Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
In The Book and the Brotherhood, published in 1987, Iris Murdoch describes a decades-long fight within a group of left-wing friends whose leader is a good man called Gerard. Most of this group have drifted from their youthful Marxism, but one, Crimond, has not. Crimond, funded (and therefore enabled) by the friends, is writing a revolutionary tract. This act of funding leads to certain, ah, tensions. Here, Gerard rounds on Crimond, who has been describing the need for a radical transformation of society:
‘But your kind of “transformation” has already been tried, it leads to tyranny, to arrangements which are far more rigid and unjust and inefficient! We are imperfect, but we are a free open tolerant society governed by democratic process and law. We don’t have to destroy ourselves to make changes, we are changing all the time, and mostly for the better, if you compare fifty years ago! Are we to throw all this away in return for some chimerical hypothetical utopia set up by a few activists after a violent revolution? […]’
‘Your whole picture of western civilisation is a “theory”,’ said Crimond to Gerard. ‘Your whole way of life supports poverty and injustice, behind your civilised relationships there’s a hell of misery and violence. What do dissidents do when they come to the west? They grieve, they fade, they find it all utterly hateful, they can see it. There’s something called history, I don’t just mean a concept invented by Hegel or Marx or perhaps Herodotus, I mean a deep strong relentless process of social change. […] the old complacent liberal individual is already lost, he’s a fake, he’s finished, he cannot constitute a value—’
‘Oh stop!’ said Rose. She was trembling with anger. ‘You’ve sold your soul to—‘
What Crimond says here to Rose makes me shudder, so I’ll stop transcribing. It spooks me how Murdoch, 28 years ago, in a work of “fiction”, describes so accurately the ongoing fight within Labour. Tear down the Blairite icons, rages Crimond/Corbyn, they do nothing for the “hell of misery and violence” (a.k.a poverty) which hides behind our theoretical civilisation. But, but, but, emote his opponents. We are good people.
Look at the comments of the Corbynites under the Guardian’s columnists. People who accuse Labour Government ministers of being “Tories” are not motivated by reason, even if the Marxism of their new Messiah claims no basis “outside” of intellectual machinery. Corbyn’s dispassion enraptures his followers which is what – as Rose could see, if Gerard could not – makes him so dangerous politically.
One reading of Murdoch’s prescience is that there’s as little new in politics as there is in a fashionista’s wardrobe, if viewed over a suitable time-scale. Here is Liam McCafferty, a 23-year-old student union officer at the University of East Anglia, speaking (one assumes “fervently”) at a rally for Jeremy Corbyn:
“For me and people my age, this is all new, this is all exciting…. It’s not 1983.”
Perhaps Corbyn’s political fashion is new to Mr McCafferty, born in the 1980s. But to those who came to maturity in that decade, Corbyn’s antics are, exactly, that: 1983 made Left-wing flesh. Here comes (back) the Leftist of the 1980s: all ragged-trousered misanthropist. (It’s striking that Murdoch underlines often the frayed nature of Crimond’s clothing; as striking as the ubiquity with which journalists describe the un-flashy nature of Corbyn’s outfits. All emperors fashion their clothes.)
So the post-post-war consensus (Thatcherism on the Right, and whatever Blairism actually was on the Left; I admit a definition of Blairism defeats me, however much Rose trembles with anger at the admission) must be smashed, to be replaced with … idols from previous ages. And just as every generation believes itself the first to “hear” music properly, so the acolytes of the age’s iconoclasts believe they are supporting something uniquely novel.
On the Left, the iconoclasm takes the form of reheated Marxism. But the Right is not immune to destructive tendencies either. While the Left dresses its (intellectual, structural) violence up in the pseudo-science of Marxist “reason”, the Right descends into populist demagoguery. We’ve already lived through this in the UK with Nigel Farage (gone now, as politically dead as the “Liberal Democrat” entity, thank God.) The phenomenon has reappeared in the US Republican primary, in the repellent form of Donald Trump.
“Everything is so s**t that it must be destroyed and we have to just start again (somehow).” Thus Corbynism. Thus the…fervour (that word again) with which the SNP’s and UKIP’s online armies shriek their support for their leaders (and those armies’ ability to reject evidence that contradicts the claims of such leaders.) Thus Donald Trump: “Our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid…” If you vote for stupid people that makes you stupid too, is surely the implication. And nobody wants to think themselves stupid.
If fragile constructs of civility must be swept aside while the “stupid” are dealt with; well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, the excuse for violence of those who “see” truth down the ages. (And ovular cycles would appear to be at the front of Trump’s subconscious, based on his shocking rudeness to a female interviewer.)
It’s up to the Left to cohabit with its Marxist agitators (stop funding them, Gerard; that would be a start.) Should Corbyn win Labour’s leadership, millions of fellow travellers will rally to his cause: shouting is always easier than thinking. But Conservatives know that “there’s something called history”, after all, and in the fight against Marxism that “something” is on our side. It won’t be as easy as many columnists assume, but Corbynist Leftism can be defeated, soundly, at the ballot box. See 1979, 1983, 1987 for details.
And Crimond is wrong – was wrong in the 1980s and remains wrong now – to suggest that the “old complacent liberal” is lost, can no longer “constitute a value”. But he wasn’t wrong to choose that second adjective.
For we on the liberal Tory centre-Right have been complacent, too often seeking an accommodation with forces of destruction. We must make our values clear, until we become hoarse in doing so. That means, yes, taking apart the money-tree assumptions of the Left and throwing a light on the illiberal consequences of its desire for “transformation”.
It also means turning on the voices of the populist Right, which is harder, because we understand the germ of such populism. “Understand” is insufficient. More correct to say that we vibrate at the same frequency as those people, like Farage and like Trump, who give voice to the fears of the Right-wing id.
Example: it is not racist to oppose open immigration policies and we should never forgive those Blairite ministers who insisted, for a long time, to the contrary. It is not wrong to lament some of the changes wrought by that policy on the towns and cities which bred us into being, or to wonder aloud, in the policy’s aftermath, about our future chances for liberal-democratic cohesion. (And we should leave the EU if we are not to be permitted, otherwise, to control our border.)
But it is wrong – it is wicked – to assert that bad behaviour is uniquely confounded with genetic or cultural inheritance, and then by extension (or by deliberately choosing language and electoral imagery which permits such an extension) claim that individual immigrants are “therefore” bad for the country. If you find yourself making an excuse for Trump’s callous remarks about Mexicans, or Farage’s (epidemiologically, never mind ethically) obtuse rant about treating HIV: stop, and think again. This is not how to build something of beauty. (It isn’t even sufficient to build the consensus required for border control.)
Apart from anything else, remember this. If the Right gives in to populist iconoclasts, do not assume that the worst outcome will be Right-wing government with an unpleasant tone of voice, or, indeed, government by a group of well-meaning but high-taxing Leftists.
Read The Book and the Brotherhood and watch those Corbyn rallies. It is wrong to assume that our opponents have all become “nice” people like Rose, like Gerard. There are plenty of Crimonds waiting on the Left, grasping at the frayed hems of Jeremy’s trousers (in the second half of the novel, Crimond starts to learn Arabic: I wonder why?)
Ironically, Marxist iconoclasts have a better grasp of history – as waiting game – than most of the Right. Every Right-wing cheer for an ignorant, nasty man like Donald Trump brings that waiting game one move closer to Left-wing conclusion. Turn up the noise, liberal voices of reason. Show that we constitute a value worth saving.