Altared states

Like most people in modern, secular Britain, Will Self is not a believer. Yet he still feels awed a

During Lent, those with Christian faith enter a 40-day period of spiritual reflection that recalls Jesus's supposed period of desert reclusion. In our own triumphantly secular society - although sometimes I think this triumph a purely Pyrrhic one - a similar undertaking might be appropriate. Those of us who are without religious faith are, arguably, more in need than the believers of answers to the big questions that - try as we might to divert ourselves - continue to exercise us. Why are we here? What meaning does life have? What constitutes the Good? And what - if anything - will happen to us after we die?

But if we could all do with such a contemplative sojourn, how on earth are we going to find the time - let alone the space? We are increasingly hemmed in by our responsibilities and only the very rich can afford 40 days of desertification - and they tend to take them in the form of adventure holidays crossing the Sahara, with everything laid on, including "authentic" cultural experiences.

I have a proposal: why not spend the next 40 days in a metaphoric rather than a literal desert? It shouldn't be too difficult to contrive - simply remove all aspects of art and culture from your life. That's right, give it up for Lent: all pictures and drawings, music and books, television, film and radio. Eschew newspapers, and magazines; look not upon the glittery face of the worldwide web. Instead, stride out into the world protected only by the flimsy raiment of your own reason, guided solely by the light of your own conscience, and warmed by your own imagination alone.

Belief in belief

In a cultural desert, the mind begins to burrow deep within itself - just as, in an actual desert, a human body seeks shelter among the rocks. Perhaps in this harshly deracinated environment you will be driven to meditate upon the transcendent, a practice that has become dreadfully unfashionable in the present era, lacking as it does the requisite aestheticism.

Of course, it wasn't always thus. Here in Britain, as throughout the Christianised world, religion and art were once inextricably bound together. The churches were direct patrons of the arts, while the wealthy commissioned works the ulterior purpose of which was to effect their own salvation - or, at any rate, indulgence. And then, for the laity, there was art as decorative medium - the interior design of God's house - and art as a votive device: the transactional object by which the faithful drew nearer to His love. Still spookier, there were artworks that partook of the divinity through the fact of their veneration. One thinks of the many statues of patron saints, carried in procession on their feast days, then called upon
to prognosticate, heal the sick and work other such miracles.

As it was with the visual arts, so it was with literature and music; in the past, the belief in God may not have been omnipresent, but the belief in the belief in God certainly was. Right up until the 19th century, even the most daring and provocative dissenters continued to cloak their artistic productions in off-the-peg theism. Just as I remember, as a boy, reading Victorian novels and wondering whether or not any of the characters had sex - because there was no mention of it whatsoever although they still managed to procreate - so, as a philosophy student, I was perplexed by David Hume's blasé references to his creator even though every aspect of his scepticism disallowed any such faith.

I would argue that it was neither the Enlightenment nor the mechanised march of science and technology that finally put paid to this unquestioned belief in belief, but the man-made cataclysm of the First World War. If I were to choose a suitably iconic image of the impact of the war on faith, it would be the statue of the Madonna that stood atop the newly completed basilica in the town of Albert, immediately behind the British trenches of the Somme. Early in the war, shelling tipped this statue to the horizontal, so that it looked as if Mary was about to throw away the infant Jesus cradled in her arms. The satiric import of this was not lost on the British troops, who henceforth referred to the statue as "the Lady of the Limp".

As Paul Fussell - the historian to whose masterful work The Great War and Modern Memory I owe this vignette - so perceptively argued, after the carnage of the First World War, irony came to be the dominant form of modern sensibility and understanding. Against such devastating facetiousness, what chance had the Lady of the Limp?

It may surprise you to learn that I often visit churches - and not merely to regard them aesthetically, but also so that I can lose myself in spiritual contemplation. It may not be prayer as it is commonly understood by the great mono­theisms, but I find that by setting my own fears, hopes and concerns against the great span of the universe, their trivial scale is exposed. I choose churches because they are purpose-built for such exercises; it is difficult to keep your thoughts base and petty when you are confronted by the vertiginous upthrust of English Perpendicular. True, I like my churches to be old, or large, or both - I'm less likely to step into my local place of worship, because, in common with so many others, the great whirlwind of irony has sucked all the beauty out of it.

Holy watercolour

Since the First World War, then, and with still greater velocity after the Second, art has quit the temple precincts. We can picture this as if it were a frieze, seeing in profile all those painters, architects, musicians and poets bowed down under the instruments of their mysteries and heading for the exit.

Modern churches have lost their patrons and their punters; with a few exceptions, their interiors are bereft of the rich ornamentation of the past, and as for their architecture, well, if we thought the neo-Gothic was bad enough, what can we say of the warehouses of the Lord that have been thrown up in the postwar period? Such decoration as is commissioned for these churches tends to be the visual analogue of the Good News Bible - all primary colours, woody tones and paschal lambs that bear a family resemblance to the Teletubbies.

As it is with ecclesiastical visual arts and architecture, so it is with the wider cultural ambit. Yes, there are still men and women who write godly verse and score sacred music, but the real fixed point to which transcendent belief is tethered is the ironic stake modernity has driven through the heart of faith. A couple of years ago, I found myself in the locked vault of a jeweller's in Hatton Garden, in central London. I was there, together with the artist Damien Hirst and a couple of other hangers-on, to handle his piece For the Love of God, a human skull transmogrified into a colossal bauble that comprised a sheet of artfully shaped platinum embedded with hundreds of diamonds.

On the cusp of the financial meltdown, Hirst's skull was being valued at £20m; he told me he had named it thus because "For the love of God!" was what his mother had exclaimed when he told her about the piece. Two things struck me: first, the extreme ironisation of faith embodied in the diamond skull, and second, the effect it had on my companions when they held it. It was as if they had taken a lungful of nitrous oxide and were transported into a state of giggly and shameless devotion to Mammon.

For the Love of God crystallised my thinking about Hirst and contemporary art. He is, I think, a more primitive figure than we have come to expect artists to be; rather than merely representing the world, Hirst is a shaman who invests objects with a symbolic power that - under the right conditions - becomes real. Mostly this is the power of money itself - but he also employs the powers of celebrity, sex, death and intoxication. We shouldn't be too critical of the highest-earning living artist, because he got that way by perfectly exemplifying the sacred rituals that underpin the true religion of Britain today, aesthetic humanism.

During this Lenten period, few Britons will repair either to the desert or to the deserted churches, but they will descend in droves on the temples of arts and culture, many of which are handsome, beautifully maintained buildings chock-full of valuable votive artworks.

In the past 20 years, as church congregations have continued to dwindle, the art galleries and museums have increased their visitor numbers hugely. Exactly like the religion it has replaced, aesthetic humanism demands of its followers certain rituals - silence, rapt concentration, a catechism in the form of a catalogue; and certain beliefs - the holiness of the artistic vocation, the intelligibility of taste (its equivalent of divine grace), and the temporal authority of those curators, dealers and arts administrators who are its priesthood.

Shorn of any faith in God, the arts have become imbued with the qualities of a secularised religion. The only immortality anyone believes in now is the immortality of the artist, whose soul is encapsulated in his works for all eternity. The modern Medicis have great faith in the arts - they enrich themselves by speculating in scraps of canvas and lumps of metal, and by endowing the public temples, they too hope for immortality.

As for the laity, whether we reverence an index of approved works, or indulge in that liberty of conscience summed up in the credo "I-don't-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like", the important thing is that we believe: we believe in the superiority of man-made beauty over any other aspect of the natural world, and in the capacity of art to express all our thoughts and feelings. Our artistic faith also provides us with emotional succour and psychic balm. When we have retired, we go on pilgrimages to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, say, hoping to imbibe as much holy watercolour as we can before we are anointed with oil paint and die.

Like the Christianity it has usurped, aesthetic humanism has a Trinity - albeit one in which paternity is inverted, for it is Man who is now the father, and the old Roman goddess Fortuna whom we have made in our image, as our hidden hands manipulate the market in artefacts into being. As for the Holy Ghost, what could be more immanent (and yet transcendent) than the internet, which is everywhere and nowhere at once, transmitting our divine creative spark?

Art atheism

As I have proposed the existence of a new religion of aesthetic humanism, it is reasonable to ask whether I myself am a communicant. But I suspect you know the answer already: I may lack traditional religious faith, but I find myself an even more strident recusant - a heretic, even - when it comes to the arty church. It is an unpalatable fact, like an extra-dry communion wafer, that economic downturns can be good for the arts. During the last recession, the "Young British Artists" emerged as a phenomenon that at first satirised faltering capitalism, and then capital­ised on its resurgence. It might have been hoped that this recession would be deep enough to inaugurate a complete re-evaluation of the aesthetic humanist credo; that there might be a reformation to rival that of Christianity in the 16th century.

Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, it doesn't look as if this will be the case. Our deep faith in Fortuna's free market remains intact, and no dissident theses have been nailed to the doors of Tate Modern. Archbishop Serota sits secure on his throne. As for me, I find I do need a period of contemplation away from the hurly-burly of religious gallery observance. I feel strangely drawn to visit a modern church, where it's quiet and calm, and divinely ugly.

Will Self launches a series of six talks for Lent on Radio 4, 24 February (8.45pm)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain