Camus, Pilger and Bush

The Outsider may be the only adult work that both Pilger and Bush have read but The Plague is Camus'

John Pilger uses our Red Reads feature as a chance to name some of his favourite radical works this week and concludes with Albert Camus's The Outsider.

The Outsider has the distinction of possibly being the only adult work that both Pilger and his bête noire George W Bush have devoured.

No doubt Bush was attracted to the novel by its slimness (128 pages) or perhaps he empathised with the lead character, Meursault, who shoots an Arab on the beach after being irritated by the sun.

The then White House spokesman Tony Snow said: "He found it an interesting book and a quick read."

"I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism."

Yet I must take issue with Pilger and Bush's selection from Camus's oeuvre. I have always found The Outsider to be a rather tepid and underwhelming work.

A far better choice would be Camus's essay The Myth of Sisyphus in which he introduces his philosophy of the absurd. (Camus, an absurdist, was consistently frustrated by those who erroneously described him as an existentialist.)

An equally fine suggestion would be Reflections on the Guillotine, his masterful polemic against the death penalty.

But at a time when swine flu has officially become the fastest growing pandemic ever, the definitive Camus work surely remains The Plague.

A novel which tells the tale of the devastating plague visited on the Algerian town of Oran, it is also an allegory of France's suffering under the Nazi occupation.

The haunting final passage, in which Dr Rieux reflects on the town's apparent recovery, is worth quoting at length:

He (Dr Rieux) knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Camus is referring to the plague but he could equally be referring to fascism.

At a time when the Conservative Party has aligned itself with some of the most reactionary forces in Europe and Britain has sent two openly fascist MEPs to Europe it is worth recalling that we have by no means escaped the reach of atavistic and totalitarian ideas.

I now find that I'm rather ashamed by the absence of Camus from our list of 50 Red Reads. Let us know of any other omissions here.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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