; and if spells and incantations in incomprehensible languages are a big deal – then it’s a fair bet that the magic that’s ultimately holding up this particular world is the magic that’s practised in church on Sundays. (This isn’t a dig at Tolkien – he knew perfectly well what he was doing.)

3. Spock’s beard
A second kind of reflected world is the parasitic world, a world whose roots in our own aren’t hidden. Satires and political parables obviously come under this heading, but it also covers utopias, near-future projections, what-if’s and alternative histories told in the form of fantasy (Star Trek was a mine of those). The mark of a world like this is that you don’t have to ask how it would all work, because you already know: it works just the way it does in our world. Either that, or it works on the basis of rules and mechanisms that are hidden or disavowed in our world, but brought into the open in the fantasy; or else it doesn’t really work at all, thanks to the exaggeration of trends which, again, exist in the world we know. There aren’t so many titles of nobility or neologisms in a world like this, and there are a lot more jokes.

Some worlds in this category are parasitic on fictional worlds; Discworld is an unusually well-developed example of this approach. Or rather, it began that way and then changed. Or rather, it began that way and in one sense developed in that way, although… hold on, let’s do this properly.

Brief digression on Discworld
The first couple of Discworld books set out to be a kind of Tough Guide to Fantasy Land in fictional form; we see the tropes of post-Tolkien, post-Conan fantasy through the eyes of a literal tourist, accompanied by a local informant who is also an amoral, self-centred cynic. As a result, ironic distance between the narrative voice and the world-building is built in; the world is constantly having to be explained, and it’s explained very much in terms of which bits will hurt you and which will let you stay out of trouble and mind your own business, preferably while getting drunk.

[Author’s note: Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land was in fact published in 1996, thirteen years and approximately 28 books after The Colour of Magic, so perhaps she was setting out to write TCOM/TLF in encyclopaedia form. Or perhaps this analogy doesn’t really work.]

[Author’s note to the author’s note: if 28 sounds like an awful lot of books, that’s partly because I’m counting books other than the Discworld novels, of which only(!) 17 were published in that period. It’s also because, once you start looking at Pratchett’s complete bibliography, it’s really hard to arrive at a definitive number of books (do you include the Maps? the graphic novels? the Josh Kirby art books? The Annotated Cat?). But fundamentally, the reason why 28 sounds like an awful lot of books to complete in 13 years is that it is. The man just wrote.]

Discworld stays parasitic – right to the end, it’s always in some sense ‘about’ this world – but it doesn’t stay put. The first major development is when other characters, in addition to the rather one-note Rincewind – whose emotional repertoire doesn’t run to much beyond cynicism and panic – start to act like people rather than fantasy characters. Specifically, they start to look beyond the plot and think about the world they’re in, and in particular about what this world is like to run. Granny Weatherwax is the first, followed by Vetinari and then Pratchett’s greatest (and favourite?) creation, Vimes. The invention of politics, in other words, is what keeps the Discworld series fresh, after that first volcanic surge of creativity had died down. (Bear in mind that there wasn’t a ‘Death series’, a ‘witches series’ or a ‘Watch series’ when Pratchett wrote Mort, Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards!; they were just the fourth, sixth and eighth Discworld books, all of which appeared within three years of the second.) I remember an Interzone article from around the time of Guards! Guards!; the author cited one of Vetinari’s more jaded observations, on the difficulties of governing a city full of thieves, idiots and idiotic thieves, and expressed concern for Pratchett’s state of mind – might it be time for him to give Discworld a bit of a rest? He had no idea – but then, neither did any of us.

Pratchett always seems to have been on the lookout for different ways in which Discworld could reflect our world; the first ‘political’ books were rapidly followed by a cluster of books (not the most successful) in which elements of our reality literally leaked into Discworld (e.g. Moving Pictures), and a series (e.g. Hogfather) in which Pratchett’s borrowings from myth and legend were explained as free-floating story elements, drifting through the multiverse and spontaneously instantiating themselves. Finally, Discworld seemed to embark on a process of convergence with the Industrial Revolution, from The Truth (the press) to Raising Steam (the railways). However many details were filled in, though, the edges never quite met; the contours of the map were always shifting as new stories emerged and needed to be told – driven ultimately by what Pratchett had to say about our world.

Hail and farewell, Discworld; what an amazing achievement that world was. (But always – as I was saying – a parasitic world.)

4. Wet paint
So there are nuts-and-bolts worlds, numinous worlds, parasitic worlds; lastly, there are (in the immortal words of Helga Hufflepuff) “the rest”. These are worlds where somebody’s set out to achieve something quite specific – a religious parable in which the humblest are elevated through unmediated communion with Jesus Christ; a satirical wish-fulfilment fantasy in which an orphan is hideously mistreated by grotesque parent-substitutes but discovers he is vastly more powerful than they are – and then lost interest in the necessary world-building, but ploughed on with it anyway. These are bodged-up worlds, without any consistent register; the local effects often work brilliantly, but the whole doesn’t even try to hang together. It’s not a world reflecting and meditating on the religion and wonder that we know; it’s not a world reflecting and lampooning the society and politics we know; and it’s not a world existing independently, an island entire of itself. It’s just… well, here’s a world, and here’s a story, and here’s another one. The telltale sign of a world like this is the continual discovery of new wonders, mysteries and other plot mechanisms, as the developing stories require. The Queen proverbially thinks the world smells of fresh paint; characters in worlds like this have a similar experience, as the sets are continually dressed and re-dressed around them.

NEXT: …and we’re back to Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (1 of 5)

Attention conservation notice: five-part series on world-building in fantasy fiction, focusing on Potter, Discworld, Narnia, Earthsea and Middle Earth in descending order. Nothing obscure. Not entirely uncritical of JKR. May contain Moomins.

