Somewhere in this study, hidden under piles of other books and papers, lurks my copy of The Abbess of Crewe, Muriel Spark’s feline, semi-funny Watergate novel. Since, however, I can’t find it anywhere — although I did, at least, find a fat hardback by Peter Fuller that I’d forgotten I owned — a paraphrase of the relevant passage will have to suffice.
There’s a point, early on in The Abbess of Crewe, where the elegant, Machiavellian, vaguely tragic abbess of the title rings up gruff-voiced, globe-trotting, Kissingeresque and not entirely reliable Sister Gertrude, seeking advice on some pressing problem. ‘A problem you solve,’ crackles the answer down the line, before explaining that the situation troubling the Abbess is, instead, a paradox. ‘Have you time for a very short seminar, Gertrude, on how one treats of a paradox?’ asks the Abbess, as sweetly as she can manage. ‘A paradox you live with,’ replies Sister Gertrude, before ringing off.
Thus in the right sort of mood it should be possible to construe the omission of any overt political content on this notionally right-of-centre blog — an omission that’s been particularly acute over the past six months — less as a problem than, well, a paradox.
Some readers will, perhaps, insist that the paradox is more apparent than genuine, if only because it’s almost impossible to write anything without expressing a hierarchy of preferences that’s inherently susceptible to translation, accurately or otherwise, into the language of politics. Even omissions can thus be made to stand as credos. Or to put it another way, if the spectre of Mrs Thatcher surfaces in my art-related writing rather more than some might regard as entirely healthy, then it’s worth remembering that the Cambridge of my youth was a place in which even the most basic facts of late medieval and early modern English history could only be transmitted, or so it appeared, if intercut at every possible point with effusions of the rawest sort of Thatcher-hating rhetoric — attributions of selfishness, callousness and philistinism which construed these as necessarily conservative errors, self-evidently absent elsewhere across the political spectrum — so that, even now, invoking Mrs Thatcher without simultaneously saying something unpleasant about her still counts as a political gesture, a wilful step outside the pale of civilised cultural discourse, an exercise in outing oneself as culpably ‘right wing’. All of which is, of course, why I do it as often as possible.
The same could be said, I suppose, for treating the ‘Glorious’ Revolution, the ‘Great’ Reform Act, the principles of 1789 or 1848, ‘progress’ or ‘change’ per se as anything other than Good Things, just as it could be said about a failure to sound appropriately grumpy on the subjects of strong religious belief, monarchical government, the USA, private education, non-ironic figurative painting, or indeed just generally being reactionary. What we say or don’t say about all of these speaks volumes, whether we wish this to be the case or not, so why not be open about it? Indeed, the only way way to write about culture without sounding gratingly ‘political’ is to stay well within a narrow spectrum of unarticulated, preferably unconscious left-liberal certitude — while at the same time being snide about everyone else’s politics. Thus because, its various faults notwithstanding, Fugitive Ink has never been run along those lines, this has always been, perforce, a thoroughly political blog.
Yet in recent months, the urge to avoid political commentary has been all but overwhelming. And since at least one reader has found this not only puzzling, but marginally disappointing, too, some explanation is, I guess, in order.
By far the best excuse for avoiding politics over the past few months has been the self-protective desire to get well out of the way as the onward-rushing, expensive, overburdened and frankly scary juggernaut of the US presidential elections hurtled past. For what other stance might a UK blogger adopt, confronted with the McCain-Obama contest? One could, if that way inclined, single out idiocies inherent in various policy platforms, although almost certainly, at least a dozen people in the States would be doing the same thing, and doing it better. Alternatively, one could link to those far-away places where the singling out of idiocies was already thriving. Either of these activities, at any rate, made more sense than allowing oneself the dubious pleasure of vacillating between the charms of the two main candidates, savouring every last delicious frisson of indecision and scruple, distributing with magnificent even-handedness those dry crumbs of praise or reproach, before endorsing — well, Obama, almost inevitably, even in Conservative circles, as if anyone with an actual vote really much cared, which as far as I can see, they didn’t — US voters, for the most part, entertaining a roughly equivalent contempt for the knowledge and judgement of UK commentators as UK commentators entertain for the intelligence and political sophistication of the US electorate.
