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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Carlos Alvarez/Getty
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Chrissie longed to be one of the boys. Unlike us, she didn’t have riot grrrl

Chrissie Hynde has been accused of victim blaming. But her plight seems to me very much the plight of a female rock fan of her age.

I keep thinking about Chrissie Hynde’s memoir Reckless, and the controversy that has swirled around her apparent blaming of herself for a sexual assault she suffered as a teenager. The whole sad story says so much about what it used to mean to be a rock fan and a rebel in the Sixties and Seventies. Chrissie tells her tale in a style of swaggering bravado, eulogising her male rock heroes – “I wanted to be them, not do them” – and the biker gangs she idolised (“I loved the bikes and I loved the way they talked about honour and loyalty and brotherhood”).

I heard Chrissie interviewed on the radio about the book and squirming through a line of questioning that accused her of having the wrong attitude to her rape. Hang on, she objected, I never used the word “rape”. And it’s true, she never does, describing the assault instead in a tone which implies that she regarded it more as some kind of awful initiation. She says getting her “comeuppance” was her fault for failing the code, for being too mouthy. All she wanted, it seems, was to be respected by the bad guys, to be admitted to their ranks.

This, understandably, hasn’t gone down well, and Chrissie has been accused of victim blaming. But her plight seems to me very much the plight of a female rock fan of her age. Born in 1951, she had no female role models. To be a woman meant to have no place in the rock scene she adored, and so, she writes, “I thought sex was, like becoming ‘a woman’, something to put off for as long as possible.” Desperate to be one of the guys, she accepted their rules – no complaining, no whining, taking it like a man. Hence her macho stance, refusing to blame anyone but herself.

I found Chrissie’s book quite cold and sad, and so I was greatly cheered by then reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein. Carrie’s band Sleater-Kinney sprang from the Washington punk and indie scene of the early Nineties, and what her book showed was how much changed in the 20 years or so that separated the two women.

Chrissie Hynde had acted as an individual, an outrider. She grew up going to see the Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin, and as for female rock stars at that time, she said, “You could count them on one hand.” But Brownstein was born in 1974, her first gig was Madonna, and by the mid-Nineties she had the whole riot grrrl scene to call on – “a network of people finding their voices”. Both the participants and the subject matter had changed: “Girls wrote and sang about sexism and sexual assault, about shitty bosses and boyfriends.” Feminism and gender politics had reasserted themselves, and this time the girls in music weren’t playing second fiddle.

I remember going to a riot grrrl gig in London. The bands were Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill, the audience was women only, and it was thrilling, very unlike the days of punk, when there may have been women onstage but usually men ruled the room. The recent documentary The Punk Singer shows Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill on stage at another gig. “All girls to the front,” she yells. “I’m not kidding. All girls to the front. All boys be cool for once in your lives. Go back. Back –” and she waves the guys out of the moshpit and towards the back of the club, finally laying claim to a literal space for women to inhabit. It felt like the culmination of a years-long rebuttal of the rules of rock’n’roll.

So it can be easy to forget now that once upon a time, the only available musical identity was male. Even Patti Smith, our heroine and champion for so long now, wrote about seeing Keith Richards and wanting to be him. In the words of that great feminist saying, quoted by Caitlin Moran, “I cannot be what I cannot see,” but Chrissie’s generation took that fact and turned it on its head. They wanted to be just like the guys – and sometimes that came at painful expense to themselves, but in doing so they opened up the options for female identity. And those of us who followed: we could be something new, because we could see them. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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Jeremy Corbyn and the politics of catastrophe

If the Blairites are beached in the past, Jeremy Corbyn addresses a non-existent world.

If there is a common theme in the reaction to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn it is that he is a throwback to the politics of a long-gone age. Twenty-first-century politics – we have been encouraged to believe – isn’t driven by ideological conflict. Mainstream parties are agreed on the para­meters governing how policies are set; a type of democratic capitalism is the framework within which these parties compete to deliver shared social goals. In some countries new forces may have emerged that do not accept this consensus – parties in many ways quite different from one another but loosely described as populist, such as Syriza and Podemos on the left, Golden Dawn on the far right and less easily classifiable forces such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, while in America Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is having an unexpectedly large impact. Yet these developments are ascribed to the particular problems of the eurozone, which are believed to be manageable, and in the case of Trump to the difficulties the Republicans face in coming up with a candidate with broad appeal. According to this conventional wisdom, there is no reason to suppose that any shift in the constellation of political forces is under way in western democracies.

