June 16th, 2015


The Wind Beneath the Wings

The scorn poured on Jeremy Corbyn for standing for Labour leader, and on the party for allowing him onto the ballot, seem to derive from a consensus position that Labour lost in May because they were seen as too left-wing. Is there the slightest evidence for that?

If Labour were really seen as too left wing, then you’d expect them to have lost seats to parties further to the right. As far as that is concerned, Labour lost 9 seats to the Tories. However, the Tories lost 10 seats to Labour, and in addition Labour gained another 12 seats from the Lib Dems, without loss. I make that a net gain of 13. At that level, the ‘too left wing’ narrative fails to stack up. Where Labour did lose seats heavily it was to the SNP, who ran on a ticket at least as left-wing as their own, particularly when it came to questions of equality, rights and the welfare state. There were of course other factors involved in the swing against Labour in Scotland, notably nationalist ones, but on the traditional ‘left-wing’ issues they were outflanked on the left, not the right.

Such evidence as I can find suggests that Labour did less well than expected in England for a number of reasons, some more justified than others: moral panic over a possible alliance with the SNP (based largely the dog-whistle image of Nicola Sturgeon painted in woad, as far as I can tell, not on any actual policies); distrust in their ability to run the economy competently (where competence has to do with technocratic know-how, not allegiance to Thatcher over Keynes); a plethora of images of Miliband eating a bacon sandwich which failed to be counterpoised with any of Cameron abandoning his young daughter in a pub; and a general feeling that although we like the NHS and worship the people who staff it we wish they'd go back to their countries of origin. I’ve seen no evidence at all that Labour’s timid moves towards redressing inequality were seen as too radical by more than a very few people.

I’ve heard Jeremy Corbyn speak on a few occasions now, and I’ve got to say that he’s the only one of the candidates who makes sense, at least to me. For this reason he is, naturally, doomed, but I do think that’s a huge pity.

Heirs and Spares

In a recent post I mused on the lack of stories about "bad" true heirs trying to oust "good" usurpers. A few literary examples were mentioned in the comments, and also a couple of historical candidates that could be seen that way if you were politically so inclined: Richard III (if you were a Ricardian) and Cromwell (if you were a Cromwellian). But though each has his supporters, the dominant narrative of British history has been fairly hostile to both men, and it struck me that within literature too such stories go against the grain of conventional narrative. You can tell a story against the grain for effect, or for novelty, but it takes a lot to have a permanent effect on such deeply entrenched habits of understanding.

What I didn't think of till much later was that there's a glaring example in British history that no one mentioned: namely, the successful usurpation that was the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent stories of the Old and Young Pretenders. There the "official" narrative has had to be that William's usurpation was indeed a Good Thing, and the Hanoverian succession too, while the Jacobite "true heirs" have to be made illegitimate - a narrative that could only be maintained (and that barely) by affirming Parliament's sovereignty over the monarch. (For those of us who prefer democracy to monarchy that's quite a sop, of course.)

Not that this has stopped romance attaching to the Jacobite cause - obviously. But even before Scott turned his genius to the matter in Waverley it was romantic as a lost cause, and it was increasingly in the lostness that its value resided.

Still, while William III has glamour for some on religious grounds that may be said to trump national ones, there are few less charismatic runs of monarchs than Anne and Georges I and II. Despite the crucial events of their reigns, still so relevant to the world as we inhabit it, to say nothing of the Revolution itself, they are muted in our National Story. Many young children learn the names of Henry VIII's six wives, but what do they know of Walpole or the Treaty of Utrecht? I feel fairly confident in saying that in 99% of cases the answer is "Nothing". I've often wondered why this was the case, but now I'm thinking that it may be because stories of "good" usurpers run counter to the narrative conventions that we assent to. There's a cognitive dissonance, and our eye slides over it rather than acknowledge the discomfort.

Joan Aiken, of course, in writing her Dido Twite books, had to imagine a Britain where history proceeded on conventional narrative principles, with the "good" Stuarts still in power and the "bad" Hanoverians as unsuccessful usurpers.

Rain in Heaven

"You will become children of your Father in heaven, because he makes his sun rise on both evil and good people, and he lets rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5.45)

I've just realized that I've always read this Levantine verse with myopically British eyes. When I read of God sending rain to fall on the righteous I imagine the righteous shivering and saying, "Thanks a bunch!" But I live in a cold country with no shortage of rain. If I were in first-century Palestine, perhaps I'd think of the rain primarily as a blessing, irrigating crops and so forth. The sun and rain, rather than being used in contrast, as they normally are in English (sun good, rain bad - as per a million song lyrics), form a classic Psalmic doublet, saying the same thing twice in different ways. We enjoy not dying of drought just as much as we like not living in perpetual night.

This theory depends of course on the climate in that region in Jesus's time being much like it is today, where lack of water is a real problem. It may have been wetter then - a question for the palaeo-climatologists, I suppose. Either way, the thought that the reading of a verse might be dependent on the climate in which it is read pleases me.