19 – 25 August issue
Cover story: The Labour schism.
George Eaton on how Jeremy Corbyn and his opponents in the party are preparing for more battles after the leadership election.
The Diary: James Schneider on what Momentum is learning from the Bernie Sanders campaign and Labour’s courtroom dramas.
Roy Hattersley: Brexit will be a disaster for the families that Labour represents. We should try to stop it.
Simon Winder: Why the Brexit moaning must end.
Edinburgh Notebook: David Torrance on being hounded off Twitter, the politics of independence and why Nicola Sturgeon has overplayed her hand.
Helen Lewis: Why elites are everywhere . . . and nowhere.
Tanya Gold: Monarchy is a work of fiction – so stand down, William, and let Harry the cartoon prince be king.
Cover story: The Labour schism.
The NS political editor, George Eaton, joins a rally for Jeremy Corbyn in Milton Keynes at which the Labour leader delivers his stump speech from the top of a fire engine – his campaign’s new shtick. The crowd is so devoted, it draws comparisons with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and Corbyn’s victory in the leadership vote on 24 September seems assured. But another struggle for supremacy will begin almost immediately, Eaton writes. The issue of reselection for MPs will be at the forefront of the party’s civil war. Eaton talks to Peter Kyle, now at risk of losing his seat (Hove and Portslade) in this way:
Although mandatory reselection was abolished by Neil Kinnock in 1990, MPs can be ousted if they lose the “trigger ballots” held automatically before a general election (from which open selections result). During a recent visit to Brighton, Corbyn said that he would not “interfere” in attempts to remove the local MP Peter Kyle. “What goes on in CLPs is part of a democratic process,” he stated.
“I think a lot of other people were shocked. I wasn’t shocked or surprised,” Kyle said. “What Jeremy does is, he stands passively by while bad things happen. When Ruth Smeeth [a Labour MP] was attacked at the launch of the anti-Semitism report [by Shami Chakrabarti] he sat quietly by and didn’t even open his mouth.”
Kyle added: “When Diane Abbott attacked Jo Cox for writing an article with [the former Conservative cabinet minister] Andrew Mitchell about international development, Jeremy Corbyn did not say a single word when he was asked at the PLP meeting whether his front bench should be attacking new-intake MPs. He didn’t even speak . . .
“Part of the responsibility of a leader is to proactively stop bad things from happening. For me, what Jeremy said when he was down in Brighton is part of the pattern I’ve seen from the start.”
MPs warn that a wave of deselections could lead to the formation of a breakaway parliamentary faction, as long advocated by the former Harold Wilson aide Joe Haines. Frank Field told me last year that any MP deselected should trigger an immediate by-election and stand as an “independent Labour” candidate.
A victory for Corbyn will also trigger a power battle at the top of the party:
His allies want to replace both [Tom] Watson, who was elected deputy leader last year, and [Iain] McNicol, who has been general secretary since 2011. The former, who is from the party’s old right, outraged Corbynites when on 9 August he warned of “Trotsky entryists” who were “twisting young arms”. “I voted for Tom Watson!” Gail Gallagher [a social worker and Corbyn supporter at the rally] said angrily, in Milton Keynes. “What a snake.”
Corbyn’s allies accuse McNicol of aiding the attempt by members of the National Executive Committee to prevent his automatic inclusion on the ballot and of tacitly supporting Smith’s campaign. The leader’s team alleges that Smith had early access to members’ email addresses and was given advance sight of the questions for the first hustings in Cardiff on 4 August. They are further aggrieved by McNicol’s successful court appeal against the inclusion in the contest of 130,000 people registered as Labour members since January.
After much discussion of the party’s “woman problem” following Angela Eagle’s failed leadership bid and the selection of an all-male roster of mayoral candidates, allies of Corbyn joke that replacing McNicol with a woman would “kill two birds with one stone”. Jennie Formby, an NEC member and former political director of the Unite mega-union (who has a child with Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary), is touted as a possible successor.
Control of the party bureaucracy is regarded as essential to completion of Corbyn’s internal revolution. The leader’s office has long believed that Labour staffers are working to rule, at best, and plotting sedition at worst. But Corbyn’s opponents say that he lacks the support required to remove the general secretary. The GMB union, which endorsed Smith and of which McNicol is a former political officer, is among the reputed majority on the NEC for Owen Smith. But a Corbyn source warned: “McNicol has pissed off a lot of [trade union] general secretaries. The GMB alone won’t be enough to save him.”
As the party’s elected deputy leader, Watson cannot be removed without a challenge initiated by at least 50 MPs or MEPs – a threshold that cannot be achieved. But Corbyn’s allies float potential rule changes such as term limits or the introduction of an additional female deputy. In this way, Watson can be undermined. “If MPs like Jess Phillips and Caroline Flint want to propose that, the leadership will be behind them,” a source said.
The trade unions and Corbyn supporters in Momentum, the activist group launched after his leadership victory last year, are pushing for a remodelling closer to home. They speak of having “bailed out” the leader’s office after a succession of unforced errors over the past 11 months. The TSSA transport and travel union and the Communication Workers Union, which provide much of the campaign’s organisation and give it financial heft, are likely to demand additional personnel in Corbyn’s office. Sam Tarry, the TSSA’s national political officer, is tipped to make a full-time move to the leader’s spin operation to assist his communications director, Seumas Milne (the Guardian journalist whom even his opponents now regard as unsackable).
The overarching question remains how Corbyn operates with a parliamentary party that has declared no confidence in him. Watson has proposed the return of shadow cabinet elections, which were abolished by Ed Miliband in 2011. This would enable MPs to choose as many as 20 of their own number, to whom Corbyn would assign portfolios. “That would be one way for him of peacemaking,” a former shadow cabinet minister said. “If that were the case, I’d be prepared to put myself forward.”
However, a Corbyn source dismissed the idea. “It’s not going to happen,” he said: “they don’t have the numbers to get it through conference.” He added that the election of a representative for the Parliamentary Labour Party was a possibility.
He went on: “Jeremy is one of the most concessionary politicians around. He’d be very open to the idea of bringing people back, sitting down, listening to where things went wrong and where the input would be from the other side – seeing where there can be mutual ground.”
Corbyn’s team does not hesitate to warn that antagonistic MPs are putting themselves at risk of deselection by members. “The power’s there, we can’t stop it. We cannot say, ‘You cannot use the powers at your local CLP [Constituency Labour Party],’ ” a source said. “There’s no lever in the leader’s office for deselections. The issue is that there’s a lot of party members who are very annoyed at their MPs for going against them, and now they find they have a voice that they never normally had.”
The Diary: James Schneider.
This week’s diary comes from a figure at the centre of the power battle in Labour that Eaton describes: James Schneider, a national organiser of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum. Schneider explains what the group has learned from the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States – and why he has been anxiously awaiting news from the British courts this week:
There is no space in so few words to give an account of exactly what happened to Britain in the run-up to 23 June. But, whatever it represented, Brexit provided just about enough of a pretext for Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey to throw down a no-confidence motion for discussion at the Parliamentary Labour Party’s meeting the following Monday. There is no such procedure in Labour rules, but the long-planned coup by MPs had begun. The choreography continued with resignations from the shadow cabinet, timed for maximum damage at a time of national crisis. Soon, Brexit disappeared as a serious pretext.
We always knew that some in our party were planning to challenge Jeremy Corbyn before the next election. Now that it’s under way, we are doing well, but at times the past few weeks have still been shocking. Except for a bizarre attempt to keep Jeremy off the ballot altogether (more on that later), the organisers of the “Labour coup” have only a slim chance of winning – and they know it.
Their main argument is that Labour looks unelectable and poorly managed, and their primary tactic is to make Labour look as unelectable and poorly managed as possible. Some, of course, are just fighting for their ideas – but others appear to be engaged in a prolonged act of sabotage. If they can’t have Labour, no one can.
The sheer scale of the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn, and his vision to rebuild and transform Britain so that no one and no community is left behind, is breathtaking, and I have been there pretty much from the beginning.
Yes, some relationships in the party are being strained, and yes, we would all rather be fighting the Tories. But both the membership of Momentum and the Labour Party are skyrocketing. Momentum’s membership was roughly 4,000 at the beginning of the coup – it’s now over 17,000. Labour is the biggest political party in Europe, with over half a million members and growing. We don’t just get thousands at rallies in Liverpool; hundreds are turning up in villages in Cornwall.
This movement is not on the defensive. First in Momentum, and now in the leadership campaign, we’ve created systems and techniques that will revolutionise how political campaigning is done. We are learning from the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US, and trying as much as possible to make this campaign a laboratory for “digital” and other techniques that we can use to win a general election.
The coming of the fridges
The transformation of the “Jeremy for Labour” office in Euston, London, along with the campaign volunteer office in Holborn, has been startling. Suddenly, from being an under-resourced, volunteer-run organisation, we have become a well-oiled machine with a sizeable staff team. The eclectic mixture of office furniture was further enriched when a company downstairs decided to leave the UK post-Brexit and our entrepreneurial finance director bought up everything in their office for a very reasonable price. All of a sudden, the long-running argument about whether or not we could get a fridge is solved. We’ve got three.
Much of the past week has been spent anxiously awaiting news from courtrooms. Following a decision by the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) to disenfranchise all 130,000 members who joined since 12 January, some members took the party to court. I haven’t been involved in the case directly, but I can’t deny cheering them on – and not just because most of them would have voted our way.
In the end, we’re back to where we were: in the democratically ludicrous position of having a third of the party’s membership unable to elect the leader, even though they were told they would when they joined. If nothing else, this episode has exposed how democracy scares the powerful.
Trots, Trots everywhere
Very often, we find ourselves not in a battle of ideas, but in a battle over whether or not to have a battle of ideas. We know that Corbyn’s policies are hugely popular, among members and the wider population. This week, Jeremy launched policies for public ownership of public transport, something that most Tory voters support in polls, but it’s much larger than that. Pretty much every social and economic reform Jeremy and his team announce has majority public support – the neoliberal orthodoxy, in which politicians and commentators were schooled for the past thirty years, is melting.
In response, the Labour right kicks up dust. I find my phone buzzing at 6am with the revelation that Trotskyites are apparently behind the surge in Labour Party membership. No one seems interested that the biggest Labour-supporting Trot groups (the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Socialist Appeal) would be lucky to count 300 members between them. Instead, the main story centres around the Socialist Party (the artist formerly known as Militant Tendency), who aren’t actually in Labour and whose leadership is openly hostile to our party.
We could have a conversation about the hundreds of thousands of people engaging in politics for the first time. Instead, for one solid week, we get rolling coverage of the Socialist Party’s Peter Taaffe. In an interaction with an unnamed broadcaster, I try to bring perspective to the situation by arranging an appearance from a newly elected, Corbyn-supporting member of the NEC. I relax for half an hour, only to be rung up and told that someone elected by Labour members on a platform of engaging new members and growing the party is being pulled to make way for an interview with Derek Hatton, formerly of Militant.
A sense of exasperation strikes me, and then a question. Is this . . . trolling? Has the establishment run out of options and just started trolling us.
Guest Column: Roy Hattersley.
The committed Europhile and former deputy leader of the Labour Party Roy Hattersley argues that Brexit will be a catastrophe for the families that Labour represents and that the party should try to stop it:
It was only to be expected that the hardline Brexiteers – the people who lied about the cost of European Union membership, fraudulently claimed that Turkey was about to join the EU and invented stories about the imminent creation of a European army – would insist that the vote on 23 June was binding and irrevocable. Yet the endorsement of that prejudiced conclusion by members of parliament who supported the Remain campaign would be absurd.
MPs are not under a democratic obligation to rubber-stamp a referendum decision that, in their opinion, damages the interests of the men and women who elected them. Indeed, they have a constitutional duty to oppose measures that they judge would injure the people who sent them to the House of Commons. That would still have been the case even if the referendum had been devised with a purpose more noble than the protection of David Cameron from the wrath of the Little Englanders and imperial recidivists of the 1922 Committee.
For more than 200 years, MPs have accepted the definition of their role that Edmund Burke set out in an address to the electors of Bristol in 1774: “Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” That magisterial declaration might have been designed to stiffen the backbone of MPs who know that their constituents will suffer if Brexit goes ahead, but who accept the recently invented principle that requires them to vote for what they know to be wrong. Perhaps they believe that the decision cannot be reversed. It can.
The decisive battles have to be fought in the House of Commons. The passage of constitutional legislation provides endless opportunities for a long rearguard action and the government’s entire programme can be disrupted by the opposition of no more than a determined minority. Parliamentary tactics can help to achieve a withdrawal package that includes some concessions to Labour’s priorities. Yet the real objective must be the abandonment of the whole process. That requires the resuscitation and reinvigoration of the pressure groups that prepared the way for entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 but did very little to popularise the EU, which it became.
Their task will not be to prepare for a rerun of the referendum but to propagate the truth that the dire consequences of the result need not be embraced with meek resignation. Nobody believes that the Leave campaign would have accepted a 4-point majority for Remain as the final word on the subject. Those of us who know that leaving will, or would, be a disaster must replicate the Leavers’ tenacity.
