Are Glastonbury acts getting older?

Earlier today, Ben Judah tweeted this intriguing nugget of cultural criticism:

There’s something of a trend at the moment to describe ‘our’ culture (whether that’s just British or broader) as being stuck in a rut, retreading the same old concepts which are themselves often many decades old. So it’s inevitable that some have picked up on McCartney’s Saturday night performance at Glastonbury as proof of this. Others have pushed back with the reasonable point that the other two headliners – Billie Eilish and Kendrick Lamar – are both fresh, young artists who are hardly trading on nostalgic pastiches.

One way of answering this question is to understand how far this is actually a trend, or whether Macca is something of an outlier. This is especially true given that the suggestion is usually that our supposed cultural recycling is relatively novel. With that in mind, I have looked at all the Glastonbury headliners from 1995 onwards to plot how the average of the career length of the three performers for each of these years has changed over time. Before I get into what the data shows, some explanations of how I’ve worked it out:

  • I couldn’t find a list of ‘headliners’ per se – I’ve taken the top listed performers on the Pyramid Stage for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from this Wikipedia article.
  • ‘Career length’ is the time in years between the year of the performance and the year when the artist appeared on the UK Official Charts for albums for the first time, as a proxy for when they first ‘made it’ to any significant degree. E.g. Pulp formed in 1978 and made three albums on small independent labels between 1983 and 1992, but they made their first commercially successful album His ‘n’ Hers in 1994. This approach slightly underestimates the longevity of older acts from a time when singles were more important, as well as non-UK artists like Bruce Springsteen who enjoyed success abroad before they charted in the UK, but it doesn’t change the overall picture.
  • I’ve tried to count where solo artists have been in bands before their individual careers (so for McCartney, I count from the release of Please Please Me in 1963 rather than McCartney in 1970. Conversely, for performances by groups with members who had already enjoyed success with other collaborations or individually, I start the clock from the first chart appearance with the new ensemble.
  • I’ve done all of this in about 45 minutes on the back of a fag packet, so there are bound to be mistakes.

So, with that in mind, what does the trend show?

2022 is something of an outlier, but it’s not the ‘oldest’ Glastonbury line-up – that honour goes to 2009 where the combination of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Blur tipped the average career length to just over 30 years. The ‘youngest’ headliners were in 1997, where The Prodigy, Radiohead, and Ash all played (although Steve Winwood was originally booked to play the Sunday evening slot).

The overall trend between the mid-1990s and the 2020s is clear, with average career length having increased noticeably. However, as often with trends derived from somewhat noisy data, it’s challenging to tell whether this is a continuing slope upwards or, alternatively, whether the average career length increased steadily up to around 2010 where – 2022 aside – it has since stabilised at around 20 years (which often, but not always, is pushed upwards by one very well established act like The Cure or The Who). Insofar as looking to the most publicised acts at a single music festival can tell us anything about our wider culture, it seems that we will need to wait and see what the 2020s hold.

For my own part, I’m a little sceptical of Judah’s contention (which in fairness I don’t think he intends us to take entirely seriously). While it’s true that commercially successful films come from a smaller number of genres and are frequently retreading decades old intellectual property, the same can’t be said for music. As I said on Twitter, if Paul McCartney’s appearance at Glastonbury was a sign of being stuck in a musical rut then you would expect more broadly a dominance of the charts by groups of men with guitars, something which is in fact less true than ever. I’ll finish, then, by noting that the second ‘youngest’ line-up in my data set, from 1995, features the one group most commonly accused of imitating The Fab Four.

Danny, Champion of the World

This Christmas just gone, I found myself performing one of my most pleasant yuletide duties – buying a present for my young goddaughter.  Inevitably, in the search for something educational but edifying, I found myself browing the children’s section of Waterstones, and settled upon my purchase: a copy of Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.  My thinking was that, even if she’d read most of his books, she probably wouldn’t have read Danny; but it was also, in retrospect, of all of Dahl’s writings my personal favourite.  It’s more tightly plotted than most of Dahl’s books, which rely instead on his enthusiasm and spectacular imagination – but more importantly, it’s one of the most moving portrayals in children’s literature of the relationship between father and son.

If you haven’t read it, the salient plot points are as follows.  The eponymous Danny is a small boy being brought up alone by his motor mechanic father William, his mother having died when he was a few months old.  They live happily (in a gypsy caravan), until Danny wakes up in the night to find his father absent – eventually he returns home and admits to his son that he has been poaching on the land of local landlord, Mr Victor Hazell.  A few weeks later, Danny wakes up and finds his dad absent again, but fearing that he is in trouble he drives an old car undergoing repairs down to Hazell’s Wood, where he rescues William from a mantrap in which he has twisted his ankle.  While he recovers, Danny comes up with a fantastic scheme, involving the remainders of William’s prescribed painkillers and a few hundred raisins, to poach the entire flock of Hazell’s pheasants to embarass him before his big annual shooting party with his toff friends.

I did wonder when buying the book whether I was really fulfilling my duties of moral guidance in buying my goddaughter a story of mass theft (with trespass, police corruption, joyriding, and misuse of prescription medication to boot).  I reassured myself, however, with the fact that the tale of the poacher as folk hero is a staple of English folklore dating back to Medieval times.  It was the Norman kings who enclosed vast swathes of England as royal ‘forests’ for their pleasure, often to the detriment of their subjects.  This resentment is exemplified by the character of Robin Hood, whose outlawry is focused on robbing from the rich rather than stealing their game but who does, after all, spend most of his time trespassing in a royal forest.  We can also see this resistance in the the 1217 Charter of the Forest, a rather more important extension of freedom to the average peasant than its companion document Magna Carta.   Later, when royal forest passed into aristocratic hands, the status of the poacher as folk hero continued – think of the folk song The Lincolnshire Poacher, first set down in print in the mid 18th century but almost certainly older.  The landowning classes well appreciated that poaching was neither purely driven by necessity nor by a desire for fun, but was also a socially subversive act which challenged their exclusive right to the resources of land and perhaps to the land itself, with all the political connotations that held in a pre-democratic age.  Thus Robert Walpole, in response to raids by gangs of poachers known as the Blacks, passed the Black Act, one of the most draconian acts to ever make it onto the statute book.  Through the 19th and even 20th century there were fresh attempts to push back against the rights of landowners like Hazell, from the Gladstonian reforms which at least gave tenants the right to shoot ground game like rabbits which were spoiling their crops, to the mass trespass by ramblers across the grouse moor of Kinder Scout.

Danny can fairly be said, then, to be in a great tradition of antipathy towards the landlords of great estates.  William resents Victor Hazell because he is personally unpleasant and a crashing snob, which in his mind justifies his activities (although his motivation is clearly from the thrill he gets from the fact that it is illicit).  Still, Danny is hardly a Marxist tale of class warfare – they are aided in their heist by those pillars of bourgeois village life, the doctor and the vicar, and even the long arm of the law in the form of Sgt. Samways.  With the obvious exception of the Kinder trespass, which was led in part by members of the Communist Youth League, many of the examples of apparent defiance mentioned above are rooted in a conservative rhetoric of custom and tradition.  Robin might be a brigand, but he is loyal to the true king, Richard, and even the Blacks were defending what they believed to be their ancient rights (and, if Walpole is to be believed, the cause of the deposed Jacobite line).  The young reader, of course, knows nothing about all this social history and cares less, but they have been imbued in a culture from a young age where, under certain circumstances, theft of game from the rich and powerful is a noble cause.

Rather more gripping as a nine-year-old was Danny’s dramatic discovery of his father’s secret nocturnal activities.  In the process, we learn with Danny a number of things which children generally don’t learn about their parents until they’re a little older.  Firstly, that your parents had a life before you were born; secondly, that they still have secrets that you have no way of guessing; and thirdly, that they do things which are wrong or even illegal.  All of this is presented in the best possible light, but I still remember feeling disturbed as well as thrilled by the scene where Danny learns for the first time that his father is a poacher.  Later, Danny is called upon to rescue William by driving the little Austin 7, something which captivated me when I first listened to it on audiotape in the back seat of my Dad’s Vauxhall Astra.  Dahl certainly understood the excitement of the idea of doing something so clearly forbidden, and the fact that it is such a potent metaphor for freedom (for similar reasons the Simpsons episode where Bart and his fellow grade schoolers go on a disastrous car trip to Knoxville remains one of my favourites).  But in the case of Danny, it represents the fact that he and his father have, momentarily, switched roles, with William in trouble and needing his young son to save him from the law, or worse.  Unlike most of Dahl’s books, there is no magic or fantasy, although whether the means by which Danny and William finally poach Hazell’s pheasants is really feasible is debatable.  More than that, though, it’s realistic in how it presents Danny’s father as both a tremendous man and a startlingly vulnerable human figure.

It’s the relationship between Danny and his dad that really brings the book together.  William is certainly masculine, between his poaching and his work in the garage, but in the very first pages he’s described as doing by necessity all the domestic tasks of nappy changing, cooking, and so on that a baby brings (bear in mind that the book was written in 1975).  He’s also quirky and bold enough to set the two of them up in a yellow gypsy caravan.  Danny has friends at school, but he prefers to spend time with his dad; at the same time, William is a kind and sensitive father, wanting to seek violent revenge when Danny is beaten at school for a petty misdemeanor.  Yet he clearly misses Danny’s mother, and now as an adult I can’t help but suspect that he returns to his pre-marital habit of poaching because he is lonely, bored, and maybe a little suffocated by his life as a single parent.  He is, in other words, a very plausible character, and it is this which makes the obvious love that Danny has for him so believable, and invests the story with so much warmth.

Roald Dahl’s books, with their stories of giants, humungous peaches, and eccentric chocolate millionaires, are rarely described as realist.  A quick survey of his books, however, reveals an assorted cast of very relatable human protagonists.  True, he used the trope of the orphan no fewer than three times (James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, The BFG), as useful a literary device for him as it would prove for J.K. Rowling.  Of course, some children are orphans, but they are relatively few compared to their representation in children’s literature.  Rather more common, though, are the origins of some of his other young heroes and heroines: having parents or guardians who are selfish, boorish, and indifferent (Matilda, James and the Giant Peach); being brought up by an elderly relative, perhaps from a different culture (The Witches); living in poverty in a multi-generational household (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory); having to put up with an abusive family member (George’s Marvellous Medicine); and, in the case of Danny, being brought up by a single father.  Dahl rarely dwelled long on the circumstances of his protagonists, although they are often given an opportunity to mete out some pretty rough justice if possible against the causes of their unhappiness.  Still, this isn’t to say that the backgrounds of these characters is irrelevant or accidental – thousands, maybe millions, of his readers recognise themselves, or maybe a friend, in each of those characters.  Even if they can’t, however, they are familiar enough to provoke sympathy.

Danny, The Champion Of The World goes further, however, in that Dahl lingers on a very special bond between a little boy and his widowed father.   Across the whole of children’s literature, there are relatively few portrayals of a father-son relationship where the father isn’t either forbidding, or simply absent for good or ill.  It’s probably this that made me like it more than Dahl’s other books: more important than plots of stealing pheasants from the local magnate with tranquiliser-laced raisins, or the excitement of imagining myself driving an Austin 7 down a dark country road.

Brendan O’Neill Speaks For The Defence

Your lordship,

My client, Mr Smith, is accused of driving at fifty miles per hour in a thirty zone, going through three red lights, and nearly knocking over a little old lady before crashing into a parked police car.  Now, I should make clear that dangerous driving is a very serious matter.  I would be the first to admit that.  However, it is too serious to be treated in such a trivial manner.   The way that Mr Smith has been practically put on trial by this court is nothing short of Orwellian.

Let’s look at the facts, rather than the authoritarian doublethink propagated by the left.  The requirement that car owners drive ‘safely’ and ‘without carelessness’ is just the kind of PC coddling that so-called liberals push on us.  Instead of trusting us to be adults, the authoritarian left has created these increasingly vague categories to control us and make our roads into a ‘safe space’.  In fact, they use ‘the police’ to literally police our behaviour.  Once upon a time, the left stood for individual liberty, but now this is no more than a sham.

Instead, the liberal left now adheres to the dangerous dogma of identity politics.  Mr Smith is a man – worse still, a white man – who happens not to adhere to the latest trendy groupthink, and so he is vilified for this.  (You will notice that many – a majority, even – of cases against so-called ‘dangerous driving’ are made against white men.)  You have heard the statements from Mrs. Muggins and WPC Jones.  How convenient that they chime with the feminist agenda that the hyperpatriarchal cishet men are ‘dangerous’!  What might have begun as an innocuous campaign in favour of ‘road safety’ has become something much darker.  In a completely appropriate and in no way grossly over the top metaphor, my client is the victim of a modern day witch hunt.

So now my client finds himself on trial, at the mercy of an authoritarian liberal left which loves to sit in judgement over other people.  It’s not about individual justice, it’s about collective vengeance – the judgement of an Oxbridge educated, Guardian-reading caste who claim to represent justice on behalf of ‘the people’, but actually despise, fear and sneer at them.  They think that they can put the plebs in their place – but the members of the jury have had enough.  I implore you, just as you voted for Brexit in the single greatest working class revolt in human history, reject this anti-democratic elite!

Your lordship, the defence rests.



This chatroom post doesn’t kill fascists

I was an odd 15-year-old boy. I was bright at an age when it doesn’t pay to be intelligent, and I wasn’t interested in football or computer games at an age when it really does. I was interested in history, and literature. I was also obsessed, then as now, in politics, but I had no real means to do the typical teenage thing of wanting to argue about it, apart from with my parents. None of my few friends were that interested in politics, much less well informed. I was exploding with opinions, at that time of a variety which might fairly be described as ‘very confused democratic communist.’ I needed an outlet.

The result – and I appreciate that this is pretty tragic – was this: I started commenting on the Today programme message boards.

If I went seeking raucous political discussion, I certainly found it. The message boards were a relatively early BBC attempt at user outreach – this was eleven years ago, and we’re now onto our fourth Prime Minister since then. The Beeb was effectively hosting a free-for-all message board which had only a tangential relationship with what was actually discussed that morning on Today. Perhaps predictably, it was dominated by the far-right: people who opposed ‘political correctness’, were obsessed with Islam and Muslims, and hated immigration and immigrants. Often they were BNP supporters. There were enough people on the political left, as well as some mainstream Conservatives, to not allow them to dominate completely, and on some topics (such as the incompetence of Gordon Brown and the Labour Party) these people could be less poisonous, and we might even begin to agree, albeit from very different perspectives. But I did enjoy, at least to begin with, challenging their racist views, thinking that I could persuade them.

After a while, the BBC, probably noticing that the online discussion forum for their flagship radio news programme had become a fascist cesspit, closed it down, and I migrated to another chatroom run by one of the Today message board regulars. Here, the far right were even more dominant – I was certainly the only socialist. I used to spend a couple of hours each night after coming home from school arguing with these people, believing that I was engaged in a righteous cause. If that sounds bad, that’s because it was. If nothing else, I could have spent that time doing something far more productive – who knows, if I’d been practicing my French vocab I could currently be blessed with fluency and might even have avoided the car crash that was my GCSE oral. Eventually, the appeal started to wane as I finally found other interests.

Much politically has changed in the subsequent decade, and it would be wrong to draw too many straightforward equivalences between the insurgent populist right and the people I argued with on an obscure message board back then. And yet, I do think that the unhealthy amount of time I spent debating with – and more importantly, listening to – these people, over a long period of time, has given me a greater understanding of them. In that spirit, I offer a few observations.

The demographic profile of the commenters defied stereotypes. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether those hiding behind pseudonyms were really the people they said they were: I was pretending to be a decade older than I actually was at the time. Ostensibly, they certainly skewed older and many were retired, which left them a lot of time to be full-time bigots. But there was a good mix of male and female, and strikingly most of them were middle-class and many appeared to be in office jobs. Often they were university educated. Many had previously voted Tory, and a few admitted to voting for Blair in 1997. This was at a time when the BNP were portrayed as monolithically working class, with low levels of education, and very male. But while that might have been an accurate description of BNP voters as a whole, their loudest supporters were not – for example, Nick Griffin himself read Law at Cambridge, lest we forget. So while the mainstream press might have been shocked that the ‘alt-right’ can be ‘dapper’ and ‘intelligent’ (descriptions which are tinged with class associations), it was not a huge surprise to me.

These BNP-supporting commenters were happy to appropriate the language of liberalism – up to a point. Like many of the populist right parties in Europe (for example Geert Wilders’s PVV in the Netherlands), the commenters I argued with were more than happy to deploy ostensibly liberal arguments. They cast themselves as defenders of democracy, which they claimed was being trampled upon by the EU and the hated Labour government. They claimed to uphold secular values (very few of them had any religious belief at all, as far as I could tell – many were strident atheists). While they were anti-feminist, they saw themselves as the defenders of women’s rights against Islam and ‘mass immigration’. Homophobic remarks were not unknown on the message boards, but were rare, and not a focus of interest. More than anything, they argued that they stood for free speech, specifically the freedom to tell unpleasant truths, and deplored left-wing political violence. On the BBC message board, their libertarian free speech ideology found itself directly opposed to the hated ‘mods’ (who were actually rather too lax).

I am still uncertain how far this was a tactical approach, and how far it was sincere. It’s true that the far right is almost required to adopt such arguments, since it is a minority group itself and needs the protection of law to make itself heard and advance. At the same time, they were truly vehement, especially on the subject of free speech. There is an alternative explanation: most of the rank-and-file of the far right choose not to think hard about how far their views are incompatible with liberal democracy. Still, sometimes they were forced to confront the contradiction. One example I recall was that there was a list of anti-fascist activists and their personal details, hosted online by an openly fascist organisation, with the tacit encouragement to their far-right brethren to use it to target these activists for harassment and violence. I started an e-petition against this site, and naively shared it on the message board with the freedom-loving far right. There was a lot of umming and errring and handwringing about why exactly this was needed, and weren’t the anti-fascists just as bad – in other words, they were quite happy, on one level, to sanction violence against their political enemies, something which they claimed to abhor. This is, of course, exactly how the American ‘alt-right’ – and indeed, many supposedly mainstream conservatives – reacted to the Charlottesville march. It is, to say the least, unsettling that the line I once saw taken by a website full of BNP supporters is now being promoted by the President of the United States.

Their news sources were overwhelmingly from the mainstream media, especially the British tabloids. A lot of the reporting on the rise of the ‘alt-right’ has focused on the development of ‘fake news’ as a phenomenon, with shady online sources pumping out completely fabricated stories which justify a worldview that is racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-liberal, and so on. However, at least back then, they relied overwhelmingly on mainstream news sources. In rough order of appearance, they would be: the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the BBC, The Sun. Traditionally, the lack of a radical right party in British politics (until the emergence of UKIP from 2012 onwards) has been attributed to our electoral system; however, an alternative explanation that has been mooted is that our openly ideological, undeferential, partisan, xenophobic press has effectively filled that gap in British politics. I find that explanation very credible.

I do remember some other sites making an appearance (for example, Little Green Footballs in the days when it was a right-wing blog), but these were rarely explicitly far-right, much less neo-Nazi. The posters almost universally hated the BBC, whose news coverage they regarded as being liberally slanted and deliberately covering up the ‘truth’ in the interests of liberal propaganda. However, they still used it, for example mining it for stories about ethnic minorities committing crimes, with the corollary that even the biased BBC had published these articles. The Guardian they of course had nothing but hatred and contempt for, which may be one reason that it’s my go-to news source today.

It was a very powerful echo-chamber. A typical thread would start with a link to a news article, normally about immigrants or Muslims, with a snide comment about the madness of liberalism. Then, this could develop into a thread in which they could argue – or, more often, agree and generally share their hatred. What was really powerful, however, was the volume with which these threads appeared. If you scour the Internet really diligently for every single anti-immigration article published in the Daily Mail and beyond, every single Islamist terrorist attack worldwide, every blog post ridiculing Islam, every single crime story involving a non-white perpetrator… you’ll spend all of your time immersed in hatred, but you’ll also have a lot of material with which to ‘prove’ your case. Rather than arguing against outright fictions, which are reasonably easy to rebut, a more insidious pattern was at work – unrepresentative stories cherrypicked by the Mail or the Express, skewed and spun to make racist or Islamophobic arguments. And as much as I might have argued that the plural of anecdote is not data (and I did), it was very difficult to rebut.

When I started to write this blog post, I wondered what they would have done without me – on the second message board, I was pretty much the only person who wasn’t on the far-right or at least open to their message. Who would they have argued with? The answer is, I think, that they wouldn’t have had to argue – they weren’t interested in debate, they were interested in hate. Arguing with lefties gave a soupçon of entertainment, but it wasn’t the primary reason they were there. Still, just because they all agreed on some level, it didn’t mean that these threads weren’t dangerous. If you’re predisposed to be hostile to ethnic minorities and other ‘out’ groups already, the radicalising effect of this barrage of propaganda must have been profound, and very difficult to escape from. Soon, a unpleasant (but not uncommon) antipathy towards Muslims and ‘political correctness’ becomes a much more vicious beast. To give an example, I remember being shocked by someone who celebrated at a boatful of men, women, and children on their way to Hajj sinking with all hands. You become the kind of person who rejoices at the drowning of peaceful pilgrims about whom you know nothing but their religion. From there, the road to gas chambers and mass graves is not all that long.


Every so often I wonder what became of the message board and its inhabitants – more and more these days, with the rise of the ‘alt-right’, Donald Trump’s victory, and Brexit. I’ve imagined that it’s probably long deserted and indeed, while I can’t recall the exact URL, there is a 404 page where I think it used to be. As for the posters themselves, I assume that they moved onto similar echo-chambers online, particularly Twitter, the terms of usage of which are lax enough to offer them a space in which to thrive. I have little doubt that, after the collapse of the BNP in the late Noughties, they mostly made the jump to UKIP; all of them, unless they had any flashing Damascene conversion, will have voted Leave.

If you’re hoping that I will be able to offer cast-iron ideas as to how to deal with the rise of far-right sentiment… I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. My only insight is that there is no magic bullet, no shortcut to making these people less appealing, never mind stopping them through the force of moral suasion. I never abandoned my anti-racist views, or stopped being repulsed by their arguments; still, I also knew that I was making no headway. To be the only dissenting voice in an echo-chamber is just to be drowned out yourself. As a result, I was left with an enduring scepticism of the most common pragmatic defence of free speech, that good arguments drive out bad. This is not to say that I don’t agree that free speech has a normative value. Furthermore, I do believe that the practical alternative – governments engaging in wide-ranging restriction of speech – is dangerous and likely counter-productive. It’s just that political discussion, as actually practised, is usually highly prone to logical fallacy and almost antagonistic to data. The last few years have proved ample examples of this process in action.

I am particularly resistant to the notion, held by some liberals, that engagement with racists and Islamophobes will convert them. That simply isn’t how human psychology works – there is even evidence that an individual confronting facts contradicting their pre-existing beliefs will hold onto them more strongly than ever. We are not as naïve about jihadists, who we know will not be won over by superior arguments from Islam. Rather, the process of deradicalisation is generally a long one, and often reliant on changing personal circumstances (marriage, employment, new friends) rather than intellectual challenge. The analogy is not a bad one. I would suggest that, as extremism is in part a social phenomenon, major content platforms such as Twitter have a responsibility to create and enforce community standards to break down this ongoing reinforcement of hate, apart from its restrictions on harassment of other users. None of that will change minds immediately, and many will find alternative platforms on the Wild West that is the Internet; but it will offer an opportunity for the less hardened to break from the echo chamber.

But more than anything, I draw this ominous conclusion: that, before Trump or Farage were household names, the radical right was always there. Liberals who bemoan the loss of a tolerant, open Great Britain, are both right and wrong. They’re right that our politics has become more insular, suspicious, and welcoming to xenophobic and outright racist views in the last few years, and that the Brexit referendum campaign, dominated by scaremongering about fifty million Turks, was a particularly grim Rubicon moment. However, those sympathetic to the far right have always been there; more importantly, so have the media outlets supporting them that are as British as roast beef. It’s not a bubble, it’s not going to go away, and in fact it was always here to some extent. There is a part of England that is forever the Today programme message board circa 2006, and it’s only when those who oppose the far-right engage with this reality that we can begin to make progress.

Stealing posterboards

This post owes a lot to this tweet, and the depressing replies to it.

The story is a depressing one: some Labour supporters went out in balaclavas and stole the sign which had been put up outside the house of a young Lib Dem activist, in the process waking her up and using abusive language, before posting the details of their triumphant raid on social media.  (To be clear, I have every reason to doubt that this was sanctioned by anyone in the Labour campaign.)  The replies to April’s tweet are even more depressing: first of all, alleging that she made it up, and then moving on to arguing that it was nothing at all and that she should suck it up, and anyway the Lib Dems had helped murder thousands of people so she deserved it.  In response, I want to quickly explore why people put up posterboards, why people steal them and what this signifies, and why an apparently minor piece of vandalism is genuinely not good.

Putting up a poster at election time holds a special place in British political culture.  It is not primarily intended to *persuade*, except in the widest of senses.  Over the whole ward or constituency contested, it is a way of giving a visible show of support (which is why the Lib Dems in particular, who rely on squeezing/avoiding being squeezed, put the most effort in and have the most visible signs).  But much more than that, it is an *individual* statement of allegiance.  By putting up a poster, you are forgoing the secrecy of the ballot box, throwing all privacy and nuance aside in a faintly unBritish way and informing your neighbours of the party and individual whom you are supporting.  For most people, even faithful voters for one party, putting up a poster is a stronger and more visible statement than they are willing to make.  I don’t want to exaggerate – ours is a country with largely pluralistic politics and a culture of live-and-let-live.  But it is still a brave step.

Which leads us on to the theft of posterboards.  I’m not going to get too high-and-mighty about this – in almost every election campaign, poster boards go missing, and generally it’s not worth making a fuss about.  In terms of the campaign, it doesn’t matter that much if the odd sign disappears, it might be due to neighbourhood kids, or windy weather, or maybe the opposing campaign.  You just don’t don’t know, and usually it’s not worth puzzling over.  Still, I don’t approve of it – by stealing the poster, you are nullifying the owner’s conscious decision to express their political views.  You are silencing their voice.

More worrying than that, however, is the motive behind it.  I know from experience that political activists get extraordinarily irate about opposition posters popping up.  During the last two general elections, I’ve campaigned for the Lib Dems in two different Lib Dem-Tory marginals, and I can remember occasions on each time occasions when I was quite annoyed to see Labour posterboards.  If you’d asked me for the rational reason for my annoyance, I would have said that it was because it was undermining our message that the Labour were far behind in third and that only the Liberal Democrats could defeat the Conservatives here.  In reality, it was a feeling  that *they* were stepping on *our* ground – not an emotion that I’m proud of, albeit one which was exaccerbated by the heat of the campaign.

To call this level of political psychology ‘tribal’ would be to flatter its sophistication – primeval would be a better word for it, seeking to expel outsiders.  At university I remember reading Natalie Zemon Davis’s classic article The Rites of Violence: Religious Riots in Sixteenth Century France, which borrows from cultural anthropology to study the ritualised violence and desecration that French Calvinists and Catholics inflicted upon one another.  In the case of those who stole April’s sign, we see a similar ritual of theft designed to purify the community.  To be clear, there was no driving need for these young men to steal the posterboard, given that Labour romped home in Manchester Withington with a 30,000 seat majority.  Instead, we see the ritualised elements clearly – the donning of the balaclava, the intimidation of the householders, and the triumphant procession of the sign across social media.  The community of Manchester Withington had been purged of its stain of Lib Demmery, and was now comfortably Labourish again.

The conscious justification for this is just as worrying: the argument that the Lib Dems in government had impoverished millions of people and sent thousands more to their deaths through the imposition of austerity, so why on earth were we worrying about signs?  To these onlookers, anyone upset by the theft just treats politics as an absurd game, rather than as a life-and-death matter, and is to be despised for their amorality.  The flippant answer to this argument is that, if it mattered enough for someone to publically steal it, then it is legitimate to care as much about it being stolen.  The deeper contention that needs to be challenged is one that attacks the basis of the liberal consensus that underlies democratic politics – that you cannot do something against your political opponent which you would not tolerate from them just because you believe that you are Good, and that they are Bad.  Of course, it’s not only the far left who think like this – the far right have a worse track record.  They also reject pluralism because of their belief that liberals and socialists are existential threats to the nation, which they have betrayed.  In the words of one notorious fascist terrorist, ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.

I hope that I have demonstrated that theft of political signs can have significant ideological, even ritual, meaning.  In general, the left is admirably sensitive to the symbolic meaning and psychological impact of acts of aggression however apparently innocuous.  It’s a shame that a minority of their number can be so obtuse when it comes to understanding the meaning of small actions against their opponenets, like a stolen posterboard, or threatening words to a journalist on Twitter.  The fundamental principle at stake is freedom of expression and of conscience – it is one which we should all defend.

A New Almanac Of The Culture Wars

It is a truism that over the past decades, politics in many Western democracies has drifted away from an economic axis of left and right to one of liberal-authoritarian, open-closed, or anywhere-somewhere.  Increasingly, issues of identity and culture such as immigration, minority rights, and nationality have been pushed up the political agenda, demonstrating cultural divides underlying these societies, and Britain is no different.  With this development, we have seen an increasing number of squabbles over symbolic events, policies, or individuals which have provided flashpoints in these cultural conflicts.  Of course, the reality is that most people find themselves somewhere in the middle, or bemused by it all – but for the participants, these Culture Wars are very significant and now threaten to overshadow the rather mundane business of actual politics.

It has occurred to me that many of these battles in the Culture War are now seasonal, and so I have endeavoured to provide an almanac so that observers can follow it all the year round.  With my notes on how best to participate, you too can jump headfirst into the inanity!


March-April: Easter

It’s a slow start to the Culture War year – though remember, newspapers, politicians, and your own febrile imagination can produce more than enough material for mutual suspicion and anger during the slow period!  And fear not – things really begin to warm up around Easter.  It’s the season when people who haven’t been near a church in decades and possess a rather sketchy knowledge of the teachings of Jesus Christ become very concerned about how Britain is losing its Christian identity – and, specifically, the incorrect labelling of chocolate eggs.  Earlier this year Theresa May even joined in the fun, demonstrating the popular touch that has just led her to electoral victory.  (Please note: any politician thinking of making an Easter statement indicating sincere belief in the tenets of Christianity should resist the temptation, as it will make you look a bit ‘fruity’.)

Don’t worry, liberals – you aren’t left out completely!  If you have access to a podcast/Facebook/friends willing to tolerate your ill-informed rants, you can completely undermine the whole idea of Easter by wildly misrepresenting Medieval sources.  Currently favoured is something about Easter being named after the Saxon goddess of fecundity, but alternatively whatever bollocks you found on Reddit this week will do.  Remember: it’s important that,  at the same time, you make sure to preen yourself on your rationality.


23rd April: St George’s Day

Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George!  Or you would if you were even allowedto mention England any more, but you can’t, thanks to multiculturalism…  Thankfully this is the one day that you, a no-nonsense plain talker who loves his country and is very, very concerned about ‘mass immigration’, can express your pride in your Englishness, even if you do it the other 364 days of the year as well.  And what better way to demonstrate your love of country than a litany of resentment against various other nations including Scotland (feel free to note that the PC liberals don’t ever accuse the SNP of being racists, funny that), and darkly alluding to the fact that the BBC would rather celebrate Eid instead.  Feel assured that by pushing your own brand of insular nationalism you are definitely adding to our great island story!  Meanwhile, liberals should mark St. George’s Day by taking to Twitter and making the very original and persuasive observation that St. George was actually Turkish.


1st May: May Day, International Day of Workers

This feast had gone into abeyance in recent years, but thankfully the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn and a Shadow Chancellor who throws Mao’s Little Red Book around the Commons has revived this traditional Daily Mail favourite.  The May Day assembly of a gaggle of desiccated Marxists at Trafalgar Square produces enough pictures to flesh out a comment article warning of the evils of Stalinism, and in particular its fellow travelers, The Labour Party.  Meanwhile, on social media, you can continue the ever-fruitful historical debate of Who Was Worse: Hitler Or Stalin?


23rd June: 1st anniversary of the vote to leave the European Union

This is a new addition to the almanac this year, but is sure to become a fast favourite.  In much the same way that the Roman Republic turned the dates of its great military defeats into Black Days of ill omen, Remainers can treat the day as an opportunity for extravagant mourning of the kind last seen at a mid-Victorian funeral.  Meanwhile, with a typical sense of proportion, we can look forward to Brexiters declare the 23rd as Independence Day with the same gusto as if they were celebrating the Liberation of Paris.

Note for celebrants: it is now customary for Oxbridge-educated right wing journalists earning six figures and living in Surrey to write columns about the victory of the people over the elites, and how left liberals are hopelessly out of touch with the working man.  Please also note that this day is especially devoted to wild generalisations on the grounds of social class, locality, age, education, etc etc – nuance is not allowed!   On the other hand, increasingly tortuous bending of the rules of mathematics to generate a pleasingly large/small percentage for your Twibbon is encouraged.



This is normally considered the ‘silly season’ when Parliament is out of session, people go on holiday, and the supply of news dries up.  What better time for angrily scrapping over meaningless totems?  The lead up to the Conservative Party conference can be relied upon to deliver a steady stream of inane chunks of red meat into the right wing media to keep their base happy, although observers are sceptical that anything can match last year’s ‘blue passports’ pledge.  The return of students to university provides an opening for more than a few articles about ‘Stepford Students’, intolerant authoritarians in thrall to PC dogma/weak and feeble jellies hiding in their safe space who can’t face the real world.  The appearance of hot weather also provides an opportunity to excitedly discuss exactly what women should (and shouldn’t) wear and do with their own bodies.  Use your imagination – the long British summer offers many opportunities for indignation and willful misunderstanding!


11th November: Remembrance Day

Why decide that a solemn day for marking our nation’s war dead is an inappropriate time to indulge in the new Culture Wars?  If anything, this emotionally charged commemoration of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice is the perfect occasion to stick one to the other tribe!  It is now traditional, some time in the middle of October, for a liberal talking head (Jon Snow?) to warn of ‘creeping poppy fascism’, demonstrating the kind of sensitivity and awareness that makes British journalism great.  Meanwhile, the tabloid press does its best to live up to this descriptor by pouncing on every man, woman, child, and furry animal seen on live television without a Poppy (NB: by no means is it going too far to suggest that Pudsey The Bear should wear one).  On Remembrance Sunday itself carefully scrutinise the Leader of the Labour Party at the Cenotaph, lest he demonstrate by a single gesture his disrespect.  If he does, feel free to use this shamelessly for political advantage.


December: The War On Christmas

In the cavalcade of inane cultural spats, we have left the best til last!  This was the first seasonal events to rouse the ire of conservatives, who, fearing that the season of goodwill was slowly being eroded by progressive secularism, decided to spend most of the month of December grumbling angrily about ‘the PC Brigade’.  Like all the ‘best’ Culture War cause celebres, this was pioneered by the Americans, although the story of ‘Winterval’ lights has been circulating since Richard Littlejohn was in short trousers.

Note to celebrants: traditionally the main target for War On Christmas stories has been humourless politically correct lefties, but in recent years increasingly people are cutting out the middle man and just blaming religious minorities, particularly Muslims.  Please note that denouncing the supposed disappearance of Christmas does NOT prevent you from complaining about Christmas decorations appearing in the shops earlier every year.

Can the Lib Dems capitalise on Brexit in London?

Following the result of last June’s referendum on leaving the European Union, the Liberal Democrats have pursued a strategy of branding themselves as the ‘party of Remain’.  While accepting the result of the referendum, the party has made clear that we still think that Britain should stay in the European Union, that there should be a second referendum on the terms of leaving, and that the government should pursue a ‘soft Brexit’ and seek to remain in the Single Market.  Apart from being rooted in longstanding pro-European principle, this is also regarded by many inside and outside the party as a shrewd move, rallying ‘the 48%’ and finding a core message for a party which, since entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, has struggled to establish its identity.  Lib Dems can point to victory in last year’s Richmond Park by-election, and possible a surge in council by-election wins, as evidence of the success of this strategy so far.

However, if the Lib Dems seek to gain parliamentary seats they are dogged by their traditional enemy: the First Past The Post voting system.  Unless the Lib Dems can concentrate their vote enough to gain a plurality in more Westminster constituency, it makes precious little difference if they have increased their vote across the board.  Therefore, it is worth asking how the pursuit of a pro-European strategy might work in practice.  For this reason, I am focusing in this post on the Lib Dems’ chances at a parliamentary level in Greater London.  London was the only region in England not to vote Leave, with some constituencies estimated to have voted almost 80% Remain.  In theory, then, there are potentially rich pickings in the capital for an overtly pro-EU party.

However, as the scatter graph below shows, in most constituencies in London the Lib Dems are starting from an extremely low base.

The size of our task

I was tempted to title this chart, which shows each London constituency’s 2015 Lib Dem vote mapped against its estimated Remain vote, ‘The Size Of Our Task’.  (Note: I have used Chris Hanretty’s revised estimates of the referendum result by constituency, but since most boroughs didn’t break their vote down to constituency level, they are exactly that – estimates based on demographics.)  The most striking thing about this is that in 2015, in the 73 London seats, the Lib Dems only got more than 10% of the vote in nine of them.  To give an example, in the constituency estimated to have the second-highest Remain vote in the city, Hackney North and Stoke Newington, we lost our deposit.  In seats like these, the number of Europhile voters may be very high, but the swing which would be required to win would be huge.  True, 2015 was an historic low point for the Liberal Democrats, and you can point to better results in previous years, but even so many of these seats are not historically areas of Lib Dem strength.  Many of them are Labour strongholds, such as Tottenham where 76% are estimated to have voted Remain.  Others are Tory safe seats such as Cities of London and Westminster (72% Remain), or Labour-Tory marginals where the Lib Dems might find themselves squeezed out (Battersea, Westminster North).

Let’s have a look at some more viable potential targets.  Here are the four seats where the Lib Dems got over 30% of the vote in 2015 and which voted Remain in the referendum (highlighted in red).


These are, left-to-right: Kingston and Surbiton, Twickenham, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and Hornsey and Wood Green.  All four were held by the Lib Dems before 2015 but were lost, the first two to the Tories and the second two to Labour.  Therefore, they were already likely targets for 2020, but all threaten to be challenging.  In each of these seats, the Lib Dems have lost active local MPs who had substantial personal votes.  Hornsey and Wood Green and Bermondsey and Old Southwark are also being reshaped slightly in the boundary changes, which on paper at least make them appear less favourable than their 2015 incarnations.  There is also the sticking point in Hornsey and Wood Green, which is estimated to have voted 75% Remain, that MP Catherine West has been vocally anti-Brexit and voted against triggering Article 50.

New Remainia

The seats highlighted above might be called ‘New Remainia’ – areas where the Lib Dems did reasonably well in 2015 with quite high Remain votes.  From top to bottom, they are: Richmond Park, Wimbledon, and Islington South and Finsbury.  Richmond Park is the seat where the Lib Dem pro-Remain strategy succeeded in electing Sarah Olney, and is an area of historic strength for the party – this will obviously be strongly defended at the next General Election.  The Lib Dems came within 484 votes of snatching Islington South and Finsbury from Labour in 2005, and the constituency remains virtually unmolested in the boundary changes which carve up its neighbouring seats.  However, since 2005 the Tories have enjoyed a renaissance at the expense of the Lib Dems, and by 2014 there are no Lib Dem councillors in a borough in which, as recently as 2006, they had a majority.  Wimbledon would be an interesting seat to watch under the current boundaries, with the Lib Dems obtaining a respectable 13% of the vote in 2015 and with a history of unspectacular but consistently decent Liberal and Liberal Democrat vote shares.  Sadly, it looks to be eviscerated in the boundary review, being split between Putney (73% Remain, 6% LD) and Mitcham and Morden (55% Remain, 3% LD).

Now let’s look at some real long shots, Labour safe seats which voted by extremely high margins to Remain in the EU.

Long shots

This cluster is, right-to-left: Streatham, Islington North, Dulwich and West Norwood, and Vauxhall.  Islington North is the seat of Jeremy Corbyn, who has held this constituency with large majorities since 1983, and it would be an apocalyptic night for Labour if Labour came anywhere near to being threatened here.  The remaining three constituencies make up the Borough of Lambeth, which voted 79% Remain (although again this area of London is heavily affected by boundary changes).  The Lib Dems enjoyed some success on Lambeth Council in the Nineties and Noughties, winning 28/63 seats in 2002 and forming a joint administration with the Conservatives, and came within 3,300 votes of beating Chuka Umunna in Streatham in 2010.  However, this is a very different Remain-voting area to Richmond Park: less afluent and more ethnically diverse, neither of which have traditionally proved easy ground for the Liberal Democrats.  However, there are two potential wildcards.  The first is that Chuka Umunna is perched uneasily on the edge of the Labour Party, clearly unhappy with the Corbynite drift of the party.  It is in my view very unlikely that Umunna would jump ship to the Lib Dems, but if he were (for example, if he were to be deselected or fail to win one of the new seats in the boundary changes) this would at least offer an opening.  The second is Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall and one of the few Labour MPs to campaign for Brexit.  Hoey is in many other ways out of step with both her constituency and any of the factions of the Labour Party (she is in favour of fox hunting, for example, and she has said some very strange things about Assad and Putin recently), and would prove an easy target for a pro-European campaign if she were to stand in the successor seat of Clapham North and Stockwell.  The size of her projected majority would nevertheless still be formidable.

Leave constituencies

Finally, there are the ‘odd ones out’ – seats where the Lib Dems performed well in 2015 but which voted Leave.  These are Sutton and Cheam (estimated 49% Remain, 34% LD) and Carshalton and Wallington (44% Remain, 35% LD).  Carshalton is currently held by Tom Brake, whereas Sutton and Cheam was Paul Burstow’s seat until 2015 (again, both seats, which neighbour each other in South West London, are subject to minor boundary changes).  This is not, however, to say that a pro-European strategy will handicap the Lib Dems – under First Past The Post, mobilising a large minority of the electorate is often enough to win, especially if you can build on this minority to create a coalition with other groups of voters, such as those swayed by personality, local issues, or other national policies.  It is worth saying that in both seats Remain performed at least nine points better than the sitting Lib Dem MP had the year before.

A brief survey of the electoral map of the capital shows that the outlook for the Lib Dems in 2020, even after capitalising on the strong pro-European sentiment held by many Londoners, is difficult.  The main reason for this is the low base from which the party is starting in most constituencies:  Lib Dems have long found it hard to make ground against Labour in London at the national level, and as in much of urban Britain the Coalition proved very damaging to Lib Dem fortunes, in many places destroying our base in local government.  Another complicating factor is that the London Labour Party, always a strong campaigning force, has enjoyed a huge influx of members as a result of Corbyn’s leadership (although how active many of these are is a different matter).  I am not a Londoner, and I have not included commentary about the strength of local parties, candidates, encouraging signs on the doorstep etc, bluntly because I know virtually nothing other than occasional gossip, having done no more than a couple of days in total of campaigning in London.  I would certainly be interested to hear any comments from London Lib Dems.  However, it is the 2018 local elections that will provide evidence either way, the first since the Brexit vote and the only real test of Lib Dem strength in London before the General Election.  I anticipate that, based on these results, the core of our targeting strategy will be to defend our two held seats in south west London, and plausibly to make an attempt to regain one of our lost seats in South West London (probably either Twickenham or Kingston), and possibly to make an attempt to retake Old Southwark and Bermondsey.  It would be a shame to allow ourselves to be overstretched in the vain pursuit of overturning large majorities on the Europe issue.

However, the question of long term strategy offers an intriguing choice.  At the core of it is the question: is the Brexit issue a one-off that will fade after we leave the European Union and ‘politics as normal’ reasserts itself; or is it just the first harbinger of a new ‘cultural politics’ based on identity and values of ‘open versus closed’?  If it’s the latter, then there is greater scope for a liberal party to gain ground over the longer term in many of the seats which I have profiled above, and the case is greater to develop more favourable-looking areas which have not traditionally been areas of Lib Dem strength.  Moreover, this is true outside the capital in many cities and towns with high Remain votes that are potentially open to the Lib Dems in the long term, particularly if Labour remain in their current funk.  Nothing is assured, of course, and in districts with low Remain votes this might limit the party’s growth (though it is worth noting that the party has enjoyed success in local by-elections in the past year in areas which voted decisively to Leave last June).  While I wish to urge some caution, I am also a great believer in the power of serendipity in politics.  If we are seeing a realignment in politics, and if we are willing to work hard for it, we may find success in hitherto unexpected places.

NB: Just as I was about to publish this article, a poll was published giving the Lib Dems 20% in London.  This would be a dramatic improvement over the 2015 General and 2016 Mayoral/Assembly elections – but, as I argue above, a lot depends on where this new vote is located, and where it is coming from.

Passport sleeve In Blue; or, I respond to a silly Brexit demand

(I apologise for the terrible pun, but I really couldn’t resist.)

I am moved to respond to the latest flurry of speculation in the right wing press that Britain, post-Brexit, might demonstrate its independence and Precious Bodily Sovereignty by… changing the colour of our passports, from treacherous foreign burgundy to beautiful British blue.  In particular, my ire was raised by a tweet by Tim Montgomerie alledging that Remainers just don’t get the cultural significance of blue passports.  My initial response was that I get it – I just find it bonkers.  Why should anybody feel so strongly over the colour of a passport?  Yet I find myself asking, in turn – why does all this talk of blue passports grind my gears?  And so I came up with three reasons.

Firstly: it seems completely frivolous.  Hard Brexit is coming – at the most optimistic, it will be the most complicated government enterprise since the war, at the most pessimistic it looks like it will be hugely economically, socially, and diplomatically damaging.  The fixation on blue passports by certain elements of the right wing press is another sign of the maddening flippancy with which these people gamble with our future.  If, like Michael Howard, I am permitted to use a Falklands War metaphor, it is as if the Daily Express in April 1982 had been polling its readers on whether to rename the HMS Invincible the Boaty McBoatface.  And it is as one with other ridiculous symbolic gestures like the idea that Britain might resurrect the Royal Yacht Britannia as the world’s first trade yacht.  Such is the deep unseriousness of much of Euroscepticism, and the willingness of our government to pander to it (and indeed use it to distract from their shortcomings and failures).

Secondly: blue passports have almost no cultural resonance with me.  I am 25 years old, and I have never owned a blue passport; nobody under the age of thirty will be able to remember one in use.  In fairness, it’s not quite true that I can’t remember ever seeing a blue passport.  I remember aged ten curiously flicking through my father’s old passport (probably his first), which I remember as nearly black, the bottom corner snipped off and his name written in by hand on the front page.  It did have a strange exoticism.  But that had more to do with the weird and wonderful visa stamps, the picture in the front of the face of a much younger man, and of course his Yellow Fever certificate, always an object of childhood fascination.  It seemed musty, old, strangely distant in time beyond the measure of chronological distance.

To clarify, I’m not saying that the world has to revolve around me and my cultural memory.  No doubt others associate blue passports with national pride and sovereignty, and, well, fair enough.  But in the context of the generational divides of the Brexit vote, it feels exasperating.  This is a gesture among many which resonates with the older generation who wanted Brexit; meanwhile young people, who voted against it, and who will be most affected by any economic hit and loss of free movement, seem to have been offered nothing either substantial or symbolic.  All in all, it just reinforces the feeling that Brexit is being carried out on behalf of and in the interests of one chunk of the population.  When Theresa May claims to be interested in bringing us together, this is an immensely frustrating approach.

Finally, there is the fact that it is a return to blue passports.  Brexiters of a more intellectual stripe were anxious to argue before the referendum that Brexit was not about moving backwards, but forward – out of fusty old Europe and into the world.  I actually think that this resonated with a lot of people frustrated with the status quo, envisaging a new start for Britain.  However, the dominant strain during the referendum was rather the restoration of a nation that had lost much to the EU superstate and the depredations of modernity.  Hence the blue passports: you might as well suggest that we make them bright red and have ‘MAKE BRITAIN GREAT AGAIN’ stamped on the front in white capital letters.  The fixation on ‘bringing back’ imperial units seems to be a manifestation of the same phenomenon, seeking the trappings of an England that has passed away in the hope that it would also be accompanied by the restoration Britain’s relative economic power and position in the world.  That most of these changes are irreversible, and many in fact beneficial, means that these hopes are inevitably going to be disappointed.  More importantly, such a nostalgic lens will occlude the realities of present day and the opportunities and perils of the modern world.  The demand for blue passports, among other things, indicates a sad future for Britain as a country hooked, listlessly, on its own half-remembered visions of past greatness.

This is why tabloid campaigns about the colour of our passports irritate me.  I’m not particularly attached to my burgundy version, and I’m not going to heartbroken when it’s replaced by a version in deep blue.  But the idea of changing it now, for the reasons given and with the bizzare insistence with which it is pursued by some – that does make me uneasy.  It is this movement that has symbolism for me, but rather than symbolising national rebirth it seems to me to embody a trivial politics and indicate a Brexit driven by the obsessive nostalgia of the older generations at the expense of everyone and everything else.  I can only hope that I’m wrong.

Sexual identity in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

[Warning: Contains spoilers]


Recently, I found myself rewatching the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  It’s my televisual comfort food – everything from the late Seventies atmosphere to the terrific performance by Alec Guinness in the lead role as George Smiley makes it exceptional television.  Every time I rewatch it I get something new – this time I was led to think about its treatment of LGBT themes, and it’s this that I will expand upon. A few caveats: in terms of my source material, I will be focusing on the BBC adaptation rather than the original Le Carré novel or the 2011 film (although I have read and watched each respectively) – the BBC adaptation is very faithful to the book, but there are some minor differences which, off the top of my head, I can’t recall in any detail.  As for my viewpoint, I should make clear that I am writing as a straight man, and as such I imagine I will miss nuances which are more obvious to gay or bisexual readers.  I obviously welcome comments and discussion.


Historical background

The prominence of these themes in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is hardly accidental.  The British government was embarassed, and the British public titilated, by a series of spy scandals in the Fifties and Sixties linked to homosexuality.  The most pertinent was the case of John Vassall, who was blackmailed by the KGB after compromising photos were taken of him in a gay party that was in fact a classic honeytrap.  However, it was probably the most famous of the scandals of the era that encouraged Le Carré to explore questions of sexual identity – the Cambridge Five.  Many aspects of his story about a high-ranking mole in the British Secret Service are clearly based on the notorious spy ring – and of the group, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt were gay and Donald MacLean was bisexual.

The result was that gay or bisexual men were seen as security risks.  Partly this was on the grounds of blackmail – hardly fair, as hetereosexual men were more than capable of acting indiscretely and opening themselves to Russian manipulation, and since the threat was largely a result of criminilisation and social stigma.  Yet at the same time their very sexuality was seen as unstable and untrustworthy, and their underground social existence seen as suspicious and potentially sinister.  The result was repression.  The horrific treatment of Alan Turing is well known.  In the United States, a ‘Lavender Scare’ emerged in tandom with the better known attacks by Senator Joe McCarthy on alleged Communists.  When Control, suspecting the existence of Gerald the mole, digs out old Circus files to learn ‘who was pink, who was a queen’, his response was typical of a service suspicious about men who had sexual relationships with other men.


“They really were very close, you know”: Haydon and Prideux

The relationship between Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux forms much of the emotional core of the series and is worth looking at in detail.  It is strongly implied that the two of them, both Circus spies, were lovers when they were both recruited as students at Oxford, and afterwards they maintained a strong bond and were known as a famous duo by their fellow agents.  Prideaux is sent off to Czeckoslovakia by Control, the Head of the Service, in an effort to find information from a defecting Czech army officer that he hopes will allow him to root out a double-agent (nicknamed Gerald).  The mission fails disastrously, Prideux ends up being shot in the back and captured and interrogated by the Russians, and after being returned to Britain is retired from the Circus.  In fact, it is his former lover Haydon who was the mole, and he and his handler Karla arranged for Control to receive the offer of intelligence in the knowledge that the mission would fail embarassingly and thatat Control, who was coming close to identifying him as Gerald, would be forced out.  Furthermore, it emerges in the final episode that Haydon was fully aware that Prideaux was the most likely candidate to be sent on this dangerous mission, although he claims that he never forsaw that he would be injured.  Here, Haydon reveals how much he is willing to betray in the name of beliefs – his angry response to Smiley’s reproving look, that he had ensured his return by the Czechs, is inadequate and just makes his conduct appear even more heartless and alien.  The day before Haydon is deported to the USSR, Prideaux murders Haydon.  Before breaking his neck, he kisses him on the forehead: a sign of intimacy, but also a reverse Judas kiss.

Interestingly, Prideaux and Haydon’s past relationship is well-known within the circus.  Lacon, the senior civil servant who runs the inquiry, tells Smiley that the two “were really very close, you know.”  Smiley obtains a letter from Haydon to his Circus talent-spotter identifying Prideaux as a likely prospect and writing in clearly homoerotic tones (he is described as ‘a virgin, about eight foot tall, and built by the same firm that did Stonehenge’).  Partly this acceptance can be ascribed to a more tolerant climate before the war, especially among the aristocratic set that Haydon would have been surrounded by at Oxford.  But it also reflects an ambivalence towards men who enjoyed relationships with men in the intelligence services.  There is evidence that there was a tacit acceptence of gay activity as long as it was discrete, as was the case with much of the Establishment at the time.  This was especially true if it could be passed off as a youthful misdiscretion – “Christ, man, we were children!” Prideaux says when Smiley reads Haydon’s letter.


Bill Haydon, treachery, and bisexuality

One of the really enjoyable things about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is Ian Richardson’s performance as Bill Haydon.  For most of the series, he is in some ways the most likeable character – suave, talented, sardonic – and he is revered by his juniors at the Circus.  After he is unmasked and is taken to the detention centre at Sarratt, however, he veers between this well-controlled persona and more erratic, emotionally unbalanced behaviour in response to Smiley’s questions.  Richardson’s reptilian portrayal successfully renders him as a hateful villain whose mask has been ripped off.

It is in this context that we learn obliquely about Haydon’s sex life.  Haydon, in settling his financial affairs before leaving Russia (such is his shamelessly matter-of-fact response to the revelation of his treachery), asks Smiley to send on the balance of his salary and arrange that post be sent on from his club; he also writes a cheque and a somewhat perfunctory note for a girlfriend, for whom he obviously has a limited opinion.  He then asks Smiley to arrange for a payment from the reptile fund (the Circus’s all-purpose slush fund) for for ‘a particular boy… a cherub, but no angel’.  We already knew that Haydon had sex with women, since he had had an affair with Smiley’s wife, Ann; we also knew about Haydon’s historic relationship with Prideaux.  This scene, part of the wider revealing of the ‘real’ Bill Haydon, emphasises Haydon’s bisexuality on the most unflattering terms – he has multiple, rather shallow sexual relationships.  Yet not only does Haydon fulfill negative stereotypes of bisexuality – his bisexuality itself acts as a metaphor for his faithlessness.  It is this faithlessness that Ann Smiley touches on later in the final episode.  “Bill betrayed totally – everything, everyone, didn’t he?”  She is clearly not just thinking merely of military intelligence.  It might be said that societal wareness of what bisexuality meant and implied was poor in 1979; but this is a trope – and an attitude – which bisexual people still struggle against today.



It would be fair to argue, then, that the depiction of LGBT relationships in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not entirely positive.  But this is also true of the straight characters and their flawed romances.  Ann betrays Smiley twice, not just through her affairs with numerous men but by making him the subject of Circus tittle-tattle by sleeping with Bill Haydon.  Haydon’s relationship with Ann was based on deceit – ordered by Karla as a means of putting Smiley off the scent of Gerald the mole.  Even Oliver Lacon’s happy family in his ‘Hampshire Camelot’ doesn’t last, as by the time he appears in Smiley’s People he is unhappily divorced.  The ongoing themes of the novel are betrayal and uncertainty.  In this context, the Prideaux-Haydon relationship is tragic, but not exceptionally so.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy offers multi-faceted social commentary and the opportunity for interpretation and reinterpretation.  Someone better informed than me might pick up how exactly the series fits into the depiction of LGBT people in mainstream media in the Seventies, and the broader history of sexual identity.  I hope that I have demonstrated that this is a rich seam of interpretation.

Young Fogey

Political clickbait. Like cookie-dough ice cream, I know it’s not good for me or society, and yet I find myself unable to resist mouthful after creamy mouthful. This is particularly true when it’s from The Spectator, a magazine that’s really more Buzzfeed than Addison and Steele. Hate-read the latest calmly-worded James Delingpole column, and then move on. Instant gratification.

Yet, there’s something about the latest article by Toby Young which gave me a little more to digest than usual. Not that it’s good – it’s extraordinarily bad. But it’s bad in such a way that it deserves a little gentle probing.

Young opens with the story of his (not doubt well remunerated) presentation to a recruitment consultancy to ‘provide an urban anthropologist’s take’ on the new ‘tribe’ of young people entering the workforce. The words ‘urban anthropologist’ are enough to make me fear for what will come next – this is a self-description, like ‘social media expert’ or ‘interested in evolutionary psychology’, that portends a lot of warmed-up shower thoughts framed in semi-scientific garb. Still, since we have not paid top dollar for what exactly Young said (hint: almost certainly less terrible than what he’s written here), TY then muses: what if he were to open a recruitment consultancy about how to recruit young people?

It’s at this point that things start to go sharply off the rails. Set aside the fact that this framing device makes no logical sense, as this smart new business venture is pretty much what he’s just said that he’s already doing. More importantly: why would you pay for a forty-three-year-old, who as far as I can tell hasn’t held a management position since the early 90s, to advise you about managing millennials? To any FTSE 100 CEOs who might be reading this blog, I have some advice for you if anyone ever comes to you with the idea of hiring Toby Young to advise you about the youth of today – fire this person. Trust me.

Anyway, Young comes to his main argument – young people are severely maladjusted to the workplace. The ‘me, me, me’ generation of ‘snowflakes’ is stuck forever in the ‘safe space’ of adolescence. It’s at this point that you realise that Toby’s really not giving his all here – this is a string of insults about under-30s that makes the paragraph sound like The Great Automatic Grammatizator set to ‘SPECTATOR’ mode. Putting aside this penchant for ad hominems, Young argues that this ‘kidulthood’ is because

their immersion in social media since the year dot has accustomed them to just communicating with their peers. It’s difficult to grow up if you have no idea how to talk to grown-ups. That, at any rate, is the theory of Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).  ‘Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers,’ he told Time magazine. ‘To develop intellectually you’ve got to relate to older people, older things: 17-year-olds never grow up if they’re just hanging around other 17-year-olds.’

This is interesting, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s curious to wonder whether Young actually read Bauerlein’s book or just wrote his entire column on the back of a review he saw in Time magazine. More important, however, is what little sense the argument makes. For sure, the generation now coming into the workforce is the first to grow up with social media (although it’s worth saying that, for anyone in their late twenties, social media wasn’t really a big thing until they were well into university, if not later). But the idea that social media interaction with peers has replaced communication with those in older generations seems fairly unlikely – young people tended to be friends and associate with young people before the arrival of Facebook. The big shift took place fifty or more years ago, when youth culture arrived as a phenomenon, and more gradually as fewer teenagers went into the workforce as teenagers and more progressed to university. More than anything, however, the assumption that the new generation will be completely unable to comprehend their elders is utterly absurd, as any person who’s actually met someone under the age of 25 would understand. It’s an assumption that Young never offers a piece of evidence for, not even a measly anecdote. It’s almost as if urban anthropology isn’t really that rigorous a discipline.

After a bizarre joke about Millenials speaking Esperanto, Young explains why he thinks he might be able to help any employer working with these generational Martians – he was completely unsufferable as a new entrant to the workforce himself!

For instance, on my first day at work I was in the lift waiting to be transported to the 11th floor when an attractive Vogue fashion editor standing next to me tried to hold the doors open for her friend. They slammed shut, almost trapping her hand, and I turned to her and said, ‘They’re fashion sensitive. If you’re not wearing Prada or Gucci they will take your arm off.’ She gave me a baffled look: ‘But I am wearing Prada.’

Oh, Toby. Oh dear. I do feel for you, brother. Almost.

After I’d made a couple more of these unsuccessful attempts at flirtatious banter, someone left a copy of Condé Nast’s ‘Sexual Harassment Policy’ on my desk. ‘It has long been the policy of Condé Nast to maintain a professional working environment for all its employees, free of any form of discrimination or harassment,’ it said. The next bit was underlined in red felt-tip pen: ‘A joke considered amusing by one may be offensive to another.’

Well. Where do you start? He uses the word ‘banter’, which at this point in time is pretty much a synonym for ‘about as funny as a burning orphanage’. Then there’s the fact that Toby thought that (unsuccessful!) ‘flirtatious banter’ in the office was a great idea. And, finally, that he behaved grossly enough that someone at Condé Nast gave him a semi-formal warning from the Sexual Harassment Policy. That’s… not normal? Pretty worrying? Does he think this makes his argument stronger? It certainly doesn’t make me want to start writing out a cheque for Toby Young Millennial Consulting LLC, that’s for sure.

Anyway, Young remains confident that he can apply his own experience to today’s workplace. But here’s the key difference – unlike him, Millennials are ‘generation snowflake’, constantly ready to take offence. ‘Instead of them worrying about saying the wrong thing to people my age, it’ll be middle-aged men like me worrying about saying the wrong thing to them.’ With good cause, based on what you’ve just told us, but let’s put that to one side for a minute to admire how Young manages to cram in yet another evidence-free dig at the younger generation, from another dimension, that just happens to chime with current conservative orthodoxy. It’s a keen irony that, in the very process of arguing that young people are unwilling to accept alternative outlooks that he is feeding his readers the intellectual equivalent of baby food, mild and unchallenging pap that’s exactly what they want to devour. You can almost hear the whirr of the Great Grammatizator.

It’s difficult to reconcile this tirade against a whole generation with the fact that Toby Young’s great cause which he has written about more than anything else is actually education. The founder of the West London Free School, Young is soon to be the director of the New Schools Network and, back when Cameron was Tory leader, he was at the forefront defending his Free Schools policy. Toby must spend a lot of his time with intelligent teenagers, so why is he regurgitating this rot? Does he despair even of the special snowflakes educated at his own school? Is he just a hack? Is it a product of cognitive dissonance? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Either way, it’s representative of a broader trend in conservative discourse – away from the Cameroonian interest in youth and its values, to an increasing disdain and even hostility for young people, and for the more liberal ideas that they prefer. It also reflects an increasing dumbing-down of right-wing argument, as analysis and facts are replaced by sneering labels and wild leaps of logic. The fact that this column of this quality was published in the premier journal of British conservatism says a lot.

Even so, I believe that there’s hope for Toby. Take some advice from an egotistical, intolerant Millennial, if you can bear it. Meet some more young people. Talk to them. Learn about their interests. Make friends, if you can. And then, perhaps with some better chosen background reading, you can write a genuinely good piece about generational divides in the workplace.

And don’t write about your time at Conde Nast ever again.