Category Archives: history

Should have stayed in bed

critics were quick to point out that it may not have been wise to quote from a Communist leader who has been blamed for the famine that cost up to 45 million lives in China during the Great Leap Forward.

You can’t make a joke about Mao’s Little Red Book – Peter Popham, Independent

“[the Conservative Party] is still far from being one more heave from victory. It faces the Long March, not the Great Leap Forward.” – Bernard Ingham, 6/12/2006

“There is a new Cultural Revolution taking place in 21st century China” – Tony Blair, 9/10/2009

“We stand in desperate need of a cultural revolution. Let it start now.” – Ian Flintoff, 30/9/2010

“We may look back on today’s speech as the start of a return to sanity by Labour. As Mao said, every long march begins with a single step. But there is a long way to go and Mr Miliband ducked the chance to make a ‘great leap forward’.” – Tim Shipman (Daily Mail), 10/1/2012

“I think we need to examine, on a case-by-case basis, those powers that Westminster can devolve to the [Welsh] Assembly, rather than making some great leap forward”  – David Cameron, 29/3/2013

“Reuters carried an article by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He said that the reforms promise to bring another great leap forward in China’s dramatic ascent” – Chinese Embassy press release, 14/9/2013

“Britain has come so far, but the long march to an equal society isn’t over.” – David Cameron, 26/10/2015

“The last politicians that I quoted, who have inspired me, are Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Keir Hardie – they’re the ones I tend to quote. But that’s my choice. I haven’t quoted a Communist before and I have no intention of doing so in the future.” – Chuka Umunna


TCM 3 – When the government falls

Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Obs, pushing the line that Labour is not one party but two:

Those with a vote in the contest who are still unsure which Labour party they should be backing have been provided with a clarifying test by Dave Ward, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. Announcing the CWU’s endorsement of the MP for Islington North, Mr Ward declared that the union’s executive had acted on medical advice: “There is a virus within the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn is the antidote.” “The virus” being the Blairites.

Incidentally, this was not an off-the-cuff remark in an interview. It is the language used in the formal declaration made by the union so we must assume that the CWU weighed its words before deciding to compare the former Labour prime minister to a disease. If you think New Labour was the political equivalent of Ebola, then you probably belong in the Corbyn Labour party. If you think that three election victories and 13 years in power had something to commend them, you should probably be in the non-Corbyn Labour party.

This isn’t the Scottish post – I’m putting that off for a second time. This one is sparked by that reference to “three election victories and 13 years in power”. I thought it would be worth having a systematic look at the figures in the first post and drawing some conclusions about what actually happened at all those elections. For each election that led to a change of government, I’ll highlight what seem to have been the main causal factors; I’ll also flag up any elections where the government has fallen despite the government vote not having dropped, the opposition vote not having risen, or both.

At the 1950 election Labour hung on to power, but it was a close thing; relative to 1945 the Labour vote grew by 10% but the Tory vote grew by nearer 30%, helped by a substantial rise in turnout. The Tories were still some way short of an overall majority, though. The 1951 election saw another increase in the vote for the Conservative Party, this time by 12%, giving them 13.6 million votes compared to 12.1 million in 1950 (and 8.6 million in 1945); however, the vote for the governing Labour Party also rose, from 13.3 to 13.9 million votes. So what happened?

A conventional explanation is that the Labour Party didn’t win votes in the right places, “piling up majorities in safe seats” while those wily Tories targeted their efforts at winning winnable seats. However, there’s a much simpler explanation, which is that the Liberal Party was broke. The Liberals had had a dreadful election in 1950, losing 300 deposits; another general election a year later was the last thing they wanted. In 1951 the Tories made a net gain of 20 seats, based almost exclusively on 21 seats that went directly from Labour to the Tories. Almost all of these were two-way fights – and in almost all of those there had been a Liberal candidate at the previous election. While there was a small rise in abstentions, the Liberal vote broke disproportionately towards the Tories; the main effect of the absence of a Liberal candidate was to bolster the Tory vote. So there’s our first data-point:

1951 Change of government due to MINOR-PARTY COLLAPSE; government vote UP

The Tories, bless their black hearts, hung on to power until 1964. In 1955 and 1959 the Tory vote gradually increased; the Liberal vote collapsed and then rebounded under the forward-looking leadership of Jo Grimond; and the Labour vote steadily declined. If we compare the election at which the Tories finally lost power with the previous one, however, the Labour vote was all but unchanged; in fact it had continued to fall, if only by 10,000. The big difference is a slump in the Conservative vote, offset by a rise in the Liberal vote; the two parties’ votes together dropped by 300,000 between the two elections, but the Tories’ vote alone fell by 1.7 million. The long period of Conservative domination had created the conditions for the Liberals to undermine a complacent government and differentiate themselves from an ineffectual opposition; Eric Lubbock’s 1962 by-election victory in Orpington, in particular, put wind in the Liberals’ sails. The result, ironically, was victory for a party whose vote had declined at every election since its defeat in 1951, and was now 1.7 million lower.

1964 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and MINOR-PARTY RESURGENCE; opposition vote DOWN

In 1966 Labour consolidated its position in government with an early election, in which it took votes from both the Conservatives and the Liberals. In 1970, however, the Conservatives won an election called tactically a year early, to the great surprise of the government and the opinion polls. The electorate had recently expanded with the enfranchisement of 18- to 20-year-olds; however, this does not appear to have affected the result, other than in a sudden increase in the number of non-voters. The government lost, the Opposition won; for once there isn’t a lot more to say.

1970 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and OPPOSITION STRENGTH

In February 1974, the governing Conservatives failed to achieve an overall majority owing to a combination of effects: a slight decline in the Conservative vote; an increase in the number of Labour MPs (despite a drop in the Labour vote); a near-tripling of the Liberal vote, eroding the votes of the two main parties and draining the pool of non-voters; and, not least, the decision of the Ulster Unionists not to take the Conservative whip (this alone would have stopped the Conservatives being the largest single party). The process whereby this combination of circumstances led to a minority Labour government was complex; what can be said, though, was that it had very little to do with voters preferring the Labour Party to the Tories. (In fact the Tories took more votes than Labour – and, compared to the previous election, both parties’ votes had declined.)

1974 Change of government due to MINOR-PARTY RESURGENCE and MINOR-PARTY REALIGNMENT; opposition vote DOWN

As 1966 had followed 1964, the minority government of February 1974 was followed by a fresh election in October; this was marked by a slump in turnout which hit the Tories and Liberals harder than the governing Labour party. 1979 is an interesting one, partly because (in retrospect) it was the end of British politics as we knew it, but mainly because the Tories’ victory had nothing to do with any change in the Labour vote. Compared to (October) 1974 Labour’s vote actually went up – Winter of Discontent, “crisis? what crisis?” and all. The figures suggest that Thatcher won by poaching votes from the Liberals and the SNP (1.5 million votes) and by mobilising non-voters and new voters (1.9 million votes). This isn’t too surprising when you think about it: Thatcher was a classic populist opposition leader – the politician who said things the others wouldn’t dare, who was going to teach the others a lesson, shake up the system, etc. In other words, she was the politician who people disillusioned with politics would vote for. And they did.

1979 Change of government due to OPPOSITION STRENGTH and MOBILISATION OF NON-VOTERS; government vote STATIC

In 1983 both main parties were affected by the advent of the SDP – Labour, for obvious reasons, more than the Tories. The SDP campaigned on ‘centrist’ policies: a series of posters portrayed the party as splitting the difference between Labour and Tory, or simply promising to maintain what was then the status quo instead of moving to the Right or Left. (One poster associated Labour with nationalisation and the Conservatives with privatisation; the SDP, by implication, would pursue neither. Taken literally, this would have meant keeping British Gas, British Telecommunications, British Coal and British Steel in the public sector, among much else.) There were some shibboleth issues, mainly in foreign and defence policy – maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent (pending multilateral nuclear disarmament) and ending any thought of withdrawing from the EEC or NATO – but in retrospect the SDP seems much less of a break with Labour’s past than New Labour would be. The new party’s positioning demanded sustained denunciations of Labour as excessively left-wing; whether there was enough of an ideological gulf between the two parties to justify this approach now looks rather dubious.

In any case, the new party’s 3.5 million votes coincide with a drop of 700,000 in the Tory vote and 3 million in the Labour vote. Blame for the low Labour vote is generally assigned to Michael Foot’s leadership and to the party’s left-wing manifesto. I think there’s some blame to spare for four former Cabinet ministers – including the best Home Secretary Labour ever had – who used extensive social and media connections to advertise their own rectitude and denounce the party which had enabled them to achieve anything, but that may just be me. It’s certainly hard to imagine that three million voters would have been sufficiently revolted by the state of the Labour Party to vote Liberal or abstain if the Gang of Four hadn’t left the party. (As it was, abstentions rose by 1.5 million; the euphoria of the SDP moment wasn’t for everyone.)

Over the next two elections some normality returned; the centre vote and the pool of non-voters were squeezed as both Labour and Tory votes rose. The Tory vote didn’t start falling until 1997, when John Major’s first full term limped to an end and another era began. How did Labour win? Like Thatcher, they squeezed some votes out of the Liberal (Democrat) area, but there the similarity ends. Unlike 1979, the governing party’s vote collapsed; also unlike 1979, the number of non-voters rose sharply. (Labour vote: up 1.9 million. Tory vote: down 4.5 million. Non-voters: up 3.3 million.) Yes, New Labour made the news and set the agenda – as the SDP did before – but in large parts of the country it looks as if what they really succeeded in doing was (in the immortal words of Willie Whitelaw) “stirring up apathy”.


2001 and 2005 were 1987 and 1992 in reverse: the Labour vote declined steadily (to levels below those of 1992 and 1987 respectively), but Labour won both elections handsomely. In 2005 I myself was one of those arguing that left-wingers shouldn’t vote Labour. Labour had been alienating its historic working-class base since 1997; the Left was more tenacious, but after Iraq a lot of us followed suit. That said, for me at least the advice not to vote Labour was explicitly on the basis that Labour wasn’t going to lose, whatever we did; the after-effects of the landslide of 1997 meant that the Tories still had a mountain to climb, even in 2005. But 1997 was a wasting asset. Like the Conservatives, Labour had a decade under the charismatic leader who had spearheaded their original victory, followed by a partial term under that leader’s successor; unlike the Conservatives, these were years of steadily diminishing electoral returns, culminating when Gordon Brown departed from John Major’s example by failing to win an election as leader in his own right.

2010 was in some ways an unremarkable election, repeating trends from the last election or two. Labour’s vote had been dropping; it dropped further. Abstentions had fallen in 2005; they fell again (although the level of non-voting was still extremely high). Votes for the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP had grown; all three grew again. The difference was that Labour no longer had enough of a cushion of votes to withstand these trends; the party duly lost its overall majority, ushering in a new age of coalition politics (we wish). In 2015, of course, things got complicated – and the government didn’t change – but that’s another story.


Seven election defeats isn’t much of a dataset, but let’s see if anything jumps out. The simple, seesaw pattern of vote change – more votes for the opposition party, fewer for the government – is involved in only three defeats, two of them of a Labour government (the third was the 1997 Labour victory). The Tory victory in 1979 rested on the strength of the opposition party, combined with voter mobilisation; Labour’s victory in 1964 rested on declining government support, even though the beneficiaries were the Liberals and not Labour. The other two changes of government – the Tories’ victory in 1951 and Labour’s in 1974 – rested mainly on minor-party effects.

Minor-party effects were involved in four results overall: a collapse benefiting the Tories; two resurgences, both benefiting Labour; and two realignments, one benefiting the Tories and one Labour. An increased opposition vote was a factor in three out of four Tory election victories, but only one out of the three Labour victories (1997). A declining government vote was a factor in four of the seven (two Tory, two Labour). There are some odd effects if we compare vote changes and election outcomes more broadly. Ten elections led to the Tories either taking or remaining in power; the Tory vote increased in all of these except 1983, when the Tory vote fell by 0.7 million. The other eight post-1945 elections led to Labour either taking or remaining in power; in as many of six of these, the Labour vote fell. Conversely, the Labour vote rose in five out of its ten defeats (1979 included); the Tories’ vote rose in only two of their eight defeats. Labour never seems to have won on the back of increased voter mobilisation, nor the Tories on the basis of demobilisation. The evidence generally suggests that the Tory vote is more solid than Labour’s and easier to mobilise; an uncomfortable number of those Labour wins look narrow or lucky. Moreover, despite the increase in the Labour vote between 1992 and 1997, this clearly isn’t a problem that New Labour fixed – or not without also driving down the Labour vote, with ultimately self-destructive consequences.

If Labour is going to win again, the party is going to have to repeat some of those tricks and learn some new ones. Specifically, I think they’ll need to learn to mobilise, if the next Labour victory isn’t going to be as chancy as 1964, as fragile as February 1974 or as unsustainable as 2005; that means having something to offer new voters and non-voters. Even if they don’t break with the low-mobilisation past – or rather, especially if they don’t – they’ll need three things: a strong centre, to chip away at the Tory base as in 1964 and 1974; a tired, discredited, and ineffectual government, as in 1964 and 1997, which means both making them look tired and discredited and making sure they are ineffectual; and strength in numbers, which means (among other things) Scotland.

Ah, Scotland…

TCM 1 – The past is prologue

This is the first in a series of posts on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and the issues it raises.

The charge most commonly thrown at Corbyn from the Right is that Labour couldn’t possibly win in 2020 under his leadership. So I’m going to start by looking at how Labour’s won before, and at trends in voting at General Elections more generally. I’m going to argue that vote shifts in General Elections since 1945 can be modelled using a reasonably small set of effects:

1. Straight Vote Switch

2. Mobilisation Effects
2.1. Selective Mobilisation (Benefiting Incumbent)
2.2. Selective Mobilisation (Benefiting Opposition)
2.3. Selective Demobilisation (Benefiting Incumbent)
2.4. Selective Demobilisation (Benefiting Opposition)
2.5. General Demobilisation
(I haven’t got any examples of general mobilisation.)

