Britain since the seventies, impressionistic thoughts (repost)

by Chris Bertram on December 14, 2019

In the wake of our disastrous election result, Geoff Robinson on twitter (@GeoffPolHist) linked to this piece I wrote in April 2013 and which I’d forgotten about. I see John Quiggin is recycling too, so that seems to be way of things round here today.

The 1970s have been in my mind over the past few days, not only for the obvious reason, but also because I visited the Glam exhibition at Tate Liverpool last weekend. Not only were the seventies the final decade of an electrical-chemical epoch that stretched back to the late nineteenth-century, they were also the time when the sexual and political experimentation of the 1960s and a sense of being part of a cosmopolitan world order became something for the masses, for the working class, and when the old social order started to dissolve. In the experience of many people, the sixties happened in the seventies, as it were.

But my main thoughts, concerning Britain at any rate, have been about social division, and about some oddly paradoxical features of British life before Thatcher. There’s a very real sense in which postwar British society was very sharply divided. On the one hand, it was possible to be born in an NHS hospital, to grow up on a council estate, to attend a state school, to work in a nationalised industry and, eventually (people hoped), to retire on a decent state pension, living entirely within a socialised system co-managed by the state and a powerful Labour movement. On the other, there were people who shared the experience of the NHS but with whom the commonality stopped there: they were privately educated, lived in an owner-occupied house and worked in the private sector. These were two alternate moral universes governed by their own sets of assumptions and inhabited by people with quite different outlooks. Both were powerful disciplinary orders. The working class society had one set of assumptions – welfarist, communitarian, but strongly gendered and somewhat intolerant of sexual “deviance”; middle-class society had another, expressed at public (that is, private) schools through institutions like compulsory Anglican chapel. Inside the private-sector world, at least, there was a powerful sense of resentment towards Labour, expressed in slogans about “managers right to manage” and so on that later found expression in some of the sadism of the Thatcher era towards the working-class communities that were being destroyed. Present too, at least in the more paranoid ramblings of those who contemplated coups against Labour, was the idea that that the parallel socialised order represented a kind of incipient Soviet alternative-in-waiting that might one day swallow them up.

The revolutionaries of Lindsay Anderson’s If …. (1968) were rebelling against the regime of middle-class expectation rather than against an unjust class-based social order, but a sense of an ending was everywhere. The new left and the rising trade union militancy of the 1970s were both breaches with rather than extension of the old order in which the interests of the working class were either promoted or betrayed (depending on your perspective) by negotiations among middle-aged men about incomes policy and the like.

Cut to the present and that overt division is gone. Now we have radio presenters talking about how Margaret Thatcher fostered “social mobility”. Other conversations turn on things like “aspiration” and people being able to buy their council houses. My inner social scientist protests: don’t these people know that social mobility is down since Thatcher, that it’s now harder for people to escape the circumstances of their birth than it was then? But the true observation that it is more difficult for people to rise come up against the pervasive perception that people can now be what they want to be and aren’t constrained by strong expectations of social role. The decline of democracy in the sense of popular control contrasts with a sense that society is more democratic in that anyone is as good as anyone else; the intensification of real economic inequality has coincided with a much greater cultural egalitarianism than existed before. British society is less racist and less sexist than it was and (outside football) people are very tolerant of sexual difference. Even though, because of the decline in economic mobility, it is as hard or harder for working class women to escape poverty, wealthier women are everywhere present in the public and corporate life. In the sixties and seventies we had great popular music and some terrific high culture; now it seems as if almost the entire country tunes into X-Factor and Strictly. Progress, of a kind?

Has the meritocracy risen? Not really. Actually not at all. The advantages of birth and privilege are entrenched as never before. But the perception that we are all equals allows for the illusion of a meritocratic society and for the ritual blaming of those who fail. Both the failing and the blaming were hardly possible when, in principle but not in practice, the social classes were officially confined to their separate spheres. The successful congratulate themselves as never before on their own responsibility for their success and in the tabloid imagination, the formerly working class, stereotyped as “chavs”, have migrated from a parallel society replete with roles and expectations to an underclass existence. In a sense what we have is the Americanisationof Britain, or at least of England. A society where everybody has then sense that they can be anything they want to be, and where hardly anybody can. Just as pure luck matters more than ever did, the stink of desert and entitlement pervades. We are all in it together, ruled by “Dave” and “Nick”, ordinary aspirational blokes, modelled on “Tony” who was just like Basildon man, and “got it”. Except, of course, Dave, Nick and Tony went to Eton, Westminster and Fettes and thence to Oxbridge (full disclosure: me too). By contrast, in the earlier society, divided but actually porous, the political class reflected the social structure of parallel societies: Labour contained its share of Oxford dons, but many of its MPs had a trade union background. Now hardly any do.

A coda: Ken Loach has been going on about reclaiming the spirit of 1945. But there’s no way to go back and start again. The working class both exists as never before—since more people than ever have to go out to work in order to live—and has ceased to exist because all of the social institutions that gave it life have either atrophied or been captured. Some of that destruction was the work of the Thatcher government, but mostly it was the work of global economic and technological changes. Whatever future the egalitarian left has—and it needs one because of the objective rise of inequality—it can’t begin from the fantasy of a parallel society that has ceased to exist and which was limiting and stultifying in its own way.

{ 45 comments }

1

Phil 12.14.19 at 10:39 am

Has the meritocracy risen? Not really. Actually not at all. The advantages of birth and privilege are entrenched as never before. But the perception that we are all equals allows for the illusion of a meritocratic society and for the ritual blaming of those who fail. … A society where everybody has the sense that they can be anything they want to be, and where hardly anybody can.

That is the meritocracy as Richard Hoggart originally defined it; we’re living his nightmare. (As I probably said in 2013!)

Whatever future the egalitarian left has … it can’t begin from the fantasy of a parallel society that has ceased to exist

This is (still) key. I’m thinking now of one of the most powerful interventions in the election campaign, Loach’s “Fork in the road” video – which moved me so much that I insisted my family watch it, despite already knowing they were going to vote Labour. I think what it missed (or came too late to affect) is the widespread inability to imagine an alternative, to imagine the possibility of running our lives differently (and more collectively). You can say that a society of foodbanks and Deliveroo is intolerable, but an awful lot of people will shrug and say “what’s the alternative?” – because there is no alternative, or none in their lived experience. You could even say that foodbanks and Deliveroo are the alternative for some people, the piecemeal, stopgap alternative to outright destitution – and there’s no bigger, structural alternative because, well, there isn’t (austerity was necessary; we can’t live beyond our means; you’ve got to keep within your household budget…). In a very real sense Vince Cable is to blame.

2

Chris Bertram 12.14.19 at 10:44 am

as Richard Hoggart originally defined it

Michael Young?

3

Hidari 12.14.19 at 11:48 am

‘ In a sense what we have is the Americanisation of Britain, or at least of England.’

I think this hits the nail on the head, and, increasingly, the British left is going to find it difficult to get going for reasons which increasingly resembles the reasons that the American left has found it difficult to ‘get going’ (let alone seize power, let alone hold power).

One of the things I found striking about the recent British election (and it’s interesting that no one else seemed to find it striking) was how American it was: the leaders debates (obviously modelled on the American leader’s debates), the prevalence of advertising, the use of ‘Swiftboating’, lies, advertising and smear rather than reasoned argument etc. And, of course, after we leave the EU, the UK will be forced to become even closer to Donald Trump’s America, which was presumably the plan all along.

The left has always found it difficult in the UK, but after Brexit (which, despite the Lexiteers, was always a right wing project masquerading as a ‘progressive’ project (or not even masquerading)) it’s going to find it even more difficult as global capitalism of the American variety continues to rips communities apart and privatise the NHS/the ‘welfare state’.

Also the British media are going to increasingly resemble the US media, with predictable consequences for the left.

4

Satay 12.14.19 at 12:32 pm

I too have been banging on about creeping Americanisation. It feels that American politics is followed much more closely – to the same degree as UK news – perhaps because of the 24 hr news cycle and twitter, and I do find it odd the way that American sporting events have become adopted (in ways no other events elsewhere have been) as major events in the UK calendar. Not of course to mention the ties between the likes of Bannon and US think tanks/financing…

5

Hidari 12.14.19 at 12:43 pm

Don’t mean to hijack the thread and I hope this isn’t off-topic as such (it follows on from my point at ‘3’ above) but take a look at these charts.

https://twitter.com/prospect_clark/status/1205796106870886400

This indicates that more ‘educated’ places are moving left, less ‘educated’ places are moving right. This is again a very American situation, and has led to the impasse the current Democratic party is in (and seems to be unable to move out of): despite its nominally left wing approach, it is in fact rooted not in the working class but amongst ‘knowledge workers’, people in the media, (some) people who work in (e.g.) software development/IT, and other people who have specific reasons to be ‘liberal’ (the LGBQT+ community, African Americans etc.). The ‘traditional’ white American working class, OTOH are seemingly moving into the Republican fold. This might be just because of Trump but of course as Piketty has shown, this is a worldwide (or at least Europe wide) trend.

The current Labour Party would seem to be moving the same way, which means that, perhaps, in 30 or 40 years time, after the current civil war is over, the Tories might take the place of Labour in England as the party of the working class, raw, ‘politically incorrect’ capitalism, and a few others (e.g. farmers), and the Labour Party might replace the LibDems and the Greens (this was essentially always the Blairite dream).

Or perhaps the Labour Party will split into a socialist and a slightly more LibDem-ish post-Blairite party, as happened in 1982, 1983. Presumably the socialist side will eventually just vanish, or else it will transform itself into a post-Blairite party itself (again as happened post 1983).

In any case, Labour have lost their homelands in Scotland and Wales, and (presumably) in the North of England too. This would seem to indicate that they will be out of power for 20 years, maybe a lot longer than that.

The Blair years would seem to be an interregnum to something that happened between 1979 and 1997 and then from 2007 until now, which is essentially of untrammelled and uncontrolled endless, Tory power.

This might seem weird, but in fact, other countries have also have what are essentially
one party states, which still have elections (which, however, one party always wins) CF Japan, Mexico until recently.

Anyway forgive the thread hijacking but my point is that even under Corbyn, who seemed an outlier, the British Labour Party is increasingly resembling the American Democrats, as the Tories increasingly resemble the Republicans, with their problems being the same in both cases, and this trend is likely to accelerate post-Brexit.

6

Jake Gibson 12.14.19 at 1:08 pm

I thought British media got Murdiched before American media. Or is the BBC turning into Fox News?

7

spiro 12.14.19 at 4:17 pm

“The decline of democracy in the sense of popular control contrasts with a sense that society is more democratic in that anyone is as good as anyone else; the intensification of real economic inequality has coincided with a much greater cultural egalitarianism than existed before.”

This reminds me of an old journal article entitled “Achieving less influence with more democracy: The permanent legacy of the War on Poverty” (Kerstein & Judd). This outcome is the cleverness of a certain kind of accommodation by the ruling classes–channel perceptions of power into the realm of feelings and expression, while undermining the (institutional, organizational) means of affecting policy.

8

nastywoman 12.14.19 at 4:42 pm

@3
”One of the things I found striking about the recent British election (and it’s interesting that no one else seemed to find it striking) was how American it was”

and I thought – what was utmost ”striking” – that it was just like:
”A pretty clever British Clown – laughing at a very stupid American one”?

9

Phil 12.14.19 at 5:56 pm

Oh good grief. Michael Young, of course. Different (and much more conspicuous) filial exemplar.

10

Colin Reid 12.14.19 at 11:00 pm

I also get the impression that exactly those parts of England and Wales that have done worst under the Thatcherite/neoliberal economic model are the ones trending Conservative (and most of the movement is by people old enough to clearly remember the Thatcher years – I wonder what proportion of the participants in the 1984-5 miners’ strike who are still alive today, voted for the Tories on Thursday), whereas Conservative support is stable or in decline in the areas that have done best under that economic model. Perhaps it’s an aberration due to Brexit, which could be seen as some sort of reaction against neoliberalism; but if that’s what it’s about, what new economic model are the Tories offering in its place?

