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16 June 2021

How politics lost touch with everyday life

Two new books argue politics is too often arrogantly distant from the things that really matter.   

By Melissa Benn

Early on in his elegiac study of how our literary and aesthetic past might animate our political future, Marc Stears singles out DH Lawrence’s “wonderful essay” “Insouciance”, written in 1928, which he believes embodies “the vision that animates this book”. In the essay, Lawrence describes a meeting with two elderly ladies who try to draw him into a conversation about “Benito Mussolini and the potential threat he posed to the world” as he watches two men mow the lawn of the hotel where they are all staying. For Lawrence, “the worst ogress couldn’t have treated me more villainously. I don’t care about right and wrong, politics, fascism… There was a direct sensuous contact between me, the lake, mountains, cherry trees, mowers… All this was cut off by the fatal shears of the abstract word fascism… the little old lady… beheaded me, and flung my head into abstract space.”

It may be difficult for a modern reader to agree with Lawrence that he is the true representative of what he calls “actual living”. But both Lawrence and Stears are trying to make the larger point that it is in our daily life that the most significant experiences reside and that politics is too often unhelpfully broad-brush, arrogantly distant from the things that really matter. At the same time, we are alerted to the central problem of any study that ambitiously seeks to reclaim the values of everyday life. Whose everyday life? Whose values?

Stears is an academic, policymaker (currently director of the Sydney Policy Lab) and former speech writer for Ed Miliband, and it soon becomes clear that his ideas spring from cherished memories of a happy Welsh childhood. Celebrations of such familial and communal values, he argues, can be found in the writings of Lawrence, George Orwell, JB Priestley and Dylan Thomas (particularly in Thomas’s Under Milk Wood), as well as the images of the photographer Bill Brandt and the artist Barbara Jones. Taken together, Stears argues, their work represents a generous if unselfconscious social solidarity that sustained the best of Britishness through the interwar years and the Second World War, and found its apotheosis in the 1951 Festival of Britain: a guiding vision that could once again inspire our fractured nation.

[see also: The narrow and shallow optimism of Ed Miliband’s Go Big]

Stears’s quest is interesting and bold, but his attempt to unearth a consistent theme across a medley of early 20th-century literary works and then to apply them to the pressing problems of 21st-century Britain soon becomes fraught – as he acknowledges – with contradictions. Orwell might indeed represent, in EM Forster’s words, the view that “if a man cannot enjoy the return of spring why should he be happy with a labour-saving utopia?” But many of Orwell’s writings, Stears admits, “ruthlessly undercut the worth of this very same vision”. And what to make of Orwell, Priestley and Thomas all displaying the disdainful prejudices of their day in giving “the distinct impression that they would rather people of different nationalities and different ethnicities be kept apart”?

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Stears is perhaps at his best when he writes in a more astringent mode. He is good on the condescending nostalgia of the followers of the literary critic FR Leavis and positively blasts the irresponsible leftists of the 1930s such as Stephen Spender and WH Auden, the latter offering a defence of “necessary murder” in a poem on the Spanish Civil War. In the present day Stears identifies similar de haut en bas strains in the soulless professionalisation of so much politics and the harsh and one-dimensional tone of many on both right and left.

There lurks beneath the surface of this second section an intriguing, if skeletal, account of his own growing disillusionment with progressive politics over the past two decades: these are experiences, however, that Stears brushes past, or brushes under the carpet. Instead, he prefers to call for a return to the “politics of the everyday”, a celebration of what the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has called “unforbidden pleasures” such as preparing a meal for friends or planning a weekend away – everyday activities that have acquired fresh poignancy in the present crisis.

Of course, politics should express, and harness, such deep human needs and wants, and we are as far as we have ever been from having leaders who instinctually understand the rhythms and values of so-called ordinary lives. But I worry that encouraging the reshaping of public discourse, particularly in this slick age of social media, brings fresh dangers to Stears’s manifestly decent project. It is just too easy for canny politicians to hijack the language of the everyday while undermining the very conditions that allow most to enjoy it.

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Boris Johnson’s speech in January praising home-schoolers was a perfect example of the genre, playing to the parental gallery while evading the government’s lamentable failure to properly plan, provide and consult over state education during the pandemic. Keir Starmer’s reliance on the Union Jack has been widely criticised as a form of vapid patriot signalling. As Stears surely knows from his time at the top of Labour, it is much harder to persuade both the public and the media of the need for meaningful structural reform, particularly in order to promote genuine equality. Today’s Labour Party may be moving back to something approaching Stears’s more moderate vision, but it already runs the risk of sounding hollow without a policy programme behind it.

