(Note that I’m honestly not sure whether I believe a word of what I’ve written below, or anything I might say or think in public: for the first time in my life, I have no clear beliefs and no internal self-confidence or certainty about anything. Marcello wasn’t wrong about guilt: within myself I am crippled, walking through my life with sheer horror, pinching myself in angry disbelief. And it’s not even as if I don’t want to listen to Jamz Supernova. But I do have grave doubts about the choice of Seumas Milne and about some of Corbyn’s associations, I think.)
That Dominic Sandbrook’s new TV series actually takes its title from the works of Robbie Williams – some people just can’t let the High Blair era go, can they? – tells a very important story: Williams, like Sandbrook and like most of the people who gave him such astronomical sales, is a fully paid-up supporter of the Pop Culture Party, whatever name it happens to take (it is, in essence, Whig, but less purely so in the Victorian sense than Thatcher saw herself to be) – so “Labour” for as long as Blair was in control and “Conservative” since – and has no real political views of any sort beyond that (I don’t dispute the implication in the No Parlez TPL entry that Rudebox – the album that turned all those people off – is far superior to most other 2006 UK number one albums, but that says more about that hellish, despicable pop year, for which I still blame Sacha Baron-Cohen and Leigh Francis – that Victor Lewis-Smith, ostensibly right-on in other respects, simply could not see what was wrong with these people’s work tells its own story about the Two Lefts, and about the people they mocked as the limit of, I fear, Corbynites’ empathy – than anything else, even if we discount the single most disavowed and disturbing number one album of all time). Sandbrook, gloatingly quoted by John Whittingdale at the Tory conference to ram the point home, represents the single biggest reason – a new wave of Europhobic Tory nationalism which, when it talks about “our culture” which needs to be protected from marauding foreigners and meddling statists, unequivocally means the Rolling Stones rather than Elgar in a manner wholly unimaginable in 1994 – why Jeremy Corbyn is where he is.
Think about it. Labour’s success in the late 1990s and early 2000s was as much about pop culture as the Tories’ success in the 1980s was about efficient management of a market economy; when Labour stole the latter clothes, the Tories had nowhere to go but into a heritagisation of their past which was more genuinely culturally conservative than they have ever otherwise been in my lifetime, but was electorally doomed precisely for that reason: William Hague’s leadership. Doesn’t that sound familiar, at least on the surface?
The article published in August 2001 in The Independent claiming with confidence that “the 1960s claim their final victim: the Conservative Party” might as well have been written 140 years ago, not 14; it seemed true enough then, but the Golden Jubilee – the real birth of Cameron (it is astounding how few people point attention to the fact that the upsurge of a nationalism thought obsolete happened between April and June, exactly as it had done twenty years earlier) – already cast severe doubts. By 2004, the social make-up of pop in its mass sense – the only sense that can work in a ruthless, unrepresentative game of targeting 800 people in Dartford or Watford – had already changed sufficiently as to make what had seemed impossible perfectly possible. And the triptych was completed by Iraq; the use of boomer rock and its legacy to justify British involvement, together with the social shift within pop (the way Keane et al took the place in Middle England CD collections and on Middle England commercial radio of multiple Scottish bands seems analogous to the way that part of English society lost faith in the Union and cast its fellow citizens adrift before there was a real chance of the reverse; see also what I believe to be the non-existence of Scotland within the Downton Abbey universe when set against its intimate connection with Upstairs, Downstairs as a reflection of those of Julian Fellowes’ politics coming to see the Union as a hindrance, a restriction) and the way pop had helped the oldest elite of all when even they had clearly suspected if not assumed it would fail, had killed every assumption behind that article, rendered it as archaic as a prediction of continuing British imperial glory written on Coronation Day 1953, or indeed an article at the same time suggesting that there were no long-term risks to the international status of the England football team, would have seemed a comparable amount of time later.
The only way out – and it was real, that summer; the Tories still seemed fatally confused and internally divided and had not yet had enough time to create their new agenda – was not taken in the autumn of 2007, and from then on the power of pop culture was indelibly associated with the side for which it had once been seen as the final nail. Martin Jacques, in his thoughts on Corbyn recently quoted by John Harris in The Guardian, seems to be wholly aware of this, and he must be considered a test figure in the same way that Peter Hitchens’ opposition to the golliwog or the broadcast of the N word when it is used in old films makes it even harder for those on anorak forums who defend such things to justify themselves.
Thatcher, at the start, brought together those for whom “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was a bit much and those excited by the libertarian impulse of 1960s rock culture; Corbyn has brought together a strain of socialism for which Elvis was a severe problem and people for whom Britpop was what their parents partied to before they settled down and brought them up, people for whom the Easyjet 20th anniversary ad using “Disco 2000” is really far more ancient history than 1960s pop culture was to the Britpop generation. Corbyn can appeal to his young supporters partially because, as a non-pop-cultural figure (and certainly not part of the Ian MacDonald idea of the political legacy of boomer rock – the one to which people still give my name, when they really should give his, not least because he got there in 1993 – in the way those of his generation who were dominant when he was in exile were and are), he can represent the antidote to the hegemony of a certain kind of pop culture within Tory nationalism for those for whom that culture is boring, irrelevant, old, effectively their Elgar (if you see what I mean). The New Old Left is probably an inevitable byproduct of the fact that the continuing huge creativity of youth in the UK is now concentrated pretty much entirely in forms which are hard enough for a lot of people even of my age really to understand or grasp (and I am half Martin Jacques’ age), and maybe both British pop and British politics are better for it. Certainly another Britpop couldn’t help the same side the first one did; that kind of pop is far too far gone, now.
But I would have more hope for Corbyn if there had been a movement for the socialist restructure of UK broadcasting which fired in 2004, was legally suppressed in 2007 and had inspired massive political protest and disconnection from the ruling class in the subsequent years. I’d have more hope if there had been an unequivocally socialist recording act of some form or description – full of rage against the consensus of their time – who also exploded in 2004, had reached their apotheosis in 2012 and had since slipped noticeably on an artistic level and whose relevance was in serious doubt, but at the same time become embedded in the international jet set in the way which is usually – as it very definitely was in that case (Tony, you’re a fool to cry …) – the tipping point for genuine, top-level political impact. And that is where the guilt and self-doubt comes back. I keep telling myself that, if he ever did win, Corbyn could still change a lot even without that, but then I wonder where Thatcher would have found herself, and how great her legacy would really have been, had she only ever been able to do what she thought she was doing as opposed to what she actually did, and I ask myself: if the equivalent side to the one which won in Thatcher’s case also won in this case, would it not be a grand betrayal, and would that not make my whole life a lie?
But this is why it is important that a tweet by Paul Canning (who often writes, and thinks, good stuff, and is certainly right that Western Putinism is the politics of despair) criticising Seumas Milne’s appointment (about which I myself have profound doubts) quoted “The End” by the Doors, and significant that it was retweeted by someone with “Mersey” in their Twitter handle rather than, say, “Tyne”. That is what the split between the Two Lefts is all about, and that is the single greatest dividing line in Britain today, by far. That is also why the most important thing Milne has ever tweeted was an approving reference to William Rees-Mogg, decades after the fact, having sniffed out Thatcherism in the Stones and “soft-Leftism” in the Beatles. It really is all the final act of what some (not me) once called Carmodism.
But maybe, in the end, none of this matters. Maybe we are all permanently disenfranchised, permanently cursed, permanently denied happiness (if we even want it; Zizek says that we don’t, and he might well be right) by the seven-vote failure of electoral reform in 1917. Maybe everything that is wrong in our lives to this day stems from that moment, really much more than that war itself, for all its disfiguring qualities (the First World War, in its way, orphaned the English people, but had that bill succeeded, it might have done some good, rather than leaving us with the worst of all worlds). Bringing forward Individual Electoral Registration so it is more likely to hit the EU referendum and disproportionately disenfranchise those who are not hysterically paranoid about The Wrong Kind of Foreigners … it is obvious where this is leading and what it means. It took guts for me even to write this. It’s as much as I can face, as much as I can do.