The pattern is in the direction of US politics, where ‘culture war’ tends to trump economic interests among white voters. But there are two significant differences I think. One is that the kind of ‘small town/rural America’ that is geographically isolated from the big cities basically does not exist in England – we’re talking about a highly urbanised population who may not live in a big city, but usually live in the hinterland of one. The other is that the age gradient in voting preference is gigantic even compared to the USA, and overshadows most of the regional divides (among white English voters at least): on Thursday, about a quarter of voters under 30 voted Tory/Brexit (but over half for Corbyn’s Labour!), versus over 60% of those over 70, with a steady gradient for the cohorts in between. The big question going forward is how much of this is ‘age effect’ and how much is ‘cohort effect’; if it’s the latter, it suggests a wave of social upheaval even bigger than that of the 1960s/70s.

Meanwhile, we look set for a decade of reactionary ‘populist’ government despite the social changes. What will it do to entrench its power? I fear that the Conservatives’ electoral interests are now directly opposed to the success of the UK. For instance, causing a mass exodus of young university-educated workers and goading Scotland into declaring independence would both tilt the electoral landscape further in the Conservatives’ favour among the diminished population of what’s left of the UK, and a healthy economy may not even matter all that much politically if most of your voters have already retired.

11

DavidtheK 12.15.19 at 12:26 am

Hidari @5 Good post. But I think you’re missing a key point. If education attainment alone was an indicator for vote preference, than the long expansion in the wealthy democracies of college education should have doomed revanchist conservative parties to long term irrelevancy. But of course they continue to remain very strong and are moving in fact, towards a flirtation with facisism. Educational attainment is not the predictor; but what jobs people hold is where I think the key is. Jobs which place a premium on “sales” skills and being on ones own are likely to cast their fortunes with the right wing. The left attracts those who come into organizations where the need is to cooperate with others to solve problems. And people who take advanced degrees who to become independent thinkers. These are the voters likely to lean left.

12

derrida derider 12.15.19 at 1:28 am

I’ve been waiting for a CT post on the UK election – the embarrassed silence kinda speaks volumes.

Because the Blairites have been right all along – the choice a modern developed society faces is between capitalism with a human face and capitalism with an inhuman face. At bottom this is for good technological reasons (remember your Marx, not to mention your Piketty). Corbynism and its cognates was always going to end in the triumphant hegemony of the inhuman face.

13

Seren Rose 12.15.19 at 1:43 am

“I urge everyone to find closure, and to let the healing begin.”

Johnson had me in fits of maniacal laughter, as I yelled to the world, “We are all Californian now!”

Marianne Williamson strikes me as a ludicrous Democrat nominee, but here she is being channeled by the successful leader of the *Tories* ????!!

14

Hidari 12.15.19 at 10:39 am

@12
Yeah good luck with that, mate. Blairism has fundamental problems and unless it is totally updated it will not be able to face up to current realities.

See here:

https://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2018/05/corbyn-the-heir-to-blair.html

Also New Labour ‘surfed the wave’ of an economic recovery that began after 1992 (after we stopped ‘shadowing the Euro’ ironically enough). It also benefitted from China ‘coming on stream’ and acting as the ‘workshop of the world’ (therefore, lots of cheap consumer goods) before China actually began to be so strong as to threaten US hegemony. Also New Labour took advantage of the short (but real) burst of productivity caused by the internet and the ‘burst’ of technological innovation that followed that, a burst that is now petering out.

Finally, the intellectual climate was totally different. In the 1990s, the US was under Clinton (in some people’s cases, literally) Delors was in power in the EU, there were centre left parties in power throughout the EU, there was slow but steady economic growth, very few wars (apart from Yugoslavia, which was quickly settled once NATO got involved) little animus towards immigrants etc.

Now we face a new wave of ethnonationalism, inequality and hostility to immigrants is spiralling, growth has stalled, lifespans are declining, the ‘rate’ of scientific and technological progress is declining, climate change is an increasingly threatening (and, it seems, an increasingly unsolvable) problem, the wars in the Middle East continue and will presumably increase, (leading to more immigrants) we are almost literally counting down the days of the calendar till the next recession and so on.

Blairism has no solution to any of these problems.

There’s also the fact (and it is a fact, incidentally) that Blairism had literally no electoral success. Blairites like Kinnock, Brown, Miliband etc, all lost elections.

People didn’t vote for Blairism. They voted for Blair.

But Blair is gone, and not coming back.

But I know you won’t believe me, so knock yourself out. Get a Blairite in power, who will lose the next election, then put another one in power, they will lose the election after that, and so on. Please. Be my guest. You would think that Trump’s 2020 victory over an American Blairite* (which is now more or less inevitable, barring some amazing incident we can’t foresee) would change Blairite’s minds, but nothing will, it seems.

Oh but wait! Perhaps Jess Philips, the MP for Have I Got News for You, will save us.

*After Corbyn’s defeat, standing as a socialist, the DNC would rather burn the country than let Sanders be the Democratic candidate.

15

Hidari 12.15.19 at 11:02 am

Sorry I know multiple posts are frowned on and rightly so, so I will leave it after this, but I forgot the most important reason why Blairism was possible ‘then’ and not possible now:

In the 1990s the Tories were hopelessly divided over Europe.

There are a number of infallible rules about British politics. Number one is, of course, that the British almost always vote in Conservative Governments, and only ever vote in Labour Governments ‘temporarily’ (so to speak) and under highly specific and unusual circumstances. Looking at the number of years the UK has had Tories in power vs the number of years the UK has had Labour in power since the Labour Party replaced the Liberals as the major opposition party (roughly immediately after WW1) makes this point for me.

The second one is that the British public will not, ever, vote in a party that is perceived as being ‘divided’. In the 1980s, the Labour Party was perceived as being split between the left and the right. In the later 1990s, it was the Tories who were perceived as being divided. Spot the difference in ‘who won elections’.

The Labour Party is now going to tear itself apart in a decades (plural) long civil war: therefore, no one will vote for it. The Tories OTOH have ‘lanced their EU boil’ and will be totally united: also the split between the ‘cosmopolitan’ David Cameron wing and the ethnonationalist Johnson wing has now been healed by Johnson’s huge victory (he is now in the process of purging the party). Remember, when things are ‘equal’ the British tend to vote Tory anyway, and a divided party ‘seals the deal’.

