When New Labour was in power, it was always hard to separate truth from fiction. The project dominated the British political landscape, despite apparent failures in terms of democracy, equality, ecology and planning. Only the relative success in Northern Ireland endured as a lasting legacy, while the catastrophe of Iraq underlined the disconnect between the political class and the people. If New Labour had been less mendacious, the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn would not have been so strong.
As an experienced manipulator of the media, Peter Mandelson must have been familiar with the maxim that when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Hence the rationale behind this defensive and defiant text is hard to fathom. Nevertheless, the succinctness of the narrative and the insight into the unrepentant mindset of a Third Way politician makes the book into an oddly compelling read.
While Mandelson generally privileged communication over policy, his story shows how New Labour was original in that it took its core supporters for granted until the Great Recession. By trying to occupy the media-defined centre ground at all costs, its competing architects made principle into a dirty word. Their lack of appreciation for the intelligence of ordinary citizens is evident:
“For voters, feelings prevail over beliefs. People may be torn between their head and their heart, but ultimately it is their gut feeling that is decisive: they vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not necessarily the one who presents the right arguments.”
This philosophical attack on Christianity leans quite heavily on Freud, Paine and Darwin. Nonetheless, the text also refers to Baron d’Holbach, Nietzsche, Feuerbach and Marx. Lesser atheists are brought in to supplement a personal argument which largely avoids bitterness.
However, the book shares a few of the flaws commonly associated with New Atheism. Sometimes, it judges religion as a failure because it does not operate like science does. Further, it refuses to view religion in metaphorical terms. Ultimately, it is as nearly as relentless and dogmatic as much of the thought it opposes. Kennedy cites Charles Reade with approval:
“The essence of religion is inertia; the essence of science is change.”
Critics of science would argue that change needs to be directed for the welfare of all. Apologists for religion might maintain they could help with the provision of some constructions of the common good. Even agnostics may ask why those who find Christianity to be absurd spend so much time thinking about it.
This short novel is superficially about the bitter cost of the First World War. However, it is really a pretty ode to truth. The central idea of the text is that if we live inauthentic lives our happiness is illusory. Further, the truth may be extremely painful. Hence there is little comfort to be found in the compelling narrative.
Nevertheless, the innocence of the Edwardian era yields a little light relief. The profound social injustices, anxieties and tensions of that period do receive a mention, but the hopes and romances of that time are coloured in with a bright pen. Rebecca West was something of a radical in her youth and her social conscience is evident in this wise book. Her collapse into conservatism occurred later in her career and at this point she had learned:
“There is, you know, really room for all of us; we each have our peculiar use.”
This dramatic novel focuses on hard lives. The characters suffer a lot from some of the exploitation associated with international capitalism. Immigration leads some of them into really desperate situations. However, the circumstances which made travel appear seductive are also portrayed in a grim light.
The narrative is not an easy read in terms of content. Nonetheless, it is composed in a simple and effective style. This means that the reader is not slowed down by complex arrangements of words. Instead, the reader is swept along like the captivating characters they follow.
Ultimately, Sahota does not lead one to believe there are easy answers to the terrible injustices described in the novel. For example, his description of Indian politics emphasises the impact of caste and chaos:
“he said it was the damn Maoists. They’d dumped a truckload of Brahmin bodies in the maidaan a few hours ago…But this was only what he’d heard. None of it might be true.”