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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?

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.