If there’s a Labour Govt, even one term, before 2050 I think Labour should consider that a positive result, and better than it could have been.*

After that, the climate change apocalypse will really be upon us, and all bets are off.

*Ignore all the soft-left liberals with their ‘it’s not that bad for the Labour Party really’ articles: this is an utter catastrophe. Labour lost in 1983 when squeezed by the SDP and after Thatcher just won a war, in the midst of an economic ‘bounce’: this is the worst result for Labour since when they were faced by the National Government. The results could literally not have been worse, and indicates that Labour dodged PASOKification for a few years, but inexorable socio-conomic trends will eventually finish them off (cf also the SDP in Germany, the once-powerful Communist parties in France and Italy etc.). The future (i.e. the next 30-40 years) belongs to the Trumpian ethnonationalists and all serious political analysis should begin with acknowledgement of this key fact.

16

nastywoman 12.15.19 at 12:13 pm

@5
”This indicates that more ‘educated’ places are moving left, less ‘educated’ places are moving right”.

Really? – and am I -(ME) going to be the only ”nasty” one – who will point to the fact – that if Corbyn only wouldn’t have been such ”a pill” WE would her won ”this thing”?

And the other day there was a very interesting article in the NYT about ”the Chaos Vote” – which reminded me – that probably the last generation who voted in the way – that you still – could do the type of ”traditional political arithmetics” – was/is the generation of my parents? –

While thinking about – and my British friends?

I could be completely wrong – as most of them are kind… kind of?
”completely unpredictable”?

17

Philip 12.15.19 at 3:12 pm

‘By contrast, in the earlier society, divided but actually porous, the political class reflected the social structure of parallel societies: Labour contained its share of Oxford dons, but many of its MPs had a trade union background. Now hardly any do.’
I think the above is only part of the problem. At a local level people in Labour heartlands have become disillusioned with corrupt and incompetent councils,this twitter link highlights some issues. In my constituency, City of Durham, the mp has been pushed by the NEC causing a row with the CLP, here and here . The local authority has also pushed through a development plan, including controversial new roads through woodland areas, and ignored any dissenting views. There is then a huge credibility gap when the national party manifesto pushes a green industrial revolution. There are reasons, that don’t have to do with culture wars, that people feel that Labour aren’t listening to them. This is also why they have been losing in traditional Labour areas in Scotland and now England and Wales too. There needs to be a change of attitude through all levels of Labour from telling people what will be good for them to genuinely listening to what people want Labour to do for them.

@Colin Reid: ‘The pattern is in the direction of US politics, where ‘culture war’ tends to trump economic interests among white voters. But there are two significant differences I think. One is that the kind of ‘small town/rural America’ that is geographically isolated from the big cities basically does not exist in England – we’re talking about a highly urbanised population who may not live in a big city, but usually live in the hinterland of one.’ I don’t think this is entirely right, in the North East it was the cities/large towns, Middlesbrough (leave), City of Durham (remain for the constituency but leave for the LA), Sunderland (leave), and Newcastle (remain) that Labour held. It was the suburbs and rural areas, some of which are very remote for England, that swung to Conservative.

18

dilbert dogbert 12.15.19 at 5:17 pm

“We are all Californian now!”
Yikes!!! Please No!!!!!
All the folks who want to escape the world’s craziness can’t fit into California.

19

Dipper 12.15.19 at 5:19 pm

@ Hidari

“There are a number of infallible rules about British politics. Number one is, of course, that the British almost always vote in Conservative Governments”

This is true, but it understates the way the electorate and the opposition moves the Tories around. This Tory government is committed to leaving the EU, increasing public spending on the NHS and other services, and likely to increase state spending overall, and also engage in a large amount of state investment in working class areas. This is quite a departure from any Tory administration of the last twenty years. If you’d been asked twenty years ago which party had Asian heritage Chancellor and Home Secretary as well as many openly gay MPs and had the above policy, you would have unhesitatingly said the Labour Party and admired the strength of its big state commitment.

20

Z 12.15.19 at 6:18 pm

@Derrida derider Corbynism and its cognates was always going to end in the triumphant hegemony of the inhuman face.

Well maybe, but if the data from this map is correct, this might be less because “the choice a modern developed society faces is between capitalism with a human face and capitalism with an inhuman face. At bottom this is for good technological reasons” but because aging boomers are starkly at odds with younger generations in terms of political analysis of the current state of their societies (and presumably the world).

https://twitter.com/Gjpvernant/status/1206236856775405570

Abut the general topic of the post, as I have written here many times, advanced western societies have been shaped by a powerful converging force, the universalization of elementary then secondary education, from the late 1500s to the late 1970s. Since then, they have been shaped by a powerful diverging force – the lack of universalization of higher education (defined as the successful completion of more than three years of studies after high school graduation). People born after this historical switch understand this very well, those before, not so much.

21

Hidari 12.15.19 at 8:42 pm

@19

‘This Tory government is committed to … increasing public spending on the NHS and other services, and likely to increase state spending overall, and also engage in a large amount of state investment in working class areas.’

The words ‘committed to’ and ‘likely to’ are interesting phrases, neither of which mean ‘going to’.

Remember Donald Trump’s trillion dollar infrastructure spending? What we got instead was (surprise!) tax cuts for the rich.

‘ If you’d been asked twenty years ago which party had Asian heritage Chancellor and Home Secretary as well as many openly gay MPs…’

If you’d been asked 20 years ago who had the open record of homophobic, racist and Islamophobic comments, none of which he had apologised for, had written an openly anti-Semitic and racist novel, had a record of preying, sexually, on interns, and had the police called on him after a (still mysterious) ‘domestic incident’, was openly drunk/hungover when putting the wreath on the cenotaph (something the state broadcaster helped him to cover up), someone who had been fired from two jobs for lying and who lied intensively and relentlessly throughout an election campaign, with no shame or concern, most people would simply assume it would have to be a tinpot aspiring dictator in a Banana Republic, or possibly the protagonist in a left wing satirical novel.

