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Harold Wilson: The Winner. Nick Thomas-Symonds. Review.

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Harold Wilson: The Winner.  Nick Thomas-Symonds. Weidenfeld & Nicolson

“Puts Harold Wilson in his rightful place…a fine work of history” Labour leader Keir Starmer is cited on the front cover of the new biography of the Party’s longest – serving Prime Minister. “Celebrates him as a successful prime minister and the architect of social reform.” wrote Roy Hattersley minister of defence and minister of state for foreign affairs in Harold Wilson’s government, in the Guardian. In his Introduction, Thomas-Symonds announces,”the time has now come to illuminate the significance of Harold Wilson has the signifiance of Harold Wilson as one of the shapers of modern Britain.”After the first two comments, it will come as little surprise to learn that he concludes, “Wilson deserves to be remembered for his achievements: the lasting changes that made Britain a fairer place, but also one of the twentieth century’s great political personalities.”

After the Labour triumph in 1964 Perry Anderson wrote, “Wilson above all has offered a strategy to the Labour Party – it is this that has enabled him to temporarily cancel the divisions within it and dominate the party. A strategy for the Labour Party as it exists today, however is one thing; a strategy for socialism is another.” Yet, readers of the present day New Left Review, the haunt of bitter young men, women, and their elders, may perhaps be surprised to learn that its then Editor continued on an optimistic note. Surveying the heritage of the British tradition of reform, creative social thought, and class consciousness, he wrote, “One of the encouraging results of the new phase inside the Labour Party has been the release if the generous, creative potential of each of these traditions – personified perhaps in men like Benn on the one hand, and Cousins on the other, in the present government.” (Problems of Socialist Strategy in Towards Socialism. 1965) In the same paperback Tom Nairn commented, “There is no doubt that relatively, with regards to the past annals of the Labour leadership Wilson represents a kind of progress.” (The Nature of the Labour Party) He “appears as a potentially more Left-Wing leader in a time of potential progress…”

Guild Socialism.

The Winner ably steers through the thickets of Wilson’s life, his Yorkshire education, success at Oxford, mastery of statistics researching for Beveridge, his time at the Ministry of as he contributed to the war effort in the Ministry of Fuel and Power, defending the interests of miners against “innumerate” mine owners, until we reach his political career in 1945. Readers will be struck by the emphasis on a Congressionalist background. His socialism influenced not just by faith but was inspired by discussion classes held by G.D.H. Cole, whose Guild Socialism was, Thomas-Symonds asserts, “a libertarian version of socialism, as distinct from Marxism.” Those familiar with Cole’s writings, from What Marx Really Meant (1934) to the volumes of A History of Socialist Thought (1953 – 61 will not be satisfied with this hard and fast division. But if Cole “pointed” Wilson in the direction of the Labour Party and religious fire burned in his loathing of unemployment, the future Labour leader would claim to have never read a word of Marx.

Once in Parlement in 1945, appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works, then Presiding over the Board of Trade’s 1947 ‘Bonfire of Controls’, put his ability to master his brief to work. Out of office during the Bevan-Gaitskell fights of the 1950s he sided with the left though it might be said that a position on unilateral disarmament does not shine out. Other issues, from his defence of the NHS onwards, mattered more. “Like Bevan, Wilson was also a believer in economic planning. At its most basic level, his meant having a government that could mobilise the resources of the country to meet the needs of its people.” Gaitskell did not realise, “a great number of people had joined Labour because they believed Socialism was a way of making a reality of Christian principles in everyday life.”

At cross-current to the Guild Socialist advocacy of self-government in industry Sir Raymond Street, believed that “He has a fantastic belief in the power of the government and individual Ministers to supervise and decide things for the common good”. Yet, to qualify this claim, as Labour’s civil war lumbered on during the decade in the Clause Debate of 1959 Wilson declared, “I was in favour of neither outright nationalisation, nor a a complete ban on all further nationalisation. the question, I told my colleagues, and such of the press as were listening, is ‘daft’. It was a matter of degree and of proving the case.” As Bevan is cited, “All bloody facts. No bloody vision.

The thirteen wasted years of Tory rule ended in 1964. His 1963 Labour Conference speech, “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry” setting an agenda of sorts for the decade. Science, and what would be called “modernisation” are at the forefront – the May Day Manifesto of 1968, whose authors included Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson and Stuart Hall, called modernisation, “the ‘theology’ of a new capitalism”. Francis Wheen in The Sixties (1982) talked of disappointment on the left, “matters which would have been regarded as centrally important by most socialists – public ownership and the redistribution of wealth – were relegated to the margins.” The Manifesto was harsher, “a Labour government has stuck to old and discredited policies: cutting ordinary people’s living standards, and putting the protection of a capitalist economic and financial system before jobs, care and extended education.” Today many on the left consider the Wilson years as part of the “long retreat of social democracy” from its reformist origins, in Britain marked by the high-point of the Attlee post-war government.

The Achievements of the Wilson Governments.

The Winner offers a different narrative centring on the best things the governments between 1964 – 1970 and 1974 to 1976 managed to achieve. They include the expansion of further and higher education, a less punitive and more generous welfare system, housing programmes which while no doubt unable to cover the full need make the present day crisis look all the worse, the liberal reforms achieved (not all directly government initiated) the abolition of capital punishment and corporal punishment in gaols, the right to abortion, the legalisation of homosexual acts and the ending of censorship and anti-discrimination legislation. There was Equal-pay legislation and Health and Safety at Work (1974, the basis of present Health and Safety Acts). 

There was less success on industrial relations, although In Place of Strife (1969), thwarted and relegated after labour movement opposition, looks pro-trade union in its requirement for strike ballots (designed to halt unofficial work stoppages), compared to post-Margaret Thatcher repression of workers’ rights. There was later to be the very modest success of the Social Contract wage restraint agreement in return for repealing the Heath Industrial Relations Act and the failure of the Bullock Report on industrial democracy, an idea one would consider in the tradition of Cole’s Guild Socialism. Keeping the party together and allowing for a successful renegotiation and referendum to vote to join the European Union, or Common Market as it was known, in 1975, remains impressive given the scale of prejudice from patriotic left and right on the issue.

Detailed pages on devaluation make little sense today in a world of floating exchange rates but underline the priorities of the government at the time. Ian Smith’s UDI in Rhodesia remind us of how recent decolonialisation from Africa was and how the ‘sanctions’ Wilson used against the white minority regime were less than impressive. Thomas-Symonds makes a case for Wilson’s wiliness in staying out of the US-led intervention in Vietnam, though not many would notch that up as a memorable aspect of the war in Indo-China. These, and other, foreign policy issues, though, not fully the PM’s responsibility. they included a stint with the rumbustious George Brown as Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs. A thread that tightened, was steadfast Atlanticism even if this passion was not always requited by President Lyndon Johnson, or paid for by a British military presence in Saigon.

This is not only a biographical account of Wilson’s years of office, his disputes, his colleagues with a fine touch about his personal life, and his wife Mary, but a solid political history. The pitch, aimed at a readership as we approach another 13 wasted years of Tory rule, is Wilson the Winner. The man, who won four of five general elections, more than any other postwar British leader of any party. . A “cerebral academic” with the “common touch” for whom “the Labour Party was a moral crusade or it is nothing”. A leader with “Scout’s sense of duty”, with “a reverence for Britain’s constitutional settlement, particularly the monarchy.” He was a social conservative who recognised the need for radical social changes. One can see in this elements of a less than universal appeal to everybody who’s a Labour member or supporter, that fits the agenda of the right-wing of the Party, “Labour to Win.” The author, who has an academic and legal background, is at present, shadow secretary of state for international trade.

In 1974 Wilson said to his adviser Bernard Donoughue, “I don’t want too many of those Guardianisms Environmentalism, Genderism, etc..I want my speeches always to include what working people are concerned with: jobs, pay, prices, pensions, homes, kids, schools, health.” If there is one thing Harold Wilson. The Winner is convincing upon it is, Wilson not only meant the last part of the phrase, he did his best to work for people to live their lives enjoying the best he and Labour could help to ensure in every one of these areas.

Written by Andrew Coates

December 7, 2022 at 2:57 pm

Tories Introduce Voter Suppression in the UK to Disenfranchise the Poor and the Young.

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In the area of Ipswich where I live, bang next to the town centre, you can see marginalisation and poverty every single day. It comes home to you when you meet somebody who used to live in your street join the Sunday queue for a food package at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Rope Walk.

The area, known as the Potteries, whose origins go back to Anglo-Saxon times (‘Ipswich Ware’), was a slum in the 19th century. It is ably described in Frank Grace’s book Rags & bones. Grace does not give details of its political history. This extends from the 1844 Chartist and secularist Ipswich Infidel Repository by John Cook, a journeyman shoemaker, in nearby Upper Orwell Street and Garrard’s Radical Repository in not far distant Falcon Street, which sold Feargus O’Connor‘s the Northern Star. Chartism, whose main demand was universal male suffrage had a strong presence in Ipswich, (Chartism in Essex and Suffolk A. F. J. Brown. 1982)

In 1848, meeting was held on the Corn Hill for “Peace, Law and Order. A Republic for France: the Charter for England”. John Cook sent a message to Paris, “we can assure you” he said, “that the British people will never sanction a fratricidal war against their brethren in France.” Saluting the Revolution Richard Booley, a spring-maker at the local coach works, said, “as the middle class had triumphed in 1789 so 1848 would be the year working class emancipation”. The assembly adopted an “address from the Working Classes to the People of Paris.”

All men are Brethren. Equality, Liberty and Fraternity. Heroic citizens – the thunder-notes of your victory have sounded across the Channel, awakening the sympathies and hopes of every lover of liberty. We hasten to express the sympathies and hopes of every lover of liberty.. The fire that consumed the throne of the royal traitor will kindle the torch of liberty in every country in Europe. Should Kings and oppressive Governments, unmindful of the lesson of the past, dare again to make war upon your liberties, assure yourselves, citizens, the the nations will not this time, follower the banners of tyrants….Accept our fraternal salutations and our earnest wishes that the French Republic may triumph over its enemies and become a model for the imitation of the world. Vive La République!

Great democratic advances have been made since those years, beginning with universal suffrage for men and women. Today, the inheritors of the party that opposed the Charter, the Conservatives, are out again to attack the rights of voters. Their approach now is to make it harder for people to cast their ballot. Taking a leaf out of the tactics of their American mentors, they have made it difficult for people to use the polling stations – the people affected, it cannot be doubted, including those driven to rely on food distribution in Rope Walk and the countless other outlets and Food Banks across the town.

Like those, a few hundred metres away in St Helen’s Street, “Meeting weekly at St Helen’s Church, the gathering looks to provide a safe environment for people with multiple and complex needs, such as mental health issues, addiction or homelessness. The church also holds a pop-up shop every Thursday, where people can purchase a bag of food for £2.” (Ipswich church starts new worshipping community for people ‘battered by life’). And young people, and those whose first language may not be English, and those who are simply too badly off and preoccupied to go through the rigmarole of getting a special voter’s card with photo ID.

This is what the Tories are doing:

Call these voter ID laws what they really are: voter suppression and an attack on young people Polly Toynbee.

So many outrageous things have happened recently that indignation fatigue is a risk. We grow weary, blase and cynical. But warping the voting system in the right’s favour is a permanent harm, copied from the US. First-past-the-post already gives the right a huge electoral advantage, but the Tories want more.

As from next May’s local elections, all voters must bring along ID specified in this list. As the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) says, the kind of photo ID required is what older people are more likely to have. For example, why is a Transport for London Oyster card for 60+ travellers acceptable, but not a near-identical Oyster 18+ card? Let that stand as their true intention. Voters who don’t have a driving licence or passport or various forms of disabled person’s ID – all of which are more likely to be held by the old – can apply to their local authority for a free plastic voter ID photo card. How many would do that?

This barrier will, research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows, disenfranchise many low-income voters. Getting one of these special voter IDs is harder for those who work irregular hours, or who may not speak good English or know how to use the technology. The government was plainly thinking of exactly those people in setting up barriers to stop them voting.

The Lords voted by a big majority to add in all kinds of easier ID, such as bank statements, bills, student ID, library cards and much more. But their amendment was struck out in the Commons. The pretence that there is a serious electoral fraud problem was debunked by evidence from the 2017 election: there was just one – yes, only one – conviction for voter impersonation at a polling station. Postal voting has seen more cases. The cost of imposing the new ID – extra staff at polling stations and councils issuing it – will be up to £180m a decade, according to the Cabinet Office. Turning people away, and telling them to return with other ID, will cause trouble. In the few trials in England in 2018 and 2019, of 3,000 people turned away, more than a third never came back.

Here’s why the government wants to keep the young away: voters over 70 are three times more likely to vote Tory than the 18-24s. Every year of life we age, we grow 0.35% more likely to be Tory. That may not sound a lot, “but it’s very valuable over a lifetime”, says Duffy. The tipping point for turning Tory has generally been growing older at each election: it was age 47 in 2017. No wonder the Tories worry they are dying out. Brexit saw a deep divide, with only 28% of millennials voting leave, compared with 61% of oldest voters.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 25, 2022 at 1:25 pm

How Woke Won. Joanna Williams. Review: Requiem for the Culture Wars.

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Requiem for the Dreams of the Culture Wars.

How Woke Won Joanna Williams. John Wilkes Publishing

This morning, as the cold November rain pours down, I sip a cup of Camp Coffee and take up, again, this book. The delicious syrup no longer has a label showing a Sikh servant serving a kilted Scottish soldier outside an Imperial Tent. It now depicts the Sikh as a soldier, sitting beside the comrade-in-arms with a cup and saucer of his own. “Woke has conquered the West” begins Joanna Williams. “From schools and universities….woke values dominate every aspect of our lives” ends the first paragraph of How Woke Won. As Frank Furedi is cited in the front pages, read only the first lines and one is aware of the “corrosive and decisive impact of wokism on public life.”

Dr Joanna Williams, Head of Education and Culture at Policy Exchange and associate Editor of Spiked, the author of an article for the Revolutionary Communist Party’s Living Marxism (LM) in 1999, ‘Why scrap grammar schools now?’ writes in the present work of the “coming together of identity politics and victim culture” behind the “woke outlook”. “Words like ‘diversity’, ‘equity’, ‘inclusivity’ gender neutral’ and ‘white privilege'” flag up its values. It is most at home in the “cultural elite”, part of these overlapping groups’  social assets, which Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital”. Shared tastes and language, “a shift from white men in suits to trendy young, transgender, bisexual people of colour” may be “rather superficial”, but uniting them is the belief that we all have “identity based , historically accumulated privileges and disadvantages”. “The new elite’s authority comes from acting on behalf of the oppressed.”They are “contemptuous of the masses for their alleged ignorance and incorrect beliefs”. People must be, Williams asserts, wants to save us “from ourselves” They propose to rescue us from obesity, drinking, betting and poor parenting, as well as sexism, racism and transphobia” by “moral re-education”.

One of the longest-standing criticisms of theories of elites is that they explain everything by explaining nothing. Elites exist because the exist, because power elites exist. One of the longest-standing objections to Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of habitus is the recurrent use of circular arguments. Cultural capital is reproduced …because it is reproduced. In their chapter on Bourdieu in La pensée 68: essai sur l’anti-humanisme contemporain. Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut (1985), questioned if the Marxisant sociologist offers propositions that can be falsified, and thus tested. They asserted he did not – thus sparing us the arduous tasks of reading his pages of empirical evidence about the importances of inherited class in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. The ruling class rules because it rules. More significantly than this approach which applies to a pile of left and right wing ‘functionalist’ claims about elites, they asked what class interests could be served by intellectuals simply by being, as they were once called, ‘brain workers’?

To simplify, what kind of link exists between the holders of cultural capital and the owners of real capital? A moment’s thought and we find that people even in what could be called the “ideological state apparatus”, from the media to education, do not all agree with capitalism, carry out work in fields, such as science, that serve no profitable purpose, let alone back particular capitalist governments. Above, in what possible sense do the movements commonly defined as “alert to injustice in society, especially racism” operate to help keep order, to sustain the ‘elite’ and to turn a profit? How does a largely generous impulse that could be traced back to John Stuart Mill’s defence of the flourishing of difference, or a rage against the all-too real legacies of British imperialism, increase the pumping out of surplus value? Cautiously, no doubt, cancel culture’s contribution to company’s balance sheets is not weighed.

Williamson has an answer. She puts the woke ‘elite’ in the service of woke capitalism. From education to business woke has a function. “Universities’ primary role in the 21st century is preparing young adults for the work workplace”. Once there, “having staff members police and discipline each other is one example of the benefits of work for business leaders”. “Anti-racism is big business”. A taste for social justice is one thing, but ostensible woke values “divert attention from the uglier side of capitalism”. She writes, “A century ago universities trained up young men to work in the colonies and ‘civilise’ the natives. Today, universities play a similar role, only the natives are at home.”