Corbyn’s decisive victory in the election for the Labour leadership plants a question mark over this assumption. The Labour Party has played an important role in British politics since Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government in 1924. The party has undergone periods of upheaval, and for anyone who was around at the time, it is tempting to view Corbyn’s rise as a rerun of events in 1983, when under the leadership of Michael Foot it produced a manifesto, echoed in Corbyn’s policy statements today and advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EU and large-scale nationalisation, which the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman called “the longest suicide note in history”. In the event, Labour didn’t expire, but it was incapable of mounting any challenge to Margaret Thatcher and remained out of power until Tony Blair formed his first government in 1997 – in all, a period of nearly 20 years. Now that Corbyn has won, it is easy to conclude that the result for Labour will be no different.

In fact, the stakes are higher this time. In 1983 Labour still had its working-class bastions in Scotland and the north, sources of support that have respectively disappeared and are diminishing. Contrary to the Blairite mantra, there is no way forward in trying to reclaim the safety of the centre ground. In Britain as in other countries at the present time, there is no safe centre ground. Labour cannot accommodate post-Thatcherite individualism in the south of England as well as the party’s working-class supporters in the north who are attracted by Ukip, at the same time as it struggles to regain voters in a leftish, nationalist Scotland. The trick of triangulation will no longer work.


Moreover, Labour is no longer the historic party that shaped Britain for generations. It would be foolish to deny any achievements to the governments formed by Blair and Brown; but the effect of New Labour was to hollow out the party, emptying it of its internal culture and making it the instrument of the leader of the day – and Corbyn will be a new type of leader. When Michael Foot became leader he had experience in government and as leader of the House of Commons. Tony Benn, who stood for the position of deputy leader in 1981 and helped produce the split in the party that kept it out of power for so many years, had extensive experience of government. Some are comparing Corbyn with George Lansbury, who led Labour between 1932 and 1935; but Lansbury had served as commissioner of works under MacDonald. Unlike any of these predecessors, Corbyn has no experience of office and his record in parliament is that of permanent opposition. By selecting him the party has taken a leap into the dark.

A heavy responsibility must lie with Ed Miliband and his advisers. Not only did they lead the party to defeat by directing their campaign to a country yearning for an egalitarian type of capitalism – a country that doesn’t exist, as I wrote in the New Statesman in February – but by changing the rules of the leadership election they set in motion a process that has changed the party irrevocably. The Conservatives extended the vote to party members in the leadership contest that produced Iain Duncan Smith; but they left MPs with the prerogative of selecting two candidates from whom members would choose. In contrast, Labour Party members have now imposed a leader on MPs. Miliband and his advisers have created a new party more definitively than did the architects of New Labour. Labour is now more like an extra-parliamentary body, with power in the hands of activists. It is a body that Corbyn – and any subsequent leader – will find difficulty controlling.


Looking back, it becomes clear that Corbyn is one of the by-products of a project of marketisation, begun in Britain by Thatcher and continued during the era of New Labour, which has been pursued in different forms in many countries. Corbyn is one of the unintended consequences of this project and its recurrent crises. In Britain the effect of Thatcher’s policies was to undermine hierarchies in society and her own party and weaken old patterns of voting, while the attempt to construct a global free market has come unstuck on differences in political systems and disparities in economic development. The architects of the project assumed that, as the world converted to capitalism, it would also embrace liberal democracy. It was an assumption with little basis in history, and the social disruption that goes with the spread of the market has actually produced a plethora of illiberal and fundamentalist movements.

Corbyn is part of a new politics that is developing alongside the current crises of globalisation. As such, it is a response to real-world problems. The trouble is that Cobynite solutions belong in the realm of fantasy. At the same time, like some manifestations of this new politics in other countries, his rise has given voice to some old and highly toxic attitudes.



The 1990s, when the Blair project took shape, were years of complacency. It was widely believed that with the collapse of the Soviet Union only one system remained in place: the mix of representative democracy and managed capitalism that existed in Europe, the US and other western countries. Post-communist Russia might be experiencing deep depression as it struggled to implement western-led policies of economic shock therapy, while a version of capitalism was booming in China under communist auspices. But the contradictions from which these countries were suffering would be resolved as they were forced to embrace the sole system that combined high levels of productivity with respect for modern aspirations to self-government. A global middle class was emerging, carrying with it aspirations for political freedom and personal autonomy, which would, in time, make the prevailing type of western capitalism universal.

These attitudes had more than a little in common with those Maynard Keynes analysed in 1919 when, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, he described how in the age that came to an end in August 1914 an affluent Londoner

. . . could . . . proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference . . . he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalisation of which was nearly complete in practice.

