Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Preaching to the converted: utterly pointless. So a warm welcome to the Spectator and the New Statesman

There are a few moments every day when each and every one of us is obliged to spend a little time alone. I shan’t be more specific than that because some readers might feel it would be a little indelicate, but if you don’t know what I mean, you might well be entitled to remedial help. Such moments alone can be regarded as a brief and necessary, though irritating, interruption as we go about the serious business of building our career. Or if, like me, you have given up all hope of every building a career, you can make the most of them and use them to snatch a little peace and quiet from the hurly-burly of being obliged to work for a living. And like me, you might also perhaps use those moments to catch up on a little light reading.
Working, as I do, in a newspaper office, there is always something knocking around which you can grab to take with you to read and this morning I spotted a copy of the Spectator and grabbed it to take with me. (Incidentally, there is a certain simple etiquette involved when picking up and taking a book, newspaper or magazine with you to that place where you will spend those personal moments alone.
You are not obliged to put it back where you found it. In fact, I should imagine most people would prefer you not to do so. So that would, of course, rule out taking with you first editions, reference books or hard-to-come-by reading material. Best stick to what will not be missed or which can easily be replaced, if necessary, by buying another copy.) I am not a regular reader of the Spectator. My brother and aunt are, but I find it, in a certain sense, quite insufferable. That doesn’t mean, though, that an occasional read doesn’t pay off and isn’t interesting – I wouldn’t have filched it from some feature writer’s desk if I thought I was about to spend the next five to ten minutes being bored out of my tiny mind – but there is something about the ‘Speccy’ which I find ineffably pointless. Anyone familiar with that magazine will know that its politics are right-of-centre, and given the overwhelming and almost compulsory liberalism of these past 15 years, the ‘Speccy’ might even be described as defiantly right-of-centre with an almost tangible tendency to unashamed fogeyism.
Many of its writers take a real pride in not ‘being modern’, in swimming against the tide, in being archaic. Everything which is even vaguely modern is ‘quite awful’. (‘I used one of those modern “mobile phones” the other day – well, I felt obliged to as my brother/sister/mother/father/wife/husband gave me one and it would have been rude not to – but what is the point? I mean, you poke around on them with your forefinger as you have seen other people do a hundred times and you pretend you know what you are doing, but all you finally get is some terrible noise in your ear telling you the whole exercise hasn’t worked. They are simple quite awful.’) As young men and women they will have adopted that kind stance as a pose, quite possibly to try to impress those they regarded as their elders and betters. Later in life (and later in life is always, unfortunately, far later than you ever thought it would be) the pose is not so much second nature as first nature. Its counterpart in politics of the left, and a magazine I similarly find to be ineffably pointless, is the New Statesman. The writers of that magazine also seem to take a perverse pride in harking back to the past, although in their case it is a past which consists, in their eyes at least, as a golden age of socialist triumphs, a celebration of the working man and when briefly society saw sense.For those it employs who are on the point of death, the Spanish civil war is praised as a beginning which came to nothing because of the combined forces of European fascism. Rather younger writers hail back to the glory days of the Seventies Labour governments before they were betrayed by the money men. And those the New Statesman employs who – boys and girls – who are just out of short trousers hail to the New Labour past as a lesson in what not to do (‘We betrayed socialism
by sucking up to the middle classes’.) At its most extreme the News Statesman is plain barmy, which might be typified by the occasional article claiming that Stalin might have been a bit of a wrong ’un who admittedly had a lot to answer for but he did succeed in dragging Russia out of the 19th and into the 20th century and we should, at least acknowledge that. But to be fair such out-and-out lunacy is pretty unusual these days. Mainly, its writers take an anguished look at how the ‘left is going wrong’, ask ‘what happened to our ideal’ and ponder ‘is there hope for progress’. (By the by, it might be illuminating and certainly very entertaining if at some point I compiled a list of all the young turks who fought tooth and nail to destroy the class system, bit who now, after many years of public service, find it rather comfortable indeed to spend their twilight years ensconced in lordly ermine. Plus ca change . . .
I must be fair, though, and concede that the New Statesman, and publications like it, are usually the first to champion and, in time, to help to bring about what, on reflection, are welcome changes to our values and morals. So, for example, being gay in Britain today is, as far as I know – I’m not gay, far easier than it was even ten or 15 years ago. To a far greater extent than ever before homosexuality is accepted (I shan’t describe it as ‘tolerated’ because I find such ‘tolerance’ quite offensive) as an alternative to heterosexuality, and the New Statesman and the Guardian are far more open to such changes than other publications.
But what I find utterly pointless about both the New Statesman and the Spectator is that they are always, always, always preaching to the converted. So when the New Statesman writes about how evil bankers are, it will be cheered along by its readers as though it had announced the Second Coming. And when the Spectator writes about how awful modern TV programmes are, it is similarly cheered along as though it had revealed an arcane truth. When the Spectator champions the Conservative government’s attempted reform of a welfare system which (even I agree) is horrendously complicated, inefficient wasteful and almost out of control, its readers will not only concur but insist ‘that chap Cameron isn’t going far enough by half. Not at all. He’s scared’. The New Statesman, on the other hand, which in an honest moment might quietly agree that what the welfare system has become is a dog’s dinner like no other, will still insist that the Tories’ attempts at reform are nothing buy a cynical smokescreen to do away with it entirely according to some shadowy ‘right-wing agenda’.
To a great extent these two magazines simply reflect that futile divide between ‘them and us’ (and you can identify both ‘them’ and ‘us’ with whoever you like as long as you acknowledge the dislike, contempt and, at times, seething hatred the one feels for the other). They also do what all partisan newspapers and magazines do – it doesn’t half boost sales – which is to tell the reader what it thinks the reader want to hear. (It is a very effective form of flattery: if you see your prejudices articulated by people you quietly suspect are rather brighter than you are, your self-esteem will briefly be boosted and for a short while you can be persuaded that you are not quiet the outright dunce you always feared you were.) But the Spectator and the New Statesman cannot be judged in the same way as other newspapers and magazines. For one thing their prime purpose is not to make money (which, believe me is the prime purpose of all our newspaper despite what they will tell you), but to provide a platform. Naturally, those who own them wouldn’t usually tolerate a loss (although a former owner of the Spectator, a millionaire, did just that) and would hope that ‘their journal’ at least paid its way, but they see themselves, in their conceit, as protagonists in their country’s political drama. (A ‘journal’, by the way, demands to be take far more seriously than a mere ‘magazine’, which is why the Spectator and the New Statesman regard themselves as ‘journals’.)
And that makes their preaching to the converted all the more futile. Surely to goodness if you believe your view if right and that the other man’s is wrong, you set about trying to persuade him. Yet it’s just as unlikely that your average Speccy reader will choose to plough his or her way through the New Statesman as a New Statesman reader will choose to investigate what the Speccy believes. That’s not the name of the game. Well, nothing bores me more than sitting around with a bunch of farts who all agree ‘that ‘- - - -’ is terrible, isn’t it!’ What I want is debate – honest debate, certainly – but real debate. And you won’t get that if the guy you are debating with you is four-square behind you. Unfortunately, it would seem that I am very much in a minority. And I don’t like it. Political ‘debate’ all to often degenerates into sloganizing and tribal insults. Well, if that’s your game, count me out. And that’s why the lavatory is one of the few places I will ever allow myself to be seen reading the Spectator or the New Statesman.

. . .

Further to my gibe about the brother and comrades who - no doubt against their better instincts but in the interest those dispossessed in whose cause they have struggled all their lives - have grudgingly accepted a peerage, I must extend some sympathy to those assorted lefties who can’t, in their private moments, deny they wouldn’t mind a bit of the action. Look, you struggle, worry, campaign, battle, fight, debate and agitate on behalf of the left for more than 30 years and all you have to show for it is a badly paid job as a secondary teacher, a run-down terrace house and a 15-year-old, beaten-up Ford Mondeo.
Your brother – who has no principles, absolutely none at all and who never worked at school or college - is now in the City earning millions selling ‘financial instruments’ and licking the arse of the ruling class, living in Surrey, two kids at private school and apparently enjoying it all. Where, where, where is the justice! Answers, please, on that traditional postcard, which you can yet again then rip up and throw away.

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