Soon, the consequences of withdrawal will make it obvious enough that the British citizens who voted Leave made an epic mistake. The dire warnings of economic deterioration will be replaced by hard evidence of a fall in national income, abandoned investment plans, reductions in advertised job vacancies – and the effects on standards of living that will follow. It is notable that while the Prime Minister has promised that there will be no tax increases, she has remained ominously silent about cuts in the welfare budget. The damage that even the prospect of Brexit is bringing about provides irrefutable evidence of the catastrophe that would follow the execution of the withdrawal plan, whatever this may be.
During the referendum campaign, the choice before the British public was between the shortcomings – real and invented – of the European Union and the fictional bliss of independence, which the Brexiteers never thought it necessary to describe or define. Reality will now set in and the exit package will not seem so attractive when it becomes clear that the “regulations” from which our sovereign nation is to be freed include parts of the Jacques Delors package of rights at work. Sooner rather than later, the Brexit strategists will have to choose between agreeing to the free movement of labour and losing the economic benefits of the single market. We know that 60 per cent of voters believe that referendums are not the way in which great decisions should be determined. It should not be difficult to demonstrate that their judgement was confirmed in the summer of 2016 and that the time has come for MPs to take responsibility for determining where the UK’s future lies.
The Labour Party has, or should have, a special part to play in rectifying the mistake. The families that would suffer most from Brexit are, or should be, its first concern. Highly paid journalists and wealthy peers can afford to argue that a reduction in gross domestic product is a price worth paying for the restoration of Britain’s freedom from the rulings of the European Court of Justice. The bargain is less attractive to those who live at, or below, subsistence level and will be pushed further into the depths of poverty in the name of the amorphous notion of national sovereignty.
There is also a political bonus that Labour could win if it leads the fightback against the rejection of Europe. The parliamentary party, in desperate need of a cause for which it can unite, will – with the exception of a couple of political deviants – respond to a call to fight against the right wing of the Tory party and what is left of Ukip. And, for once, Labour can become the visibly patriotic party.
Membership of the EU is, and will eventually be seen to be, in the national interest. Labour must help to ensure that the realisation does not come after the catastrophe of withdrawal has been confirmed.
Simon Winder: Why the Brexit moaning must end.
The Germania author Simon Winder writes, however, that Brexit is the least of our troubles and calls for an end to the moaning:
A recent headline in the Times left me reeling at the speed at which the world has changed: “The moaners mustn’t be allowed a second vote”. But surely moaning was the essence of wanting to leave the EU?
In discussions about the Brexit vote, much of the attention has been focused on a mass revolt by the English working class. This was crucial, undoubtedly, but for me the sinking feeling I had while watching the early results came from staring at the map. I just knew that a swath of Middle England, from Somerset to Suffolk – that diehard Conservative territory – was about to turn on its master. For the first time in a generation, those places had a proper Tory prime minister, and now they were going to destroy him.
For anyone feeling even faintly disaffected with a careless and mean-spirited government, the opportunity that the referendum provided to give David Cameron and George Osborne a free kick in the head was almost too good to be true. Yet the Tories’ betrayal of themselves probably needs more explanation.
I shiver even to raise this, because I feel so dangerously close to these people in terms of my identity. I am never happier than when I’m wandering around a National Trust pile, admiring a luxuriant yet ordered garden from behind mullioned windows, contemplating coffee-and-walnut cake, humming a little Elgar under my breath and thinking about how tremendously brave our lads were in the Boer War. But what saves me is that I know this has nothing much to do with foreign policy or economic choices: that, ultimately, all that coffee-and-walnut cake has to come out somewhere.
The moaning at the heart of the Leave argument has gone on as long as anyone can remember. John Major was driven mad by various peculiar Tory MPs who made no sense and had the horrible air of those who wear monogrammed underwear and have a special room in which they listen only to Wagner. Incredibly, these people are still around. Michael Gove was correct, though, when he talked about British voters having had enough of “experts”: in effect, those wanting to leave the EU had almost no intellectual base of any kind beyond the utterings of iguanodons such as Bill Cash and Patrick Minford. The vote has not caused some intellectual leviathan to burst to the surface and transform the country. Instead, all we have is the unremitting moaniness of a deeply silly, coddled and evasive English middle class.
I keep having a nightmarish vision of a Union Jack-themed dinner party in Cromer, at which middle-aged couples, chewing local produce, stare across the table at each other, saying things like: “Tim, we’ve finally got our country back.” Yet what shape should that country, no longer strangled by the tentacles of Brussels, take? The moaning has gone on so long, it is no longer clear what it has to do with the EU. Besides, deep down, these people know that each time they said “Pole”, they actually meant “Somali”.
The only vision of the future described so far is one that frees up “the lion to roar once more”. But it is hard to see where and at what greater volume this could happen. Britons can be found all over the world – bribing Saudis, filling the Gulf of Mexico with spilled oil, grovelling to the Chinese, building London homes for Russian criminals. Modern Britain already acts on the widest stage. This is the heart of Middle England’s problem.
Taking a walk across London the other day, I was struck by how many businesses there were, lodged in posh streets, filled with nicely brought-up yet slimy young middle-class English men and women who supply yachts, financial “advice”, ugly art and discreet homes for a global clientele untrammelled by the EU or, indeed, by almost any legal framework. When the Mafia expert Roberto Saviano stated in May that Britain was “the most corrupt country in the world”, I initially felt a bit affronted, but walking west from the Strand to Park Lane proves how much Middle England has been behaving like some diseased Jeeves.
The tragedy lies in the way so many middle-class Leavers know this to be true. There can be hardly a village in the Cotswolds or Sussex that does not have that big house with extensive grounds and security gates yet absent owners. The post-Cold War world has reconfigured the nicer bits of southern England so they are now honeycombed with fairly straightforward criminality. The unfortunate revelation in the Panama Papers that Cameron’s father used entirely legal (if entirely contemptible) measures to shield his investments from tax shows that those stables, nice schools and foreign holidays of even the old elite were, in effect, being paid for by starving the NHS of funds, denying our troops proper vehicles, closing libraries – take your pick.
The problem that faces Britain as a result of Cameron’s staggering incompetence is that, whatever the result of leaving the EU, it cannot change any of the things that many people feel uneasy about. Everyone is right to moan – but not about the EU in particular. The UK is now wobbling all over the place, spurred on by an intellectually feeble movement that has no idea what it wants, one that has hardly any respect in parliament, or the City, or Nato, or in scientific or academic life, or among any of our allies or trading partners, anywhere in the world.
Putting out the hand of friendship, I think that, whether we leave or remain, we will soon have plenty of new things to moan about.
Edinburgh Notebook: David Torrance.
David Torrance sends a despatch from the Scottish capital where, despite the annual festival, it’s politics as usual:
August is festival time in Edinburgh, but naturally politics still intrudes, although usually politely. Last month, the director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Fergus Linehan, admitted that Brexit had given cultural organisers “a fright”. Then Nick Barley, his counterpart at the book festival, called on the political classes to map out a future for Scotland beyond “managerial government”. A noble aspiration, certainly, but the question on everybody’s lips remains the possibility of a second independence referendum.
Speaking at the University of Edinburgh Business School, the former Liberal leader David Steel predicted that it wouldn’t take place any time soon, not least because Nicola Sturgeon was being typically “cautious”. “She says it’s ‘highly likely’,” he said, after reflecting on his half-century in politics. “Highly likely when? And highly likely how?” Steel was articulating how those two words have become a hostage to fortune for the First Minister.
He was also asked to comment on the support of the shadow Scottish secretary, David Anderson, for a coalition between Labour and the SNP following the next general election. Steel was unconvinced, recalling attempts at co-operation between Scottish Liberals and nationalists in the 1960s: tentative negotiations that came to nothing. Anyway, such talk infuriates the Scottish Labour leadership, which realises, unlike its southern colleagues, that the SNP would only be interested in supporting Labour, to quote Lenin, “in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man”.
Riding two horsesScottish Labour has slipped off the political radar remarkably quickly, but then, at the recent election, it ceased to be the principal opposition party at Holyrood. The prospect of a second independence referendum leaves Labour in a particularly difficult place. Still suffering guilt by association with the Conservatives last time round and conscious that many of its members support independence, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, has been trying to ride two horses since the EU referendum. In that context, the current UK leadership campaign is an unwelcome distraction and, right on cue, the Jeremy Corbyn/Owen Smith roadshow will be in Glasgow on 25 August.
Safe from the storm
Every August in Edinburgh, the book festival provides useful balance, its (generally) cerebral discussions complementing the high culture of the international festival and the banter of the stand-up comedians at the Fringe. It’s also the antithesis of Twitter (from which I recently removed myself after becoming caught up in a so-called storm): more nuanced, friendlier and much more time and space for amicable disagreement.
At another session, the former Edinburgh Pentlands MP Malcolm Rifkind, who has recently published a memoir, had lots of shrewd things to say about his life in politics, as well as more recent developments, not least what he termed the two “existential” questions at the centre of his career: Scotland’s place in the UK and the UK’s place in Europe. Like Steel, Rifkind, a former foreign secretary under John Major, believed that another referendum was a long way off and that an increasingly “quasi-federal” UK was safe in the short to medium term.
