Thom Yorke: our generation's Orwell? (Image: Getty)
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Fifteen years on, Radiohead's Kid A is the best evocation of the failures of New Labour

Fifteen years after Kid A, Max Harris looks back on a record that serves as a searing critique of the New Labour years

Radiohead’s Kid A was released 15 years ago.  Last weekend, a friend and I returned home from dinner and decided to revisit the album.  We did something that feels like a dying practice in our age of Spotify and YouTube – listening to the album from start to finish – in the darkness of an old study. 

Thom Yorke, the frontman of the Oxford-based five-piece, has often resisted explicit political interpretations of Radiohead’s music.  And yet it is remarkable how much Kid A seems to capture the spirit of the early years of New Labour.  And the words and themes of the album still resonate today, highlighting the enduring legacies of that era which Labour today has to face up to as we move closer to this year’s general election.

‘The National Anthem’ is the album’s third track, a song with a bass line that snarls beneath a crashing drum beat and a cacophony of howling synths.  In it Yorke sings about the atomisation of post-Thatcher British society – and the latent sense of anxiety which allowed the Blair government to respond to the 7/7 tragedy with counter-terrorism measures crippling civil liberties.  “Everyone around here…”, Yorke stammers, “everyone is so… near.”  And yet, “every one has got fear” and is just “holding on”.  This is all that binds the nation together, Yorke tells us – a shared sense of solitude even while we’re surrounded by people.  This is the anthem for what George Monbiot has recently described as our “age of loneliness”.

‘The National Anthem’ comes after ‘Everything in its Right Place’ and the title track, both of which seem to express a longing for a society better than the one we have.  Both tracks involve garbled voices striving to be heard.  “What was that you tried to say?” Yorke asks in the opening track.  And on the title tune a slightly mechanised version of Yorke’s voice mumbles over what sounds like ethereal gamelan-like gongs, in words that we can’t quite make out. 

In ‘How to Disappear Completely’, which follows directly on from ‘The National Anthem’, there is a sense of denial – an attempt to come to terms, perhaps, with a Blair government failing to satisfy the feeling of hope that preceded its coming to power. “That there – it’s not me,” Yorke whispers over a haunting acoustic guitar.  “I’m not here,” he sings, “this isn’t happening.”

In ‘Idioteque’, a beautiful three-chord synth progression plays over the top of a rasping drum beat while Yorke speaks about impending catastrophe.  It’s hard not to see the song, however anachronistic this may be, as a modern elegy for how we all have responded to climate change – without sufficient urgency or a sense of the gravity of the problem.  “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming,” Yorke cries in a panic.  “[But] let me hear both sides, let me hear both sides.”  He goes on: “we’re not scare-mongering/This is really happening.”

Later in the album, there’s more on the social dysfunction of Blair-era Britain in ‘Morning Bell’ (we might have to “cut the kids in half”) and the final track, ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’, is a funereal organ piece overlaid with a fluttering, fantastical harp.  But if there is death in that final track, whose death is it? It seems likely that Yorke is mourning a friend or acquaintance (“I will see you – in the next life”).  ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ could now also be heard, however, as a song about the end of faith in New Labour (even if it was written earlier, before their election). 

Maybe these reflections are too harsh on New Labour – a touch overblown.  But what Radiohead offers in Kid A, ultimately, is a pointed perspective on the time at the turn of the millennium.  And much of what it said in the album, dark as it may be, seems right – about both New Labour and our world 15 years on.  We’re still inert in our response to climate change.  A sense of social malaise, against the backdrop of inequality, remains with us.   And the feelings that Yorke alludes to – of not being listened to, loneliness, denial, and panic – continue to be dominant responses to the problems of our time.

Isn’t this also reading a bit much into Kid A’s lyrics – making the album political when it’s sometimes just personal, and tying the general disenchantment of the album tenuously to New Labour? The problem with this objection is that Radiohead’s work has often been overtly political.  The title of the band’s later album, Hail to the Thief, is an explicit reference to George W. Bush and the theft of the 2000 US election.  And so it’s unlikely that the New Labour years did not feed into the creative process of making Kid A, as is most strongly suggested by the demonic image of Tony Blair you can find in the album art.

More importantly, one of the features of good music is that it makes room for multiple possible meanings like these to be threaded out of a recording, in the way that isn’t possible with much linear non-fiction.    Kid A reminds us, in the end, of what music can offer to social and political struggle.  Artists like Radiohead can be foretellers of emerging trends – creative canaries in our collective mine.  And sometimes, just sometimes, when they get it right – as with Radiohead and Kid A – they can capture the spirit of the times with simultaneous crispness, subtlety, emotion, and beauty. 

Max Harris is a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He tweets as @mdnharris.

Max Harris is a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He tweets as@mdnharris.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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