Adam:

One thing that sometimes surprises me … is how wedded [sf/fantasy] fans are to the in-text reading of their favourite works, and the inertia of the resistance to the idea that these might be logics of representation rather than actual things in the world … That Harry Potter and his friends don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels (that these magical talents are how Rowling articulates the potency, specialness and vitality of young people as such). That MCU superhero texts are saying things about non-superheroic aspects of life, and not pretending that the Homeric gods have returned to the world in spandex. But there we are. Representation is a slippery logic, and we think we’re on solider ground with brass tacks. We’re not, of course; but we often think we are.

I’ll also pull in an interesting comment from Greg Sanders on Adam’s post:

I think your coda does a good job of explaining the fairly short half life of many series and worlds for me. The longer series go that take their representations seriously, the more they often become about their conceits, their world building, past volumes, and less about the representation and metaphor that made the original so exciting.

As some series progress, author as well as fans succumb to brass-tacks-ism, investing less in what’s supposed to be going on in the imagined world than in the puzzle-solving challenge of filling in the map – as if to say, “we’re ‘ere because… it’s there because it’s there… because we’re ‘ere…”. As time goes on the map has fewer and fewer blank spaces – despite having been more powerful when it was half blank. Remember Discworld, and Pterry’s successive statements on the question of maps – that the Discworld was unmappable, then that the Discworld was unmappable but a map of Ankh-Morpork was a different question, and finally very well, there you go, here’s your map. But Discworld, despite some similarities, is very different from the Potterverse – particularly on the ‘brass tacks’ question – as I hope to show later on.

But back to Potter and brass tacks. To borrow Adam’s term, there’s something slippery (or perhaps, something insufficiently slippery) in the assertion that Harry & co “don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels“. It’s certainly true that when we read about Harry’s courage and agility (with magic), Hermione’s resourcefulness and ingenuity (with magic) or Ron’s dogged persistence (with magic), the clause in brackets is the least important part; the magic isn’t what the books are about, any more than Hamlet is about a poisoning in an orchard. But Harry Potter does literally have magical powers (in the world of the books) – just as it’s crucially important to Hamlet (and to Hamlet) that Hamlet’s father has literally been killed (in the world of the play), despite the resemblance which Adam points out between the killer’s supposed M.O. and a well-known metaphor for giving bad advice.

That said, there’s a crucial distinction between those two worlds. Poison isn’t commonly administered aurally, but the reality of poisoning – and of assassination generally – was known to Shakespeare’s audiences as it is to us. (Nor does the ghost of Hamlet’s father make a better dividing line: our breezy confidence that apparitions of the dead aren’t part of the natural order wasn’t universally shared by Hamlet‘s original audiences, any more than it is by the characters in the play.) By contrast, Harry Potter’s magical powers, in and of themselves, correspond to nothing in our world: there’s a suspension of disbelief involved, and once you’ve made it different criteria apply. Boggling at the amazing things that can be done with the flick of a wand is no more appropriate than Arthur Weasley marvelling at the Muggles and their elec-trickery. This in turn means that nothing which happens through the medium of magic has to rhyme thematically or make any kind of poetic sense, any more than the details of diurnal contemporary reality make poetic sense in mainstream fiction. Sectumsempra is a curse which magically inflicts a deep flesh wound, incurable by non-magical means. Why ‘Sectumsempra’? In that world, it just is – you might as well ask why Maundy Thursday, or why Armitage Shanks. Reality doesn’t have to make sense. The same goes for Rowling’s world-building more generally: it’s just the furniture for the story arc, and within that for the characters and their relationships. As teenagers with fairly limited life experience, Harry and Ron wouldn’t understand, or need to understand, the Ministry of Magic – any more than Jennings and Darbishire need to understand the Home Office – so we don’t need to understand it either.

In short, the outlandish elements in the Potter books don’t have the same focus-pulling doubleness (“now you see metaphor, now you don’t”) as the outlandish elements in Hamlet. Moreover, this isn’t despite the fact that Potter’s magic is even more outlandish than what happens in Hamlet, but because of it. Hamlet is a densely textured story studded with weird and unworldly details, set in our world; watching Hamlet you’re seeing what you’re seeing, but you’re also seeing something else, something that tells you about your own world. The Potter books tell a fairly straight story, set in a world which isn’t like ours; reading Potter, you’re reading what you’re reading. In that world, everything is brass tacks, magic included.

The mundane case for the mundane defence rests, in a mundane sort of way. I don’t think it’s satisfactory, though – in fact, I sense that the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’ readings of Potter has something to do with a weakness in the work, and in particular in the world-building.

Next: nuts and bolts – do we need them?

Credo

Once more on Labour’s problems with anti-semitism and the “IHRA Definition”. Here are a few points – five, to be precise.

The first point may seem frivolous, but I think it’s worth making. It’s just that the situation we’re in is really quite odd. I’ve knocked around on the Left for quite a while now – I’ve been called out on strike after a show of hands, I was at the first Chesterfield conference, I’ve been to Greenham – and I can’t remember a massive public row about a definition before.

“Adopt the definition!”
– Well, this is an issue we take very seriously, and of course…
“Stop dodging the question! Adopt the definition! Adopt it!”
– I’m sure we can look at it, and… Yes, actually that definition seems fine. No problem.
And the illustrative examples!”
– And the…
You’ve got to adopt the examples as well! Honestly! Don’t try to pretend you didn’t know!”
– All right, but we’ll need to see if they need to be modified in the light of our…
“Modified? Modified? What do you think this is? Adopt the illustrative examples!”
– Clearly there’s a process that will need to be gone through, and…
“Right, that’s it. Adopt the illustrative examples! Now! Adopt them! Adopt them!”

The fact that the definition was explicitly labelled as a working definition, and that it was devised fifteen years ago by an organisation that no longer exists (and whose successor organisation didn’t adopt it) makes it all the odder to see the furious intensity with which Labour are being pressurised to adopt it entire, root and branch, omitting not one jot or illustrative tittle.

So that’s my first point: when people start acting oddly and making strange demands – and, viewed with any kind of analytical distance, making verbatim adoption of the EUMC “working definition” into an unconditional red line is a strange thing to do – I’m reluctant to jump to it and endorse those demands; not because they’re wrong, necessarily, just because they’re… odd.

Secondly, why the EUMC definition specifically? Let’s look at the definition; it won’t take long.

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The second sentence isn’t really part of the definition; it supplements it by identifying the targets of anti-semitism in practice – although, other than specifying Jewish religious and non-religious institutions, it only identifies them as “people and/or things”. The trouble is, the second part of the first sentence isn’t really part of the definition either, as it says how anti-semitism may be expressed. Nothing in the definition requires that hatred should be expressed towards Jews before anti-semitism can be said to exist. So we can lop off that clause as well – which leaves us with

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews

This is almost entirely uninformative, and the one thing it does specify is wrong – anti-semitism isn’t a perception of Jews, singular (even the Nazis had trouble explaining how it could be that Jews had bestial appetites and super-human cunning, or that they were behind Wall Street and Communism). The abiding impression is that the definition is there to introduce the “illustrative examples”, which will do the real work of sketching out the boundaries of a definition – labelling some behaviours as potentially anti-semitic and others, by omission, not. The definition itself basically says

So, antisemitism. What do we know?

The EUMC definition itself, then, isn’t an advance in clarity; if anything it’s a deliberate retreat from clarity. If it’s important to adopt it – and not to adopt an alternative definition such as the one put forward by Brian Klug, discussed in this post – we’ll have to look elsewhere for the reasons why.

We could look at those illustrative examples, for a start. Taken individually, to be fair, the examples are mostly uncontroversial. Actually, even the controversial ones are uncontroversial, as defenders of the definition have been at pains to point out. Applying double standards to the state of Israel “could, taking into account the overall context,” be anti-semitic; who could deny that?

But the question to ask of a definition is not what it says but what it doesn’t say, and/or what it makes it hard to say. I asked my father once why the Christian Creeds went to such lengths to nail down particular details of the faith, given that so many of the points they affirm are uncontroversial among believers, irrelevant to the Church’s everyday work, or in a few cases both. My father said that creeds aren’t aimed at the people who find them easy to say, but at all those people who can’t say them; every one of those stipulations is there to nail down a question that somebody, some time, wanted kept open, and to define the Church by excluding those people. Every public affirmation is also a denial, or a shibboleth: “I attest, in sight of you all, that I believe this – which in turn demonstrates that I am not one of them.”

To say that critics of Israel have nothing to fear – because, according to the definition, applying double standards to Israel isn’t necessarily anti-semitic (and why would they be applying double standards, anyway?) – is to miss the wood for the trees, or to grasp the definition on paper but overlook the work it’s doing. To put it another way, the question isn’t who would be found guilty by the definition but who would be put under suspicion by it – and the second group includes everyone who might be presented as applying double standards to Israel for anti-semitic reasons (presented, specifically, by their factional enemies).

This is the third point: the merits of the definition as a whole – and a fortiori the merits of individual clauses and examples – shouldn’t be taken in isolation from the project of which the definition is part. (Historical background here, here and here.) As an aside, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be a lot less squeamish about terms like “lobbying” and “behind the scenes”. From local party branches up to the Cabinet, lobbying – including “behind the scenes” lobbying – is how politics gets done; and politics is how democratic representation gets done. (Imperfectly, in other words.) Anyone who tells you that he organically represents a broad groundswell of public opinion (whereas you’re just a well-organised minority of activists) is lying; lying to himself, possibly, but lying, definitely.

If there had been goodwill and trust, Labour could have sat down with the Jewish community and ironed out any wrinkles, perhaps by adopting the IHRA’s definition in full and then adding a couple of caveats explicitly protecting free speech. The trouble is, there is no such trust, and Labour attempted no such thing. Instead it drew up its code of conduct itself, without consulting the organised Jewish community at all.

Jonathan Freedland‘s equivocation between “the Jewish community” and “the organised Jewish community” is symptomatic. What does “the Jewish community” think about Corbyn’s Labour Party? Generalising about what any group of 300,000 people think about anything would be a bold move, and it’s not hard to enumerate Jewish individuals and groups known to be strongly in favour of the Corbyn project. What does “the organised Jewish community” think? Ah, that’s an easier one.

The EUMC definition hasn’t floated down from the sky, or bubbled up from the collective unconscious of “the Jewish community” – and it isn’t just an acknowledgment that anti-semitism can take many forms. It’s a proposition that anti-semitism tends to take some forms and not others, which tends to put some areas of public discourse under suspicion, and not others. As such, it’s the product of a sustained effort to establish that proposition and embed it in the ‘common sense’ of organisational activity. I’m not qualified to comment on exactly why organisations such as the Board of Deputies have bought into the definition, and got behind the campaign to shame the Labour Party for not adopting it; in any case, that’s a secondary question. The important thing is to recognise that there is an organisational dimension here: organised groups of people pushing for the adoption of the EUMC definition (just as I and my comrades regularly push for our local Labour Party to adopt left-wing positions), and other organised groups getting on board with this effort for their own reasons (just as we occasionally get a motion through or a couple of delegates elected, because something about it or them has appealed to another faction).

As for the point about anti-semitism coming in “some forms and not others”, here are the topics covered by the eleven illustrative examples:

  1. Advocacy or justification of killing Jews
  2. Dehumanising stereotypes of Jews
  3. Accusations of Jewish responsibility for world events
  4. Holocaust denial
  5. Alleging that Jews (or Israel) exaggerate the Holocaust
  6. Accusing Jews of having greater loyalty to Israel than their own nations
  7. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination
  8. Applying double standards to Israel
  9. Applying antisemitic stereotypes to Israel or Israelis
  10. Comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
  11. Holding Jews responsible for actions of the state of Israel

Granted that all of these can be an expression of anti-semitism (many, many things can be an expression of anti-semitism), there’s still room to be concerned by the scope of the implicit definition mapped out by these examples. Four of the eleven – numbers 7-10 here – aren’t about Jews or Jewish identity as such, but about critiques of Israel and Zionism considered as proxy targets for unavowed anti-semitism; the seventh example in particular seems designed to outlaw outright opposition to Zionism and its presentation of the Jewish people as a nationality (an opposition which has been expressed by substantial currents within the international Jewish community, and still exists today). The eighth, ninth and tenth, for their part, would be entirely unproblematic if we could be confident that they would never be abused in faction fights by people committed to making pro-Zionist prevail over anti-Zionist positions. Considering that the entire context of this definition is exactly this kind of faction fighting, this amounts to saying that the illustrations give pro-Zionist activists additional weapons to use against their bitterest enemies in a political conflict which is currently raging, but that there won’t be any problems just as long as they consistently use them with integrity and self-restraint.

