For the Observer’s 225th anniversary edition
In 1944, George Orwell looked back on his political commentary and sighed. “In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.” If Orwell could think of himself as a mere pamphleteer, where does that leave everyone else who produces comment pieces?
Reading through national newspaper files offers few comforts. Indeed, nothing brings home the futility of political writing more starkly. It’s not just that virtually all of the writers and many of their targets are now forgotten. The arguments commentators make are generally as predictable as the speaking clock. Pick a newspaper of the left or right from the 20th century, or click on a left- or right-wing website today, and you can prophesy what a writer has to say before he or she has said it.
The Observer 3 December 2016
Anyone feeling morally superior to Americans should reflect on how Donald Trump feels about us. “In England, they have a system where you can actually sue if someone says something wrong,” he purred . “Our press is allowed to say whatever they want.”
You can understand his envy. Despite reform, an English publisher still has to prove his or her innocence. More enticingly for the rich, money tilts the scales of justice. Unless you have a straightforward case, few lawyers will offer a “no win, no fee” deal. A wealthy media organisation can threaten you with a costs bill of £1m or more if you lose. Equally, plutocrats can threaten increasingly impoverished newspapers with costs they cannot afford, if they don’t back down and back off either.
Businessmen make dangerous politicians because they spend their careers expecting deference on pain of dismissal. Most people would restrict the freedom of others to criticise them if they had the power, even if the criticism were true – especially if it were true, I should add. But while we must grow thick skins, the holders of corporate power can act with megalomaniacal petulance.
The Observer, 19 November 2016
Boris Johnson is many things: a narcissist, a liar , a thug and an impostor. But he isn’t a fool. When he said last week it was “bollocks” to think freedom of movement was one of the European Union’s fundamental principles (and how refreshing it is to have a foreign secretary with a classical education), serious people made the mistake of not taking the new right seriously. What a joke our foreign secretary is, they snorted. The over-promoted clown does not know the EU enshrined freedom of movement in the Treaty of Rome of 1957. He’s either an embarrassment or light entertainment, but he’s clearly too stupid to matter.
Writing before Donald Trump’s victory, the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen warned that too many liberals lacked imagination. They could not imagine that Trump would win and threaten American democracy’s safeguards, even though authoritarian nationalists were winning across the world. The British elite could not imagine Brexit and only a handful of academics and journalists imagined Vladimir Putin would move to control Russia’s media, suppress opposition and invade his neighbours. Stuck in a familiar past, they do not believe change for the worse can happen, even when it is happening in front of them.
Our current imaginative failure lies in our inability to understand the secret fears and bottomless opportunism of our new masters. Continue reading
Standpoint October 2016
Can there be a culturally appropriate art? There is no shortage of activists arguing for one, and they are arguing for something new and sinister, in free societies at least.
Let me be clear about the stakes. Artists reflect the ideas of their times, and nearly all Western novels and dramas now treat, say, gays and lesbians sympathetically. They are a world away from the thrillers of the 1970s in which the lisping homosexual was invariably the villain. Such stereotypes are not the issue today. Nor is the argument about whether a male novelist can create convincing female characters or vice versa or a white novelist create a convincing black character or vice versa. Readers have always been able to complain that a novelist has produced inauthentic work. Rather than an argument about what is said, we have an argument about what right artists have to speak at all.
As Lionel Shriver put it in a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, “Ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic underprivilege and disability are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.”
The Observer 12 November 2016
When respectable commentators tell us the crisis will blow over, they are usually right. Most of the time, the shock passes and the status quo reasserts itself. Most of the time, men of the world can lie back in their comfortable chairs and guffaw at the Chicken Lickens who thought the sky was falling down.
But most of the time is not all of the time. And it most certainly is not our time. In the revolutionary years of 1914, 1917, 1929, 1933, 1939, 1979, 1989 and 2008, those who said we would soon be back to normal were history’s fools. This year is a revolutionary year for the radical right. It is at once predictable and extraordinary that authoritative voices are telling us to keep calm and carry on.
The Observer 27 November 2016
Conservatives once boasted that they were the grown-ups, even if they did say so themselves. They conserved the best of the past and believed in the sensible management of the world as it is, rather than in dangerous fantasies about the world as it might be. Hold out as their opponents might, eventually they would understand that conservatism was just common sense.
Carry on reading