3. Minor-Party Effects
3.1. Minor Party Surge (Benefiting Incumbent)
3.2. Minor Party Surge (Benefiting Opposition)
3.3. Minor Party Squeeze (Benefiting Incumbent)
3.4. Minor Party Squeeze (Benefiting Opposition)

4. Incumbency Effects
4.1. Consolidation In Office
4.2. Fightback In Opposition


Disclaimers: I’m not a political scientist or a historian of the period (although I have lived through most of it); for the most part I’m going to be ignoring day-to-day or even month-to-month politics and discounting the two- or three-way shifts in loyalty which take place in reality. It’s a simplistic model, but I think we can make it talk.

Labour won the 1945 election with a majority of 146, gained from 12 million votes – just under 48% of the total votes cast, and more than the votes gained by the Tories and Liberals combined. (The thin green line you can just make out in the left-most column, incidentally, represents 300,000 votes cast for the Communist Party and the left-wing Common Wealth party – votes which elected two MPs and one, respectively.) The figure to focus on here is the 8.9 million non-voters (turnout was 72.8%). In 1950 the voting public made up a significantly larger proportion (83.9%) of a larger electorate. Labour picked up some of the increase, but the Tories picked up more; Labour won with an overall majority of five. This is the first pattern I want to highlight: (2.2) Selective Mobilisation. Mobilisation in this sense isn’t a matter of winning voters from one party to another, or even ‘getting the vote out’ in the door-knocking and lift-to-the-polls sense, but of motivating potential voters: making the political weather to the point where voting for a particular party seems sensible. The point is simply to persuade supporters to vote rather than not bothering; getting them to feel that turning out to vote is a good idea, even if it hadn’t seemed to be before. Given the increased size of the electorate it’s hard to be certain where the votes for any party came from, but the fact that abstentions fell by 3.4 million and the Tory vote rose by 2.5 million looks decidedly suggestive.

The second pattern I want to draw attention to makes its appearance in 1951, when the Attlee government ill-advisedly called an election in the hope of increasing its majority. Labour certainly increased its vote, winning the most votes the party had (and has) ever won, but the Tories increased theirs more and did so more effectively. The key mechanism here was the (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze. The 1.8 million votes shown here for Liberals includes 1.1 million votes for the ‘National Liberals’, a Tory-allied splinter dating back to Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government. The National Liberal vote went up slightly between 1950 and 1951, but the true Liberal vote plummeted from 2.6 million to 700,000. A third-party squeeze allowed the second party to achieve a gain of 22 seats – and a change of government – even while the Labour vote increased; Labour vote share in 1951 was 48.8%, even higher than it had been in 1945.

If we look at the next two elections – 1955 and 1959 – two patterns are discernible. One is (4.1) Consolidation In Office: over three successive elections the Tory vote grows, little by little, and the Labour vote declines. The other, particularly apparent in 1955, is (2.3) Selective Demobilisation, benefiting the party in office. The reverse of mobilisation, this – again – isn’t a matter of persuading opposition voters to switch parties, but simply demoralising them to the point where they stay at home. (I’m not saying that this was Tory party strategy – or even that anyone set out to achieve it; the main agents of Labour voter demoralisation may well have been the Labour Party. I’m just saying that the figures seem to suggest that it happened: electorate up by half a million or less, non-voters up by 2.1 million, Labour vote down by 1.5 million.) Patterns 3 and 4 are both essentially Labour/Tory phenomena in these years; the Liberal vote is unaffected, holding up between 1951 and 1955, then growing markedly in 1959 under the incoming leadership of Jo Grimond. (What looks like a collapse in 1955 is down to the almost total dissolution of the National Liberals into the Tory Party.)

The Tories’ reign came to an end in 1964, when the Labour vote leapt from 12.2 million to, er, 12.2 million; the national vote was actually 10,000 lower in 1964 than 1959. What had changed, however, was the Tory/Liberal share of the vote – or, to be more precise, the Tory/Liberal/non-voter share of voters. Here we see another pattern: the (3.2) Minor Party Surge, cracking the political pack-ice to the benefit of the main opposition party (in this case, Labour). Which in turn called an early election in 1966, pulling off a classic example of (4.1) Consolidation In Office by taking votes both from the Liberals and directly from the Tories.

What happened next?


The size of the electorate jumped between 1966 and 1970, due to Wilson’s government giving 18-year-olds the vote. As you can see, Labour didn’t gain from this. In fact none of the patterns identified up to now really fits the way that Edward Heath’s Tory government came to power. Let’s just call it a (1) Straight Vote Switch – the simplest and (one might assume) most common way for an election to change things in a two-party system, appearing now for the first time in seven elections.

After the February 1974 election, Harold Wilson formed a minority government reliant on, among others, the Ulster Unionists, who had just broken with the Tories. What made it possible was, once again, a (3.2) Minor Party Surge to the benefit of the opposition. (Thanks again, Liberals!) The October 1974 election was called in an attempt at (4.1) Consolidation In Office; unfortunately the Labour vote actually dropped. However, the Tory vote dropped by a lot more; Labour achieved the desired result – a parliamentary majority – through (2.3) Selective Demobilisation. (Labour’s majority was 3 – smaller than the majority which had prompted Attlee to call the 1951 election.) This was also the period of the SNP’s first surge, from 100,000 votes in 1966 to 300,000 in 1970, 600,000 in February 1974 and now 800,000. The devolution referendum in 1979, closely followed by Margaret Thatcher’s election, would put this into reverse.

As for Thatcher, what these figures suggest very strongly is that her victory in 1979 was almost entirely a question of (2.2) Selective Mobilisation, with a bit of (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze on the side. The Tories may have taken votes from the Liberals and the SNP, but there is no sign that they took any directly from Labour; the Labour vote actually went up compared to October 1974. (An alternative reading is that a Labour->Tory outflow was balanced by SNP->Labour and Liberal->Labour inflows. Either way, Labour didn’t get any less popular.) The main contributor to the massive increase in the Tory vote – from 10.5 million to 13.7 million – seems to have been a drop of nearly 2 million in the number of non-voters. The thin dark blue line you can make out near the top of the column, incidentally, is Britain’s first substantial far-Right vote: 200,000 votes for the National Front.

Bring on phase three:

Screen shot 2015-07-29 at 11.52.51

Research published recently has argued that the ‘Falklands Factor’ had very little effect on the Tories’ poll ratings, and had dissipated by the time of the election the following year. If anything accounted for Thatcher’s second victory, the paper argued, it was our old friend the economy, and people’s subjective perceptions that their prospects were improving. I’m happy to bid the Falklands farewell, but I’m not sure that the voting figures support the second argument. What leaps out is the huge success of the SDP/Liberal Alliance, who put on 3.5 million votes relative to the Liberals’ vote in 1979; Labour’s vote, meanwhile, fell by 3 million compared to four years earlier. The Tories’ vote actually fell, as did overall turnout (from 76% back down to the 73% of October 1974). In short, what we’re looking at here is a rare example of (3.1) Minor Party Surge to the benefit of the incumbent.

The next couple of elections are interesting (to look back on; they were heartbreaking to live through). There’s (4.1) Consolidation In Office, with the Tory vote increasing at both elections; John Major’s 14.1 million is the highest vote ever obtained by any UK political party. But there’s also (4.2) Fightback In Opposition, with the Labour vote also increasing both times – and by substantially more. (The Tories’ share of the vote drops slightly over the period, from 42.4% to 41.9%. Labour’s share increases from 27.6% to 34.4%.) These increases are paid for by a combination of (2.1/2) Selective Mobilisation (benefiting both the leading parties – although Labour more than the Tories) and (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze (in Labour’s favour). Politics over the period was getting steadily more interesting – only 9.5 million non-voters in 1992, the lowest figure since February 1974 – and more polarised between the two main parties; and the balance between the two was steadily shifting towards Labour.

Then came 1997, which seemed to represent a triumphal culmination to the growth of Labour in opposition. Actually, as we can see, it reversed most of the trends which had been operating. The (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze continued to work for Labour, but it was accompanied by something that hadn’t been seen since 1970 – a large-scale (1) Straight Vote Switch – and another shift which hadn’t been seen at all since the War: (2.4) Selective Demobilisation of the incumbent party’s support. The increase in Labour’s vote (1.9 million) was huge; the drop in Tory support was more than twice as big. For those of us who remember this period, this both is and isn’t surprising. We can certainly remember the wheels coming off the Tory Party: John Major’s genius move, putting Thatcher’s transformation of the political landscape in the bank and fronting it with the appearance of reasoned moderation, stopped working more or less as soon as he had to start coming up with policies of his own. The sense that absolutely tons of people were voting Labour nowadays – and that hardly anyone was voting Tory any more – was certainly in the air that May. But look at that huge increase in non-voters – and look at the size of that dark blue stripe (100,000 UKIP votes and 800,000 for Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party). The idea that Tony Blair’s success, right from the outset, might have depended in part on encouraging a lot of Labour’s opponents not to bother voting – and, perhaps, encouraging another slice of people to go right to the extreme and cast a harmless ‘expressive’ vote – is unpleasantly thought-provoking. All the more so in the light of what happened in phase four:

Screen shot 2015-07-29 at 11.53.02

Just look at 2001. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, for the first time in a British post-war General Election, (2.5) General Demobilisation. The Greens’ vote had more than doubled and UKIP’s nearly quadrupled – although this didn’t make up for the loss of the Referendum Party – but all the major parties showed big declines in their vote as compared to 1997: the Lib Dems were down 10%, the Tories 12% and Labour 20%. Not only was Labour’s vote was below the level at which Kinnock had lost in 1992; it was below the number of votes gained by Callaghan’s Labour Party in 1979, despite the electorate having grown by nearly 10% over those 22 years. The number of non-voters was unprecedentedly high – for the first time ever, non-voters outnumbered voters for the winning party. Helped, perhaps, by the former more than the latter, Labour secured a second three-figure majority.

At the 2005 election things got still worse for Labour: general demobilisation was replaced by (2.2) Selective Mobilisation of both the other two parties, together with a (1) Straight Vote Switch away from Labour, for reasons that don’t need repeating here. The Lib Dems, who opposed the Iraq war, were the main beneficiary; they gained 1.2 million votes where Labour lost 1.1 million. (The number of non-voters also fell by a million in this period, however; it’s impossible to identify flows with any certainty from data at this level of generality.) There were also the early signs of an impending (3.2) Minor Party Surge from the Kippers. In 2010, epoch-making election though it was, nothing much actually changed. That is, exactly the same things happened as had happened in 2005: the number of non-voters fell; the Tory, Lib Dem and UKIP votes rose; and the Labour vote (already in 2005 the second lowest since the War) fell again. The only significant change was that, in this period, the Tories were more effective than the Lib Dems in re-mobilising their dormant vote (and, perhaps, attracting Labour voters); the two parties’ votes grew by 20% and 13% respectively between 2005 and 2010, as opposed to 5% and 25% between 2001 and 2005. Labour’s vote fell by 10% in both periods. If 2010 was the end of New Labour, then – judging purely in terms of electoral success – New Labour left the party in an appallingly bad state.

The 2015 election was the first since 1997 when the Labour Party’s vote actually increased relative to the previous General Election. So that’s a (4.2) Fightback In Opposition. Unfortunately for Labour it was accompanied by (4.1) Consolidation In Office, along with the bizarre and unprecedented combination of a (3.3) Minor Party Squeeze (Benefiting Incumbent) with a (3.1) Minor Party Surge (Benefiting Incumbent). To be precise, there were three separate minor party surges; while UKIP will certainly have cost the Tories votes, the other two hurt Labour far more. The non-Labour centre-Left wind is blowing far harder against Labour now than it ever did against New Labour (for reasons that may not be mysterious); if we assume that half of the increase in Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru votes in 2015 came from erstwhile Labour voters (a fairly conservative estimate), then Labour effectively needed to gain a million votes just to stand still. Labour actually put on 700,000 votes. For comparison, in 1997 – the only New Labour election which is comparable, as Labour lost votes in all the others – Labour’s vote was up by 1.9 million on the previous election; the Greens and the two nationalist parties between them were down by 100,000 votes. The dog that didn’t bark this year, at least as far as the overall figures can tell us, was mobilisation; a lot of people have got out of the habit of voting since 1997, and the 2015 vote wasn’t enough to get them back into it. Here again there may be a more complex picture if we drill down – mobilisation in Scotland, demobilisation in Lib Dem country? – but the overall picture is static.

So, what have we learnt?

Why Do Governments Fall?

That’s a very interesting question, which I’ll answer if I may by pointing out that nobody has any idea. But my simplistic model does suggest that, on the seven occasions when the government has changed hands since 1945, the following factors have been at work in vote changes:

1. Straight Vote Switch (1970, 1997 and 2010): voters for one party switch to another
2.2. Selective Mobilisation (1979 and 2010): ‘dormant’ voters for the main opposition party become more likely to vote
2.4. Selective Demobilisation (1997): voters for the incumbent become less likely to vote
3.2. Minor Party Surge (1964, 1974, 2010): a rise in support for a minor party cuts away the incumbent’s base
3.4. Minor Party Squeeze (1951, 1979, 1997): the main opposition party poaches support from a minor party

However, most of these have also been a factor on one on the ten occasions when government hasn’t changed hands. The only ones which haven’t are

2.4. Selective Demobilisation
3.2. Minor Party Surge

Which seems to suggest that the best way to win an election is to join a different party. Politics is hard.

We can draw a few conclusions, though. Here are four.

1. Vote Switches Are Rare

In 17 elections (from 1950 to 2015), large-scale vote switching from party A to party B is only identifiable on four occasions – 1970, 1997, 2005 and 2010. One of those didn’t lead to a change of government; out of the other three, 1970 is the only case where large-scale vote-switching is the only identifiable factor.

2. Minor Parties Are Crucial

A minor party squeeze is identifiable in six of these elections – 1951, 1979, 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2015; a minor party surge in five (1964, 1974, 1983, 2010 and 2015 again). Six of these ten elections led to a change of government.