A similar sense of normalcy existed in the 1990s. There were some clouds on the horizon. More than economic failure, a feature of the Soviet system throughout its existence, it was nationalism and religion – in the form of defeat by western-supported jihadists in Afghanistan and loss of control in Poland and the Baltic states – that supplied the catalyst for its implosion. The wars that raged in the Balkans throughout the 1990s demonstrated that these forces continued to be potent sources of conflict. But they had little place in the western model that was supposed to be spreading globally, so ethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia could be written off as a sign of backwardness. The first Gulf war of 1991, a resource war in which western states protected oil supplies without having any larger goals in the region, had on its own terms been successful and could be safely forgotten.

The 9/11 attacks destroyed this sense of safety, but the belief that democratic capitalism was the only system that could in future be legitimate wasn’t abandoned. The global campaign against terrorism which was launched after the attacks was touted as being also a war for freedom and democracy. In practice, it meant backing Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes in the Gulf – from which much of the funding for the fundamentalist ideologies that infuse al-Qaeda and Isis has emanated – and turning a blind eye to the role of rogue elements in the state of Pakistan, another western ally, in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even in governmental circles, it is now accepted that this “war on terror” – a term that has been banished from the official lexicon – was a ruinously expensive failure.

The disastrous impact of the Iraq war is still unfolding. Labour’s Blairite wing has tended to pass over the subject as quickly as possible. But the promotion of a western model by military force was an integral part of the project of marketisation, while the failure of regime change was pivotal in Labour’s decline. Not only did the war create a failed state, large parts of which are now controlled by Islamic State forces. Compounded by the situation in Libya, an ungoverned space as a result of Britain and France toppling Muammar al-Gaddafi, and by the ongoing civil war in Syria, regime change in Iraq has magnified the flow of refugees into Europe, flows that can only increase if Bashar al-Assad is finally overthrown and the state of Syria disintegrates completely. Any idea that a western model of democracy can be installed in these conditions is wilful delusion.

Estimated as ranging between $1trn and $3trn, the cost of the Iraq war may well have contributed to the financial crisis that erupted in 2007. But the crash signalled a larger breach in the process of globalisation that has been under way over the past few decades. As globalisation has advanced, middle-class living standards in advanced societies have stagnated and the prospects of young people have contracted; many are mired in debt. Where poverty has been much reduced, as in China, rising incomes have been combined with greater insecurity. The world’s middle classes are turning to extreme political movements, such as the French Front National and America’s Tea Party, while giving their support to authoritarian regimes (like Vladimir Putin’s) that promise them safety. When globalisation is in trouble, floundering middle classes and extremist politics go together.

Here, it is useful to distinguish between, on the one hand, globalisation as a technological process, in which the world’s economies are becoming increasingly interconnected and which is unstoppable, and, on the other, the global free market promoted by neoliberal ideologues, which – like the internationalised economy that Keynes described, which fell apart in the years following the First World War – could well break down. Nowadays it is not uncommon for neoliberalism to be dismissed as a kind of ideological phantom in its own right. It’s true that the term may be too broadly applied. Hayek and Friedman were neoliberals in that they believed in a free market with minimum government intervention: Blair is a neoconservative who believes in a strong state and does not hesitate to subordinate market imperatives to political ends. But neoliberals and neoconservatives do share one crucial belief. For both, anything that stands in the way of democratic capitalism is “on the wrong side of history”.

This was the mindset that produced the Iraq war. Of course, geopolitical strategies to do with oil played a significant role. But lying behind these stratagems was an ideological faith that if only Saddam Hussein’s despotism was removed, a modern democracy would rise from the rubble. This ruling world-view equates modernity with the rise of the market, and forgets the many other movements – some humane and civilised, others horribly malign – that have developed alongside and against the spread of market society.

The same mindset was on display in Blair’s recent attack on Scottish nationalism as “the politics of the caveman”. Blindness to the growing significance of nationalism is one of the things Blair shares with Ed Miliband. A failure to grasp that Scotland was hiving off to become a separate political culture was a crucial factor in Labour’s defeat in May. If the party is now on a course of ­collapse akin to that of the Liberal Party when it was undone by Irish home rule nearly a century ago, one reason is that ­Labour’s leading lights have clung to a ­progressive narrative in which nationalism is a declining force.


