The other day, I was listening to Ezra Klein’s (highly recommended) podcast The Ezra Klein Show. The guest was Tim Alberta (and, full disclosure, I haven’t read his book yet – though it sounds fantastic). The conversation between the two is a fantastic one all round, so well worth a listen.
But I was struck by two things that were mentioned in the conversation.
Firstly, the way that the Republican and Democratic parties in the US have increasingly less power nowadays. The past few weeks have seen internecine fighting within the Democratic Party explode into the open, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic party leaders openly attacking liberal Democratic congresswomen for their refusal to toe the party line.
And, secondly, the way that members of Congress in the US often really struggle to find ways to effectively communicate with each other despite working in the same building. Klein and Alberta talk about how, when reporting on members of Congress, they often found they had a greater breadth of knowledge on what other members of Congress were doing than the members did themselves. The following passage is from around 1:04:00 in the conversation:
Ezra Klein: I think this is something you learn as a political reporter and that is not clear if you’re outside the system: Members of Congress are extremely misinformed on each other. The thing that was most strange to me when I began reporting on Congress — I would be talking to these members of the House or the Senate… and they were talking to me, and they’d be like, ‘Well, what are you hearing?’ And I’d be asking about something [then Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid was doing, and they’d be like, ‘Well.. I don’t know… I saw him say in National Journal the other day…’ Or I would talk to someone in the leadership office, and I’d be talking to them about something [conservative Democratic Senator Joe] Liebermann was doing on the bill, and they’d be saying, ‘Oh, you know, we’re not sure… but something he said the other day in Politico…’
And it was this moment where I was like, ‘Are they learning about each other the same way we’re learning about them?’
I had always thought that they must call each other, that they must have some kind of internal information system. But they don’t! They’re constantly wrong about what the other ones are doing; they’re mad at each other, so they’re not talking to each other…
I think that people really underestimate how bad the information processes inside Congress actually are. It seems like they should know what’s going on inside their own institution. But the degree to which they don’t, and particularly to which they don’t if they’re outside a couple of the core positions, is really striking to me.
Tim Alberta: There’s no question. And I think a reason I was able to be somewhat successful in covering Congress and breaking some news over the years: when I would sit down with a member, and we’d start shooting the shit, I would realise in nine cases out of ten that they wanted more information from me than I wanted from them. If you were willing to trade the gossip and were willing to just BS for a while with them, you could get really great information.
They’ve got the immediate information – they’ve been in the meetings, etc. — but anything that’s even one level to the periphery is pretty much lost on them. So they are really poorly informed, you’re totally right about that.
(Transcript edited slightly for concision.)
The two points here that I’m focusing on – the crumbling of traditional party power in the US, and the historic inability of members of Congress to communicate effectively with each other – aren’t explicitly linked by Klein and Alberta in their conversation. But it strikes me that in some ways, they’re in fact very much linked.
I, of course, am writing from the UK, and there’s a lot of similarity with what’s going on over here. On this side of the pond, there’s obviously a much fuzzier line between the legislative and executive branches — there are several mechanisms for the prime minister to be replaced if they’re doing things the legislative branch is unhappy with (or divided on), but it also means (traditionally) that can be very hard for the legislative branch to stop the executive branch doing certain things, including on certain legislative matters, unless it’s prepared to push that nuclear button and remove the executive.
Until now. The basic cause of the Brexit stalemate is that the executive branch has been trying to push through a plan that the legislative branch is extremely unhappy with, and has been exceptionally unwilling to try to forge a bipartisan path that would make some concessions to MPs’ concerns. But Conservative MPs haven’t been willing to push that nuclear button — vote against the government in a vote of no-confidence — because it would risk a Labour administration. Ordinarily, that would mean the executive branch would be able to push through its plans despite the legislative branch’s objections. But this time, it’s found it really, really difficult.
There’s a number of reasons why the government’s found it so difficult: among them are the newish Fixed-Term Parliament Act (an exceptionally bad piece of legislation that complicates the process of taking down the government) and the fact that the government’s majority is exceptionally slim.
But an underappreciated cause of the Brexit stalemate is WhatsApp. It’s an opensecret that a huge amount of the machinations going on in parliament is now organised through WhatsApp. WhatsApp groups appear to have revolutionised the way MPs communicate with each other, making it far easier for them to organise rebellions against the government. They coordinate media strategy in these groups. They use them to plot innovativeways of bending the parliamentary rules so that they’re able to bind the executive to their will without replacing the executive — something you’re not really supposed to be able to do ordinarily under the British system! Barelyaweekgoesby without two or three leaks from UK parliamentary WhatsApp groups in the British press.
I don’t think there’s any going back now. MPs have realised how much easier it now is to rebel against their own party, and they won’t stop at Brexit. Recent weeks have seen huge rebellions over a Northern Ireland bill, with MPs introducing amendments that would liberalise abortion law and introduce same-sex marriage if a devolved government cannot be formed within a few months.
(Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK where abortion and same-sex marriage are illegal, as these things are devolved to the regional assembly. The DUP, a socially conservative, Protestant and unionist party in Northern Ireland, objects to liberalising these things. This is a major reason why power-sharing talks between the DUP and Sinn Feìn, a Catholic, socially liberal and separatist party, broke down several years ago. Without a power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, a devolved administration cannot be formed due to commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.)
And just yesterday, there was another setback in Parliament: 27 Tory MPs voted against the government in order to make it harder for Parliament to be ‘prorogued’. (Prorogation, in case you’ve forgotten, being a closing down of parliament, and a device that has been recently floated as a way of preventing MPs from passing legislation to stop a no-deal Brexit). Paul Waugh, Executive Editor of HuffPost UK, put it well on last night’s episode of The World Tonight (around 12 minutes in) when he said that ‘what’s fascinating about rebellion is that it is addictive.’ And Waugh rightly drew attention to the words of Keith Simpson, who said yesterday that, after 22 years as a Tory MP, this was his first rebellion against the party. “You can get a taste for it,” Simpson said.