 “It is better that working men and working women should not be able to read or write or do sums than that they should receive education from a teacher in a school run by the state. ” (Political Indifferentism. K. Marx.) would perhaps not be the programme of the Associate Editor of Spiked. Indeed she makes a stab at an analysis of the abstractions of cultural theory, claiming that, for critical theorists, such as Althusser (!), Foucault and Derrida “Marxism itself was worthy of critique”.”Having both rejected social class and grand narratives as the primary means of making sense of the world academics turned to identity -based scholarship. What emerged in the decades since this time is a hotchpotch of identity- based intellectual projects, from academic feminism to queer theory, from critical race theory to postcolonialism and even fat studies.”

The formalism of structuralism and post-structralism drew inspiration from perhaps the most anti-identitarian works of literary criticism ever written, Marcel Proust’s Contre Saint-Beuve. “L’homme qui fait des vers et qui cause dans un salon n’est pas la même personne”. The man who makes verses and who chats in a salon is not the same person. In this posthumously published collection the author of À la recherche du temps perdu asserted that while a writer moulds each text in her or his own fashion the result is not, as god made human beings, shaped in their own image. The text, its style, its message, has its own autonomy. “Les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère.” Beautiful books are written in a kind of foreign language.

It is a quirk, some say a legacy of Christianity, certainly with religious overtones, to judge literature primarily in moral terms and, above all, through the person of the author. Roland Barthes, as is no secret, proclaimed, in this vein, “La mort de l’auteur” (1967).  “In his essay, Barthes argues against the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of an author’s identity to distil meaning from the author’s work.” There are few themes more foreign to this approach than “woke” identity criticism, which underlines biography above everything else, though rarely with the kind of thoroughness that marked Saint-Beuve’s brilliant studies such as the monumental Port-Royal (1840 – 1859). By extension the principle that an actor or actress should only play roles based on their own identity rubs up against another principle.  In the Paradoxe sur le comédien (written 1773, published 1830), Denis Diderot argued that great actors must possess judgment and penetration without “sensibility”—i.e., without actually experiencing the emotions they are portraying as characters on the stage. The ‘distance’ between their own person and the part is an essential element in the performance.

How Woke Won fails to take this stout defence of art for art’s sake. There are pages, many more in fact, if not a great deal, on gender identity, transsexuality, and gender. Hre we get reverse side of the coin against identity literature: it seems in order to devalue anything said in the name of victimhood without judging the arguments themselves. In these waters a plea against the enormous condescension of the present against the ‘gammon’ is added to the list of the suffering. Williams follows her national-comrades in lamenting the woke “prejudice against white working class men” and “disregard for social class in general and loathing of the working class in particular”.

If the former contributor to LM may momentarily regret the woke elite’s “complete opposition to Marxism” her love only too often dares to speak its name. “The UK’s Brexit vote showed us that when individuals demand that their voices be listened to, major change can occur. This is a call to courage everywhere.” The issue is not identity politics, but that her kind of identity politics, Brexit, despite the “growing popularity of online publications like Spiked and news media outlets like GB news..” is not, yet holding the reins of power.

Woke may have won. We have the most diverse Cabinet ever. Kemi Badenoch, of Nigerian heritage, MP for the  picturesque, medieval Saffron Walden, who stood in the Tory contest to succeed Boris Johnson, was the most right-wing anti-Woke candidate one could possibly imagine. Yet woke, imported from American liberalism, is cracking. Not from the absurdity of the Conservative version of diversity. Not from the battering given by Williamson and her national comrades. Not from exhaustion at the rage and moral panics around folk devils haunting the imagination around cancel culture from identitarians, from her national populist side the loud missionaries of US liberal culture.

It is the universalism, solidarity and internationalism that are coming back. Events are chewing these ‘culture wars’ up and spitting them out. The courage of the Ukrainians and the Iranian people makes the Woke and anti-Woke squabble stand for what it is has become, shrivelled and small.

As I sip another cup of Camp, I recall that the days of the Bayard of India, James Outram (1803 – 1863), soldier statesman in the service of the East India Company, have passed. Carrying on up the Khyber I check to see if his statue still stands in Whitehall Gardens. It has yet to be a target of the ‘woke elite’ in the Culture Wars

Written by Andrew Coates

November 23, 2022 at 3:14 pm