Tessa Coombes, University of Bristol
The Policy and Politics Annual Lecture this year was delivered by Will Self. The theme of the lecture was ‘the end of champagne socialism’ and was presented as a mixture of personal reflections, concerns and challenges, all seeking to highlight the mess that Will believes politics has seemingly descended into right now.
The lecture was at times depressing, confusing and uncomfortable, whilst at the same time managing to be amusing, engaging and thought provoking. Will has a style of delivery that captures the imagination whilst challenging the mind, often leaving the audience unsure and uncertain about their own thoughts, but also in no doubt about the central message he is trying to convey. That message was about how things have changed, about how there’s been a shift in the way people view politics and politicians, and about how we are now seeing change for change’s sake without any real concept of the consequences.
Will described 2016 as a momentous year in Britain and the world, where a significant proportion of the electorate woke up to the fact that no one knows what is going on, even our leaders don’t know what is going on, and for once enough people woke up to this fact and voted for change. The common theme of 2016 seemed to be that people just wanted things to change. They didn’t know what would happen as a result of that change, but they wanted change, a dangerous attitude to take to political events according to Will. In his words, what we are now seeing is ‘the rise of the idiots and the government of the stupid’.
He then went on to explain this desire for change as a break from the usual left-right dichotomy, exemplified by Brexit where the usual left versus right arguments couldn’t be applied. There were pro leave and remain campaigners on both sides of the political divide, the politics-as-usual approach no longer applied to the debate as the dualism deeply ingrained in British politics since the 1970s seemed to be unraveling.
On Corbyn, Will was conflicted. Whilst sharing many of the same beliefs as Corbyn he described how for some reason he was unable to feel pleased about his election as leader of the Labour Party. He went on to explain this using a series of examples about how Corbyn had failed to stick to his principles and wasn’t saying many of the things he should have on becoming leader. He appeared to feel let down by the failure of the new leadership to display honesty about what being a socialist party really means, about what a redistributive party would actually do, what they would change and what the impact of this would be. The disillusionment he clearly feels was apparent to all as he described the endless dilemma for politicians needing to ‘square the circle’ to retain votes meaning they generally lack any real ability to be honest about what they are trying to achieve.
He launched a scathing attack on the Labour Party and the British Left, who for over 40 years have sat back and done little whilst income disparities have grown consistently across the UK. He described them as sitting in their own bubble failing to acknowledge the changes that are needed. He was pretty damning about Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, about their role in changing the very foundations of the Labour Party during what he calls the Blair Witch Project, the New Labour movement, that moved Labour away from its traditional support whilst at the same time re-creating a new breed of champagne socialists. This he describes as unsustainable, and a nonsense that will never work based as it is on the wealthy middle class socialists’ idea that everyone should be raised to the same level and that redistribution will mean personal betterment and improvement, rather than a reduction in their own personal wealth. He pointed out that there was little evidence of the kind of large-scale voluntarism that would be needed to bring about a socialist society. For example, who among the audience would be willing to curtail their annual spending to live within median average income levels, redistributing any surplus to others earning less than us?
Will seemed to reflect the experience of many in the audience when he challenged us about our own feelings, when he described how those on the left are currently unhappy with things, but that we had done little to actually change anything over the last 20 years as income disparities have increased. As he put it, we knew the poor were getting poorer, we knew inclusiveness was largely cosmetic but we didn’t do much about it and now we are really upset, but still don’t do much about it.
He went on to explain the impact of this on young people and how we need to speak to young people about the state of the world today. He explained that we should think long and hard about what we say to the younger generation and made the point that we live in a time of democratic crisis, where older people have capital and younger people don’t’. He then asked the question about how this affects our politics when our homes make more money in a year than we do and how do we square that circle with young people.
Will’s final comments focused on the hollowness of political rhetoric and how collective action can no longer work as there is no socialist dawn waiting for us and no wheel to put our shoulder against. His description of a new socialism based not on collective action but on autonomy and individualism is a difficult one to grasp. It relies on individuals making changes – for example giving directly to the homeless, picking up litter in our communities – and taking action in an arena where there is more quietism, compassion and thought. In his words, we don’t need to organize to help people, we need to show more compassion and just do something.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also like to read Making the case for the welfare state by Peter Taylor-Gooby.