Maggie's gift to Gordon

David Cameron tried to break with the Tory past by modelling himself on Tony Blair. But with Margare

History imposed on David Cameron the task of persuading the electorate that Conservatives are at home in 21st-century Britain. William Hague, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith were at one in supposing that, overlooked or derided by metropolitan opinion, there was a conservative British majority that viewed the society emerging around them with alarm and indignation. In fact, most voters felt at home in liberal Britain, and the Conservatives went on to three successive defeats. Breaking with his predecessors, Cameron decided that unless the Conservatives identified themselves with the nation that Britain has become they were finished as a party of government. By aligning himself with contemporary British values, he posed a challenge to Labour to which Gordon Brown must now respond.

The next general election will take place against the background of a period of profound social change that goes back to the crises of the Seventies. To a considerable extent, 21st-century Britain is an unintended consequence of Margaret Thatcher. It was Thatcher who, accentuating the impact of global forces that no one controls, dismantled the postwar settlement and created the market-driven society we live in today. She believed that by rejuvenating British capitalism she could revive the stolidly bourgeois Britain she had known in the Fifties; but that country was a product of Labour rule, and the upshot of reshaping public institutions on a market model was to create a society of a kind she had never imagined.

In an essay that had a powerful influence on the intellectual fringes of early Thatcherism, Friedrich Hayek distinguished between two rival versions of individualism - a "true", Burkean variety, rooted in tradition, that accepted the constraints of conventional morality and a "false", Romantic version in which personal choice and self-realisation trumped all other values. Hayek believed that a revitalised free market would bring with it a return to "true" individualism.

Instead, it was a version of Romantic individualism that triumphed. As the imperatives of market choice have spread into every area of social life, personal fulfilment and the satisfaction of desire have become the ruling values. Relationships of all kinds have become looser and social structures have become more negotiable and provisional. In many ways this has been a benign process. As a result we are more tolerant of the varieties of family and sexual life, and less pervasively racist, and although we are perceptibly more unequal we are less obsessed with class than in the past. But the country created by freeing up the market is in many respects the antithesis of the one Hayek and Thatcher aimed to restore. If ever there was such a thing as a conservative philosophy, its central values were social cohesion and cultural continuity in a settled form of common life. Yet when it is released from restraint the market works to unsettle established ways of living. So, far from reviving an older Britain, Thatcher wiped away its last traces.

Endemic discontent

However, if the freewheeling society we have today is Thatcher's creation, her latter-day followers refuse to recognise the fact. The diehards who make up much of the Conservatives' core support despise and reject the nation she un wittingly created. They believe that by ditching Thatcher's inheritance, Cameron has abandoned anything resembling conservatism; but it was Thatcher who destroyed the old social structures - and with them the possibility of a viable conservative project. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Conservative Party itself. The loosening up of hierarchies that occurred in society at large has been reflected in a parallel dissolution of the Tory culture of loyalty. Before Thatcher, Tory leaders could rely on an ethos that elevated loyalty above ideology. After Thatcher, disloyalty and infighting became defining Tory traits, and every party leader was placed permanently on probation. Mistrusted by his party, Cameron is seen as a traitor to conservative values. But the Thatcherites themselves - with their endemic discontent and doctrinal mentality - demonstrate how unreal these values have become. Early this month, the former deputy leader Michael Ancram urged Cameron to "unveil the party's soul" rather than "trashing" its Thatcherite past. If Cameron follows such advice, the Conservatives will be left stranded on the margins of power in a country they have ceased to comprehend.

Whatever his critics may say, Cameron had no alternative but to remodel his party. His strategy of repositioning his party on the liberal centre ground enabled it to become, once again, a contender for power. The trouble is that the model of modernisation he adopted was already obsolete. By the time Cameron adopted Blairite new Labour as his template, Blair had become a buffoonish figure - a would-be global messiah who engineered the worst British foreign policy disaster since Suez. A more experienced politician might have asked himself whether it was wise to pose as Blair's successor. Cameron might have unseated Blair in a general election run-off; but once Blair vanished from the scene, the Tory leader was left looking dated and redundant.

In the Commons, Cameron goaded Blair with the taunt, "You were the future once." Yet, by modelling himself on Blair, Cameron tied himself to the past. Unprepared for the national sigh of relief that greeted Blair's departure, he seems ill-prepared for the very different style of politics that has arrived with Gordon Brown.

Only a new breed of Conservatives, for whom Thatcher was a chapter in the history books rather than a living presence, could have consigned her to the memory hole with such brisk finality. In this, Cameron's limited political experience has been a source of strength, but passing most of his short political life in Blair's shadow has narrowed Cameron's vision. Blair's decade in power was a by-product of unrepeatable historical conditions. He was able to return Labour to power by accepting many of Thatcher's policies because she embodied the interests and values of a crucial part of the electorate that was ready to transfer its allegiance to him.

By the time Blair left office he represented no one, and the same is true of Cameron today. Like Blair, Cameron moves in a smart, moneyed set with tenuous links to the wider society. Aside from the fox-hunting fraternity - promised a free vote on repealing the ban - it is hard to think of any social group whose concerns Cameron has consistently championed. Even his commitment to green issues, which at one point seemed to be voicing widely felt anxieties, sounds contrived and unconvincing. There is no section of today's Britain where his voice resonates with any particular force.

