The political and the personal

This blog was supposed to be political and general, or at least professional, rather than personal, but of course you can’t always keep the two apart. Just think of all the people who vote Conservative in order to stay rich. I feel very personally affected by a number of political developments just now. Or at least, political developments as they are filtered through to me in Sweden by BBC World News – through my ‘pillow speaker’ in bed at night – and the Guardian internet site the next morning. Years ago I used to worry that while I was abroad important things could have happened back home which would shock me when I returned. (I remember telling a friend this as we were flying back from a ski-ing holiday: ‘for all we know there could have been a revolution.’ When we landed we found there had been. Martin Peters had been transferred to Spurs.) Now of course we can keep abreast of it all. I almost wish we couldn’t.

Are things really as bad as they seem from here? I’m thinking of course of Trump; but also of recent developments in my own British Labour Party. The last general election result was both a shock and a tragedy, and also profoundly undemocratic (an extreme Conservative government being allowed to get its evil way on the basis of 30-odd per cent of the vote); but then along came Jeremy, an unlikely saviour, I grant you, but one who seemed to be doing pretty well, and in particular keeping his dignity and developing a reputation for honesty which had been thought to be rare in politicians, against fearsome opposition, in a way that led some of us old Labourites to hope that he might, just, and with the world going the way it is now, triumph in the long run. We’d begun to recoup some hope again. And hope, after all, is one of the two main secrets of political success; the other being fear, whose repercussions don’t bear thinking about.

It’s this, the ‘fear’ factor, playing on the apparent hopelessness of our times, which appears to be dominant now. Trumpists fear Mexicans and liberals, and resent the loss of American ‘greatness’. In Britain we fear immigrants, terrorists, and Muslims generally: the last being the key line taken by the Conservative candidate in the London mayoral election just now against Sadiq Khan, the Labour man. (‘Would you trust London in the control of a friend of extremists?’- superimposed on a picture of a bombed London bus.) It’s as a result of this that people respond to politicians presented as ‘leaders’, who can defend them against these terrors. That way, of course, lies fascism, of whatever hue; the ‘hue’ differing according to culture. (Trumpists are unlikely to do the goose-step for example.)

‘Leadership’ is a problematical idea. It emerged in British politics first, I think, in the 1960s: partly under the influence of certain new Business – ‘managerial’ – ideologies; and partly because the ’60s were now far enough away from the war for its inevitable association with the ‘Führerprinzip’ of Hitler. Mussolini, and the rest to become blurred. Harold Wilson, sensing this, used to complain of how ‘leadership’ was coming to be identified with strong, tough, even bullying control, as against the encouragement of consensus and compromise, which was his preferred way. His successor-but-one, Margaret Thatcher, of course, exemplified this to the hilt. After her it has been difficult to deviate from that pattern. (Tony Blair used to say how much he admired her.) Before her, however, there had been examples in British history of prime ministers who had none of her qualities, yet were arguably more effective and certainly more beneficial in office. The obvious one is Clem Attlee; ‘a modest man’, as Winston Churchill is supposed to have said of him, ‘who has much to be modest about’; yet arguably the greatest peace-time prime minister in our history. By miles.

Which is what distressed me about a feature in the Guardian yesterday accepting that Jeremy Corbyn was, of course, not anti-semitic, but doubting whether he had ‘leadership qualities’. This of course is in connection with the current crisis in the Labour party over its alleged ‘anti-semitic’ elements, which has been mainly contrived by enemies of Labour, and within Labour by enemies of Corbyn, forcing the latter to set up an inquiry into it, chaired by an ex-Chair of ‘Liberty’: a good choice, by the way. I’m pretty confident that that Inquiry will substantially exonerate the party (of course there must be a few genuine anti-semites there, as everywhere); but by then – in about two months, I believe – it will be too late. The mud has been flung, and some will remain sticking. It is bound to affect the ‘narrative’ against which this week’s (local government) elections, and then the later EU referendum and general election, will be fought. It’s the headlines that stay in the public mind, sometimes for years. I have a friend who still thinks that MI5 ‘must have had something on’ Harold Wilson; and another close friend (a relative, actually) who believed that Jean Charles de Menezes really did leap over the barrier at Stockwell underground station in July 2005 (before being killed by police in mistake for a terrorist): in both (utterly false) cases because that’s what the newspaper headlines said at the time. The damage has been done.

All of which fills me with despair; and – to get back to the personal – a growing feeling that I can no longer bear to live in Britain just to be enraged and disappointed like this continually. Kajsa and I talked this morning about my moving to Sweden permanently. I would be a kind of refugee. I’d keep a small base back in the UK, of course, after downsizing drastically (anyone interested in loads of books, CDs and my old research notes?); but we’ve more or less decided which room in her house I’d have as my study. It will double as a guest room, so friends from Britain (and anywhere else) will be welcome to come, bearing jars of Marmite, and tales of how much worse things have got ‘back home’.

Meanwhile I’m back in Blighty tomorrow, partly to help out with the election in Hull. Maybe I’ll find that things aren’t so bad after all. Or that the company of other Labour ‘tellers’ will cheer me up. Or persuade me that by leaving, I’d be choosing the cowards’ way. But in the meantime, it’s good to know that I have a bolt-hole. Most of my fellow Labourites won’t. (And we can’t fit them all in here.)


On the ‘Anti-Semitism’ thing, this letter in the Guardian yesterday, signed by 82 Jewish writers, artists, academics and actors who are all members of the Labour Party  (one as it happens an old friend of mine), was I think excellent.

“We are Jewish members and supporters of the Labour party and of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, who wish to put our perspective on the “antisemitism” controversy that has been widely debated in the last few weeks (Labour’s antisemitism crisis as Livingstone suspended, 29 April). We do not accept that antisemitism is “rife” in the Labour party. Of the examples that have been repeated in the media, many have been reported inaccurately, some are trivial, and a very few may be genuine examples of antisemitism. The tiny number of cases of real antisemitism need to be dealt with, but we are proud that the Labour party historically has been in the forefront of the fight against all forms of racism. We, personally, have not experienced any antisemitic prejudice in our dealings with Labour party colleagues.
We believe these accusations are part of a wider campaign against the Labour leadership, and they have been timed particularly to do damage to the Labour party and its prospects in elections in the coming week. As Jews, we are appalled that a serious issue is being used in this cynical and manipulative way, diverting attention from much more widespread examples of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the Conservative and other parties. We dissociate ourselves from the misleading attacks on Labour from some members of the Jewish community. We urge others, who may be confused or worried by recent publicity, to be sure that the Labour party, under its present progressive leadership, is a place where Jews are welcomed in a spirit of equality and solidarity.”

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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4 Responses to The political and the personal

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  3. Philip Cassell says:

    Interesting that you would seek asylum in Sweden, where there seems to be a fairly sizable quasi-fascist movement represented by Swedish Democrats. Also intriguing is the sort of anti-Swedish line – an attack from the right – run by Knausgaard in his ‘novels’ and articles that gains a degree of plausibility from the way Assange has been treated.
    If you have read Knausgaard, I would be interested to read your views – a blog piece perhaps; you have in common with him the circumstance of being an outsider brought to Sweden by a lover.


    • Philip: I’m afraid I’ve not read any Knausgaard yet, though Kajsa has been urging me to. I’ll get around to it, and then – yes, a good idea – do a blog on it. As for Sweden generally, I’m not quite so smitten with it as I was when I started living there 20 years ago, and I’ve published a number of pieces criticising its legal procedures, in the wake of the Assange affair (here, in the LRB Blog and in Lobster). They’re deeply flawed and undemocratic. But I still admire the Swedes’ natural bottom-up democracy and spirit of co-operation, enabled by their more representative voting system. (I’ve blogged on that too.) The Sweden Democrats, though they have distant Nazi roots, are really no more fascist now than our UKIP, which they resemble quite closely. There’s a ‘Swedish Resistance Army’ (or some such) to the Right of them which is overtly Fascist: black-clad skinheads with clubs. But this is a deeply troubling phenomenon everywhere.


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