I wanted to write something else about the EU referendum – or rather about one aspect of the consequences now unfolding at dizzying speed. How, though, to make that relevant to the focus of this blog? Well, when you stand back to look at what’s happening, it seems like science fiction.
Imagine you included it all in a synopsis for a novel. The UK leaves the European Union. Scotland breaks away to become independent. The pound and the stock market go into freefall and the UK loses its credit rating. The Prime Minister resigns and the ruling party falls into the hands of a pair of dodgy right-wing journalists. The Shadow Cabinet self-destructs and the Leader of the Opposition is jeered in Parliament by his own MPs while crowds of people outside the building chant in support of him. There is abuse and attacks against foreigners in the streets. A young MP is murdered by a fascist lunatic. Far-right parties across Europe are clamouring for their countries to leave the EU too. The Islamist terrorists rub their hands in delight. Meanwhile hordes of homeless people continue to flee across the continent from never-ending wars in the Middle East.
‘It seems a bit far-fetched,’ your agent says. ‘A bit too ambitious. Why not focus the plot on just one of these elements. There’d then be a clearer sense of the central conflict and the story would be more relatable.’
Life isn’t like that. It’s a vast network of complexity in which every element connects to every other. But let me pick out one element to comment on. What’s happening in the Labour Party.
There seems to be almost a consensus that the impulse to vote Leave wasn’t just about the EU. It was an expression of discontent with mainstream politics, the politics of the centre. When the centre collapses, you get a polarising momentum towards both the left and the right. That’s what happened in Germany in the 1930s: both the Communists and the Nazis grew in strength, but the Nazis had the edge; they took power via the ballot box and then terminated democracy. The recent economic crisis in Greece produced a similar dynamic with a different outcome: the centre-left collapsed, yielding the rise of both the neo-nazi Golden Dawn and the radical-left SYRIZA. But the Greek left had learnt the hard way, in the Civil War of the 1940s, that the politics of violence produces only ruination and barbarity. During the right-wing dictatorship of the 1960s the left-wing resistance did not resort to violence. In the recent crisis the radical left gained strength through a grassroots movement, committed to peace, social justice, and ecology, that brought them to government last year.
The political system of Greece made it possible for a new radical-left party to emerge out of nowhere and replace the centre-left PASOK (equivalent of the Labour Party). The British political system makes it more difficult for new parties to get anywhere near government, witness the experience of the Greens. What I think we’re seeing in the present convulsions of the Labour Party is an attempt of a radical-left movement, akin to SYRIZA, to replace the centre-left from the inside. If it succeeds, and Jeremy Corbyn and his followers manage to connect with the British people’s disenchantment with the centre, then we have the possibility of a radical-left government. It will be against the odds, though, because the political centre of gravity is further to the right than in Greece and the British press is emphatically skewed towards the right.
Most utopian novels fail to show how their idealised society came into being, and the maintenance of that society usually involves some form of coercion more suggestive of dystopia than utopia. The big exception is William Morris’s News from Nowhere: a vision of the early 21st century imagined from the standpoint of 1890. The radical-left society he depicts is not coerced; it is emergent from the majority of the population having learnt that their best interests, their quality of life, are served by behaving cooperatively and generously towards others. Morris does include a back story of the steps by which this society came into being. Unfortunately, these involve a revolutionary civil war. Although Morris himself renounced violence in the socialist cause, he couldn’t imagine that those with vested interests in the status quo would give up without a fight. We who live in the time that Morris hoped would be utopian will have to imagine harder.