Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

By-election junky Davis refuses to acknowledge victory in Haltemprice and Howden

July 11, 2008

In spite of being told by-election officials that he won with a massive majority of the vote, David Davis, MP, has refused to acknowledge the end of the Haltemprice and Howden by-election and vowed to fight on. Davis told the Today Programme quixotically this morning that, ‘I’m definitely going to continue this campaign.’ Davis insisted that his tedious and uninteresting campaign would go on because now, without the prospect of becoming Home Secretary in an incoming Conservative government, it was all he has left.

The pronouncement came as little surprise to Westminster insiders who point out that Davis was the only person who wanted the election in the first place. His promulgation of the doctrine of permanent by-election was met with widespread bemusement and weary shoulder-shrugging. Davis’s decision means that we will all be forced to listen to him talk about civil liberties ad nauseam as if they were the most important thing in politics. It is rumoured that several Today Programme regulars are considering resigning as a means of avoiding interviewing him.

One Labour Cabinet Minister sneered that Davis was ‘as bad as the EU.’ He told Just Who the Hell Are We? that there no important difference between the EU asking the populations of member states to vote again in referenda ‘when they got things wrong’ and Davis’s refusal to accept the verdict of the much put-upon people of Haltemprice and Howden.

As yet there has been no indication from the farrago of misfits and Halloween politicians who took 30% of the vote from Davis whether they will accept the verdict of the people or continue to campaign in Haltemprice and Howden. Most are thought to be considering their position with their families over the weekend so as to avoid making hasty and ill-judged decisions.

An honest appeal for an intelligent discussion of immigration – Part 3 of 3

July 11, 2008

For all my lamentations about the hegemony of the economic perspective, too little has been said about the class implications of mass immigration. One of the things that strikes me forcibly here is that mass immigration represents the other side of the international outsourcing that is such a prominent feature of globalisation. Jobs are not being exported in a reconfiguration of the global division of labour, workers are being brought here. Not all menial jobs can be done remotely. Catering, cleaning and other service industries are not footloose: they cannot be exported. And so workers are brought in from poorer countries to take these jobs. Mass immigration represents the outsourcing of the working class.

If I am right in advancing such a view, then the implications could be massive. Historically Britain is the country in the world most conscious of class distinctions. A sense of class identity has shown itself remarkably – almost inexplicably – resilient in the face of the death of the aristocracy, government-sponsored egalitarianism, comprehensive education and post-industrialism; but mass immigration could finally kill it in the sense previously understood. Identity depends on mental divisions, simple categorisations: who’s in, who’s out. That identity can be formed using the counterpoint of a foreign enemy, another class, another religious group – or another ethnic group. For a long time horizontal distinctions based on class have had primacy in the formation of social identities, but after immigration vertical distinctions might become more important. British and immigrant might become the new ‘us and them’ formulation.

Who knows the changes to British life which could be occasioned by the death of the class paradigm? The intersections of class and politics have been weakening for a long time, but the effect should they disappear entirely would be unpredictable. Might we see a political alignment along a new pro- and anti-immigrant axis? Might the party of Britain oppose the party of cosmopolitanism? We could very well see a weakening of social democracy, a political ideology which has its roots in a class analysis that would be outdated. We might see a rightward shift in our politics as one sees in America where race has always trumped class. Just think as well: if class (or socio-economic status) becomes tied up with ethnic identity in communities that refuse to assimilate, then class will reproduce itself consistently generation-on-generation. Immigrants will become de facto second-class citizens locked into a pernicious cycle of poverty.

More prosaically, not enough has been done to explore the differential impact of immigration on different groups within society. To take a narrowly economic perspective, it seems that low income groups, the young and the older unemployed suffer disproportionately from immigration. That is, economically vulnerable groups with little or no voice in public affairs suffer whilst business and the middle-classes gain. One sees here another example of the middle-class bias of the media distorting the debate; and another example of globalisation acting against the interests of the most vulnerable members of developed societies.

In the context of my assault on the myopic economism of the public realm I want to say something favourable about immigration that I do not think I have heard anywhere else. Immigrants bring more than just their skills, their ambition and their well-documented capacity for hard word: they are more than automatons of production; they are human beings, culture-bearers. Sometimes one sees a cursory fourth paragraph about cultural enrichment – one that mentions foreign foods and fashions and music; a vague or facetious make-weight paragraph. We need a better understanding of the cultural contribution of immigrants. The immigrants of Eastern Europe and Poland particularly can help us to this understanding.

At a time of anomie, disillusionment, cynicism and increasingly widespread Dawkinesque assaults on religion the story of Eastern Europe and the Polish story in particular can act as an antidote and an inspiration. Crushed and subjugated repeatedly by more powerful states; effaced from the map or degraded to the status of a satellite state, Poland – the idea – Poland, as it existed in the minds and hearts of those who thought themselves Poles, refused to die. The Polish national story is one of heroic struggle for freedom and autonomy in the face of unimaginable and illegitimate power. A struggle fuelled by principles, inspired by a sense of commonality.

Poland’s has been a nightmare history of absurd repetition; of freedom gained and lost; of partition and independence. The most recent cycle of subjugation and emancipation saw Poland crushed by an inhuman Soviet bureaucracy – an imperialistic Stalinism sustained through the 1970’s and 1980’s by the ever more explicit threat of force. In 1989 the Poles won their freedom in of the only truly popular and non-violent revolution that the world has ever seen. The Polish people, united through the unions and the Catholic Church (the sanctuary of Polish culture and national feeling) destroyed their Communist regime. But it was a revolution inspired not just by a destructive impulse and an object of justifiable hate; it was a positive revolution with a vision of the future. Perhaps it was a product of simplistic Cold War dichotomies, but, whatever the reason, the Poles didn’t just repudiate their regime, they embraced liberal democracy and capitalism.

At a time of cynicism, fragmentation, polemical assault on religion and a dissolving sense of the British story, there is great value to be found in Poland’s example. The Poles that come to Britain can help us to realise the incalculable boon of securing for ourselves peacefully the way of life that they struggled for so enduringly.

When I think about the Poles and the strong sense of national cohesion that their history has instilled them with, it troubles me to think of them coming into a country which has lost all sense of itself as more than a contingent space upon which a dust of individuals has happened to settle. We have become for ourselves atoms of chance proximity. Ideas of shared meaning, common characteristics, a national story have all been dissolved. Britain can find no way of telling its national story which is amenable to modern liberal ears and so the idea of the country is being hollowed out by globalisation and postmodernity.

For a time in the nineteenth century we were a country blessed by a peaceful constitutional evolution in which the interests of aristocracy, commerce and people were brought happily and harmoniously into balance under the aegis of a benevolent minimal tax-free trade state. That idea worn out by the fading of the aristocracy, the growth of the state and the advent of protectionism, we started to tell our story in imperial terms. Britain had a civilizing mission. The proper seat of British pride was not our institutions but our character – the genius of the nation. In time such a national story ceased to be reconcilable with the dissolution of the empire. Imperial guilt, cultural relativism and a powerful new taboo on racism prevented even nostalgic representations. The less that was said about the empire the better. The new national story was decline. For the first time Britain’s construction of its own past and future trajectory ceased to be self-celebratory and became elegiac. Perhaps tapping into some sort of social-psychological guilt no longer finding its outlet in Evangelicalism, the British started to flay themselves mercilessly. Decay and disease became the standing metaphors; the standard question: what went wrong? A massive historiographical literature came into being on the recognised topic of decline; a post-mortem on failure. But in the last twenty-five years Britain’s stronger economic performance – relative to that of other advanced nations – has deprived us even of our self-pity. Britain isn’t anymore a nation huddling together over a dying fire, moaning over the injustice of its decay, crying over its lost greatness.

Britain doesn’t know what it is anymore. The British don’t know who they are. How does one construct a collective identity with a history that defies the liberal shibboleths that we hold to so fiercely? How could we possibly claim that liberal values like tolerance, the rule of law and respect for rights are specifically British values? In a world of incredible cross-cultural fertilisation, of astounding promiscuity, how can we expect to construct a distinct and stable identity? Homogenisation, hybridisation and flux characterise the culture of the Western world: the old monolithic national myths collapse when they’re exposed to such an array of influences. And the idea of reverencing a nation, of piety before a national tradition, of earnest, unquestioning self-celebration is profoundly at variance with the mood of the time. We are ironic, doubting, angsting and cynical; we don’t respect that which is received, we crave the new; we don’t like mass beliefs, we favour the quixotic and idiomatic; authority and virtue are things to be mocked; national character is to be satirised. Our temper is resistant to the building of myth and narrative. No sooner is something proffered than it is excoriated as cant, sententiousness, hypocrisy, self-serving, reductive. These are the unanswerable charges of our time. We are drawn towards the destructive and the irreverent; we exist at an ironic distance from ourselves and others. The spirit of critique is so strong, the environment so harsh, that nothing can survive. And so there is fragmentation, anomie. We have squandered the ability to theorise propinquity, to make of it anything more exalted. All we are left with is the irresistible force of our scepticism.

I don’t know what it means to introduce a multifarious immigrant population into that cultural scenario. I suppose that it can only make matters worse. Any idea of a sense of collectivity based on genealogy or antecedents becomes impossible, but in reality earlier immigration has for decades made such a possibility impracticable even if the temper of the times had not so vehemently opposed it. Even so, one cannot but think that diversity of lifestyles and manners will make it even harder to cross the abyss that separates propinquity from solidarity. And the fear can never be far away that the free-for-all liberalism will not be able to stand the strains of such an influx – that it will give way instead to a ghettoized society of enclaves in some sort of cultural Mexican standoff. I think it an unlikely development, though. All immigrant groups and the established population are subject to such sedulous and multifarious cultural bombardment that any idea of holding oneself aloof from the cultural melee, of disdaining hybridisation, is probably futile.

The greater likelihood is that the fragmentation will continue and that politicians will continue to peddle the fiction that the nation can be reforged and propagated by reference to a milk-and-water liberalism, a prozac liberalism as scrupulously unobjectionable as the contents of children’s television.

Unfortunately, I have to confess that the whole of this essay has been predicated on a piece of implicit intellectual dishonesty. Throughout I have tried to maintain a sense that we stand on the brink of a mass immigration, that the time has now come for a serious discussion as a preliminary to policy. But that is of course a nonsense. We are not living in 1997. Mass immigration is not a prospect to be discussed and legislated on: it is a fait accompli. Yet it is also a process that is ongoing and for all the retrospection that the debate must tend toward, there will also be a significant element of prospection. When we do talk about prospective immigration I want us to do it with the greater sophistication that comes from realising that we are not staking out mechanical positions but making statements about the sort of country that we want Britain to be. This debate is fundamental and the combination of surface banalities and calcified rhetoric must not be allowed to obscure that.

An honest appeal for an intelligent discussion of immigration – Part 2 of 3

July 10, 2008

Well, it has to be a debate about what sort of country Britain is, and what sort of country we want it to be. It has to be a self-conscious engagement with the idea of Britain, the nature of the national community; it has to explore the concepts of citizenship and the nature of belonging; it has to historicize and contextualise itself both by coming to an understanding of the British story and by seeking to understand Britain’s place in the world now – the relationship of British specificity to the generalities of globalization, postmodernity, liberal capitalism, representative democracy. We need a sophisticated examination of ourselves and we have to understand what it will mean for our identity if we are a society which encourages mass immigration or a society which seeks to prevent it. The debate must penetrate deeper than superstructural banalities; it must learn to express itself more confidently and idiosyncratically than current rhetoric has thus far allowed it to. And it must be a debate that is aware of itself, that reflects sedulously on the motives underlying our sentiments.

The encouragement and discouragement of immigration are positions that arise directly and legitimately from certain beliefs about what sort of a country we are and what sort of a country we want to become. It isn’t possible just to hold the two possibilities (a false opposition in any case considering the almost limitless number of intermediary states) up alongside each other and choose between them as if one is choosing fruit: there are no similarly simple, self-evident criteria for choosing. We make other decisions about the sort of society we want to live in and these decisions – these value judgements – imply a position on immigration.

I have expended quite a lot of words vituperating the liberal position, but it is entirely legitimate and coherent. Liberals see societies as contractual aggregations of individuals who have bound themselves together to ensure a mutual protection of liberty. They believe in individuality as an absolute or a relative good. A society is healthiest, most vibrant and progressive if it houses and protects an almost limitless variety of individuals each pursuing their own conception of the good life. Diversity and its centurion, tolerance, are the foundations of a good society for the liberal. It follows immediately and emphatically on this that liberals believe that immigration is a good thing. Immigration will augment diversity by bringing into a closed community (always prone to stagnation and homogenisation) distinctive foreign cultures. The exposure to even more varied manifestations of human existence will reinforce the lesson that the different forms of human life that we come across are contingent and therefore permissible. Thus the unfamiliar will become familiar; fear will give way to acceptance; our sympathies will widen as new ways of living are made real to us, human; tolerance will be strengthened, its purview broadened.