3. Mobilisation Is Important

Selective mobilisation – which rests, not on getting the vote out, but on ‘making the weather’ in your party’s favour; doing the Gramscian thing and getting your ideas into the common sense of the age – seems to have been a factor in 1950, 1979, 1987, 1992, 2005 and 2010. Admittedly only two of those elections led to a change of government, but all the other four either laid the groundwork for a change of government or seemed to at the time (1997, as I’ve argued above, was as much a break with the earlier trend as a continuation). The story of demobilisation is more interesting. It’s at work in 1955, 1959 and October 1974, in each case helping consolidate a previous election victory. It’s turned against the incumbent in 1997, and effectively goes viral in 2001; the total number of non-voters never reached 12 million before 1997, and has never fallen below 15 million since 2001.

4. New Labour Was Weird

For Labour to win a landslide victory, on a wave of public euphoria, with promises to transform the entire political landscape, on the back of a substantial fall in turnout (from 77.7% to 71.6%) was, in retrospect, odd. Following this with a second landslide victory on the back of an even bigger decline in turnout was very odd indeed, particularly when Labour’s vote fell considerably more than any of the other parties’. And gaining a third victory – not a landslide this time, admittedly, but a very substantial majority – on an even smaller number of votes, when both overall turnout and the other major parties’ votes were starting to pick up; that was downright flukey. Neither Blair nor anyone else was going to ride that kind of luck to a fourth election victory. Perhaps 2010 was New Labour’s Best Before date.

Still, New Labour did make some enduring changes to British politics, and I fear that lower turnout may turn out to be one of them. In an odd way there may be some truth in the absurd story put about by some Labour people after the 1983 election – that people hadn’t bothered to vote because they were so happy with how things were going. Part of the positive message of New Labour was that there was a whole new approach to doing politics – an approach which didn’t have anything to do with class conflict (or any other kind of conflict), which promoted a combination of practitioner expertise and scientific management techniques, and which generally looked a lot like managerialism. It would be easy to take from that the message that politics wasn’t something ordinary people needed to worry about – the machine would go on working, in much the same way, whether we tried to get involved or not. The negative message of New Labour, on the other hand, was that this new way of doing politics was going to be the only game in town whether you liked it or not; if you weren’t going to be part of the solution, well, sod you. I think a lot of people – mostly but by no means exclusively on the Right – picked up on this and thought well, sod you then. And gave up on voting – either for good, or just until a “sod the lot of ’em” candidate came along.

Maybe managerialism on one side and disengagement on the other is the modern (post-modern?) condition; maybe weird is the new normal. Or maybe New Labour is over; maybe the belief that, underneath it all, the elitist managerial approach to politics was about something has gone for good. Maybe the only way to win elections on that basis is to be cynical, divisive, dishonest and lucky. In which case Labour is definitely going to need some new tricks for 2020.

Why The Post-War History Of Britain Shows That We Must Support My Politics

Can Labour win again? It’s going to be hard to win any kind of majority on the basis of simple vote-switching; the Labour vote is just too low – and the Tory vote is still well below its Thatcher-era highs, suggesting that 2015 Tory voters are likely to be relatively hard to detach. If we imagine the Labour vote going up by two million, entirely at the expense of the Tories – which is more than Labour achieved in 1997 – the resultant vote would put Labour on the level of 1992, a whisker ahead of 1979.

Labour needs to think much more strategically. Tory-to-Labour switches are nice to have, but what the party really needs is the reversal of the other main trends at work in 2010 and 2015. In other words, what’s needed is a (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze, a (3.2) Minor Party Surge and (2.4) Selective Demobilisation. Firstly, Labour needs to win (back) votes from the SNP and (to a lesser extent) the Greens; if we can win votes back from UKIP as well, so much the better. Secondly, we need a strong Liberal Democrat Party – but one that’s strong against the Tories, as it was from 1997 to 2010. Thirdly, while I’m loath to discourage anyone from voting, it would help Labour a lot if people leaning towards the Tories were that much less likely to vote; if, when you said ‘Vote’, people tended to complete the sentence with ‘Labour’. At the last election the precise opposite seems to have been the case, with the effects that we know (on the polls as well as the result).

The question then is, what kind of party is going to be able to do those things and/or foster the conditions in which those things happen? Whose approach will be better at winning voters back from the Greens and the SNP – a Labourite hack who sees one lot as tree-huggers and the other as tartan Tories, or a principled socialist who sees them both as friendly rivals? Which approach will do less damage to Tim Farron’s crusade to retake the West Country – scrapping over the middle ground and denouncing the Lib Dems as soft on drugs and civil liberties, or seeing them as nice well-meaning halfway-house merchants and leaving them to it? What’s the best way to make voting Labour seem a sensible, normal part of everyday life – tell the workers you understand their resentments and hatreds, or talk to them about their working conditions?

I believe Labour’s going to have to move to the Left; anything else really is throwing the next election, if not the one after. (The fact that I have always believed that Labour should move to the Left is merely a happy coincidence.)

Next: we need to talk about Scotland.

Cap in hand (1)

As the dullest and most weirdly static election campaign of my adult life drags to a… hold on, let’s check that. 1979 was a historic disaster; 1983 was all the fun of having our faces rubbed in it, with the added piquancy of some terribly nice middle-class people splitting the Left down the middle and doing Thatcher’s dirty work for her. 1987 wasn’t all that dramatic, Kinnock: The Movie apart – Labour did well, but it would have been surprising if they’d done well enough to win. It left the Tories with quite a small majority, though, and felt like a step in the right direction. 1992, on the other hand, was a crushing disappointment: lots of us thought that Labour could at least manage a hung parliament – which would lead to an alliance with the Lib Dems, which would necessarily (ha!) lead to PR, which would give the Left its own voice in Parliament and generally shake things up big time. 1997, well. In retrospect 1997 was a bit like the SDP coming back from the grave and actually achieving the kind of mould-breaking mind-wipe they threatened to bring off in 1982; if you weren’t swept along, it was quite strange. Dull it wasn’t, though. I don’t remember much about the 2001 election, but this may be because my father died a few weeks afterwards – to say nothing of what happened a couple of months after that. Then there was 2005 – the election of ‘Backing Blair’ and the mobilisation of the anti-Iraq vote – and 2010, which was anything but dull.

So yes, this is the dullest and most static, etc. And, perhaps, the oddest. The other thing that jumps out from that quick retrospective is that the two least interesting elections in the last 40 years – 1987 and 2001 – were the ones where there was least at stake (reasonably enough): nobody really expected Labour to win in 1987 or the Tories in 2001. On paper the situation we’re in now is more like what we faced eighteen years ago in 1997, or (oddly) eighteen years before that in 1979: an exhausted governing party with no new ideas, beset by internal rivalries and dependent on deals with minor parties to get legislation through, is faced by a united opposition party with an untried but confident leader. And yet voters don’t seem to be abandoning Cameron as their predecessors abandoned Callaghan and Major respectively, and there’s no sign of a Thatcher- or Blair-scale swing to Miliband. In fact, nothing seems to be happening at all. Well, perhaps not nothing; I’m as fond of psephological close-reading as the next geek, and it is the case that – although the last crop of polls wasn’t obviously favourable to Labour – every one of them represented either an increase in Labour preferences or a drop for the Tories relative to the previous poll from the same polling organisation. Zoom out a bit, though, and it’s hard to deny that very little has happened since January.

(Chart c/o UK Polling Report.) Feel the stasis! A few Kippers have drifted back to the Tories and a few Greens back to Labour and the Lib Dems, but otherwise we are still pretty much where we were.

Which is to say, we are still facing a post-election impasse that will make the arithmetic of 2010 look like child’s play. All the projections point to a hung parliament, and one that can’t be turned into a stable majority by simply putting two parties’ MPs together, as Cameron and Clegg did in 2010. What’s more, it looks as if these conditions are here to stay. Look at this chart:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.08.57

(The last column is a projection, but everything up to there shows what actually happened.) Look, in particular, at what happened along the top of the chart in February 1974, 1983 and 1997. Although there were Ulster Unionists in each of the parliaments prior to 1974, it was only in February 1974 that they stopped automatically voting with the Tories; from that point on they could be filed under ‘Others’. The Liberals also got a boost that year – getting into double figures for the first time since 1950 – while the first SNP surge took them to 11 MPs in October 1974. In 1983, following the number the Gang of Four had done on the Labour party, the SDP/Liberal Alliance doubled the Liberals’ previous number of MPs – from 11 to 23. Then in 1997, with the collapse of the Tory vote, the Liberal Democrats had another leap forward, taking 46 seats; the same year, the SNP took 6 (having previously fallen back to 3).

What’s particularly striking is that, despite the ebbs and flows in particular parties’ representation (and the Lib Dems are headed for another ebb this year), the direction of travel is fairly constant: 1974, 1983 and 1997 weren’t turning points so much as inflection points in the gradual disintegration of a parliamentary duopoly. Plurality voting in single-member constituencies is notoriously slow to register shifts in public loyalties, but they get picked up eventually – and once they’ve been registered they aren’t entirely forgotten. People get out of the habit of voting either Labour or Tory – at different times and for different reasons, but once it’s happened it remains an available option. And once it’s happened on a larger scale, it remains an option available to a larger number of people. The process never seem to go into reverse for very long or by very much. The picture’s clearer in this simplified version:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.10.23

The 1945 Parliament had an unusually high rate of representation of small parties, particularly on the Left – Independent Labour Party, Common Wealth, Communist. Even then, the combined parliamentary strength of the Labour and Tory parties amounted to over 96% of the House of Commons; between then and 1974 it only dropped below 98% once. (And no, I’m not excluding Northern Irish seats: there was little or no Nationalist representation in this period, and the Unionists took the Tory whip.) The Labour/Tory figure fell to below 95% in 1974 and continued to fall, dropping below 94% in 1983, below 90% in 1997 and falling to 85.8% in 2005. Unless something very unusual (relative to current poll data) happens on May 7th, the figure in the next Parliament will be similar – which is to say, Labour and the Tories between them will have around 560 MPs total, out of 650 (the 2005 figure was 554 out of 646).

What this means is that, over time, a ‘small party’ group of MPs has been developing, which can’t be ignored in the way that the six Liberals in the 1959 parliament could be. In 2015, for the third election running, that group looks like numbering 85-90. This in turn means that thinking about overall majorities has got a lot more difficult. In 1964 Labour took 51% of those seats that were either Labour or Tory and gained an overall majority, with 50.3% of all seats. In 2010 the Tories took 307 seats – 54.3% of the Labour/Tory bloc but only 47.2% of all seats. You can see how the two ratios – largest party / total and largest party / largest + runner-up – have diverged over the years here:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 20.23.09

The gap between the red and blue points in 2010 – the difference between an overall minority and a substantial majority of Labour/Tory seats – is the result of a ‘minor party’ bloc of 85 MPs. If we hold those 85 seats constant, the only way for the Tories to gain an absolute majority would have been to raise their share of the Labour/Tory bloc to 57.7% – and, while this kind of domination was achieved by Thatcher and Blair in their time, it was clearly beyond Cameron’s reach. The projection I’m using for 2015 has Labour as the largest single party, with 295 seats – 52.9% of Labour or Tory seats, but only 45.4% of the total; again, only a huge victory over the Tories would give an overall majority, and this doesn’t currently seem remotely likely. The same goes for the Tories, mutatis mutandis; while we don’t know which of the two will be the largest party on May 8th, by that same token we can be reasonably confident that there are no landslides in the offing.

This isn’t to say that major-party hegemony is a thing of the past – on the contrary, the hegemony of the major parties is alive and well. But these figures do suggest that the major parties’ duopoly is (a) gone and (b) not coming back: from here on in, nobody gets to form a government on their own. In that context, Labour has an enormous advantage over the Conservatives: from the radical leftists of the Green Party to the reactionaries of the DUP, everyone wants to work with them. The only party that has overtly expressed a preference for a Conservative-led government is UKIP, and that’s an endorsement which the Tories might prefer to be without. (To be fair, Nick Clegg on behalf of the Lib Dems has said something similar through the medium of nudges and winks – but he’s also said he rules out working with UKIP, which would make a blue/orange/purple rainbow alliance a bit problematic.)

The SNP in particular is going to be a major presence in Parliament after May 7th; they have made it quite plain that they’re ready and willing to work with Labour, and that they’ve got no interest in working with the Tories. It’s a major weakness for the Tories, and a major asset for Labour. So why are the Tories currently working so hard to advertise this weakness as if it was a strength – and denouncing Labour’s strength as if it was a weakness? And why on earth is Labour letting them?

(Some answers in part two.)

Chard Whitlow

Odd how it can work. I’m doing a lot of reading on the topic of the rule of law, considered as not only a liberal but potentially a radical ideal; this is in connection with the paper I outlined here (and mentioned I was stuck on here). So naturally I read Edward Thompson’s afterword to Whigs and Hunters (featuring the famous assertion that the rule of law can be called “an unqualified human good”) and Douglas Hay’s “Property, authority and the criminal law”, the opening chapter of Albion’s Fatal Tree.  Naturally I agreed with the first, finding the second equally challenging and confusing (I’m hoping I can make something productive out of my confusion). A quick Google found me a withering critique of Hay’s essay, John Langbein’s “Albion‘s Fatal Flaws” (you see what he did there); it seemed pretty convincing. I was curious as to how Hay’s thought had developed in the last 40 years – “Property” etc was excerpted from his doctoral dissertation, for which alone much respect is due – and got hold of the 2011 Verso reissue. Hay’s contribution to the 2011 Introduction led me to Peter Linebaugh’s superb response to Langbein, which left his critique in tatters (albeit on the basis of a fairly generous reading of Hay; Linebaugh’s Hay seemed more persuasive and more coherent than the original had done). Hay also cited work by Peter King, John Beattie and Alan Hyde, all of which I duly tracked down.