So the similarities between the US and the UK are, I think, really striking here.
Parties in the US used to be incredibly strong institutions, but these institutions now feel under threat as members of Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez develop new forms of power through their connection to the party membership base and their virtuoso use of Twitter. In a similar way, parties in the UK also used to be incredibly strong institutions. But that traditional control by the parties over Members of Parliament is breaking down. And it’s breaking down at least in part because there’s been a huge revolution in the ability of MPs to communicate with each other, as a result of social media and in particular WhatsApp.
The communications revolution has totally transformed the ability of backbench MPs to organise rebellions against government business, and brought the Brexit process to a nearly year-long stalemate.
For the purposes of this piece, however, let’s assume he’s now found a lasting political home. In which case—is there any hope for poor old Chuka? Can he keep hold of his constituency? Could the Lib Dems win Streatham?
The Basic Picture
Start off with the basics: the 2017 results in Streatham. From Umunna’s point of view, it’s not a happy picture. Labour won the seat easily with 68.5% of the vote; the Lib Dems came a distant third with 6.5%.
(N.B. For the purposes of this article, Lib Dem/Change UK vote percentages will always be added together, as will the percentages of UKIP and the Brexit Party. This is because  both Change UK and UKIP appear, for now at least, to be spent forces electorally; and  it seems reasonable to assert that the majority of previous ChUK support will flow to the Lib Dems, and the majority of UKIP support will flow to the Brexit Party.)
Streatham has been a Labour seat since 1992, and a safe Labour seat since 1997, when the party won 62.8% of the vote. So far, so bad.
Or maybe not. You don’t have to go too far back in Streatham’s electoral history to find the Lib Dems performing pretty well in the seat. In the 2001, 2005 and 2010 General Elections, the Lib Dems were the second-highest performing party in Streatham. In 2010, Umunna won the seat with only a seven-point margin over his Lib Dem challenger:
Lib Dem support in Streatham plummeted in the 2015 election, of course, following a pattern seen across the country. Nationwide, support for the Lib Dems fell from 23% to 7.9% as voters protested the party’s role in the coalition government and the abandonment of the party’s pledge to scrap tuition fees (among other things). But there is nonetheless a precedent for the Lib Dems having done pretty well in Streatham in the not-too-distant past. Much of the previous Lib Dem support in the area appears to have fled to Labour in recent general elections. The question is: as Umunna flips to the Lib Dems, can he take those erstwhile liberals with him?
The answer may well be ‘yes’. In the 2019 European Parliament elections, the Lib Dems took 19.6% of the popular vote—an increase of 13 points since the 2014 elections—indicating that the UK’s voters appear to have either forgiven, forgotten, or at least for now set aside, the party’s role in the coalition government. Lambeth, the London borough containing Streatham, followed the nation: Lib Dem support in the borough soared from 9% to 41%, leapfrogging Labour.
Streatham, of course, is only one UK parliamentary constituency within the London borough of Lambeth. Sadly, results are not (currently, at least) available for only Streatham’s voters. But there’s no particular reason to think Streatham’s voters would be an outlier within the larger borough. The other two constituencies in Lambeth (Dulwich and West Northwood, and Vauxhall) have pretty similar similar political profiles. All three seats are solidly Labour, but all three seats are also solidly Remain. The Lib Dems were competitive in allthree before they entered coalition.
So: the Lib Dems did well in Streatham until they entered coalition; and the party’s role in the coalition government may no longer be doing the party significant harm, either nationwide or in the borough of Lambeth. A projection by Chris Hanretty of Royal Holloway, University of London, concurs with my analysis, suggesting that the Lib Dems would easily win the seat in a General Election if they received the same share of the vote as they did in the 2019 European Elections:
But it Might Not Be So Easy
Sadly, for Chuka, there are several reasons why the party could well struggle more in Streatham in a General Election than they seem to have done in the European Elections.
The Strangeness of European Elections
Firstly, the European elections often deliver results that are somewhat strange. The example of UKIP is instructive here: the party received 27.5% of the national vote in the 2014 European elections, the highest of any party in the UK, but a year later received only 12.6% of the vote in the 2015 General Election. European Elections return strange results partly because of low turnout: just 35.4% in the UK in 2014, compared to 66.1% a year later in the 2015 general election. (Even in the 2019 elections, which had unusually high levels of media attention turned on them, turnout only reached 37%—the second-highest ever, but still awfully low.) Low-turnout situations tend to mean voters with extreme opinions—for whom there is therefore a greater sense that things need to change—are overrepresented in the result. In 2019 in the UK, the European Elections were entirely seen through the prism of Brexit, so the low turnout may have inflated the numbers of the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party, both parties with extremepositions on the issue of the EU.
The other reason why European Election results are often somewhat strange is that they are seen by many voters as something of a ‘free hit’. In a UK General Election, there’s always a risk entailed in voting for a smaller party. If you’re torn between Labour and the Lib Dems in a General Election (for example), you might eventually plump for Labour simply because you know that it’s extremely unlikely that the Lib Dems will ever form a government, and your priority—if you’re torn between two left-wing parties, at any rate—is probably to keep the Tories out of government. And in a Conservative-Labour marginal seat, you may not feel that there’s any chance of electing a Lib Dem MP. But voters often feel more at liberty to vote for their true preferences in European Elections and ‘send a message’ with their vote, because it has no impact on the makeup of the government at Westminster. (There’s far less risk in voting for an untried party like the Brexit Party if you believe it will make little difference to your life even if they win.) Moreover, the D’Hondt electoral system the UK uses in European Elections is substantially more proportional than first-past-the-post. Under D’Hondt, there’s less reason to worry that you might be splitting the vote by voting for a smaller party.
(Low turnout and the sense that European Elections ‘don’t matter’ are both caused in part due to confusion among the electorate regarding what MEPs actually do all day. The complexity of the EU’s bureaucratic processes, and the outsized power of the indirectlyelected president of the European Commission, do little to help the EU. But that’s a topic for another blog post.)
Brexit Is Currently a Very Big Issue
The second reason why a General Election could be tougher for the Lib Dems than the European Elections concerns which issues voters are concerned about at the time of the election. There’s clear evidence that European Election campaigns hugely increase the ‘salience’ of Europe-related issues in voters’ minds—the extent to which they care about Europe-related issues, are thinking about Europe-related issues, and vote according to their positions on Europe-related issues. In the UK in 2019, the European Election campaigns were fought almost entirely on sending a message regarding whether or not you wanted Britain to leave the EU. It’s likely that Europe-related issues had exceptionally high salience for voters at the time of the European Elections, therefore. This provides another reason for the way that support for parties with clear, unambiguous positions on Brexit soared over the course of the campaign, while support for parties that attempted ‘broad-tent’, compromise positions on Brexit tumbled:
If the salience of Europe-related issues remains as high as it has recently become, that’s fantastic news for Umunna if he wants to hang on to his seat. The Remain vote in Streatham reached nearly 80%, according to figures calculated by the BBC. Should Brexit salience remain high and the Lib Dems’ position remainremainier than Labour’s, there’s a good chance Umunna can eat away further at the 21.4% of the vote Labour received in the European Elections, and a good chance also that the Brexit vote will remain split between the Tories and Farage.
But there are many reasons why Brexit salience might not be as high in the next General Election. In 2017, Theresa May called a General Election thinking that she would win a majority due to the Labour Party’s more nebulous position on Brexit. She was wrong: over the course of the election campaign, Corbyn successfully reduced the salience of Europe-related issues by focusing on a message of reversing austerity, reducing inequality and renationalising several key industries. He took a gamble that voters would care more about other issues if only they were reminded of them, and it paid off. Labour support climbed dramatically over the course of the 2017 campaign (see penultimate graph above), and the Tories lost their majority.
Come the next General Election, it seems likely that Corbyn will once again attempt to reduce the salience of Brexit through Labour’s election campaign. Whether he will be as successful as last time is a matter of debate. On the one hand, Brexit is by far the most-discussed political issue of the moment. The public is almost certainly more tuned into the process than they were two years ago; the country is now in a quite different place, having now extended the Article 50 deadline several times. On the other hand, publicangerover the state of public services and the general crumbling of British society has only grown in the last two years. In 2017, nobody expected Corbyn to be able to win an election by simply ignoring Brexit. Perhaps if he is able to remind the electorate of All The Other Issues in British politics, he can surprise everybody once again. Such a campaign could be disastrous for the Lib Dems, reminding voters of the party’s complicity in the coalition government’s cuts to public services. Voters might have decided to forgive them for the purposes an European election; it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve regained voters’ trust on domestic issues. (I can’t find any polling on this.)
The extent to which European issues will remain salient also depends on where negotiations are at when the next General Election happens. If the UK is just about to leave, or if it has just left, Brexit is very likely to remain highly salient regardless of how Corbyn campaigns. Should the country’s next Prime Minister extend Article 50 once more, however, perhaps by a year or more, it’s quite easy to imagine voters slipping easily into 2017-levels of boredom. The weirdness of the country tearing itself apart over Brexit is just how objectively soporific the thing is.
Or, maybe not! Some have argued that the recent opinion polls suggesting a new, four-and-a-half-party era of politics, are not simply a result of unusually high salience for Europe-related issues, but evidence of a long-term realignment. The theory goes that the importance of the traditional left-right split over economic issues has been fading for years now across the developed world. More woolly, attitudinal divides between parties such as ‘open vs. closed’ could become the central faultline in British politics instead. Brexit is often seen by voters as an ‘open v closed’ issue by voters even if the details are often technocratic and economic. By this theory, Brexit has only hastened the realigning of British politics that has been taking place over the course of the last decade or so; the European Elections are the first evidence that a great realigning election is on the horizon.
Should British politics truly be realigning, the salience of Brexit could remain high even if Brexit day is once again put off. And a realignment along lines of ‘open v closed’ could help the Lib Dems more generally. The party is one that is united around general attitudes of openness and liberalism that translate well into social policies but often generate somewhat fuzzy economic policies. A realignment would reduce the importance of the party’s weaknesses relative to the Conservative and Labour parties, and increase the importance of the party’s strengths.
The complications here are that (1) we have no idea when Brexit will be; and (2) we have no idea when the next General Election will be. The Times reported on Wednesday that Johnson—if he becomes the next Prime Minister—is planning an election sooner rather than later. But it’s unclear if that’s truly the plan of Johnson himself, or something being pushed by the ‘senior allies’ of Johnson on whom the journalists of The Times are basing their reporting. As well as this, it should be remembered that the government’s majority is wafer-thin. A general election could well be forced upon the government through a vote of no-confidence at any time should the government take steps that seriously displease members of the House of Commons.
So far, then, we have a mixed picture. Umunna stands no chance if Streatham’s residents vote as they have done in the last two General Elections. And they could well do so if Brexit is a less salient issue than it is currently and/or if voters have still not truly forgiven the party over its role in the coalition government. On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that Brexit could still be a highly salient issue come the next General Election; and if voters truly have forgiven the Lib Dems over their role in the coalition, the party could well return to its healthy pre-2010 levels of support in the area.
Could anything else affect the result? Sure. Umunna is a politician with unusually high recognition, for one. He has long been mentioned as a possible future leader of the Labour party (RIP that idea).Since Corbyn became the leader of the opposition, Umunna has been a high-profile advocate of a second referendum (excuse me, ‘People’s Vote’). And since leaving Labour, Umunna has generated a new headline every time he joined a new party.
Whether this name recognition will help Umunna much remains to be seen, however. Incumbents in the US Congress can usually count on a sizeable advantage due to their higher name recognition over their challengers, but the evidence in the UK that name recognition helps a politician substantially is much more mixed. The good news for Umunna is that Lib Dem MPs appear to enjoy a far higher incumbency advantage than those from other parties. The bad news for Umunna is that he was not elected as a Lib Dem, so whether he will enjoy the same incumbency advantage as other Lib Dems remains to be seen.
Another thing that might affect the result in Streatham could simply be activist enthusiasm. Though the party has in the past had mixed views on Umunna joining the Lib Dems (and he’s had mixed views in the past on the Lib Dems), the party leadership has welcomed him with open arms since his announced defection. If local activists feel the same way, a new Lib Dem incumbent could greatly increase the enthusiasm of potential volunteers during an election campaign. But they might not: Umunna’s votes on the Snooper’s Charter, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (read about that one here), electoral reform, and investigations into the Iraq War all jar quite remarkably with the Liberal Democrats’ positions on these things. In 2011, he indulged a whole article dwelling on ideas of ‘tradition’ and ‘One Nation Labour’, emphases that don’t sit particularly comfortably with the Lib Dem vision as outlined in the preamble to the party’s constitution. Some argue activist enthusiasm was a major factor in Labour’s 2017 election performance. Whether Streatham’s local Liberal Democrats will throw their heart and soul into campaigning for someone with this record remains to be seen.
The final thing to consider could be the ‘Tinkerbell effect’. University of Manchester professor Rob Ford has argued on Twitter that the Liberal Democrat party ‘knows, from long, bitter experience, that the biggest hurdle for them is in voters heads—convince people they are a credible challenger and the rest becomes much easier’. So perhaps one of the most bullish indicators for Umunna in Streatham is the simple fact that he’s already won—not because of any incumbency effect, but simply because it might well persuade voters to take him seriously. So many Lib Dem candidates are simply ignored by voters because they don’t seriously believe they could win. But if Umunna’s already won, even if it was under a different banner—well, it stands to reason he might well win again.
To conclude, therefore, Umunnna probably has a pretty good shot—more than a first glance at the topline figures from the 2017 election would indicate, anyhow. But his success, if it is to come, depends on either the voters in Streatham having forgiven the Lib Dems for their coalition years and/or Brexit remaining at the high-salience level it is currently at. Whether one or both of these conditions will be fulfilled remains to be seen—and he may need all the help he can get from his name recognition and local activists in Streatham.
What seems clear, however, is that would be extremely bad news for the Lib Dems should he lose his seat. At this point, they’ve banked almost their entire electoral strategy on opposing Brexit; Streatham—urban, metropolitan, Remainy, multicultural—is exactly the kind of seat the party must hope to win from Labour it is to regain its position as a serious political force.
The exhibition currently showing at the Christ Church Picture Gallery, Fabulous Beasts and Beautiful Creatures, documents the human fascination with the animal kingdom. Combining depictions of real-world creatures with those of myth and dream, the collection stands in marked contrast with much of the rest of the pictures on display at Christ Church. A horse, reduced to barely a few lines on paper, feels as though it moves before your eyes; a sketch of a lion hunt overwhelms in a cacophony of colliding bodies and spears. The beasts on display are alive: many are depicted in scenes of epic battle where confusion of lines prevails but the spirit is captured. The immediacy and mess of these pieces (primarily pen, pencil or chalk on paper) could not be further apart in some respects to the stylised intricacy of the canvas paintings on display elsewhere in the gallery.
A special in-focus display case gives information on the seminal British animal artist Francis Barlow. Subtly exaggerating the key aspects of the animals portrayed, his work lies on the border between naturalism and caricature. A trio of treetop squirrels is lovingly sketched as they call to each other, with special attention (naturally) given to their tufty ears and bushy tails. As with the rest of the exhibition, the emphasis is on the movement and vivacity of the natural world – the innate beauty and strangeness of the creatures around us.
The timing of the exhibition, naturally, comes as no coincidence. It doesn’t take a sleuth to suppose that the topic of the display (running from 18 February to 29 May 2017) was chosen to coincide with the latest film from J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In many ways, the collection of pieces has most in common with the original 2001 book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the inspiration for the development of the recent film. Taking its name from a textbook mentioned in passing in the original Harry Potter book series, Rowling’s spin-off tome took the form of a catalogue of information and drawings of faux-fauna from the realm of Harry Potter – detailing both those mentioned in the series (such as Hippogriffs, Flobberworms and Kappas), and also newer inventions such as Chizpurfles and Lethifolds.
The newer film finessed the original material by adding a backstory (including a mandatory love-interest) to the writing of the book by the renowned magizoologist Newt Scamander. Yet the emphasis on the wonder and quirkiness of Rowling’s world was retained – a welcome relief from Harry Potter films that all-too-often seemed to sand down the magic and charm of the books into something ultimately far too boring and serious. (Where is Peeves, the parodying poltergeist? Why do we never get to see the Weasleys battling with their garden gnomes? What happened to SPEW, Hermione’s Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare?)
Rowling’s creatures in the film are often wonderful works of the imagination in their own right, and frequently feature her trademark intertextuality. The Thunderbird, a huge North American relative of the phoenix that generates maelstroms merely through flapping its wings, has its originsin the folklores of North American indigenous peoples such as the Algonquians, the Menominee and the Ojibwe. Meanwhile, the Occamy, a winged serpent that has the ability to grow or shrink to fit the available space, has clear roots in the dragons of East Asia that can shrink to the size of a silkworm. In a Chinese legend about the Zen Buddhist sage Huineng, a fierce and destructive dragon is tricked into shrinking small enough to fit into his rice bowl – a scene that has an uncanny echo in Rowling’s film.
An extraordinary world, populated by creatures that stretch the bounds of reasonable belief, is fundamental to the definition of fantasy – a nearly facile observation when you consider that ‘fantasy’ shares its etymology with ‘fantastic’. Key to the definition of the genre is an inherent escapism – in the best fantasy works, the plot itself is often incidental; the author draws you in through the sheer intricacy and originality of their imagined world. (By the by, in my opinion this is probably why fantasy and science fiction are often undervalued by traditional literary critics.)
Yet, walking out of my first viewing of Fantastic Beasts, the creature that struck me most was neither the Thunderbird nor the Occamy, but the amorphous Obscurus. The writhing clouds of dark smoke, that Newt describes as an ‘unstable, uncontrollable dark force’, represent the latest manifestation of another key fantasy trope: the inherent, unexplainable evil.
The classic example here is Tolkien. Sauron is evil, because… well, because. In such an extraordinarily long and detailed saga, you’d think there would be some time to probe this a little. But that would be missing the point. The beauty of the fantastic escapism is a fundamental simplicity to the conflict at hand. There’s no need to probe such pressing questions as whether orcs have rights (or quite why the tyranny of the kings of Gondor is better than the tyranny of Sauron) simply because the story is better without fussing over all that. The conceit of the inherent evil is so successful because, well, shades of grey make our heads hurt – it’s a conceit that the reader is fully willing to engage with.
The Obscurus – shapeless and unreadable – is a particularly elegant employment of this trope. The trope works best when the Inherent Evil has as few human attributes as possible: whereas humans have motivations, reasons and purposes, the Inherent Evil by contrast is unexplainable, unreasonable and purposeless. It is the Unknown, the Other. The Evil that has no meaning behind it, and sins for sin’s own sake.
Hence the prevalence of masked and mutilated villains. Star Wars’s Darth Vader is effectively faceless; his ‘humanity’ is only restored to him after he finally returns to the good side of the force at the end of Return of the Jedi. At this point, his life-support unit is symbolically removed, revealing a human face beneath. G. R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire is a series that seems to specialise in shades of grey and set out to pour scorn on this trope. Yet even Martin cannot avoid the allure of the unknown horror: his White Walkers (who are at times even referred to as ‘Others’) are described as having ‘flesh pale as milk’; ‘faceless, silent’, they have eyes that are ‘blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice’.
The Inherent Evil frequently works through human counterparts: unseen and working from afar, yet manipulating the whole of Middle Earth through his servant Saruman, Sauron is far more terrifying. Sometimes the dynamic is inverted. Voldemort, Rowling’s villain in her original series, was never entirely successful simply because he was ultimately far too human. The Dementors, however, who eventually become his servants, are truly terrifying: faceless, voiceless and cloaked, they feed on fear; in a similar way, Fantastic Beasts has both a motiveless Inherent Evil (the Obscurus) and a human antagonist with a purpose (Graves/Grindelwald). In Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, the villain is ostensibly the robber Capricorn. Far more frightening, however, is his slave The Shadow:
Sometimes he was red as fire, sometimes as grey as the ashes into which fire turns all that it devours. He leaped from the ground like flame flickering up from wood. His touch and even his breath brought death. He rose up at his master’s feet, soundless and faceless, scenting the air like a dog on the trail, waiting to be shown his victim.
And yet – I wonder if problems don’t arise when these tropes are applied to real life.
Fantastic Beasts – with its frequent allusions to Grindelwald’s dreams of ethnic cleansing, and with the populist political propaganda that is in the background throughout – carries clear reference to the fascist movements of the 1930s (the period in which it is set). And the Second World War is frequently depicted in just the same way as a fantasy conflict plays out: a clear-cut battle between Good and Evil. The below poster – an anti-Japanese US poster – is representative of the way the fantasy narrative of an inhuman, intrinsic evil was employed in propaganda at the time. Even now, the Second World War is often remembered as the last ‘simple’ conflict – when you knew who was in the right and who was in the wrong. I’m not questioning the horror of the Nazi atrocities or trying to be an apologist for the Axis regimes in any way – but it’s worth remembering that most soldiers in the War were, at the end of the day, just fighting for their country, and atrocities were committed on both sides.
It’s hard to talk about the 1930s nowadays without discussing the current political climate, and to an extent this tendency is fair enough. The parallels between the two periods are clear: far-right parties are on the rise across Europe; the US have recently voted in a nativist, isolationist president; and supranational unions such as the EU seem increasingly fragile. Fantastic Beasts, whether it was intended or not, can’t help but seem as though it is making reference to current regimes in Hungary, Poland, and the US.
To look at a lot of political rhetoric at the moment, the fantasy narrative of Good vs. Evil also seems as though it is being employed in just the same way as it was in the 1930s. Trump has become an image of Evil Incarnate for many, with Democratic activists – despite their political impotence in Congress and state legislatures – determined to obstruct and resist at every turn. A Poor Print article in November spoke of the need to ‘fight against the darkness and coldness that people like Trump and Pence bring’. To an extent, I agree.
Yet the issue is that the great works of high fantasy usually climax with an epic battle, such as the culminating scene in The Lord of the Rings; or the great battle against the forces of the White Witch at the close of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
This is where the metaphor can no longer be applied to reality. Bernie Sanders, the hero of so many left-wing students, is no Aslan. Neither he nor any other Democratic politician is ever going to lead a cavalry charge against the Trumpists of the US.
As politics grows ever-more divisive, liberals (and I use the term in the loosest sense of the word) increasingly appear to be fighting arguments on the basis that to disagree with the liberal point of view is already a moral sin. Too many liberals no longer appear to try to persuade those of differing opinions. Political campaigns are focusing more and more on increasing voter turnout by railing against the Other Side rather than attempting to convince naysayers; more and more activists appear to be complaining that they’re ‘tired of making the same arguments time and time again’. The implication is that when those who disagree are just wrong… why should we have to engage?
That’s no way to win this war. Political battles are won in a different manner to those of folklore and fable. Far from annihilating a horde of alt-righters, instead the end goal must be to change the minds of the horde. To rewrite the Tolkien narrative, the orcs of Mordor have to be persuaded to vote for Aragorn (…or whatever 2020 Democratic challenger comes closest). Shouting at Trumpists will only get us so far. Calling those of differing opinions a ‘basket of deplorables’ will never persuade them to your way of seeing things. The righteous indignation of a political minority is utterly useless.
It’s easier said than done. Changing minds is hard – Confirmation Bias is strong, meaning people will always more easily agree with something that chimes with existing beliefs than with something that fundamentally change their outlook. Social science research shows that reasoned argument generally has no effect on people’s outlook when it comes to polarised issues – and indeed, it often causes a ‘backfire’ effect that causes people to dig in deeper into their preconceptions.
But people’s opinions can, and do, change – even on polarised issues. The steady increase in support for same-sex marriage in the US – from 31% in 2004 to 55% in 2015-16 – is testament to that. The rapid change in attitudes on this issue – both in the US and across much of the West – is incredible.
The roots of the liberal success on the same-sex marriage argument are complex, but nonetheless contain lessons for political campaigns on other issues. Key to the increase in support was a steadily increasing number of people coming out as LGBTQ to their family and friends – causing the issue to become normalised; causing people to learn more about the issue; and creating a multiplier effect by encouraging others also to come out. In a similar way, some advocacy groups have reported that open, non-confrontational discussions with people on doorsteps have far more persuasive potential than conversations where activists actively try to change views. The idea is that these generate less hostility and may be more successful in normalising arguments. (Thorough research on this is currently inconclusive.)
Many will find the takeaway here slightly depressing. Though I’m not endorsing fake news, facts are somewhat useless when it comes to changing minds on divisive issues, since our moral reasoning is rarely based on evidence in these situations. Rather, it is more usually dependent on the opinions we perceive to be acceptable among our personal social group. The crucial year in the same-sex marriage debate in the US was in 2009, when for the first time support for same-sex marriage started rising among Republicans at the same rate as among Democrats.
The real mystery, however, is why so many mainstream political candidates still struggle to grasp this. Remainers can cry foul at the conduct of the Brexit referendum all they like, but the truth is that the argument had been lost long before the referendum campaign even started. Whereas tabloid newspapers and UKIP had unfailingly screamed at Europe for decades, pro-Europe politicians had been notably timid. No debunking of false facts on Brexiteer buses was ever going to make up for the years of silence, or the failure to create a convincing Europhilic emotional narrative. The fantasy narratives have one thing right – much as G. R. R. Martin’s ‘Battle for the Dawn’ is repeated every few millennia, the battle of ideas is never truly won. Political success is rarely permanent; liberal arguments must be repeated again, and again, and again.
So rather than shouting at the alt-right and bemoaning the end of the world, the lessons for liberals are clear. Don’t give up the argument. Don’t be disheartened where you fail to persuade – we have to be in this for the long run. However much you hate their opinions, try to restrain your gag reflex when dealing with those with whom you disagree. And an emotional narrative is crucial. Facts are important – but don’t rely on them to make your case.
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is no longer showing in cinemas, but can be bought on DVD from Amazon for £10.
The Trump presidency has a forecast expiration date of 20 January, 2021.
American Museum of Natural History (2016), Mythic Creatures and the Impossibly Real Animals Who Inspired Them. Sterling Signature, New York. Adapted from an exhibition curated by Laruel Kendall & Mark A. Norell, with Richard Ellis and the American Museum of Natural History Department. See an abbreviated version of the book’s contents online here.  G. R. R. Martin (1996), A Game of Thrones (prologue). Great Britain: Voyager.  Cornelia Funke (2003), Inkheart (Chapter 40), trans. Anthea Bell (original title: Tintenhertz). Chicken House publishers.  Incidentally, Tolkien always denied that The Lord of the Rings was intended as a metaphor for the War, arguing that ‘if it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied’. [J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Lord of the Rings (Introduction). George Allen & Unwin publishers.] As a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, it seems far more likely that his Dark Lord was inspired by monsters in ancient myths such as Beowulf, an epic which has innumerable echoes in The Lord of the Rings.  Jonathan Haidt, 2012, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
A report on Oriel College’s January 14 meeting on how to contextualise their statue of renowned imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
‘Buccaneer, loose cannon, privateer – see Walter Raleigh.’ So goes one account of Cecil Rhodes – but one perhaps uncomforting for Oriel College. Controversy around Rhodes’s achievements has simmered since his death (The Guardian’s 1902 obituary lambasted him as a ‘dragon efficient in tooth and claw’) – yet still there is little consensus on how to approach his legacy.
On Saturday, 14January 2017, Oriel held a meeting on how to contextualise the College’s statue of Rhodes, around which debate has raged since May 2015. Teresa Morgan, Classics Professor at Oriel, opened the meeting by defining its parameters: the purpose was neither to discuss the presence of the statue or the King Edward Street plaque (both of which had been decided on), nor to attempt to come to a single ‘Oriel view’ of Rhodes. Rather, the aim was to explore ways of recognising the complexity of Rhodes’s legacy – adding nuance to a symbol that, for many, appears to indicate unqualified endorsement.
The meeting, therefore, was hardly a concession to RMFO’s demands. (RMFO has yet to respond to repeated attempts by The Poor Print to contact them.) All four guest speakers present could be classed as ‘pro-contextualisation’, and the event was exclusively for Oriel members. The resultant demographic of the room was uncomfortable: a nearly entirely white audience. Few members of the JCR chose to attend – perhaps oddly so, given the furious arguments that raged around RMFO in Open Meetingsonly a year prior.
Yet the discussion was nonetheless valuable. Oriel’s Dr Ian Forrest (Fellow in History) began by exploring Rhodes’s biography; his connection to Oriel; and the lack of awareness around Britain’s colonial legacy. Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, a cultural historian and broadcaster, spoke on the conflict between heritage and diversity: how can we celebrate the achievements of the past while at the same time looking at it critically?
Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director of English Heritage, spoke intriguingly on two cases with parallels to Oriel: Richmond Castle, Yorkshire; and Marble Hill, Twickenham, an eighteenth-century villa. In both cases, the heritage process is riddled with controversy. Richmond Castle, dating from the Norman Conquest, has cells in which the walls are scrawled with pencil graffiti: relics of conscientious objectors imprisoned there during the First World War. A recently-built commemorative garden for the objectors proved controversial with locals due to Richmond’s military history. Meanwhile, Marble Hill has vital importance to archaeological history as one of the earliest structural uses of mahogany. Yet English Heritage faces the challenge of preserving this site of immense beauty, while at the same time allowing space for the narrative of the Belizean slaves who it is thought must have harvested the villa’s mahogany under appalling conditions.
The last speaker on the panel was Judy Ling Wong CBE, President of the Black Environment Network, who spoke on how to effect a change in narrative. Arguing that you must ‘bring a wholeness of yourself to truly bring about a multicultural society’, Wong reminded the room of the ‘enormous opportunity’ that the College has. As a world-renowned institution, Oriel has a responsibility to lead the way.
Views in the room varied wildly as to how best to contextualise the statue. Many maintained that Oriel – as an academic establishment – could not appear to be imposing a single view of Rhodes; some argued that any form of contextualisation was inappropriate, being more suited to heritage sites. Others swung as far in the other direction, arguing that, in order to achieve neutrality, any response by Oriel would have to be as large, solid and permanent as the statue. Some warned against ‘over-privileging’ the name of Rhodes in Oriel’s history, as ultimately counterproductive to any contextualisation.
In practical terms, an array of suggestions was proposed: a clarifying plaque (perhaps supplemented online); a series of lectures/exhibitions; or indeed an artistic installation to visually compete with the statue, either on the High Street or in Third Quad. All are being considered by Oriel’s Rhodes Working Group; the Governing Body will likely adopt some combination of the above.
The Poor Print’s view is that a supposedly neutral consideration of Rhodes (whether on a plaque or online) would be wholly insufficient. While it is true that Oriel has a responsibility to encourage nuanced discourse, the college can neither be pigeonholed as a centre of academia nor as a heritage site. It is also, for many, a community and a home, and so any response must adequately address the fact that the statue has become a symbol of violent oppression to some in Oriel. Oriel has a duty to support those who study here – and if it fails to be a welcoming environment, it may find that the diversity of applicants falls off a cliff. The contextualisation of the statue must be as antiseptic to a wound: antiseptic is never neutral.
‘The Myth of Rhodes’ was a Poor Print special report on Cecil Rhodes, Rhodes Must Fall, and the statue at Oriel College. The report was conceived, commissioned and edited by Alex Waygood, who also wrote one of the articles and carried out a large amount of additional research and fact-checking. The report was originally published on Friday, 28 April 2017, as part of Issue #18 (themed around ‘Myth’), which was also designed in its entirety by Alex Waygood.
The report consisted of six features (one of which was only online), plus a Complete Bibliography, a list of suggested Further Reading and copies of Facebook posts cited in the report. The report can be read online in its entirety here; or alternatively, for links to the individual articles, see below:
I’m glad that’s been cleared up. I hadn’t quite realised that a court ruling delaying Brexit was comparable to the horror of the Great War of 1914. Some might call that insensitive so close to Remembrance Day. But, there you go.
So what exactly is this dire peril? On 3rd November, three judges ruled that British constitutional law does not allow for the Government to begin the process of leaving the European Union without first passing a law through Parliament. The reason? That ‘the most fundamental rule of the UK’s constitution is that Parliament is sovereign’ – meaning that no law passed by Parliament can be overridden by the Government without passing new legislation through Parliament. The UK joined the EU in 1973 by passing the European Communities Act in 1972 – and so in order to leave, Parliament must now pass a new law to repeal this legislation. The European Union Referendum Act, passed in 2015, does not give the Government sufficient powers to start the process of leaving the EU without first consulting Parliament, since that legislation explicitly specified that the referendum was to be advisory rather than legally binding.
