Martin, About the Corbyn piece. One or two things need a tweak, maybe. First off, while your memories of life ‘close to the epicentre of the Corbyn milieu’* are thrillingly fearless, it’s a bit of a worry that you have nothing to say about Corbyn as a person, rather than as a type, until halfway through the article. Did you ever meet him? Perhaps say if so.
When you do get round to Corbyn you say that ‘his intellectual CV gives an impression of slow-minded rigidity’. And that’s a bit of a problem. In your leisurely preamble you write that at the New Statesman you agreed ‘pretty much’ with James Fenton when he said ‘I want a government that is weak against the trade unions’. You go on to say that Christopher Hitchens’ enduring love for Trotsky is ‘one of the most saliently endearing facts’ about him. In their different ways your witty friends were wrong and stunningly, stupidly wrong, weren’t they?
For all their faults, Corbyn and his contemporaries on the left of the Labour party – the Bennities, let’s call them – were campaigning for equality at home and abroad. What a laugh, I know! But the things they marched for – anti-racism, gay rights, democracy in Africa and Latin America – they were right about those things, weren’t they, at a time when a lot of people were for various reasons wrong? The monosyllabic bigots were wrong, of course. But those who eloquently insisted that these things were distractions from the purity of class struggle were wrong, too.
The Labour left were also trying to find a way out of the UK’s industrial unrest and low productivity through greater industrial democracy. They were trying to create a politics that wasn’t Fenton’s blunt trauma unionism or Hitchens’ swooning pash on Trotsky. They understood that the post-war settlement was in crisis and they could see clearly what the New Right had planned if they failed. They did fail, of course. They could have done with your help, maybe. But you were too busy trading ‘taunts and teases’ with Christopher Hitchens to pay much attention. Fair enough, you had things to do, novels to write. But it doesn’t seem like something to boast about, that you had no idea what was at stake politically, in the epicentre of your milieu.*
In retrospect Corbyn and his friends seem to have been much more curious about the world than you were. They were trying to find a future, with all the uncertainty and upset that that brings with it. Thatcher meanwhile promised a return to the old verities – landlordism and low pay. Good news for a satirist, I suppose, not so much for the actual Keiths and Lionels, though.
Corbyn and McDonnell have continued to show some considerable intellectual curiosity. They were the first people in Parliament to engage seriously with the issues raised by the Tax Justice Network, for example, and they have been willing to consider challenges to the zombie orthodoxy that surrounds money. (Didn’t you write something about money, once, Mart?) They are trying understand how the world works. You don’t have to pay attention to these things but tracing the outlines of the here and now, I don’t know, it might be more interesting than reminiscing about the old days at the New Statesman.
You write that Corbyn is ‘without the slightest grasp of the national character’ having just quoted him saying that ‘anyone who wants to be a beekeeper should be a beekeeper’. The ‘national character’ is a nonsense, I think we can agree. But from my limited knowledge of the inhabitants of these islands, the idea that everyone is entitled to enough outside space for a beehive or two is about the most British thing I have ever heard. Maybe it isn’t very funny. But it isn’t very funny to be in a short-term tenancy with no garden, so perhaps the voters will forgive Corbyn for not being a brilliant satirist.
And then there is the terrorism. It’s tricky that one, isn’t it? Because Corbyn has been right about the War on Terror all along. He opposed that invasion of Iraq that Hitchens was so keen on, too. He is arguing for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian Civil War as he has done from the outset. Intellectually curious politicians with a sense of humour and a firm grasp of the national character meanwhile have been alternating between wanting to bomb Assad’s troops and wanting to bomb ISIS. Civil wars are horrible, and the people who are good at fighting them – including the CIA and MI6 – tend to be appalling bastards. But finding a way to stop them, that’s the trick, isn’t it? Bombing everyone in turn doesn’t seem that promising. It’s a bit exterminate all the brutes, no?
What was that you said about Corbyn, that he seems ‘essentially incurious about anything beyond his immediate sphere’? You don’t need to be curious about Corbyn, now any more than you were then, but there’s a world beyond the immediate sphere of the opinions you happen to have right now, the words that seem to fit together, the ambled circuit of the same perimeter. You can’t keep pronouncing on things you can’t be bothered to understand. You didn’t understand Corbyn then. You don’t now.
You can see what I am getting at, can’t you? You call Corbyn humourless and clueless about his country. You say that his approach to foreign affairs is childish and obviously so. You know what your many no doubt envious and talentless detractors are going to say, ‘Oh there goes Mart, whatever he writes about, it’s always really about him.’
Get out of whatever rut you are in, find out what people are like before you roll them up tight in a larky name. Stop groping at profundities like a prat. Do the work,
All my best,
ps, I am setting up a Democratic Media Fund, which will pay for me to look at ways tomake the media safe for democracy. The first project this Spring will look at emerging funding models for journalism and how they relate to the output. It will be based around a trip to meet the Bristol Cable people and learn more about their work.
If you want to contribute to what I am grandiosely calling the DMF, you can buy a copy of Common Sense on pdf. I’ll send everyone who kicks in 99 pence a note in April about the Bristol trip, and about the DMF’s plans for the rest of the year. Together we can change story about the media, as a prelude to changing the world.
*Do milieux have epicentres?