Liberalism is a permissive creed and capitalism (its socio-economic helpmeet) a permissive economic system. Unless there is a compelling reason to think that mass immigration will hurt people and restrict their freedom to pursue their own conception of the good within the social compact of equalized liberty, then liberalism will stand aside. To the liberal culture is fragmentary; just so many shards of ideas and ways of being represented by a hodgepodge of individuals – just so many disparate atoms in the societal bucket. Without a conception of wholeness, unity, historical primacy there can be no objection to an influx of the foreign.

I am not by any means contemptuous of these principles, but I am suspicious of them. Suspicious of my motives when I incline towards them. There is a very powerful social incentive to adopt these principles, a whole apparatus of social control which pushes us towards the internalisation of liberalism. My instincts are liberal; the political tradition that I feel reverence for is liberal. There is even for me a sort of piety that on some level I feel ought to be practiced in talking about liberalism. And in constructing my self-image, in seeking to project a certain perception of myself to other people, I am very conscious of wanting to identify – and be identified – as a liberal. Implicitly liberalism is virtue. But the sub-rational element of this, the aesthetic element, the element of social posturing in this concerns me. Marxists have denigrated liberalism as the political creed of the bourgeoisie and up to a point they’re right – there is no more comfortable or natural creed for the educated middle-class. Liberalism is the political equivalent of having gone to the right school or speaking with the right accent: it identifies one as belonging to a group – the respectable, progressive, socially concerned middle-class. Liberalism suits these people (people like me) very well: freedom from interference appeals to the wealthy and educated; tolerance appeals to those who are self-confident and capable of shaping their own lives; diversity appeals to those who can afford to live in homogenous, sanitized communities.

The anti-immigration perspective follows just as coherently on a conservative idea of what Britain is like and what it should be like. For conservatives Britain is not an island of individuals who have engaged to band together because it is in their interests; it is a historical community bound together by shared values and a shared culture. Britain – both state and society – has an organic existence that parallels that of a plant or a person. The conservative values stability, order, familiarity. She prefers the given to schemes for change; the concrete to the abstract; one pound today rather than two tomorrow.

Conservatism takes culture much more seriously than liberalism does. It realises that people with a shared history, with shared daily experiences, with a common public realm and a common language will form a community. There is a sense of familiarity, of identity in a common purpose. That familiarity, that common purpose and the sense of everyone being exposed to the same dangers, creates a sense of safety and understanding. We are willing to assume certain things about members of the tribe, to accept on faith that they will act in a certain way. They belong to us and we belong to them. This allows a collective consciousness to exist that permits peaceful, stable coexistence.

The conservative argues that mass immigration is a dangerous, destabilising change which will rent the existing order, disrupt continuity with the past and destroy the solidarity that underlies social stability. In encouraging mass immigration Britain would be importing an element which did not belong to the national community, something that amounts to the importation of social division. Britain would cease to be home to one community and there is no evidence that the forces of social order and assimilation would prevail over those of dissolution and tension. A society divided against itself (the Thucydidean nightmare of stasis at Corcyra) is the conservative nightmare and, for them, immigration invites it unnecessarily.

Of course with both of these sketches I have downplayed the significance of economic considerations. This is partly in reaction to the overrepresentation of economic arguments in the existing debate; I want to rehabilitate ideas and I see little danger of utilitarian economic considerations being neglected. Ours has become a Treasury politics, statistically driven, reductively economic; to start a little trade in ideas and underlying values will not overturn that. And I wouldn’t want to annihilate it even if I could. We need to have discussions about the impact of immigration on GDP. It is important that we listen to industry and give thought to the economy’s skills needs. The effect of mass (and unevenly distributed immigration) on service provision needs to be exhaustively examined. And demographic studies of the potential impact of immigration on the country’s population profile needs to be undertaken. But above all these things – and prior to them – we need to decide what sort of character we want our national community to have.

An honest appeal for an intelligent discussion of immigration – Part 1 of 3

July 9, 2008

Thus far the debate which the great social, economic and phenomenological change of our time has provoked has been facile, simplistic, narrow, shallow. The great transformative process of immigration has been allowed to take place – and is being allowed to continue – and the political class has penetrated no deeper into the matter than to rehearse stale, hollowed out rhetoric whilst examining it with the footling, blinkered utilitarianism of a Gradgrind.

The political debate surrounding immigration evidences the worst characteristics and the most depressing tendencies of our political discourse. It shows us cynically jerry-built antitheses, the fierce operation of an illiberally liberal taboo and words divorced from their meanings.

Politicians have been well-schooled in recent years by psychologists and advertising consultants. They know the simplest, and possibly the most effective, way to construct an argument is to force a complex issue into an easily understandable, rememberable antithesis. These cynical, reductive antitheses allow the politician to attach themselves, their politics, their policy position to already existing ideas in the minds of their audience – ideas which exist very close to the level of prejudices and a long way from the ideal of rational political debate. And they allow politicians to establish a clear divide between themselves and their opponents. The antithesis allows one to define not only one’s own position, but that of one’s opponent as well. And if the antithesis – ideally represented by a simple soundbite – is picked up by the media, then you are setting the terms of the political debate.

I read an article today on education in which a Conservative commentator and politician employed this technique with unusual zeal and unimaginativeness. He divided the political world, and the field of education policy, into a Manichean battle of the traditional vs the modern. He then mixed that up with the borderline paradoxical divide between the righteous people and the wicked establishment. He augmented that theme by opposing bureaucratism (just think about it: who would champion something called that?) to a new style of politics (who knows what that is? but it sounds good). Then finally he rounded it off with the unanswerable postmodern dichotomy: status quo vs change. Or even more baldly: old vs new.

So just to summarise: the commentator was in favour of a traditional, populist, anti-bureaucratic, educational system that embraced change. It sounds absurd when you put it like that, but disaggregated and arranged in an article it works because we side with the writer on each of the false antitheses that the writer tries to stuff the debate into. To agree with the argument of an article written in this way is so easy. The seductiveness of the argument is that the views of the author seem to be aligned with the most basic building blocks of our views.

The argument on immigration is invariably carried out in this way – both by those who wish to encourage immigration and those who wish to discourage it. So the pro-immigrationist tells us that this is a debate between those who want a liberal, open, tolerant, diverse society and the parochial, the fear-addled, the reactionary, the opportunist and the racist. We are to choose between a prosperous and culturally rich society and an inward-looking fortress state which looks wistfully back on a false golden age of village green cricket. The anti-immigrationist maintains that social cohesion is threatened by the atomisation of the multicultural melee, that the traditional British way of life will be diluted and then lost forever.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the debate is the tyranny of a pseudo-liberalism astoundingly lacking in self-knowledge. Liberalism proper is a creed that is passionately committed to free debate, to the contention of all ideas. One of its foundational articles of faith is that in a free and rational debate truth will be triumphant. Yet in the immigration debate a warped liberalism has acted as a sort of gag-order. Discussion of restricting immigration is racist and represents a sort of accommodation with the internal other of the liberal establishment: the almost universally reviled British National Party. Talk of a national culture, or the conditions of citizenship, British history or the bonds of community and you are a xenophobe. These terms – “racist,” “xenophobe” – are not words to open up debate; they are punitive, coercive terms to shut it down. The faux liberalism regnant in this part of political discourse is liberal only insofar as one ascribes to a debased liberalism; it is profoundly intolerant of conservatism, and also perhaps of thoughtfulness and honest doubt.

The threat of being called a racist which polices the debate on immigration is not a threat of being literally called a racist. Almost no one is a racist anymore. Racism is a pseudo-scientific doctrine invented in the nineteenth century which posited that mankind was divided into several racial types – identifiable by phenotypical variation – which could be arranged into a hierarchy of superior and inferior. It was the bastard whelp of early anthropology and was discredited in the nineteenth century. No one believes this anymore. No one is a racist. So racist doesn’t mean racist anymore; it has become completely divorced from its meaning. Racist means outsider, criminal, moral degenerate. It is a symbolic term for someone who utters taboo notions, who fails to approach received notions with sufficient piety. It exists now only as a codeword that alerts people that someone is not to be listened to, that they have no authority to speak. It is an ugly slur, a sort of burning cross on someone’s lawn warning them not to speak out.

Just think about it, anyway. There is no necessary connection between believing that fewer people should be allowed to settle in this country and the idea that those people are racially or culturally inferior to us. Why would there have to be? It is quite coherent to argue that there are too many people already or that they are too different for us to live harmoniously together. The ‘No Entry’ sign doesn’t have to be about inferiority; it can just as easily be about unsuitability: we are not suited to them, they are not suited to us. Tabasco sauce doesn’t go with strawberry yoghurt; there is no undertone of hierarchy, the one is just best not combined with the other.

I said earlier that the term ‘racism’ polices the immigration debate. I think, though, that that is too limited a claim. The ‘racism’ threat is the external policeman, the deterrent effect – but the tyranny of received opinion is much more powerful and frightening than that. The perceived virtue of the liberal view – of openness, tolerance and diversity – is so strong, so pervasive that many of us have come to internalise those views. They have become a sort of immigration super ego punishing us with feelings of guilt if we even countenance divergent views. On reading an article which questions the ‘liberal’ view I have to suppress a feeling of alienated distaste that arises in me. To give anyone who questions these ideas a fair hearing I have to stifle the upflux of indignation that I feel at anyone who commits the solecism of advocating the restriction of immigration. Immediately I think them crass, xenophobic, a self-interested bigot – someone writing in poor taste from low motives. To a greater or lesser degree I think that we have all come to associate virtue with immigration and guilt with its restriction.

The debate too has been maimed by the hegemony of the utilitarian paradigm. British politics has been seized by a myopic economism, so that value has come to be seen as coterminous with GDP and its acolytes interest rates, inflation, pay increases, house prices. Will increased immigration boost growth? Will immigrants increase the value of my house? For more than a decade the debate has been dominated by a multiplication table of numbers about how rich this is making us all. Any talk of restricted immigration has been met with talk of a skills gap. In a politics where economic indicators have become the sole criterion of good we are reduced to an argument between economists. The numbers are with those who favour immigration: immigrants are young, skilled, dynamic – the cure for an ageing, low-skilled, risk-averse economy.

The malformation of the immigration debate as it has developed across the last ten years has not been helped by the party political situation in Britain. The natural home of the anti-immigration case is the Conservative Party, but the general low esteem in which the party has been held has tainted any cause which the party has taken up. For a long time political debate in Britain has been handicapped by the public’s visceral dislike of the Tory party – a dislike so irrational that for a long time the party’s policies became less popular when their source was revealed. Immigration has suffered more than any other area of political debate because of its importance and the strength of the liberal conventional wisdom.

It has been a sadly flawed and dilatory debate; a truly desultory effort from a country with such a long-established public realm and such a wonderful tradition of media independence. If the above gives something of a sense of the failings of the debate thus far, how then should a reinvigorated debate look?

Gordon Brown and the colonialist path to social mobility

July 8, 2008

A couple of weeks ago Gordon Brown gave a heavily covered speech on social mobility. For once the media didn’t round on him and tear him to pieces – principally because he was doing what the commentariat had been telling him to do for weeks. This was Brown being Brown. Maybe speeches like this wouldn’t be enough to turn things around for him, but at last he was acting on his convictions, telling us what he really thought, trying to show us why he had sought the premiership with such singleness of purpose. The speech was all about the need to build a society in which no talent would be wasted and no child left behind because of the disadvantages of their background.

I have considerable but inchoate misgivings about this politics of social mobility which I have written about here before, but I want to develop a new objection here. Brown strikes a very positive tone in talking about all this. In his speeches about social mobility there is nothing of the gloomy Calvinist preacher misanthropically bloviating about human fallibility and unimprovability. Man’s trajectory for Brown is upward: Enlightenment Progress, not the Fall. In fact, we are collectively poised before a vista of munificent opportunity. Or as he put it in his hammer-and-nails English, we can look forward to the prospect of ‘as fast an expansion of occupational change as we have seen in our history.’

The next twenty years can be both unprecedentedly good and a sort of historical recapitulation of the post-war zenith of social mobility at a higher pitch of intensity. 6 million in unskilled jobs today could become 500,000 in 2020. And all this because we have been thrown into a new world – the world of the globalised economy. The speed of change, the threat to existing ways of doing things, threatens some; but not Brown. He understands the challenge of globalisation, but he understands even more keenly that globalisation is an irresistible exhortation to self-improvement. It is our response to this global economic challenge – through our unequalled commitment to education and skills – that will lead Britain into an epoch of social advance in which no one (well, only a paltry 500,000 people) will be left behind:

‘[W]hile the post-45 wave of social mobility came from changes wrought by the opening up of our national economy, the new wave of social mobility comes from changes that are wrought by opening up the whole global economy.’

Thinking in terms of the national economy is now outmoded, practically Victorian. The market is terrestrial now; risk has been run through the global multiplier, but so has opportunity. Borders are fences behind which timid people hide; they are artificial limits on growth and prosperity. The stakes have suddenly got very high, but that’s a good thing because it will create the right sort of incentives which will make us do whatever needs to be done to win:

‘So instead of opportunities limited by the old sheltered national economy that needed a certain number of people for particular jobs, there will be potentially unlimited opportunities for the forward march of social mobility, opened up by the changes in the wider global economy.’

I can’t understand why I am the only one to react adversely to the sentiments underlying that statement. Brown is exhorting Britain’s talented poor, those whose talents have previously been wasted, to climb to prosperity and higher status on the back of the poor of the developing world. Brown implies that somehow he has dissolved the zero-sum game of social mobility, that under this new dispensation the ugly scrapping for status will come to an end. But he hasn’t done that at all. The fight for the higher place, the fight to consign others to the lower place hasn’t been abolished; it’s been swept under the carpet, its losers exported to the Third World where they will be little seen and even less thought about. There is a terribly ugly side to Brown’s great leap forward. He has built a sort of self-celebratory moral edifice on top of a substructure of globally structured exploitation. If Brown were to succeed in realising his 2020 vision, the gains in Britain would all have been realised at the cost of solidifying the existing structure of capitalist relations between privileged developed countries and exploited developing ones.

This seems to me nakedly colonialist. According to Brown by fighting harder, meaner and nastier than its opponents in the arena of global capitalism Britain can bring home more of the world’s skilled jobs, as if they were a sort of plunder belonging to the more successful armies of capitalist competition. As a way of conceptualising the world, and of operating in it, this seems to be the colonialist exploitation of the weak and the defenceless. And yet all of this masquerades under moralising talk of uplift and extending opportunities and harnessing previously squandered talents. I think this twoness in Brown’s vision is captured very clearly in the following quotation:

‘raising social mobility in our country is a national crusade to which everyone can join and play their part.’

Note the democratic note, the inclusiveness: this is a collective endeavour in which we can all engage. But mark also that this is a national crusade. The media picked up the phrase but placed all of their emphasis on the wrong word. This isn’t just to be a quasi-religious campaign and struggle encompassing all of the people and energies of the country: it is to be a national crusade. This is Britain fighting for Britain, out for anything it can get, heedless of collateral damage and of the moral confusions of its position.

I don’t want to indignantly abandon the argument there as if the issue will self-evidently clear itself up after we have gotten this far. Once one has admitted that the next great wave of British social mobility will be won in a zero-sum game played against the people of the same developing countries which we once held as colonies, the matter is not settled. One first has to think deeply about what a state is for, who it has responsibilities too and how one might reconcile the responsibilities which it has to different groups.

A British person might be worth more to me than an Indian; I am deeply ambivalent about it, but if that is what Brown thinks I want to hear him say it. And I want to hear how he thinks that what he is advocating differs from colonialism or what he thinks is so morally edifying about this Darwinian struggle between nations for limited resources. Globalisation just seems to have expanded the size of the realm within which we have to deal with the moral quandaries that capitalism throws up, whilst exponentially expanding the potential spoils if we can find some way to dissolve or suppress those quandaries. Why is Gordon Brown so unreservedly enthusiastic about this development? Where is his ambivalence?

How about Ken Livingstone for Glasgow East?

July 7, 2008

However you want to characterise my blog, it isn’t a political rumour mill. I don’t hear whispers in Westminster corridors from disgruntled backbenchers and inebriated ministers; no one ever leaks me compromising correspondence surreptitiously photocopied by bitter ministerial aides passed over for promotion. I’m an armchair blogger reflecting on the political world from the provinces, about a day behind the real frontier of political events. Sadly I’m never going to get the scoop and break the big story to a gobsmacked world.

But let’s imagine just for a moment that I am that sort of blogger and that some incredibly indiscreet member of the Prime Minister’s coterie has just let slip to me something huge, a completely unforeseen development, a forthcoming masterstroke from the Prime Minister that is going to change the face of British politics.

I am now able to break the biggest story of my young life:

Ken Livingstone, recently defeated Mayor of London, is to be the Labour candidate in the Glasgow-East by-election. And when he wins – and his decision to stand ends all question of a Labour defeat – Brown is going to offer to make him Minister for Housing with Cabinet rank.

The story would be huge; some people would actually visit my blog; a handful might even read past the headline; it would be fastest-finger-first blogging at its best. Seeing as there have been no media prognostications, seeing as the lack of any what-if articles means that I am being forced to invent one, it probably won’t happen. But just imagine if it did; just think how clever it would be.

Most commentators seem agreed that the Glasgow East by-election threatens to deal to the coup de grace to Brown’s premiership. As summer-becalmed MPs start to turn their attention towards the Conference season of daylight seriousness and nocturnal riotousness, the overturning of Labour’s 13,000 majority could well shake the conspirators out of the shadows and put an end to Brown’s political career.

Livingstone’s selection would rule that eventuality out. With Brown and Labour so unpopular, particularly amongst its working-class base, what the government needs is a candidate willing to stand under the Labour banner, but who has an independent political following and a longstanding appeal to traditional Labour voters. Even in defeat, Ken Livingstone proved that he was able to poll ahead of the Labour party nationally because of his unique political history and style. He is able to deliver both Labour voters and Livingstone voters. With that coalition, no matter what contortions the psephologists perform with turnout and a split vote, there is no way that Labour could lose.

Brown’s side of the calculation is fairly straightforward. He needs an electoral saviour and Livingstone practically has a halo round his bald, pink head. But why should Livingstone do it? Livingstone has clearly been devastated by his defeat. He talks about his time as London Mayor as the best years of his life. He is desperate to be Mayor again and clearly hopes to run in 2012. So why should he want to get himself elected as MP for one of Britain’s most deprived constituencies only to spend his life shuttling back and forth between Glasgow and Westminster?

There are several compelling reasons. Livingstone’s media profile is high right now: people are still interested to see how he is adapting to civilian life, to hear what he makes of Johnson’s maladroit opening moves. But if he sits on the sidelines and snipes at Johnson for the next four years that media profile will fall away and he will find it more difficult to gain the Labour nomination and win the mayoral election. Plus Livingstone is an executive politician: he’s a doer, not a speechmaker. That’s where the offer to be Housing Minister comes in. Livingstone wouldn’t go back to the Commons to warm the backbenchers and to get his hands on the John Lewis list. He would go back, though, if Brown gave him an important ministerial job. He would be unable to resist. Making progress on affordable housing is one of Livingstone’s big political priorities and he wouldn’t be able to turn down an opportunity to run the show. The government claims to be serious about affordable housing and if it is there is no clearer signal it could send the electorate than putting Livingstone in charge.

Livingstone should do it last of all because the Labour party needs him to do it. This gambit might not save the Labour government, but it would give it more time. It would mean that if Brown is to receive his death blow it would have to come as a result of something else. In the meantime the negative aspect of the story would be neutralized and the government would have another chance (perhaps its last) to positively shape the agenda through a Conference-season relaunch.

For the first time I regret the relatively low traffic of this website for other than personal reasons. Let’s just hope that against the odds, someone with the power to make this happen is reading.

Of apple cores and terrorists

July 5, 2008

Up to now I have only ever felt like a bemused observer and sceptic, but yesterday the “War on Terror” finally caught up with me. I was standing in Kings Cross station in front of the giant information board with the orange writing eating an apple (braeburn; misshapen; disappointingly spongy) waiting for a train. I finished my apple and, without consciously deciding to do so, started to drift around the station: towards the platforms, over towards Marks and Spencer, back towards the orange writing where my walking subsided leaving me standing still again, this time slightly disoriented.

Something was missing. An everyday, little thought of part of the world somehow wasn’t in its place. There were no bins. Not one. Not a wheelie, or a flip-top, or a peddle-press, or an ashtray top, or an anti-arson wire-mesh; not even the most primordial bucket kind. Kings Cross station has two Upper Crusts (that I know of) and another eatery selling indistinguishable sandwiches from underneath a blue sign that vulgarly slurs French at the passer-by, but no bins.

It hadn’t occurred to me for a second when I peeled the little blue sticker off my apple and twisted the stork out that I might be about to eat myself into a sticky-fingered impasse, but the moment I became conscious that there were no bins I knew the reason why. The bins had been taken away because of terrorism. Bins are potential fifth-columnists for terrorism, so the government have taken them all away. That’s right: to combat the threat of jihadist terrorism the British government has invaded Afghanistan, introduced legislation to allow 42-day pre-charge detention and removed all of the bins from Kings Cross train station.

In any case, standing in front of the giant information board, having finished my apple, core in hand – I suddenly became very angry. This was ridiculous. I felt ridiculous standing there gratuitously holding an apple core between my increasingly sticky thumb and index finger without any obvious course of action. What is the world coming to if the great English tradition of itinerant apple-eating has come under threat like this? What does it mean when one can no longer idle along, nonchalantly eating an apple, relying mindlessly on the opportune ubiquitousness of bins?

The whole episode was a sort of phenomenological epiphany for me. I realised that the “War on Terror” has started to structure even the most basic and trivial aspects of our life. Bins are equipment in the Heideggarian sense. Under normal circumstances they become transparent to us, we don’t even think about them. We eat an apple and without even thinking about it we throw the apple core into the to-throw-into. When things are going well we’re not even consciously aware of what we’re doing. The way we use bins is just part of the background knowledge accumulated across our lives which allows us to get around in the world. But in forcing the authorities to take away the bins, the terrorists have broken in on our world and rendered it unfamiliar. They have brought about a breakdown of some of the equipment of everyday life, which after their sabotage is no longer ready-to-hand. As a result of their threats, the unproblematical suddenly shows up as problematical and we find ourselves pulled out of that comfortable, mindless way of operating. We are forced to think about what we are doing, to take some conscious action to circumvent these minor inconveniences; but also to reflect on the pervasiveness and banality of the terrorists’ impact.

That moment of coming-to-oneself, when instead of dealing thoughtlessly with the world one realises that something is amiss, is thoroughly disquieting. The most discomposing aspect of it was the realisation of the insane incongruity of cause and effect. The juxtaposition of the threat of terrorist mass murder and the throwing away of my apple core is absurd, but nevertheless it has come to pass that the apocalyptic and the banal are causally connected. The terrible seriousness of the one and the mild comedy of the other cannot exist together except discordantly. What could a thwarted bin seeker have to do with fanatics who have committed their lives to the murder of innocent Westerners? But they do have something to do with each other. And that is abominable and disturbing. The contamination of my everyday phenomenological world by the terrorist threat feels like a terrible invasion, an appalling violation. It seems to illustrate concretely a butterfly effect, a hyper-interdependence that I have always been sceptical about. I still can’t get over the uncanniness of the causal relationship between 9/11 and the nuisance that I was faced with: the Twin towers and an apple core. A world that is so much an unravellable whole seems monstrous and inescapable.

This showed up for me entirely contingently, but one has to wonder what changes have failed to show up just as contingently. If terrorism is capable of effecting things at this micro-level, just what is it doing at the macro-level? What unnoticed changes in our mindset and values and ways of seeing the world have the terrorists induced?

With ID cards you too can quit liberalism for good and stop hurting the people you love

July 4, 2008

I know it is a controversial statement to make, but I am in favour of identity cards. I support the identity cards scheme and would modify it in only one detail. Instead of making everyone get an identity card I think that only terrorists, illegal immigrants and their ilk ought to be forced to have them. Before I am attacked, lynched and immolated by those civil liberty fellows allow me, I beg, to make my case.

The registration procedure would involve a series of appeals made by the police and Home Office by radio, television, podcast (Al-Qaeda have been communicating for years using iPods), pornography magazines and Al-Jazeera. It would entreat all terrorists, illegal immigrants, criminals, sex offenders, gay people, ethnic minorities and other societal scapegoats to come forward to claim their identity card (we could trick them into it by making out as if it was a prize draw that they had been lucky enough to win). In fact it might be an idea to get the working-class in there as well – at least the more undesirable Burberry, bus-stop fuck variety; the White Lightening drinking, crisp-packet prophylactic folk with the would-be Mr. T taste in jewellery.

You see I think that New Labour’s essential problem with getting ID cards through is the fact that they’re trying to make them universal. All New Labour’s successful policies – Working Families Tax Credit, the Minimum Income Guarantee for Pensioners, Educational Maintenance Allowances – have been means-tested. I’m not quite sure how the means-testing would work on ID cards; I think that there would probably be a really bloated, inefficient, bigoted bureaucracy. They could call it the Department for the Persecution of Minorities (DPM) or something like that. The name’s not important, though. The most important thing to ensure is that it isn’t one of those damned Hegelian bureaucracies that stands over the conflicts of society and impartially arbitrates between them. Instead we need a bureaucracy that represents all of the basest and most shameful instincts of the people; the sort of vindictive bureaucracy that people will really want to be a part of. And I know just the man to run it. He is a man of questionable morals himself; the personification of the visceral urges and parochial prejudices of the country. His name is David Blunkett and I, for one, think that his Cabinet exile has gone on for too long already.

Once you’ve gotten the cards sent out and the database set up that’s when the fun can really start. With ID cards all crimes will be instantly solvable: the police will just type the sort of scapegoat they want into a search engine (race, class, perversity etc) and out will come a list of people proven to have committed the crime. This is called the use of forensic evidence and, if need be, can be supported by the use of unintelligible – and therefore incontrovertible – expert testimony. And if you are a member of a hardworking family who runs a business, say a brothel or an opium den, and are in need of some cheap, exploitable illegal immigrant labour then the ID card system will facilitate the efficient allocation of that sort of labour. The DPM will then inform the Home Office not to perform any checks on the employees of the firm or criminal syndicate in question. This is called joined-up government.

Best of all, though, will be the witch hunts, the pogroms, the riots, the lynchings. One very rarely gets a good lynching these days. I can’t remember the last time I was in a looting, rioting, pryromanic mob rampaging through the streets with the head of a paedophile on a pike, leader of the Conservative party to my left, editor of the News of the World to my right. And that means that it’s been too long.

Things are going to go wrong in any country. There will be terrorist attacks, hateful crimes, environmental disasters, social problems, epidemics and the like. And when they do, we need someone to blame – some functional minority to take the blame, preferably an innocent but distasteful one like homeless people. Bird flu strikes and kills thousands of people: illegal immigrants have been deliberately spreading the disease by living in Britain. A well-liked boy with a great future ahead of him drowns on a field-trip in Germany: working class people are to blame for being poor. The local wildlife (including the beloved speckled otter) is wiped out when Sellafield nuclear power plant goes Chernobyl: gays are to blame for undermining the moral integrity of the country.

Under my selective ID card system, when awful things like that happen we’ll know where to go to find the illegal immigrants so that we can drown them in the North Sea. We’ll know where the working-class live so that we can burn them alive and we’ll know where to find the dirty little faggots so that we can beat the gay out of them. Short of tackling the actual causes of the problem it’s the only realistic way in which we can make ourselves feel better.

We’ll be a society cleansed of disembodied hatred, purged of stress, washed clean of unfulfilled murderous urges. Helpless, victimizable minorities will be transformed into giant societal stress toys. The enervation and frustration of our tired liberalism will be a thing of the past. Britain will be a country of institutionally-sponsored violence, of vented, targeted hatred; it will once again be the land of the angry, violent, fucked up, white middle-class men – people like me, people like you. We are the future. The ID cards are just the beginning – a cudgel to smite the terrorists, a flail to flagellate the homeless, a flamethrower to immolate the foreigner. Stop me there, I’m salivating…

Could the ingenuity of the people be the answer to the infirmities of the geriatric octopus of government?

July 3, 2008

In the last couple of days Nick Clegg and David Cameron have both published ghost-written articles in the national press of the why-I’m-good-and-everyone-else-is-bad variety. We’ve also had the same article written in the third person from Cameron’s puppyish auxiliary, Ed Vaizey, in a fastest-finger-first response to a brutish and deeply un-Finkelsteinian Times leader which told the Tories off for being nebulous protest-vote anglers.

I like these articles. They are remarkably revealing because they tend to distil everything which the leaders of the major parties want you to believe about the political universe before they wave you off to the polling booth. In these pieces they try to embed an account of their own party’s beliefs in an analysis of the broad features of the political environment which demonstrates the necessity of their victory and the ineffectuality or irrelevance of their components. Unfortunately Brown hasn’t obliged us with an 800-word Prime Ministerial précis of all of the indispensable facts of the political world. Perhaps he has writers’ block; or perhaps those over-fastidious Comment editors (bastards, every last one of them) have been rebuffing him.

What I find so striking about these articles is how much they share, if you ignore the (in any case fungible) sneers and calumnies they direct at their opponents. Clegg, Cameron and Vaizey all talk about giving families or service users the power to control their own lives, spreading power, empowering people. A great discovery has been made at Westminster: the people are ingenious, capable and practical. Everything government wishes that it was. Government is a great lumbering titan, with concrete legs, an anachronistic leviathan, a geriatric octopus which never learn to say no; the people are lithe, elfin and alacritous. We will all be better off if we entrust their future to them. Bottom-up is the new top-down. Just listen to Clegg:

‘The Liberal Democrats’ belief in personal empowerment, in localising our public services and in community control is grounded in our belief that it is by giving individuals real control over their lives that we can create opportunities for all.’

Or Vaizey:

‘the solutions to many of society’s problems come from the bottom up, not the top down; … people, not governments, are best placed to make the best choices for their own and their families’ future.’

Yes, Cameron too:

‘If you give people more opportunity and power over their lives, they will behave more responsibly. This is the driving force behind all our reforms.’

I can’t resist throwing Brown in there as well. This from a speech he gave the other day on a special someone’s 60th birthday:

‘And because we know that first class quality of care cannot be mandated from the centre but requires us instead to give NHS staff the opportunity to lead change themselves, Ara Darzi has also made recommendations for how we can empower and set free NHS staff.’

This is coincidence isn’t aberrant; it is just the best example of a wider phenomenon. I could do the same thing with social mobility, environmentalism, ethical foreign policy and (perhaps even) tax policy. The point here is not that the parties are all the same. They aren’t. Cowering underneath these rhetorical gambits with their sibling quality is the detail; and here the parties do differ – importantly. The thing to notice is the novel way in which the parties are carrying on the political war in the public domain.

In the traditional Gladstonian-Disraelian politics the parties were divided clearly on Ireland, Empire, Civil Service Reform and whatever else they argued about in those days of portrait-painting and hackney carriages. They took up fixed positions vis-à-vis each other and the electorate, fighting a sort of attritional trench warfare, all resolution and stoicism. There was no doubt about what the Liberals stood for and what their implacable antagonists the Conservatives stood for: the Liberals were of one belief, the Conservatives -they believed the opposite. Tyro MPs entered the House and retired from it florid and stout, their faces overgrown with whiskers, without this changing.

This politics of clear distinctions and static positions has been marginalized (it lingers on over Europe and civil liberties). Its place has been usurped by a dynamic political war of movement in which remarkably footloose, flexible parties jostle with each other to occupy the same territory. That privileged territory – ever-expanding, contracting and elusive – is the Archimedean point of politics, the space disclosed by the aggregate views of the lusted-for swing voters. Opinion-polling and focus-groups mean that politics is now more sensitive to the beliefs of this vanguard of the mainstream than it has ever been before. In a system of this sort politics ceases to be about the strident, forceful articulation of a stance on the issues arising organically from the prejudices of the party. It becomes instead a fight to convince the key portions of the electorate that your party is the most authentic representative of certain favoured positions and values. Every party wants to be the party of empowerment (so that they might be the party in power), the battle will be won by the side that can appear as its most plausible advocate.

Instead of a politics in which voters are expected to look at the parties and appraise the right- or wrong-headedness of their positions, we have a new politics in which the parties are energetically pursuing an ideal-typical voter. The key to winning is not to disclose yourself in your full distinctiveness, but to convince the voters that your party represents the most effective embodiment of the mainstream views of the country. Essentially politics becomes about identity, authenticity and empathy. Political success is vouchsafed to whichever politicians can convince the strategically crucial voters that they are like them, that they genuinely share their concerns and feel a vital emotional affinity with them. In some sense the party leaders have to convince the voters that they are the most authentic representatives of the wisdom and values of the nation.

This can’t be achieved by articulating policy detail; that comes largely as an unscrutinised appendage. Success in appealing to these voters depends upon the subtle arts of self-presentation. But this is a new species of presentation, one that recognizes that what voters really want is to look at their politicians and see an alienated representation of themselves, one which appears authentic enough to disarm their scepticism. The politicians have started to realize this and it is a dark art that Cameron and Clegg are both experimenting with.

Once the rabbits of anti-government sentiment start breeding – they can’t be stopped

July 2, 2008

The gargantuan poll leads that the Conservatives have been racking up in recent weeks have got me thinking. Theoretically polls are a reflection of the views of the voters. There might be technical problems to do with the framing of questions and sampling methods which can bias a poll or limit its reliability, but everyone understands what a poll is for: it tells us which party people support. But as disastrous ICM poll precedes look-away You-Gov poll and succeeds to I’ll-just-go-and-kill-myself-then MORI poll I’m starting to realize that that’s too simple. Polls aren’t just reflections of our views; they’re determinants of them. We don’t just tell the pollsters what we think, we get the pollsters to tell us what to think. A feedback loop exists. Polls become self-reinforcing because the media coverage of polls is so insistent that respondents are aware of the sorts of things that previous respondents have been telling pollsters. It might just be that the polls that we set up as tools to help us understand the political environment better have started to remake that political environment behind our backs.

The way in which this works is very simple. Social views are contagious. The model of politics that sees us all as detached, rational individuals who can disengage themselves from the hurly-burly of day-to-day politics and come up with a voting preference using some sort of hybrid calculation encompassing principle and self-interest is deeply flawed. The politics of each individual voter is formed in the crucible of the wider political culture. We do contribute something ourselves, but we are all decisively influenced by the background against which we make our political decisions. Wider expectations, collective memories and pressures weigh upon us whether we want them to or not.

Brace yourself: I’m about to attempt a Finkelstein. In the 1950’s an American social psychologist called Solomon Asch ran a series of experiments on conformity. Asch told his participants that they were going to participate in a ‘vision test.’ He then placed them in a room of confederates and showed them pictures of lines before asking them various questions about their relative lengths. The participants had to give their answers in front of the group after the confederates had answered. In the control condition, when they were on their own, participants got only 1 in 35 questions wrong; when they answered after the confederates deliberately and unanimously gave the wrong answer, participants got 37% of the questions wrong. (How did I do Danny?)

Asch found that even when the question at issue is very simple, people show a remarkable tendency to conform to their peer group. This pressure exerts itself through several different mechanisms. There is a positive attraction to conformity. People like to feel the sense of solidarity that comes from believing the same thing as everyone else. Call it the ‘cult effect.’ Then there is the disinclination to stand against the overwhelming will of the group. Most people don’t want to be seen as outsiders and find it traumatic to be labeled as cranks or eccentrics. If you hold a view which is preponderantly controverted then the social cost of sticking to that view increases. We can call this the ‘loneliness effect.’ Finally, conformity transmits itself via honest self-doubt. Particularly when the subject at issue is complicated if we see that everyone disagrees with us, we doubt ourselves. Unless we are absolutely certain that our position is the right one, we might choose to accept the majority position on authority – especially if a lot of people with a good claim to expertise are amongst this group. This is the ‘anxiety effect.’

So the political balance of power, although it responds to triggers and shocks, is partly determined by these self-sustaining, systemic movements of opinion. Just as with business growth you see the multiplier effect in operation; the rabbits of anti-government sentiment breed. And this sort of understanding of politics isn’t limited to polling.

Just as poll respondents aren’t coming to political identification in some sort of political state of grace, shorn of history and social pressures, we all form our political views from amidst a dense, holistic system of influences. Day after day we absorb the news stories chosen by a dozen pivotal political editors, form our views on the basis of what plausible, trustworthy Nick Robinson has to say, or get a sense of what’s going on behind closed-doors at Westminster by reading Jackie Ashley. There is a pervasive – if heterogeneous – media telling us via television, print, the internet and the radio what to make of the raw data of things happening in the political world. And then there are wider networks constituted by the asides of comedians, the gripes of work colleagues and the quips of friends: the politics half-concealed in the folds of communal life. We are so deeply embedded in all of this that it is impossible to imagine ourselves out of it. But the impossibility of stepping out of it means that we forget all too often the extent to which it makes our minds up for us, or to which it limits the views which we can acceptably or comfortably hold.

Coldplay finally released their new album on 12 June. Don’t tell anyone, but thanks to the good people at Mininova I had been able to procure a very reasonably priced electronic copy of the album at the start of the month. I listened to the album quite happily for about ten days, chain-listening to it at times, and thinking that it represented an honourable addition to a back catalogue that I was very fond of. But then I started to read the reviews. I learned that it was insipid and samey; that it wasn’t bold enough, didn’t experiment sufficiently; that there was no Trouble here, no Clocks: the album, in short, was a disappointment, a hype-puncturer. And after that I found it hard to listen to the album without thinking about the reviews, without thinking the things that I had read in the reviews. It became more and more difficult to hold onto my own favourable view of the album and not to surrender myself to the detractors. I’m not really listening to the album anymore.

I think this Coldplay phenomenon is at the heart of Labour’s current problems. When the newspaper columnists savage Brown day after day and Humphrys is so scornful to government ministers, when the Question Time audience is reflexively negative and the people at work badmouth the government in that tone of voice that invites (and expects) cheap acquiescence, it becomes very difficult to think of the government without thinking about the reviews. I have been a strong Labour supporter for a number of years now. For three months I even worked for the party. Without pay. In an unheated room. In mid-Winter. But even I am finding it very difficult to support the government. To snipe and moan and carp and sneer is so tempting. Part of me just wants to surrender to the join-in schadenfreude of the media. I think I would find it very satisfying to give in.

And that’s Labour’s problem. As with the Conservatives in the 1990’s the psychological cost of supporting the government, of defending such a view to oneself and others against the almost irresistible strength of the consensus, is too great for most people. To actively support a Labour government which is being so universally condemned requires an incredibly robust and self-contained temperament. And that goes a long way towards explaining the 3% vote in Henley and the desertion of donors: the vast majority of people who are sympathetic to Labour do not have the strength to actively support them. Labour supporters, right the way up to the Cabinet, are falling into a self-questioning funk or surrendering themselves to despair, because they are being forced to operate within an environment in which their views are constantly challenged and undermined. At the moment it seems to have broken their will.