An Old Leftist’s Dyspeptic Take on Britain’s Fuschia

Comedy writer Ian Martin at the Labour party anual conference.

Someone asks me why I’m here. I find myself saying: “Because I don’t think I’ve ever despised the Labour party as much as I do now and I’m thinking of rejoining it.”

That’s one of many choice lines in Ian Martin’s delightfully grumpy account of his experience at the British Labour Party Conference. Martin was the “profanity consultant” on The Thick of It, so if you enjoy the more brutal strain in British humor, his piece is worth reading for belly laughs alone.

But beyond that, it’s also a window into how British leftists of a particular generation are infuriated that the Labour Party will not return to its more openly Socialistic, pre-Blairite days:

Labour’s message to the electorate is clear — austerity is the new reality but we’re nicer than the Tories. Berks. I hate Labour more than I did when Blair was in charge, squinting into the distance, joshing with America, socialising with the Murdochs. At least he believed in neo-liberalism. The current Loyal Opposition half-believe, but also half-yearn to reconnect to the movement that sustains them, which is half-decent of them I must say. The first clear chance for years to differentiate themselves, to renounce austerity and commit to a genuine Labour manifesto, sod the Mail, renationalise, reunionise, tax the rich, protect the poor, FIGHT FOR THE WORKING CLASS WHICH IS TECHNICALLY THEIR FUCKING PURPOSE and all they can offer is the Vegetarian Option.

It did not surprise me at all to look up Martin’s birthdate and find that he came of age in the 1970s. I have a number of leftist British friends of about the same age who share his politics and his deep disappointment with Labour’s current outlook and approach. Leo Panitch, whose lambasting of Ed Miliband’s embrace of capitalism I quoted here recently, is about the same age.

They are nostalgic for the era of their youth, an entirely human impulse. They remember the 1970s as political heaven, when trade unions reigned supreme and the state was all-encompassing, spending almost half of national GDP. In their eyes, all it will take is a more staunchly leftist party, the proper rabble-rousing speeches and a courageous policy initiative to restore the country to what they consider its glory days.

This is the British version of Green Lanternism: If leftist leaders just had enough willpower, the world would, for example, gladly buy coal from unionized British miners at three times the price of Chinese or Indian coal. But in the globalized economy, a return to the hard-leftist British policies of the 1970s would get the country not the economy of 1970s Britain, but the economy of 2014 France.

If Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister, national policies under his “responsible capitalism” approach will certainly differ in at least some respects from those of the current coalition government. The Labour platform suggests they will grow state services a bit, and tax and borrow a bit more to finance that growth. Whether one agrees with them or not, those are clearly consequential policy decisions that will influence the country. But they will not bring back the nationalized, unionized, centralized Britain of Ian Martin’s youth. Martin is of course entitled to despair at this, but he’s wrong to assume — as did UK conservatives of a prior generation who grieved the loss of the empire — that it’s within the power of any politician to restore an era that is gone forever.

Photo courtesy of The Grundian.

UPDATE: Andy Sabl, always a source of sound advice, informs me by email that term “Berk” requires an explanation. It’s Cockney Rhyming Slang (explanation here). There’s a Hunt in Berkshire and I think I will have to leave it at that.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.