There’s surely a deliciously bitter irony in the fact that Michael Gove’s favourite work of history is George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. Beloved of the common reader, mistrusted by those haughty “experts” we’ve had enough of, Dangerfield tells of a British liberal consensus eroded over decades but eventually wiped out by the carnage of the First World War. For the Great War, read the cataclysm of last June’s Brexit vote, relished by Gove and the like, and you have lessons regarding the strange, ongoing death of Neoliberal England.
The year after Dangerfield’s volume appeared, 200 men marched from Jarrow to London to implore the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin to bring jobs to their beleaguered town. The smooth and emollient Baldwin wouldn’t see them, which suggests that the notion of an aloof metropolitan elite turning its back on a rusting, post-industrial north is no modern invention.
Dangerfield never offers a cogent analysis of why the normally placid British began to throw themselves under police horses, go on hunger marches, join militant unions and generally abandon their consensual deference in favour of harsher doctrines. He found it as bewildering and mysterious as the tides. The death of what we might call Neoliberal England is much more explicable, if unpalatable to some. Liberal commentators have been rudely awakened to the fact that benign progressivists from Professor Pangloss to Francis Fukuyama onwards were wrong. Assuming that, left alone, “the masses” will come around to your way of thinking is rather like those churchmen who thought babies raised in silence would automatically speak English. It is presumptuous and leads to disaster.
I found myself thinking often of lines from Yeats’s “The Second Coming”. Rough beasts slouched through the streets of Batley. Corbyn, Cameron and the other indentured members of the Westminster political class lacked all conviction. Cameron utterly miscalculated the country’s mood and hugely overestimated its opinion of his own appeal and competence. Corbyn lurked silent and wraithlike on the edges of the national debate, a study in uselessness. By contrast, as Yeats put it, the worst (Farage, Johnson, the foaming and splenetic demagogues of the Mail and the Spectator) were full of a passionate intensity. They were full of something else, too, lying through their grins about extra money for the NHS. But by then the damage had been done.
Because immigration had a crude and ugly sound, it was left to only the crude and ugly of politics to mention it. This was a mistake. As Adam Shatz put it in the London Review of Books, few mainstream politicians wanted to engage with “the fabled white working class . . . which most of us have found it easier to hate than persuade”. Yet persuasion is important, however little the present leadership of the Labour Party seems to care for this element of politics. One gets the distinct impression that Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes would prefer the purity and posturing of permanent opposition rather than the messy, compromised business of government. They offer ineffectuality and disdainful superiority dressed up as a kind of saintly decency. Maybe Jeremy feels that by not doing anything, he cannot do anything wrong. He should be disabused of this notion, and quickly.
Second, and this would seem so obvious as to not need saying, Labour needs to reconnect with its former industrial heartland. This doesn’t necessarily mean “turning to the right” or “abandoning left-wing principles”, or even embracing the dreaded “Blairism’’. But it does mean addressing (even with nose pinched between fingers) the legitimate concerns in the north and the Midlands about immigration, jobs and welfare. The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.
People disagreeing with you might be irritating – even galling – but it is not undemocratic. Democracy and liberalism are not synonymous. You can have one without the other. We struggled through most of the 1980s nominally democratic but unarguably illiberal. What Labour needs now is, perhaps, fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists, someone who might conceivably tell the party how voting works and how elections are won. If so, some of my former A-level sociology and politics students in Skelmersdale are probably still available for work.
Stuart Maconie is a writer and broadcaster
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition