From the Archive: Paul Johnson on the Know-Nothing Left

The historian and journalist Paul Johnson made his name writing for and then editing (1965-70) the New Statesman, but gave up on socialism in the 1970s and became a Thatcherite. Here, in a piece first published in the NS of 26 September 1975, he derides a Labour Party in hock to the “fascist” anti-intellectualism of trade unionists. After Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory in 1979, he became a leading adviser on union policy and a powerful pro-Tory polemicist.

The biggest change that has overcome the British socialist movement in my time has been the disintegration of Labour’s intellectual Left. The outstanding personalities who epitomised, galvanised and led it are dead and have never been replaced. I am thinking, for instance, of G D H Cole, whose activities covered the whole spectrum of working-class activism and whose voluminous writings constituted a summa theologica of left-wing theory and practice; of R H Tawney, who placed the modern Left firmly in a long historical context and who endowed its philosophising with enormous intellectual and literary distinction; of R H S Crossman, who brought the bracing austerities of reason into the grossest skulduggeries of practical politics; and, above all, of Aneurin Bevan. The majesty of Bevan’s contribution lay in the fact that he transcended classes and categories – a working man with the instincts and capacities of a philosopherking, a man of action with a passion for reflection, a romantic devoted to the pursuit of pure reason, and an egalitarian obsessed by excellence.

Around these, and other, great planets swam many scores of satellites, collectively constituting a huge left-wing galaxy of talent and intelligence.

And where do we find the left wing of the party today? Without a struggle, with complacency, almost with eagerness, it has delivered itself, body, mind and soul, into the arms of the trade union movement. There is a savage irony in this unprecedented betrayal, this unthinking trahison des clercs. For Labour’s intellectual Left had always, and with justice, feared the arrogant bosses of the TUC, with their faith in the big battalions and the zombie-weight of collective numbers, their contempt for the individual conscience, their invincible materialism, their blind and exclusive class-consciousness, their rejection of theory for pragmatism, their intolerance and their envious loathing of outstanding intellects. The whole of Cole’s life was devoted to demonstrating, among other propositions, that trade union organisation was not enough, that there was a salient place for the middle-class intelligentsia in the socialist movement, and an essential role for didacticism. What Labour lacked, argued Tawney, was what he termed “the hegemonic way of thinking”: it concentrated on the base trade union aim of sectional gains for its own members instead of trying to create a new moral world.

Bevan, though a trade unionist, never regarded trade unionism as a substitute for socialism – in some ways he thought it an enemy, indeed a part of the capitalist system. He fought bitterly against the attempts by the TUC to determine Labour policy in conference and to usurp the political role in government. He believed passionately that Parliament was the instrument of strategic change, and its control the political object of social democracy – he would have resisted at all costs the brutal threat of a syndicalist takeover. Crossman put the anti-union case a little more crudely: what invalidated the TUC claim to control Labour was its sheer lack of brains and talent. Hence his notorious article pointing out that only five trade union MPs were fit to participate in a Labour ministry. For this heinous heresy he was dragged before the inquisition and, just as Galileo was forced to recant his heliocentric theory, Dick was made to pay public homage to the dazzling genius of his trade union “friends”. Afterwards, he said to me: “There was only one thing wrong with my article – I should have written three, not five.”

In those days, it was a dismally common event to see a left-winger stretched on the rack of trade union power. Intellectuals from Stafford Cripps to Bertrand Russell were the victims of drumhead courts-martial conducted by the union satraps. Yet today the leaders of what is hilariously termed the Left look to the unions as the fountainhead of all wisdom and socialist virtue. Mr Michael Foot, a Minister of the Crown, will not stir an inch unless he has the previous approval of the TUC General Council. Mr Eric Heffer, Foot’s doppelgänger and cheerleader on the back benches, regards any criticism of British trade unionism as a compound of high treason and the Sin Against the Holy Syndicalist Ghost. Did this gigantic U-turn come about because the trade union bosses have undergone a cataclysmic change of heart and transformed their whole philosophy of life and politics? Not a bit of it. It is true that the general secretaries of the biggest unions no longer, as in [Arthur] Deakin’s day, pull the strings from behind a curtain, but prefer to strut upon the stage of power themselves. It is true, also, that they inspire more genuine fear than they did 20 years ago, as their crazy juggernaut lurches over the crushed bodies of political opponents. In other respects, however, their metaphysic has not altered: it is still a relentless drive to power by the use of force and threats.

The union leaders still regard money as the sole criterion of success and social progress. They are prime victims of what Tawney, in Equality, called “the reverence for riches, the lues Anglicana, the hereditary disease of the English nation”. Blind to the long-term, to the complexities of the economic process, to the well-being and rights of other human beings – blind, in fact, to what Tawney called “fellowship”, to him the very core of the socialist ethic – they see the whole of the political struggle in immediate cash terms. The other day one of them said he would not hesitate to bring the entire publicly owned steel industry to a halt, and throw perhaps hundreds of thousands of his “comrades” out of work, unless he was offered “more money on the table”, as he put it. Asked if he would heed the activities of the government conciliation service, he said he was not going to take advice from those he contemptuously referred to as “college boys”.

Indeed, one of the startling characteristics of modern British trade union activists is their systematic dislike for intellectual and cultural eminence and their hostility towards higher education. Here a great and deplorable shift in attitudes has taken place since the 19th century. To me, the saddest newspaper report of recent years was a survey of the miners’ clubs of South Wales, which revealed that their large, and often rare and valuable, libraries of political books and pamphlets had been sold off to dealers in order to clear space for juke-boxes, pintables and strip-shows. Part of the price the left wing of the Labour Party has paid for its alliance with the trade union bosses has been the enforced adoption of a resolutely anti-intellectual stance. If miners prefer strip-shows to self-education, the argument runs, then so be it: that the collective working masses express such a preference in itself invests the choice with moral worth. Anyone who argues the contrary is “an elitist”.

“Elitist”, in fact, has become the prime term of abuse on the syndicalist Left; it heads the list of convenient clichés brought on parade whenever the Eric Heffers put pen to paper, or give tongue. It is a useful bit of verbiage to be hurled at those who, by any stretch of the imagination, can be accused of criticising wage-inflation, strikes, aggressive picketing, the Shrewsbury jailbirds, the divinity of Hugh Scanlon, “free collective bargaining”, differentials, overmanning and other central articles of syndicalist theology. And equally, anyone who pays attention to quality, who insists on the paramountcy of reason, who does not believe the masses are always right or that the lowest common denominator is the best, and who considers there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of a Mick McGahey or an Arthur Scargill – well, he or she can be dismissed as an elitist, too. Crossman, Tawney, Cole, above all Bevan, would have been given short shrift today – elitists, the lot of them.

It says a great deal for the power of the syndicalist Left in the councils of the Government, and even in the immediate entourage of Harold Wilson (who, secretly, is one of the outstanding elitists of our time), that anti-elitism has, to some extent, become official government policy, at any rate in the sphere of higher education. Our universities used to be autonomous, and for all practical purposes exempt from state control or guidance – a very elitist and reprehensible state of affairs! But all this is now being changed as the financial cuts begin to bite and the University Grants Committee progressively takes up its role as the Government’s instrument of supervision. Earlier this year, Reg Prentice, one of Harold’s innumerable Education Ministers, sneeringly told the universities to “live off their fat” and, if necessary, “sell their art treasures”. Direction of the anti-elitist policy has now devolved on the Prime Minister’s personal academic henchman, Lord Crowther-Hunt. In an earlier incarnation he was Dr Norman Hunt, an assiduous gatherer of Westminster anecdotage with a fashionable prole accent, who made himself useful to Harold Wilson and other Labour magnificos. His reward has been a peerage and ministerial charge of higher education.

The new anti-elitist spirit in the realms of higher education both complements and echoes the alliance between the trade unions and Labour’s know-nothing Left. Away with the ivory towers! To hell with expensive research which ordinary people can’t understand, and will probably come to nothing anyway. The job of a university is to turn out field-grey regiments of “socially relevant” people, with the right egalitarian ideas, the capacity to learn by heart the latest fashionable slogans, and to march, shout, scream, howl and picket as and when required. Degradation of the universities, of course, would fit in neatly with the syndicalisation of the Labour Party, since the ideal student – according to the anti-elitists – is one who conforms as closely as possible, mentally, emotionally and culturally, to a union militant. The operation is part of an uncoordinated but nevertheless impressive effort to proletarianise the educated classes, and to smash to bits what are venomously referred to as “middle-class values” (such as honesty, truthfulness, respect for reason, dislike of lawbreaking, hatred of violence, and so forth).

It is by no means confined to students. At a recent conference of local authority education officials, a former headmaster and university vice-chancellor had the temerity to attempt a half-hearted defence of elitism and was promptly denounced, by a yobbo from Glamorgan, as “an educational fascist”. But students are the prime targets of the anti-elitists because they can be so easily organised into Rentamobs by Labour’s syndicalists and their allies (and future masters) even further to the Left. As all totalitarian rulers have discovered, once you have hacked away the logical and rational foundations on which the edifice of civilisation rests, it is comparatively easy to invert the process of ratiocination, dress up the results in verbiage, and sell them to thousands of apparently well-educated people.

A typical example of anti-elitist Newspeak is a dissenting minority report of a Yale Committee on Freedom of Expression, appointed after left-wing students smashed up a meeting addressed by William Shockley in 1974. The overwhelming majority of the Yale academics concluded that disruption of a speech should be regarded as an offence against the university, and one which could lead to expulsion. The dissentient, speaking for the Left, argued that free speech was both undesirable and impossible until there had been “liberation from, and increased self-consciousness of, the social and irrational factors that condition knowledge and pre-form the means and structures of language”. Hidden in this ugly gobbet of verbiage is the thoroughly totalitarian idea that the meanings not merely of words but of moral concepts must be recast to conform to political expediency – the very essence of Newspeak. The example is American; but there are plenty of parallels over here, not always expressed quite so naively as by the Essex student leaders who refused even to discuss an “independent report” on their activities, for which they had clamoured, on the grounds that “reason is an ideological weapon with which bourgeois academics are especially well armed”!

When reason ceases to be the objective means by which civilised men settle their differences and becomes a mere class “weapon”, then clearly the anti-elitists are making considerable progress. How long will it be before the books are burning again, and the triumph of the “Common Man”, that figment of violent and irrational imaginations, is celebrated by another Kristallnacht? Already, at the extreme fringe of the syndicalist Left, the aggrosocialists are taking over public meetings, with their ideological flick knives and their doctrinaire coshes. Not long ago, hearing and seeing a group of students and trade unionists giving the Nazi salute, and shouting “Sieg heil!” at some very stolid-looking policemen, I shut my eyes for a few seconds, and tried to detect the redeeming note of irony in their chanting. For the life of me, I could not find it. What differentiated these mindless and violent youths from Hitler’s well-drilled thugs? Merely, I fear, the chance of time and place, a turn of the fickle wheel of fortune.

Unreason and thuggery are always the enemies, whatever labels they carry; for labels are so easily removed and changed. I remember Adlai Stevenson – an elitist if ever there was one – saying wearily: “Eggheads of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your yokes.” Perhaps it is time for the elitists to stand up for themselves – there may not be so few of us, either – and start the long business of rescuing the Labour Left from the know-nothings and the half-wits.

 

Master and the masses: Tony Benn (foreground, second right) leads a march in London, May Day 1975. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.