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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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.