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Artillery Row

A columnist’s farewell

One column ends and another begins

When I first had the honour of becoming a columnist for The Critic, eighteen years ago, it was two years after I had energetically endorsed a conflict that had turned out to be based on falsehoods and was rapidly descending into a mire of chaos. It struck me, as I settled into my new position, just how much I still had to teach.

Not that I thought I was perfect. No, I have long had a painful awareness of my own fallibility. In my heady youth, I — like many of my peers — had been a Marxist. Yes, in the romantic grip of that ideological illusion I somehow believed that the world could be united by democratic socialism. Now, older and wiser, I have come to appreciate the sober realism of the view that the world will in fact be united by social democracy.

Throughout the eighteen years of my time at The Critic, mine has often been a lonely struggle. Sad as it is to say, ours is an age of miserable cowardice. As George Orwell warned, we have descended into groupthink, hysteria and censoriousness. It’s time more people had the courage to stand up and say, yes, establishment institutions are almost always right about everything important. 

Not that politicians always deserve our trust. Regrettably, too many of our leaders, across Europe and America, have been seduced by the siren song of populism. Think of Brexit. Think of Trump. Think of Bolsonaro. Think of the Conservatives saying that maybe, possibly, potentially having somewhat less immigration might be a good thing. I’m proud to have stood against such far right nonsense.

But we have had to contend with the populism of the left as well. Jeremy Corbyn threatened to destroy the proud legacy of the Labour Party — a proud legacy that stretched back to 1997 and ended ten years afterwards. Far left students, meanwhile, have attacked the principles of free speech and free expression, failing to appreciate that when people disagree with you the answer is not to criminalise them but to write them off as shifty, dangerous and bigoted cranks, undeserving of a place in public discourse.

Populism, I have tried to argue, is not the same thing as democracy. Populism, indeed, is a twisted perversion of democracy. Democracy, in its most valuable forms, is representative — representative, that is, of the right columnists. And of the people who still ought to have columns. 

Above all, I have had to face conspiracy theorists

Above all, I have had to face conspiracy theorists — from crackpot 9/11 Truthers to barmy anti-vaxxers. Conspiracy theories are attractive because they make sense of a disordered world, suggesting that there is always someone in control, managing events from behind the scenes. To them, I say — yes, alright. But what’s wrong with that? They seem to be doing pretty well to me.

Some, I suppose, might ask if such a laser focus on marginal cranks was an effective use of my professional position. Sure, cranks might seem marginal but as we have seen with Brexit and Trump an infection can spread inwards. Someone had to defend the sensible mainstream, which has been doing such an impressive job of leaving the economy in rude health, the culture cohesive and the Middle East in such a state of peaceful stability. 

Still, I hope I have maintained my old radicalism. Like my late friend Christopher Hitchens, I might have made my peace with capitalism but that doesn’t mean the fire within me has been extinguished. I still bear the scars on my back for defending such opinions as that the monarchy is a bit archaic, private schools are a touch outdated and religious institutions are a little silly. Call me a radical. Call me a dreamer. But they said the same of Orwell and Martin Luther King.

What is next for me? Well, perhaps I shall turn to Substack. As much as I have enjoyed working with the editors at this august publication, it would offer a refreshing chance to have the independence with which to say all the same things I have been saying for the last two decades.

In Orwell’s 1984, the sinister O’Brien says, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” Happily, he was wrong. If you want a picture of the future, imagine an opinion columnist writing the same article — forever.

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