Stavros Damos
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The NS Q&A: Howard Jacobson on social media, “bremoaners” and Family Guy

The Man Booker prize-winning novelist answers our questions.

The first of a series where we invite our favourite writers, thinkers, politicians or cultural figures to share their passions, pet hates and predictions.

What’s your earliest memory?
Sitting up in my pram and making my mother’s women friends laugh. What I can’t remember is what I said that was so amusing.

Who was your childhood hero?
Mario Lanza [the American singer and film star], until he died after eating 15 breakfasts at one sitting. I’ve been wary of heroes since.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
If you mean envy the talent, Joseph Roth’s journalism, published as What I Saw. He made melancholy poetry out of everything he saw.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
I don’t as a rule admire politicians, but in recent months Kenneth Clarke has been admirable – for being principled, witty, rational, and right.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
It would win me no friends to say the late novels of Henry James, so I’ll say Mario Lanza, with special reference to The Student Prince, which he was too overweight to appear in (see above), but sang the songs.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
Dr Johnson’s London, just to listen to him talk.

What TV show could you not live without?
Family Guy. It’s not only the funniest programme on television, it’s the most wonderfully, indecorously literate.

Who would paint your portrait?
Ralph Heimans has just done it. Otherwise Rembrandt.

What’s your theme tune?
Leo Fuld’s “Wo Ahin Soll Ich Geh’n” – in English, “Where Can I Go?” – a schmaltzy song of wandering Jewishness at which I used to guffaw in order to conceal the fact that it made me weep.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The painter Sidney Nolan once told me I tried too hard. Advice I’ve been trying hard to follow ever since.

What’s currently bugging you?
The word “bremoaner” and the phrase “get over it”. Passionate dissent from the will of the multitude should be respected, not derided.

When were you happiest?
I am happiest now. There’s nothing like running out of time to make you realise you’re in the right skin, with the right person, and that the Apocalypse will happen with or without you.

What single thing would improve your life?
The promise of immortality.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Writing is the only thing I can do, but I would love, otherwise, to be a lyric tenor and make the women cry whom I once made laugh.

Are we all doomed?
Unless someone can find a way of closing down social media, yes.

Howard Jacobson’s “The Dog’s Last Walk (and Other Pieces)” is published by Bloomsbury. “Pussy: A Novel” is published by Jonathan Cape in April. He appears at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 21 April.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition