Illustration: Dan Murrell/New Statesman
Show Hide image

Remembering Stuart Hall, a denizen of the twentieth-century left in Britain

He expressed better than most what it meant to be red under Thatcher.

A few weeks ago at the British Film Institute’s public archive, I watched a programme by Stuart Hall called It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum. It had been broadcast on the BBC in 1979 and consisted of the late Professor Hall and a colleague from the Campaign Against Racism in the Media explaining, face to camera, against a plain black background, how racist ideas were disseminated through popular culture – in sitcoms, news reporting and documentaries.

It was clear, interesting, intellectual public-service broadcasting, cultural studies for the masses, impossible to imagine on today’s BBC, though much of the insidious racism it addressed remains unchanged 35 years later. Hall, instrumental in the creation of cultural studies, doyen of the 1960s New Left, passed away on 10 February and his loss has been keenly felt.

In last year’s documentary by John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project, Hall’s interviews and archive footage dovetail brilliantly with the music of Miles Davis; something about the rhythms works to soothe yet reflects the fraught issues of identity, culture and politics that consumed Hall. In the late 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher was still seen as an oddball right-winger, Hall was the first to coin the term Thatcherism and recognise the paradigm shift that was about to come.

“People ask, well, how did you know?” he reflected in 2007. The answer was almost jazz-like: “I had to feel the accumulation of things going on and think, ‘This is a different rhythm’ – we’ve lived with one configuration, and this is another one.”

Hall didn’t join the Communist Party, but went to its meetings and argued with the tankies. History, he felt, was not about absolutes but about reconfigurations of the past; he wanted “a politics which constantly inspects the grounds of its own convictions”. Through the 1960s and 1970s he was a truly public intellectual, always more at home sharing his spirit of inquiry outside the ivory tower – as a supply teacher at a school in Kennington, south London, doing TV and radio work and speaking at countless anti-racist and CND meetings across Britain.

Born in Jamaica in 1932, he was from a middle-class family, “part Scottish, part African, part Portuguese Jew … living out this huge colonial drama”, internalising the tensions of race and class. He left Jamaica in 1951 for a different, entirely new type of alienation – that of the elite swagger of Oxford. His commentary on the diaspora in Britain and what it meant always to be from elsewhere, wherever you are, was both the result of intellectual inquiry and extremely personal.

As globalisation further exploded the norms of home and place, Hall suggested that some comfort could be taken from a widening of this experience of dislocation. “I can’t go back to any one origin – I’d have to go back to five; when I ask people where they’re from, I expect to be told an extremely long story,” he said in The Stuart Hall Project.

The trials of multicultural identity are “never being able to say ‘we’ or ‘us’ about anything”, he told Les Back from Goldsmiths in a 2007 interview. And yet Hall always preferred collaborating to working alone; in fact, he rarely used the first-person singular in his writing. Hall was the man who first identified the scale and contours of the neoliberal assault on solidarity and collectivism that Thatcher would begin – and all this because ultimately he wanted everyone to be able to say “we” and “us”.
 

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496