Time Out with Nick Cohen

In his search for England, Julian Baggini expected to find racism, sexism and fear. He found somethi

Julian Baggini seems a standard member of the liberal intelligentsia. The books he reads, the clothes he wears and food he eats match those of tens of thousands of others. He stands out because he has done what very few of his contemporaries are prepared to do and confronted England. Not by denouncing its government or letting out long sighs about its lack of sophistication, but by living among people he wouldn't ordinarily notice, in an attempt to understand the core beliefs of the England which doesn't listen to the Today programme.

It is a simple idea, and I'm surprised no one has thought of it before. Polly Toynbee and Fran Abrams have written poignant accounts of life on the poverty line, while the Sunday Times wasn't exaggerating when it described Michael Collins's The Likes of Us as an "absolutely essential" guide to London's white working class. There are also thousands of academic studies of the national character - from the British Social Attitudes Survey to Kate Fox's Watching the English.

But Baggini wasn't interested in the poor, of whom there are too many yet who are the exception, nor did he follow Collins by staying in London, a separate country, as everyone says. He determined instead to concentrate on the mainstream English who can't be found on the minimum wage or living in the capital, but among the homeowners of the prov inces. The piles of academic research and opinion-poll findings helped him, but they couldn't give him the feel of England. For that, he had to uproot himself mentally and physically.

He asked the computer analysts who compile demographic profiles for the Acorn marketing company to give him the postcode of the English district that was closest to the national average: the town or network of streets where he could find, in microcosm, the mixture of wealthy people and poor pensioners, struggling families and single men and women that best encapsulated the country. They consulted their databases and told him to head for S66 on the outskirts of Rotherham. Its working men's clubs, as-much-food-as-you-can-cram-on-to-your-plate restaurants, out-of-town shopping centres and local radio stations are indeed typical, but they are also about as far away from Baggini's liberal England as it is possible to get without crossing the Channel.

"Three of the last four constituencies I lived in went Liberal Democrat at the last election," he said, as he tucked into an un-English vegetarian breakfast. "And the Lib Dems only lost the fourth by a few hundred votes. I have been in a parallel country for most of my adult life."

Baggini expected to find sexism, racism, homophobia, celebrity worship, provincialism and unreasonable fears about crime. What makes his Welcome to Everytown: a journey into the English mind (Granta) a thought-provoking book is not that he didn't discover illiberal prejudices in Rotherham, but that he managed to come to terms with and, in a few instances, sympathise with them. For Baggini isn't quite the standard middle-class liberal. His mother is from the Kent working class and his father from an Italian farming family. His Italian side meant that he "never really felt entirely at home in this country", while his working-class background distanced him from the public-school boys and girls of the London intelligentsia. More important, I think, is that he is a member of a group of freelance intellectuals who gather round the Philosophers' Magazine and live by their pens. None has the security of a university job, and all are suspicious of intellectual orthodoxy. (Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, two of Baggini's colleagues, produced an attack on postmodernism, whose title, The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, sums up the group's approach.)

Baggini's background and philosophical training gave him the intellectual honesty to be as critical of the biases he and his friends shared as he was of the biases of others. Even before he went to Rotherham, he was wary of the thoughtless anti- patriotism that lay behind David Hare's cry that "most of us look with longing to the republican countries across the Channel. We associate Englishness with everything that is most backward in this country."

Baggini told me he had noticed that when his friends went overseas "they always found something to delight in. They would tell me how wonderful it was to share a glass of wine with the old boys in a rural French bar, and not realise that if those old boys were speaking English they would probably be saying, 'That Jean-Marie Le Pen, he's got the right idea.'"

He moved to Rotherham, rented a modern house by a main road, bought a car, and read the newspapers and watched the television programmes his neighbours read and watched. He encountered many prejudices he disliked, but gradually his views on popular attitudes softened. Only the Daily Mail was too much for him. Six months of reading it turned a mild distaste into an unappeasable loathing.

The regulars of Rotherham pubs and clubs deserve credit for the softening. They didn't allow the strange, bookish southerner to sit by himself for long. But Baggini also realised that what he had taken to be idiotic views had a comprehen sible philosophical underpinning, even if it was a working-class philosophy that didn't always appeal to him. His reliance on the explanatory power of working-class attitudes may unnerve some, but his argument seems well grounded to me. Although the polls which report that almost six out of ten people still regard themselves as working-class invariably produce middle-class guffaws, Baggini says you only have to listen to the radio programmes he heard and go to the bars he drank in to realise that working-class culture dominates England. Many people may have more money than their parents had, but that does not mean that working-class attitudes have changed. Central to them is the importance of place.

The majority of the English still live within five miles of where they were born, and the attachment to locality keeps England a communitarian country. They want "local jobs for local people", local radio, local papers and raffles for local good causes. Complementing local pride is the strong notion that you can't enjoy England's benefits without belonging. Baggini got into endless arguments about the Human Rights Act, but his attempts to persuade his new friends that foreign terror suspects should never be deported if they could face torture always got nowhere. The new Labour slogan "you can't have rights without responsibilities" was the view of the English mainstream, he found. "It's an illiberal thought," he told me. "Liberals believe that you have rights on the basis of your membership of the human race. But most of the English aren't liberal. They believe that you only have rights if you are a fully paid-up member of this society. That's why they will be very illiberal about 'Muslim preachers of hate' and say, 'We don't care about their rights. What about ours?'"

Although he met a few real racists, Baggini doesn't see such beliefs as racist in themselves. Instead, he draws on the image of the "hefted" sheep of northern fells, whose instinctive knowledge of where they can and can't graze means they never stray from their patch of land, and uses it to explain the desire of the English of all classes to keep their little worlds intact.

"Frankly, I didn't believe it when people in Rotherham said they wanted immigrants to fit in. That's not quite right. If you go to Manchester or London, there are Chinatowns that advertise their differences, but no one ever says that 'the problem with these bloody Chinese is that they don't fit in', because there's no threat or no perceived threat. The multicultural agenda is that everyone must respect each other, but I don't think that's possible. We need to be far tougher with the minimal demands that people don't threaten each other and must respect the rule of law.

"On its own, upholding the law won't lessen what people call racism because sometimes threats are inevitable. People who have lived in an area all their lives are uncomfortable if the character changes because of a large influx of immigrants. But that doesn't make them racist. They just want their locality to stay the way it was. No one calls families racist when they object to large numbers of students moving in to their street or says that the residents of Hampstead were racist for wanting to live in an area without McDonald's."

He is far less sanguine about sexism. Watching the way women tried to please men in Rotherham clubs and reading semi-pornographic lads' mags didn't make him think that the reassertion of traditional stereotypes was "natural" or harmless fun. There is, he says, nothing natural or fun about a country where most women say that they are deeply unhappy with their appearance.

Baggini refuses to adopt the declamatory style of the polemicist. His writing is refreshingly self-deprecatory. At one point in Welcome to Everytown he says he had to leave Rotherham to visit London. Once in Islington, he couldn't resist the lure of "proper food". He went to an Italian restaurant, ordered pasta, olives and a glass of wine, then buried his head in a book. Minutes later, he looked up to see another man of his age and class come in and order pasta, olives and a glass of wine, and then bury his head in a book. "In Rotherham, I lost a certain sense of superiority I had about food, holidays and the things I did to enjoy myself. I now find it hard to say that liberal middle-class culture is better than looking after your garden, going fishing and watching ice hockey. There's nothing intrinsically less in that than in listening to opera. Some of the world's worst people have been opera buffs."

I was glad to find that he had not overreacted and become an inverted snob. He doesn't pretend that he would like to spend the rest of his life in S66. He's got his world and the mainstream have theirs, and he's not going to play the hypocrite by pretending to be something he's not. But he has relaxed.

After he had finished his breakfast, I asked if he felt more comfortable with his country. "I think I've learned that most people here are fine with you as long as you treat them fairly. I'm very pleased that my book has gone down well in Rotherham, even though I was unsentimental and didn't hide my disagreements. That speaks well of the people I wrote about, and so, yes, I feel more at peace with England."

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times