The belief that nationalism is premodern is historically illiterate. The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War and inaugurated the nation state, was signed in 1648. Later, the nation state would become the principal focus of the demand for popular government, and despite many attempts to overcome that fact, national governments continue to mark the upper limit of democratic accountability. Whether of the civic variety that prevails in Scotland or the ethnic sort that wreaked such havoc in central Europe and the Balkans, nationalism is an expression of enduring human needs for identity and recognition which show no sign of fading away. Nationalism and its pathologies are as much a part of the modern world as the global market, and in many cases the two have been intertwined.

One of the common features of the new political movements commonly described as populist is that they trade on a conflict between a market-driven agenda that requires openness to global flows of capital and people and the workings of democracy, which act to limit these flows. Obeying conflicting imperatives, democracy and global capitalism are not natural allies. The mobility of capital is not matched by that of labour; the European migrant crisis reflects this asymmetry. Aggravated by western policies of regime change that have left zones of war and anarchy in their wake, the struggle of large numbers of people to move from dislocated societies into the relative safety of Europe is not a one-off event, but a feature of globalisation that will continue for generations. The freedom of movement that existed before the First World War was not contested because democracy was limited then and the welfare state almost non-existent. Today, with already large pools of unemployment in a number of countries, the flows of people will contribute to ongoing political radicalisation.

The forms taken by the new politics vary widely. In the United States, Donald Trump’s campaign rehearses some familiar themes of American nativism. Mistrust of China continues a long tradition, as does Trump’s implicit protectionism. What is new is how he has been able to advance by projecting an image of himself as an anti-politician. Helped by his wealth, celebrity and near-universal name recognition, he has also been empowered by a popular American perception that, even more than in the past, government is a game rigged by special interests while the middle classes are ignored.

At the other end of the spectrum, the campaign of Bernie Sanders, a long-serving independent member of Congress who describes himself as a socialist, is also drawing large crowds. Sanders’s platform – which features reducing inequality, fighting climate change and federal measures to promote job creation – could hardly be more different from Trump’s. (Interestingly, both accept that large-scale immigration has ­disturbing implications for American wage levels.) That these two, quite different candidates have evoked such a response suggests widespread disillusion with centrist politics. But disaffection with a dysfunctional system has yet to produce anything like large-scale political revolt.

In parts of the eurozone this point has been reached. The rise of new political forces is a reaction against a regime of austerity in which mainstream parties are seen as complicit. The collapse of the centre has gone hand in hand with a rejection of neoliberalism. It may be too simple to say that the euro has become a neoliberal project, but the cult of austerity has a definite ideological pedigree in Ordoliberalism, an ideology that emphasises the active role of the state in creating conditions that favour market competition, which played a prominent role in the reconstruction of the German economy after the Second World War. Rejecting any programme of minimising government, Ordoliberalism might seem at first sight to be altogether different from neoliberalism. But Ordoliberals have in common with neoliberals a commitment to placing economic policy beyond the reach of democratic politics. In the Ordoliberal view, a regime of strictly observed rules is an indispensable precondition of economic stability. Among these must be stringent rules for balancing budgets and the repayment of debt. Under these rules the regime of austerity can be neither democratically legitimated nor democratically reformed. The effect of imposing this German ideology on the eurozone has been to cede popular legitimacy to radical new movements.

Among the forces that have emerged are some that replay themes resonant of earlier periods in European history. The hateful prejudices expressed by Golden Dawn need no elaboration. But there are noxious strands in other new parties. In Beppe Grillo’s Five Star, an anti-establishment rhetoric of resistance to “the Caste” – the established political class – can, for some of the movement’s members, easily translate into anti-Semitism. Marine Le Pen’s Front National continues to promote a vision of national identity that is framed to exclude sections of the population, including Muslim citizens of France. Outside the eurozone, Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian experiment in what he has described as ­“illiberal democracy” involves mobilising popular sentiment against long-persecuted minorities – Jews, gay people, Roma, Muslims and immigrants. Many on the left have applauded the welcome given to fleeing migrants, particularly by Germany; but the sudden suspension of the Schengen Agreement by the Germans, following the reaction in post-communist Europe, points in a different direction. A process of reversion to the historical mean may be under way, taking Europe back to the politics of the 20th century.



Jeremy Corbyn belongs among the new forces that are emerging in a number of countries at the same time as the break-up of centrist politics. It is the former Blairite ascendancy that is beached in the past. Did anyone really believe that Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership could equip Labour to mount a serious challenge to the Conservatives in 2020? Even if one of them had squeaked through to victory, he or she would still have had to come to terms with Corbyn’s mass following in the party. But it is Corbyn that poses the greatest danger to Labour’s future.

If Ed Miliband addressed his campaign to a non-existent country, Corbyn addresses a non-existent world. At the present time, Cuba is opening the door to the US and a capitalist Vietnam has been discussing military co-operation with the US defence secretary; Iran seems to be seeking some kind of rapprochement with the Great Satan; Russia is ruled by a type of authoritarian crony capitalism, propped up by nationalism and the Orthodox Church, which despite sanctions and a weakening economy appears to enjoy wider popular support than the Soviet system did at any point in its peacetime history; China’s rulers are struggling to keep their experiment in capitalism on track, watched uneasily by western governments whose own versions of capitalism depend heavily on China’s success; while Venezuela is sinking into poverty and chaos under the impact of low oil prices and endemic corruption.

In these conditions, the notion that Britain can strike out alone on a path to socialism is a triumph of whimsy. What would socialism mean? Even if the current phase of globalisation goes into reverse, the technological advance that drives economic change will not slow down. How would eBay, Amazon and Airbnb fit into a Corbynist Britain?

It’s not so much that Corbyn’s outlook is backward-looking as that it has always resisted contact with reality. He has not changed his political stance since the 1970s – a fact many regard as a point in his favour. But the view of politics he professes, which sounds so invigoratingly unorthodox today, was thoroughly commonplace then. The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings. This was never the predominant view in the Labour Party, but for many years something like it permeated the left intelligentsia.

It was this ideology that enabled the Soviet Union to be seen as flawed, mildly repressive and even rather dull, but still essentially benign. Rigorous historical studies that demonstrated the enormous human costs of communism – such as The Great Terror (1968) by the late Robert Conquest – were dismissed as exercises in cold war propaganda. Later, neoconservatives subscribed to a similar view of things with their belief that war may be used to promote grandiose projects of regime change. The principal result in each case has been millions of broken lives. Catastrophic gradualism appeals to a type of mind that prides itself on its tough-mindedness while being invincibly innocent of the forces that drive politics, which include sheer hatred as much as the passion for justice. It may be this mentality that accounts for Corbyn’s links with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Inquiries about these connections have provoked a backlash among his supporters, who regard them as McCar­thyite smears.

But such sympathies are of a piece with the mindset that Orwell diagnosed. There has long been a tendency in the murkier depths of European politics, including sections of the left, to suspend moral judgement in regard to groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers and to excuse anti-Semitism on the grounds that those who display it are involved in legitimate struggles. That this strange tolerance can surface at the top of Labour is new and ruptures the party’s deep links with the British liberal tradition. For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values.

Some observers – such as the old Tory war horse Kenneth Clarke – have opined that Corbyn’s platform could be more electorally appealing in an economic downturn. This may be so, but the loss of Scotland and the need to garner Tory votes in the south will pose insuperable obstacles to a workable majority, and a minority government in coalition with the SNP will remain unpopular with both English and Scottish voters. Even so, Corbyn’s coronation alters British politics in fundamental ways. One example that has not been much discussed – though its importance has been signalled by Chuka Umunna’s departure from the shadow cabinet – concerns Britain’s relations with the EU.

Brexit is the unavoidable logic of Corbyn’s policy agenda. Whatever may be meant by “people’s quantitative easing” – some more radical version of the unconventional policies of money creation that have been pursued since the financial crisis – it would hardly be compatible with Britain’s continued place in the EU. Austerity has in any case shredded the claim (made in the past on the soft left) that European capitalism is more “social” than the Anglo-Saxon variety. Because of the migrant crisis, the In/Out referendum that must occur before the end of 2017 is already a riskier gambit than it was a few months ago. Corbyn’s opting for Brexit would make the outcome even more uncertain.

Corbyn may last longer as leader than many currently suppose. As resignations from the shadow cabinet immediately after his victory showed, he faces strong hostility from the parliamentary party. But he won the leadership contest by a large margin, and any attempt to dislodge him will provoke intense resistance from the grass roots. His supporters may organise to deselect uncooperative MPs, taking advantage of the fact that upcoming constituency boundary changes will produce fewer Labour seats. As the new deputy leader, Tom Watson will be a formidable figure. He may be able to exercise a restraining influence over some of Corbyn’s more far-fetched policies; but his first priority will be to defeat any threat to Corbyn’s position. Labour may descend into a civil war more protracted and damaging than the debacle of the early 1980s.

Another scenario is realistically possible, however. Blairites and centrists may be a spent force that has been routed. In its shift towards becoming an extra-parliamentary party, Labour may already have ceased to be a party of government. By electing Corbyn, Labour may have passed a point from which it will be unable to return.

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 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War