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30 March 2017

Will Self: I was no fan of New Labour – but Brexit requires original thinking Corbyn can’t provide

Devolution and Brexit require inspiring ideas – not tired retreads of ideological stances for social formations long since melted into air.

By Will Self

My faith – and faith it surely was – in the perfectibility of man (a necessary concomitant, I’m sure you’ll agree, of maintaining a belief in the possibility of a socialist future) has been steadily ebbing away since the late 1990s.

Disillusionment with New Labour’s vote-finessing triangulations, and willingness to form policy on the basis of consumer demand, was hugely augmented by the post-9/11 interventions: Tony Blair and his satraps’ delusion that they could impose our system of government on Iraq and Afghanistan, together with the vain posturing and human destruction that ensued, put paid to any notions I may have had of international solidarity and brotherhood. But really, by the early 2000s the lazy assumptions underpinning the hazy, left-liberal dream of progress had all been kicked away.

I became during these years – at least in part – a disciple of the New Statesman’s own John Gray, whose Straw Dogs (2002) so savagely shredded the bloated corpse of post-Enlightenment liberal humanism.

But the British left in the first decade of the new millennium, far from splashing its face with cold water, reached for the sleeping pills and burrowed under the covers: the mortgaging of our children’s future through buy-now, pay-later public-private finance “initiatives”; the inexorable widening of the income gap; the dependence of the British economy on making money funnier and funnier (while the superannuated working class cries all the way to the food bank), all of this rolled inexorably on from the Blair to the Brown to the Cameron years.

I probably would have welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s agitprop socialism in 1997 – but, for the reasons outlined above, in 2017 it’s about as listenable to as D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better”. The Corbynistas’ wilful refusal to face the real consequences of their “economic policies” (capital exiting the City like shit off a shovel), or indeed the lack of a definable proletariat to which anyone can show solidarity, are rendering Labour utterly unelectable.

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We are at one of those break points in history when it is time to hearken to this tocsin: with a fissiparous Union within a fissiparous European Union within a fissiparous Western alliance, our constitutional settlement needs to be rearticulated.

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We need original and inspiring thinking about these problems – not tired retreads of ideological stances that relate to formerly solid social formations long since melted into air. This, together with a political movement that combines active engagement at a grass-roots level to reassert the virtues of true redistribution, with a sense of how the major institutions of state – parliament, the monarchy, the City, the judiciary – can adapt to survive.

Nowadays I think in terms of compassionate pragmatism: I’ll leave socialism to Žižek and the other bloviators.

Will Self is a novelist and critic