The death knell? Illustration by Dan Murrell
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Has David Cameron defeated Labour for a generation?

Ed Miliband wanted to govern a land that doesn’t exist. If his successors seek to change Britain, they must first be ready to understand it.

Looking back, the tip-off that Labour under the leadership of Ed Miliband was heading for a fall wasn’t any failing in his personal performance during the campaign. His flirtation with Russell Brand may have been ineffectual and demeaning, and the plinth recording his meaningless pledges was an idea straight from one of the meetings of uncomprehending minds portrayed in the magnificent BBC parody W1A. Taken as a whole, though, the campaign that Miliband waged turned out to be surprisingly good, and not only because it was fought against a background of low expectations. He proved a better communicator than many believed possible, and eerily calm under fire. The problem lay with the message that the former Labour leader had decided to deliver.

As was clear before the election campaign began (see my essay “Misunderstanding the present”, from the New Statesman in February 2015), Miliband’s message was directed not to any country that exists, but to some quite different land that he and his chosen advisers had persuaded themselves was coming into being. Convinced that the attitudes and values that enabled Margaret Thatcher, and later Tony Blair, to win three successive elections had been discredited by the financial crisis, Miliband staked Labour’s future on the wager that the triumph of market individualism in Britain could be reversed. The bet paid off only in Scotland, and there it was not Labour (which suffered a wipeout that is probably irreparable), but the SNP that pocketed the winnings.

Miliband’s gamble was based on an image of contemporary Britain that screened out some of its most defining characteristics. Both before and after the referendum on Scottish independence, he and his advisers saw the fact that Britain is a multinational polity as essentially insignificant. They did not perceive the increasing fragility of the British state. They continued to regard the central divisions of British society as based in class, when class identities were rapidly mutating and in some cases losing their primary importance. They continually invoked the dangers of growing inequality, but their focus was on issues such as non-doms and bankers’ bonuses rather than the far more damaging divisions that have resulted from whole sections of society being left behind by the effects of unchecked globalisation. The enormous difficulties of governing a country where competing nationalisms jostle with market individualism and the socially disruptive effects of global market forces were not even dimly understood.

 

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For me the first clear sign that Ed Miliband was gripped by a delusional view of the country he wanted to govern came in a seemingly insignificant episode: the hullabaloo surrounding his hiring of David Axelrod over a year ago. The left’s obsession with US politics is hardly new. Tony Blair seemed always on the brink of addressing his audiences as “fellow Americans”, and even when Britain rejected New Labour a fixation with the American system continued unabated. Like others in his party, Miliband can’t help thinking that Britain would be far better off if only it could adopt what he thinks of as a more modern sort of politics: the type that is practised in the US, with its written constitution and its refusal to defer to antiquated institutions. This mindset is curious in a number of ways. It is true that, perhaps more than any other country in the developed world, Britain is an ancien régime – a construction of monarchy and empire. But it is also true that in some ways Britain is the most modern of countries, not least in its openness to globalisation, which is far greater than that of the US.

Labour’s fixation on an American model of politics might not matter if it didn’t have practical consequences, such as signing up Axelrod as a guide to fighting a British general election. The well-rewarded Obama adviser has been criticised for not being around much of the time, but perhaps this was just as well. Someone who just a few months ago could give a lengthy interview (Guardian, 15 February) in which Scotland wasn’t once mentioned may not be the most useful oracle. How could anyone whose skills were honed in such a different political culture be attuned to an unravelling of class and national identities and loyalties for which they have no instinctive feel? In the event, the prospect of a minority Labour government being kept in power by the SNP left Labour heavily compromised in the eyes of many English voters. Miliband responded by declaring that there would be no deals with the SNP. Unsurprisingly, no one believed him. Under the ruthless direction of the Tories’ Australian electoral strategist, Lynton Crosby, this proved to be one of the main catalysts for Labour’s defeat.

Axelrod’s blind spot in relation to Scotland reinforced that of Miliband and his British advisers. Labour’s collapse north of the border wasn’t the only reason for the party’s downfall. Even without that wipeout, David Cameron would still be in Downing Street. But the catalogue of errors and illusions that led to Labour’s Scottish debacle are instructive as to the enormity of the obstacles it will have to surmount if it is to recover as a party of government.

Labour is beginning an agonised search for some way back to the position it imagined it had in Britain before the 7 May election. But this is not 2010, when Ed Miliband was elected as leader. Nor is it 1983, when Labour condemned itself to almost a decade and a half in the wilderness. The threat Labour faces today is larger and more genuinely existential than it has faced at any time in its postwar history. When Michael Foot led the party to catastrophic defeat at the hands of Mrs Thatcher, Labour retained its working-class bastions in the north and Scotland. Today, though it has made no advance in terms of seats, Ukip has emerged as the third party in the UK in terms of votes – much larger than the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens – and in constituencies where it came second it might be capable of mounting a tough challenge to Labour in 2020. Labour’s climb-back will be made all the more difficult by changes to constituency boundaries (thwarted by the Liberal Democrats) that Cameron will bring in.

