Now, boys, that's not very nice

The left believes in altruism, equality, community and all-round cuddliness. Caroline Danielfinds ne

When John Major departed from 10 Downing Street he left behind more than just memories of snatched sandwiches over his desk and morning tea in the kitchen with Norma. He also left a bottle of champagne for Tony Blair with a note saying that he'd had seven great years in the old place, and that he was sure that Blair would have a great time there, too.

Now that seems like a nice thing to do. But then Major always came across as the sort of man your granny would knit a cardigan for. Honest John. Nice John. A good man, sadly fallen among Eurosceptics.

More surprising, at least to those on the left, has been the discovery that (say it quietly) Michael Portillo is also actually rather nice. So nice that many of his civil servants cried when he left office. Portillo's attempt to slip out discreetly from the Ministry of Defence was rumbled when a voice over the public address system said he was about to leave the building and hundreds of staff members turned up to say farewell.

Several Tory ministers were not so nice by all accounts (Michael Howard, for example, was not popular with his civil servants) and there are plenty of nice people on the left. Lord (Alf) Dubs of Battersea, a Labour minister in the Northern Ireland Office, is "the most indisputably nice person that I have ever met", according to Matthew Parris, the Times columnist and former Tory MP. "He's so nice I found him crying in the Lords because he had won the constituency raffle and he worried that people would think he had fixed it."

So Parris has proposed a "Dubs scale" of niceness. And he is clear that ideologues would score low. Indeed, both Arthur Scargill and Alfred Sherman, the former director of the Centre for Policy Studies, would probably score negative points. "The reason ideology goes with nastiness," argues Parris, "is that they look at the world through a theoretical structure. They don't like people very much so they need a structure."

Certainly, one would not usually want to go on a date with an ideologue. But more generally, is it people on the left or on the right who should scoop up more "Dubs" points?

I tried asking a cross-section of politicians. Teresa Gorman replied with a scrawled fax bearing the words: "Why ask me, you must be MAD!"

Most people on the left, I found, are noisily confident that they are nicest. And you would expect the left to be nicer. After all, the left has a more optimistic and flattering view of human nature, believing that people can change and be made less selfish, less greedy, cuddlier and generally more communally minded. The left is supposed to believe in equality, that people should be respected for what they are and what they have the potential to become. And the left is supposed to believe in collective action, rather than in every man for himself. Even the right sometimes acknowledges, implicitly, the left's greater niceness, when it says that the left has too rosy a view of human nature.

But in practice the left, particularly in power, doesn't always behave as nicely as its own rhetoric suggests it should. Take just a few examples from recent months. David Clark, widely regarded as one of the nicest cabinet ministers, was booted out. (As Parris says, "one of the problems with being a nice person is you don't realise how nasty everyone else is.") Gordon Brown has been accused of having "psychological problems" by a Blair aide. Last week, anonymous Treasury sources dismissed Peter Mandelson's plans for Post Office reform as "garbage" and "rubbish". Not very nice, and certainly not what you would call community-minded.

Members of Tory governments rubbished each other, too. Under Margaret Thatcher, John Biffen was famously described by Bernard Ingham as a "semi-detached" member of the government. Even nice John Major was caught out saying that some members of his cabinet were "bastards". But the poisonous atmosphere at the top of the Labour Party is widely regarded as worse than under the previous government.

It wasn't especially nice, either, that Robin Cook had 45 minutes to decide between his wife and his mistress, or that he publicly blamed his civil servants for the Sierra Leone affair.

Then there are all those special advisers. Some of them seem unable to meet government detractors with sophisticated point-by-point rebuttal. Instead, they adopt a style of brusque bullying to compensate for their youthful inadequacies in the fields of policy and personal relations. There is a naive view that your political influence is directly proportional to your ability to bully rather than persuade. A deep-seated political insecurity has bred this strutting self-importance in some of the advising classes.