There’s nothing very problematic in the other seven examples, although the sixth would seem to make Theodor Herzl an anti-semite; Zionism as he proposed it meant precisely that the primary loyalty of Jews, wherever they found themselves, would be to the new National Home. What’s interesting, as always, is what’s not here. Not here, for example, is any suggestion that it might be anti-semitic to promote the interests of Israel at the expense of those of Jews in the Diaspora; or to denigrate the history and culture of the Diaspora in contrast to the new society of Israel; or to conflate Jewish identity with the nationalism of a militarised state, tied to western imperialism and entrenched in confrontation with the Muslim world; or to defile the holy name of Zion by identifying it with the goyim naches of a mere nationality. Every one of those positions is arguable; every one of them is held, and has historically been held, by non-negligible numbers of Jews. Perhaps a majority of Diaspora Jews are committed to Zionism (certainly a majority of Israeli Jews are) – but is a majority good enough for a question like this? Can you declare what does and doesn’t constitute Jew-hatred – can you identify which political quarter another Haman would or wouldn’t come from – by taking a vote?

In short, there are many ways of defining anti-semitism, or rather ways of defining areas where it’s likely to be found. There are some approaches to this question which put Zionism and the state of Israel under suspicion, and others which throw suspicion on opposition to Zionism and the state of Israel; what we’ve got with the EUMC definition is, very much, the latter.

But – fourth point – aren’t Labour handling this badly, irrespective of all this background? So the illustrative examples (and hence the overall definition) tilt Zionist; so what? Maybe that’s just because the Jewish community tilts Zionist. (Its representative bodies certainly do, most of them anyway.) What gave Labour the right to mess around with the definition anyway? Shouldn’t they be listening to the victims?

Taking the second question first, it’s frequently been argued that “the Jewish community” supports the adoption of the EUMC definition; that we generally believe that the victims of racism should be the ones to say when and where it exists (this is sometimes referred to as the “Macpherson principle”); and hence that Labour (and, presumably, everyone else) should adopt the EUMC definition, as failing to do so would be represent discrimination against the Jewish community relative to other ethnic minorities.

This looks persuasive, but unfortunately it’s nonsense. The Macpherson principle – dating back to the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – was that a ‘racist incident’ should be recorded by the police whenever an ‘incident’ was reported and anyone – not just the victim – alleged a racist motive. (An ‘incident’ is essentially anything that’s reported to the police but isn’t a crime.) It doesn’t say that the view of the individual victim on a specific incident should be taken as definitive – still less that we should privilege the views of an entire ethnic community on the topic of racist incidents in general. In point of fact, there is no comparable definition of (say) anti-Black or anti-Asian racism, devised by the respective community and generally accepted; failing to adopt the EUMC definition, far from representing discrimination against Jews, would put Jews in the same position as other minority groups. (There is a widely-accepted definition of Islamophobia; however, it was devised by the Runnymede Trust, not by the British Muslim community or any of its representative organisations.)

As for the Labour National Executive Committee’s amendments to the definition, once again the context is crucial. The context here is an organisation which is committed to taking anti-semitism seriously, to the point of suspending or expelling numerous activists. (Was that a hollow laugh I heard? How many anti-semites have the Tories expelled?) It follows that any definition Labour adopts won’t be ornamental; it has to be something that can be referred to and used. As we’ve seen, the EUMC definition is hopelessly vague (“a certain perception of Jews”); the only point at which it has any possible disciplinary bite is in the list of examples. These, however, are introduced with the rubric

Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:

So anti-semitism could, but doesn’t necessarily, take the form of applying double standards to Israel (for example); moreover, if double standards are being applied, that could be anti-semitism, but it isn’t necessarily. From a disciplinary standpoint this is singularly unhelpful; anyone who’s ever studied harassment (or the later Wittgenstein) knows that literally any individual action can form part of a specified pattern of behaviour. If people are going to face expulsion for antisemitic statements or activities, the definition needs to be a lot tighter than this; instead of “could … include, but are not limited to”, it needs to be couched in terms of the actions or statements which are likely to be evidence of anti-semitism. This in turn will mean the definition becoming narrower; higher levels of culpability necessarily apply to a narrower range of acts. This, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the direction in which edits have been made.

In short, Labour has made a good-faith effort to engage with the EUMC definition and turn it into something usable for disciplinary purposes. While we may or may not agree with individual changes to the definition, specific problems with individual changes are the level at which the argument should be had; there is no sense in which Labour’s failure to endorse the definition precisely as it stands represents any kind of differential treatment or discrimination against the Jewish community.

Having said that, I can’t help feeling – fifth and final point – that engaging with the EUMC definition at all represents something of a missed opportunity. Do we know what racism is? Is there a canonical definition? The answers are Yes and No respectively, surely. Do we know what anti-semitism is? I tend to think we do; it’s a range of forms of hostility towards Jews, considering Jews as fundamentally and inherently different from non-Jews. To put it another way, it’s anti-Jewish racism. This is not a mystery.

Moreover, the EUMC definition doesn’t add to this rule-of-thumb definition or refine it. If anything it subtracts and makes it coarser, before supplying some of the missing detail in the form of those illustrative examples – a sort of ‘paint chart’ approach to definition. There’s a perception that examples like these make a disciplinary process more straightforward by removing excuses – excuses like “I’m not anti-semitic, I just think the Holocaust never happened” – but I think this is an illusion. Anyone who’s capable of saying “I’m not anti-semitic, I’m just concerned about the Jewish control of the media” is perfectly capable of saying “I know that conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the media are anti-semitic, but the evidence I’ve seen makes me really concerned about media ownership and how it’s concentrated in a few hands”… and so on. Whether you’ve got a definition or not, if you’re going to offer those people any kind of procedural justice you’re going to need to have that conversation. (What if “Jewish control of the media” turns out to mean “I hate Rupert Murdoch, and my mate told me he’s Jewish”? Expel them anyway for being dim and credulous?)

The merit of having a formal definition (with illustrative examples) is, essentially, the same as the merit of having a creed – it doesn’t make the accusations any easier to prove, it just means that when you’re making accusations, the people you’re accusing are likely to be from groups A, B, C and D. (Or groups A, B, F and K, depending on the definition.)

The leadership is right to be reluctant to embrace this particular definition; in fact they’d be justified in not adopting it at all. Certainly the definition has nothing to do with the separate – and much more important – question of how seriously Labour take anti-semitism. I hope to see continued progress on that front; I hope to see the spurious and dangerous row over a definition blow itself out and be forgotten.

Updated 1st August; reference to “Alexander Herzl” corrected.

Aristotelian thoughts, possibly

Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue:

Aristotle tries to use the notion of a mean between the more and the less to give a general characterization of the virtues: courage lies between rashness and timidity, justice between doing injustice and suffering injustice, liberality between prodigality and meanness. For each virtue therefore there are two corresponding vices. And what it is to fall into a vice cannot be adequately specified independently of circumstances: the very same action which would in one situation be liberality could in another be prodigality and in a third meanness.

This is a decidedly foreign way of thinking to us now; we tend to locate ethical debates at the level of societies rather than individuals, think in terms of individual positive qualities which can each be independently maximised (liberty, equality, security etc), and unpack political disagreements in terms of different orderings of those qualities (putting security above liberty, liberty above equality, etc). Morality for individuals has a similar shape, with unquestioned virtues such as truth-telling and promise-keeping, each of which can be maximised until some unpredictable point where they may turn out to conflict. Whether for individuals or societies, the idea of not maximising anything – of seeking a point between two opposed maxima – seems counter-intuitive. The Aristotelian ‘mean between extremes’ also has overtones of the complacency of moderate centrism – the frame of mind according to which ‘extreme’ political views can be dismissed unheard purely because they are ‘extreme’ – which makes it unappealing, at least if you’re not a moderate centrist.

I think it may be more useful than it looks, though. Here are two cases where this approach has some value, both of which should ring some bells with anyone who’s been involved in political debate recently.

In Saturday’s Graun, Oliver Burkeman wrote about what looks like an interesting paper on “prevalence-induced concept change”. I haven’t been able to access the full text, but here’s the abstract:

Why do some social problems seem so intractable? In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. This “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it. Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.

Does the point generalise? Is it possible that things are in fact getting better, but that we don’t realise it because we treat whatever our current worst social problem is as the worst social problem? Durkheim certainly thought it was possible; in fact, he thought it was happening in nineteenth-century France:

Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes, properly so called, will there be unknown, but faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal and will treat them as such. … Formerly, acts of violence against persons were more frequent than they are today, because respect for individual dignity was less strong. As this has increased, these crimes have become more rare; and also, many acts violating this sentiment have been introduced into the penal law which were not included there in primitive times.

(See also “anti-social behaviour”, “problem families” etc.)

The question then is, does this matter? Yes. And then again, No. Burkeman cites a neat analogy from Dan Gilbert, one of the paper’s authors:

an emergency doctor is right to prioritise gunshot wounds over broken arms; but if there are no gunshot wounds to treat, she’s perfectly correct to expand her definition of “what needs immediate attention” to include broken arms. Conversely, a neurologist shouldn’t expand his definition of “brain tumour” simply because he can’t find any.

Unpacking the analogy, we can envisage two main approaches:

A: We can be thankful that problems causing really serious harms have abated, and alert to prevent their recurrence, while still devoting most of our attention to the problems that we face now. This does not mean that major and minor problems are equally serious; to treat them as equivalent would represent not only a loss of proportion but also a betrayal of historical memory. Things can get better; the fact that things have got better is proof of it.

B: We face new types of problem now – many of which we previously saw as minor, as causing less serious harms – but they are just as serious for us. After all, every problem is serious if it causes genuine harm. Not to take our current, supposedly minor problems just as seriously as the old major problems would demonstrate the persistence of outdated ways of thinking and show contempt for the people who are actually suffering now.

Which is right? It’s probably clear that I lean one way rather than the other – indeed, it could be argued that the way I’ve set up the problem is skewed* – but I don’t think one argument is right and the other wrong; indeed, I don’t think it’s possible to conclude that one’s right and one’s wrong. Historical memory, and keeping faith with those we’ve learnt from, are important virtues; so is attention to the present, and keeping faith with people who may need us now. And it’s hard to do both at once; beyond a certain point, it’s impossible to do both. The answer is, frustratingly, somewhere in the middle; even more frustratingly, there’s no single answer that can be applied at all times. Like Trillian’s handbag, life teaches us that there are times when it’s important to keep a sense of proportion and think of the past, and that there are times when it’s important to keep a sense of urgency and learn from the present; what it doesn’t teach us is which is which.

*Have I put an authorial thumb on the scales by insisting that we know which is a major problem and which a minor one? Isn’t the severity of contemporary problems actually unknown, given that they haven’t finished harming us yet? I don’t think so – or rather, I don’t think that the unknowability of contemporary problems is a point at issue between A and B. Someone who maintains that a certain kind of speech act is actually violent, or that failing to affirm Israel’s right to exist is anti-semitism, isn’t generally saying that the unknown longer-term effects of a relatively harmless speech act in the present could ultimately reach the level of a harmful action; that would be a different argument, one which conceded that those speech acts were in fact relatively harmless.

