One of the best ways to test your beliefs is to look through the other end of the telescope – try to imagine your side’s words in the mouth of someone from an opposing camp. It’s an uncomfortable exercise because you often realise how much you ration the extension of good faith to your opponents, and quite how ready you are to excuse and indulge peccadilloes in those you support.
There have been two recent obvious examples. On 13 September, David Cameron greeted the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn with a tweet that read: “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.” A few hours later, the Russian embassy in the UK tweeted an acidic retort: “Just imagine UK media headlines if Russian President called a leading opposition party threat to national security?” Just like that, the hyperbole of Cameron’s statement swims into focus. (Although, before you start to feel too sympathetic to Russia, here’s the chess champion and dissident Garry Kasparov’s pointed response to the embassy: “Before or after that opposition party’s leader was arrested or murdered?”)
My second reverse-telescope moment came when I learned that Corbyn’s long-term friend John McDonnell, now the shadow chancellor, employs a bright young staffer called . . . Seb Corbyn.
Now try to imagine the left’s response if one of David Cameron’s kids had a job with George Osborne. There would be some pointed questions about the impartiality of the recruitment process, that’s for sure. But it’s one of those irregular verbs: I believe my son was just the best person for the job, you give your kids a helping hand on the career ladder, he is a nepotist.
A waste of principles
I’ve ended up in an odd place this summer: feeling immense sympathy with the causes that Jeremy Corbyn stands for – fighting inequality and the unfair impact of cuts and welfare “reforms” in particular – without ever feeling drawn to support his candidacy. For a while, I felt as if I was the only person in the world who had become more sympathetic to Blairism over the course of the summer.
There’s a simple reason for that: I spent a fair bit of the last parliament writing and commissioning articles on, say, how the bedroom tax has made life a misery for thousands of disabled people, or worrying that the benefits cap will price poor families in the south-east out of their homes – and therefore away from their support networks, making it harder to find work again. It didn’t make a blind bit of difference, and the cap seems more and more like a natural fact of life every day that Iain Duncan Smith stays in office. By the time Labour regains power, who knows how low it will be? Reclaiming ground you have conceded is more exhausting than holding your position. Yes, power without principles might be terrifying, but principles without power are wasted.
The Trade Union Bill, currently passing through parliament, is a good example of what the Conservatives believe they can get away with when they feel as though the opposition has taken its eye off the ball. It’s astoundingly illiberal.
First, there’s the attempt to require strike ballots to have minimum turnout levels – higher than you get in many local and European elections. Then there is a truly absurd suggestion that unions must submit a “picketing and protest plan” two weeks in advance of action, including details of any Twitter and Facebook postings. (Who plans tweets a fortnight in advance?) The penalty for infringement would be £20,000.
Inevitably, the government claims that the fines would only be a last resort, and wouldn’t be used for pettifogging infringements such as an individual organiser using a loudhailer without authorisation. As the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, puts it: “I genuinely don’t know if it is sinister, stupid or both.”
The case of Gayle Newland is one of those perplexing stories that wouldn’t be believable if it weren’t true. Newland, 25, was convicted of pretending to be a man to trick one of her friends into having sex with her using a prosthetic penis. She created a male alias, Kye Fortune, on Facebook and used it to seduce her friend, who told the court: “Every time I met up with Kye Fortune,
I either had the mask on already or he would wait outside the door and I would put it on. I was so desperate to be loved.” The friend even wore the blindfold when they watched films together. It’s a case made to trigger everyone’s “No, come on” meter, but the jury agreed the deception was such that her friend couldn’t fully consent.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the case is that it is not unique. Similar events can be traced back as far as the 18th century, when Henry Fielding wrote The Female Husband, about a transvestite woman called Mary Hamilton who pulled off the same trick. At least in that case, the relationship was not consummated, with Fielding recording of Mary’s wife: “Her hands began to move in such direction, that the discovery would absolutely have been made, had not the arrival of Dinner, at that very instant, prevented it.” (Mary later did a runner out of a window.)
Comparing Fielding’s book with the Newland case is a useful reminder that when it comes to sex, human nature changes more slowly than we might imagine.
A feminist at the movies
Being a “professional feminist”, as angry people on the internet keep calling me, isn’t all hard work. A few nights ago, I was invited to a screening of the forthcoming film Suffragette. It was excellent, paying attention to the class dynamics of the women’s movement, and raising the uncomfortable question of whether domestic terrorism was necessary to get women the vote. The other end of the telescope, indeed.
Peter Wilby is away