by Will Brett
Nabokov’s incestuous lovers Ada and Van have a scheme for appreciating the good things in life. When something lovely happens, it is known to them as a ‘real thing’. When three ‘real things’ happen at the same time, they call it a ‘tower’ and revere it above all else. One morning on a balcony, Van observes Ada eating honey on bread. “Real thing?” he asks. “Tower,” she replies. He understands that the honey is one real thing; she tells him that a wasp, whose “body was throbbing”, is the second; but what is the third? “She said nothing. She licked her spread fingers, still looking at him. Van, getting no answer, left the balcony. Softly her tower crumbled in the sweet silent sun.”
Political alliances are fragile, beautiful things, made up of several parts. And if one of those parts is removed, the tower will crumble in the sweet silent sun.
The compromises required to form one of these alliances are always vast. Take three of them: the United Kingdom, the European Union and the Labour Party. The UK brought together warring nations locked in mutual antipathy. The EU is a pan-continental response to the largest slaughter in history, requiring eternal enemies to come together at last. And the Labour Party, formed in response to mass industrial hardship, required delicate negotiations between trade unionists (of both the closed-shop and radical kind), intellectual Fabians and radical socialists.
Any political institution worth anything contains within it a multitude of competing and not always complementary parts. It is hard work to maintain them, and much easier to let them fall. But the rewards for keeping the towers standing can be sublime. Peace, social justice, economic growth, longer and happier lives: for these, alliances must survive; the towers must stand.
This year, political alliances are crumbling wherever we look.
The UK, already wounded by the Scottish independence referendum, looks even more precarious since the Brexit vote. For all the big talk from Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Union is seriously hurt by the UK’s imminent departure. And then there is the Labour Party. A 116-year-old institution that still commands the loyalty of millions of people (as well as the free labour of hundreds of thousands members) will be lucky to survive until Christmas.
We are now almost blasé about the collapse of these grand old coalitions – as if they are ten-a-penny. We forget too easily how rare and valuable they are.
Things are falling apart. In each case – the UK, the EU and Labour – the cause of instability is the fact that people are no longer willing to put up with the mud and filth that is required to build the tower in the first place. As with Ada and Van’s moment on the balcony, the sublime contains within it something that disturbs us.
The UK’s alliance required the subjugation of the Scots, Welsh and Irish people. The European Union has consistently sought to ignore the democratic unease triggered by its vaulting ambition. And the Labour Party… what of the Labour Party?
Labour has always been an alliance of different parts of our society, with different values and different objectives. The intellectual left-liberals want social justice, individual freedom and an open economy; the socially conservative working class want economic justice, tight-knit communities and a protected economy. The trick of social democratic parties in Europe has historically been to bring these two groups together. But a ‘tower’ is made of three ‘real things’, and the third – the piece that puts Labour in power – is the anxious, upwardly mobile middle classes. Blair’s achievement was to bring these three pieces into balance. It required some fork-tongued work.
But the skills needed to keep any political party together – let alone to keep them in power – are now deeply unfashionable. In an age that reveres authenticity above everything, the dissembling of responsible politicians – who cannot just ‘say what they think’ because they are not just speaking for themselves – is seen as despicable. That is why Jeremy Corbyn has been successful. He speaks authentically, because he speaks only for himself (or those very similar to him). But it’s also why he is the politician least suited to keeping together a fragile political alliance like the Labour Party.
Authenticity comes at the expense of being able to do anything else in politics, including but not limited to: winning elections; mounting an effective strategy in opposition; campaigning for something he doesn’t really believe in (the European Union); and stopping the Labour Party from falling apart.
Political skills are seen as grubby, borderline evil. And yet without them, the great achievements of the United Kingdom, the European Union, the Labour Party and other alliances throughout history would have been impossible. The ability to bring people from different social and economic backgrounds together into a political project – by inspiration if possible, by dissembling if necessary – is the mud which forms the foundation of a tower. The fact that so many people have so little tolerance for this skill is one of the great dangers of our age.
Perhaps the Labour Party must split. But it would mean the dismantling of a long-standing political alliance, and that is always a backwards step.
The rarity of real political co-operation was always the best case for voting against Scottish independence, and for Remain. These towers are delicate things, and the responsible course is to do everything we can to keep them standing.
For Labour, the first step on that course is to recognise that being obsessed with ‘authenticity’ does nothing except undermine the tower’s foundations. Let us try not to crumble into the sweet silent sun.
Will Brett is a Labour councillor in Hackney