Another example: you support a cause, or a set of inter-related causes; they’re reasonably coherent and comprehensive, so you don’t generally find it hard to read off your position on a contemporary issue. On one issue, however, you find yourself at odds with some – perhaps a majority – of your usual allies; they make arguments that sound familiar, referring back to the broad set of causes both you and they support, but on this issue you find you’re not convinced. On ‘your’ side of the problematic issue, you’re pleased to find a number of people who share those same causes with you; alongside them, however, are people with whom you share nothing but this one issue. What to think? If you believe something, does it matter who else believes it?

A: You can tell a lot about an issue from who supports it. If the far Right are agitating on an issue, that means one of three things: it’s part of a right-wing programme, in which case Leftists should oppose it; it can be twisted to support a far Right agenda (“green belt” campaigning targeting new mosques, “animal welfare” targeting Halal meat), in which case Leftists need to take care not to get dragged in; or it’s just being used to exploit splits in the Left, in which case Leftists shouldn’t play their game for them. Brexit is a perfect example; the fact that the EU is an anti-democratic capitalist institution fooled some Leftists into giving their backing to what was always a neoliberal project exploiting xenophobic nationalism, in which the hopes of the anti-EU Left could play no real part.

B: My political outlook is my own; the issues I agitate on are issues that I believe are important. More importantly, given that I’m a Leftist, these are issues that I believe can – and should – be articulated as part of an overall Left agenda. We should not be put off from doing so by the fact that an issue can also form part of a Right-wing agenda – let alone the fact that it can be exploited by the Right. (The Conservative Party supports full legal equality for gay and straight people; that doesn’t make it a reactionary demand.) The EU is a perfect example: while we need to oppose the reactionary neoliberal project of Brexit, this should not fool the Left into making common cause with the pro-EU ‘remain’ lobby and overlooking the intractable problems which the EU poses for any Left project.

Again, which is right? My discouraging answer is, again, that I don’t think we can say that one’s right and the other’s wrong; in some situations “look who you’re lining up with” will be a correct and appropriate response, in others it will be a distraction that should be ignored. And, again, it’s impossible to do both. Life teaches us that there are times when it’s important to see where your allies and enemies are and form your opinions accordingly, and that there are times when it’s important to keep your wits about you and make your own mind up; what it doesn’t teach us is which is which. Or, as Douglas Adams (and Michael Bywater) put it in Mostly Harmless:

[Trillian] reflected that if there was one thing life had taught her it was that there are times when you do not go back for your bag and other times when you do. It had yet to teach her to distinguish between the two types of occasions.

This isn’t a counsel of despair, or a justification for impulsiveness and actes gratuits; there is still a scale, and it is still possible to hit the right spot on it. But it’s a scale with two ends, and heading for either one won’t reliably get us where we want to go. To complete that MacIntyre quotation:

what it is to fall into a vice cannot be adequately specified independently of circumstances: the very same action which would in one situation be liberality could in another be prodigality and in a third meanness. Hence judgment has an indisputable role in the life of the virtuous man which does not and could not have in, for example, the life of the merely law-abiding or rule-abiding man.

Interesting, no? Reads a bit like a dispatch from a neighbouring universe, but it’s interesting. (Sorry about the early-80s sexism – although, to be honest, I don’t think “the virtuous person” is much less foreign a concept to us now.)

I was a young man

It started (as things so often do these days) with a tweet:

As Alex commented, there are some interesting contrasts in there – particularly between 35-44 and 45-54, and then between 65-74 and 75+. Three age cohorts, then. Let’s assume that those _5 dividing lines are partially smoothing out sharper divisions ending with 0 rather than 5; there’s no real reason for this assumption, admittedly, other than the tendency for people to think in terms of being in their thirties or forties rather than being in the 25-34 or 35-44 age range. If that is the case, our cohorts looks like this: under-40s mostly pro-Remain; 40-70 fairly evenly divided, but with Leave sympathy growing with age; and 70+ mostly pro-Leave.

Why, though?

Kicking this around on Twitter, I thought of Douglas Adams’s dictum (from The Salmon of Doubt, which presumably means from his journalism) about technology:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I think the effective opposition between 1. and 3. is psychologically true and useful to think with. It’s a bit disquieting – as it suggests that we’ll be equally positive about LimitlessFreeEnergy plc and Unmitigated Charlatanry Inc. if we come across them at the right time in our lives, and equally cynical about both if it’s the wrong time – but that’s no bad thing. I also think that something similar is true of politics and political change, with a couple of qualifications. First, we need to do something about that blank between birth and 15 – and should it really be birth? How much of anything do we retain from before the age of five, say? Second, 35 doesn’t look right for stage 3; I think what we’re looking at there is the point in life at which you’ve got a job, you’ve got somewhere to live and you basically know your way around, whereupon some clever bastard pulls the rug out from under you by inventing some la-di-da ‘spinning jenny’ if you please. Thirty-five seems very old to reach that stage – or rather, thirty-four seems very old still to be finding your feet and keeping an eye out for the Next Big Thing. I wonder if Adams (who became a lifelong Mac user and advocate at 32) had his thumb on the scales at that point.

So here’s a modified set of rules, which I’ve modified some more by relating them to politics rather than technology.

  1. Any political development that happens before your fifth birthday is part of the landscape, for you; it’s how things have always been. This applies even if later changes appear to have reversed it – at a deeper level it’s still how the world is.
  2. Any developments that took place between your fifth and fifteenth birthday are done and dusted. Things did change, but those changes are over now and of no interest to anyone but historians; that’s how things are now.
  3. Any political development between your fifteenth and twenty-fifth birthday is a live issue – it’s important and, in your mind at least, it’s still up for grabs. Even if a particular controversy in this category seems firmly settled now, the position reached is still worth defending or attacking.
  4. Any new political development since your twenty-fifth birthday is less important, less relevant, and not final at all. If you’re in favour, it seems like a lucky break, a good result that couldn’t have been expected; if you’re against – or indifferent – it just seems weird and random. But that’s just what politics is like these days.

