Tuesday 26 November 2013

A political journey of marginal importance

I thought I’d write something about the evolution of my political opinions. Not because I’m immodest enough to think that my views are of the remotest interest to anyone but myself. But, as I said in answer to one of Norm’s profile questions, I started blogging to help me work out what I think - and right now I feel a need to take stock of where I’ve got to, and how I got here. On the other hand, if this blog still has the occasional reader, I think I owe it to you to explain where I’m coming from, so to speak, and to update you on how my thinking has changed since I began blogging half a dozen years or so ago. And maybe some of you might recognise aspects of your own political journey in this account.

Mind you, in case you’re tempted to take the ideas expressed here at all seriously, you should bear in mind that the extent of my political activism, apart from voting, has been my work in adult education, subscribing and donating to the odd cause or campaign, and  -  well, blogging actually. On a similar cautionary note, I should add that I feel some empathy with Andrew Marr who, when asked why he hadn’t gone into politics, explained that he tended to agree with the last person he’d been talking to.  I’m not quite so fickle, but I kind of know what he means. I set great store by Keats’ notion of negative capability – ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. You could describe this as the would-be creative writer’s capacity to understand the other person’s position – or you could just call me indecisive.

I was born into an East End working-class family, and I’m fairly sure that my grandparents were Labour voters. My paternal grandfather, a council worker, was a NUPE shop steward, and I remember my mother saying (this was some time in the Seventies or Eighties) that today’s Labour party was no longer the party her late father had supported. We moved out of London to suburban Essex when I was a few years old. Despite their background, my aspiring parents were Daily Mail-reading Conservative voters for most of my childhood, and I thought this the most natural thing in the world. Even in my first year at grammar school, I remember walking home with friends, and two of us taunting a third, the son of a Labour local councillor. How on earth, we wondered, could anybody even think of supporting that lot? Needless to say, within a few years, my fellow-taunter and I would be among the most dedicated Leftists in our class.

What changed? Well, my parents, as well as being upwardly mobile, were also devout Methodists (their faith would later lead them to doubt their Toryism and go so far as voting Liberal), and I suppose it was the emphasis on compassion for the poor and the ‘developing world’, not to mention Methodism’s close ties and structural similarities with the Labour movement, that rubbed off on me. By the time I began to think about these things, it seemed obvious that, since both Christians and socialists cared about the poor, then Christians should also be socialists. And of course, I was a child of the Sixties, excited by the social and cultural changes happening around me as I reached puberty. At the age of 12, I remember being deeply affected by media coverage of the Vietnam war, and feeling a wave of solidarity with the demonstrators outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. In the quiet of my bedroom, I strummed my guitar and wrote countless unsent letters to world leaders, begging them to give peace a chance.

This hippyish yearning for peace ‘n’ love was given shape and rigour as sixth form beckoned, and I began to study history and politics with more interest. I came under the influence of Dave Roberts, our diminutive Liverpudlian British Constitution teacher, who converted much of the class to his brand of Tribunite democratic socialism. I began to spend lunchtimes in the school library, devouring the Guardian and New Statesman. Dave organised a school trip to the Houses of Parliament, where we gasped to see one of our heroes, Michael Foot, striding across the entrance hall in front of our eyes.

When I went up to Cambridge to study English Literature, my democratic socialist outlook deepened as I was introduced to the writings of Ruskin and Morris, and attended lectures by Raymond Williams. But Cambridge was also the place where, having lost my youthful evangelical faith, I began to be attracted to Catholicism. The discovery of liberation theology, not to mention the Catholic Marxism of Terry Eagleton, Herbert McCabe et al, made it possible to find some kind of accommodation between my quest for spiritual meaning and my political principles. Meanwhile, my inner monk battled with my outer punk, as I became a regular at new wave gigs down at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, with a distinct preference for the more earnestly political bands like the Clash.

My intertwining religious and political beliefs inspired a year’s voluntary work with ex-prisoners in Worcester, and then postgraduate studies in Manchester, exploring the social and political dimensions of 20th century Christian poetry.  Here, after a brief burst of enthusiasm for my new faith, my attachment to Catholicism began to wane, and I launched into another period of hectic intellectual exploration, as I read my way through Nietzsche, Marcuse, Norman O. Brown et al., to a soundtrack of the Doors and Joy Division.

Then my grant ran out and I found myself back home in Essex with an unfinished PhD and a need to earn some money. I began to do bits of adult education teaching, including a spell with the WEA, before landing my first full-time job running an education project for ex-offenders in Basildon. Around this time I read Marx properly for the first time – nerd that I am, I remember being bowled over by ‘The German Ideology’ – and motivated myself for work by absorbing Freire and Illich. By the time I moved on to my next job, running another NACRO project in North London, I was a regular reader of Marxism Today and Red Letters. I spent my lunchtimes in the Centerprise Bookshop in Stoke Newington High Street, where I bought my copy of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and browsed the publications from Stuart Hall’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. It was now the mid-80s, the time of the miners’ strike and the high-water mark of the GLC, who part-funded our project. If asked to define my politics at this time, I’d probably have said I was a wet marxist, or a soft eurocommunist, with a dash of pro-feminism and vigorous anti-racism.

I took this outlook with me to my next job, as a community education organiser on a depressed estate in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside. Here, my metropolitan Marxian idealism ran up against political apathy, a moribund rural Labour Party, and a working-class community where the most dynamic wanted to move up and out to the middle-class villages, not to stay and foment political change, and where the unemployed adults I was teaching wanted skills for jobs, rather than Freirean consciousness-raising.

And then 1989 happened. Of course, the collapse of the sclerotic Stalinism that most of us on the Left had defined ourselves against shouldn’t have shaken our basic faith in socialism – but somehow it did. It felt rather churlish to carry on calling for socialist revolution, when the people of Eastern Europe were rejoicing in free markets and running away from any form of collectivism. There were domestic repercussion here, too, as the Communist Party fractured and then disappeared, Marxism Today went under, and the machinations of the Bennite left made Labour seem increasingly out of touch and unelectable. Britain, and the world, had changed, but the Left had failed to keep up.

From Oxfordshire I moved to an adult literacy project in Milton Keynes, and thence to a job at the Open University, developing access courses. Long conversations about pedagogy with my colleague Andy Northedge (the person who effected a personal introduction to my erstwhile political hero, Stuart Hall) put more dents in my already wobbly faith in the knowledge-lite Freirean educational methods that I’d begun to doubt as a community educator. Meanwhile, Labour was changing: I supported Kinnock’s reforms and when Blair was elected leader, I renewed my long-lapsed party membership. I saw myself as a critical friend of New Labour, liking the attempt to modernise the message, sometimes critical of the dogma of ‘choice’, but generally in favour. 

And then came 9/11. What was it about that cataclysmic event that changed so many political minds? In part, the shock of this violent assault by the forces of apocalyptic unreason on a liberal, plural, open society helped to crystallise what it was that I valued about that kind of society. And in part it was another kind of shock – of watching as many on the Left, supposedly on ‘our’ side of the political aisle, rushed to explain, excuse, and apologise for that violent assault, to see it as ‘understandable’.  There were other arenas, too, in which this Left, which seemed to have become mainstream and acceptable, ‘understood’ terror, repression, authoritarianism, as long as it was ‘anti-imperialist’ and directed against us, the West. Something else happened to my thinking as a result of 9/11. I’d become fairly pro-Palestinian in recent years, an admirer of Edward Said’s writings, and had even joined the Palestine Solidarity Campaign - at the time, it had seemed like just another of the worthy solidarity campaigns, like those for Chile and Nicaragua, that concerned Leftists should sign up to. But I’d begun to have doubts about one-sided accounts of the Middle East conflict, and the events of September 2001 helped to confirm them. I began to feel rather more sympathy for what ordinary Israelis had been suffering for years, at the hands of Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and started to see Israel not so much as as a neo-colonial oppressor, as it was characterised in the simplistic anti-imperialist playbook, but as the only liberal democracy in the region, surrounded by illiberal and aggressive opponents who desired its destruction.

These new strains in my thinking were nourished by my introduction to the world of blogging, beginning with my discovery of Normblog and then moving on to other sites associated with the Euston Manifesto and the broader anti-totalitarian democratic left. I was broadly supportive of New Labour’s endorsement of US intervention in Afghanistan, maybe more dubious about the liberation of Iraq, though instinctively more sympathetic to those who made a moral case for war than to the ragbag of ‘anti-imperialists’ and apologists for tyranny and theocracy who made up the 'Stop the War' movement.

As the first decade of the 21st century wore on, the old political boundaries of left and right seemed more blurred and porous than before. Often, whether supporting women’s rights in the Muslim world, standing up for Israel, or fighting to defend freedom of expression at home, one found more allies on the right than in some sections of the left. Inevitably, once you’ve discovered common ground with former enemies on one issue, then you become more open to listening to their opinions on other matters. And of course, I was now a middle-aged man, a homeowner with a growing family, so there was the inevitable gravitation away from youthful radicalism and towards the political centre.

But in the last few years there’s been another influence at work too. Religion had never really gone away, and there had been a number of periods of renewed if fleeting attraction. However, these had faltered, due to what I saw as irreconcilable contradictions with my socialist-feminist principles. No, in my 50s, I’ve found myself more seriously and consistently drawn back to belief, and those objections seem less of an obstacle. At this stage, I’m only prepared to say that I’m ‘exploring’ faith, but it doesn’t seem to want go away. Inevitably, it’s having an impact on my political thinking, so that issues such as abortion assume a greater importance - another area in which, sadly, one is more likely to find allies on the right than the left. At the same time, my renewed faith, if that’s what it turns out to be, also prevents me from making a full-scale tilt to the right. In Catholic social teaching, a consistent ethic of life also means opposition to the death penalty, compassion for the poor, and resisting monopolies of power, whether governmental or corporate.

If the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events of 9/11 led to a shift in my thinking on international affairs, then the riots of summer 2011 helped to unsettle some of my ideas about domestic politics. I watched the unfolding scenes that night, as crowds with the merest sliver of an excuse about a possible police shooting in another part of town, callously vandalised, burned and looted, destroying the homes and livelihoods of their neighbours, built up over years of hard work. Like many others that night, I was angry and in despair at the sheer greed and mindless violence, and at the inaction of the police. The official Left response was slower and more reticent than after 9/11, as if sensing that the usual explanations wouldn’t work this time. Nevertheless, there were one or two attempts to pin the blame on police brutality, poverty, the cuts. However, my sympathies were completely with the victims – those who lost their homes or businesses, or saw their neighbourhood go up in flames – and with those public-spirited residents who volunteered to clean up the mess made by others the next day.

I also found myself wondering about those who chose not to riot – the people in the affected areas, also living in inadequate housing, maybe unemployed, victims of the same cuts to local services. Why didn’t they join in? Maybe social conservatives were right when they talked about the importance of individual responsibility, about the positive influences of good parenting, stable families, even religious upbringing and values? And maybe, just maybe, there was even something in the argument that a skewed welfare system, combined with a rampant consumerism, had bred a sense of entitlement – so that many of the rioters thought there was nothing wrong with grabbing what they could and appeared surprised when they had to face the consequences in court.

So where does all of this leave me? Perhaps it’s easier to answer that question in relation to real-life political situations.  For the past decade or so, I’ve been a devoted follower of US politics.We were in San Francisco at the time of the 2008 campaign, and if I’d had a vote, it would definitely have been for Obama. My disillusionment with him has been slower than for some, and probably has as much to with the changes in my own thinking as in his performance as President. As a liberal interventionist, I’ve been deeply disappointed by the administration’s lukewarm support for democratic reform movements in the Middle East, particularly in Iran, its tendency to blame Israel for the failure of the peace process, and its abject humiliation by Russia over Syria. On the domestic front, I supported healthcare reform but I’ve become concerned about the authoritarian requirement on religious healthcare providers to act against their own principles in relation to abortion and contraception. On abortion, too, I gave Obama the benefit of the doubt initially, believing him sincere when he said he wanted to reduce the number of abortions, but I was disgusted by the Democrats' cynical use of the issue to scare voters in 2012. In short, if I were American, I’m not sure which way I’d vote in 2016: I’d like to see a President who shares Obama’s desire to reform healthcare and immigration, but who is also pro-life and willing to stand up to tyrants and defend democratic values abroad.

As for British politics, as a loyal-ish Blairite (and, it would appear, like a majority of Labour Party members) I voted for the Other Miliband, was disappointed by the use of union power to deny him victory, and have been irritated by union-backed attempts to cleanse Blarites from positions of influence in the party. As an admirer of Michael Gove, not only for his writings on terrorism but also for his continuation of the Blair-Adonis educational reforms, I’m irritated by the kneejerk opposition to him from the Labour front bench. I dislike Ed M’s disavowal of the New Labour policies that won three general elections, and find it hard to forgive the two Eds for their part in the Brownite cabal that plotted against Blair. On the other hand, I quite like the idea of One Nation Labour, admire some of the work that Jon Cruddas is doing, and am more sympathetic these days to Blue Labour, though I think Maurice Glasman, for all his undoubted qualities, overestimates its appeal beyond the inner-city enclaves, where ties of faith and community are weaker. Also, I’m not sure he really ‘gets’ working-class aspiration…

Which is kind of where I began.

That's about it, for now. The journey continues...

Thursday 21 November 2013

A man with a plan

When I read about Ed Balls’ plan, if Labour are elected, to build a 'wave' of new towns, I wondered whether the current nostalgia for all things 1963 had gone to his head. Or perhaps this was an extreme example of the two Eds’ intention to eradicate every trace of New Labour, and to unlearn the lessons of the wilderness years of the Eighties and early Nineties. Surely new towns were a feature of the unpopular Old Labourism that voters decisively rejected at the end of the Seventies, along with tower blocks, nationalisation and the closed shop?

In case you’re wondering whether I know whereof I speak, I should mention that my first full-time job was in Basildon, another was in Berinsfield (a planned ‘new village’ in the Oxfordshire countryside), I now live a few minutes from Stevenage, and for the past two decades I’ve worked in Milton Keynes, arguably the only new town that (sort of) works. All of these, except perhaps the last, are characterised by bleak and soulless centres, brutalist architecture, and large and isolating housing estates. What they lack are many of the things residents of ‘old’ towns take for granted: the informal bustle of street life, an attractive diversity of architecture in which the ancient jostles with the modern, buildings and spaces hallowed by tradition and collective memory, and the capacity for organic and spontaneous social, economic and cultural initiative. A recent story in our local paper reported that Stevenage is the ‘unhappiest’ town in Hertfordshire. To be sure, many of its social ills (a high unemployment rate, widespread drug and alcohol problems) are shared by a number of ‘old’ towns and cities, but surely they must be exacerbated by the depressing built environment and the legacy of soulless, centralised planning? Perhaps the most telling sentence in the report is the last: 'Being a new town, Stevenage might not have the established community networks to make people feel they belong, leading to alienation.' (This is despite the 'new' town having been there since 1946).

Another thing new towns tend to lack, though it’s difficult to talk about, particularly on the Left, is class diversity. The new towns of the Sixties were, by and large, one-class towns – working-class towns, in fact – unsurprisingly, since they were mostly intended as a means of clearing the decaying slum areas of London and other big cities, and offering their residents a better life in the country air. By contrast, ‘traditional’ towns tend to be marked by a vibrant social mix, from which everyone gains. Like it or not, in most communities it's those with economic, educational or cultural capital - the  middle classes, in other words - who keep the schools going, organise cultural events, attract higher-end shops and restaurants, and campaign to preserve the local environment. It’s probably the social diversity of Milton Keynes which accounts for it being one of the more attractive and popular of the new towns - which isn’t to overlook its negative aspects, such as the lack of streets you can actually walk along, its disadvantaged outlying estates, and the dire transport connections for anyone without a car.

The deliberately proletarian character of the Sixties new towns always had vaguely Soviet overtones, as did the council-run cultural centres and centrally-planned landscapes and public art works. Balls & co. might object that their new generation of new towns will learn from these past mistakes, and will go out of their way to attract a social mix, employ decent architects, and ensure good transport facilities. But that doesn’t get away from the basic problem with new towns, whether we’re talking about the windswept decay of Basildon or the consumer paradise of Milton Keynes: and that is that they are planned. Surely the main lesson from the new towns of the Sixties is that you can’t plan community, that it has to grown organically over time, and given the choice, most people would prefer to live in an unplanned traditional town, with its mixture of old and new, than in a centrally-planned new town where the government and local authority have preordained where and how you shall live, shop, and enjoy yourself.

When I posted about this story on Facebook and Twitter earlier today, a few commenters suggested that garden cities such as Welwyn and Letchworth provided examples of 'good' new towns and might offer a better model. However (and again, writing as someone who lives within a few minutes of both of the aforementioned places), I have to agree with Jane Jacobs, who was as hostile to the fantasies of Ebenezer Howard as she was to those of Robert Moses. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs described Howard's aim as 'the creation of self-sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge'.  I'm biased, of course, but I much prefer Hitchin, the old, diverse, attractive and constantly surprising town where I'm privileged to live, to either of its rationally-planned near-neighbours, whether the brutalist squares of Stevenage or the orderly avenues of Letchworth.