The journalist Ruth Wishart (who was chairing the event) turned up wearing a “Bloody difficult woman” T-shirt, a reference to Rifkind’s caught-on-microphone conversation with his former cabinet colleague Ken Clarke about the new Prime Minister. As a supporter of Scottish independence, Wishart inevitably clashed with her interviewee. When Rifkind made the important point that all the problems associated with independence during the 2014 campaign – currency, borders and public spending deficit – remained, in spite of Brexit, Wishart called it a very “lawyerly” argument. Rifkind shot back: “In other words, you don’t have a response.”
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, it became widely accepted, particularly among the London-based commentariat, that Sturgeon had played a blinder; that she was the only politician with a concrete “plan”. While she was certainly assured, if the First Minister does have a plan then it’s not much clearer what it is almost two months after the outcome of the referendum. Indeed, a growing number of people believe that she overplayed her hand.
Scottish government aides were quick to dismiss recent reports that SNP ministers were planning a referendum next summer, and, in recent days, some well-connected commentators have been briefed to the effect that, far from another ballot being “highly likely” (to use Sturgeon’s words), they’re now thinking longer term, perhaps as far away as 2020-21.
Just like old times
On Tuesday night, at the book festival, I chaired a debate on “Scotland now” which ruminated on what might happen over the next few years. Alex Bell, a former head of policy at the Scottish government, said that he believed Scotland’s “constitutional moment” had passed, while Aileen McHarg, who is a constitutional lawyer, countered that it was ongoing. Bell went further, predicting that the party he had supported for most of his life (the SNP) would decline in popularity over the next four years. It was just like old times.
The journalist Alex Massie riled some Yes supporters in the audience by describing the “Women for Independence” campaign group as a “front” for the SNP, while Bell dismissed the 2013 Scottish government white paper as “drivel” – and he even urged its authors to “apologise”, so that Scotland could move on. Alluding to Brexit, Bell declared: “The English were better at independence than the Scottish.” Edinburgh might break London’s cultural dominance of the UK for a few weeks every August, but politics remains another matter.
Helen Lewis: Why elites are everywhere . . . and nowhere.
The NS deputy editor, Helen Lewis, MA (Oxon), notes wearily how politics in 2016 consists of endless waves of individuals with similarly impressive social connections accusing each other of not being in touch with ordinary people:
Who are the elites? It’s an urgent question, given their purported dominance of our politics. They are often described as “metropolitan”, but that doesn’t help, as 81.5 per cent of the people in Britain live in cities. (And surely no one thinks of Sunderland or Coventry as nests of elitism.) So perhaps it’s just the capital? After all, a quick Google search throws up the Conservative Woman website complaining that an “effete London-based elite” is ruining the steel industry, presumably because the dust is a terror to get out of one’s lace cuffs.
So let’s narrow it down further. Again, it’s hard to imagine Peckham or Lewisham as elitist hotbeds (as a resident of the latter, I can tell you it has a Bright House, which is like Kryptonite to posh people). So we must be talking about north London. Jeremiads against the “Islington elites” are rife in newspaper comment sections, but even Islington doesn’t really work as a synonym for “elite” when it’s home to roughly 217,620 people, only 48 per cent of whom describe themselves as white British, and is the 14th most deprived local authority in England.
The more you consider the question, the more one strange theme emerges: the only thing we can say for sure about the elites is that they are always someone else.
To the Brexiteers, the elites are European bureaucrats and MEPs – bonus points for the use of “unelected”, even though MEPs do face a public vote. During the EU referendum debates, Boris Johnson (Eton, Oxford, two-term London mayor, magazine editor, MP) decried “an unelected elite frankly indifferent to the suffering that their policies are causing”. Voters should presumably prefer someone like Iain Duncan Smith, married to a daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe – in other words, an elected member of the elite, indifferent to the suffering his policies were causing.
In a special Sky Q&A, BoJo’s frenemy Michael Gove got stuck in, too. Voters were disgusted by the “invincible arrogance of Europe’s elites”, he said, later attacking “unelected, unaccountable elites” in case anyone had flicked over to EastEnders for a minute earlier. Even his interviewer, Faisal Islam, was suspect: his sceptical questions proved he was “on the side of the elites”.
This would be funnier if the left didn’t do it, too. On 15 August, Diane Abbott tweeted: “Westminster elites can’t accept level of support for @jeremycorbyn politics. Instead insist new members are cultists.” And which Westminster elites would these be? Clearly, completely different people from Abbott (an MP since 1987) and Corbyn (an MP since 1983). No, these must be proper insiders. The kind who don’t use computers, only vellum, possibly. People who’ve been in the shadow cabinet, perhaps. Oh no, wait.
Read any commentary about politics these days and you begin to wonder if everyone involved is taking part in a bet, like when England’s 1998 World Cup team tried to slip song titles into post-match interviews. Here’s Brendan O’Neill, king contrarian, decrying the elites who want to overturn the referendum decision – “the likes of Bob Geldof, Owen Jones and Jarvis Cocker”. Over there is the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, popping over to America to discover that people support Donald Trump because the “elites disdain them”. Never mind that in many states, Trump voters have above-average incomes, or that low-income black and Hispanic voters are largely resistant to his bouffant charms.
The media do it, too. I had to laugh when I read Nancy Mendoza explaining that she’d founded the pro-Corbyn Canary site because “the mainstream media is dominated by a very small number of individuals”. We were at Oxford University at the same time.
Of course, none of this implies that elites don’t exist. It’s just a measure of how bad social mobility is in Britain that even our anti-elitist movements are led by elites. Think of Jeremy Clarkson, leading his Bloke Battalions from a big house in Oxfordshire, or the privately educated former City trader Nigel Farage, leading his People’s Army from the pub. Politics in 2016 consists of endless waves of individuals with similar backgrounds, education and impressive social connections accusing each other of not being in touch with ordinary people.
They do it because they know it works. The modern world is fragmented, complicated, interconnected. For all the guff about sovereignty, we live in a globalised world where the markets can act as a panicked herd and the levers to control any economy are limited. Because of that, it would be incredibly comforting to think that there really was some puppetmaster somewhere controlling it all. You can see that longing in how – despite the ease with which we can now check our facts – conspiracy theories still flourish, from the Bilderberg Group and the Blairites to the Rothschilds and Angela Eagle’s broken office window. At the centre of it all is a howl: surely someone is in charge? (In our agnostic country, we don’t even have the luxury of thinking that at least God has a plan for us all.)
Yet there is a reason why no one thinks of themself as a member of the elite. It’s because when you get to the top of journalism, or politics, you realise how little power you really have; how little power any one person has. Even a government minister is constrained by public opinion, bureaucratic slowness, legal restrictions and the possibility of being kicked out of office. There’s a popular theory that US presidents invade another country somewhere in their second term because they’ve become so frustrated trying to accomplish their domestic agenda.
And so we are doomed to be stuck in a repetitive cycle, where both left and right subscribe to the idea of an elite, but neither thinks they’re it. After all, shouldn’t being part of a shadowy ruling cabal feel a bit more . . . powerful?
Lines of Dissent: Tanya Gold.
The NS columnist Tanya Gold feels that the Duke of Cambridge lacks sufficient “fictional possibility” to be a monarch and should stand aside for joshing King Hal:
I saw Prince Charles tour a farmers’ market in Penzance last month. He was wearing a Victor-Laszlo-from-Casablanca grey suit and nibbling, anxiously, on a curry. Then he went to the lido and giggled with people wearing Union Jack swimming costumes. Someone was quoted calling him “ordinary” in the Cornishman – and this is self-deception and denial. I doubt that Henry VIII was called “ordinary”, but things have changed.
Monarchy is no longer required to tyrannise, except by boredom and the repetition of gossip: you are invited, by the Daily Mail, to “steal their style”. It is an era of limp narcissism. If we cannot identify, we do not care, and so the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will take their children to Canada for a royal tour this autumn. Everyone can identify with a baby. They cannot speak. Charlotte will seduce Canada with ease.
Charles is not ordinary. He commissions topiary. I have seen it. I have visited Clarence House and the gazebo in his garden at Highgrove, where he hangs his watercolours and sells expensive suppers when he is not there. I am beginning to think that he will be a good king on monarchist terms. (A good king, for republicans, is the opposite – a very bad king. We dream of Bluebeard and Pennywise the Dancing Clown. We dream of Donald Trump, or Donald Rumsfeld. Or any obvious ghoul.)
I would prefer a republic; I do not want an intercessor with God who is also a tourist attraction. I do not believe, as more analytical monarchists say, that fascists turn from beating up Jews and trade unionists to embroidering cushions and reading Majesty magazine when the Queen arrives. I understand the greed, the secrecy and the self-interest of this family as well as anyone who has tried to self-harm with bunting. They are not “above politics”, which is a lie, and they are not empathetic. They are predicated on their own survival and they are efficient. It is a thousand-year-old scam.
