Tuesday 26 October 2021

Where's Martin now?

 A reminder that the 'new' version of Martin In The Margins can now be found over at Wordpress:


See you there, I hope.

Tuesday 16 August 2016

Change of address

Martin In The Margins now has a new home. This site will remain open as an archive.

The new Martin In The Margins can be found here.

Monday 2 May 2016

On the move

This blog will be moving to a new home soon. Watch this space for further information.

Sunday 16 August 2015

The left-wing case against Corbyn: some links

I’ve become increasingly disheartened and frustrated at seeing friends and colleagues whom I like and respect falling for Corbynmania. However, rather than launch into yet another pointless dispute on Facebook or Twitter, I thought I’d put together a collection of some of the best arguments I’ve read for not electing Corbyn as Labour leader, and direct people here.

I’m no longer a Labour Party member, so I don’t really have a horse in this race. But I do care about the state of British politics, and I believe we need a credible and electable opposition party – rather than one lost in nostalgia for discredited policies that sent the party into the political wilderness for a decade, or one with a leader given to expressing solidarity with authoritarian and anti-democratic movements.

Since all of the authors cited below have impeccable left-wing credentials, perhaps their arguments will have greater power to persuade than mine. So here are links to four articles, with key quotations from each:
 First up, self-described ‘libertarian democratic socialist’ Paul Anderson:

Politicians’ records are open to scrutiny as never before – and they are able to get away with platitudinous nonsense and worse because the internet has created a populist noise that has made everyone a valued player and has thereby simultaneously devalued expertise and nuance. Corbyn’s record on foreign affairs is a case in point. The first thing to know about him is that he’s a boilerplate leftist with a Chomskyite thicko’s take on the world. American imperialism is the greatest evil in the world. Apartheid was the second-greatest evil – forget about Soviet totalitarianism – but now it’s Israel as US proxy in the Middle East. Nato expansion is the root of Russia’s current authoritarianism. It was a bit of a mistake to get rid of Gaddafi and at least Assad is secular and allows girls to go out in public. And, er, that’s it. 
Next, Nick Cohen, Observer columnist and author of What’s Left:

The tribune of the left, the indomitable defender of equality and decency, is also the greatest apologist for clerical fascism in the British parliament. Corbyn indulges radical Islam, and by extension  all that comes with it: the subjugation of women; the judicial murder of homosexuals in compliance with sharia law; the racism, most evident in its anti-Semitic conspiracy theories; the denial of democratic rights, the demand to create a global caliphate must bring; and the denial of religious freedom the sharia-prescribed death penalties for blasphemy and apostasy do bring with miserable regularity. Islamism is against everything the left pretends to believe in. But in Britain and elsewhere, leftists rather than conservatives are the first to defend it.

And here’s James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward:

The best case against Corbyn is not that he is a wild-eyed socialist, but [… ] he is remarkably good at proffering apologetics for dictatorship and tyranny. As well as Gaddafi, Corbyn has in recent years championed/made excuses for Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez, Russian gay-basher Vladimir Putin, the butcher of Bosnian Muslims Slobodan Milosevic and the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
 He has also worked for Iranian state broadcaster Press TV (home of Holocaust deniers and other cranks) and has referred to fascistic terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah as his "friends". […] The truth is that, however much a Corbyn-led Labour party might claim to be standing up for the most vulnerable, it will always and everywhere be willing to sacrifice the very people it ought to stick up for – the world's democrats, secularists, Jews, gays and women – on the ideological altar of anti-Americanism. This, as I will never tire of pointing out, ought to make Corbyn persona non grata for any principled person of the left.

Finally, an open letter to Corbyn from Alan Johnson (the Fathom editor and professor of politics, not the MP):

You represent a clear alternative to the suffocating consensus that says there is no alternative to neoliberalism: […] But you won’t get my vote. You won’t get it because Labour’s best traditions also include anti-fascism and internationalism while your support – to me, inexplicable and shameful –  for the fascistic and antisemitic forces of Hezbollah and Hamas flies in the face of those traditions. In particular, your full-throated cheer-leading for the vicious antisemitic Islamist Raed Salah is a deal-breaker. […] And it isn’t just a problem with Salah, is it? You said it was ‘my pleasure and my honour’ to host ‘our friends from Hezbollah and our friends from Hamas’ in the Commons. Really? Why do you not care that the Hamas Charter states that ‘Islam will obliterate Israel’ and enjoins all good Muslims to kill Jews, whom it blames for all the wars and revolutions in classic antisemitic fashion? […] I just do not understand how you can support so unthinkingly those political forces which oppose to their dying breath everything  – literally, everything – the labour movement has ever stood for: trade union rights, freedom of speech and organisation, women’s equality, gay and lesbian rights, anti-racism, the enlightenment, and reason. But as long as you do support those forces you will not get my vote.
Also recommended: these insights from Gary Kent, Rob Marchant and David Paxton.

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Breaking my silence?

‘It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.' – Alice in Wonderland

I’ve always felt an affinity with French-Moroccan author Marcel Benabou, who wrote a book-length treatise on why he hadn’t written more books: Pourquoi je n'ai √©crit aucun de mes livres. In the same spirit, this is a blog post about why I haven’t written any blog posts recently – well, nowhere near as many as I used to write (only 20 posts in the past three years, whereas in 2009 alone I wrote more than 200).

My principal excuse for inactivity is that this is primarily a political blog – and my political beliefs are currently in a state of extreme flux. So what’s new, you may ask? Hasn’t this blog charted repeatedly (and probably tediously) my movement from youthful Tribunite Labour left-wingery, through Gramscian Marxism, to critical support for New Labour? Didn’t I once claim, in my normblog profile no less, that I started this blog ‘to help me work out what I think’? And wasn’t it precisely the experience of writing this blog that helped me to clarify the anti-totalitarian liberal-social-democratic politics that has characterised my thinking for most of the blog’s life?

Yes, but this feels different. The change in my political outlook feels more seismic this time. I’m reluctant to articulate the change too precisely, for fear that the sands may have shifted again in a few months, and I’ll have to recant any positions I espouse here. So how to characterise the change? Maybe it’s enough to say that these days I find myself reading Standpoint and The Spectator more frequently, and with more pleasure, than The New Statesman; that I tend to haunt websites such as Front Porch Republic and Ethika Politika; that having hero-worshipped Thomas Paine for years I’m much more sympathetic to his nemesis Edmund Burke; and that I now find Chestertonian distributism more attractive than any form of socialism. 

That last item is a partial clue as to why my views have changed. My re-engagement with religious faith in the past year or two has certainly made me more 'conservative' on some social issues, and while my re-awakened faith has helped to keep my passion for social justice alive, it has also made me more open to different ways of imagining and achieving it. But it’s not just about religion. Another way of describing the change in my politics is to say that my growing disillusionment with certain aspects of contemporary leftism – whether it be kneejerk anti-westernism in foreign affairs or ‘big state’ paternalism at home – has led over time to a questioning of the foundations of progressivism per se.

To put it another way, and please forgive this brief philosophical excursion by someone who’s by no means an expert in these matters: it’s partly about questioning the adequacy of the Enlightenment tradition. Like many others who have featured in my blogroll sidebar over the years, I began blogging partly out of a sense of alarm at the rising tide of irrationalism and moral relativism in contemporary political discourse, particularly on the Left – manifested in contorted attempts to ‘understand’ terrorism, a refusal to condemn misogyny and racism if espoused by non-westerners, and the abandonment of a sense of universal human rights. In this context, post-Rushdie, post-9/11 and post-Danish cartoons, it seemed important to rush to the barricades (or at least, the blogs) to defend the gains of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it became something of a badge of honour when, in a burst of tortuous illogicality, Madeleine Bunting (‘Our Maddy of the Sorrows’, to quote the late great Norm), one of the torchbearers for the anti-rationalists, condemned writers of our stripe as ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’.

But what if an appeal to Enlightenment principles is not enough to roll back the tide of postmodern relativism? And going further: what if the Enlightenment, rather than being the solution, was itself the genesis of the problem? On the first point: it could be argued that the Enlightenment, for all that it began as a critique of religious thinking, actually depended on unspoken but deeply shared religious foundations. For example, its defence of reason, liberty and progress was founded on certain assumptions – that history has a purpose, that every human life is of value – that are inexplicable outside a Judaeo-Christian worldview. It could also be argued that, as those shared religious assumptions have weakened in the last two centuries, so the Enlightenment principles that were (implicitly if not explicitly) founded on them have also been shaken. In a post-religious world, and in the postmodern marketplace of ideas, the principles of the Enlightenment appear no more and no less ‘universal’ than any others. Bunting is not alone in her critique: plenty of more serious postmodern thinkers have argued (spuriously, of course) that Enlightenment ideas are 'merely' a reflection of the interests of a particular group of privileged, white and probably imperialist men belonging to a particular (and particularly oppressive) society and culture.

Which bring us on to the second point: that the Enlightenment may actually share some of the blame for this descent into the slough of moral relativism. How so? Well, once again, I’m not a philosopher, but I was struck by this paragraph in Rodney Howsare’s brief introduction to the ideas of the modern Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar:

For Kant, and the moderns in general, the notion that the unifying center of a thing really does appear in the individual thing was denied. When I see this particular tree, therefore, all I see is the appearance of this particular tree. If any generalisations are to be made about it, they will have to come from the side of the subject. This means that the classical transcendental properties of Being—unity, truth, goodness, and beauty—must no longer be conceived as properties of Being, but as characteristics attributed to Being from the side of universal subjectivity. All postmodernity has to do to achieve nihilism, it would seem, is to deny any universal subjectivity. Postmodernism is not so much an alternative to modernism as its reductio.

We’ve strayed somewhat from our discussion of the direction of contemporary politics. But what I take Howsare to be arguing is that it was the Enlightenment’s denial of transcendence and objectivity that paved the way for the postmodernist critique that eventually sank its claims to universality: in other words, Enlightenment thinkers sowed the seeds of their own destruction. This makes it increasingly difficult to ground a critique of the creeping relativism and irrationalism of much contemporary political thinking in a call for a return to Enlightenment principles. What is needed instead, perhaps, is a deeper kind of return: to a way of thinking grounded in a sense of the sacred and of an objective moral order. (I can imagine the objections already being tapped out on the keyboards of my more secular-minded readers...)

These are the kinds of issues I find myself wrestling with these days, as I struggle to find new foundations for my political thinking, and an alternative to the Enlightenment rationalism that has been the source of my politics for so long. I’m going to make a determined effort to use this blog, once again, as a vehicle for working out what I think. You may notice some changes – in the kinds of themes and issues I discuss, the sources I turn to, and the links that appear in my sidebar. If you were a fan of the ‘old’ Martin In The Margins, you may not find the new incarnation quite to your taste, in which case you should feel free to move on and I shan't be offended. But I rather hope you’ll stick around and share the next stage of the journey.

Friday 2 January 2015

Islamists and Stalinists: brothers under the skin?

It’s tempting to regard the atrocities committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as uniquely barbarous. I can't help thinking of the scores of young Yazidi women, torn from their families, raped, and forced to marry IS fighters, with no prospect of an end to their ordeal, and of the despair that they and their loved ones must experience. Surely this transcends anything perpetrated in the recent history of warfare? But then, over Christmas, reading Joachim Fest’s account of growing up in an anti-Nazi family in Germany during the Second World War, I came across this:

In those days almost every story ended with acts of violence of some kind. As the Red Army approached, my sisters had left their grammar school in the Neumark, east of Berlin, and returned to Berlin; they now learned that their classmates – all aged between twelve and fifteen – had been raped, transported and disappeared into the expanses of Russia. 

There are many similar accounts of atrocities by the ‘liberating’ Red Army in Anne Applebaum’s devastating book Iron Curtain. Perhaps we make too much of the peculiarly religious character of Islamic State’s reign of terror. The quotation from Fest, with its uncanny foreshadowing of recent events in the Middle East, is a reminder that religious and secular totalitarianisms have more in common than we sometimes think.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Nine reasons to like Michael Gove

So farewell then, Michael Gove, reshuffled from the Department of Education to become government Chief Whip. I hope The Spectator’s James Forsyth is wrong in arguing that ‘the move is a big blow to the education reform agenda’, and that his colleague Isabel Hardman is more accurate when she writes:
Left-wing teachers who opposed Gove’s reforming agenda might be celebrating, but it is absurd to suggest that his move to chief whip – itself a big job – is a ‘scalp’ for the unions. Gove’s reforms have already been enacted. He has got everything done that he wanted. He has succeeded, and can move on.
I make no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of Michael Gove. I get irritated at the avalanche of abuse directed at him, and at what Frank Furedi correctly identifies as ‘Govephobia’, the way that expressing hatred of Gove ‘works as a kind of password that grants one entry into the inner circle of polite society’, a ritualised way of ‘establishing one’s moral distance from the modern personification of evil’. As anyone who works in the sector will be aware, this is particularly true of educators, at whatever level:
It’s as if Govephobia now provides many teachers and educators with a kind of corporate identity. The very mention of Gove’s name in a meeting is guaranteed to raise a collective smirk and the knowing shaking of heads. Saying something awful about Gove provides a person with the shining moral status that comes with being on ‘the right side’. Not only do you have permission to despise Gove – you are expected to express your emotions publicly whenever you can.
Of course, implacable hostility towards individuals who symbolise everything you dislike in the opposing party is not unusual in the tribal world of British politics, and it helps to have a single syllable surname that fits easily on a placard and can be spat out with appropriate venom on demos. (Mind you, the Left’s dislike of Tories like Gove is as nothing compared to the hatred they reserve for one of their own who is perceived to have betrayed the true gospel: think of the malice with which they utter that other single-syllable name – ‘Blair’.) 

But it’s when people who should know better join in with the ritual Gove abuse that I get particularly annoyed. I’m talking about those who, like me, are passionate about education and about extending educational opportunity, but for some reason see Michael Gove, who is equally passionate about these things, as an enemy rather than a kindred spirit. I’m not talking here about legitimate criticisms of Gove’s policies, some of which I share, but about sweeping dismissals of his entire reform agenda and often willful and ignorant misunderstandings of his intentions. In this category I would place those who seem to think Gove’s aim is to shore up educational privilege and deny access to learning to the poorest in society – when the opposite is actually true. It’s as if some people, blinded and deafened by a tribal dislike of everything Tory, are unable to see what’s in front of their eyes or to hear what the man is actually saying.

So, rather than getting into further endless and mostly pointless arguments on Facebook and Twitter, I thought I’d share with you nine reasons why I like Michael Gove:

He has unashamedly continued the reform agenda set in motion by Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis. Now, when New Labour were in power, I was often critical of aspects of their educational policy. I thought the emphasis on choice was a chimera when what most parents, including me, really wanted was the guarantee of a good, local school. However, I’ve changed my mind and have come to believe, with Michael Gove, that real reform was not going to occur – standards and aspirations for all children were not going to be substantially raised – while local authorities maintained their monopolistic stranglehold on state education, and that freeing schools from LEA control – whether by converting them to academies, or founding new ‘free’ schools – was perhaps the best way forward.

More generally, Michael Gove is an admirer of Tony Blair, and has said that he regards Blair’s memoir A Journey as a kind of manual for government. I know this won’t endear him to those on the Left who still regard Blair as a traitor to the good old cause (rather than the most popular Labour prime minister ever, the man who introduced the minimum wage, devolution, increased education and health spending exponentially, brought peace to Northern Ireland, freed Sierra Leone and Kosovo, etc…..), but still…

Gove is a passionate opponent of the knowledge-lite leveling-down low-aspiration culture that has gripped the education sector for the past quarter of a century, and that has become entrenched in the teacher training colleges, teaching unions and the Department of Education. Instead, he believes in raising educational standards for all children, not just the privileged, and in extending educational opportunities, as a means of improving social mobility and overcoming inequality.

Unlike some of the philistines and utilitarians who have filled the post of Education Secretary, Gove actually believes in the value of education for its own sake. Remember his brave defence of teaching ‘French lesbian poetry’ in response to the Gradgrindian businessman who scoffed at the uselessness of the humanities? He reads books too – proper books – including the kind of books people on the Left like to read: for example, he’s been known to quote from Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and Raphael Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism (see the video at the end of this post). 

As the above shows, this is a man who understands the Left. I think I read that he supported Labour as an undergraduate. Indeed, some would argue that, in other times, he would have been a natural Labour politician.

Moving away from education, Michael Gove has written, in Celsius 7/7, one of the best books you’ll come across on terrorism, the Middle East, and the West’s response. He’s also on the Council of the Henry Jackson Society, and anti-totalitarian leftists and liberals should find in him a natural and sympathetic ally. That’s why some of us think he would make an excellent foreign secretary.

He’s genuinely funny. I know some like to mock his pratfalls, his odd facial expressions and, most recently, his love of rap, but they miss the point: he’s sending himself up. This is a politician who most definitely can laugh at himself. The first time I saw him face-to-face was in a hotel corridor, engaged in a balloon fight with one of his young children. Which brings me on to:

He’s a nice guy. OK, not a reason to like his politics, but I thought I’d include it anyway. The above mentioned encounter took place when we found ourselves two doors along from the Gove family in a Portuguese hotel a few years ago. He wasn’t so well known then, and I hadn’t really been following his career until that point, so I didn't pluck up the courage to speak to him. But I had the opportunity to observe him over a number of days, at the next table in the restaurant, reading by the pool (we were reading the same Lisbon-based thriller,) and he came across as an affable and likeable family man.

And following on from the above – he’s also a Lusophile. As he once said, a love of Portugal is the only thing he has in common with George Galloway. Me too.

A number of Gove's qualities are on display in this very civilised discussion with David Aaronovitch, who makes an ideal interlocutor. Pity the same can't be said for the people asking questions at the end, who respond to Gove's thoughtful attempts to reach out to his left-leaning education sector audience with crass political pointscoring. I've no doubt in my mind who has the better arguments.