But then from a conservative point of view, the contest was hardly an encouraging one. That ‘maverick’ McCain put so much effort into distancing himself from his ostensible voting base — whilst simultaneously providing it with a disobliging mirror of its own most risible excesses in the shape of Sarah Palin — that even a sympathetic observer could hardly fail to conclude that his election campaign had less to do with conservatism per se than with an old man’s last-gasp attempt to compensate for having failed to achieve, as his father and grandfather before him had done, the rank of four-star admiral. And however intelligible — laudable, almost, in a sad sort of way — this aim might have been, it seemed a poor reason to elect the old man as president. Meanwhile, if Obama is very clearly the sleekest prose stylist, most charismatic speaker and flawlessly photogenic human being to hold high office in the USA within living memory (almost — I suppose there are few people out there who can still remember the unfailingly elegant, ideologically distressing FDR) — still, none of these qualities, individually, guarantees presidential success, any more than the odd glimpse of redistributionist content within Obama’s attractively indistinct politics is likely to reassure the many conservatives who, their own inhibitions notwithstanding, would genuinely like to love Obama just as much as everyone else seems to do.
There is, however, a single feature of Obama’s appeal — one reason, that is, that right-of-centre UK commentators have often given for supporting his candidacy, e.g. here — so absolutely maddening that I’ve hitherto found it impossible to confront head-on. This is the issue of race — or ‘race’, for those of us who, while finding the complexity of Obama’s cultural background fascinating, consider his skin colour totally irrelevant to his worthiness for public office. Yet to quote Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and notional Conservative, a man with floppy blond hair and Turkish ancestry who for all sorts of reasons really ought to know better,
‘If Obama wins, then the United States will have at last come a huge and maybe decisive step closer to achieving the dream of Martin Luther King, of a land where people are judged not on the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’
Which is to say, in order to achieve colour-blindness, we should vote for the dark-skinned man rather than the light-skinned one. Or, alternatively, we could vote for the man who seems most intelligent, hard-working, empathetic, clear-headed and reliable — or, for that matter, the man whose views most clearly coincide with our own — or the man who’s been nominated by the party we tend to support. Occasionally, at least two of those points may coincide.
Of course, for someone who was raised in the American South in the late 1960s and early 70s, there was an arid sort of amusement to be gained from all the earnest chin-scratching here on the subject of ‘Racism — Is It Over?’ — coupled with the usual, habitual and in this case socially inconvenient pessimism.
For although, once again, I wish I were on the side of the optimists, it seems rather more likely that Afro-Americans are still, for the most part, effectively ‘equal’ rather in the sense that Sephardic Jews in the more progressive corners of early twentieth century Europe could be ‘equal’ — which is to say that, while the most brilliant, enterprising, attractive, well-educated, wealthy, impeccably behaved and near-assimilated Sephardim might, if they were lucky, be treated as more or less ‘equal’ to the majority populations around them, this hardly meant that ‘racism’ was ‘over’.
Before anyone gets upset, let’s stress that this comparison does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that I see anything in the future of the USA equivalent to the well-documented genocidal horrors of twentieth century Europe. I don’t. The point is that the magnificent success of the odd Rothschild or Montefiore or Isaacs didn’t, in themselves, entirely cancel out the discrimination, formal or informal, the depressing stereotypes and the generalised poverty of aspiration confronting less remarkable Jews in more or less the same societies, any more than the successes of one manifestly extraordinary American who self-identifies as ‘black’ mark an end to slavery’s terrible, lingering, possibly ineradicable American legacy. Conservatives, of all people, should realise that past wrongs can’t just be wished away, a mere few generations on, however much we all might dream to the contrary.
Yet attempting to spell this out demonstrates, all too neatly, why it’s been easy not to mention politics recently. It’s almost bad manners, isn’t it, this whole exercise of questioning the illusion when so many sensible, decent observers are clearly enjoying it all so much? We live, after all, in distinctly unsettled times. People are rightly worried about the economy, geopolitical stability, their own personal security. What’s wrong with all the excitement, the elation, the genuine surge of hope that Obama’s election victory elicited, not only in the United States, but overseas as well? Only the risk, surely more likely than not, that for all his exceptional qualities, Obama will turn out to be just a normal, human, flawed and fallible politician, rather than some superhuman avatar of global transformation-for-the-better. At that point, public enthusiasm might very quickly decay into anger, with predictably ghastly results.