***

The social historian Selina Todd addresses many of the same concerns as Stears, examining the mass of modest and too often politically overlooked lives. Todd’s self-set task, however, is to illuminate the frequently empty claims at the heart of our nation’s century-long obsession with “social mobility” and to show it has depended far less on personal effort than on larger forces, for good or for ill.

Todd takes a brisk journey through seven generations from the late 19th century to today’s millennials. She gives each cohort its own catchy moniker – the Pioneers, the Magpies and so on – and tells their story through statistics and personal testimony. Crucially, she illuminates the particular and often pernicious ideologies of successive periods, from the Samuel Smiles-style mantras of the late-Victorian era through the postwar belief in educational meritocracy to the individualist consensus of both Thatcherism and New Labour.

Refreshingly, Todd is as concerned with the story of women’s efforts to ascend the social ladder as men’s – an important corrective to the classic cohort studies on social mobility that took fathers’ and sons’ incomes and professional positions as the given start and end point. She is also rightly attuned to the many ways in which women, largely as wives and mothers, have so often sacrificed their own prospects to facilitate the rise of male relatives.

What soon becomes clear from the human stories in these pages is how constrained and conditional has been the rise of so many of the so-called socially mobile, who have graduated from manual to clerical work in the first half of the 20th century, and from working-class backgrounds to professional or managerial jobs in the second half. Todd holds firmly to the classical Marxist distinction between the majority who must earn their living and the tiny elite who live off “huge tracts of land and family wealth”. Whatever their trajectory, no one in these pages could be said to be genuinely rich.

The book is a trove of stories of human hope and disappointment. Todd quotes the wife of a working-class man in the postwar period who rose up to a “nice position” of management. “I have a nice house and I can afford things… but deep down I have not had the happiness I expected.” Feelings of existential loneliness, social discomfort and fear of falling were common to many who successfully ascended the class ladder.

The most heartbreaking stories are of those who, due to straitened family circumstance or through being born at the wrong time or in the wrong region, never achieve their dreams. Almost every tale bears out Todd’s central argument “that it was not individual ambition or self-help, but state investment and strategy that determined a person’s mobility or lack of it”. The two most fortunate cohorts were the “Breakthrough Generation”, which enjoyed the expanded white-collar opportunities of the Second World War and immediately after, and the “Golden Generation”, which benefited from the growth in housing and free health and education in the long postwar boom. It was not just that an expanding public sector made for more room at the top, but that greater economic security fostered both individual innovation and a more generous collective politics. The stories of the postwar generation are more uplifting than those of other generations trying to cling to a newly won class position or social respectability.

***

Since 1979, with the shrinking of the state, reduced bargaining power of the unions and the slow but steady privatisation of public services, the chance of widespread social mobility has further diminished. Yet the concept itself has been the overriding obsession of the main political parties for the past two decades, with education increasingly peddled as the key. Todd is absolutely right that growing social and educational inequality renders this narrative meaningless for most young people who feel their lack of success as a uniquely personal failure, while the cushioned offspring of the wealthy or relatively affluent continue to believe their own achievements are all down to hard work.

Meanwhile, an endless stream of official or charitable initiatives to stimulate personal ambition – from Gifted and Talented schemes to programmes such as Speakers for Schools that bring inspiring role models into state schools – will never have any substantive impact on the lives of the genuinely disadvantaged. Only societal reform on a huge scale can move the dial in a significant way.

In her last chapter Todd lays out a far-reaching manifesto that includes universal, free, non-selective education, properly funded lifelong learning, the revaluation of different kinds of work, the redistribution of political power and the spreading of opportunity through the regions. It is a programme similar to the one that Stears cheers on, though he does so less directly. Todd makes explicit her belief that until we have politicians brave enough to advance such a radical and reasonable programme, the everyday lives of the majority of people have no real chance to flourish.

Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Inspired a Nation and How It Can Again
Marc Stears
Belknap Harvard, 248pp, £30

Snakes and Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth
Selina Todd
Chatto & Windus, 448pp, £25

[see also: Gordon Brown’s convincing and clear-sighted vision for the future]

This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web