In the Introduction and elsewhere, Hay engaged more extensively with some critics than others; Hyde in particular he dismissed rather breezily (“Hyde (in the face of daily evidence from his own government, as well as our historical sources) seemed to think legitimation appeals made by elites were figments of our imagination.”). Being a cross-grained sort, I was intrigued by this and tracked the paper down. Hyde’s paper – “The concept of legitimation in the sociology of law” – is a critique of the Weberian concept of legitimation, arguing that it’s not necessary to explain either law-compliant behaviour or law-making, and hence that explanations of these phenomena which rely on it should be re-examined. Whether Hay was working in a Weberian framework is a moot point; I’m inclined to infer from the references to ideology and ruling-class hegemony – and from Linebaugh’s characterisation of his and Hay’s shared project as “(Marxist) social history” – that his background assumptions were Marxist and specifically Gramscian. However, this may make little difference; Hyde doesn’t mention Gramsci, but he does suggest that the Marxist framework of material base and ideological superstructure is vulnerable to very similar criticisms. Which is to say, both answer variants of the same question – “why do people do things to which they’re not motivated by habit, goal-seeking self-interest or prudence?” – and, Hyde suggests, this may not be a question worth asking. To find law-compliant behaviour solely (and hence incontrovertibly) motivated by a belief in legitimacy, one would need to pass a new (and recognisably novel) law, with a direct effect on individual behaviour, but with no benefit in compliance, no social pressure for conformity and no sanction for non-compliance; it’s difficult to imagine what this might be, let alone to speculate on whether everyone (or anyone) would comply. Identifying behaviour solely motivated by investment in ruling-class ideology is even harder: laws can change overnight, but – outside the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four – ideologies generally change slowly, making it very difficult to disentangle the effects of habit and prudential conformity from those of the ideology itself.

I don’t go all the way with Hyde; I don’t think anyone with an interest in protest and political disorder can afford to discard the concept of legitimacy. David Friedrichs’ 1986 response to Hyde is a useful corrective, arguing that we can distinguish constructively between the belief in substantive legitimacy and its withdrawal (“they have no right to rule us”), the belief in procedural legitimacy and its withdrawal (“they had no right to pass that law/detain those people/kill that man”) and the fact of popular legitimacy and its loss (“they don’t speak for us”). Tracing interactions between the three is left as an exercise for the reader. But legitimacy in this sense is an attribute of subjects’ relationship with any particular regime or class, rather than a social fact in itself; if anything it’s a kind of meta-textual attribute of ideological beliefs, its absence serving as a signal that a certain ideology no longer holds sway or should hold sway. And, to the extent that we are materialists, we can’t really argue that ideological change and stability are autonomous phenomena operating on their own ideological plane, let alone that they’re produced through changes to the material basis of society carried out to perpetuate a given ideology. To say that a particular regime is legitimate – or that a particular class is hegemonic – is a sociological statement of fact. But hegemony and legitimacy are attributes of a state of affairs with material bases. To speak of a regime actively preserving its legitimacy, or even a class actively maintaining its hegemony, may be to put the superstructural cart before the material horse.

Hay put forward the case that “the criminal law, more than any other social institution, made it possible to govern eighteenth-century England without a police force and without a large army”. On inspection the word ‘govern’ is equivocal: granted all that AFT tells us about disputes over property rights and use rights, we are not talking about the governance of a rebellious people, the continual repression of myriad local revolts. The question Hay is answering is not how revolt was repressed, but why it didn’t occur: why people very largely obeyed the law, continued to believe in the law and continued to believe their government to be legitimate. And here, I think, a purely ideological answer, based on the introjection of ruling-class norms (including the norms of law and justice), cannot be satisfactory.

This materialist argument finds support from a surprising source – and one which itself draws support from a surprising quarter. Hyde:

Unlike the labor law of earlier eras, contemporary labor law is rarely the weapon of choice of a strong employer class against a weak worker class. Rather, labor legislation in contemporary capitalism is almost always a concession made to troublesome or insurgent workers’ movements. For example, following the wave of wildcat strikes in Western Europe between 1968 and 1971, every affected country made fundamental revisions in its system of labor law, all involving concessions to organized unions in an attempt to solidify the unions’ organizational positions in the plant, on work councils, on corporate boards, etc. In many cases the concessions merely adopted as public policy what had been true defacto. The precise content of the concession varied from country to country depending on union political demands, but the variation seems almost irrelevant next to the fact that there were such concessions to the unions.

If this explanation is correct, it is possible to conclude that labor law has enormous symbolic importance, that workers can achieve changes in labor law, but that employers and governments retain considerable choice over the range of possible concessions. What the above story does not permit one to conclude is that this post-1968 legislation had any particular effect on working people, and in particular did or did not “legitimate” the system for them or render disobedience or revolt more or less likely.

The argument here is that the state of labour law at any one time reflects the balance of power between the bosses and the workers (and their representatives). More generally, law is an outcome of class struggle, or the absence of class struggle; it conditions the way class conflict plays out, but it is also conditioned by it – and cannot itself repress it.

I found this argument particularly congenial because of something I was writing a few years ago, before I ever considered the law as a field of study. Take it away, Edwards (2009, p11, references omitted):

From 1969 onwards the increasing political salience of the new movements prompted a resurgence in activity by the unions. Wage levels across Italian industry were set through three-year contracts between unions and employers’ organisations, which were due for renewal in 1969. CGIL organisers worked to integrate the more innovative forms of industrial action into contractual campaigns. As Franco Berardi of Potere Operaio recalled, ‘again and again, autonomous organisations organised strikes in a single section of a factory, after which the union came in, asked all the workers what their demand was, and used it to regain control of a struggle which had completely got out of their hands’.

The contracts signed in December 1969 were highly favourable. Wage rises outstripped inflation; working hours were to be reduced in stages, with a 40-hour week promised within three years; parity between clerical and manual workers, a central workerist demand, was conceded in principle. December 1969 also saw the passage of the Statuto dei Lavoratori (‘Workers’ Statute’). This became law the following May, together with a general amnesty for those who had been charged with offences relating to industrial action: disorderly and violent acts committed by factory activists ceased to have been criminal offences. Feeling that the government and the employers had been forced to back down, some groups began campaigning on new or modified demands: abolition of piecework, mass regrading, an immediate 40-hour week. However, many workers saw the contracts as a result with which they could be content. This view was encouraged by the unions, whose own position within the workplace had been greatly enhanced; for instance, the Statute entitled them to hold meetings in work time.

I make it four parties rather than two – the unions, movements like Potere Operaio, the workers whose support was contested and the bosses – but it turns out that I was telling a similar story at this early point in my book. Although I was writing a work of political sociology set among the Italian social movements of the 1970s, I’d already recognised the law as a significant terrain of struggle, where norms and meanings could be made and unmade – note those fascinated italics (“ceased to have been criminal offences”). Law as “an arena for class struggle, within which alternative notions of law were fought out”, to quote Thompson again (this time from his anti-Althusserian polemic The Poverty of Theory); but notions worth fighting out, in the form of law.

Nice to realise I’ve been on the right lines (or at least the same lines!) all along. We shall not cease from exploring, eh? And this time last year I was fifty-three.


STALINGRAD (Peter Blackman)

Hushed was the world
And oh, dark agony that suspense shook upon us
While hate came flooding o’er your wide savannas
Plunging pestilence against you –
All that stood to state: “Where men meet
There meets one human race!”

Therefore did men from Moscow to the Arctic
Rounding Vladivostok to the South where Kazbek lifts its peak
Still work and working waited news of Stalingrad
And from Cape to white Sahara
Men asked news of Stalingrad
Town and village waited what had come of Stalingrad
The tom-tom beat across thick forest
While every evening at Palava
Old men told of Stalingrad
The gauchos caught the pampas whisper
The windswept hope of Stalingrad
And in the far Canadian north
Trappers left their baiting for the latest out of Stalingrad
In the factories and coal fields
Each shift waited what last had come from Stalingrad
While statesmen searched the dispatch boxes
What they brought of Stalingrad
And women stopped at house work
Held their children close to hear
What was afoot at Stalingrad
For well men knew that there
A thousand years was thrown the fate of the peoples
Stalingrad, oh star of glory
Star of hope, oh star of flame

Oh what a midwife for this glory
Take for the pattern Pavlov and his men
A soviet soldier and his nine companions
Who full seven weeks sleepless by night and day
Fought nor gave ground
They knew that with them lay
That where men meet should meet one human race

Carpenters who had built houses
Wanted only to build more
Painters who still painted pictures
Wanted only to paint more
Men who sang life strong in laughter
Wanted only to sing more
Men who planted wheat and cotton
Wanted only to plant more
Men who set the years in freedom
Sure they would be slaves no more
They spoke peace to their neighbours in tilling
For in peace they would eat their bread
Uzbeks, Tatars, Letts, Ukranians
Russians, Muscovites, Armenians
Who ringed forests wide around arctic
Brought sands to blossom, tundras dressed for spring
These kept faith in Stalin’s town
We may not weep for those who silent now rest here
Garland these graves
These lives have garlanded all our remaining days with hope
Stalingrad, oh star of glory
Star of hope, here spread your flame

Now when news broke that Stalingrad
Still lives upon the banks of Volga
That Stalingrad was still a Soviet town
Then the turner flung his lathe light as a bird
And the gaucho spread his riot in the pampas
For this news of Stalingrad
The tom-tom beat wild madness
When the elders brought Palava these tidings out of Stalingrad
The English housewife stopped her housework
Held her child close and cried aloud
Now all men will be free!
And from Good Hope, black miners answered
This will help us to be free!
In the prison camps of Belsen
Sick men rounded from their guards
Now life was certain
Soon all men would be free
New light broke upon Africa
New strength for her peoples
New trength poured upon Asia
New hope for her peoples
America dreamed new dreams
From the strength of her peoples
New men arose in Europe
New force for her peoples
Once more they stand these men
At lathe and spindle
To recreate their hours and each new day
Bid houses rise once more in Soviet country
Men ring forests wide round arctic
Move rivers into deserts
And with high courage
Breed new generations
For still the land is theirs
Uzbeks, Tatars, Letts, Armenians
Caucasians, Muscovites, Crimeans
Still they speak peace to their neighbours at tilling
To all the wide world
And men come near to listen
Find by that day of Stalingrad
That this voice is theirs

Then Red Star spread your flame upon me
For in your flame is earnest of my freedom
Now may I rendezvous with the world
Now may I join man’s wide-flung diversity
For Stalingrad is still a Soviet town

Thanks to Shuggy for the reminder.

You divers bold

Here’s my version of Child ballad #68, variously known as “Young Hunting”, “Young Redin” and “Earl Richard”. It’s one of the strangest stories in a collection that has plenty of them. It’s not so much the supernatural elements which make it unusual as the fact that they’re essential to the resolution of the plot – a plot which is about a rather sordid murder case.

My text comes mostly from the version recorded by Tony Rose, who credited it to a folk singer called Pete Nalder. On looking at the original in Child’s collection (which is online) it turns out that Nalder did an extraordinary job piecing together a coherent song out of a disparate and fragmentary set of texts. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’ve gone back to Child and tweaked it some more.

Here’s Nalder’s text and my text, and some notes on where it all comes from. Child has eleven versions, lettered A to K. Three of them – G, H and I – are short fragments; of the other eight, A and J tell a slightly different story, while D, E and F end (or break off) part way through. (It’s version 68F, more or less, that was later collected as “Earl Richard”; it’s been recorded by Spiers and Boden, among others.) B, C and K all tell the whole story. What Pete Nalder seems to have done, as you’ll see below, is to piece together a complete song from at least five different versions, probably B-E and J. For myself I either used or modified every verse of Nalder’s version except one (verse 13, the one with the “heavy smell”). I added three verses, all corresponding to verses in versions C and D. Like Nalder, I ended up using something from all of versions B, C, D, E and J.

A blank in Nalder’s column means I’ve added a verse; a blank in my column means I kept Nalder’s verse.

Pete Nalder Phil Edwards Child source
Title: Young Hunting Title: Earl Richard Young Hunting: A, K
Earl Richard: D, F, G
As she was a-walking all alone
Down in a leafy wood
She has heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
The lady stood in her bower door
In her bower door she stood
She heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
C, E, K
“Bower”: C
“Wood”: E
She thought it was her father dear
Come riding over the land
But it was her true love Earl Richard
Came riding to her right hand.
C (Note 1)
“Come down, come down, you fine young man,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
“Come down, come down, young Earl Richard,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
B-F, K
“stay the night”: B, C, F, K
“O I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor come into your arms at all
For a finer girl than ten of you
Is a-waiting beneath the town wall.”
B-F, K
“come into your arms”: E
“Oh well, a finer girl than ten of me
I wonder now how that might be?
For a finer girl than ten of me
I’m sure that you never did see.”
C, E
Then he has leaned him across his saddle
For a kiss before they did part,
And she has taken a keen, long knife
And she’s stabbed him to the heart.
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, you fine young man
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can weary wait in alone.”
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, young Earl Richard,
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can wearily wait alone.”
“Until the flesh it rots”: from Young Henry, a later American version
(D has “till the blood seeps from your bone”)
But as she walked up on the high highway
She’s spied a little bird up in a tree,
Saying, “O how could you kill that fine young man
As he was a-kissing of thee?”
 C-E, G, J
“Come down, come down, you pretty little bird
And sit upon my right knee,
And your cage shall be made of the glittering gold
And the spokes of the best ivory.”
 A-G, I-K
“I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor sit upon your right knee,
For as you did serve that fine young man
I know that you would serve me.”
 A-G, I-K
“O then I wish I had my bended bow
And my arrow close to my knee.
I would fire a dart that would pierce your heart
As you sit there a-piping on that tree.”
 D, F, I
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
And nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly across the sea to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
Nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly away to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
D, I
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken that fine young man
And she’s walled him behind a stone.
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken young Earl Richard
And she’s laid him upon a stone.
E (Note 2)
And she has kept that fine young man
For full three-quarters of a year
Till a heavy smell it began to spread
And it filled her heart with fear.
 Verse omitted E (Note 3)
So she’s called unto the servant girl
And this to her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
She’s called to her servant girl
And unto her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
B, D, F and J all have “there’s a dead man in my room”,
which is a bit less effective
So the one of them’s took him by the shoulders,
And the other one’s took him by the feet
And they’ve thrown his body in the River Clyde
That runs so clear and so sweet.
Body in the Clyde: A-C, H, J, K
Head and feet: E
Hands and feet: F
And the deepest spot in Clyde’s water
It’s there they’ve thrown Earl Richard in
And they laid a turf on his breast-bone
To hold his body down.
Deepest part of the river: A-C, K
Turf: A, K (Note 4)
And they had not crossed a rig of land,
A rig but barely one,
Before they saw his old father coming
A-riding all along.
D, J (“rig of land” only in J)
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For we’ve come a-seeking for my only son
Who used to visit your gate.”
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For I’ve come a-seeking for my eldest son
Who used to visit your gate.”
D, J
And there came a-seeking for this fine young man
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for this fine young man
Full many’s the lady bright.
And there came a-seeking for young Earl Richard
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for young Earl Richard
Full many’s the lady bright.
Now the ladies turned them around and about
And they made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “We greatly fear that your son is dead
And he lies ‘neath the water and drowned.”
And the lady turned around and about
And she swore by sun and moon
Saying, “I never saw your son Earl Richard
Since yesterday morning at noon.”
A, J; G and K have the swearing but not the turning around (Note 5)
“I fear, I fear the Clyde’s waters
That run so swift and so deep
I fear, I fear your son has drowned
And under Clyde’s waters he does sleep.”
A, D, J (Note 6)
“So, who will dive from either bank
For gold and for fee?”
And the young men dived from either bank
But his body they could not see.
J; A and K have the unsuccessful diving but not the offer of gold
Then up and speaks that pretty little bird
A-sitting up high in the tree,
Saying, “O cease your diving, you divers bold,
For I’d have you to listen to me.”
 A, C, H, J, K
“And I’d have you to cease your day diving
And dive all into the night.
For under the water where his body lies
The candles they burn so bright.”
 A, C, H, J, K
So the divers ceased their day diving
And they dived all into the night.
And under the water where his body lay,
The candles they burned so bright.
 A, C, J, K
And they have raised his body up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
And they have raised Earl Richard up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
 A, J
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “O who has killed my only son
Who used to follow my hounds?”
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “Oh, who has killed my eldest son
Who held my hawk and hound?”
 J (Note 7)
Then up and speaks the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his light leman took his life
And then threw his body in.”
Then up and spoke the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his true love took his life
And then threw his body in.”
“O blame not me,” the lady says,
“For it was the servant girl.”
So they built a fire of the oak and ash
And they put that servant girl in.
A, B, J
But the fire wouldn’t take upon her cheek
And the fire wouldn’t take upon her chin,
And nor would it take upon her hair
For she was free from the sin.
A, J; similar to B, C and H (Note 8)
And when the servant girl touched the clay cold corpse,
A drop it never bled.
But when the lady laid her hand upon it
The ground was soon covered with red.
B, C, J (phrasing from J)
So they’ve taken out the servant girl
And they’ve put the lady in.
And the fire it reached a ruddy red,
And all because of her sin.
A, B, J (Note 9)
And the fire took fast upon her cheek,
And the fire took fast upon her chin,
And it sang in the points of her yellow hair,
And ’twas all because of her sin.
A, B, J, K (third line from K)


  1. Nalder presents the key meeting as a chance encounter, making the lady’s violence seem more than usually excessive. Most Child versions have the victim as the lady’s “true love”.
  2. I felt all right about changing this, since in Child the lady doesn’t put the body either on or behind a stone. There is a stone in version E, but it’s her doorstep; it’s only really there for a rhyme.
  3. The nine-month time lag only appears in version E; I thought the song worked better if it was all happening in the same time frame. The ‘heavy smell’ was Nalder’s invention (in version E word begins to spread, which is a bit different). I don’t think it was a great idea – it’s bound to break the mood.
  4. I put this back in to prepare for the discovery of the tell-tale turf on the body when it’s brought to the surface.
  5. Child has the (guilty) ‘lady’ turning around and about and swearing (in versions A and J), not the ‘ladies’ (who only appear in version B). This was another case where I thought Nalder’s change worked less well than the source.
  6. The second half of this verse is my addition. I was pleased with the parallelism, although I’ve realised since that it’s not a true parallel (“I fear the waters” vs “I fear that your son is dead”).
  7. “Held my hawk and my hound” is straight from version J; I preferred it to “used to follow my hounds”, which conjures up images of the father as an MFH. On the other hand, both the original and Nalder’s version definitely have “only son”, not “eldest son”; it just came out like that, m’lud.
  8. Versions B, C and H are a bit nastier and more judgmental – they specify that it was only the servant’s hands that were burned by the fire, since she (or in version H he) had used them to help cover up the murder. Version B has an even more discriminating fire – it won’t burn the lady’s cheek and chin either, but only the “false arms” that had previously held the victim (which seems a bit harsh, considering that the story starts with him dumping her).
  9. The fire flaring up is a great detail, but it’s not in Child. In several versions the last couple of verses are longer than the rest, as the ballad writer tries to get more information in while keeping to the basic structure of one idea to each verse; I think Nalder made the right move by splitting this last verse in two, even though it means introducing another idea.

So that’s the work that goes on, or can go on, when you get a folk song out of a Child ballad; June Tabor did something similar when she turned Jamie Douglas (Child 204) into her song Waly Waly. When you look at the source, not one of Child’s recorded variants makes as good a song as Nalder’s composite version, and some of them are so fragmentary as to be unsingable. For instance, here’s version I in its entirety:

‘Come down, come down, thou bonnie bird,
Sit low upon my hand,
And thy cage shall be o the beaten gowd,
And not of hazel wand.’

‘O woe, O woe be to thee, lady,
And an ill death may thou die!
For the way thou guided good Lord John,
Soon, soon would thou guide me.’

‘Go bend to me my bow,’ she said,
‘And set it to my ee,
And I will gar that bonnie bird
Come quickly down to me.’

‘Before thou bend thy bow, lady,
And set it to thy ee,
O I will be at yon far forest,
Telling ill tales on thee.’

That’s your lot. Admittedly that’s an extreme example, but the only versions without any gaps are J and K, which miss out a lot of the early part of the story told by versions A-E.

I think what this brings home to me is just how hard it is to sustain one of the recurring myths of folk music – that it is (or ought to be) Folk Music, the music of the people; that revivalists are simply reviving songs that have fallen into disuse for a couple of decades or centuries, ultimately with a view to taking them back to the people who let them slip in the first place. If you want a singable version of Child 68, you can’t just pick up the text. (There’s also the unavoidable fact that the song in all its versions is written in Scots rather than English, although clearly that won’t be so much of an issue for some singers.) And picking up a text and working with it is what you do with any traditional song – whether it’s a Child ballad, a song that Cecil Sharp collected from a farmworker in 1904, or an unknown song that you’ve just found in a collection of Victorian broadsides.

I’m coming round to the view that folk music is essentially a bank of songs or a repertoire. A broadside, a Child ballad, a song collected from a farm labourer or a Traveller: these are all traditional songs, because they’re all from the accumulated traditional repertoire. And they’re still traditional songs – they’re still part of that repertoire – no matter how you piece the text together and no matter how you perform it.

Folk music as a body of songs is more or less complete, on this reckoning; there aren’t any folk songs being written, more or less by definition. Nor are the Beatles, Arctic Monkeys, Take That or whoever “the folk songs of the future”: there will be no folk songs of the future, because the traditional repertoire isn’t being laid down any more. But it’s there, and it’s big, and it’s a damn good repertoire.

This is what differentiates folk from popular music – but, intriguingly, brings it closer to classical music. When a folk audience hears a song like this one

they will already know it. That’s true for scores if not hundreds of songs, and for the real standards (like this one) it’s an understatement: they’ll know it inside out. They’ll know every word of the song and every note of the tune, and they’ll have heard it sung by several different people (at least seven in my case). What you’re listening to isn’t the song, it’s what the singer does with it. And a folk singer isn’t a folk prophet or a tribune of the people; just a specialist in a particular body of words and music. That’s good enough for me.

Dear Sir or Madam

I’ve always wanted to get into the LRB. I even got excited when Verso used a quote from a review I’d written in their full-page ad in the LRB – a bit fetishistic, I know, but still: my words! in the LRB!.

I haven’t cracked it yet, but I have just had my second post published on the LRB blog; it’s about the Situationists and Occupy. I think it’s quite an interesting read; it was certainly an interesting write, which ended up changing my opinion on Occupy (for the better). Essential reading: Ken Knabb, The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011).

And this is me: Taking Down the Tents.

Let memory fade

It’s a small enough thing, but this is profoundly depressing.

Of 360 posts to be cut, 120 are from Future Media & Technology, up to 90 from BBC Vision, up to 39 from Audio & Music, 17 from Children’s, 24 from Sport and 70 in journalism from national news and non-news posts on regional news sites.

Outlining its plans today, the BBC said it will meet with commercial rivals twice a year to clarify its online plans, increase links to external sites to generate 22m referrals within three years and will halve the number of top level domains it operates.

The corporation also outlined five editorial priorities for BBC Online and clarified its remit. The BBC aims to meet all these objectives, and make 360 posts redundant, by 2013. The restructured BBC Online department will consist of 10 products including News, iPlayer, CBeebies and Search. Editorial will be refined, with fewer News blogs, and local sites will be stripped of non-news content. Blast, Switch and h2g2 are among the sites to be ditched. Other closures will include the standalone websites for the BBC Radio 5 Live 606 phone-in show and 1Xtra, 5 Live Sports Extra, 6 Music and Radio 7 digital stations.

In all, the BBC is pledging to close half of its 400 top level domains – with 180 to be gone ahead of schedule later this year.

(That’s top level directories, people – the word that goes after “”. The top level domain is “.uk”.)

The BBC’s Web presence is vast, sprawling and a bit anarchic – a quality it has in the past shared with the groups of people responsible for it. (Back in 2002 I made a concerted effort to get some writing work from the technology bit of BBC Online, a task made more difficult by the impossibility of finding any personal contact information on the site. Sustained and ingenious googling eventually rewarded me with a name and a phone number(!). I rang it and spoke to the right person, only to be told that he’d moved to BBC History and was about to move on again. On the other hand, before he left he did commission me to write an 12,000-word timeline of English history from the Romans to Victoria, so it wasn’t as if no good came of it.) There is an awful lot of good stuff there, much of it user-generated, and lots of little online communities that have grown up to support it. And yes, the bits that the corporation pay for are ultimately paid for out of the licence fee, meaning that they don’t have to make money and hence have an advantage over commercial rivals which do. This is a good thing: there are lots of worthwhile things that can be done very easily with a small subsidy, but can only be done with great difficulty, if at all, on a profit-making basis. There is no earthly reason why a corporation which doesn’t have to make money – and can afford to chuck a few grand around here or there – should behave as if it did and couldn’t. No reason, apart from political reasons. So now BBC Online are going to have a “clarified remit”, and they’re going to show their plans to commercial rivals (!) twice a year (!!), and 360 creative people are going to walk.

What really gives this announcement the smell of wanton vandalism – wilful and ignorant destruction – is the part about all the sites that are going to close. Not the fact that they keep getting the terminology wrong – that’s a minor niggle – but the fact that all these sites aren’t going to be kept up as static pages; they’re not even going to be archived. Like all those old Doctor Whos and Not Only… But Alsos, they’re just going to disappear. (All except H2G2, which is going to be sold – news which leaves me feeling relieved but slightly baffled.) Two cheers for the Graun, which put up the whole list but couldn’t resist playing it for laughs – “Ooh look, there’s a site for Bonekickers – that was rubbish, wasn’t it? Let’s see, have they got Howard’s Way?” There isn’t a Howard’s Way site. There is, however, Voices, Nation on Film, the inexhaustible Cult and a curious online mind-mapping thing called Pinball. Check them out while you can. And do take a look at WW2 People’s War, a truly extraordinary work of amateur oral history, which contains… well, here it is in its own words:

The BBC’s WW2 People’s War project ran from June 2003 to January 2006. The aim of the project was to collect the memories of people who had lived and fought during World War Two on a website; these would form the basis of a digital archive which would provide a learning resource for future generations.

The target audience, people who could remember the war, was at least 60 years old. Anyone who had served in the armed forces during the war was, at the start of the project, at least 75. Most of them had no experience of the internet. Yet over the course of the project, over 47,000 stories and 14,000 images were gathered. A national story gathering campaign was launched, where ‘associate centres’ such as libraries, museums and learning centres, ran events to helped gather stories. Many hundereds of volunteers, many attached to local BBC radio stations, assisted in this.

The resulting archive houses all of these memories. These stories don’t give a precise overview of the war, or an accurate list of dates and events; they are a record of how a generation remembered the war, 60 years of more after the events, and remain in the Archive as they were contributed. The Archive is not a historical record of events, a collection of government or BBC information, recordings or documents relating to the war.

47,000 stories! I’ll declare an interest here: the site also contains “historical fact files on 144 key events”, about 40 of which I wrote. (I found the other day that 16 of them have also migrated to the main WWII page, where I guess they will hang on after the cull.) I hate seeing my work go offline, but that’s not the main thing. The main thing is that I know how much work and care went into each of my pieces; the thought of multiplying that by a factor of, well, 47,000, boggles me. And then to snuff all of that out for the sake of saving a few gigabytes of disk space – or, more realistically, for the sake of making the BBC look as if it’s not competing unfairly with its commercial rivals – beggars belief.

Perish the thought that something hugely worthwhile and massively popular, which ITV and Sky can’t do and don’t want to do, should get done for no other reason than that the BBC can do it and do it well. Perish the thought that public money should be spent on capturing irreplaceable memories and assembling them into “a digital archive which would provide a learning resource for future generations”. Perish the thought that a public service media organisation should actually provide a public service. Utter, wanton vandalism.

Dreaming your eyes away

A recent exchange from CT.

John Quiggin:

The disastrous bloodbaths generated by revolutionary alternatives to democracy have by now provided sufficient warning that no such alternative can attract any genuine support.[3]
fn3. The turn to terrorist methods by groups like the Red Brigades has served to discredit revolutionary approaches even more, and thereby further stabilise representative democracy.


The footnote about the Red Brigades gives such a superficial and distorted image of a huge, important and genuinely challenging group of social movements that I’m struggling to formulate any reply to it. (Can I suggest you read the book?) You can, of course, argue that you’re not talking about the reality of what the Red Brigades (plus the other armed groups, the broader armed movement and the still broader movement which refused to disown the above) were but the effects of how the Red Brigades (etc etc) were represented, and that what was a superficial and distorted image at the time has in effect become the historical record; I’d have no answer to that, except to thank God that there’s more than one historical record.


The standard version of history is always selective and often distorted. But the Red Brigades did the things for which they are now remembered, and the effects are as I said, even if they also did lots of other things that are now forgotten.

Me: Continue reading

A gift from the Queen

Drink to the men who protect you and I!
Drink! Drink! Drain your glass! Raise your glass high!

I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days, you may not be surprised to learn, and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.) Initially this was because I felt I was being asked to endorse Britain’s role in the Falklands conflict and the Irish war: both the British Legion and the government seemed actively to encourage a blurring of the line between the dead in the World Wars and the very different Fallen of the 1980s, which I thought was pernicious. Still, for a few years in the relatively peaceful 1990s I did wear a poppy on November 11th, with the Second World War and more particularly the defeat of Fascism in mind. But for several years now we’ve been back in a period of imperialist war, and I prefer not to celebrate it. I do mourn the dead – including the British dead – but for me they’re dead in a cause that’s pointless at best, barbaric at worst; and you can’t get a poppy with “End this slaughter now” written around the outside.

On the topic of poppies and neutrality Owen is impressively logical:

The red poppy, as the white poppy-producing Peace Pledge Union points out, occupies something of a privileged position among emblems of charitable causes. If you’re a police officer or a TV presenter for the BBC, you’re not allowed to wear a wristband, coloured ribbon or any other kind of symbol that shows your support for a charitable or political cause, and especially not a white poppy, but red poppies, and red poppies alone, are fine.

There are two possible justifications for this that I can see: one is that the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is neutral in a way that other charitable causes aren’t; the other is that the Poppy Appeal is, out of all the charitable causes in the world, a uniquely commendable cause.


all charities are legally required to be politically neutral, but if you can’t wear an AIDS ribbon or a Livestrong wristband on the BBC then clearly that kind of neutrality isn’t sufficient. But the Royal British Legion clearly doesn’t meet this requirement; the Poppy Appeal is manifestly not even politically neutral; every year the RBL creates ‘Fields of Remembrance’ which are intended as a “tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.” This year there will be one at Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of members of the armed forces killed in Afghanistan are brought. This implies that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security. Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, it’s quite clearly not a politically neutral position.

And as for whether the Poppy Appeal is uniquely worthy of our support – well, why would it be?

I’m sure the justification most people would give, if asked, would be something about the fact that servicemen and women put themselves in the line of fire to make the rest of us safer

– but this brings us straight back to the assumption about “all conflicts which the UK has been involved in being justifiable on national security grounds”, which is awfully hard to demonstrate with regard to (say) Suez, or the Malayan insurgency (Britain was agin it, in quite a real and tangible way).

The logic is impressive, but I think Owen misses a couple of obvious counter-arguments – one which I’ve already touched on, and one which Will sums up:

Wearing a poppy is quite a unique thing. There aren’t many ways that the British are able to symbolise a positive relationship to nation without descending to nationalism, to recognise the honour of the military without veering into militarism. It also has a beautiful ambiguity. It may represent something very patriotic and proud, or a form of pacifism. It needn’t mourn the dead of any particular war or even any particular nation. It may even represent mourning for the horrors of the twentieth century more generally. It’s not irrelevant that most of those who have died in war over the last 100 years did not go into the military as a career, but were dragged into hellish territorial disputes. Some people might feel particularly moved by those conscripts, others won’t. These various ambiguities allow people to congregate symbolically without being defined symbolically.

The poppy is about “a positive relationship to nation” and “the honour of the military”. It celebrates membership of a nation state with armed forces, with all the ambiguities and differences of emphasis which that allows: for different people, the same symbol can commemorate an imperialist adventure carried out by professional soldiers and a continent-wide war to defeat Fascism waged by a mass army of conscripts. But these different forms of commemoration remain within the framework of the nation-state: my 1990s anti-Fascist poppies were, precisely, celebrating the role of the British Army in licking Hitler.

This is why it’s beside the point to point out that very few people actually believe that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security – and that anyone putting forward this hyper-militarised view of the world would scarcely qualify as “politically neutral”. The implicit argument here is not that the nation-state is neutral with regard to politics, but that it’s prior to politics: the British state, and the armed forces which underwrite its monopoly of legitimate force, are the precondition of any kind of politics in Britain – and of any kind of public sphere. We are not saluting those who died for no good reason in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falls Road, but the men who protect you and I. (What we are certainly not doing – and here I entirely agree with Will – is saying that we think being injured is bad and being killed is even worse: an even more pre-political appeal, and one which evacuates the actual poppy ritual of what little politics it still gives houseroom to.)

And it’s because the poppy is a salute to the armed forces – our armed forces – that (coming to my second argument) neither wearing a poppy nor refusing to wear one is a free choice, in the sense that it’s a free choice to wear or not to wear a pink “breast cancer” ribbon or a Help For Heroes wristband. To say that the nation-state is prior to politics – to say that we enjoy British democracy and British liberties – is to say that we, as members of that nation-state, bear allegiance to the ultimate authorities of the state, and the armed forces which are both symbol and last-ditch embodiment of their power over us. (I lived in a Forces town as a child; if nothing else, it leaves you with an abiding respect for the armed forces’ ability to get the job done – whatever the job might be.) And if we bear allegiance, then, once in a while, respect should be paid. Declining to wear a poppy is opting out of allegiance to the state: it’s either an explicit protest or rather distastefully eccentric – after all, why wouldn’t you? (I see this in my children’s reaction to my failure to wear a poppy; I really should make my protest more explicit.) (I’ve never worn a white poppy, incidentally. The white poppy still has an air more of eccentricity about it than protest, perhaps because it says that the wearer wants to join in the ritual of commemoration and yet withdraw from it – like joining a march but insisting on making up your own slogans.)

The danger in all this is that sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not to pay respect to authority – and the time of war may be one of those times. In January this year I was in a pub when a loud and emotional argument broke out between a drunk and a squaddie who was about to ship back out to Afghanistan, where he’d recently seen his best friend killed. He was holding his drink quite well, but he was obviously quite well gone himself. The argument consisted mainly of the squaddie taking exception to everything the drunk said, and trying to shut him up by the drunk man’s usual method of talking over him, very calmly, very loudly and at great length; the drunk responded with the even drunker man’s tactic of carrying on regardless, in the blithe confidence that if he went on talking for long enough everyone in the world would agree with him. It was a fun evening. (I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we were trying to have a singaround at the time.) Anyway, nothing the drunk said upset or offended the squaddie so much as his profession of support and sympathy – “We’re all behind you, mate, we want to get you out of there and get you home safe and sound.” Big mistake. They had a job to do, we were told, and they were going to get it done. Anyone who said different just didn’t understand. There was a job to do, the army had been sent out there to do it and they were going to stay there till the job was done. They had a job on hand, the job was going to get done and they were going to make sure it got done.

From within the armed forces, of course, this is very much how you’d expect the world to look: they’re an instrument of the state and they’re there to get the job done, provided the job involves either weaponry or boots on the ground. The danger of paying respect to our state and our armed forces is that we as citizens buy into this heads-down goal-oriented mindset: theirs not to reason why (why Iraq? why Malaya? why Ireland?), and ours neither. Support the troops, we’re urged – and we’re asked to support them in just the same dogged, unconditional way that they’re told to do their job. But that way, our sympathy for the poor bloody infantry leads us to echo their unquestioning support for the goals they’re asked to achieve – and that’s precisely what we as civilians shouldn’t be doing. They don’t have the luxury of asking whether they should be going where they’re sent, but we do – and we owe it to ourselves to use it.

So: because I don’t think the British nation-state is prior to the politics that matter, in a way that my working-class ancestry decidedly is; and because, while I mourn the loss of life in Britain’s current imperialist adventures, I can’t endorse them; and, above all, because there is a war on, and I believe this is precisely the moment when spaces for debate and dissent most need to be opened up: for all these reasons, I’m not wearing a poppy.

Update A song for today.

Cheerful tidings

Partly pre-empting my next post – which is going to start with a bit of post-dormancy navel-gazing about what I’ve been doing while I haven’t been blogging – here’s a Web site I’ve just set up:

More work! Less pay!

It’s for my book More work! Less pay!, which is out very shortly. It’s coming out in a prohibitively expensive academic hardback edition, unfortunately. Hopefully, if it gets a bit of buzz behind it, the university libraries of the world will get through that edition and I’ll be able to push for a paperback.

The Web site includes links to the publisher and to Amazon, a link to Henry’s review on Crooked Timber, an excerpt from the Preface and the book’s table of contents; taken together, they should tell you all you need to know about what the book’s about.

Or almost all. There’s also a ‘Q&A’ link, which currently goes nowhere much. Qs which I’m intending to A on the site include

What’s with the title?
What’s with the cover?
and possibly
What’s this got to do with the Decent Left and the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme?

All other suggestions are welcome.

Also welcome is publicity from any bloggers reading this who have bigger audiences than mine (which probably means all of you). If you’re interested, the front cover can be seen in greater detail here.


30th November

It’s out! It’s actually, physically available! I’ve held it in my hands (just now, in fact) and can confirm that it’s a lovely piece of work; I haven’t spotted any errors yet, and the cover design works really well. Coming soon, I hope, to a library or a conference or a book reviews section – and possibly even a bookshop – near you.

Good evening or good morning

More news on my book. I handed over the corrected proofs this morning, together with an index. Compiling the index was easier than I’d thought it would be, but still not exactly fun; it was one of those tasks that leaves you looking round for the next chunk of mental hard labour for several days afterwards. My basic approach was to index every proper name I could see, plus a few key concepts. I then cut out most names with only one occurrence, although a few got left in for the benefit of anyone who picks up the book and starts by browsing the index (don’t tell me it’s just me).

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-7, and it’ll be published (initially in hardback) by Manchester University Press this autumn. And that index? Here’s a selection. (For each initial letter I’ve included the first entry and the one with the most references.)

A A/traverso; Autonomia
B Balestrini, Nanni; Brigate Rosse (BR)
C Cacciari, Massimo; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro (CGIL)
D d’Alema, Massimo; Democrazia Cristiana (DC)
E L’erba voglio; Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA)
F Faina, Gianfranco; Feltrinelli, Giangiacomo
G Gandalf the Violet; Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana (GAP)
H ‘Historic compromise’; Hot Autumn
I Ingrao, Pietro
L Lama, Luciano; Lotta Continua
M Maccari, Germano; Movement of 1977
N Napolitano, Giorgio; Negri, Antonio
O Operaismo
P Pajetta, Enrico; Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI)
Q Quaderni Rossi
R Radical Party; Resistance (Italian)
S Sayer, Andrew; Scalzone, Oreste
T Tarrow, Sidney
U Unità Comuniste Combattenti (UCC); l’Unità
V Via italiana al socialismo
W Wowdadaism

They say you can tell a lot about a book from its index; certainly I’m pretty pleased with what this one seems to be saying. It’s not Pale Fire – no “Berlinguer, idiocy of; idleness of; taste of, in shoes” sub-entries – but I think it tells you pretty much what the book’s about. It’s about Togliatti, Feltrinelli, Lotta Continua and the Red Brigades, and everything that connects them. One connection in particular:

Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) passim
see also Austerity; Berlinguer, Enrico; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro; Historic Compromise; Lama, Luciano; Togliatti, Palmiro; l’Unità

Cool machine

One from the book of lost posts:

Here are some of Graham Greene’s judgments on Frederick Rolfe (‘Baron Corvo’), a writer who seems to have had a definite fascination for him:

The greatest saints have been men with more than a natural capacity for evil, and the most vicious men have sometimes narrowly avoided sanctity. … Rolfe’s vice was spiritual more than it was carnal: it might be said that he was a pander and a swindler, because he cared for nothing but his faith. He would be a priest or nothing, so nothing it had to be

The difficulty always is to distinguish between possession by a devil and possession by a holy spirit. Saints have starved like Rolfe, and no saint had a more firm belief in his spiritual vocation. He loathed the flesh (making an unnecessary oath to remain twenty years unmarried that he might demonstrate to unbelieving ecclesiastics his vocation for the priesthood) and he loved the spirit.

[Reviewing Hubert’s Arthur (“on the whole … a dull book of small literary merit”)]
Reading his description of St Hugh, ‘the sweet and inerrable canorous voice of the dead’, one has to believe in the genuineness of his nostalgia – for the Catholic Church, for innocence. But at the same time one cannot fail to notice the homosexual and the sadistic element in the lushness and tenderness of his epithets … when he describes Arthur,

the proud gait of the stainless pure secure in himself, wholly perfect in himself, severe with himself as with all, strong in disgust of ill, utterly careless save to keep high, clean, cold, armed, intact, apart, gleaming with candid candour both of heart and of aspect, like a flower, like a maid, like a star,

one recognises the potential sanctity of the man

There’s something very odd going on here. He would be a priest or nothing; he loathed the flesh; but one cannot fail to notice the homosexual and the sadistic element in his lush, languorous evocations of purity and discipline. And, it has to be said, the oddness in these passages isn’t confined to Rolfe. When I look at that parade of epithets heaped on the figure of Arthur – high, clean, cold, armed, intact, apart … like a flower, like a maid, like a star – sanctity isn’t the first thing I think of, or the second. This isn’t a positive embrace of the good or holy, or of anything; it’s an anxious denial of anything low, dirty or warm, tipping over into yearning for the impossible fantasy of making that denial real.

I wondered, reading these passages, if ‘homosexual’ is the key term here. I was amused, as Greene probably intended, by that reference to Rolfe’s ‘unnecessary’ vow to avoid marriage. It reminded me of the old sketch about the scoutmaster’s funeral (“Funny he never married…”) – or, closer to home, of the (Anglican) priest in my mother’s old parish, who was a heavy clubber and a member of a monastic order, which he eventually left on the grounds that the vow of celibacy wasn’t fair to his partner. At the same time, Greene clearly believes at some level in the idea of rejecting the flesh, and seems genuinely troubled by the thought that some men who do so are only really rejecting the female flesh. So Rolfe’s homosexuality doesn’t undermine his vocation for sanctity – still less, as we might think, explain it; rather, the two run side by side, fleshly weakness alongside all the high, clean, cold stuff. What’s missing is the idea that, for Rolfe, the impossibility of an overt sex life might have fed into a general hatred of the world – and sex, and himself. And cue Robert Hanks in the Indie a bit back, covering a programme about a male army officer who had had a sex change:

at another point, discussing her earlier service in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jan talked of a misery so intense that she had volunteered for dangerous missions in the hope of finding an end to it all. This is, by the way, nothing new. A brief acquaintance with military memoirs will make it clear that the armed forces have always relied on having at least a few soldiers so bloody unhappy that they don’t care whether they live or die. Homosexuality used to be a good motivator: Siegfried Sassoon, for example, earned his nickname “Mad Jack” and his Military Cross after the death of a boy he had been in love with (though in his fictionalised Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, the relationship was glossed as a strong friendship). But in these more liberal times, being gay may not make soldiers feel sufficiently cast out from society: perhaps would-be transsexuals are the VCs of the future.

A certain kind of heroism is hard to distinguish from self-loathing. A certain kind of martial virtue, anyway. Rolfe was a sinner, happily for him, but you’ve got to wonder what do you end up with if you take clean, cold, armed, intact etc seriously, and give all this repression and denial its head: who is this guy who’s secure in himself, wholly perfect in himself, severe with himself as with all, strong in disgust of ill? And what kind of uniform is he wearing? Here’s Michael Wood in the LRB, discussing Bertolucci’s the Conformist:

The question of normality gets cleared up by a resort to an old Italian movie myth, also dear to Rossellini and Visconti: homosexual guilt. … Isn’t or wasn’t Marcello a Fascist? This is where the myth kicks in. He was just trying to be straight, that’s what ‘normal’ meant. The myth isn’t homosexual guilt itself, of course, but the suggestion that without homosexual guilt Fascism in Italy would never really have got off the ground, or at least wouldn’t have been interesting. The attraction of the myth is that it plays in two modes, gay and macho. The problem can be the guilt or the homosexuality, but either way no one ever gets over it, and the effects are disastrous.

One recognises the potential sanctity of the man, indeed. I’m quite glad to say that I don’t; I can’t see how denial of the flesh can have anything to do with religion, if by religion we mean a culture or body of beliefs which has something to say to the rest of the world. At its best, or least harmful, it’s fraudulent and misogynistic; at its awful, heartfelt worst it’s power-worship, self-abasement and disgust at the world.

Deny the flesh and you can deny just about anything – and enjoy it. Let me have priests about me who are married.

(Although not necessarily to Hindus.)

To stun an ox

I’ve written a book. The MS has just gone off to the publisher; it’s still got to be checked, copy-edited, re-checked, typeset, proof-read and probably several other stages I’ve forgotten about, and it probably won’t be out much before Christmas. But it’s a book, and it’s been written. By me.

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-1977. The introduction begins like this:

A long wave of direct action spread across Italy between 1972 and 1977. Factory workers went on strike without union approval, walking out or occupying their workplaces; empty buildings were squatted and converted as ‘social centres’; council tenants withheld the rent; groups of women went on ‘can’t pay? won’t pay!’ shoplifting trips. The streets were also busy, with marches and demonstrations running at around two per week throughout the period.

Sidney Tarrow has analysed an earlier wave of contentious activism in terms of a ‘protest cycle’ or ‘cycle of contention’. Tarrow described how, in the early 1970s, a wave of contentious and disorderly movements spread from the universities to the industrial North of Italy before being neutralised by the Partito Comunista Italiano. The PCI’s qualified endorsement of the movement’s tactics led to the demobilisation of the movement and the achievement, in modified form, of its principal goals, by way of an expansion of the political repertoire endorsed by the PCI. The PCI in this period occupied an ambivalent position, as a supposedly ‘anti-system’ party which nevertheless played a significant role in the Italian political system; this put it in a strong position as a political ‘gatekeeper’. The outcome of the cycle was positive: under pressure from the movements, the PCI pushed back the boundaries of acceptable political activity.

In this book, I argue the late-1970s wave should be seen as a second cycle of contention. The movements of this second cycle include the ‘area of Autonomia’, based in factories and working-class neighbourhoods and active between 1972 and 1977; a wave of activism among young people which gave rise to the ‘proletarian youth movement’ of 1975-6 and the ‘movement of 1977’; and the left-wing terrorist or ‘armed struggle’ milieu. I argue that the outcome of the second cycle, like that of the first, was determined by the interaction between contentious social movements and the PCI. I also suggest that the PCI’s hostile or exclusive engagement with the second cycle of contention had lasting effects for the party as well as for the movements of the cycle. The PCI committed itself to a narrower and more explicitly constitutional range of activities and values; the result was a lasting contraction of the party’s ideological repertoire, and consequently of the repertoire of mainstream politics.

The conclusion ends like this:

Between 1966 and 1980, the PCI played the role of ‘gatekeeper’ to a relatively closed political system, admitting certain innovations to the sphere of political legitimacy and barring others. The movements of the second cycle were confronted by a hostile gatekeeper, which persistently framed their activities in terms which excluded them from political legitimacy. A key manoeuvre, as we have seen, was the evocation of violence: the movements were repeatedly denounced for the use of violence, toleration of violence, tardiness in disowning those who used violence… The ultimate result was the repression of a broad area of social, cultural and intellectual ferment, accompanied by dozens of prison terms and a brief flourishing of openly illegal ‘armed struggle’ activity; the PCI itself also suffered, denying itself a source of much-needed ideological renewal.

The disastrous outcome of the second cycle of contention was not inevitable. Given the relatively closed Italian political system, any disorderly social movement would face some type of engagement with some type of gatekeeper; by the 1970s the gatekeeper for any left-wing movement could only be the PCI. However, the exclusiveness of the PCI’s engagement was not a foregone conclusion until Berlinguer committed the party to the ‘historic compromise’ strategy – if then. The engagement was a missed opportunity which could have been taken.

The same choices could face other gatekeepers in other relatively closed systems. In Britain, where the electoral system excludes social movements from the national political system, the Labour Party remains the principal left gatekeeper. Faced with a disorderly and uncontainable rival to its left, Labour would have the same options as the PCI. An inclusive engagement would require the party quietly to appropriate and absorb the demands and tactics of the new movement, while publicly denouncing its leadership as irresponsible extremists. An exclusive engagement, in contrast, would involve denunciations of violence, escalating demands for dissociation and emphatic assertions of the party’s own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. The Italian experience demonstrates that the second of these approaches is not likely to have good results – for the movements or for British society.

The book is dedicated to Nanni Balestrini and the late Primo Moroni, whose work on the period is absolutely indispensable; I mean, by all means start with my book (and Steve Wright’s), but then get some Balestrini – and an Italian dictionary if you need one. The epigraph is from one of Balestrini’s novels:

I said to him I ask myself sometimes now it’s all over I ask myself what did it all mean our whole story all the things we did what did we get from all the things we did he said I don’t believe it matters that it’s all over I believe what matters is that we did what we did and that we think it was the right thing to do that’s the only thing that matters I believe

You won’t see the book for several months, and all things being equal you’re not very likely to see it then: the first print run will be an academic hardback, limiting its potential sales rather severely. But if the hardback run sells out a paperback may be possible – so tell all your friends, especially if they work in a library. It looks like being the first book-length study in English of the autonomist movements of the late 1970s, which should give it a bit of an audience.

Anyway: I’ve written a book. A book, by me, written; written, then edited and re-edited, checked and edited again, and sent off to the publisher today. I’ve celebrated with a bottle of Decadence. Now perhaps I’ll complete that biography of Debord. Or I may just do some of the stuff that’s been piling up while I’ve been working on this book…

Feels like Ivan

Cohenwatch left this alone, possibly because the numbers are solid and the argument seems pretty reasonable. Slightly shorter Nick:

The murder of Rhys Jones told you next to nothing about modern Britain, he [Ed Balls] told the Guardian. In the Sixties, people worried about mods and rockers ‘beating each other up with their bike chains’. In the Seventies, they panicked about the punks. ‘Every generation has always had kids that get into trouble. I got into trouble at school from time to time, like everybody did. There are always going to be some kids that get into more serious trouble with the law, but we shouldn’t demonise young people.’

[Balls’ argument derives from] Geoffrey Pearson, a sociologist who in 1983 published Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, the most influential study of crime of the last generation. Rereading it now is disconcerting. Pearson is clearly a man of the left. He attacks the frightened middle-classes of his day for thinking that the young were out of control and the country was going to the dogs. Didn’t the dunces realise the middle classes have always thought that?

Yet for all his apparently radical scoffing at panic-stricken stuffed shirts, Pearson and his many imitators were rather conservative in their way. There is no change for better or worse, they implied, and nothing new under the sun. Britain t’was [sic] ever thus and didn’t need to combat crime with radical programmes from left or right to redistribute wealth or clampdown [sic] on lawlessness.

At the same time as Balls was unconsciously repeating the theories of Eighties’ academics, the impeccably liberal Centre for Crime and Justice Studies issued a grim report on homicide. The number of murders and the rate of murder have both doubled in the past 35 years, it said. Overwhelmingly, the victims and perpetrators lived in the modern equivalent of the slums.

It’s a minor point, but Nick’s reference to the CCJS’s publications is a bit confused. The Centre published an analysis of homicide trends between 1979 and 1999 in 2005; it’s linked from this recently-published analysis of the figures between 1995 and 2005. Ironically, anyone reading only the recent publication could get the impression Nick had misread the figures. There was a sizeable rise between 1995 and 2002/3 – from 662 homicides per year to 952 – but most of that was cancelled out by a decline in the next few years; the 2005/6 figure is 711.

Compare the older figures, though, and you can see that Nick saith sooth: homicide figures in the early 1970s were in the 300-400 range, and the increase since then has been concentrated in certain social groups. The CCJS study goes into some detail about exactly what’s changed since then; it’s worth a read, and Nick can be commended for giving it a plug.

It’s just a shame that he had to get there by misrepresenting both Ed Balls and Geoffrey Pearson. Scroll up:

The murder of Rhys Jones told you next to nothing about modern Britain, he told the Guardian

You’ll look in vain for the name ‘Rhys Jones’ in Jackie Ashley’s interview with Ed Balls. Here’s the actual quote:

I was struck by how brusquely Balls dismissed the Tory charge of a broken society. “Most kids come out of school, walk home and do their homework, and most kids are probably a member of a club, or play in a sports team, or might do some volunteering. Every generation has always had kids that get into trouble. I got into trouble at school from time to time, like everybody did. There are always going to be some kids that get into more serious trouble with the law, but we shouldn’t demonise young people.

“Does the murder of Rhys Jones tell us anything about modern Britain?”

“Are we living in a ‘broken society’, as your political opponents claim?”

Slightly different questions, I think we can agree.

But I’m less bothered about Nick’s misrepresentation of Ed Balls – possibly the only contemporary politician always referred to by his full name – than by his travesty of Geoffrey Pearson’s argument. By way of background, here’s another take on the “nothing new under the sun” thesis which Nick attributes to Pearson:

Clearly we are in the midst of a ‘moral panic’ concerning hoodies, knife attacks, gangsta rap, gun culture, ASBOs, chavs and bling and the rest of it. But that is not to say that nothing is going on: in some neighbourhoods, local residents do live in fear of gangs of youths; the use of knives and guns is an extremely worrying problem; drugs are a relatively new aspect of risk culture for young people to engage with, whereas the demon drink is an old friend and foe. A common vulgarisation of the concept of ‘moral panic’ is that what is represented in the media is simply ʻmade up’, whereas the true concept emphasises the way in which media images magnify and amplify certain aspects of a phenomenon, while obscuring and down-playing others. So that, what is wrong with government and media responses to youth crime and anti-social behaviour is its emphasis on the unprecedented nature of the problem, while losing its grip on the actual social and historical background.

In other words, the point is not that nothing new is happening, but that our entrenched habits of thought make it harder for us to see what’s happening – and to work out why it’s happening, and what ‘radical programmes’ might be appropriate to deal with it. Social change is real, but we can’t grasp it by endorsing the lament that everything is worse now than it used to be – because everything has always been worse than it used to be.

The passage above is quoted from a 2006 issue of Criminal Justice Matters, the publication of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The author? Geoffrey Pearson.

What Nick’s straw-Pearson does is to collapse the space between “they’ve got nothing to worry about” and “they’re worrying about the wrong things”. To criticise people’s fears, Nick suggests, is to deny that they have anything to fear; to oppose a particular solution is to deny the existence of a problem. To be realistic is to accept the reality of what you read in the papers. There’s a wearily Decent quality to this move. Things are as they seem! Why must the Left continue to deny it?

Who’s the fool now?

“There’s only one thing worse than a folk singer, and that’s a Stalinist folk singer.” – Ian Birchall


Several years ago I was enthusiastically involved in getting Red Pepper to publish a piece by Steve Higginson (of the estimable Soulpool), demolishing the myth of progressive, national-popular folk music.

When we look at the various collectors, mediators and transmitters of folk song, we are not talking about the sons and daughters of the downtrodden proletariat. We are dealing with a group of people who did what radical intellectuals have always done: tell us what is good for us … Folk music was invented, altered, or expunged and re-written based on the collector’s conception of what working people should have been singing. … Meanwhile, another kind of folk music – the music that the “folk” themselves listened to and identified with – was belittled and ignored.

It got a bigger reaction than anything else in the cultural pages that year. Mostly, it has to be said, not positive. Still, I liked it. Apart from anything else, it confirmed my gut feeling that awkward, scruffy music that’s directly inspiring and culturally assertive is more radical – as well as being more fun – than a tidy three chords with a political message. I’ll take the Clash (or the Mondays, or the Fugees) over Leon Rosselson, any day of the week. This isn’t to say that Leon Rosselson sings what working people should have been singing, any more than Roy Harper or James Blunt does: as Rob says in comments, his songs are all his own and don’t pretend to be anything else. But what I think radical singer-songwriters can often be accused of is singing what working people should have been thinking. This is where the post-Cecil Sharp tradition of well-meaning song-collecting connects up with the radical (or at least Communist) tradition of agit-song: the song has to say the right thing, which inevitably means limited scruffiness and high predictability. Sometimes, to say a song has a radical edge seems to mean that everything else about it has been polished smooth.

So I might be tempted to agree with Birchall, were it not that I’m now a folk singer myself (at least, I’m a regular at the local folk club). I don’t think traditional music is especially true and pure and proletarian; I do think it’s reached me by a different route from the music of Kylie or Arctic Monkeys, and a route that involves a lot less centralisation and a lot less commerce. I don’t think singing without amplification is a sanctified relic of an unspoilt past; I do think it’s more direct, more immediate and more involving than amplified music. (You can’t talk over it, apart from anything else.) And I don’t think folk is the Art-Form of the People; but I do think it’s an art-form made by people, and specifically people who I might see in the street or on the bus the following day. I think all of these are good things; even if Frank Sinatra was proved to be more of a working-class hero than Woody Guthrie, they’d still be good things.

Apart from that, when I talk about folk music I doubt that Birchall and I are talking about the same thing. Personally I’m thinking of my local folk club, which has an eclectic floor policy; the MC may at some time have turned away some aspiring performer as inappropriate, but if so I don’t know what they were planning to play. I’ve heard piano there and harmonium (performer’s own), as well as mandolin, banjo, pipes (both bag and bellow), double bass, didgeridoo and on one occasion a trumpet. People play from sheet music; sometimes people read poems.

We don’t get many message songs down there, but we do occasionally hit the broader problem of predictability – knowing where the song’s going, and how it’s going to get there, the moment it starts. To put it another way, it does sometimes get a bit Radio 2. I think of it like this:

Level Type Description
1 The Trier Turns up, has a bash, gets polite applause
2 The Regular Turns up week after week, can be relied on to put a bit of thought into it & do something listenable
3 The Real Thing Actually good enough to get paid for this stuff
4 The Pro Nice songs, nice performance. Very consistent, very professional.
5 The Star Jaw-droppingly brilliant. Everyone should be listening to this stuff. No, really.

The consistent, dependable Pros have their fans – they wouldn’t do it otherwise – but personally I think it’s a wrong turning; think KT Tunstall as opposed to King Creosote (although KT’s new album is supposed to be a bit of a return to form). In the absence of Stars I much prefer the edgier, more unpredictable Real Things and Regulars. Of whom there is, at least in this neck of the woods, a plentiful supply.

So, yes, some folkies – some singer-songwriters, to be more precise – get a bit samey, whether they’re carrying political baggage or not; but no, this isn’t true of all of them (or rather us). And yes, some inflated and problematic claims have been made for folk music, particularly regarding its class basis; but no, this doesn’t mean that folk music has no distinctive value. The point is not to set up Elvis against Pete Seeger or Guthrie against Sinatra, but to step away from the CD rack and look at the conditions in which folk music is played and heard. So get down that folk club. (Only not ours – at least, not all at once. I had a hell of a time finding somewhere to sit last week.)

Next: the radical case for Morris dancing.

Not that funny


[Podhoretz]also barks:

As with Finlandization, Islamization extends to the domestic realm, too. In one recent illustration of this process, as reported in the British press, “schools in England are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils . . . whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.” (ellipses in original)

Now when you use apostrophes like that you indicate that you are quoting something. And there’s a trifling scholarly convention that you indicate in a footnote what it is you are citing and where an interested reader can find it. But Podhoretz is above the petty restrictions of conventional scholarship. He cites in a vacuum. There are no footnotes. His dubious quotations float in a void. And this particular citation is patently bogus. It sounds like some feverish nonsense copied from a Melanie Philips column.

It does, rather – not least because of Podhoretz’s own editoralisation. “Schools in England are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons”, eh? OK, let’s say that a school in this town and another school down the road independently decide to scrub round the Holocaust in their History lessons, because the teachers get sick of mouthy kids chipping in – but Sir it didn’t actually happen like that did it Sir? Now, there are only so many lessons in the week and only so many topics you can teach; it’s not inconceivable that you could design a History curriculum that skipped the Holocaust, for convenience’s sake. I did History O Level, time back way back, and I don’t remember the Holocaust even being mentioned when we covered World War II. (There was a Holocaust denier in my class, as it happens, although he was a born-again Christian and there was just the one of him.)

Still, this would be a pretty depressing scenario. What it wouldn’t be, necessarily, is an illustration of a broader process, a symptom of the creeping tide of Islamization from which only the righteous vigilance of a Podhoretz can save us. For that to be the case, rather than simply opting for a quiet life, the schools would have to be following the agenda – or at least cutting with the cultural grain – of the local education authority, or central government, or the teaching unions, or the Labour Party, or the Guardian… or, well, somebody. If this is the tip of an iceberg, there has to be an iceberg.

So, where is Podhoretz getting his information from, and does it justify the spin he put on it? For a start, where did that phrase come from? I googled. The first thing I discovered was that it’s a phrase with legs: 24 hits for “schools in England are dropping the Holocaust” from a variety of sources, including an open letter to the government from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (not pleased). Rephrase and google for “schools are dropping the Holocaust”, and bingo:

Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government-backed study has revealed. It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.

There is also resistance to tackling the 11th century Crusades – where Christians fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem – because lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques. The findings have prompted claims that some schools are using history ‘as a vehicle for promoting political correctness’.

Yes, it’s our old friend the Daily Hate-Mail, putting its own spin on a “Government-backed study”. More on that in a moment. In passing, it’s worth noting that the Hate‘s story even misrepresents itself; there are no claims that some schools are using history ‘as a vehicle for promoting political correctness’. Here’s the quoted phrase in context, from further down the same page:

Chris McGovern, history education adviser to the former Tory government, said: “History is not a vehicle for promoting political correctness. Children must have access to knowledge of these controversial subjects, whether palatable or unpalatable.”

McGovern must have seemed like a soft touch for a why-oh-why anti-multiculti quote – he’s the director of “the traditionalist History Curriculum Association” and complained recently that kids these days aren’t taught about the positive consequences of imperial rule. But what he actually said doesn’t include any claims about what ‘some schools’ are doing. In fact it’s rather embarrassingly adrift from the story, which is about Holocaust denial rather than political correctness. The Hate‘s distortion of McGovern’s words turns them into a thin, tendentious link between the two, insinuating that accommodating pupils with denialist views is political correctness – and, in the process, suggesting that these Holocaust-avoiding schools are acting with the approval of the local education authority (or central government, or the teaching unions, or the Labour Party, or the Guardian, or, well, somebody).

So, what does it actually say in this “Government-backed study”? See for yourself: Teaching Emotive and Controversial History 3-19 can be downloaded from this page. And Ellis’s instincts were right: the report doesn’t associate Holocaust denial with ‘political correctness’ and it certainly doesn’t approve of it. The line of the report is very much that schoolkids should have access to “knowledge of these controversial subjects, whether palatable or unpalatable”. Nor, in actual fact, does it say “schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons”; for that matter, it doesn’t say that there is generalised resistance to teaching the Crusades in ways that often contradict what is taught in local mosques. Here’s what it says, in a section headed Constraints to the teaching of emotive and controversial history, sub-heading “Teacher avoidance of emotive and controversial history”:

Teachers and schools avoid emotive and controversial history for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-intentioned. Some feel that certain issues are inappropriate for particular age groups or decide in advance that pupils lack the maturity to grasp them. Where teachers lack confidence in their subject knowledge or subject-specific pedagogy, this can also be a reason for avoiding certain content. Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship. Some teachers also feel that the issues are best avoided in history, believing them to be taught elsewhere in the curriculum such as in citizenship or religious education.

For example, a history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils. In another department, teachers were strongly challenged by some Christian parents for their treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history of the state of Israel that did not accord with the teachings of their denomination. In another history department, the Holocaust was taught despite anti-Semitic sentiment among some pupils, but the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 because their balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosques.

Where teachers model the processes of critical enquiry that characterise the adult discipline of the subject, history teaching may well clash with a narrow and highly partisan version of family or communal history in which some pupils have been reared.

One History department avoided selecting the Holocaust. Another department (singular) did teach the Holocaust but avoided teaching the Crusades. And a Government-backed study held up the pair of them as an example to avoid, encouraged other schools to do better, and offered twenty pages of recommendations and examples of best practice to help them. In short, there’s no sign here of creeping Islamization, and no evidence of a ‘politically-correct’ campaign to avoid offending Muslims even at the expense of historical truth. There is, apparently, a small minority of kids out there who are being brought up Holocaust deniers, which is disturbing. But it sounds as if most schools are dealing with that minority appropriately – and a Government-backed study has encouraged those which aren’t doing so to get their act together.

In 1943, commenting on the Tory press’s new-found fondness for anti-Nazi atrocity stories, George Orwell reminded us that some things are true even if the Daily Telegraph says they are. I don’t think he was ever that generous to the Mail.

And start again

From the ‘found while looking for something else’ file.

In May 2003 the Iraq invasion had just been declared complete; nobody knew quite how bad things were going to get. So the chances are that Danish academic Per Mouritsen wasn’t thinking about Iraq when he wrote this:

Peasants of Piemonte or Bretagne did not begin to accept their taxes or respect laws emanating from Rome or Paris before they could see themselves as belonging to a community stretching beyond the nearest villages and as a people with a state of their own. They would only do this when patriotic subjectivities were created by churches and armies – and when given material reasons for citizenship in the shape of schools, hospitals and the opportunity to channel grievances towards a recognisable political centre. The point was recently demonstrated in Eastern Europe. Civil society did not just need liberation from totalitarian states, but also something else and better instead. There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state – difficult as this is. In the absence of such a state or the relatively recent memory of one, instead of citizens there will be alienated individuals, fending for themselves, instead of market capitalism there will be mafia economies, and instead of velvet revolutions there will be more stolen ones

There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state. In other words, you can’t just blow the ‘totalitarian’ lid off a society and assume that peace and democracy will develop of their own accord. To be a citizen is to be a part of social institutions – and if those institutions aren’t there, calling yourself a citizen will mean about as much as calling yourself a constitutional monarchist in China, or a Communist in Cheltenham.


The British land speed record currently stands at 300.3 mph. It doesn’t look as if Richard Hammond will be the driver to break it.

If ‘driver’ is the word. News coverage of the Hammond story has stressed how unlike a car, in any familiar sense of the word, was the thing that Hammond tried and failed to guide down a track. Apparently there’s some form of steering, but apart from that you’ve got a jet engine and some parachutes and, er, that’s it.

No disrespect to the neurally-injured Hammond, but I can’t help feeling that’s not driving. Parry Thomas, now, there was a driver. He was also the chief engineer of Leyland Ltd, but it’s as a driver that he’ll be remembered, or deserves to be. He was the last driver to set the (world) land speed record on a racetrack (Brooklands, where else?); in one extraordinary contemporary film-clip, Thomas’s long-nosed 1920s racer scoots casually past everything else on the track, looking for all the world as if everyone else was standing still.

But there were limits to what you could do on a circuit, and Thomas (along with rivals like Malcolm Campbell) needed space. Hence his choice of the seven-mile beach at Pendine in South Wales, where in 1926 he pushed the record up to 169.30 mph and then to 171.02 (or, in some accounts, 172.33). His car Babs was a heavily-modified Higham Special, bought from the estate of the racing driver Louis Zborowski (killed at Monza in 1924); Thomas even fitted pistons of his own design.

Enter Campbell, who in January 1927 took the record back with a speed of 174.22 mph (or possibly 174.88). In response Thomas took Babs back to Pendine. On the 3rd of March 1927, at a speed of anything up to 180 mph, he lost control of Babs; the car skidded off course, turned over and crashed, killing him instantly.

Babs was buried in the sand, and since then the beach has never again been used for speed trials. There was some talk of mounting a British land speed record attempt there in 2007, supposedly to tie in with the eightieth anniversary of Campbell’s 174 mph; it may not come to anything, particularly after Hammond’s crash. Personally, I’d have thought another eightieth was a bit more pressing.

Babs was buried in the sand, anyway, but it didn’t stay there. In 1969 the car was dug up by a local enthusiast who wanted to rebuild it; my family lived in Pendine at the time, and I vividly remember the exhumation. I remember that my father, who was the Senior Administrative Officer on the local military base, was involved in some capacity – although, thinking about it now, it was probably a “here comes the SAO, look busy” kind of capacity. Eventually Babs was rebuilt, and it now takes pride of place in the Museum of Speed a mile or so down Pendine Sands. It’s well worth a look if you’re passing – and Pendine is well worth passing. (No, I mean it’s well worth passing that way in order to visit… never mind.)

I’d like to say that Parry Thomas was the last British holder of the land speed record, or the last to break the record in Britain, or the last to do so in something even vaguely resembling a car, or something – but history’s not that neat. Nevertheless, you don’t break land speed records these days in a car with a piston engine, and you certainly don’t do it in Britain. Parry Thomas’s death may not have ended an era, but it was very much of an era, and one which doesn’t seem much less distant now than Stephenson’s Rocket.

Footnote: the speed in the title comes from the Tea Set’s 1979 tribute to Thomas. I haven’t seen it anywhere else; all the sources I’ve seen set Thomas’s record-breaking speed either lower or higher. He was going pretty bloody fast, anyway.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 396 other followers

%d bloggers like this: