There’s a family legend that I was present when Aneurin (“Nye”) Bevan called the Tories “vermin”. I was three years old, on my father’s shoulders, and allegedly roared with anger. This incident was supposed to have taken place at the “Big Meeting” (aka the Durham Miners’ Gala) in 1950. Unfortunately, as so often with family legends, the record appears to show that he first and most famously used this expression at a Manchester hotel in 1948. Still, it would appear that Nye and I were in the same place in Durham in 1950 and I’m sure he strutted his usual stuff and they always told me that I expressed my distaste.
And I do reciprocate the sentiments, at least in part. Bevan talked about “hating” Tories, not just Toryism and I don’t really hate anybody, certainly not Labour supporters or members as such. My wife has always voted Labour, including in 2019; we’ve been together for forty eight years and I doubt either of us could imagine living with someone who agreed with us – it sounds pretty boring. One of my sons had a Labour poster in his front garden; he enjoyed telling me this and did it with a cheeky grin and a bit of a cuddle. I even voted Labour myself once, for a friend, the wife of a colleague, in a local election where she didn’t stand much chance. I’ve lots of friends who have supported the Labour Party and, for that matter, I would have little or no preference for the Tory MPs I have known over the Labour ones as people.
So when I say that I loathe the Labour Party with a kind of bubbling contempt the statement needs considerable qualification. It isn’t most of those attached to the party. It isn’t even the policies: I’d probably nationalise or re-nationalise one or two things myself, if in charge, and as a rational utilitarian I have to favour a certain amount of redistribution of resources, certainly towards public goods (in the technical sense) and to a lesser extent in favour of public services. In any case, all political parties formulate silly policies and rarely implement those they announce. This raises the possibility that my attitude to Labour is at least in part parallel to what Sellars and Yeatman describe as the normal attitude to the Parliamentary side in the English Civil Wars, that they were “right but repulsive”. Being repulsive matters in a democracy.
The repulsive dimension can be given an old-fashioned satirical label: THIGMOO (“This great movement of ours.”) It is precisely what makes Labour more than a political party that I loathe and I would describe it as combination of a psychosis with an ideology. The psychosis is the transposition of emotions and feelings of inadequacy onto the public arena. There was quite a body of writing about this in the mid-twentieth century – early Harold Lasswell, Nathan Leites, Hans Eysenck etc. – which saw political activists, but especially the left, as psychotics per se. It proved a relatively brief fashion so I will principally identify what I mean in terms of a more established piece of political science, the understanding of parties initiated by Maurice Duverger’s Les Partis Politiques in 1951. This distinguished “devotees” from mere “followers”. Devotees are not instrumentalists, but fundamentalists for whom the party’s principles are good-in-themselves, making political beliefs and allegiances more akin to religion. For them party membership is a large part of their lives, something which gives meaning to life. In Labour’s case this would mean they would not have Tory friends or lovers. Labour has a strong devotee component, but this isn’t a matter of the political spectrum because they share that characteristic with the Republican Party in the USA. I would typify the ideology, logically independent from the psychosis, as that of the degenerate Enlightenment, when the new and exciting ideas of rationality, science and scepticism were overlaid by religiose humanism and the doctrines of equality and natural rights. But, of course, it is the symptoms of these conditions which are loathsome, rather than the conditions themselves:
THEIR SIMILARITY TO THE BOURBONS of whom Talleyrand said, “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Thus you can mark in your calendar the economic crises of Labour governments. As an old chap I remember the power cuts and dwindling sweet rations three years into the Attlee government, the devaluation and draconian currency regulations three years into the first Wilson government and the rubbish in the streets and 30% inflation three years into the Wilson-Callaghan government. Admittedly, the smarmy “New” lot took longer to cock things up.
THE WAY THEY TALK ABOUT PEOPLE.: “the masses”, “the working class”, “Our ‘aff” as Ron Hayward, secretary of the party (1972-82) used to call them. More recently, “the many” – who the heck would want to be part of “the many”? There’s a definite hint of animal husbandry about the way Labour devotees talk about people, a sense of ownership combined with a duty of care. “The people” are only supposed to be concerned with “real issues” like the NHS; they are very naughty when they are patriotic or ethical.
THE WAY THEY TALK ABOUT CONCEPTS: I could pick from dozens, but let’s go with “better society” and “social justice”. Of course the linguistic nature of these is such that we have to be in favour of them and thus I’m all for a “better society”: greater liberty, more free speech, a serious concern with the truth etc. And I’m in favour of social justice, suum cuique as the Romans had it, to each his desert so that those who deserve death get death, those entitled to nothing get nothing. Justice is a harsh business compared to compassion. The point is that all of these are what the philosopher W.B.Gallie called “essentially contested concepts”: you can’t talk about them as if your meaning was the only alternative.
THEY GO ON DEMOES, forming mobs, shouting slogans, making a nuisance of themselves. This is a practice which should come third behind incest and folk dancing on the Beecham inspired anti-bucket list. It has to be seen as the tip of an iceberg. It’s about who you are, irrational, childish, Schopenhaurian self expression when nobody in their right mind should give a toss who you are unless you can come up with good arguments. It’s about being “passionate” about “issues” when being dispassionate is what is needed. Devotees cry when they lose elections and celebrate when they win. But politics is not like sport and family: it’s like refuse collection, work and finance – instrumental stuff you have to put up with. Much as I hate the Labour Party to win anything, I’m not going to weep about it, but merely adjust to the latest horror.
THE WAY THEY TALK ABOUT US, their opponents. Currently they are most likely to talk about people as “right wing” or “populist”. What simplistic, puerile nonsense! If I’m “right wing” whose views are mine supposed to resemble: Louis XIV? Genghis Khan? Adolph Hitler? Milton Friedmann? Actually, none of the above – well, possibly Friedmann a bit. If you have to have a childish spatial model to simplify a complex range of theories and values it surely shouldn’t be as simplistic as the “spectrum” of the of the original French National Assembly. A better one would be to take one position – say, egalitarian socialism – and map other positions as opposed to it from different directions. There are a potentially infinite set of positions from which to oppose egalitarian socialism including many forms of religious fundamentalism, but also philosophical scepticism, themselves opposite to each other. And as for “populism” – that word use is a bit revealing, isn’t it?
THE WAY THEY TALK ABOUT OUR COUNTRY as if it were “broken”. Actually, I’ve been to a lot of places over a long life and read a lot of history and the current state of our country seems pretty good to me with freedom and happiness at high levels. Of course, there are many inadequate and unhappy people, but that is the human condition and the various forms of socialism never managed to alleviate it for very long. Actually, the current combination of low inflation and low unemployment seems almost miraculous compared with most of the economic debates of my lifetime. (Ah, but they’re not “real” jobs they say, as if the docks, the mines or the car track were better. Work is rubbish – get over it.) And, anyway, it was a pretty fractured country at the point at which Nye Bevan was suggesting extermination as appropriate for my lovely grandparents as well as being, thanks to socialism, extremely poor.
In broad terms the problem for Labour as for other “left wing” movements and for mainstream religions takes the form of a paradox. They have a kind of moral and intellectual hegemony: the values they preach and claim to implement, based on equality and, especially, equal “human” or “natural” rights are the dominant values, the ones that we think we are supposed to believe. That sounds like an advantage, but these values are what Bertrand Russell called “Sunday truths”: we don’t accept them on an everyday basis, but ignore them and live our lives by opposite principles, trying, for example, to be as unequal to others as possible. Thus really believing in them comes across as righteousness and rectitude and is eminently dislikeable. Being an ideological goody-goody is bad and people like me, who don’t believe in any of these things, are relieved at the evidence that other people are not so enthusiastic about these values as they at first appear. Some Labour politicians have understood this; I think one was Ernie Bevin who argued that all “socialist” proposals had to be argued on their utilitarian merits and that a Labour government should be at least as opposed to Communism as a democratic government of any other persuasion.
(I’m not sure why I wrote this. The context is easy to state: the general election of December 2019 and the subsequent election of a Labour leader which between them aroused all my atavistic political feelings. But I always advise people to have a clear purpose and a specific outlet in mind when they write articles and I failed to take my own advice on this occasion. I was clear that there would be no point in putting it in anything other than a left outlet. The only one I tried it on was the Guardian for whom I had written prominent and provocative pieces in the distant past. But no staff remained from those times. I received a polite email saying that unless they contacted me further I could assume they were not interested. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.)