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Laurie Penny on Tony Blair's The Journey: Bring the political classes to book

Moving Tony Blair's autobiography in bookshops shows that young people are not willing to be sold the wrong story.

In bookshops up and down the country, a new kind of literary movement is taking place. Hundreds of young protesters are strolling in to stores and quietly moving copies of Tony Blair's autobiography from the display stacks on to shelves devoted to mystery and crime fiction. Blair's smug visage on the dust jacket of A Journey is of a man who knows that the public is finally buying his side of the story, at least technically speaking. By placing that creepy grin firmly underneath a big sign that says "Crime", these guerrilla librarians are trying to make sure that people know what they're getting into.

It's this sort of thing that gives me hope for my generation. The protest group, which coalesced spontaneously online, is polite to the point of self-parody. A serious and energetic discussion is taking place on the group's Facebook page about whether or not the demonstration will overly inconvenience hard-working bookshop employees.

Waterloo sunset

While they're about it, there are a few more political tomes that could do with a little reshelving: Phillip Blond's Red Tory, for example, would fit well in the folklore and fantasy section. Behind the cheeky rag-week japery, however, is a nuanced message about political narrative and how it is deployed.

The public outrage that has accompanied Blair's book-signings - with shoes and eggs flung at the former premier in Dublin early this month - is no longer really about Blair himself. It's not even wholly about the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq since 2003 and in Afghanistan since 2001. Ultimately, this is about us - about the generation that came to political awareness in the earliest years of the 21st century and the stories we tell ourselves about neoliberalism, globalisation and the articulation of politics.

The years of Anglo-American warmongering that followed September 2001 shaped my awareness of government and its role. Still far too young to vote, I skipped school to travel to London to protest against the proposed invasion of Iraq in early 2003, shinning up some traffic lights to watch a seething swell of human outrage shuffle politely along Waterloo Bridge to say firmly and definitively: "Not in our name." Weeks later, we went to war anyway and it was in our names. The memory of that betrayal hasn't faded.

It was a defining political moment for those of us who gained language after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after what Francis Fukuyama prosaically called "the end of history". Unlike previous cohorts, we did not grow up with any variant of socialism as an implicit alternative to public policy.Instead, we had the monolithic, cartoonish neoliberalism of the Blair years.

It came as a painful shock when we suddenly learned that neoconservative narratives don't have to be true or even convincing for the public to swallow them: they just have to tell a strong story.

More protests are planned for every leg of Blair's book tour, but our rage at Blair is partly angry embarrassment at ourselves for buying his story the first time round. We are justly furious at the public and parliamentary consensus of 2003 for accepting a simple children's fairy tale of international politics, with goodies and baddies who need to be dealt with. The trouble is that it's happening again - this time with Tory economic policy.

Little by little, David Cameron's simple story about the unavoidability of public spending cuts and the importance of sharing the pain equally between single mothers and the long-term sick is gaining public credence.

Cry wolf

The fable that Britain has been living beyond its means and now needs to cut back is being swallowed, just as the simple story about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was swallowed in 2003. Nobody is really convinced - but this is the narrative that the public has started to accept, suspending its disbelief yet again, instead of considering that the government might not have the best interests of the people at heart.

That the leering Aesop of neoliberal contumacy - Tony Blair himself - comes out in cheery support of Cameron's economic policies in the pages
of A Journey should alert us that we are being spun another dodgy story with the potential to shatter lives.

The only proper response to these brutally cartoonish versions of events is to keep moving the suspicious stories to the right part of the bookshop. It's a habit that needs to be preserved. Even at the height of our dissidence, my generation will never be the type to burn books. We will, however, wilfully and deliberately recategorise them, especially when we feel we're being sold the wrong story.

Laurie Penny's column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.