It’s not an original thought with me, but the thing that’s different about this election campaign as opposed to all previous ones in the UK, is not that one of the candidates lied (all politicians lie) but that one of the candidates (Johnson) essentially never told the truth, at all, about anyone, or anything, ever, at any point in the campaign, and not only was he encouraged to do so by all the media (the idea that the Guardian or the Independent are in some way ‘left wing’ is now laughable) but also that a lot of the British public knew he was lying but didn’t seem to care. This is different from the situation in the ‘States. In the US, Trump’s ‘core fans’ didn’t care he lied but plenty of other people did. In the UK the entire intellectual, media and entertainment class made it clear that they simply didn’t care about this fictional portrayal of reality that Johnson was creating. And the British public also made it clear that they didn’t really care about being lied to, again (unlike in the US) en masse.

We are going to be living with the effects of this bizarre election campaign, if you want to call it that, for many years.

22

william uspal 12.15.19 at 9:03 pm

Hidari @15

“Ignore all the soft-left liberals with their ‘it’s not that bad for the Labour Party really’ articles: this is an utter catastrophe. Labour lost in 1983 when squeezed by the SDP and after Thatcher just won a war, in the midst of an economic ‘bounce’: this is the worst result for Labour since when they were faced by the National Government. “

In terms of number of seats, yes. But, as Nathan Newman pointed out on Twitter, Labour won a higher percentage of the vote (32.1%) than it did in 2015 and 2010 (29.0%), and only slightly below 2005 (35.2%). I suspect what happened this time is that Labour piled up useless majorities in metropolitan constituencies, while suffering a -7% swing to Tories and Brexit in northern Leave-supporting marginals. (Thanks, FPTP!) Ironically, this is what the Labour leadership feared, and why they were resistant to moving towards a soft Remain position (renegotiate + 2nd ref).

I was among those who chided Labour for not taking a clear Remain line on Brexit, and I was wrong. (The LDs took a clear line on Brexit and got walloped, although that may also owe to Swinson and a bad campaign.) I was wrong, I mean, on whether taking a clear line would enhance their GE prospects, not on whether it was the right thing to do. Ultimately, I think Brexit was an insoluble problem for Labour this time around: there was no way to avoid divisive tensions in their base between Northern working-class voters and metropolitan liberals, and Johnson was always going to run on an appealing message of “get Brexit done” (so we can stop hearing about it.)

I would be wary about drawing sweeping conclusions from the Brexit election.

Additionally, Corbyn’s personal unpopularity hurt, although I saw an interesting graph on Twitter of Labour leaders’ popularity over time, and Brown ‘s and Miliband’s numbers were just as bad. The Labour leader will always face a hostile media.

23

Chetan Murthy 12.15.19 at 11:58 pm

Hidari @ 21:

not only was he encouraged to do [lie continuously] so by all the media (the idea that the Guardian or the Independent are in some way ‘left wing’ is now laughable) but also that a lot of the British public knew he was lying but didn’t seem to care. This is different from the situation in the ‘States. In the US, Trump’s ‘core fans’ didn’t care he lied but plenty of other people did.

Hidari, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong about the States. The mainstream media with few exceptions really did encourage Don Bedsore to lie continuously — for many reasons, not least the ratings. Yes, the final editorials were almost entirely anti-Shitler. But all the coverage was clearly biased toward him. There was a CJR analysis of the FTFNYT coverage that made it clear, for instance. And you might remember that CNN would cut away from speeches by Hillary, to broadcast empty podiums at Kaiser Quisling rallies (b/c The Insult Comedian had not yet arrived to start his speech).

We’re more alike (the UK and US) than we both fear.

24

Fake Dave 12.16.19 at 1:51 am

I’m not British, so maybe I’m failing to adequately account for the national commitment to dreary fatalism, but I still feel like the “thousand years of darkness” interpretation is overwrought. Johnson’s entire career has occurred in the wake of an arrogant and callous neoliberal ascendancy. How much worse can he possibly be than the corrupt order that created him?

People are acting like Corbyn should personally apologize for destroying Labour, but what of the three year campaign within Labour to destroy Jeremy Corbyn? What can we make of an “opposition” that betrays its own leader and turns on its allies during a moment of historical government weakness? The stubborn refusal to unite around Corbyn and the ongoing tolerance for extreme dissenters in the ranks seems like a party-wide failure, but I don’t know that appearances are accurate.

A counter argument: what if there wasn’t actually anything wrong with Corbyn? We know that the media portrait of a politician can easily supercede and preempt their actual behavior. Some politicians are made of Teflon others get that “loser stink” about them and become the wrong kind of untouchable. It’s not completely random who gets what treatment, but it’s almost always wrong to ascribe it to the individual themselves.

Corbyn wasn’t the “right person” to unite the opposition, but he was, quite demonstrably, the best they were going to get. The gleeful way members of his own party went about slandering his character, questioning his intelligence, and branding him an extremist on the eve of a pivotal election was something to behold. We should question their motives even more now that we’ve seen the tremendous damage they were willing to do to their own movement for the sake of an “I-told-you-so.”

One takeaway that might not be immediately obvious is that, if we accept the “Corbyn got ratfucked” narrative, it leads to completely different conclusions about Labour’s real chances moving forward. Self-inflicted wounds require a different treatment than external ones, but the prognosis might not be as bad. Labour could find a shiny new leader to unite around at basically any time (it does happen). Maybe it will take 20 years or maybe they’ll be ready in time for the next by-election. Global political discourse is becoming increasingly post-structural so we should be skeptical of explanations that presume political parties are still the same sort of slow-moving (if well-oiled) political machines they were a generation ago.

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ph 12.16.19 at 2:27 am

Thanks for this Chris. I think your piece stands the test of time better than JQ’s, which is why I’ll put my two cents here. Actually, Henry’s piece on actual Labour members who joined to push Corbyn into the driver’s seat is (from memory) the most astute and prescient analysis of the consequences of having relatively affluent ‘radicals’ take the lead in shaping Labour’s direction.

My favorite, however, is Thomas Picketty’s rubric of the Versailles Liberals versus the Merchant Right (Picketty employs the term Brahmin Liberal, which I feel lacks the requisite sting, but has the benefit of implying today’s liberals are part of a caste system which includes ‘untouchables’) Picketty’s long view incorporates your own observations, Chris, and those of Henry, and correctly identifies the risks of the ascent of the Merchant Right.

In short, blaming Corbyn, Trump, Brexit or any specific set of actors for the current mess is silly. Yes, Corbyn was an abject failure, but he did at least stand for something, which is more than we can say for Blair – who stood only for the most bloodless pragmatism – true Tory-light. The SNP was already in ascent thanks to the Versailles Liberals’ embrace of Tory-light policies, even if the SNP fell short in their own bid for independence, as all the while the Oxbridge tossers at the top of Labour and the media/celebrity millionaire supporters openly sneered at the cultural shortcomings of Britain’s lower orders.

The fact is that there are no easy answers, or quick fixes. Johnson will likely construct an elaborate straddle designed to appease his true constituency – other wealthy entitled tossers who couldn’t give a fig for the working-class, and we can toss public schoolboy Farage onto the same pile of lying grifters. With luck, a real anti-militarist movement might emerge to prevent Britain from squandering more blood and capital, and from selling weapons to people in dire need of equitable trade deals and a prolonged break from dictatorships and warlords. But where’s the profit, patriotism, and fun in that? My guess is that the UK economy will not tank, too badly, because the rich want to protect their own wealth and acquire more.

There is currently only one real political party in England today, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. The Greens could emerge as a practical alternative should they embrace money and material possessions. People love shopping, which makes people the ‘enemy’ in the eyes of too many Greens. Trump wins cause he understands just how important shopping is to everyone. I doubt the SNP will get over their particular hump for the same reason. Many home owners in Scotland aren’t going to touch independence unless all currency and interest rate concerns are fully addressed. More of the same, and perhaps even more delusional, if that’s possible.

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/09/16/the-brahmin-left-vs-the-merchant-right-a-comment-on-thomas-pikettys-new-book/

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Cian 12.16.19 at 4:25 pm

Hidari,
As a British person living in the US I don’t find the idea that the UK will become closer to Donald Trump’s America remotely plausible. The US is very different to the UK for a variety of reasons which simply could never be replicated in the UK (geography, federalism, religion and cultural assumptions). I don’t think this is a terribly helpful way to think about things, anymore than it was very useful when Labour’s right became obsessed with cosplaying their ‘West Wing’ DVDs. I mean to give you one example – the US does not have ‘political parties’ in the sense that we have them in the UK.

Secondly, the UK media is both _worse_ and _better_ than the US media, and also entirely different. There is almost no equivalent to the Sun, or the Mail, or the Times in the US. There’s nothing that bad except possibly the NYPost (which is a local newspaper with less influence than the Standard). And while TV news is bad in the US, there’s still only one Fox news, and nobody much watches the other cable news TV shows. The WP and NYT are bad newspapers, but they’re far better than the Telegraph, Times and Mail.

27

Stephen 12.16.19 at 6:18 pm

Colin Reid @10: ‘the kind of ‘small town/rural America’ that is geographically isolated from the big cities basically does not exist in England’.

Not sure you’re right. As an American friend once said to me, “In America, we think that 50 years is a very long time. In Europe, you think that 50 miles is a very long distance”.

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Stephen 12.16.19 at 8:08 pm

ph@25

“Blair – who stood only for the most bloodless pragmatism”

I am struggling to apply that statement to the Iraq tragedy.

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ph 12.16.19 at 8:45 pm

In this piece, the disastrous impact of the Iraq/Afghanistan debacle on domestic politics in the US is dissected. As Cian points out above, the UK and US are different, but for me Labour’s blood-drenched hands changed my perception of the ‘values’ of the modern Labour party, leaving room only for a Corbyn type leader – who proved unequal to the challenges – https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-biden-kept-screwing-up-iraq-over-and-over-and-over-again

The endless lies used to justify the Afghanistan under Obama have yet to receive a proper airing, despite the excellent reporting in the Wapo. Increasingly, there’s far too little separating the FP ‘solutions’ of the Versailles Liberals and the Neo-Con right. Hence, the rise of non-interventionism – a driving force elites are unwilling to recognize, much less support.

30

Faustusnotes 12.16.19 at 9:56 pm

Cian I think America gets its daily mail equivalent from hate radio, as does Australia.

31

Hidari 12.17.19 at 8:52 am

@22

‘I would be wary about drawing sweeping conclusions from the Brexit election.’

But the next election will also be a Brexit election. Probably the one after that too. As not a few (completely marginalised) commentators pointed out, ‘Get Brexit Done’ was a complete lie: as Stephen Bush pointed out, the only way to really ‘get Brexit off the table’ was the LibDem policy of revoke.

What will happen now is a loooong series of trade negotiations with essentially every country on Planet Earth. It will take decades to get this all sorted out, which of course, is what the Tories wanted all along. People who ‘interfere with the Brexit process’ (i.e. people who ask questions) can be smeared as traitors, saboteurs, ‘enemies of the people’. Indeed, Johnson has an endless supply of these in the form of the Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish, all of whom are, to a greater or less extent, sceptical of his wonderful deal. They can be portrayed as ‘the enemy within’ just as the miners were.

Johnson is already cracking down on more obvious ‘enemies of the people’ i.e. Muslims, travellers, immigrants. This process can (and will) go on for decades because it’s not in the Tories’ interests for it to stop.

@26 ‘Secondly, the UK media is both _worse_ and _better_ than the US media, and also entirely different. There is almost no equivalent to the Sun, or the Mail, or the Times in the US. There’s nothing that bad except possibly the NYPost (which is a local newspaper with less influence than the Standard). And while TV news is bad in the US, there’s still only one Fox news, and nobody much watches the other cable news TV shows. The WP and NYT are bad newspapers, but they’re far better than the Telegraph, Times and Mail.’

I think it’s interesting that you say the British media is both better and worse than the US’ media and then literally just list ways in which it is worse. England has the worst media on Planet Earth, you’d be better off living in North Korea (the North Korean media being less obviously racist) and the fact that the Left has literally no answer to the questions this raises is one of many reasons why the Left keeps on losing elections.

@24: ‘How much worse can he possibly be than the corrupt order that created him?’

The answer to that question is ‘much’.