Again, though, conjuring up this danger feels uncomfortably like raining on someone’s parade — a long-awaited, well-deserved and rather beautiful parade at that. And, of course, I may well be wrong. Obviously — well, I hope it’s obvious — I wish Obama every success in what’s surely one of the most demanding, unenviable and ultimately thankless jobs on earth. He was, almost certainly, the least worst choice on offer, and pretty much everyone I knew who voted for him — which is to say, pretty much everyone I know who’s entitled to vote in US elections — did so with their eyes wide open. But for the moment, anyway, silent benediction seems a better choice than running commentary.
Not that the prospect of commenting on UK politics is any more appealing. If anything, it’s worse.
The ongoing avalanche of catastrophe currently trading under the unwieldy title of this present Global Economic Downturn — and how long, precisely, do we have to wait until someone comes up with a label of ‘Black Wednesday’ or ‘9/11’ level catchiness? — has, to a degree, transformed the relative fortunes of the UK’s major political parties since the last time I bothered to write about politics, just after the May elections earlier this year. Back then, Gordon Brown had succeeded mostly in demonstrating that the business of governing as a Labour prime minister was by no means as effortless as Tony Blair had made it look, while David Cameron appeared to be on a winning streak of such apparently miraculous efficacy as to cow even the more truculent fringes of the Tory grassroots into a sort of sullen, respectful silence.
Now, however, that has all changed. Global economic distress has handed Brown the opportunity to throw himself wholeheartedly in the sole activity he’s ever shown signs of enjoying, which is to say, fiddling with the economy, while the need to respond to a stream of swiftly-moving yet sometimes highly technical crises has exposed, brutally, the abject lack of a consistent Conservative policy on, well, pretty much anything. So whereas in late September, the Conservative Party was ‘willing to work with our political opponents to do what is necessary for financial stability’, a few weeks later, the Labour propensity to borrow in order to cheer up the economy had once more come to be seen as irresponsible, with the Conservatives denouncing ‘unfunded’ tax cuts — although not the nationalisation of large-scale chunks of the financial sector, or the call for a ‘new Bretton Woods’, or anything else that George Osborne hasn’t had properly explained to him yet.
And now, literally as I write this, it appears that the Conservatives have abandoned their pledge to match Labour’s spending commitments. Doubtless party loyalists who cheered yesterday’s highly principled stance on this issue will be every bit as delighted by Cameron’s sudden, only slightly panic-stricken volte-face. And, well, yesterday’s policy was only a pledge, wasn’t it? That’s not really a binding promise or anything, is it? Surely not.
For that’s another reason not to write about politics — party loyalty. Put bluntly, although personal loyalty matters a lot to me — unrealistically much, indeed, one might ruefully conclude — I’ve never seen the point of remaining ‘loyal’ to a political party, at least in the sense of saying nice things about it or voting for it, during one of those interludes when the party no longer supports any of the interests or ideals that it’s traditionally supported. So while I’d agree that the Conservative Party is, for all its various defects and deformations, what we have to work with, that doesn’t mean that some of the ‘work’ shouldn’t be fairly aggressive — involving, as soon as is decently possible, the excision, anaesthetised or otherwise, of Osborne and indeed his master from what’s left of its mangled yet still-beating heart. For as with McCain, the desire to win elections for reasons of purely personal ambition rarely strikes a very compelling chord, while the Tory who cannot see something wrong with the idea of re-branding — yet again — the Conservative Party as, of all things, ‘the party of change’, brands it rather as ‘the party lacking in conscious irony’. For despite plenty of conversations with those who see things differently, I still see Cameron as an opportunist, shallow, self-interested and amoral, contemptuous towards his party and indeed the world in general — but also ineffectual, incompetent and doomed to eventual failure.