Now back to our age groups. Feast your eyes on this:

Not pretty, I know. (You should have seen the original version, with individual years on both axes.) You get the idea, though: each five-year cohort remembers each five-year period, and the events in it, differently. Like the sparrow flying across the mead-hall, our sense of historical events begins with a long retrospect of stuff that’s unproblematically part of the landscape (stage 1), passes through twenty busy years of political contention (2 and 3) and then enters the long decades (4) of disengagement and disorientation – longer the older we get.

Caveat: this isn’t about ‘for’ vs ‘against’, but about ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘new and different’ (or rather, ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘current and interesting’ vs ‘new and challenging’). I’m not saying all old people are bigots, in other words; I am saying that they’re predisposed to take seriously some attitudes which the verdict of time has classified as bigotry, but that’s a different proposition. My late mother, on this scale, would have been firmly in the “not entirely used to this” camp for most things that had happened since the War. She was also a lifelong opponent of racism, sexism and homophobia, and of the laws that (for much of her life) upheld them. But the legalisation of homosexuality, say, was for her always something that had happened, and been brought about by forces unknown to her; it was an achievement, but one that had come out of nowhere and could easily have gone the other way. She was generally in favour of gay people living normal, indistinguishable lives – ‘gay’ just being one more character trait – but she didn’t fundamentally think that that was how the world was; she always had one foot in the world of Julian and Sandy (or rather the world in which Julian and Sandy were new and shocking).

What does this mean in practice, though? I’ll pick out each decade cohort’s head-year and look at some events and changes in each category, to get a sense of how different their mental worlds are. To reduce the inevitable repetition and heighten contrasts, I’ll omit categories 2 and 4 – the “how things are now” developments we witnessed in childhood and the “what politics is like these days” changes that came along after we were 25, when the real issues had already been established.

I am 20.
How things always have been: Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; no British Empire, no Cold War, no Communism; peace in Ireland; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people; legal abortion; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; 9/11 and the War on Terror; privatised utilities; academy schools; all-day pub opening; the Tories as transformed by Thatcher; Labour as transformed by Blair
The real issues: Brexit; Corbyn; Trump
My first general election: 2017

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is: democratic, efficient, well-regulated, progressive, but not socialist and not particularly friendly to anyone who falls by the wayside. The live issues are, essentially, the way that everything’s been thrown up in the air inside the last five years. The problems that occupied my generation don’t really figure. Last year I gave my third-year students a lecture on the Troubles; I might as well have been talking about the Wars of the Spanish Succession.

I am 30.
How things always have been: no British Empire; no Cold War; Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; privatised utilities; all-day pub opening; Thatcherism
The real issues: gay marriage; the Gender Recognition Act; the smoking ban
My first general election: 2010

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is pretty similar to the younger cohort, but with more of a sense that the programme of liberal modernisation is incomplete; the live issues are essentially continuations of that programme. I wonder how many #FBPE types are in their early 30s: the sense that a certain kind of regulated social liberalism is basically ‘in the bag’, that there are very few really big issues left to argue about, and that everything that’s happened in the last five years is irrelevant froth, all seems to fit the profile. (On the other hand, by this reckoning a fifty-year-old would see everything that’s happened in the last 25 years as irrelevant froth, which is surely overstating the case. But I think there is a particular mentality associated with having a recent time horizon on the ‘real issues’ category – the meaninglessness of current politics is accentuated and made poignant by the feeling that the ‘proper politics’ train has only just left the station, carrying our own sense of relevance and centrality inexorably into the past (along with David Miliband).)

I am 40.
How things always have been: no British Empire; the (second) Cold War; Britain in the European Community; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; Thatcherism
The real issues: New Labour; 9/11 and the War on Terror; peace in Ireland; academy schools; legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people
My first general election: 1997

The world, for this cohort, is inherently a regulated and liberal world, but one that was built in some long shadows – sixties social democracy on one hand (the Cold War, comprehensive schools), the defeat of seventies radicalism on the other. The implicit limits of progress are pretty tight. Similarly, this cohort’s sense of the ‘real issues’ is an odd mixture of tendencies towards greater regulated liberalism and away from social justice and civil liberties. (Tendencies, in both cases, which they may either support or oppose; younger cohorts don’t really have that option.)

I am 50.
How things always have been: no British Empire; a bi-polar world, but no Cold War; Britain in the EEC; decimal currency; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets; Enoch Powell
The real issues: Maastricht; the end of Communism; privatised utilities; the Miners’ Strike and pit closures; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; all-day pub opening
My first general election: 1987

The way the world is, for this cohort, is a country struggling to modernise after the loss of its imperial role. This group are likely to have mixed emotions both about the modernisation and about the imperial role, perhaps shifting with age. (Decimalisation is an interesting issue here; to have any memories of the old money you’d need to be over 55 in 2018.) Real issues, still at some level up for debate: more regulatory liberalism, plus (the defeat of) Communism, (the defeat of) the unions and (the advance of) the European project. This is the first generation for which major elements of the regulated liberalism project are up for debate, and the first in which ‘Europe’ in some sense isn’t a done deal (the next will be 70). This and the next are also the only age cohorts where recognisably ‘class’ issues are salient.

I am 60.
How things always have been: the British Empire in decline; the Cold War; Britain outside the EEC
The real issues: equal pay including ‘work of equal value’; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; metrication; compulsory seatbelts; the Three Day Week; Thatcherism and the Falklands
My first general election: 1979

The world, for this cohort, is an unfriendly place where a slightly reduced Britain goes it alone. The real issues are mostly about that push towards regulatory liberalism – for this generation the entire regulatory programme is a live issue, one on which it’s quite possible to argue both sides (note the appearance of metrication in this category). However, all this is taking place against the backdrop of 1970s radicalism and its eventual defeat by Thatcherism – something which this cohort shares to some extent with the previous one, although the key event here is the Three Day Week (effectively a defeat for the government) rather than the Miners’ Strike (a defeat of the union movement by the government).

