Tony Judt, 1948-2010

British historian and essayist dies.

Several news sources, including New York magazine, are reporting that the English historian and essayist Tony Judt has died. In November 2008, Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, a neuro-degenerative condition that very quickly left him paralysed from the neck down. He continued to write almost until the end, however, even delivering the 2009 Remarque Lecture at New York University (where he had taught for many years) in a wheelchair and from inside the prison of a body that permitted him to do little else but speak and breathe (and this only with the help of a machine).

That lecture, entitled "What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy", was turned (with astonishing speed, bearing in mind his condition) into a book, Ill Fares the Land, in which Judt offered -- for the benefit, he said, of "young people on both sides of the Atlantic" -- both an account of what he saw as the corruption of our moral sentiments (he borrowed the phrase from Adam Smith, whom he rightly took to have abhorred the "uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake") and a vision of what political discourse used to be like -- not in the distant past, but in his own lifetime, during the postwar heyday of social democracy.

It was a period, Judt wrote, in which there was a "moralised quality to policy debates", when questions such as unemployment and inflation were regarded not just as economic issues, but also as "tests of the ethical coherence of the community".

Ill Fares the Land was both a threnody (for a language of the common good that Judt thought we had carelessly misplaced) and the expression of a certain kind of political temperament:

Social democrats are characteristically modest -- a political quality whose virtues are overestimated. We need to apologise a little less for our shortcomings and speak more assertively of achievements. That these were always incomplete should not trouble us.

If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek. Others have spent the last three decades methodically unravelling and destablising them: this should make us much angrier than we are . . .

Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand. (Ill Fares the Land, pp. 224-25)

Much of the scholarly work with which Judt made his academic reputation (books such as Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 and The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century), before gaining wider acclaim (and, it has to be said, notoriety) on the strength of his literary journalism for the New York Review of Books, was devoted to the terrible seductions of the "perfect answer" in politics and to the irresponsibility (and irrelevance) of intellectuals who insist that nothing less than perfection will do.

What that passage from his last book shows, however, is that Judt also knew that a sober recognition of the limits of politics is not the same as a quietistic and defeated abandonment of them. He will be greatly missed.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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