‘Maybe it will take 20 years or maybe they’ll be ready in time for the next by-election. ‘

Who knows? But it’s noticeable that extremely long periods of Tory rule are the norm in UK politics: 1951-1967, 1979-1997, 1931-1945 (pushing the point, but the National Govt. was a Tory Govt. in all but name and Churchill the Tory led the War Cabinet).

Moreover, Labour Govt’s tend to be one term, whereas Tory Govts tend to be multi term. The paradigmatic Labour leader is not Clement Attlee, it’s Ramsay McDonald.

But Labour Governments happened when the media was far more open to Labour, and when there was a unified left wing working class throughout the whole of the UK. The rise of nationalism (especially Scottish nationalism) the decline of trade unions, the decline of the influence of left wing intellectuals, broader international trends (the world is turning to the hard right), and changes in the way capitalism operates in the ‘advanced’ capitalist societies (i.e. the move away from heavy industry to service industries) all make things much harder for the left, and it’s not easy to see a way forward.

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Charles Edward Mann 12.17.19 at 11:59 am

When I was with the U.S. Army and stationed in France from 1960-63, I often spent my leave time in London and even had a girlfriend who lived is Stepney. What I most remember was the belief that Britain was experiencing the dawn of a new era socially, politically and economically. In the intervening years I’ve watched from across the water in horror at how all of that expectation has fizzled out.

33

Chetan Murthy 12.18.19 at 1:42 am

ph @ 27:

The endless lies used to justify the Afghanistan under Obama have yet to receive a proper airing, despite the excellent reporting in the Wapo. Increasingly, there’s far too little separating the FP ‘solutions’ of the Versailles Liberals and the Neo-Con right. Hence, the rise of non-interventionism – a driving force elites are unwilling to recognize, much less support.

I don’t want to waste this blog’s comment-section on an argument about this, so I’ll keep it short:

Many disagree with this position. They (*we*) note that there is a permanent Imperialist faction in America, and whoever aspires to high office *must* appease that faction, or not get elected. Obama tried hard to push back, but the idea that he could shut them down is ridiculous. In a similar way, one of the things that allies do, is stand together. It has been widely reported that a big part of why Blair went along with The Chimperor is that he wanted to preserve the “special relationship.”. Only children pretend that there’s only one cause for some event (and then pretend that the most iniquitous cause for that even is the only one). Obama returned the favor (from, again, what’s been reported widely) when it came to Libya: our NATO allies pushed America hard to intervene, and so we did.

Pretending there’s no difference between the above widely-reported facts, and The Chimperor’s (again, widely-reported) hard-on to kill Saddam, is malpractice. It’s also what mewling toddlers do: either they get what they want, or The Bad Man denied them.

34

Hidari 12.18.19 at 7:54 am

@31

It might just be ‘number magic’ who knows, but it’s noticeable that there are ‘outbursts’ of radical left wing thinking in the Labour Party roughly every 40 years or so. The Party began (roughly) in about 1900 (1895 actually but I’m stretching a point). Then there was the 1945 Labour Government of Attlee, the last (and probably only) decent Labour Govt that actually had some kind of ideology and actually achieved anything. Then there was the Michael Foot Govt of 1983, which was sabotaged by the Malvinas War and the SDP ‘Gang of Four’ (although later historiography has done much to obscure this). And now Corbyn.

This suggests that the next ‘left wing uprising’ in the Labour Party, assuming it still exists, will be in 2060 by which time I’ll be dead so…yeah.

But yes it’s stunning how all the optimism and hope of the ’60s in both the US and the UK has been squandered and destroyed (the much more equivocal optimism of the 1990s too). Nobody sane in either of these countries looks to the future with anything other than dread and despair: not the best ‘soil’ for left wing ideas to flourish.

35

J-D 12.18.19 at 9:48 am

But, as Nathan Newman pointed out on Twitter, Labour won a higher percentage of the vote (32.1%) than it did in 2015 and 2010 (29.0%), and only slightly below 2005 (35.2%).

That’s true as far as it goes, but it leaves out an important part of the story.

In 2005, Labour’s percentage of the vote was three points higher than the Conservatives’. It was seven points lower in 2010, six points lower in 2015, two points lower in 2017, but twelve points lower in 2019.

‘I would be wary about drawing sweeping conclusions from the Brexit election.’

But the next election will also be a Brexit election. Probably the one after that too.

It’s possible that the next election will be a Brexit election, but it certainly won’t be the same Brexit election: or rather, it is possible, but highly unlikely, that the impact of Brexit on voters, and therefore on the result, will be the same at the next election as in this year’s. The political environment always changes to some extent between elections, but the probability is that in this instance the changes will be larger than usual.

I want to emphasise that I am fully aware, when I predict change, that political developments between now and the next UK election will not necessarily be to Labour’s advantage. It’s easy to get the feeling after an election that the next election will be a repeat; it’s also fairly easy to get the feeling after an election that the next election will be characterised by a rebound from the swing; both of these, though, are mistakes to be avoided. The sensible strategic approach for any political party after an election preparing for the next one is to make no specific assumptions about how the political environment will develop, at least until the next election draws a lot closer.

But it’s noticeable that extremely long periods of Tory rule are the norm in UK politics: 1951-1967, 1979-1997, 1931-1945 (pushing the point, but the National Govt. was a Tory Govt. in all but name and Churchill the Tory led the War Cabinet).

1951 to 1967? No, 1951 to 1964.

There’s no stretch involved in saying that the pre-war National government was Tory in all but name, but the record of the wartime Coalition is more ambiguous (for example, it was responsible for the Beveridge Report).

Both those details aside, there’s no doubt and no question about the main point that the UK has had more Conservative government than Labour government, and that on average Conservative governments have lasted longer than Labour ones (although it’s not clear by what standard to judge what counts as extremely long: the UK record of eighteen years of Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997 is less than the US record of twenty-four years of Republican administrations from 1861 to 1885, the Japanese record of thirty-eight years of LDP governments from 1955 to 1993, the Canadian record of twenty-two years of Liberal governments from 1935 to 1957, the Australian record of twenty-three years of Coalition governments from 1949 to 1972, and the Swedish record of thirty-one years of SAP governments from 1945 to 1976).

The paradigmatic Labour leader is not Clement Attlee, it’s Ramsay McDonald.