The Blairites in particular can come across as a touch too self-savouring. Some remain scarred by the bunker mentality of opposition and have resorted to a kind of introverted tribalism. They are bonded together by a meritocratic cliquishness fused from the years together in opposition, and the knowledge that they got to the top of the political tree by dint of their own hard work. They are terribly nice to their own, and loyal to each other, but they can adopt an off-handedness towards people whom they don't think are "on side". They may write speeches about the "giving age" and about building a "decent society", but that decency doesn't always start at home.

These people inherit from Thatcherism a certain kind of meritocratic sniffiness. Meritocracy militates against niceness. It's hard to empathise with those who failed, if you believe they failed because they didn't make the best use of their opportunities. As John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, puts it, "the circumstances which make people nasty is a feeling of unchallengeable power", and the Blairites have it, for now.

But there's something else about people on the left which earns them negative Dubs points. Because they believe that society can change, they dash about trying to tweak the status quo by dreaming up clever improving schemes, rather like a photographer changing the backdrop in the hope of showing off his clients in their best light. They believe in a "project". Until that "project" is over, they can't relax and lighten up.

This attitude of mind is caught in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, called "To Those Who Come After", in which he wrote: "We, who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness, could not ourselves be friendly."

Sitting next to a prominent young (but getting older) new Labourite at a round-table discussion on Europe, I rose to leave early to celebrate my birthday. The sober (occasionally) man pulled my sleeve and whispered earnestly, with no trace of a smile: "I bet Margaret Thatcher never got on in the world by leaving political functions early to celebrate her birthday."

Yet according to Ian Christie, deputy director of Demos: "One purpose of socialism ought to be to allow more people to sit around in cafes having fun with each other. Instead, the left often has a sense that they are doing more important things than the right, that they shouldn't hang around being funny but need to be earnest and active. Yet social cohesion can be promoted by laughter and companionship."

It is not just companionship that gets lost in the mix. A sense of courtesy can, too.This in part is a remnant of class warriordom. "The left still retains the idea that manners and ritual conventions are a badge of servitude," thinks Laurie Taylor, NS columnist.

"There's a feeling on the left that you're in a tremendous hurry and don't have the time for these little courtesies," observes Rick Nye, the nice director of the Social Market Foundation.

In contrast, as the philosopher Roger Scruton points out, "in the British context manners have always been part of being a Conservative".

None of this means that the right as a whole deserves more Dubs points. Right-wingers may be more civil but, as Andrew Puddephatt, the director of Charter 88, claims, they "have an ease and grace which comes with the assurance of power. You realise that the charm and politeness is often a kind of condescension and is a superficial kind of niceness."

John Gray also thinks it wrong to be romantic about the old patrician Tories. "They could be tolerant and open-minded but this was founded on a view of hierarchy and inequality, and emerged from a feeling of unchallengeable social power."

And the right is certainly not very nice to foreigners. "A lot of Tory ministers seemed to think it was funny to be rude to foreigners," says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. "At an Ecofin council meeting the German delegate arrived late and Norman Lamont looked at his watch and quipped, 'I thought the Germans were supposed to be punctual'. He thought it was very funny to be rude."

So both the left and the right are not as nice as they should be. But is niceness really such a political asset anyway?

In the 1987 party political broadcast on ITV for the Liberal/ Social Democrat Alliance, Sir David Steel lamented that "to listen to some people in politics you'd think that 'nice' was a four-letter word". And look what happened to him. Back in the 1920s, something similar happened to Sir Austen Chamberlain, a Tory leader of whom it was said that "he always played the game and always lost it".

George Walden, the former Tory MP, thinks "it's often niceness that causes all the trouble. Niceness is a killer really. Niceness settles for mediocrity. Michael Foot was a grossly self-indulgent politician but he was a nice bloke."

And Steven Lukes, a twin-hatted professor of moral philosophy at Sienna, Italy, and of sociology at New York University, thinks that "the left is supposed to be critical of the existing order of things. An essential tool in their armoury has to be satire. Too much niceness blunts the edge of satire, so the left had better not be very nice. It's not necessarily a political virtue, being nice."

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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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