A manifesto for the New Year: forget labels, and fix the problems

Alex Andreou's message for 2013.

It is that time of year again, when I sit down like Scrooge, doing the books. I am not counting money – precious little of that about. I am trying to reconcile the balances of my life. Trying to tally the columns of generosity, kindness and creativity with those of self-absorption, bitchiness and cruelty. I find myself in deficit again; maybe next year I'll break even.

2012 has been an angry year. And when I try to narrow down the "why", I find at the heart of my anger a frustration at the lack of discussion. A whole year of standing in front of a dark tunnel, shouting "anybody there?" and getting distorted echoes in return - or so it feels.

The need to widen discourse, to go beyond Labour or Tory or Pro-gun or Feminist or Eurosceptic, is pressing. Fundamental structures are crumbling around us and we're arguing about the decor. "We need to find a way of looking after each other," I said. "I take it that means you're statist," came back the obligatory, instantaneous Twitter response.

A lad in China sold one of his kidneys for an iPad. A young girl in Pakistan was shot for arguing she should be allowed an education. A classful of children in the US were murdered with an assault rifle. We gather around herbal tea and stick meaningless labels on each other, learned 20 years ago in a politics lesson, to which we were only half paying attention.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking.

We begin instead from cosmotheories, either discredited or superceded by clearer thinking in the last few decades. Do I define myself as a Socialist? Then I should stand against X. Do I subscribe to neoliberalism? I must never concede that the market may have screwed up. Am I a feminist? I will never admit to needing Y (no pun intended).

We have a paucity of black and white language attempting to describe a world gloriously full of colour. We start from the box in which we have chosen to live and define everything outwards. After all, The Apprentice, X Factor, Dragons' Den, Masterchef - I could go on - have taught us that people divide brightly into brilliant successes and hilarious failures. We choose to ignore our own, verifiable, personal experience which shows us that every day is full of small battles, bitter successes and failures packed with future wisdom.

The tabloids have become skillful illustrators of fear and suspicion. What's that? An unemployed man refused a job because he didn't want to get up at 8am? I knew it! My deep-seated fear now has a URL reference.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking. We lack the language to discuss them. We lack the openness to find the answers. We choose to centre the debate on whether Conservatism with a dollop of compassion or Socialism with a fixation on low taxes is the answer. When we know - we fucking know - neither is.

On Christmas Eve thousands of people gathered in the centre of Athens. In the midst of the worst financial crisis to ever envelop the country, they donated generously - food, clothes, toys, appliances; many had been sitting in a storage room or a garage or a loft, unopened. Were they socialists, liberals, anarchists, statists, bigots, monetarists, part of The Left, The Right, The Centre? Who cares? They saw a problem and tried to fix it.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking. Otherwise we are increasingly condemned to take to the streets in anger, shouting "WHAT DO WE WANT? We have no idea. WHEN DO WE WANT IT? Hopefully some time in 2013."

Food and clothes are distributed in Athens. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt