I don’t often write about British current affairs directly here. I am, after all, a historian whose interests lie in nineteenth-century France.
But something about the Jeremy Corbyn maelstrom has been bugging me.
(Corbyn, in case you don’t follow British politics, is the recently elected leader of the Labour Party, who have been the main opposition party or government at Westminster since the early twentieth century.)
Where is the criticism of the discourse of ‘old’ and ‘new’ that has surrounded Corbynmania?
During the leadership election, Corbyn’s opponents and the media made a big deal out of the idea that his policies were old-fashioned. They were a return, we were told, to the unelectable radical socialism of the 1980s.
There are two problems with this.
The first relates to a point made by an article in The Independent, which argued that many of these policies were actually quite popular with voters. I find that point debatable: we will soon see whether Corbyn’s ideas about the role of the state and about economic policy in particular really do work with the general public.
As an historian, I am more concerned with the second problem. Is it really right to simply call Corbyn’s policies ‘old-fashioned’?
Before I answer that, consider what has happened since Corbyn has become leader of the party. In a dramatic departure from established practices, Corbyn has confounded, upset, and amused the media and political elites by
1. Using Prime Minister’s Questions to read out questions he selected from 40,000 emails sent with suggestions
2. Behaving in interviews as if he is thinking out loud, refusing to commit to positions that (from a PR perspective) are basic niceties (kneeling for the Queen and the kerfuffle about the national anthem, not to mention his clothes, are the obvious examples).
What does the media conclude?
That Corbyn is a challenger to the ‘out-dated’ ways of doing public politics, which have lost the support of the public! Damn you, media. Is he an innovator or a dinosaur? It’s like you don’t all agree!
Sarcasm aside, I don’t think this is simply a question of differing opinions. I think the whole discourse of modern and old fashioned is the problem.
I don’t want anyone reading this to get the wrong impression.
I am not a Corbyn supporter in any straightforward sense. I sympathise with many of his positions, and I think I agree almost entirely with many of the people who voted for him in the leadership election. But he wasn’t my choice for a new leader.
The point I simply want to make is that a very simple idea – which I believe is at the heart of what many historians have done over the last generation – has had absolutely zero impact on the public.
I am referring to the critique of ‘progress’.
Historians have expended a great deal of energy to demonstrate that progress is, essentially, nothing more than a helpful story we tell ourselves about how things have changed. It does not fit the facts about the growth of human knowledge, the spread of global power, the rise of democracies, or the decline of religion.
Science did not simply grow more rational over time. Instead, science has always been entangled with its alternatives, fascinated by the irrational and unknowable. The spread of European imperialism was not simply the outcome of technological superiority, but a complex array of accidents and opportunities not necessarily led by European powers. Look around the world today: who could say that we are on a clear-cut trajectory towards the spread of democracy? The much-trumpeted secularization hypothesis has found its rebuttal in the religious revivals of the last generation.
Changes happen, of course. Historians of all kinds, in and beyond the academy, devote their intellectual energy to telling the stories of how and when changes take place.
But ‘backwards’ vs ‘modern’ – or whatever binary of this kind you choose to use – does little justice to the complexity of change, renewal, rediscovery, reapplication, forgetting, and foreswearing. Yes, we feel the novelty of some moments, but that feeling itself deserves to be historicised. We are not on a steady march towards a brave new world (in either the straightforward or ironic sense).
At the risk of comparing Corbynmania to a religion, think how many radical religious movements claim at once to be a return to origins and yet also something completely new.
What does this mean for the case at hand?
Corbyn is not ‘backward’, for all that his critics would like us to believe. He is (whether or not I like it, whether or not the media like it) the person that voters most wanted in 2015 to face the problems of 2015.
And equally, neither is he the prophet of the new order. His radically new style is something others have called for over the past years. In 2005, no less than David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party and current Prime Minister called for an end to the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster.
To talk about current affairs using this binary of progress and regress is smoke and mirrors.
At the risk of alienating readers of this blog who don’t share my political opinions: can things get better?
But do they get better in a smooth forward march, or even a stuttering, halting march that sometimes bends back on itself?
I am not so sure. We live in the period of the end of the welfare state in the UK. That gradual process is the opposite of what I would choose to call progress.
What matters – I believe – is not labels of new and old, but a serious appraisal of actual policies. My suspicion is that on these grounds Corbyn has a great deal of unusual ideas to offer, and an equally great set of very serious blind spots.
But hey, I guess the party can just elect a better leader next time.