Two years ago I matriculated at the University of Cambridge. My political soul was malnourished: in a spirit of liberal inquiry, I made a conscious effort in my first term to encounter views with which I disagreed. So it was that I ended up at a meeting of the Marxist Society at the Maypole. As our bright young revolutionaries downed pints like real Working Men and chattered about Gramsci, I found myself conversing with a PhD student, whose name I sadly cannot remember, but who – on account of his wispy beard and my own Zoomer predilections – I will here dub ‘Soyjak’. Soyjak was earnestly trying to convince me that a general strike was imminent. Brexit and the prorogation crisis, he claimed, was nothing more than bourgeois performance, symptoms of ‘late capitalism’ (how did he know?) peddled by the Murdoch media to distract us from wide-scale proletarian discontent. ‘See how popular Jeremy Corbyn is!’ he said. Two years later, and many things have happened which I didn’t then expect – but not, alas, a general strike.
By the time Lent rolled around, I had settled more comfortably into my political skin. It was that strange period when ‘the novel coronavirus’ was big news in China but ‘couldn’t happen here’, and I found myself again at a pub, this time the Eagle, trapped in a conversation with HSPSers (to defeat your enemies, you must first understand them). They were not Marxist, but leftish in that porridgey way, that thinks it is subversive but really is entirely conformist within the university environment. In a futile bid for intellectual stimulation, I volunteered one of my spicier opinions, and was quickly scolded by one of my interlocutors for being on the ‘wrong side of history’. In that phrase, I saw more than a hint of Soyjak.
I spend most of my life these days studying the past, and am unconvinced that it has a ‘right side’ and a ‘wrong side’. But the notion that it has seems to have taken a firm hold over political discourse. In 2014, Ben Shapiro condemned ‘right side of history’ as ‘the most morally idiotic phrase of modern times’ (broken clock, etc.). He then, in 2019, published a book entitled The Right Side of History, to much mockery. But who can blame him? It’s a powerful polemical device, one that we’re all guilty of employing from time to time – even if we know, deep down, that it’s bollocks. Nobody wants to be remembered as a villain. Owen Jones is a ‘trans ally’, he says, because he wishes to be on the ‘right side of history’; Corbyn was praised for being on the ‘right side of history’ by Gerry Adams; Aaron Bastani, scourge of Cambridge’s Labour Club, trotted out a similar conception of history in his review of Ian Dunt’s book How to Be a Liberal, repeatedly pointing at various figures in Dunt’s Remainer pantheon and asserting that they were on the ‘wrong side’ of something or other.
There is something strikingly whiggish about this conception of the past, which is why I find it more notable in Bastani’s review of Dunt’s book than in Dunt’s book itself (Dunt is nothing if not a whig). But a sort of sanctimonious whiggery, which one might expect to find in moralising bores like Shapiro, has indeed infiltrated the modern left. Just as, to the Soyjak mind, humanity is marching steadily through ‘late capitalism’ towards the ‘general strike’ and, ultimately, spontaneous revolution, so too, according to the HSPSer, is society edging towards moral enlightenment, at which point today’s bigotries will be retroactively defined and condemned as such. These two brands of historical determinism plague the modern left. Which brings us to Sir Keir Starmer’s recent essay, ‘The Road Ahead’, which has both the Marxist eschatology of Soyjak and the ‘Right Side of History’-mentality of the HSPSer in its crosshairs.
‘The Road Ahead’ has not had a very charitable reception. Andrew Fisher, a former Corbyn underling, writes that the piece ‘failed to inspire’, and Sam Leith of the Spectator excoriates it as a ‘cliché-ridden disaster’. Perhaps it was botched in its gestation. Even before it was published, Jon Trickett, the Labour MP for Hemsworth, said ‘I don’t think the ex-miners at the miners’ welfare club in my area are going to be reading 14,000 words’ (this is typical of the sneering condescension felt by many self-avowed ‘socialists’ towards the very ‘workers’ whom they fetishise). Its birth was bungled, too: the Fabian Society had to publish it early after it was leaked by the 19-year-old Spectator intern who runs the ‘Politics For All’ Twitter account. ‘The Road Ahead’ did not come into the world in auspicious circumstances. But for all that – and for all its clichés and platitudes – I confess: I thought it was excellent.
The best thing about Starmerism is that it rejects the ways of Soyjak and the HSPSer. Sir Keir knows that all is contingent. The word ‘inevitable’ is used in the negative on three occasions: ‘inequality of opportunity and a lack of security are not inevitable’; ‘the worst death toll and the worst economic hit of any major European economy… was not inevitable’; ‘there is nothing inevitable about… [people] not achieving their potential simply because of the circumstances of their birth’. In so doing, he disabuses his readers of the classic Labour doomerism that Britain simply must endure Tory leadership, because Britain simply is a Tory nation – and therefore that the point of Labour is to serve as a sort of ‘conscience’ or pressure group, and not as a serious contender for government. Nor does he succumb to the complacency of left-wing determinism: that the general strike will come, that the Tories will tire out, that Scotland will leave the Union. He knows that it is possible that the Tories will continue to wield power indefinitely, given the party’s ‘ability to shed its skin’, and that Scotland’s future is something that must actively be fought for. At the beginning of the fourth chapter, Sir Keir approvingly cites the Clash: ‘the future is unwritten’. ‘The arc of history’, he says, ‘will not bend towards us unless we force it to’.
‘The arc of history will not bend towards us unless we force it to’ – the line bears repeating. It was ridiculed by Nick Timothy, the Red Tory prophet who was cursed to arrive on earth only a few months ahead of his time. But it is, I say with all seriousness, the best line I’ve encountered from any politician since Blair. It is a riff on an 1853 Theodore Parker sermon, which then became a Martin Luther King quotation, which was then popularised by Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign: ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Sir Keir dispenses with its whiggish presuppositions, reminding us that change only happens when people – erratic, disparate, fickle people – make it happen. Theodore Parker knew this, of course – and so did Dr King and President Obama. But they also knew that people like to believe that ‘progress’, however they define it, is ‘inevitable’. Sir Keir abandons such pretensions. He knows that Labour will only be on the ‘right side of history’, to borrow the HSPSer euphemism, if Labour makes history. Sir Keir’s ‘arc of history’ is much like Machiavelli’s Fortuna – something to be ‘forced’ and shoved around, though without (one hopes) any misogynistic subtext. This enables him to look at the pathetic state of his party – which is in part his own doing – in a sober and pragmatic way: it will obtain power only by fighting hard to convince millions of individuals that they would be better off with Labour.
There are few organisations so intoxicated by their own mythology as the Labour Party. Indeed, some people love the party so much that they will name their son after its founder. Most of Labour’s internecine conflicts turn essentially on historiography: re-enactments of Bevan vs Gaitskell or Benn vs Healey; endless pontification on whether New Labour was true Labour; 2019’s ill-fated ‘Gang of Seven’ cosplaying as 1981’s ‘Gang of Four’. Sir Keir pays lip-service to the history of Labour’s ‘towering achievements’ in his pamphlet, as a Labour leader must, but laments that ‘we had moved from being the party of “white heat” to the party of sepia-tinged nostalgia… a party squabbling over its own past, rather than one focused on the future of the country’. Sir Keir knows that, if Labour is ever to win again, it will not be ‘because the country has come round to our way of thinking, but because we have seized the future and moulded it’.
Sir Keir is, by all accounts, an opportunist: once the Crown Prince of Remain, and thus a co-conspirator with Corbyn in the collapse of the Red Wall, he now, as the man tasked with winning back those seats he lost, has apparently warmed to the Brexit adventure. But ‘opportunism’ in politics should not be a dirty word. ‘The Road Ahead’ commences from the premise that the future is something to be seized, and that the function of a competent Leader of the Opposition is to appeal to the electorate in any way possible. Labour undoubtedly includes many Soyjaks and HSPSers among its ranks, who think in rather different terms, and so it is encouraging that, in the same week that Sir Keir published his pamphlet, he is also trying to reduce the power of the aristocracy of party member weirdos in electing Labour leaders. Once purged of these purists – who have the luxury of being purists because they believe that the future is inevitable, anyway – Starmerist Labour is free to pursue the far better path of cynical opportunism. Sir Keir knows that the left cannot simply rely on being vindicated by time, be it through the economic paradigm of the Soyjak or the social and moral paradigm of the HSPSer. He knows that he will not be wafted into Downing Street by the tide. If Labour is to hold power in Britain, it cannot simply sit and wait for favourable winds. It must enter the debate – and win it.