The working-class support on which Labour has relied is melting away in the north. In Scotland it is already gone. The SNP may not retain its current level of popularity for long. But when it proves unable to deliver on its promises, the opposition to it is more likely to be expressed in internal fissures and the formation of new movements (a process made easier by the proportional voting system for elections to Holyrood) than in any revival of Labour. Everything suggests that Scotland’s shift to having its own political culture will be irreversible.

No doubt the SNP’s triumph was made easier by errors on the part of the Westminster parties and more generally by the contemptuous indifference they displayed towards Scottish affairs. Thatcher’s use of Scotland as a laboratory for testing the poll tax (an experiment whose result she refused to accept) was a big factor in the destruction of Conservative unionism. Equally, Blair’s war in Iraq led to mass desertions from Scottish Labour, while the refusal of Labour’s London elite to face up to the decline in Scotland (against which this magazine warned even before the Nationalists’ victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election) demonstrated a refusal to take the SNP and, indeed, Scotland seriously.

The SNP’s skill in shape-shifting also played an important role. Nicola Sturgeon’s astonishing victory is a tribute to her outstanding leadership. It is worth noting the impressive ease with which the SNP has transformed itself from being a party with strong neoliberal tendencies – exemplified by Alex Salmond’s talk of an “arc of prosperity” in which Scotland would join Ireland and other European countries to pursue growth through low taxes and business-friendly policies – to an anti-austerity party of the social-democratic left. The SNP’s neoliberal past is now commonly forgotten (but not, it seems, by Rupert Murdoch).

Although the self-absorption of the English metropolitan elite has been a critical factor, it cannot fully explain the rise of the SNP. Scottish nationalism is not just a reactive movement, but one that mirrors developments in other European countries and other parts of the world. The progressive narrative of a few decades ago which anticipated that nationalism (along with religion) would have a dwindling role as a source of human identity never had much substance. A decade and a half into the 21st century, it’s a story that is proved false daily by events.

Partly in reaction against the upheavals of globalisation, the politics of identity is as potent – and as dangerous – as it has ever been. The SNP insists that its nationalism is not of the malign, us-and-them variety that has resurfaced in parts of the European continent. Yet the difference between civic and ethnic nationalism isn’t categorical or unequivocal; it has always been blurred and shifting. In effect, the SNP is buying in to another version of the progressive story – one in which nationalism doesn’t fade away, but can be purged of harmful effects without much difficulty and become the basis of a type of supranational government.

 

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This progressive narrative may explain the remarkably sunny view the SNP takes of the European Union. Listening to Nicola Sturgeon insisting that Scotland’s future can only be as a fully paid-up member, you would never suspect that the EU was in the midst of the most intractable crisis in its history. Here, SNP thinking runs in close parallel with that of the Liberal Democrats and pretty much all of Labour: any problems the EU may be facing are temporary and surmountable within its existing structures. As Vince Cable put it, voicing the conventional wisdom in an interview with the BBC in 2011, “The eurozone project may turn out to be a great success.”

It should be obvious that this is not a claim based on observable facts or tendencies. It is a declaration of faith that the eurozone is leading the continent towards a higher form of political organisation. A contrary view is closer to the truth: a utopian version of the European project is taking the continent back to the toxic politics of the 20th century. Viewed empirically, the eurozone is a disaster, riddled with mass unemployment and containing some extremely smelly political movements. In what sense has France – where Marine Le Pen’s Front National may soon come within spitting distance of the Élysée Palace – achieved a higher form of modernity? The ramshackle United Kingdom may in the end turn out to be more durable, and more modern, than the EU’s crumbling, Byzantine structures.

These aren’t theoretical problems. They have a direct bearing on the unprecedentedly adverse environment in which Labour will struggle to reinvent itself. The party has positioned itself on the basis that the difficulties of the eurozone can somehow be resolved by moving towards fiscal union; but that involves movement towards political union, which is a chimera. If the crisis intensifies instead, with the stand-off over Greece persisting or the country being forced into a disorderly exit from the euro, the result can only be to strengthen Cameron. An early in/out referendum was never likely to result in Britain deciding to leave the EU. British voters will not take a leap into the unknown until they are sure the status quo is no longer viable. Brexit will be even less likely if Cameron is able to deliver an altered relationship with the EU.

There are many who assume that, with a majority smaller than the one John Major had after his unexpected victory in the general election of 1992, Cameron will be held hostage, as Major was, by the more extreme Eurosceptic elements in his party. No doubt his majority will be eroded over time, and if he stays the full five-year course he may well end by relying on the Democratic Unionist Party. But his situation at the start of his government is quite different from Major’s: rather than having to wage a trench war in order to secure greater integration with Europe through the Maastricht Treaty, Cameron is offering his party a greater degree of detachment from the EU.

It is true that the party is probably even more Eurosceptic than it has been in the past. However, the threat posed by Ukip is now much reduced, and may in future be directed against Labour, rather than the Conservatives. A referendum in which Cameron succeeds in delivering a vote to stay in the EU will leave him and the Conservatives stronger than they are now.

None of this is a foregone conclusion. Cameron may be unable to negotiate the looser relationship with the EU that most British voters would prefer. Extreme Eurosceptics in his party may prove irreconcil­able. The in/out referendum could go against him. Yet even in this scenario there is no comfort for Labour. A common view has it that Brexit will be followed by Scotland breaking away from the Union. Nicola Sturgeon seemed to endorse this view when she said that a British vote to leave the EU would trigger a referendum on independence in Scotland. But the movement towards Scottish separation may not be as unstoppable as it seems. The irony that momentum for independence is increasing against the background of a failed referendum less than a year ago has been widely commented on. But there may be a deeper irony looming on the horizon: while Scotland is for now a polity almost wholly dominated by a party committed to separation from the UK, another referendum on independence could still very easily be lost.

Neither Sturgeon nor Salmond fought the 7 May election on the issue of Scottish independence. What they seemed to want was something else, which they may have found more attractive: a turbocharged version of devo-max, with full control over tax and spending.

If Labour had emerged from the election as a minority government reliant for its survival on the SNP, some such settlement might well have been reached, though whether the SNP could have threatened credibly to bring Labour down in order to achieve it is doubtful. The paradox of the present time is that offering a bold form of devolution to Scotland serves the Conservative interest. Full fiscal control would give Scotland’s voters a taste of what independence would cost – particularly if it was accompanied by the scrapping of the Barnett formula, which evens out state spending on public services across the UK. It is doubtful whether a majority of Scottish voters will be willing to break the Union once they know what ultra-devo-max would mean for their pensions.

A future referendum on independence isn’t going to be determined by the result of an election fought under a first-past-the-post system. Even in the unlikely event of Brexit, it cannot be taken for granted that Scottish separation would follow. The crucial question of which currency a sovereign Scotland would use remains unresolved, while the volatility of the oil price casts an unsettling shadow. It shouldn’t be too surprising if the SNP leadership appears less than wholly committed to holding another referendum any time soon.

Cameron may be at risk of being impaled on the interlocking spikes of Scotland and Europe. But it is equally possible, and perhaps more probable, that he will achieve what he may always have wanted: devo-max for Scotland in the UK and for the UK in Europe. Where will Labour be then?

 

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Displaying a distinct lack of ceremony, several of Miliband’s colleagues have already shown themselves ready to step into his shoes. Something like a consensus seems to have emerged, suggesting that Miliband’s mistake was in ditching the New Labour inheritance and tilting the party from the centre to the left.

While ruling himself out from the current struggle for the succession, David Miliband expressed the same view. Peter Mandelson has observed that the hole at the heart of Ed Miliband’s programme was the lack of an economic policy. These are more serious responses to the cataclysm that has befallen the party than Neil Kinnock’s reaction on election night, when he seemed to blame the electorate for allowing itself to become the puppet of demonic tabloid newspapers – a view reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s suggestion that the simplest solution to the workers’ uprising in East Germany in 1953 would be for the government to dissolve the people and elect another. Labour’s downfall resulted not from popular false consciousness, but from the hubristic self-delusion of its leadership.

But the belief that Labour’s future can be secured by reverting to Blairism is hardly less wishful. Waffling on about aspiration and wealth creation won’t reproduce the electoral success the party enjoyed under Blair’s leadership. History can’t be rewound in this way. The foul stench of the Iraq war will hang over any attempt to rehabilitate the Blair years, and the sense of prosperity in those times was generated mostly by debt and rising house prices.

Politics has in any case moved on since then. David Cameron’s Conservative Party is itself the product of a Blairite modernisation. How would a Blairite restoration that rebranded Labour as Cameron-lite give the party what it now needs: a compelling reason why British voters should entrust their future to it rather than to the party that is in power?

Miliband staked his party on an unreal vision of Britain. His uncanny serenity ­during the campaign showed a quality he has in common with Blair – a capacity for certainty, enabling him to think that what he wants to believe must be the case. Redefining Labour will take more than one new leader, but none of them would be able to bring back a country that did not exist. If Miliband’s successors are ever to be in a position to change Britain, they will first have to be willing to understand it.

John Gray is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom”

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph