Sincerely ducking the hard questions

Nick Cohen reveals how this book, along with hundreds of political writers like him, ducks the reality of working class life

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

G.K. Chesterton defined the “good bad book” in 1905 as cracking stories with no pretensions that survive long after readers have forgotten the serious literary fiction of the day. The Sherlock Holmes stories were an example George Orwell cited when he ran with Chesterton’s idea in the 1940s, and you might quote them today.

Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class by Paul Embery Polity Press, £15.99

In our vicious and gullible times, we have “false true books”: propaganda works that are deceitful to the point of worthlessness, but reflect a truth about the world because millions believe their ideas and act on them. What Chesterton said of fiction applies to political writing: “The more dishonest a book is as a book the more honest it is as a public document.”

Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class is a trashy piece of writing. Paul Embery, a supporter of Blue Labour, Brexit and cultural conservatism, ducks the hard questions to ensure his plotlines flow. Before I criticise, I must say that I have no doubt that he is sincere. In politics, as in fiction, it is not as easy as cynics believe to fake it. Thousands of people try to write best sellers or become political polemicists. For good and in this case for ill, the writers who make it mean it.

At some level, they believe that the left is uniquely virtuous and the right uniquely evil (or vice versa). Or that the plain good-hearted girl will win the love of the male lead, and the action hero will defeat the villain’s army of thugs. If they don’t, their insincerity will shine through and the punters will look elsewhere.

Embery delivers an argument as familiar as the plot of an airport thriller. Beginning in the 1960s middle-class interlopers began to take over the left. Their permissive society derided and destroyed the working class values of “patriotism, self-discipline, marriage and the centrality of family”. We can all feel that way sometimes. But if you feel that way all the time, then you need to face the world as it is and answer the question: what do you want to do about it? Ban the pill, and recriminalize homosexuality, divorce and abortion? What will you say to voters, including working-class voters, who tell you to get your big nose out of their private lives?

Embery does not ask the hard question, let alone answer it. Instead, he moves on to say the leftists of the Blair years hitched “their wagons to the causes of neoliberalism and globalisation” and allowed blue collar jobs to vanish overseas. Once again, there is truth in what he writes. Yet as I remember it, the embrace of globalisation began with Margaret Thatcher, whose worst enemies did not say was left wing. Nor did Tony Blair’s enemies in the 1990s — I know because I was one of them. The hard question that disrupts the story is whether the UK can buck the market.

Embery delivers an argument as familiar as the plot of an airport thriller

Our tiny and inefficient farming sector manages to cost the public about £3 billion a year in state subsidies. How much would it cost to rebuild the lost manufacturing industries Embery wants to see return? He doesn’t say.

I accept that the left — or sort of left — in power was responsible for a liberal migration policy, although more by accident than design. Embery is right to highlight the collapse of community and sense of place mass immigration brings, particularly to the elderly who see their familiar world change beyond recognition. Nowhere does he deal with the question of who western societies with declining birth rates and ageing populations will rely on to create wealth and provide care if migration is brought down to the levels he approves of.

Now we have the woke left policing our thoughts and trying to force the bosses to sack workers who speak out of line. I sympathise with his arguments against them. But freedom of speech and freedom of thought are hard. If you oppose the authoritarians of the left who sack and vilify, you must do the same to the authoritarians of the right, currently in power, and looking likely to remain in power for as far ahead as anyone can see.

The first requirement is that you must defend people you disagree with. Embery shows no concern about the Johnson administration purging cultural bodies of dissident voices or trying to rig the selection of broadcasting regulators.

More seriously, along with hundreds of political writers like him, he ducks the reality of working class life. Embery writes well of growing up in Dagenham on a white working class estate. He then insists he is defending the interests of the entire working class regardless of colour or creed. It’s simply not true. In 2006, the British National Party came from nowhere to take 12 seats on the local council.

I know there are people on the left who call everything they don’t like “fascist”. But members of the British National Party are actual fascists. Embery can’t even call them by their real name.

Instead he presents fascism as a reaction to the false promises of “the cheerleaders of globalisation”. He makes no mention of the campaign by the local MP Margaret Hodge to fight back, and can barely bring himself to discuss the hundreds of volunteers who helped her, your reviewer included.

But then Hodge is Jewish and many of the activists were from ethnic minorities. I wonder how a black, Asian or Jewish reader of this book would react to the whitewashing, in every sense of the word, of neo-Nazis who would happily see them driven out of their own country.

For it is their country, and Embery does not understand it. The UK is not as ethnically divided as the United States or France. Nevertheless, every study shows that older white voters, now the right’s core constituency, consistently express stronger support for an ethnically exclusive national identity and opposition to ethnic minority in-laws.

Thoroughly working class and socially conservative Muslims and black Christians do not vote Conservative because of their suspicion of right-wing racism, just as thoroughly progressive Jews do not vote Labour because of left-wing racism. Migration has made the supposed Sodom of elite liberal London more religious and socially conservative than the rest of Britain. Londoners are nearly twice as likely as citizens of the rest of the country are to say sex before marriage and same-sex relationships are wrong.

They respect “self-discipline, marriage and the centrality of family” as Embery says we all must. But they are no more a part of his story than a disfiguring accident to the heroine is a part of a rom-com or the hero wetting himself in terror is a part of an action movie. Their stories, like his story, must be told simply and easily, otherwise no one will buy them

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