It sounds boring and technical – and, really, that’s because it is. It’s the job of the British judiciary to consult legal precedent and rule on the interpretation of Britain’s strange, amorphous constitution. Has Brexit been blocked? No; it will probably take Theresa May a little longer to begin the process of leaving the EU, but it still seems highly unlikely that a majority of MPs would choose to vote against the will of the people as expressed in the referendum. Moreover, parliamentary scrutiny is far from a bad thing, even for those who favoured Brexit. Despite the unsavoury nature of a few MPs, as a group the House of Commons has considerable collective expertise. They will now be able to use this to ensure that Theresa May really does get the ‘right Brexit deal for the UK’.
So this isn’t a ‘power grab’ by ‘activist judges’ that ‘undermines democracy’. Far from it. Newspapers and politicians lambasting the judges should take care: the separation of powers between the Government, Parliament and the Judiciary is in fact one of the fundamental pillars on which our democracy is founded. The independence of Britain’s courts provides protection for the Judiciary, ensuring that judges cannot be fired should they choose to rule against the government. But it also provides important checks and balances on the Government’s power that protect the rights of us all. Crucially, these do not place limits on Parliament’s sovereignty, which remains supreme – our Supreme Court does not have the power to ‘strike down’ legislation. But the courts do have the power to call into question important procedural errors committed by the government, which is what has happened here.
The government has, belatedly, defended the independence of the judiciary – which, incidentally, is meant to be one of the primary roles of the Lord Chancellor. Yet the words of Liz Truss and Theresa May – the latter only qualifying her support by saying that she also values ‘the freedom of our press’ – have been half-hearted and weak.
That is unacceptable. It is entirely possible to call into question the decision of the courts without calling into question the legitimacy of the judicial decision – which would have been the responsible line for the pro-Brexit press to take. Equally, it is entirely possible to attack the words of a newspaper while defending the newspaper’s right to publish them. Freedom of the press is irrelevant, and a cowardly excuse on the Government’s part; this Government should and must vigorously attack the tabloids for seeking to undermine our judicial process. The legal right to express an opinion does not absolve you from responsibility for that opinion, and neither does it disallow others from arguing against you.
Perhaps the inherent suspicion of many Brexiteers that the country’s institutions are biased against them is reasonable. But – reading the judgement – I find it hard to disagree with any of the technical aspects of the decision. Perhaps this is why nearly all the accusations of political bias from pro-Brexit politicians seem to have come in the form of unqualified assertions. I have yet to hear a coherent legal argument as to why there is a special case in this instance wherein Royal Prerogative provides sufficient powers for the Government to override the 1972 European Communities Act without first consulting Parliament.
Originally published on November 20, 2016 byCherwell.
Oriel College, Oxford, was once more in lock-down on March 9th. Outside in Oriel Square, members of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) protested for the second time against the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist in South Africa, that stands in the centre of Oriel’s façade on the High Street. RMFO argues that there is a ‘violence‘ to students of African background in having to walk past the statue. Yet the campaign to remove the statue is part of a much wider student movement to transform universities into ‘safe spaces’ where all feel welcome.
Critics of safe spaces argue that the concept fundamentally conflicts with a culture of free speech in universities. They point to cases such as the Oxford University Student Union’s (OUSU’s) banning of No Offence, a new student magazine focusing on controversial (mainly right-wing) opinion, from the fresher’s fair in October. OUSU expressed concerns that the material would be offensive to a majority of students; when the editor of the magazine distributed copies outside the fresher’s fair anyway, OUSU called the police.
Lord Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, has condemned the Rhodes protesters for similarly failing to ‘engage in free inquiry and debate’ and attempting to wipe out history. RMFO argue instead that, far from attempting to erase the past, they have brought the legacy of Rhodes into the spotlight and ‘inaugurated’ a university-wide debate surrounding iconography and other racial issues.
Yet concerns remain that modern students often appear intolerant to viewpoints other than their own. RMFO has consistently painted Oriel College as uncommitted to racial equality, ‘outrageous, dishonest, and cynical’. This comes in spite of statements by the college supporting their right to protest, and a range of proposed measures such as diversity training, a commitment to new scholarships for Africans and a series of lectures on race, equality and colonialism.
Other symptoms are evident of a growing antipathy among students towards freedom of speech. Across Britain, so-called ‘no-platforming’, whereby students attempt to prevent those with unsavoury opinions from speaking, is on the rise. In September, Warwick University’s student union banned anti-sharia activist Maryam Namazie from speaking for fears that she could ‘incite hatred’. Even veteran campaigners once thought of as liberal crusaders have sometimes unexpectedly come under fire. At Cardiff University, 3,000 people signed a petition to prevent second-wave feminist Germaine Greer from giving a lecture due to her alleged intolerance towards transgender people. (The lecture was eventually held on November 18th with a considerable police presence after the university assured Greer that her safety would be protected.) After defending Greer’s right to speak, gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was also condemned. Fran Cowling, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) representative within the National Union of Students, refused to share a platform at a planned event with Tatchell, whom she decried as racist and ‘transphobic’.
The self-righteousness of the young is not only directed towards individuals perceived as stirring up hatred, but also to larger social groups. It can be seen in a recent rise in antisemitism among Britain’s youth: a result of the Israel/Palestine conflict and a common conflation of Israel and Judaism. In February, the co-chairman of Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) resigned, complaining in his resignation letter that a ‘large proportion of both OULC and the Student Left in Oxford more generally have some kind of a problem with Jews’.
Growing intolerance among students appears to challenge the widely-disseminated idea that Britain’s younger generation is its most liberal yet. Despite an acceptance of minorities such as the LGBT community or those of different ethnicities, there are still many attacked by the new consensus. Divergence from the mainstream viewpoint is quickly vilified; there is often little willingness to debate, and little openness towards differing opinions. The integration of previously persecuted groups into the mainstream does little to change the fact that those who were once so attacked by social conservatives have become the young social conservatives of today. Intolerance is not dead yet – the targets have simply changed.