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.

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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.

 

July/August/September

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).

Remainia

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.