Of course there are others — fellow bloggers, more or less formal organisations, normal grassroots Tories — who also find themselves at an angle to Cameron’s leadership, deciding various to ignore, appease or quietly undermine it. The problem here, for me, is that most of them are also at an awkward angle to my own politics. Specifically, there’s a tendency on the right of the Conservative Party to call for the reform of state-run public services, to fear immigration and to hate Islam. Whereas as far as I’m concerned — always the odd one out, eh? — the only adequate ‘reform’ of state-run public services is total abolition, gradual or otherwise, immigrants seem to me entirely to be welcomed as long as they’re willing to live within the law, and while terrorism should of course be thwarted as unobtrusively and firmly as possible, no matter who’s carrying it out, this has nothing to do with Islam which, like most religions, is a mixed bag, inspiring both the near-saintly and the psychopathic with various strands of its ‘message’.
What to do, then? At present, I see absolutely nothing that I can do within the Conservative Party. I couldn’t, with a straight face, expound ‘Cameron’s Conservatism’ — indeed, I can hardly even keep up with it! Meanwhile something’s gone horribly wrong with the right-of-centre blogosphere in recent months. Increasingly, any attempt to question today’s party line at ConHome or on Iain Dale’s site is immediately shouted down with variants of the following, strikingly original comments: ‘My, the trolls are out in force today’ (even when the criticisms are clearly linked to named blogs — rather suggesting that for all his undoubted dedication, the party loyalist in question hasn’t quite worked out what ‘troll’ means yet) or, alternatively, identification of the critic as a denizen of ‘Dolly’ Draper’s rebuttal unit (note the easy familiarity of that ‘Dolly’ — obviously this party loyalist must be a consumate political insider, rather than e.g. just some sad case who’s actually rather relishing this dangerous proximity not only to Labour perfidity but to possible psychosexual perversity, too). The important thing, though, is that criticisms are never dignified with actual argument, but rather simply dismissed outright.
The first time this happens, it’s annoying, in the low-key way that playground bullying always was annoying. The second time it happens, it’s sufficiently boring that the issue of a third online attempt to bring the Party to its senses doesn’t even arise. The result, I suppose, is that the the party loyalists have their agreeable if strangely self-referential universe all to themselves, undisturbed in their cosy, collective certainty that their shadow chancellor is taken seriously in the City, that their shadow Treasury team has a plausible narrative with which to explain the current economic mess, that the Leadership always knows best, and that if you ignore a ‘bad’ opinion poll long enough, it will somehow just go away.
And while there are blogs out there associated with other parties — the best of them offering not only the mildly voyeuristic fun of peeking at someone else’s factionalism, but genuinely thought-provoking argument as well — in the end, my sojourns there mostly serve to remind me that, while the Conservative Party may be the most uncongenial home imaginable right now, it’s the only party political home I’ve got. Needless to say, the implications of that revelation are discouraging enough to keep Fugitive Ink in articles about Byzantine psalmody, Rothko’s pigments and Hadrian’s obscurities — with or without gratuitous yet meaningful references to Mrs Thatcher — for much of the foreseeable future.
Some lines of verse are running through my head right now. Neatly enough, if rather predictably, they send us back to The Abbess of Crewe. The book’s central figure, the clearly mad although perhaps also likeable Abbess — for it’s a curiosity of this Watergate satire that the Nixon character is, her faults notwithstanding, by far the most sympathetic character present — quotes more or less interchangeably from the Book of Common Prayer and Modernist poetry, including this poem by Ezra Pound. The relevant lines are these: ‘I am homesick after mine own kind, and ordinary people touch me not. And I am homesick after my own kind …’
Political engagement is not, ideally, a solitary pursuit. The motive force behind writing anything on a blog — more clearly so, perhaps, in the case of politics than anything else — is the hope that somewhere out there, no matter how silently or how secretly, someone will agree. From this we may infer that the motive force behind not writing about something — again, perhaps most clearly in the case of politics — is, conversely, the near-certainty that no one will agree at all. And that, more than anything else, is my reason for not writing about politics for the past six months, and for not really wanting to write about it much at the moment, either. So in other words, if there’s a paradox to be found here, on this right-of-centre blog where politics are almost never mentioned, we may be living with it for some time to come.