This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Marc Stears was Ed Miliband’s speechwriter when he was leader of the Labour Party. To those of us who knew him, he was also one of Maurice Glassman’s acolytes. Blue Labour was Maurice’s prescient idea that the party should stop looking at their working-class voters as patriarchal nativists, white supremacists and bigots, and instead articulate the core values of family, faith and flag.
A decade later, and with the perfectly predictable collapse of the Red Wall now behind us, does Stears’s Out of the Ordinary have solutions to Labour’s patriotism problem, fresh back in the news? What does he say that might help Keir Starmer bridge the divide between those parts of the party that think dressing smartly to lay a wreath on Remembrance Day is important versus those who think war memorials should be toppled?
Stears sets out to do exactly that — to shape a new politics, a “common good”, that reaches over the polarised extremes of today. “The answer,” he says, “lies in a politics of the everyday.” The Big Idea is the small and the ordinary, a “sense of community”. So far so nice, but there is only one question for those of us reading this book hoping to find a practical political agenda: is there anything in here that will help us rebuild the Red Wall without losing our big city majorities? In a daring move, to make his case Stears takes as his travelling companions the least reliable guides known to politics: writers.
And not just any writers but geniuses like Dylan Thomas and D.H. Lawrence. The one a heroic drinker, sponger and womaniser, the other, one of literature’s greatest haters who flirted throughout his life with fascism. Neither of them could wait to get out of the small communities into which they were born.
Although he tells us that he grew up in suburban Wales, Stears also clearly didn’t spend his life in the kind of small community he idealises, or he would have written a different book. As much as communities can be supportive and life-enhancing, they can be suffocating and highly intolerant of anyone who is different, for the obvious reason that difference undermines the whole point of being a community. This is not to denigrate the importance or value of community nor the enviable rootedness of David Goodhart’s Somewheres.
Stears also clearly didn’t spend his life in the kind of small community he idealises, or he would have written a different book
The projects that Stears highlights at the end of his book are the best of what happens when people come together and improve their towns and villages, but part of their success is that they are local, run by local people who aren’t waiting for national government to come and do everything for them.
Stears, though, believes that this is precisely what politics should be about, celebrating the everyday, the “unforbidden pleasures” like eating a family meal, having a chat with someone on a bus or visiting a friend — the ordinary things that give meaning to our lives but which, he laments, “are hardly ever the business of politics as normally practised”.
And there is a very good reason why they are not. “Celebrating ordinary life” is a great idea for a local radio show but it won’t deliver a national programme of government. And is he really suggesting that this should be the business of politics? Isn’t this exactly what Orwell warns against in Nineteen Eighty-Four?
When politics gets involved in our private, everyday lives (the sick friends we visit or the family we have lunch with) don’t we, rather than ending up all working towards the common good, find ourselves in Oceania? The celebration of the ordinary and everyday culminates in the chapter on the 1951 Festival of Britain where both Stears’s ideals and those of his protagonists come together.
Barbara Jones, artist and writer, curated an exhibition of things that people make for themselves because local art, she says, is infinitely preferable to mechanical production. The hand-made is complex. It shows how long something takes to make, the skill, patience and practice. This is almost literally knit-your-own-neighbourhood.
It may be idealising a simpler way of life, but whose time, skill and patience do we think we’re talking about? There weren’t many men making lace, trugs or weaving twill. And without the washing machine, women would still be deepening their “parochial attachments” in a way that makes me thank mechanisation every time I turn the dishwasher on.
These downsides of good, old-fashioned community life aren’t mentioned. Instead, special festival scorn is reserved for those who ruined the event by allowing mass production to muscle in on what should have been an event “uninfluenced by the commercial demands of the market”.
Battersea Pleasure Park had been earmarked to represent Britain’s rural idyll. Instead, somehow, a limited company had got its hands on it and “destroyed the festival’s efforts to keep the market at bay”. As a result it was “swimming in tat”. This included postcards (postcards!), souvenirs and “maps of all sorts”. Most popular was the mass-produced Guinness Toucan clock that showed every time was “Guinness time”.
If Stears’s definition of community and the common good is that of his Festival artists and authors, then it’s no wonder that the Red Wall crumbled
It turned out to be just what people wanted, but what Marc Stears and the artists curating the Festival of Britain so wish they didn’t. “It was a dilemma that no one ever managed to resolve.”
And that, for many of us, is the most important sentence in the book.
This dilemma still exists for Barbara Jones’s descendants — the small group of people who until recently dominated the Labour Party. The lives of these high-minded, middle-class left-wingers, well-off, well-meaning, well-educated, are founded on very different values — values they want to force on others for their own good.
If Stears’s definition of community and the common good is that of his Festival artists and authors, then it’s no wonder that the Red Wall crumbled. And while they secretly think of working-class pleasures as “cut-rate cheerfulness cast in concrete and beflagged” (in the words of Stephen Spender) Labour will have no hope of rebuilding it — and nor do we deserve to.
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