On Thursday evening the two men competing to be the next Labour leader and, if only in wild theory, a possible future prime minister, debated one another in Glasgow. This should have seemed the most natural thing in the world, like birds returning to the nest. After all, the city can claim to be the cradle of the People’s Party: its grinding Victorian poverty helped inspire Labour’s creation, and for a century it acted as a devout keeper of the socialist flame. Its political backstory is perfect Leftie Mills and Boon: a romance involving radical autodidact left-wing working-class MPs and dashing trade unionists possessed of fiery oratorical elegance and stout moral courage.
For its part, wider Scotland has provided the party with prime ministers, cabinet ministers and intellectuals a-go-go. Scottish Labour remained an undimmed beacon through the long Thatcher blackout and was the engine of the triumphant return to power in 1997. Glasgow, and Scotland, should want a Labour government and a Labour PM, right? Why, then, did it feel as if Corbyn vs Smith was a foreign imposition — as if they might as well have taken their roadshow to Paris?
There are some obvious reasons. Scotland’s political debate is (to its detriment) focused on its navel and remains wearisomely trapped in a constitutional Groundhog Day — who the hell is Owen Smith? Scottish Labour is now a husk with only one MP, the kind of farcical panda-related statistic previously used to taunt Tory PMs who unwisely wandered north of Berwick. The party has been out of power for nine years in Edinburgh and six years at Westminster, where it is doing its bit to smash the previous record of 18 years of consecutive Conservative government. It has no proper policy platform, no new ideas, a front bench of fourth-raters, no prospect of winning office, no momentum (and too much Momentum), no hope.
And in Scotland, it has the added curse of no audience. To be clear: we’re just not paying attention. At best, the general public see a lamentable shambles heading for an uncertain and possibly fatal outcome. But they don’t much care. The extent to which the SNP has destroyed and usurped its old enemy grows ever clearer — you can argue about the nuances, but centre-Left Scottish voters have decided that they simply don’t need both parties, and that the Nats are the better option. The Nats unsuprisingly agree, and to make sure of sustained establishment and institutional dominance are busily packing fellow-travellers into key jobs across civic and cultural Scotland. The GERS figures might be awful enough to save the Union for now, but don’t doubt that Labour’s political and intellectual collapse continues to saw away at the bonds.
Let’s describe that collapse in one simple word: socialism. It’s quite amusing to observe, in a way — like some sudden, dramatic shift in teenage haircut fashion, everyone in Labour is now desperate to let you know, and to be heard letting you know, that they are a socialist. This includes uber-Blairite friends of mine who 10 years ago were for privatising anything that moved. No one risks describing themselves as a social democrat or a centrist or anything as risque and exotic as that. Smith and Corbyn are like tedious blowhards in a pub, outdoing one another with outlandish tales of how high they would push public spending, promising a dazzling array of tax hikes, proposing ever wizzier and incomprehensible nationalisations, knowing they will never be in the tricky position of having to deliver any of it. None of it is serious, intelligent or grounded in scientifically rigorous policy-making. The Labour Party — all of it, even those against Corbyn — is breathing the pure ideological air of unelectability. In its retreat to core it is recommitting itself to a lonely path that dooms it to failure.
It’s important to understand what socialism is, and what it isn’t. One thing: it isn’t like other political affiliations. It isn’t an attempt to sensibly if imperfectly organise our common affairs through the political realm. It more closely resembles a religion that provides its followers with a full creed for living. Many hardcore socialists are also hardline atheists, and there’s a reason for that: socialism takes the place of Christianity as their moral and philosophical lodestone. They might angrily dismiss the existence of God, but they are the kind of people who still cling to a heaven of some description.
This explains the fanaticism behind Corbynism. It explains why those jamming up the seats at his meetings often resemble the audiences at evangelical Christian rallies — oddly lumpen and ungroomed men and women with fervour in their eyes and a slight hint of emotional desperation about them, who have very visibly set aside earthly considerations for a higher Utopian purpose. It explains their disturbingly outsized hatred for anyone who they believe has veered from the true path — booing the actually-quite-Left-wing Owen Smith, laughing at the mention of Kezia Dugdale’s name, jeering any tribute to past leaders who have delivered governments and effective political change.
The reason that Corbyn will have won comfortably again when the leadership result is announced is that there is nothing that can be said or done to disabuse his followers of the belief in their and his innate righteousness. Jeremy might make a fool of himself over seats on trains and rail nationalisation; he might oversee a movement shot through with anti-Semitic scumbags; he might be the kind of naïve dupe who shows more sympathy towards Putin and every enemy of the West than to his own country and its allies; he might be the single most incompetent individual ever to lead a British political party and employ a team of people you wouldn’t trust to wash your car; he might guarantee large Tory majorities in perpetuity; he might have helped bring about Brexit and be on the cusp of losing Labour’s few remaining heartlands to the far-Right Ukip. But to his followers, none of it matters: the incorruptible faith can never be at fault, only the faithless, corruptible world.
This arrant madness has always bubbled away, preventing Labour from presenting itself with any consistency as an effective opposition and alternative government — at regular intervals, the Morlocks come blinking into the sunlight and drag the party back underground. Despite the thick files of evidence proving that whenever their useless ideology wheedles its way into power anywhere in the world it ends in incompetence, economic catastrophe and authoritarianism, the socialists cling on. Their sense of self permits nothing else. It allows them to excuse Stalin’s slaughter of millions in the name of social justice while condemning Hitler’s slaughter of millions in the name of Nazism.
In Scotland, the Corbyn movement struggles for purchase only because the tartan equivalent has transferred its Utopianism to the idea of an independent nation. Had the timing been different, the panting cybernat lunatics who don’t know or understand anything but scream from a great moral height anyway would all be banging on about soshulusm in Corbyn t-shirts and Mao caps and Lenin beards — the men, too.
Obsession, irrationalism and pseudo-religiosity are the death of a healthy polity. The tragedy for anyone who isn’t a Tory — and if you are a Tory, relax, you’re sorted for the foreseeable future — is that those anti-qualities are currently preventing any serious scrutiny or holding to account of a Government constructing a Brexit deal that shows every sign of going badly wrong. I struggle to feel anything other than contempt.
Curious George steps into the arena
More than one politician has quoted at me a famous speech given by Teddy Roosevelt in Paris in 1910. ‘It is not the critic who counts: the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood… who errs and comes up short again and again… who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.’ I take your point, minister, though I’m not sure the great trust-busting president had in mind your ruthless crackdown on dog poo.
Anyway, I feel the sentiment is especially apt when it comes to sport, especially knowing the physical condition of some journalists who spend their working day slagging off highly toned athletes (and having played five-a-sides with one aggressive, tubby, breathless footy hack who would occasionally stop for a fag break).
Yellow Jersey Press has just reissued six classic and hugely entertaining books from the middle of the 20th century by the writer George Plimpton, in which he puts himself up against the pros across a range of sports, including boxing, baseball and ice hockey. His aim is to explore the gap between what fans think they know and what it’s really like out there.
In 1965’s Paper Lion, Plimpton, a preppy 36-year-old Harvard graduate built ‘along the lines of a stick’, joins the Detroit Lions American football team for pre-season training. He is allowed one brief appearance as quarterback in a serious game where, amid 20-stone giants crashing into each other (and potentially, terrifyingly, life-riskingly, him), he does as well as you might expect.
What Plimpton perceptively and wittily draws out in the books is not just the large characters and egos, the hair-raising stories and scrapes, but also the monotonously repetitive world of the professional athlete — the requirement for self-denial, the relentless practising of the same old moves and tricks every single day, the commitment that is as necessary as skill to make it at the highest level. The same is no doubt true for today’s superstars, but there’s something mightily impressive about those vintage stars, given that the financial wards on offer to them were so much humbler.
These articles appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 27, 2016