Staying engaged without getting enraged with Rafael Behr at 1000 Trades

by Jonathan Todd

People sometimes ask why I co-founded a pub. I don’t know what to say. I can’t immediately retrace the confluence of motives and circumstance. At least not in a way that I want to say out loud.

I think it is for nights like the 23 May when Rafael Behr will join us to talk about his book. For Birmingham Jazz, Birmingham !mprov, and Maker Monday. The pub as a hub of what makes life worth living.

We found the pub game at the bottom of the political greasy pole. My friend and co-founder, John Stapleton, discovered he preferred pulling pints to being a special adviser in the last Labour government. My efforts to become the first Labour MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale were praised by John Harris in The Guardian – but were much less warmly received by voters.

“In the communist regimes of Eastern Europe,” Behr writes, “political dissidents would talk about ‘internal emigration’. Denied the freedom to travel abroad, they would find sanctuary in the private recess of the mind. They would disengage from the external world of politics, inhabiting it only as a performance of themselves because that was what the regime demanded.”

1000 Trades began as a kind of internal emigration – only existing in our heads, usually on nights out. Bringing it into reality was a way to be the change that we wanted to see in the world that did not depend on politics. We did not get a CLP to select us. We did not win a vote in parliament. We just did it.

But politics kept intruding. “Brexit is killing the hospitality industry, with the number of venue closures rising sixfold in just a year,” recently reported The Independent. Covid-19 was not great for business either – we continue to pay back the government loan that we were grateful for. We fought and won a campaign against the ambitions of a developer to convert offices next door into flats.

We were forced to confront the central theme of Behr’s book: staying engaged without being enraged. “It is an essential task, because the repulsion of an engaged audience – the inducement of hopelessness and doubt that Britain will be governed better – gives succour to those who would make politics worse.”

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward truth: to juxtapose Martin Luther King Jr and one of Behr’s arguments, which asks us to resist perennial gloom by recognising the reasons for optimism over longer time horizons.

“Imagine a newspaper that is published once every 50 years. On that cycle, the news looks a lot rosier than it does when churned out daily, or hourly, or every second on Twitter. Items in the most recent edition might include drastic rises in global living standards (around 1 in 10 people on earth live in poverty compared to 6 in 10 in the middle of twentieth century); the elimination of smallpox; the availability of food and education to billions of people who used to lack both.”

We don’t even need a 50-year window. It is just over 3 years since President Trump was advising Americans to inject disinfectant. Since then, history has bent towards truth: science created the vaccines that defeated the pandemic; Trump’s lies were rejected in the 2020 and 2022 elections; and a new president has responded to the reality of climate change with an unprecedented package of investment to decarbonise the American economy, while forcefully backing Ukraine – in a way that Trump never would – in rejecting Putin’s delusions.

We have forgotten too quickly how bleak 2020 was. We underappreciate the immense power of science in getting us out of that deep hole. We need a politics that fully applies this strength to our most troubling truth: climate change. This, writes Behr, “demands strategic state investment and public management of resources on a (massive) scale.”

Trump and similar strongmen reject this logic, selling narratives of nationalism and grievance over cooperation and reason. “Other stories are available,” Behr reassures. “There are appeals to collective solidarity, moderation and mutual tolerance that have deep roots in British culture and a purchase on national identity.”

This would turn the page on the neo-liberal era that began in the UK with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, begin a new chapter defined by the strategic state investment needed to achieve net zero, and overcome the bitter harvest of neo-liberalism. “A society where young people can’t afford to have children and increasing numbers of parents struggle to put food on the table for the families they have.”

There is, sadly, much to be enraged about. Nonetheless, “our anger at the state of politics is proof that we have not given up hope of something better.”

This is a Labour blog, but you don’t need to be Labour to come along on 23 May. All are welcome. But it might help if you subscribe to Behr’s ethos of centrism: preferring “persuasion and evidence to dogma and denunciation.”

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut and co-founder of 1000 Trades. Rafael Behr’s book Politics, A Survivors Guide is published by Atlantic, and he comes to 1000 Trades on 23 May as part of a national speaking tour.

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