Monday 28 September 2015

Corbyn’s Choice: God Save the Queen, Or, A Fascist Regime?

Not Smart: Corbyn's situational awareness as a politician is woeful. Unless he makes the transition from Backbencher to Leader of the Opposition, especially in terms of handling the news media, he will not survive 18 months. If the protestant claimant to the French throne, Henry of Navarre, could see that "Paris is worth a mass", then surely Corbyn can see that Westminster is worth an anthem?

HARRY PERKINS, the hero of A Very British Coup, would have sung ‘God Save the Queen’ – lustily, and standing ramrod straight. Why? Because, his own republican sympathies notwithstanding, he would have understood that the majority of his fellow countrymen both love and believe in Elizabeth II. Refusing to sing – especially at a memorial service to “The Few” who saved Britain from Hitler’s Luftwaffe in 1940 – would have upset them. Not only that, it would have lent credence to the uniformly negative things the Tory press was saying about him. Chris Mullins, the Labour MP who wrote A Very British Coup, knew that to be at all believable, his left-wing, working-class hero would have to be preternaturally media savvy.
Unless Jeremy Corbyn becomes preternaturally media savvy very quickly there will be no need for a very British coup. The general who told The Daily Mirror that a Corbyn-led Labour Government committed to taking the UK out of Nato and scrapping the Trident nuclear deterrent would be removed “by fair means of foul” will no doubt be disappointed to hear it, but it’s true. The anthem incident marked Corbyn as a man almost entirely lacking in the situational awareness so essential to the practice of politics in our media saturated twenty-first century. Without that awareness Corbyn cannot possibly succeed as a radical Labour leader. He will be replaced – and sooner, rather than later.
Corbyn’s mute performance in Westminster Abbey sent commentators from both the Left and the Right scurrying for their George Orwell. And rightly so, because in his 1941 pamphlet, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, there is a passage that could have been written especially for Corbyn.
England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.”
That was why, when Mullin created Harry Perkins, way back in 1982, he made him the antithesis of Orwell’s “English intellectual”. He knew that there could never be a radical left-wing British prime minister who sniggered at horse-racing or suet-pudding – because the British people would never vote for such a person.
The Fictional Labour Leader, Harry Perkins: "The whiff of treachery."
The other thing Mullin built into his hero was a rock-solid understanding of how crucial the news media has become to the conduct of modern politics. That’s why, when he becomes Prime Minister, Perkins revolutionises the way No. 10 Downing Street interacts with the news media. Rather than, like Corbyn, keeping them at arm’s length and refusing to give them sound-bites for their six o’clock news bulletins, Perkins turns his administration into a more-or-less permanent press conference. He offers political journalists unparalleled access to all his ministers and deluges them with official information. As he suspected, this “love bombing” of the media leaves them feeling uncertain and confused. How do you play “gotcha!” journalism when you’ve already “got” everything you need to write great stories?
Corbyn’s weaknesses as a communicator with the news media were not immediately apparent during the campaign for the Labour leadership. As an essentially internal party process, the political dynamics of that very narrow contest were quite different from those that dominate the politics of Westminster. Those who followed his astonishing rise, and who celebrated his even more astonishing victory, simply assumed that he was equal to the challenge of reformulating his message in a way that rendered it receivable by the Great British Public. To date, it is by no means clear that Corbyn is equal to the challenge.
Indeed, as the weeks pass, it becomes clearer and clearer that the true hero of the Labour leadership contest wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn, but the Labour membership which elected him – ably assisted by the tens-of-thousands who paid Labour three quid to see “a new kind of politics” triumph over business as usual. Looking back over these extraordinary weeks, political and social historians will likely conclude that, far from creating his own following, Corbyn was actually created by it. The MP for Islington North was pressed into the service of a labour movement grown weary of “leaders” who arrived amongst them still shrink-wrapped from the same Blairite factory. Corbyn wasn’t a robot – so Corbyn had to win.
But if Corbyn is not a robot, neither is he a Harry Perkins. Mullins’ hero was strong from the start and only too aware of what lay in wait for him. As he climbs the stairs to the living quarters of No. 10, he quips to the following pack of journalists that there’s a smell of history about the place – “and just the whiff of betrayal”.
Except, in Corbyn’s case, it’s not so much a whiff, as a sickening stench, of betrayal. Knowing that the parliamentary party was bitterly opposed to just about everything he believed in, the only viable course of action available to Corbyn was to establish a powerful emotional connection with the British people – one that allowed him to speak to them directly, over the heads of his parliamentary colleagues. But, as Mullins understood, that can only be done through the news media.
So, rather than shunning the major television platforms, Corbyn should have pitched a tent on them; telling anyone and everyone who asked what they wanted to know. Everything from his favourite brand of breakfast cereal to the alternative purposes to which the billions of pounds currently spent on Trident could be applied. When, inevitably, his colleagues cried foul (and anonymous generals threatened wholesale military revolt) Corbyn should have doubled down: intimating that he would be seeking the party’s endorsement for the policies he was promoting. If they wanted the policies; if they wanted him; then they would have to show the parliamentary wing of the party (and the UK armed forces!) who was boss.
Is there still hope for Jeremy Corbyn? Yes, but it is fast running out. From the moment the results of the leadership election were announced, Corbyn’s allies in the trade unions made it clear that his political survival would depend on replicating in the wider electorate the same radical democratic movement that had carried him to victory within the Labour Party. That could not be done by selecting a shadow cabinet that was three fifths parliamentary enemies and two fifths political crackpots. (Like his Environment Secretary, Kerry McCarthy, who is on record as wanting to mount a campaign against the consumption of meat along the lines of the current campaign against smoking!)
If Corbyn fails to build that radical democratic movement, upon which the success of his leadership depends, he will be gone in 18 months. If he would survive, he needs to re-read Mullins novel and absorb its political lessons. Most crucially, he needs to begin again with the British news media – without whose assistance his messages to the British people cannot be delivered.
One of the most moving moments in the television version of A Very British Coup takes place in a little news-agent’s shop. Harry Perkins ducks in for a box of matches. From the shop counter the right-wing tabloids bellow out the message that Perkins and his government are “Red Scum!” The news-agent hands over the matches, but then, locking eyes with the beleaguered PM, he whispers hoarsely: “You are not red scum!” In spite of the tabloids, Harry’s message has got through. It is the moment when a very British revolution, and its inevitable corollary, a very British coup, both become inevitable.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 27 September 2015.


Nick J said...

Im not sure you are right Chris: ever get the feeling that a huge chunk of the British and NZ electorates might just want rid of the establishment, that singing an establishment anthem might just tar Corbyn as just another apologist?

greywarbler said...

Wow what a great post Chris. It's one to read multiple times. I'm bemused that Corbyn wouldn't honour the Queen by singing the anthem. Good people need to know what is goodness in themselves and also in others. No person of standing is wholly satisfactory.

Corbyn needs to respect what the Queen has achieved. One way to get a clear view of achievement is to compare it with the opposite. When I think of republicanism, I look at the hopeful belief by its adherents that it will be better than what we have with royalty, greatly criticised because of the cost and their private wealth. Then I think of the USA and its presidents and the golden lolly scramble for the position and the dogged fight and costly machinations by the wealthy to put their man or woman in, despite what is best for the people and the country. I decide in favour of what we have, when considering the dross that arises through our voting system.

I have come to withdraw from attaching to the ideological believer. Too often their ideas are based on a shining belief that is unproved, unpragamatic and unlikely to serve the people and the country's needs in the short and long term. Corbyn needs to be more than a series of likes and dislikes, beliefs and rejections. He must tailor his thoughts, and cut his cloth accordingly. If a pin-stripe suit would help achieve good Left-Labour policies to advantage people, he should consider that look. If the Left would be confused and reject it, then consider another look.

Many low-income people love and respect the Queen, and recognise her role in the stability and standing of the country. It's insulting for Corbyn to be recalcitrant in his behaviour to the people's monarch. Does he wish to put himself there, they might ask? Who else then does he revere?

Andrew Nichols said...

Corbyn needs to respect what the Queen has achieved. One way to get a clear view of achievement is to compare it with the opposite.

What? Head of an unnaccountable hereditary family that hobnobs willingly with a procession of truly nasty terrorist sponsoring individuals like the Saudi and gulf royals and even invites them to its weddings.

Anonymous said...

A very good article, I agree with every word you wrote. He made a major mistake at the RAF memorial and should have understood that those young men signed up for "King and Country" Jeremy forgot the 'Country' part of their commitment and he should and joined in particularly as I understand the families of the RAF servicemen were present. 'A very British coup' was a great television series and it could well be re-played on our NZ television, it would shine amongst the present dross.

Bushbaptist said...

Sounds like the US Presidents Andrew!

If it ain't broken then don't fix it. What we have is working for us so leave it alone. Do we really want Sleazy Steve Joyce as our Pressie? I think not. Jim Bolger tried to have NZ as a Republic (with him being the Pressie of course) didn't happen.

Corbyn is free to do as he wishes, if he doesn't want to sing a bloody song then he doesn't have to.

A good Monarch can hold a country together like nothing else and a bad one can destroy it in short order.

greywarbler said...

Andrew Nichols
You saw my bit about being pragmatic and meeting the country's needs? There is a lot of foreign money invested through the City. There is a lot of Arab money invested in London. It is a chance to get in touch and assess foreign dignitaries and royals when having state weddings and to debar them would be a noticeable snub with no useful pay-off. Pragmatic. Wise. Wary. Would be the watchwords there.

And hereditary unaccountable family. You have to get away from your favourite political fairy tales against royals and in favour of some other wannabes. Look at the USA Bush family, read their dynasty - Dad George, Son George W, son Jeb. And look how close they are to Saudis too by the way. Have been for 30 years. The Kennedys, what about them?,_House_of_Saud

Matthew Hooton said...

Nick J: I often get the feeling that a chunk of the British and NZ electorates want rid of the establishment, and that, to them, singing an establishment anthem might tar Corbyn as just another apologist. But I doubt this chunk is "huge".

Wayne Mapp said...


I reckon you are wrong that Corbyn will be replaced anytime soon. His victory was too emphatic for that. As you should know, parties can be surprisingly tolerant of leaders who do not deliver immediately, or within a couple of years or so. Mind you there is also plenty of counter-factual evidence to that assertion.

In any event can the Labour caucus replace him even if they wanted to? The new election rules are intended to reduce their power.

My view is that he will be given a reasonable run of some years, and probably till after the 2020 election. And who knows, he might be the PM then.

If he does abandon the nuclear deterrent he will not be overthrown in any sort of coup. After all he would probably have had to campaign on such a policy. I doubt that something like that could be done without an electoral mandate. The Generals and the Air Marshalls (as opposed to the Admirals) might even welcome such an outcome. Many of them think the nuclear deterrent sucks up way too much of the UK defence spend, to the disadvantage of their respective services . And it is on that basis, at least in part, that an anti-nuclear campaign would be run.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Hmmmm. Remember "Sooner Hitler than Blum."?

Matthew Hooton said...

Chris, I think there is one more point that is noticeable when you see, say, the English rugby team singing "God Save the Queen". That is that is happens to be the national anthem of the country Corbyn wants to lead.

That it is about a person, real or abstract, is beside the point in that way it is when, as an atheist, I sing "God Defend New Zealand". I am not literally calling out to god and asking him to "hear my voice" but, you know, just singing the song that happens to be the national anthem.

Similarly, an American might sing "what so proudly we hailed / at the twilight's last gleaming" without literally saying they did in fact proudly hail the flag the previous night.

A politician wanting to be so pure that they demand literal interpretation of these things is being self-indulgent; almost narcissistic.

Ruth Richardson had her hair permed. Helen Clark didn't really like going to watch the All Blacks. John Key may not either. All politicians buy flash clothes.

Serious politicians don't do these things because they take them seriously, but because they take their ideas, agenda or ambition seriously enough that they'll have whatever hair cut the pollsters tell them is best.

And much better they use the pollsters that one than to tell them what their ideas should be. So you're right, this bloke better work out what is really important to him if he wants to survive.

Anonymous said...

Except that Corbyn's appeal is his sincerity. He means exactly what he says, and doesn't sugarcoat it - he's to UK Labour what Don Brash was to the NZ Right.

Otherwise you're reduced to Ed Milliband's doomed efforts to please everyone. That doesn't work, when everyone in the Establishment is out to get you. Fact is, few in Britain actually care about the Royal Family one way or another (pro-monarchism is largely based on the lack of a clear alternative) - most people see this as a ridiculous storm in a teapcup.

greywarbler said...

Corbyn is free to do as he wishes, if he doesn't want to sing a bloody song then he doesn't have to.

Well he had better try looking happier in his job, when not singing, than he did in that photo. What a sour old bugger he looks. I think this is not the time for idealistic defiance over symbolic songs for him. That's for some anarchist young man. Burning the flag, not singing the songs of the elite or the conservatives, both symbolic and more the actions of protest or reaction. But not expected to be at the forefront for a serious and committed citizen politician.

Of course Corbyn doesn't have to sing the national anthem. But he wants to lead a nation to better things doesn't he? It can't hurt to show willing about supporting the idea of Britons uniting and singing together, honouring their ultimate figurehead, being proud and so on. He is just one small step in a long history, so suck it up Corbyn and concentrate your baby steps on making it better, not stand dour, empty and negative causing unfruitful discussion.

Unknown said...

You may be right today and wrong tomorrow Matthew. Stasis has a habit of dissappearing when pundits place long odds. I may not bet on the establishment being displaced but under the British FPP electoral system 30% would rock the boat nicely.

Unknown said...

Sincerity: I suspect is what the electorate craves. Matthew and Wayne may be sincere Rightists. They dont perhaps comprehend that the Left have sincerity that their anger over 30 years of insincere compromised leaders needs redress. Redress is personified by Corbyn. by a radical idea that Waynes World is past its use by date. That Matthew will become the voice of radical dissent harking back to a failed and unlamented ideology. Change is being imagined. The Right senses danger.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
Corbyn didn't just materialise, he's been there forever. The labour leaning public , sick of the status quo went looking for him, and there he was fully formed. I expect he didn't sing because he had a hell of a lot on his mind and it didn't register with him at that moment how it would be picked up and used; but he knows they'r out to get him anyway . Trying to remodel himself to someone else's ideal would be ridiculous and counterproductive.
Cheers D J S

Guerilla Surgeon said...

That's more sense and I've heard out of Matthew Hooton for some time. Except for "And much better they use the pollsters that one than to tell them what their ideas should be." Am I missing something? What on earth does that mean?

Anonymous said...

The comment about 'Englishmen being ashamed of themselves' applies far more to the left than to the right. And in NZ as much as the UK. Delahunty is perhaps the worst and most conspicuous example.
And it does the left great harm - I don't think they realise this.
What the left sees as a virtue, the right and the 'unaligned' see as a major vice.
Most people see behaviour like Corbyn's as disloyal, self hating and grandstanding.
Especially when combined with bending over backwards to accommodate other cultures, or given in to foreign demands. Corbyn's first instinct is to give the Falklands to the Argentines!
Most people don't want to be associated with this. And they are correct.
It will keep Corbyn and Labour from office. Ask Micheal Foot.

Note that I am not talking about valid criticism( WTF did we invade Iraq?),
Or plans for change and improvement (Why have the banks not been punished for their role in the GFC? How can we improve the NHS?). These often get widespread support.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Could it be "than one man"??? Slowing down in old age. :-)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Mind you AS a pollster MH doe have a slight bias :).

Anonymous said...

Corbyn's first instinct is to give the Falklands to the Argentines!
Most people don't want to be associated with this. And they are correct.
It will keep Corbyn and Labour from office. Ask Micheal Foot.

This would be the same Michael Foot who backed Thatcher's war-effort 100% (figuring that it was a common alliance against a fascist military junta)? Stop re-writing history.

Anonymous said...

Sorry,Foot and Falklands was incorrect
But Foot did support unilateral nuclear disarmament, as part of the "the longest suicide note in history."
This is a major factor in Labour's unelectability.