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Stuart Hall: “We need to talk about Englishness”

Born in Jamaica, Stuart Hall is the éminence grise of the British intellectual left and one of the founders of cultural studies. He coined the word “Thatcherism” and, aged 80, he remains one of our leading thinkers.

Stuart Hall asks me to pour the tea. We discuss how long the pot should be allowed to stand before pouring and try to recall George Orwell’s strictures on the subject (he recommended shaking the pot and allowing the leaves to settle). “It’s one of the skills I lack,” Hall says, with a smile, “and that makes me feel definitely not quite English!”

Englishness is one of the things I have come to his house in West Hampstead to talk to him about. Hall, one of the founding fathers of the academic discipline of cultural studies and now an éminence grise of the British intellectual left, was born in Jamaica in 1932 and came to England in 1951 on a Rhodes scholarship. His colonial education in the Caribbean had prepared him for the study of English literature at Oxford, though at some cost.

“I went to one of the big Jamaican boys’ schools,” he says. “It was a good academic education, but it was a deracination in terms of cultural connections” – connections that had already been scrambled by the circumstances of his upbringing and ancestry. “My family belonged to a very particular formation – middle-class and coloured, not black. That meant it had a closer connection to the plantocracy than many other people did. So I didn’t feel like an ordinary black Jamaican boy.”

Yet an “ordinary black Jamaican boy” is exactly what he would have appeared to be when he arrived in this country and discovered that London was “full of people off the boat train who had come out of the [Jamaican] countryside”. He speaks with considerable feeling about those early, disorientating days as “just another immigrant”, but also about “the emotional damage that my cultural formation [in the Caribbean] had done”. In an interview in 2007, he recalled how his mother forbade him from bringing black friends home and prevented his sister from seeing her black lover (she consequently suffered a breakdown, had electric shock treatment and never had another relationship). “It was the subaltern position,” Hall said. “On the knees to the dominant culture.”

Once at Oxford, he discovered that he could not readily identify with the “dominant tone” of “brittle, casual confidence” which reigned there. In an article for the 50th-anniversary edition of New Left Review, the journal that he helped to found in 1960, he described how he gravitated instead towards Oxford’s “rebel enclaves”, towards “demobbed young veterans and national servicemen, Ruskin College trade unionists, ‘scholarship boys’ and girls from home and abroad”.

“I couldn’t identify with the classic English virtues,” he says. “But I could become interested in politics. Politics was a route to adaptation.” Hall became active in the Socialist Club at Oxford, where he met the Marxist historian Raphael Samuel and another Rhodes scholar, the Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor, both of whom would become, like him, luminaries of the “New Left” that emerged in Britain after 1956 and Suez and the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

“Suez marked the end of an illusion about the end of imperialism,” he observes. “Hungary marked the end of an illusion – which I never shared – about the Soviet Union and communism. If you were on the left, you had to be independent of those two extremes. That’s the space I identified with. There were people in the Communist Party who were shocked and torn by Khrushchev’s revelations about what had gone on under Stalinism. There were a number of independent left people like me, many of them from the third world. And then some critical people from the Labour establishment, Labour intellectuals. They all came together at the Socialist Club.”

Out of the ferment of the Oxford Socialist Club came a journal – Universities and Left Review, which Hall co-edited with Samuel, Taylor and Gabriel Pearson, a refugee from the Communist Party. The first edition of ULR appeared in spring 1957, by which time Hall was teaching at a secondary modern school in London and trying to finish a PhD. The journal had already outgrown its student origins, as the range and calibre of contributors to that first number show: they included the Polish Marxist émigré Isaac Deutscher, the Frenchman Claude Bourdet (from whom Hall and his colleagues had borrowed the label “new left”), veterans of the British intellectual left such as G D H Cole and the Keynesian economist Joan Robinson, and the historian E P Thompson.

New reasoning

From his base in Halifax, where he worked in adult education, Thompson edited the other pillar of the nascent New Left, the New Reasoner (the two journals merged in 1960, giving birth to New Left Review). Both groups – the “New Reasoners” and the circle clustered around ULR which included Hall – shared a commitment to, as Thompson once put it, “analysing the actual situation” in Britain in the late 1950s, as opposed to idealising a “mythical militant working class” that, if it hadn’t been for the serial betrayals of its leadership, would have long since broken out into revolutionary action.

The New Left was particularly interested in the consequences of affluence and the insinuation of, in Thompson’s words, an “acquisitive ethic into the centres of working-class life”. That is to say, they were interested in culture – not as something separate from politics, but precisely as a question of political power.

“One of the things being discussed was what was happening to working-class culture,” Hall remembers. “The cultural dimension of politics became important for me then. Was mass culture, especially the mass culture imported from the United States, unhingeing the springs of action in the traditional working class?

“Then, people thought culture was above politics. The idea that power and knowledge were linked wasn’t recognised. Yet the impact of the affluent society directly affected whether one kind of government would be elected or another. That’s when I began to dispense with an economistic definition of class and culture. There’s no permanent, fixed class consciousness. You can’t work out immediately what people think and what politics they have simply by looking at their socio-economic position.”

There were, however, important differences between the two tendencies in the New Left that Hall and Thompson represented. These were partly generational – the New Reasoners had been formed by the political debates of the 1930s, and had cut their teeth in the Communist Party and the politics of the Popular Front – and partly geographical and cultural. New Reasoner, Hall has written, was “organically rooted in a provincial political culture” and was committed to marrying its Marxism to a newly excavated, but much older, native English radical tradition. Its denizens regarded the “Oxford-London” axis of ULR with some suspicion.

“It was wonderful to be part of a metropolitan, cosmopolitan culture,” Hall says. “But if you were tasked with organising people and changing their political fate, you couldn’t just float around Soho! You had to know what was going on in Halifax, in Manchester.

“I came to the UK at the age of 19 and I didn’t know anything about the working-class tradition, the Labour Party and the unions. I learned it. And in doing so, I came to appreciate that, if you’re going to intervene politically, you’d better bloody well know something about the class on whose side you want to align yourself. But I never took the line – which I think was Edward Thompson’s – that the  heart and soul of the left was out there, and down here was what he called, in a sort of William Cobbett way, the ‘Great Wen’.”

What Thompson called the “peculiarities of the English” (and especially the peculiarities of English socialism) have been on Hall’s mind a good deal lately. He has been talking about the New Left and Englishness with, among others, Jonathan Rutherford, his colleague on the editorial board of the journal Soundings and a prime mover in “Blue Labour”, and Jon Cruddas, entrusted by Ed Miliband with responsibility for the Labour Party’s policy review.

Hall says he understands the impulse behind Rutherford’s and Cruddas’s attempt to find intellectual resources for a new politics of “common life” in ancient English radical traditions. Yet he insists that such traditions cannot be revived “at will”. “I talked to Cruddas about this,” he tells me. “I think I understand his preoccupations rather more than Maurice Glasman’s. In a constituency like Cruddas’s, where you’re fighting the far right, you have to think about those things [English identity, immigration]. But you have to be careful about how you recruit them. He came to talk to me about the New Left, which, of course, was interested in the popular language of the nation. But I had the feeling he was raiding the past, out of context, in a way.”

He acknowledges that his scepticism on this score is deep-rooted and shaped in a decisive way by his origins. “If you come from the Caribbean, you can’t look at Englishness in the same way. It just means a different thing than it does here. You never forget that other dimension. I do think Englishness is something we need to talk about, but it’s contested terrain that is structured powerfully against a contemporary radical appropriation.”

Know your enemy

Just how powerfully Hall came to appreciate in the second phase of his career, which followed his departure from the editorial board of New Left Review in 1961. In 1964, he took a job at the University of Birmingham where he helped Richard Hoggart establish the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and with it the whole discipline of cultural studies. (Hall remained at Birmingham until 1979, when he moved to the Open University.)

He describes these years as a period of withdrawal from political activity, though Rutherford insists the broader significance of Hall’s work at the Birmingham Centre shouldn’t be downplayed. “Stuart sustained the New Left within the academy,” he says. “The Birmingham Centre was a hugely important institution in terms of trying to think about the nature of the culture.”

Hall recalls the fervid atmosphere in Birmingham in the late 1960s. “After Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, the place was buzzing. Although a lot of my energy went into building the centre, I was also very involved in anti-racist struggles.” The phenomenon of “Powellism” was in some, if not all, respects the precursor of Thatcherism. Hall’s analysis of the latter in a series of essays in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Marxism Today made him, for a time, the most influential (and widely read) left-wing intellectual in the country.

He says that the defining contradictions of Powellism were reproduced in Thatcherism. “Powell was an oriental scholar who was half in love with India, though not in Wolverhampton! A high classical scholar, deeply conservative in his alignments and identifications, who was also an economic liberal. Thatcher is also a very good example, as Powell was, of an economic liberal and social conservative. This is a recurring feature of a certain fraction of the British right.”

“Thatcherism” was the name that Hall gave – well before Thatcher’s election as prime minister in 1979 – to the rise of the “New Right” in Britain, which had begun in the late 1960s with reaction against the “permissive society” and a free-market critique of the institutions of the postwar Keynesian, welfarist consensus. “When I saw Thatcherism,” Hall remembers, “I realised that it wasn’t just an economic programme, but that it had profound cultural roots. Thatcher and Powell were both what Hegel called ‘historical individuals’ – their very politics, their contradictions, instance or concretise in one life or career much wider forces that are in play.”

Hall’s great innovation was to borrow from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci the idea of “hegemony” (“a much wider notion than governance or rule that touches all the different sites – intellectual work, popular culture, politics, the economy”) and to read Thatcherism as a “hegemonic project”: an attempt not merely to change the way the economy was run but, as he puts it, to “reshape common sense”. “Economics are the method,” Thatcher once said. “The object is to change the soul.”

In one of his most important essays, “The Great Moving Right Show”, published in Marxism Today in 1979, Hall advised his comrades on the left not to underestimate the popular appeal of Thatcherism or to explain it away as so much “false consciousness”. “Its success and effectivity,” he wrote, “do not lie in its capacity to dupe unsuspecting folk but in the way it addresses real problems, real and lived experiences, real contradictions – and yet is able to represent them within a logic of discourse which pulls them systematically into line with policies and class strategies of the right.”

Rutherford reminds me that this earned Hall considerable opprobrium on the left. “He always said that if you want to understand the opposition you have to get really close to them, understand how they think, why they have the politics and identifications they do.”

The analysis, and his account of “new times” (the changes in the so-called post-Fordist economy brought about by globalisation), had some influence on the early intellectual outriders of New Labour, but Hall insists that his insights were vulgarised by the Blairites. “There is a tiny kernel of truth in the assertion that [Marxism Today] created Blairism, in the sense that the ‘new times’ stuff was addressing the change of the whole terrain. But what we recommended was that you needed a project on the left of the same breadth and depth as Thatcherism. New Labour understood it as meaning that you needed the same project!”

For Hall, it was during the New Labour years that neoliberal, free-market fundamentalism finally became “common sense”. “I would say that New Labour come closer to institutionalising neoliberalism as a social and political form than Thatcher did. She destroyed everything in order to have a flat plane on which to build, but there was serious opposition and struggle. Thatcherism was a slash-and-burn strategy. With Blair, the language became more adaptive; it found ways of presenting itself to Labour supporters as well.”

What of the present? Are we midway through a crisis of the neoliberal dispensation that has lasted for more than 30 years? Hall agrees that the present impasse is “one of the most serious crises of neoliberalism. But I don’t think there’s any guarantee that it will be resolved or that it will lead to profound change or transformation. The intellectual’s job is to tell people how reality really is – to look it in the face. As Gramsci said, ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.”

Ralph Miliband, the father of the current Labour leader, thought that line of Gramsci’s “an exceedingly bad slogan for socialists”, because, he said, it implies that “defeat is more likely than success”. How optimistic is Hall about the leadership of Miliband fils? “Not very. He has been so watchful of his back that he can’t go forward. You can’t conduct a successful political revival on that basis. Sometimes, you have to have some courage.”

The day after I met Hall, Ed Miliband gave a speech about immigration, announcing that a “grown-up debate” on the subject was required. I couldn’t help thinking of something Hall had said to me the previous day. “You always have to ask yourself, ‘What’s happened to Englishness? Where is it now?’ It’s not that there aren’t elements of it that one would want to retain, but it’s difficult ground.” It is an open question whether it is courageous for Miliband to stake out that terrain, or merely reckless.

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?