Monthly Archives: June 2017

Sporadic thoughts on British General Election

The British election is a success for the strategy that Theresa May pursued: winning over middle aged and elderly working class voters in the post-industrial north. According to a Yougov survey released on Tuesday, she increased the Tory share of voters with a GCSE or less from 38% in 2015 to 55%. In a very general sense that constitutes a success of the aforementioned strategy. The problem is with the strategy. May’s campaign was unarguably incompetent but the strategy itself was more costly than the implementation of it. The problem is that such a strategy was always likely to alienate other sections of society: the young and the educated. People, in short, more comfortable with globalisation and more likely to benefit from a labour market that gives greater returns to cognitive skills and educational attainment. An even more acute problem was that unless Labour lost quite a lot of working class workers such a strategy would be unlikely to compensate for Labour’s gains amongst young people and wealthy liberals in large cities in the country – the demographics disaffected by May’s affection for old-school Toryism. In truth, Labour didn’t lose that much working class voters from the last election and even regained some UKIP voters.

 

Although it is true that Labour was nominally committed to Hard Brexit – leaving the single market and ending free movement of people – it is nevertheless striking that Labour’s surge came primarily from those most likely to vote Remain. It’s interesting to note that whilst a YouGov  poll last month found that 68% of the public believe Brexit should not be stop, a Pew poll from the spring found that 48% of Brits think leaving the EU will be a bad thing in contrast to 44% who think it will be a good thing. Another Yougov poll conducted in April found that a plurality Brits think Brexit will be bad for jobs and leave us economically worse off, but a plurality also favour a Hard Brexit (36% preferring a soft brexit; 43% favouring hard). I don’t think personally believing something will be bad is mutually exclusive with thinking it should be implemented. In general I think Brexit constitutes a synecdoche for something else: a set of cosmopolitan values to which well-educated and young people sympathise with. I’ve seen some people reference the dementia-tax as critical to May’s failure but May did better than Cameron amongst over 60s. A more interesting question is would she have done better than she would have otherwise have done without that issue.

 

The Labour Party is primarily the party for middle class public sector workers. Two reports by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies illustrate this. The pledge to abolish tuition fees is a boon to the students who will become middle class and upper middle class and doesn’t really affect the working class as much. The IFS also finds that the sharp increase in minimum wage to £10 a hour will disproportionately benefit workers who already live in middle income households and is potentially very bad for low-income workers: not just through losing jobs, but in getting into the labour market in the first place, as their labour cost increase rather sharply to £14 billion a year. The least worst manifesto for low-income workers was, unsurprisingly, from the Liberal Democrats. 

 

The Tory Party, on other hand, is now primarily the party for pensioners and Hard Brexit. Strikingly, the only employment group they beat Labour were pensioners. The call to end the ban on grammar schools, the call to renew a debate on fox hunting – these were genuinely bizarre proposals that reflected a shift from Cameron’s attempt to modernise the party. They prided themselves on being strong and stable but became the very first party to do a U-turn on a manifesto pledge before an election. They denounced Labour as a coalition of chaos but have to rely on the DUP in something that’s sort of a coalition but isn’t really. Which, you know, sounds a bit chaotic.

 

I’m ambivalent about this election. On the one hand, I am sad that a man who has praised a host of tyrants and terrorists has been definitively empowered within a party ostensibly committed to equality and social justice. On the other hand, I am happy that a Prime Minister who embodies a turn from the liberal-ish politics I espouse has been given a bloody nose after calling an election with an unearned level of confidence in her leadership ability. 

 

 

Contrary to the fake news commonly propagated by the twitter personality Sarah Kate, I am actually a broke student and would really appreciate it if you could spare some cash here and reward my writing if you like it. Thanks. 

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Review of “Stoner”

It is perhaps no coincidence that Stoner rhymes with loner. John Williams’s eponymous novel is an exquisite distillation of what it means to be alone. Not primarily a physical loneliness, an absence of intimacy, but a spiritual loneliness: the sense that no one in the world truly understands you. But more than that it is a book about lonely triumph.

Published in 1965, the book only gained its reputation as a canonical text of mid 20th century American Literature in the early 21st century. I was browsing Waterstones when I first saw it. A few months later I stumbled into Stoner again in an independent book shop. Surprised by the effusive praise it received on its back, and with a hearty recommendation from the bookseller, I bought it. I was stunned by its brilliance.

The novel charts the life of William Stoner, Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University in Missouri, from adolescence to old age. We first see Stoner as a farm boy from a rural working class family in Booneville, Missouri. It ends with Stoner as a cranky old man facing a terrible illness. Absent from his life is any solid indication of material success. He is often in debt, his neurotic wife loathes him, his students treat him with indifference, and he never ascends above the position of Assistant Professor.

Part of Stoner’s brilliance is in vividly reflecting a concatenation of fears familiar to many people: the fear our lives will stagnate rather than improve; the fear we will marry the wrong person; the fear that our imprint on life would be minimal. But Stoner also offers redemption from these common anxieties.

On the point of a stagnating life, Stoner’s affair offers him the intimacy and pleasure that his wife Edith would not provide. Compare the malodorous sense of shame associated with Stoner’s sexual interactions with Edith with his interaction with Katherine Driscoll, a young and intelligent Graduate student. During their honeymoon he attempts to make love to Edith for the first time:

When he touched the softness of her thighs she turned her head sharply away and lifted her arm to cover her eyes. She made no sound.

Stoner and Edith’s relationship seems like an excellent advertisement for the view that sex before marriage is good. Beneath this somewhat glib point is a significant one: Edith’s visceral revulsion and coldness toward Stoner shows they should never have got married in the first place. Contrast the passage excerpted above with the one below, which details the early stages of Stoner’s affair with Katherine:

 

Her flesh, that at a distance seemed so cool and pale, had beneath it a warm ruddy undertone like light flowing beneath a milky translucence. And like the translucent flesh, the calm and poise and reserve which he had thought were herself, masked a warmth and playfulness and humour whose intensity was made possible by the appearance that disguised them.

Some passages reach a level of stylistic elegance that make you gasp, and some passages capture so fully a particular experience that it interrupts your flow of reading. But to mingle both elegance with insight as the passage above does is to reach the pinnacle of any form of artistic expression: to change, in a fundamental sense, the way you perceive the world.

The fear of marrying the wrong person is a common one, but it presupposes the existence of a Mr or Mrs Right. It is an attractive idea expertly deconstructed by the passage below:

In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.

But the most potent redemptive point of the novel is the dignity that Stoner takes in the book he publishes. Significant historical moments in history, like the First World War, colour the background of the novel. But it is Stoner’s personal history that is the focal point. Although it often feels like he is sinking, Stoner’s pride in the book he publishes is his own form of private triumph. And the novel as a form – unlike the Epic, which depicts heroes and villains – is about depicting the private lives of ordinary men and women. By this measure Stoner is the quintessential novel.