Still, it is interesting to watch the British monarchy mutate, groping for a way through. None of it makes sense critically, and so each reign requires a functional and compelling narrative, like a novel. Living under monarchy is similar to reading fiction because you must identify with a protagonist for it to work.
Elizabeth II’s narrative was “duty”, and it was superb. Every couture suit and ten-week holiday became another signal of her devotion. It was the least we owed her. Her father’s narrative was identical. Monarchy killed him was the self-serving line. (That is, we did.) Not fags.
Charles’s narrative, for a long time, looked like self-pity, which is duty rejected – and who can sell that? No one looks noble crying on a stamp. The sacrifice must be dignified and willing. (The myths offer a template to guide the unfortunate: Jesus. The Fisher King. Mad King George. Stuttering King George. Aslan.) Charles had a disturbing pseudo-intellectualism; his “black spider memos” to ministers, although trivial, seemed neurotic; he read real books. (The Queen’s books are about Labradors, cricket and gnomes.) The British do not want a clever king. That is not relatable.
Now Charles seems happy – the redemption of a good marriage after a fall, as described by Private Eye’s Sylvie Krin – and has developed the sort of crusty, Hanoverian grandeur that might look good on a plate, or any set of collectibles; and he looks ever more like his mother. He rejected, and then embraced his duty, and that is a familiar and adequate narrative – not as good as Elizabeth II’s, but it will be a shorter book. Whether or not to crown Camilla queen will be his likely climax, and I think that he should. Anything else is cowardice.
It is William, now, who exhibits drastic self-pity. Perhaps it is a phase, but I do not think so. I do not blame him, for his fate is awful, but there is a solution. He could renounce the throne and let Harry – Hal! – be a silly, joshing king, like Edward VII, whose signature activity was adultery, and signature accessory pie.
Handsome idiots make good kings because people like them. They forgive them their mistakes and see themselves in them. There is nothing anxious, or longing, about Harry. He is a cartoon prince, a football mascot, a human Bob the Builder.
Instead William the perfectionist stays and frets, trying to create an ideal family while remaining, to outsiders, cold. He is comfortable with aristocrats. The most memorable praise I have heard of him is: “He can chair a meeting.” He complains about press intrusion, which he should ignore; he lives in Norfolk, works little, consults his lawyers, and lets his son dress in pyjamas and a matching bathrobe, like a tiny Hugh Hefner.
This is only a quibble. Good taste in a king means nothing, as Charles I knew; he collected Rembrandts, and lost his head.
So I will not dwell on the way that William’s expensively renovated houses look like four-star hotels, beyond saying that they do not, from photographs, look like homes at all, but homes imagined by one who does not have one.
No, it is William’s obvious distaste for us, made explicit by his treatment of the press, that grates. It is good sense in a man, and bad sense in a prince. But he is still willing to enjoy the gifts, when he would do better to live as a hermit to match his thoughts, because that would be arresting – not to use publicly owned helicopters as toys and go everywhere with a fiercely blow-dried wife. (But they would not go to the Olympics. Did they fear disease? Or perhaps they merely left others to it.)
William is, to me, a man entirely without fictional possibility, and I cannot think what his narrative will be. Does he even know that he needs one? But I am a republican. Bluebeard will be fine.
Peter Wilby: Why Tom Watson should be less fussy about Trots.
Steven Poole on psychologists, the sinister science of behaviourism and the cult of wearable tech devices.
Amelia Tait wonders why teenagers can’t stop rating each other on social media.
Julia Rampen profiles Will Shu, Deliveroo chief executive and app wunderkind.
Ed Smith on what can be learned from the success of the England
rugby coach, Eddie Jones.
Erica Wagner explodes the many myths that history has nurtured about Native Americans.
The NS Poem: “Retirement” by Roger McGough.
Yo Zushi follows the antics of Black Panther, African superhero.
James Medd luxuriates in Clive James’s TV criticism.
Leo Robson reads a novel about modern British politics,
The Knives by Richard T Kelly.
Sophie McBain on the history of sleep, from premoderns to the
health geeks of today.
Film: Ryan Gilbey explains why Ricky Gervais just isn’t funny on the big screen.
Television: Rachel Cooke sees the world through the eyes of the master shooter Tony Long in Channel 4’s Secrets of a Police Marksman.
Radio: Antonia Quirke enjoys a summer of Test Match Special.
For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: firstname.lastname@example.org / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396.