There has been no paradigmatic Labour leader. Each has been sui generis. For example, Jeremy Corbyn, as Labour leader, has no more been like Ramsay MacDonald than he has been like Clement Attlee (although he has been somewhat more like Michael Foot).

36

Tm 12.18.19 at 5:14 pm

Hidari 20 et al
Johnson’s party got 44% of the vote, Trump (personally) 46%. These results don’t seem to indicate a big difference between the UK and US. What they do indicate is the lamentable fact that both countries’ democratic institutions are not really democratic, allowing a minority backed by strong economic interests to seize power (and the electorate allows that to happen by not caring enough to vote tactically).

37

Tm 12.18.19 at 5:14 pm

Hidari 20 et al
Johnson’s party got 44% of the vote, Trump (personally) 46%. These results don’t seem to indicate a big difference between the UK and US. What they do indicate is the lamentable fact that both countries’ democratic institutions are not really democratic, allowing a minority backed by strong economic interests to seize power (and the electorate allows that to happen by not caring enough to vote tactically).

38

Stephen 12.18.19 at 8:31 pm

Hidari@30
“Johnson is already cracking down on more obvious ‘enemies of the people’ i.e. Muslims, travellers, immigrants”.

I’ve been very busy and may have missed this. Your evidence?

And as for Irish Travellers: how many of them do you think behave as if they were, in fact, the enemies of the settled people who come temporarily into contact with them? Obviously not all, but how many?

39

engels 12.18.19 at 8:40 pm

Nobody stated the obvious yet so I guess I’ll have to: Remainiacs this is on you.
https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/labours-brexit-stance-left-people-hurt-abandoned-and-betrayed-we-have-rebuild-hope-things

40

engels 12.18.19 at 8:49 pm

41

J-D 12.18.19 at 11:07 pm

It has been widely reported that a big part of why Blair went along with The Chimperor is that he wanted to preserve the “special relationship”.

That seems extremely likely, but the evident fact that UK Prime Ministers (many of them, anyway) like being photographed with US Presidents is insufficient justification for sending people to their deaths. (What other cash value does the special relationship have?)

… the Michael Foot Govt of 1983 …

Pinch yourself and wake up.

Hidari@30
“Johnson is already cracking down on more obvious ‘enemies of the people’ i.e. Muslims, travellers, immigrants”.

I’ve been very busy and may have missed this. Your evidence?

And as for Irish Travellers: how many of them do you think behave as if they were, in fact, the enemies of the settled people who come temporarily into contact with them? Obviously not all, but how many?

I haven’t been specially busy but I am on the other side of the world. What’s your evidence, Stephen, that any Irish Travellers behave like this?

42

Faustusnotes 12.19.19 at 2:24 am

To back up Engels, the remain supporters of the labour right are out in force in the media and twitter saying that labour lost because it lost votes to remain parties but this isn’t true. I have analyzed the results and it is very obvious that the votes lost to remain parties had little effect – it was leave wot did it.

Whatever happens next the Labour Party is going to have to accept the reality of brexit and argue for a better one (or for repairing the damage the Tory brexit does). If we’re lucky the Tory brexit will be so disastrous it will precipitate about early election and a strong left wing Labour Party can win and take over the trade negotiations to follow. The tories will sell out the nation willingly in those deals. The fight for labour becomes even more important to the nation now.

43

Hidari 12.19.19 at 8:45 am

@38

Ah and there goes the racist cat, screeching out of the racist bag. I won’t be replying to any more of your comments.

@35 ‘I want to emphasise that I am fully aware, when I predict change, that political developments between now and the next UK election will not necessarily be to Labour’s advantage.’ Given Johnson’s inherently authoritarian approach to politics, I think that can be taken as read.

Your point about other, European countries is valid enough, but just proves my point which is that (e.g.) Italy and Israel (both of which were, until recently, notorious for having lots of ‘short-term’ govt.s) are outliers. In the capitalist ‘democracies’ long (sometimes extremely long) periods of what amounts to one-party rule is the norm, and there’s no ‘law’ or ‘tendency’ to indicate that we ‘must’ have another Labour Govt before (say) 2050. Indeed, given the examples you quote, nothing would be less surprising than an extremely long period of Tory domination….for 20 years, or even longer. Perhaps substantially longer.

@37 The UK’s ‘democratic deficit’ is to no small extent caused by its ‘education’ system and, still more, by its media. Also by the fact that the ‘liberal’ intelligentsia continue to insist that the ‘United’ Kingdom is some form of a democracy.

I was in my local library yesterday and happened to pick up a book of the Father Brown stories by Chesterton: in one of the stories (I forget which) there is casual reference to the fact that Britain is an oligarchy and a plutocracy (those words are used): what’s interesting is that there’s no heat behind this. It’s just a casual observation, made in the context that the average reader would probably agree with this. But if I were to say that nowadays, there would be immediate pushback and pearl clutching from liberals: ‘But what about our famously free press?’ ‘What about our famously impartial justice system?’ ‘What about our famously peace loving army, which only ever shoots Arabs and steals their oil to promote democracy and human rights?’

Until you are prepared to face up to the scale of the problem, you are not going to solve the problem. Few people in the UK at the moment are prepared to face up to the scale of the problem and those that are are totally marginalised.

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Cian 12.19.19 at 2:47 pm

Hidari – TV and radio is better in the UK than the US. In particular there is nothing like the garbage that is broadcast on local TV stations, or talk radio. Also Fox news. Plus the large network of dreadful local newspapers that cover much of the US.

Also, for all their faults, the Independent and Guardian are better than any US newspaper (though in the Guardian’s case probably not for much longer).

As for worst media. How would you rate Hungary, or Russia? Or much of South America.

I don’t hold any illusions about the general crapness of UK media – but hyperbole doesn’t do anyone any favors. Plus the UK does have one of the world’s finest newspapers (Financial Times) – so there’s that.

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Alan Peakall 12.19.19 at 6:33 pm

TM@37: it’s not obvious to me that a failure of tactical voting to block a coherent, strongly motivated minority backed by strong economic interests proves that opposing voters did not care. The anti-Republican forces in US Presidential Election of 1860 certainly cared.

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