Cameron's patrician background plainly had a role in his most serious error to date. His in souciant dismissal of an institution that was for generations a hugely important part of British education showed how slender is his acquaintance with the choices most people have to face. Unlike most Tory voters, Cameron has always been able to take for granted the option of educating his children privately. Like a junior colonial officer in the declining years of empire, he seems hardly to comprehend the lives of those he has set out to govern. His stumble over grammar schools was more than a minor slip. It disclosed an amateurish quality in his entire operation, and exposed the vulnerability of a political project that lacks any solid base of social support.

Provincial majority

There is a great opportunity here for Gordon Brown. Linked by overlapping social ties and a common proximity to the London media, Blair and Cameron are alike in their detachment from Britain's provincial majority. This is not the disaffected, reactionary rump invoked by latter-day Thatcherites. It is broadly liberal in outlook, but it demands from government some of the qualities that used to be claimed by Conservatives, such as common sense, competence and a cool head in times of crisis. It has no time for Blairite rants about incessant change, nor for the unending stream of ephemeral initiatives that embodied the Blair regime in practice. By distancing himself so sharply from this style of government, Brown has wounded Cameron at his weakest point.

The shift in the public philosophy of the Conservatives that Cameron initiated seems to have started as a psephological gambit, which recognised that the party could not return to power on the back of its core supporters alone and aimed to capture Liberal Democrat votes in about a hundred key seats. As an electoral strategy it has had mixed results, with Lib Dem voters switching to Labour as well as to Cameron's Conservatives. At the same time, large issues have been left unresolved. At present there are at least two tendencies vying for control among the Con servatives. There are neoliberals such as John Redwood, who urge further large-scale market deregulation and hugely reduced government - a programme whose effect would be to impose another revolutionary shake-up on society, and which for that reason has no prospect of being implemented by any government in the fore seeable future.

In contrast there are the neoconservatives, who accept that governments are bound to continue to play a significant role in social welfare and regulating the economy. What these tendencies have in common is that neither can claim to be distinctively conservative - the neoliberals owe more to Hayek (who always denied being a conservative) than they do to Burke, while neoconservatism originated on the American far left. Both are progressive ideologies, which differ from those that prevail on the centre left chiefly by being less realistic and more dogmatic.

The practical problem for Cameron is that neither of these tendencies allows the Conser vatives to make the vital break with the past. If the neoliberal tendency represents a reversion to Thatcherism at its most rigidly doctrinal, the neoconservative wing of the party - to which, in most respects, Cameron himself belongs - offers little more than a continuation of Blairism. These difficulties have been compounded by his most recent turn in which - while talking of the need to repair Britain's " broken society" - he has increasingly reverted to stock right-wing themes such as crime and immigration.

Many commentators have accused Cameron of inconsistency, but his larger error is that of moving back to the reactionary territory that lost his predecessors the past three elections. However dressed up in fashionable jargon, talk of the broken society cannot help harking back to a nation whose passing the majority of Britons do not regret. No doubt concern with crime is widespread, as are doubts about current levels of immigration. But these worries do not add up to anything like a wide sense of social collapse, and most of Britain's voters like the country in which they live. By putting a rejection of that country at the heart of his campaign, Cam eron has fallen into the trap that has snared every Conservative leader since Thatcher. He has failed to reconcile his party to the society she created, while alienating the voters he needs to attract by implicitly condemning the way many of them have chosen to live.

At present, both the parliamentary party and the party organisation are racked by internecine conflicts, and Cameron himself is looking ever more like an opportunist with no settled beliefs. By itself, intellectual incoherence has rarely been a serious obstacle to securing power. When combined with an ill-conceived political strategy, the result can be disastrous. Only months ago Cameron seemed poised to overtake Labour. There is still a chance he could deny it an overall majority in the general election, but with the Tory leader's switch to the self-defeating politics of reaction and Gordon Brown's assured performance as Prime Minister, the initiative has moved back to Labour. Brown's "steady as she goes" brand of government is an ambiguous phenomenon, for though it involves a sharp break with Blair's style, it is premised on continuing with much of the policy framework that was in place when Blair was in power - which itself continued much of Thatcher's. In an irony neatly captured by the tea at No 10, Cameron has been left struggling to manage the party Thatcher nearly destroyed, while Brown is using the Thatcher inheritance to entrench Labour as the party of government. If Brown can convince voters that he has viable new policies - particularly in the areas of energy and the environment - there is every chance Cameron will follow Blair into history's memory hole.

Much now depends on events. Enough has transpired to plant a large question mark over Cameron's project. He aimed to fashion a new centre-right party, but the result has been a continuation of drift and division. A setback in the next general election could turn these divisions into a civil war not unlike the one that engulfed the party when Thatcher was toppled. The difference is that, after Cameron's attempt to impose a Blair-style makeover on the party, it could end up like a failed state - a rabble of rival factions, each claiming to embody true conservatism at a time when such a thing is no longer imaginable.

The stakes could hardly be higher. The upshot of the next general election could be meltdown in the Conservative Party and a long period of unchallenged power for Gordon Brown.

John Gray's latest book is "Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia" (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, £18.99)

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 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown

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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars