You rarely come across a character in modern literature like Jimmy Knight. He’s a racist, but that’s not what makes him a novelty act. racists, after all, are deplored everywhere in the culture industry, from Hollywood to Pinewood Studios. Of this racist, however, his ex-wife says:
‘I wouldn’t trust him if it was anything to do with Jews. He doesn’t like them. Israel is the root of all evil, according to Jimmy. Zionism: I got sick of the bloody sound of the word.’
Knight is also a misogynist, a type which is once again a familiar figure in contemporary fiction. But when his girlfriend cries out after he hits her, he replies by attacking her privilege with the language of the left:
‘Oh fuck off, that didn’t hurt! You demean women who really are knocked around, playing the victim.’
Knight appears in J.K. Rowling’s latest crime novel, Lethal White. I don’t want to overplay its political message: Rowling is too good a writer to stop her story and advance to the front of the stage and deliver a homily in a pious voice. Like so many others, I enjoy her Cormoran Strike series for the conventional reason that she combines intricate murder mysteries with a thwarted romance between her private detective and his assistant: a drama of missed opportunities and repressed emotions that could only be British.
But Rowling’s stories succeed because they are also state-of-the-nation novels, which convey the landscapes and tensions of Britain with more authenticity than many ‘serious’ writers manage. Lethal White is set in 2012, and shows the type of activist who was about to take over the Labour party.
At that time, you could have heard Knight’s sneers at Amnesty International and the Socialist Workers Party, who told women who warned them against allying with supporters of the Taliban’s lethal misogyny that the cause of protesting against Guantanamo Bay or defeating American imperialism overrode all others. Anyone who said otherwise was on the side of US, if they were a white westerner, or a ‘native informant’ if they were not.
You can hear the sneers again today from leftists who condemn as transphobes feminists who say that trans people with penises should not be permitted to endanger female safety by being allowed in women-only spaces .
As for maintaining that ‘Israel is the root of all evil’ – far from being a handicap, a belief in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory qualifies you for the leadership of the Labour party.
The larger reason for treasuring Rowling is the certain knowledge that the overwhelming majority of artists and writers will duck the challenge of portraying the modern left. Propagandists will mythologise it, but most will just pretend that the debasement of left-wing politics never took place.
To use the language of Harry Potter, the cultural left is cursed by the need to conform to the notion that there is no wickedness on its side. Right-wing journalists exhibit the same vice, as their bovine unanimity on Brexit shows. Artists may claim to operate to higher standards than Daily Mail hacks, but the record shows that they are no better.
Comedians must respond faster to events than novelists and playwrights. One, who asked not to be named because ‘comedy is a bitchy little world,’ said what anyone who goes to the clubs or listens to Radio 4 knows: most will not take on the darkness on the left.
They may not only be motivated by a prudent bourgeois concern to keep the paying customers satisfied. It is not at all clear to me that left wing or liberal audiences want a party line. At the Edinburgh Festival this summer, for instance, Matt Forde, one of the handful of comics who is prepared to break taboos, set up a gag in deadpan style. He explained:
‘Corbyn is against the EU because it limits a Labour government’s ability to control business – so he’s a nationalist.
‘And he wants to take control of businesses – so he’s a socialist.
‘Put that together and he’s a national socialist… I just hope he’s checked the Jewish community are OK with that.’
A few members of the audience walked out. But most stayed and enjoyed a transgressive thrill. Just as in the Labour party itself, party-line doctrine is set and followed by cliques rather than the broad mass of leftists. One comedian described how he saw obedience develop on private Facebook pages where middle-class comics can talk freely. In 2015, he said, most comics were soft leftists, who vaguely hoped Ed Miliband would be prime minister. When Corbyn became Labour leader, they decided, he was the best chance they had in their lifetimes of bringing socialism to Britain, and fell in behind him. The soft left is called ‘soft’ for a reason, and their capitulation to hero worships addled their brains.
Because they were committed to Corbyn, they could not only utter no criticism of Corbyn themselves, they could not accept that anyone else could criticise their leader in good faith either. In a pattern familiar across the British left, they convinced themselves that Corbyn was a victim of a conspiracy by ‘Blairites,’ the media and – eventually, for this is where all conspiracy theories terminate – the Jews. The supposedly laudable commitment to left-wing causes of once amiable men and women had led them into darkness.
‘When I tell them comedy is caught in group think,’ my comedian contact said, ‘they reply as one: ‘there is no group think” – and don’t see why that’s funny.”
It is worth noticing that artists who follow a party line believe they are committed to a worthy cause. They honestly think that the triumph of the left is worth the self-censorship they inflict on themselves and their audiences. I concede that it is not impossible to produce decent work while thinking like a propagandist – Brecht managed it – but it nearly always results in a sly refusal by the artist to level with the public.
In theory, ‘commitment’ is one of those words you are meant to greet by leaping to your feet and bursting into applause. The committed are sacrificing themselves in a noble struggle. They are in every way better than the selfish mass of humanity. In practice, the committed behave as it they have a dirty secret. You never hear an artist or writer say words to the effect of, ‘Obviously I know that racism and thuggery are not confined to the right, but I will never admit that in my novels or films because intellectual honesty might hurt the Labour party’s chances of gaining power.’
I find their need for concealment reassuring in a small way. People have every right to be depressed by the flood of propaganda and fake news that has engulfed Britain. But while propagandists in the arts and journalism are still frightened to announce who they are, there are small grounds for hope. The time to be truly frightened is when their nervousness goes and they feel free to boast about what they have become
Until and unless that day arrives, you can best chart the changes in left-wing culture by looking at what isn’t said and cannot be said without risking ostracism: the new works that aren’t written; the old works that can never be revived. When I listen to modern Labour supporters, I keep remembering Destiny, David Edgar’s play from 1976. Destiny is set during a by-election in a West Midlands town close to Enoch Powell’s Wolverhampton. A neo-fascist leader, inspired by the National Front types of the time, instructs his candidate that it is not good enough to tell voters that speculators and wreckers are destroying Britain: he has to say that they are Jewish speculators and wreckers.
Then in a line that has stayed with me since I was a teenager, the fascist leader asks the candidate what he would say if a voter told him that immigrants were just as British as he was. The candidate promptly gives the approved answer:
‘Just because a cat is born in a kipper box it doesn’t make it a kipper.’
It is a sign of how deep the rot has penetrated that the modern echo of the sentiment that, even if they live here, even if they and their parents and grandparents were born here, immigrants or the descendants of immigrants can never be truly British, comes not from a fascist or a gin-soaked Tory, but from Jeremy Corbyn. He said of Jews, who had argued against him at a meeting in Parliament, that despite ‘having lived in this country for a very long time – probably all their lives – they don’t understand English irony’.
Nor, ironically, do supposedly serious and committed artists, who boast of their willingness to tackle taboo subjects, but run for cover as soon as a truly hard question arises.