Book Review. Dangerous Hero, Tom Bower, William Collins, 2018, £20.
Before 2015, the most high profile figure to have had his retirement plans ruined by a leadership election in a political party was Denis Thatcher when his wife’s ambitions dragged him from the golf course for a decade as a political consort. Among the many ironies Tom Bower reveals about Jeremy Corbyn is that, when he was propelled into a much more exalted role by circumstances so propitious that he might even now be forgiven for waking up on the occasional morning wondering if it actually happened, he had been planning a retreat to a quieter life in his native Wiltshire keeping bees and growing vegetables.
It is a rare glimpse of what politicians proudly like to call a hinterland and ordinary people call interests in this most monomaniacal character. Bower finds it hard to find evidence of anything giving Corbyn pleasure apart from advancing the revolution. Even his first wife Jane Chapman, no lightweight when it came to activism herself, described by someone who worked with them both on Haringey Council as a ‘classy but poisonous lady … cold, extreme left’, can be credibly portrayed and with sympathy as a political widow, struggling in vain to interest her husband in ‘cinemas, restaurants, clubs, children’ anything apart from politics. Her description of a disastrous holiday they had together touring Eastern Europe by motorcycle highlights the austere character of the anti-austerity campaigner of recent years. While she expected to be eating in restaurants, he preferred beans cooked on a Calor gas stove and the only time they slept in a hostel was when a rainstorm flooded their tent.
A man portrayed by those closest to him as having few material needs and little interest in luxury is obviously well able to cope with the inconveniences of a command economy. However it is odd that Corbyn’s support seems to come in such large measure from millennials when they are probably the most consumerist generation ever, accustomed to getting what they want when they want, whether from Netflix or Uber, and likely to react badly if the state were not able to respond to their needs as flexibly and waiting lists for services once more became the norm.
In other respects, though, Corbyn seems to be the right politician for this generation. He always revelled in being the likeable figure espousing a ‘kinder politics’ at the head of supporters willing to get their hands dirtier. He was editor of Labour Briefing at the time of the Brighton bomb when it taunted Norman Tebbit with comments such as ‘Try riding your bike now Norman!’ as the Cabinet minister recovered from being dragged from the rubble beside his permanently paralysed wife. Many, not least Labour’s Jewish MPs, would recognise this treatment, meted out all day every day by the army of Momentum trolls on Twitter while Corbyn still maintains his innocence.
Also at home in an age when much political debate takes place in the vast echo chambers of social media where opinions are only ever reinforced is a politician who has never changed his mind about anything. That is a charge levelled against Corbyn yet in one respect is false. As Bower makes clear, becoming MP for the multicultural area of Islington changed Corbyn’s priorities. The white working class were discarded like a threadbare teddy bear abandoned at the bottom of the toy box while its owner plays with more exciting toys from abroad. The effect of that was seen at the last election. While much was made of Labour winning Kensington, few noticed Corbyn’s defeats in white majority areas like Mansfield, Walsall and Stoke, which had stayed red even during the Thatcher landslides.
But in other respects, particularly in foreign affairs, Corbyn’s views are those he held on his return from his gap year teaching in Jamaica in 1969. Like a Scottish football fan whose ‘other team’ is ‘anyone but England’, his allegiance is to anyone but the West so he is unlikely to be moved by rational arguments about any international conflict. His disloyalty is tribal. When questioned about referring to one or other terrorist group as his ‘friends’ he is wont to say that you have to sit down with people you disagree with. But that is exactly what he does not do. There is no record of his having met with anyone from the Israeli government or the DUP. This is not a duty he could duck indefinitely if he were to find himself in Downing Street but at present he is inflexibly loyal to his principles.
Such strength of commitment to principles is of course nothing to be ashamed of if one subjects them to regular review and still finds them valid. But the suspicion is, after reading the evidence Bower has unearthed from people who know Corbyn well, that
The Salisbury Review — Summer 2019 his prime motive in keeping his views fixed for so long is that it would be too much trouble to change them. Val Veness, one of his oldest friends in the Labour Party and wife of his erstwhile election agent, is one of a number of close acquaintances who attest to his never reading books not even by the theorists whose ideas motivate his every political act. ‘It was a waste of time talking to him about books’ she says, and she is not the only one to wonder if he is unintellectual or simply lazy. It seems harsh to accuse someone who has devoted so much of his time to one cause of laziness. Perhaps a more accurate charge would be lack of curiosity. An excuse frequently used by Corbyn when he endorses something outrageous, particularly during the scandals over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, is that he hadn’t read it closely. After reading this book, one is inclined to take that excuse at face value though it is not one a politician hoping to be taken seriously would make. Time and again, allies despair of his lack of interest in things that one would expect to fascinate him. George Galloway recalls attending a meeting at a Venezuelan cultural centre in London when Corbyn asked who the statue was of outside. It was of Francisco de Miranda, the country’s leader in its wars of independence. Corbyn had no idea who Miranda was despite walking past the statue dozens of times in attending events to supporting the Chavez regime.
However an interest in history or any intellectual pursuit is not as essential in a politician as a commitment to public service. Both Corbyn and John McDonnell have held office in local government and Bower scrutinises the records to see what we might expect if they held power in Westminster. In both cases, it is a tale of public service subordinated to ideology. When Corbyn was a councillor in Haringey, council workers went on strike for a pay rise of 40 per cent and, in an appalling conflict of interest, as a NUPE union leader, he joined them on picket lines against his own council. McDonnell, for his part, hid the huge surplus that was in the GLC, money which could have benefited the people who elected him, because to admit that the council was well off would have damaged Labour’s case against Thatcher.
Bower is to be praised for such extensive research. It is a pity that he is occasionally let down by sloppy editing. In a surreal touch the 1960s pop star Cat Stevens takes his place on the Labour front bench alongside MP Cat Smith. Elsewhere, Neil Kinnock’s attack on Liverpool council for sending out redundancy notices in taxis is described as being ‘on the eve of an election’ when it was only just over two years into a parliament, possibly an attempt to ramp up the drama.
The real drama in this story though is that of two almost incredible strokes of luck which have led Corbyn to where he is today. The first is the gullibility of moderate Labour MPs, wanting to indulge their self-indulgent notion of the party as a ‘broad church’, by putting him on the ballot paper, expecting him to gain around 7 per cent of the vote as Abbott previously had, but not noticing that the election rules had been changed in a way that favoured entryism in the cause of far-left candidates. Margaret Beckett has called herself a ‘moron’ for nominating him. It is not a harsh verdict. His second stroke of luck was to have as an opponent Theresa May who called a general election and then like a latter-day Coriolanus refused to engage with the electorate in scheduled televised debates.
If he is to be lucky a third time, it might be worth remembering why he was unable to swap Westminster anarchy for West Country apiary. His finances did not allow him to retire at the age of sixty-seven. Not for the first time, the man who would manage the country’s money had been careless in managing his own.
This review appeared in the summer edition of the Salisbury Review
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