I am 70.
How things always have been: the British Empire; the Cold War (and Korea); Britain outside the EEC; rationing
The real issues: colonial independence; Britain in the EEC; decimalisation; Enoch Powell and Powellism; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets
My first general election: 1970

The shape of the world, for this cohort, is an impoverished nation, making the best of the legacy of its imperial past. The first small moves towards modernisation and racial or sexual equality are very much up for grabs; other real issues are precisely about the legacy of Empire (colonial independence, relations with Europe, non-White British subjects). A 70-year-old in 2018 would have started earning money before pounds, shillings and pence went out (metrication came even later). Again, to say that these are live issues for this generation is not to say that this cohort supports them – or that it’s against them, for that matter; rather, this is the youngest generation for which these questions were generally treated as being unsettled, as still up for debate.

I am 80 (they can still vote, you know).
How things always have been: the British Empire, allied with the USSR and USA; no EEC; rationing
The real issues: the decline of the British Empire; the end of rationing; the Cold War (and Berlin)
My first general election: 1959

Perhaps the most disappointed cohort: the way the world truly is, for them, includes an imperial power that bestrides the world like a colossus. Significantly, the ‘real issues’ – the issues on which this generation first took (both) sides – include colonial independence and Suez. British power in the world – and the loss of British power – is a ‘hot’ issue for this generation like no other. Rationing is relevant here; an 80-year-old in 2018 would have reached the age of 15 before rationing of sweets ended, 16 before rationing ended entirely. Austerity? Been there, done that.

We carry the history of our lifetimes around with us, and the history of our world in our lifetimes – especially in our first 25 years. In particular, we’re carrying three big historical developments – or, perhaps, two really big developments and, in between them, a dog that barked for a while and then shut up. From 80 down to 50 we’re living in a world defined by the British Empire and its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, with the big questions being about the legacies of empire and Britain’s redefined place in the world. From 70 down to 30 the big context is the long march of regulated liberalism, the melting-away of all the old common-sense prejudices and institutional barriers, the smoothing-down and boxing-up of all the risks and harms we used to take for granted. (Twenty-year-olds for their part are living in a world where this project has succeeded – and witnessing the return of political polarisation in the aftermath. Well digged, old mole!) In the middle, from 60 down to 40 we find a world characterised by class struggle – verging on victory if you’re 60, a gruellingly even match if you’re 50, firmly defeated if you’re 40. Class struggle makes the loss of an imperial role all the more challenging (or frightening) for 60-year-olds, and gives rights-based liberalism a cutting edge for both them and the 50-year-old cohort; for the 40-year-olds its defeat frames the liberal project differently, as the only reforming project in town. (If you put it all together, clearly the people with the broadest political vocabulary and the richest sense of possibility are those 60-year-olds, give or take a couple of years. The fact that I myself am closer to 60 than 50 is merely a meaningless coincidence, however.)

To get a clearer sense of generational change, we can think of pairs of neighbouring age cohorts as disputatious friends or squabbling neighbours, firmly united on some things and divided on others.

30 and 20 agree that we live in a safe, peaceful, liberal, regulated society, albeit one that doesn’t owe anyone a living. 30 knows that politics, as older generations knew it, is dead and gone. 20 disagrees; 20 thinks it’s coming back.

40 and 30 agree that we live in a modern, liberal, regulated, European society. 40 knows that there’s plenty more to be done, and that the liberal project may be threatened by external forces such as terrorism. 30 doesn’t agree; 30 thinks there’s not much to worry about, as the job is pretty much done.

50 and 40 agree that a relatively liberal and modern Britain has some sort of role to play in Europe. 50 knows that our involvement in Europe has definite limits, and that our liberalisation is built on the defeat of class politics. 40 is less conflicted; 40 knows that this defeat has been successfully completed, and that it needs to be entrenched in order to push liberalisation further.

60 and 50 agree that equality and public health are important; that working people don’t like being pushed around (although that doesn’t stop it happening); and that there’s a limit to Britain’s involvement in Europe. 60 knows that Britain stands alone, with no close European partners and only the relics of Empire, in a world overshadowed by Communism. 50 lives in a different world, one in which the threat of Communism is dying, the Empire is dead and gone, and Britain has gone into Europe – but only thus far and no further.

70 and 60 agree that the Empire is becoming a thing of the past, and that Europe and liberalising reforms are in the future. 70 knows that there are things to be said for and against these reforms, and wonders if we could have kept the old ways going. 60 thinks reform is going to be necessary but knows that working people aren’t going to put up with being pushed around, and/or that if you are going to push them around you need to push hard.

80 and 70 agree that Britain stands alone, as far as its European neighbours are concerned; that it’s in the nature of Britain to play an international role; and that Britain could yet play that role again. 80 knows just how imperial that international role was, and doesn’t entirely regret it. 70 knows that you’ve got to move with the times – including the possibility of engaging with Europe, as well as reform on issues like race and sex – but doesn’t entirely welcome it.

Perhaps there are three phases, corresponding roughly to the dividing lines I suggested initially. 70 and 80 grew up in an imperial or post-imperial world; 20 to 40 in a world of EU membership and liberal regulation; 50 and 60 in a more complex and contested world, where the first attempts to find a place in Europe and implement socially liberal reforms were cut across by class struggle politics (from the miners’ defeat of Heath in 1974 to Thatcher’s defeat of the miners eleven years later).

Or there’s a shorter answer, which hinges on the dates of British accession to the EEC (1973) and the Treaty of Maastricht (1993). The odd thing about these dates, though, is that the age cohorts they suggest are ten years out. (NB this paragraph has been updated: the first draft suggested that these dates did work. The first draft was wrong.) Before 1973 Britain wasn’t in the ‘Common Market’. In 1973, today’s 60-year-olds were 15, but 50-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that the European project as a whole is a live issue for over-60s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-70s.) Before 1993, on the other hand, Britain was in the European Community but not the European Union, meaning that the longer-term project of European integration – together with Britain’s weird patchwork of opt-outs and concessions – wasn’t an issue for anyone below 15 at the time. In 1993, today’s 40-year-olds were 15, but 30-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that European integration is a live issue for over-40s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-50s.)

Guess it’s the big generational shifts after all.

Updated: forgot the obligatory musical accompaniment. Hey, you young people…!

%d bloggers like this: