First written for the discerning study abroad student, Britain Explained now appears in a new e-edition updated to May 2020. The revised text now covers the general elections of 2017 and 2019 and this year’s British exit from the European Union. It is an essential guide to politics, life and culture as things were just before Covid-19.
Rebecca Long-Bailey was yesterday sacked from her Shadow Cabinet role as Labour’s Education frontbencher. I have for some time viewed Ms Long-Bailey as an inappropriate standard-bearer for the Left (see earlier blogs). She never impressed as a gifted, or even likeable leader. She had displayed none of the qualities a successful leader needed. I regret the blame lies with Jeremy Corbyn who should have used his five years of leadership to bring forward a younger generation of potential leadership candidates, women ideally.
And Long-Bailey had hardly sparkled in her new role. After all her opposite number was the hapless Gavin Williamson, floundering at Education, once even sacked as a security risk by Theresa May. The government made an utter mess of its attempt to re-open schools this term. Why wasn’t Long-Bailey on our screens nightly during that fiasco putting the Labour case? I must be fair. The Waugh Zone (25 June) reports ‘an insider’ claiming Long-Bailey had impressed the leader with her behind the scenes work on summer free school meals, a campaign picked up by footballer Marcus Rashford to force a memorable government U-turn. Admirably, she also worked closely with the teacher unions but she fluffed a golden opportunity to reach a wider public at a time of raised awareness.
Her offence was to retweet a tweet from actor Maxine Peake which allegedly contained an anti-Semitic trope. This is not the place to discuss anti-Semitism. I yield to no-one in my admiration of Maxine Peake, who combines great talent with fierce political commitment. But surely a prominent Shadow Cabinet member should have checked the claims were accurate? Labour List (26 June) reports Peake retracting her earlier comments, saying in a statement: “I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources. I find racism and antisemitism abhorrent and I in no way wished, nor intended, to add fodder to any views of the contrary.” Long-Bailey was signalling support for Peake’s Corbynista position. She was sloppy.
Now there is great danger. Keir Starmer has already made a strategic blunder by supporting the government over easing the lockdown – even though this has been marked by the usual Johnsonian incoherence and lack of thoroughness. Yes, his careful preparation and examination of the prime minister is gaining him ground at PMQs. But he displays little fire or magic, nor any awareness they might be needed: it’s like watching a snail chasing a butterfly.
This sacking, the first from his Shadow Cabinet, has had a predictably polarising effect. The Left is pouring energy into a ‘reinstate Rebecca’ campaign; the Right is dancing on her grave in glee. I don’t believe Starmer is a Blairite-in-Disguise, waiting his moment to gain power by scotching the Left. I admire his thoroughness. Like many on the Left I acknowledge his leadership victory and want to give him a fair wind: who but Labour can lift Johnsonian fog from the land? But he is now thrust into a position where his next moves will be overinterpreted. And all because of someone who should not have had the job in the first place.
I grew up as a theatregoer with Tom Stoppard. Arriving in London in 1975 I gorged myself on plays. In that golden age of theatre, he still stood out for his verbal felicity, ingenious plot and literary reference. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, came The Real Inspector Hound, After Magritte, Jumpers, Travesties. More recently there has been Night and Day, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Arcadia, Indian Ink, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia, Rock ‘n’ Roll and The Hard Problem.
Stoppard’s homage to turn of the century Vienna celebrates its national diversity. An extended family in Leopoldstadt, the Viennese destination of pogrom-fleeing Jews, meets in 1899, 1900, 1924 and 1938 (on the night of Kristallnacht); their survivors gather in 1955. Stoppard assumes a literate, historically aware audience. Why not in your ninth decade? After overhearing the conversation of two young people in neighbouring seats, I was less sure. The play largely assumes this knowledge except for the 1938 scene.
In a key 1899 exchange two patriarchs juxtapose the merits of Herzl’s proposed homeland to the promise of the alternative: full acceptance of Jews at the highest cultural and political levels of the empire. After this the action slowly reveals the increasingly ghastly reality; 1938 shows us the post-Anschluss version of Herzl as strutting Nazis strip the family of all their goods. The 1955 scene powerfully evokes memory and the lost identity of the diaspora now submerged in Englishness and Americana. Structurally these shifts are not satisfying but how else can one produce the sheer sweep of historical explanation?
It has been argued that art cannot comprehend the Holocaust, that the language does not exist to express its scale and horror. Stoppard gives us something else: the early stirrings of the racist beast in Europe’s most sophisticated capital; the destruction of Old Austria; Nazi triumphalism – ‘that is all over now’, a Nazi gloats at a woman concert pianist to whom an assumed name has allowed success. Europe has eviscerated itself in one war; now, thanks to the Nazis and their global fellow-travellers, it will repeat the experience. It is like watching Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday dramatized on stage.
The new Agnieszka Holland film Mr Jones is oddly dissatisfying. On the face of it this story of a brave spad exposing the Holodomor (the appalling 1930s famine in the Ukraine, then part of the USSR) ought to have instant grip. The acting cannot be faulted. James Norton makes a credibly naive Jones, blundering impulsively and insensitively through Stalin’s USSR. In Moscow and in the Ukraine he disregards his own life and the risk he poses to the lives of others. From Peter Sarsgaard comes a devastating portrait of the odious Walter Duranty, New York Times reporter who suppressed the truth about the famine and (later) the Moscow Trials. Jones crashes into 1930s Moscow, giving the impression he is making enquiries for former boss David Lloyd George, a fish Stalin’s admirers would certainly love to have netted. (The ever-reliable Kenneth Cranham convinces entirely as the Welsh Wizard.) Jones follows the path of a friend murdered by one of Stalin’s thugs to reach the Ukraine and there observes the famine, fortunately escaping to report the truth via the violently anti-communist Hearst Press. Joseph Mawle is persuasive, if minimal, as a pre-war George Orwell, feeling his political way through the snake-pit of the 1930s. The film suggests Jones’s experiences inspired Animal Farm. It may be so.
The chronology stumbles. Lloyd George certainly remained a potent force in British politics through the 1930s. He was gulled by Hitler and might easily have been by Stalin. But neither his international prestige (‘the man who won the war’) nor the fear he inspired among Conservative politicians is explained in the film. No dates are offered until the postscript. The drama is concentrated on the life (and early death, surely on Stalin’s orders) of Jones.
We also yearn for more about Soviet politics and the global context. Why did the vile Duranty matter? Why did Lloyd George’s name unlock doors? What was happening in Moscow on the eve of the Kirov assassination? The famine is persuasively – horribly – presented but as a personal odyssey.
The battle lines seem to be clearing in Labour’s dispiriting leadership contest. Jess Phillips, an open Right-wing candidate, has withdrawn. Emily Thornberry’s path to the required number of nominations is obscure. As the smoke of the early skirmishes clears, we seem to face a choice between three candidates. This is written ahead of the first televised leadership debates.
Lisa Nandy ( as of 11 February, 57 nominations (+ NUM, GMB, Chinese for Labour)
Lisa Nandy is promising to ‘give power and resources back to people in every town, city, region and nation in the UK’. That’s a start and it’s a good one: this specific point was a clear omission from Labour’s 2019 general election campaign. Her only substantial policy pronouncement thus far was on anti-Semitism. Here she promises zero tolerance, culture change, membership education & training, transparency, staff training, and an independent procedure. The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) whose disgraceful role should be punished, not rewarded, will have a place in the procedure. Nothing is said about the calculated confection of anti-Semitic charges against Corbyn himself. Nandy’s problem is not her campaign commitments but her persistently disloyal approach to the Corbyn leadership and incredulity about key planks in its platform. Fairly clearly a vote for her is a vote to drop public ownership.
Keir Starmer (295 nominations (+ UNISON, USDAW, SERA, Community, Labour Movement for Europe, Labour Business, Socialist Health Association, Labour Campaign for International Development)
Starmer has the lion’s share of nominations so far which makes the hacking charges against his campaign implausible. Last weekend my constituency Labour Party (easily the largest in the country) preferred Starmer to Long-Bailey by 250 to 155. His pledges include: higher income tax for the top 5%; abolition of universal credit; a green new deal; a Prevention of Military Intervention Act; common ownership of rail, mail, energy & water; voting rights for EU nationals & freedom of movement; Trade Union Act repeal; a federal system and Lords abolition; removal of obstacles to equal opportunities; “forensic” opposition to the government and ‘robust action’ against antisemitism.
It is hard to summarise the themes of the Long-Bailey campaign because there don’t seem to be any. Her most distinctive contribution is the ‘green industrial revolution’, reflecting her time as frontbench Business speaker. But this seems derivative. Her Winter 2020 Tribune interview is thin gruel: we learn that she’s a unionist (‘I’ll always fight for the union’); that 2019 was ‘a Brexit election’ where people ‘didn’t trust us’; that she seeks better messaging and ‘professionalism’ for Labour campaigns; that there should be a ‘democratic reset’. As so often with the present generation of Labour leaders, Long-Bailey is more able to explain what she is against than what she is for. Clichés and slogans are fine but Labour needs someone who can articulate how socialism in practice will benefit people. Her colleague and (I’m told) flatmate Angela Rayner is a far more fluent and persuasive advocate whose failure to put herself forward has baffled many.
It’s harder and harder to talk sensibly to Long-Bailey or Starmer advocates. The former retreat into purity tests; the latter scorn anyone associated with Corbyn (though their man proposes policy continuity). Perhaps televised hustings will provide much-needed clarity.
On 14 August 2019 I wrote this article in some despair at Labour’s prospects for the coming general election. As this was the moment for a renewed series of personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn from within the Labour Party as well as outside I thought it best not to publish.
I now wish I had.
Here it is with nothing altered.
I drifted out of the Labour Party in the 1990s. It was not New Labour, but the membership endorsing dropping Clause IV which was the last straw. I had spent 25 years trying to keep the party on track, even losing a job (with a union) by believing in public ownership. Why should I give time (and money) to a rootless party?
The next years upheld this view. The 1997-2010 Labour government was more decent than the tainted Tories but never intended to establish a new political and social settlement. It was a feeble echo of 1945-51. So when Jeremy Corbyn declared himself in the 2015 leadership contest, I now seemed wrong. Here was a lifelong socialist, uncowed by New Labour, whom I knew had never stopped believing in radical change. I could not stand aside and, like other grizzled veterans plus thousands of the young, I threw myself back into campaigning. In the years that followed, spanning the 2016 European Union referendum and London mayoral campaigns, the 2017 general election, the 2018 council elections and the 2019 European elections I worked my socks off along with hundreds of others in the country’s largest Constituency Labour Party.
Now the Labour Party and the UK face a mortal threat. Boris Johnson as prime minister has cheered and energised the Tories. But when I look at our side, my comrades on the Left, I see not enthusiasm but dread. Jeremy no longer seems to embody change: radicalism now dwells with the Johnson/Farage axis. The voters who swelled our vote by one-third are now bewildered, even hostile. We cannot speak clearly on the central issue, and this cuts us off from the rejuvenating springs of our support. Yes, a bitter establishment campaign has vastly exaggerated the numbers and influence of Labour’s anti-Semites; there should be none. Yes, we have faced a hostile press; who expected anything else? We are victims of our own errors and it threatens to cost us dear.
At this moment of maximum peril, we need urgent change before the looming general election that could return the most reactionary Conservative government since Lord Salisbury. But we are not helpless: there is still time to change. We must begin by honestly examining our own mistakes.
We haven’t offered a narrative nor shown any appreciation we need one. I’m tired of hearing from BBC and Channel 4 newscasters that they ‘asked the Labour Party for comment, but no-one was available’. What else have our leaders got to do? Yes, the media – especially the BBC – are organically hostile to socialism. That won’t change. And it’s no excuse for not developing a counter-narrative to Johnsonism, one which tirelessly, repetitively, puts the case for a radical shift, giving context to our key demands for renationalisation and redistribution. Our spokespeople should be popping up all the time in all media to insist there’s another way. The Tory leader contest was a gift we flunked. Why wasn’t Alexei Sayle given a budget to make a daily commentary of appalling rudeness on its horrors? Nature abhors a vacuum: our voice must be heard and heard all the time.
Where is our second line leadership? I’ve yet to meet a Labour member who doubts our next leader must be a woman. As it happens there are up to five women to whom we might turn to replace Jeremy. But here’s the thing: we never see them. Tonight (14 August) I saw an extended interview with one. But why isn’t the public bored rigid with the sight of Diane Abbott trouncing the odious Patel, Rebecca Long-Bailey deploring the crucifying of British industry by Brexit, Angela Rayner defending state education, Emily Thornberry deploring Raab grovelling to Trump, and Laura Pidcock on just about anything? Where are they? If they are to be leaders the public needs to get to know them and their foibles. Even without a change at the top we need to show strength in depth: they will all be Cabinet ministers after all. That’s how democratic politics works.
Tactics are elevated above strategy. I’m tired of having to defend stupid things. Which political genius thought it a good idea for Jeremy to appeal to Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill as arbiter of the British constitution last week? The Cabinet Secretary – the entire civil service – exists to serve the government of the day; like leopards they don’t change their spots. Why help them? The person we should be looking to as constitutional arbiter is the Speaker. John Bercow certainly has major faults but he is brave and on the side of change. We should be building him up not implying that supreme constitutional authority lies elsewhere. This was no cunning plan. It just reveals we have no strategy for gaining power.
Insufficient appreciation of English, Scots and Welsh identity. Scotland is a disaster area for Labour, despite a minor revival in 2017. There’ll be no revival there until Scots voters are convinced that Scottish Labour is truly independent. That means letting them go their own way, even if they come out for independence. This malign heritage of New Labour can’t be finessed any other way. The SNP has demonstrated Scotland can be governed from Left of Centre which the devolution generation thought impossible; Labour cannot revive without demonstrating they are as Scottish as the Nats. Richard Leonard’s furious denunciation of John McDonnell for stating the obvious at the Edinburgh Festival was a farce: being more unionist than the Tories is as daft as being more Catholic than the Pope. In Wales, for complex reasons, nationalism is weaker. But I detect a growing interest in independence. I also observe, as in 1990s Scotland, trade unionists – hitherto the most unionist of all – are beginning to change their minds. And then there is England. The phoney British patriotism of Johnson (who, like Trump, privately believes in America First) is English patriotism. But how have we allowed him to make this his own? England’s history is a history of struggle. An 1819Johnson would have ridden down women and children at Peterloo along with the militia. Why isn’t the Labour Party culturally engaged on this front? Where are our plans to redraw the county and city map of England? Where are our plans to reinvigorate sclerotic British democracy?
Social media is not enough. Please don’t tell me we can bypass the mainstream media. We can’t. Every day the agenda is being set by the Sun and the Mail and their faithful echo-chamber the BBC. Then it radiates outwards. This essentially defensive approach will not set the tone of public discourse. We need clear ideas, simply expressed in Blairite soundbites, expounded by articulate people who don’t speak in clichés.
When problems arise, we must fix them fast. Anti-Semitism was allowed to fester, to the dismay of all members. Other issues that have damaged us have not been finessed. We have been marking time since 2017.
2017 showed moving Left builds the Labour vote. Now, entering my fifth year of resumed activity, I can’t avoid the difficult question. I’m back in Labour only because of Jeremy Corbyn – or rather because Labour was willing to choose him. But now we must ask: is Jeremy the right person to lead us into this climactic battle? He took us from the bitterness of the 2015 defeat to the point where people believe a Labour victory is possible. He faced non-co-operation and outright sabotage within the PLP on an unprecedented scale, but this has had an impact. He should now openly and honestly acknowledge that the British people do not see him as a potential prime minister and offer to stand down. It is a personal sacrifice quite beyond the unelectable Neil Kinnock, but we on the Left are playing for higher stakes. We need a new face and a new story.
For me this will be a wrench. I don’t know his likely successors or their commitment to socialist change. The general election may be close but no one (even Boris Johnson) knows when it will be: it may yet be in the Spring. Whenever it is we need a new face for Labour. We should hold, now, an open competition that interests people across the land, as even the Tory contest did. Candidates will have to convince our huge membership (thank you Jeremy!) of their socialism as well as their personal gifts. It would be fought out in public – and billed – as a contest to be the next prime minister. And let the best woman win.
What was the point of this film? It added nothing to our understanding of World War One, nor to that cliched (and misleading) reduction of it to the trenches.
I was pleased when Sam Mendes announced his projected tribute to his lance-corporal grandfather. It promised a refreshing focus on the ‘poor bloody infantry’, those who do the dying in the wars of that era and this. True enough, Mendes bravely casts two little-known actors George Mackay (pictured) and Dean-Charles Chapman in the central roles, two lance-corporals who must carry an urgent message across No Man’s Land to call off an attack.
Mackay and Chapman are compelling however implausible their accents. At times the film – made apparently in three ‘takes’ – is genuinely frightening. They meet successive authority-figures, all played by better-known actors. Each evokes one of the officer tropes of the ‘Great’ War: cynicism, nihilism, lust for glory. But have we not known all that since the days of Owen and Sassoon?
The enemy lurks, but only in the shadows. When he emerges, he is treacherous, embodying another trope: the bloodthirsty Hun. My mind returned to Stefan Zweig whose The World of Yesterday mourned the loss of cosmopolitan Europe whose culture abhorred boundaries. Zweig, a Viennese, idealised the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was cruel, stupid and hostile to national identity. Today’s Europe is the European Union. It is the only Europe we have, but conflicted. Can it defend itself militarily? Must it succumb to demographic decline? Can it expand Eastwards yet remain true to its early principles?
English directors should shun a cultural Brexit. They could start by acknowledging the European dimension of the 1914-18 bloodbath. Let us have no more filmic anthems for doomed youth.
Picking a new Leader of the Opposition – a potential prime minister – isn’t easy. Labour is right to take its time. April will be soon enough for a party trying to recover from a demoralising defeat. My choice, Aston-under-Lyne MP and Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner chose to run only for Deputy Leader (‘Policies are not enough’, 4 January 2020). This was a mistake, however understandable her personal reasons, both for her and for the party. Five candidates have reached the shortlist. In casting my vote, I shall by influenced by
1. A non-metropolitan voice
Labour must speak for the whole country. Its options include: setting the Scottish party free; setting a bold programme for devolution; electing a woman leader; choosing a non-London MP.
2. A pleasing media presence
There is no substitute for this. Younger candidates should have been advanced under Jeremy Corbyn. Many MPs sought to destabilise him by going on strike. Others simply courted media coverage with opposition, crudely pandering to anti-Labour prejudice. If they hadn’t, we would already know our best leader.
3. Away with the market
There is no way round it. Labour must stand for something. New Labour’s path to power meant dropping policies offending the powerful and rich, ‘triangulating’ against the membership. This brought office, not power. It fed the anti-democratic notion that all politicians are the same.
4. Evidence of ability
There is no way round this either. Some on the Left seem to see leadership as a box-ticking exercise. In reality voters will come to long for a personable alternative to the odious Johnson. His faults – laziness, vagueness, callousness, preference for American solutions, inattention to detail, eventual policy failure will become more evident.
5. A sense of humour
We all need to laugh a lot more. This grim sense of battling against a sea of troubles must end. Labour’s new leader should be quick-witted (and confident) enough to crack jokes. A little less seriousness, while remaining in deadly earnest about the need to shift power, would open closed ears.
I left the Labour Party in the 1990s. Once dropping Clause IV had been proposed and, worse, agreed by the party membership, there didn’t seem much point in staying. New Labour’s rudderless Labour Party won three elections and achieved much in health and living standards but unlike 1945 it did not establish a new settlement, redefining the terms of politics. Nor did it intend to. Jeremy Corbyn’s emergence as possible, then actual leader drew me back in.
Let’s not mince words. This was an electoral disaster. There is very little comfort to be had either from the details or the broad sweep of the 2019 general election. Impotent venting on Twitter and elsewhere is pointless. This was a rout and the first thing we must do is acknowledge
1. Lack of professionalism
This aspect of Jeremy’s leadership drove me crazy. From the start there was a tendency to believe that the programme power alone would overcome opposition: communicating the message was neglected. I often prayed for an Alistair Campbell, a ruthless brute who would sort out the press. I know journalists who offered their services. They got nowhere.
2. Policy incoherence
I’m in the Labour Party because it stands for something. The manifesto policies were right and individually popular but clearly weren’t sold to the voters, above all to those who would have benefited most: the poor, Northern commuters and so on
Whimpering about being unable to overcome Brexit is futile. Labour made a pig’s breakfast of Brexit. Which dimwit thought we could take no position on this ahead of the promised referendum? Or a referendum in the first place? A potential prime minister cannot be agnostic on the one issue on which everyone has a view. It just fed the weak leadership concept.
Jeremy was a poor leader. Unquestionably he had the power to rally members and (especially in 2017) crowds. But from his initial reluctance to stand, to start wearing suits, to make big policy speeches, he never embraced the necessary. Where were the personal attacks, especially after Johnson became prime minister? Ruthlessness and strength needed communicating to the voters. They didn’t think he even wanted the job.
This largely invented issue was intended to wound Jeremy at his strongest point, his lifetime commitment to doing the right thing whatever the consequences. It was weaponised, quite deliberately, to damage him among the young. A ruthless and committed leader would have seen and finessed this, robbing the Right (in or out of Labour) of its most powerful weapon.
6. Lack of colour
Labour fought a grey, grim campaign. Where was the flair? Where was the humour? Where was the variety of leaders giving the message? We should have been offered the impression of a competent and varied team who would form the Labour Cabinet. Too much rested on one pair of shoulders.
It may sound odd to say this so soon, but Johnson will stumble. Brexit is only feasible as self-harm. His grovelling to Trump will start to grate. Decentralisation won’t happen (as the Cummings call for new Whitehall recruits implicitly concedes). Australia shows us a newly-elected Right-wing leader undone by events. It can happen here. It did to John Major in 1992.
For Labour to retain the two components of its mass membership – the young plus the returning grizzled veterans – two things are required. First there must be an affirmation that Labour was right on the big issues of the day, above all on the need to shift from presuming market solutions are always best. Second a leader must be found who does not disdain communications.
We should have changed leaders last Autumn: a fresh face selling policy might have done the trick. We’ve missed that chance. I don’t know why the merits of a male leader are even under discussion. Labour can take the political initiative for the first time in months by announcing an all-women shortlist. We do it for candidates; why not for leader?
Run, Angela, Run!
Labour’s leadership choice must show we wish to return to power as soon as opportunity offers. One remarkable feature of the 2019 electoral map was the loyalty of Lancashire to Labour, not just cities but towns too. My belief is that Angela Rayner, a Greater Manchester MP, proved in the last Parliament that she has the skills voters look for in a prime minister. Her background qualifies her to speak for the dispossessed. She has shown her willingness to use catchy slogans. Choosing her will signal a rupture with London-centric policies. Let’s hope she won’t let false modesty get in her way.
Helen Edmundson’s dramatization of the reign of Queen Anne was absorbing. The perils of historical drama and novels are known. The need to convey context can lead to preachy speeches by characters early in the action. Queen Anne was not entirely free of such moments but they were few. Instead Edmundson opted to pivot the action on the relationship between two women: the unassertive Anne who learns to impose her will and the glamorous and clever Sarah (Duchess of Marlborough) whose judgement is not equal to her wits. This is historical travesty for the whole period trembled on the brink of dynastic and revolutionary change. Anne’s grandfather was publicly executed in 1649; she and her sister had colluded to depose their father from the throne and seize it; the threat of being toppled by the rightful (and Catholic) dynasty was constant. But the Anne-Sarah relationship is a marvellous way to navigate the labyrinth of early 18th century politics. Emma Cunliffe and Romola Garai compel as the principals with the men – Marlborough, Godolphin , Harley and the rest – reduced to secondary characters preoccupied with their wars, finance and politics. Natalie Abrahami directs a feminist’s revenge that displays capable women railing against their fate as childbearers and wielders of influence instead of power.