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.

The Future of Socialism – a preface

The impact of The Future of Socialism on its publication in 1956 should not be underestimated. Although the left and the right of the Labour Party had been in open war since Aneurin Bevan’s resignation in 1951, Crosland’s text was the most lucid attempt to date to define the purpose and meaning of social democracy. The Future of Socialism, published a year after the 1955 election which was Labour’s second defeat in a row and in which Crosland had lost his South Gloucestershire seat, was immediately lauded by many commentators as a serious reformist case against the left, which was then defined largely by their adamant pursuit of further nationalisations. The response from the Bevanite left was, predictably, one of scandalised outrage. ‘SOCIALISM – HOW DARE HE USE THE WORD?’ blasted one article in Tribune, the house journal of the Labour left.

In a nutshell, Crosland argued that the pursuit of socialism did not necessarily mean more of the big nationalisations that had defined the Attlee government (most notably of coal, the railways, the Bank of England, and, controversially, steel). Championing what was widely known as the mixed economy, he argued that the way to dissolve the class distinctions and finally eradicate poverty was instead to use the powers the government already had – through taxation, social spending, monetary policy, and other economic tools to be found in the hands of the state, relying on wealth created through economic growth. Crosland’s work, sixty years on, remains the most significant and influential work in the canon of British social democracy.


Why should liberals read The Future of Socialism?

Over the next few months, I will be reading The Future of Socialism and, chapter by chapter, blogging a summary of its argument and some reactions to it. There are two main reasons why I find it of interest. One is purely historical – to understand Crosland’s arguments in the context of his time, with its very different political, ideological and economic landscape. That is a good enough reason to read Crosland: if you want to understand the Labour Party of the 1950s and 1960s, his is an invaluable voice. Much of my blogging will probably concern this aspect.

However, I will also be reading The Future of Socialism in light of the politics of today, and specifically as a liberal and a Liberal Democrat. Furthermore, most of the readers of this blog are also liberals, and Liberal Democrats. It seems fitting, then, to explain why I think it’s a book that liberals should read.

Firstly, the Liberal Democrats are a product of a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. Several of our most outstanding figures (Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, and Chris Huhne to name but three) started off in the SDP, and many members today would define themselves as social democrats. However, perhaps because of the predominance of Liberals in the new party, this heritage has been largely neglected. There is an idea promoted, by no means only by those on the right of the party, that the SDP (or at least Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams) were always really liberals who stumbled into the Labour Party by accident, or because of the weakness of the Liberals when they came into politics. This seems to me to be a mistake – Jenkins, for example, although always friendly towards the Liberals, was closely associated with Crosland, Hugh Gaitskell, and other reformists and himself participated almost as actively as Crosland in these debates within the Labour Party.[1] It is my opinion, then, that The Future of Socialism is as important a text for Liberal Democrats as anything by Hobhouse or T.H. Green.

The second reason why The Future of Socialism might be of interest to liberals is because it was written as a critique in response to a resurgent far left. This has relevance for British liberals for two reasons. Firstly, there is the fact that, historically, British liberalism has offered a non-socialist opposition to the Conservatives. At the same time as revisionists like Crosland were active within Labour, the Liberals led by Jo Grimond were also developing a socially progressive politics which critiqued monolithic institutions, public or private. Of course, Crosland came from a different position, seeking to reclaim socialism rather than oppose it, but nevertheless there is an obvious family resemblance. Secondly, there are clear contemporary resonances – for the first time since the 1980s, the Labour Party leadership (and membership) are socialists, and social democrats, within Westminster and in the country at large, find themselves marginalised. It might be good for critics of Corbyn, both in the Liberal Democrats, and Labour, to remind themselves of one of the most eloquent criticisms of the far left.

Thirdly, there is the fact that social democratic parties across Europe, with isolated exceptions, have fared poorly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, losing much of their support to parties of the insurgent radical left and to parties of the populist right. Labour is no exception to this, losing votes to UKIP and the SNP. This phenomenon will continue to shape politics for the foreseeable future, and so it is worth understanding social democracy better for this reason alone. This will not be an uncritical reading of The Future of Socialism – far from it.  While the work as a whole has continuing relevance, much of what Crosland wrote now seems naïve or complacent. It is worthwhile reflecting, therefore, on the contemporary weaknesses of social democracy.

Finally, there is my long-standing belief that British liberalism is too inward looking and self-referential. Cross-fertilisation with other traditions is, in my opinion, prevents us from becoming stale and dogmatic. Social democracy is the obvious place to start – although a separate tradition, it is an adjacent one. Yet it is generally poorly misunderstood within the party – partly because of partisan mischief and the anxiety to define liberalism against The Other, but also because it is poorly explained by its adherents.  If we learn from, and engage critically with, other ideologies, we will learn more about our own.


A note on the text

I am using a 2006 paperback edition of the text published by Constable, with a foreword by Gordon Brown, an introduction by Dick Leonard, Crosland’s PPS in the early Seventies, and a brief selection of reminisces by his widow, Susan Crosland. Leonard’s introduction is a good appraisal of the argument of the text and a brief biography and historical context; Susan Crosland’s ‘snapshots’ provide a touching insight into Crosland, the man himself. The less said about Brown’s foreword the better – it is more interesting as a product of New Labour c. 2006 and the preoccupations of Brown himself (for instance, it concludes with a rather unsubtle swipe at Tony Blair). All page references will be to this edition, which is available on Amazon from £7.



[1] Certainly many on the left of the Labour Party argued that Jenkins and Crosland *were* liberals in disguise and should ‘go and join the Liberals’ (does this sound familiar?) But this should be treated as factional abuse rather than serious analysis.