This little Republic on for the Orwell Prize? We are dumbfounded, and a bit shuffly. We are still in our very early history compared to some of these established states, and our peasants are continuously revolting. Sometimes we even make up our own words, and we are a little too fond of the passive. This is indeed an honour.
I’m surprised in particular (as others have said) that Tom Harris, Hopi Sen and the fabulous Heresiarch didn’t make the cut, which I think rather goes to show how cruel and beset by arbitrariness such a short shortlist is going to be – even leaving aside the fact that bookmarkloads of excellent blogs didn’t even put themselves in the running.
I see what they’ve done, though. Two party political bloggers (Iain and I), two wider-current-affairs political bloggers (Chekhov and Night Jack) and two journo-political bloggers (Andrew Sparrow and Paul Mason). No offence to the last two, who are among my regular must-reads, but I think I might have preferred a real bloggers’ bloggers shortlist, seeing as how the journalists have their own shiny toy.
It is our honest opinion that we have gone far enough. This is not false modesty. Rest assured, we are extremely arrogant. But we are also a young state without established roots in the business of political communication. If the winner were to be a political blogger we would tip Mr Dale, if a wider-politics blogger, Night Jack (but narrowly, and had Heresy Corner made it through I’d really have problems). The journalist bloggers, we suspect, will not proceed precisely because they are journalists, and that would cause the full range of prizes to look a bit unbalanced.
Now, the truly interesting part of all this is the part I did not see; the overwhelming tittishness of Nick Cohen at the shortlist debate last night. You can read about this at El Dale’s gaff, and I have heard similar reports from elsewhere. Cohen’s suggestion that the Orwell Prize is “demeaned” by having the likes of Peter Oborne and Peter Hitchens on the shortlist is one of those lofty lefty assertions that, were I the Left’s psychiatrist and the Left ranting on my couch, I would write down thoughtfully with a thin, silver pencil.
Fashion in politics used to fascinate me even as an apathetic outsider, how a trail made up of gifted individuals, visionaries, climbers, entryists and spivs alike would scramble first to the left, then to the right, with no apparent power over their career course, like the crew in the TV version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea when the ship was under attack from yet another alien-monster-thing. Look at some of the desperadoes in the Labour Stars in their Eyes video I filleted the other day – is this really the best they can offer?
It’s sad, but it’s simple. Wherever they go instead, very, very few of the most capable people want to be associated with the left at the moment. Of course, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was made in the sixties, or some such legendary time, and the actors weren’t really being thrown from side to side in their sea-bound tin can; the camera was tilting and the actors were rushing from one side of the set to another in a reasonably co-ordinated manner. And the monster-alien-thing supposedly causing the tilting was really just a stuntman swathed in green rubber. None of it was real.
The current tide away from the Left is not “real” either – I don’t even have complete faith that the Tories are going to scrap ID cards, never mind make any real progress towards decentralisation. They’ve hardly got a name for the latter, and only a very recent name, perpetuated largely by party rebels, for the former. I think it’s quite true to say that people aren’t voting for the Tories. They’re voting against Labour.
And I wonder if there is ever a time when it’s not true. An eventual swing against any prevailing ideology is as sure as spring, and it shows a truly repellant arrogance in the proponents of that ideology when they suggest that their ideology should have prevailed forever, that somehow they were different. The Tories of the early 1990s were exactly the same. It’s surprising how many educated political people believe exclusively in the evidence of their own lifespans (this is what studying PPE instead of history does for you) and don’t realise that the motion of the universe really doesn’t care what their experience is or what they think the illimitable truths are.
A good example: on Lib Dem Voice, I and others regularly get told off for being “Thatcherite” because, among other things, we like the idea of tax cuts and free enterprise. All the patient explanations in the world about how Thatcher perpetuated monopolies at the expense of truly free markets, and strengthened the fiscal structures that funnelled wealth from poor to rich, do us no good. If Thatcher did it, no matter how and in no matter what context, it must be poisonous. If we continue to object, we are generally told that we haven’t seen what they, our wise elders, have seen.
This seems to me to be as much a statement of fact as saying that we have not spent our youth wearing bri-nylon flares. It doesn’t mean anything. I spent my formative political years under a Labour government which has turned me from a vague lefty sympathiser into a furious opponent. The left, or rather the things done in its name, have made me angry in exactly the same way that the right made an older generation of liberals angry. I can’t un-know all that bone deep knowledge I’ve acquired over the last decade and attempt to “know” the 1980s instead. And I dearly hope I’d have the sense not to make the next political generation down attempt the corresponding feat.
Nick Cohen’s apparent belief that the left have some higher claim to be associated exclusively with George Orwell is exactly the kind of thing that invites my highest scorn. It just looks profoundly unintelligent, an assertion based on a nostalgic and craven view of what left and right mean. Orwell’s explanation of what he meant by writing 1984 is clearly lost on Cohen:
My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable and which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequneces. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.
My emphasis. “And in any party”, he could have added. And – oh look! – that’s just what’s happening at the hands of the Labour party, who invoke the name of the Left for what they do. The Left are now mostly woken up to this, and the brighter ones are steering well clear of the doomed Labour ship. Still, it’s hard to get rid of that sort of history of co-operation and abetment. If I were The Left, I would bow out for thirty years. Seriously. Not back off, have a little think, and come back in a few months with a New Statesman/Demos sponsored drinks reception and conference panel called “The Future of the Left”.
Just go away, for a long time, and think about what you’ve done.
By way of a postscript – this really isn’t meant as a party puff piece – it is a recognition of the Voyage-to-the-Bottom-of-the-Sea effect that makes one understand, with the near-as-dammit certainty of good historical training, that one day it will be our, the liberals’, turn. Whether the opposition of today like the sound of that or, or think it likely based on their experience or not. Absolutely all things pass. This is the law that both prevents us from making a decent fist of any political ideology, and that saves us from it when it goes rotten.