Who’s Sorry Now? by Howard Jacobson

This comic novel asks questions about the nature of contemporary relationships. However, the narrative is almost as angst-ridden as it is droll. The characters struggle to maintain positive outlooks as their quests for personal happiness lead to profound collective dissatisfaction.

Some of the targets of the humour are slightly too obvious. The attacks on the futility of contemporary fame are verging on the predictable. Notwithstanding this quibble, the book is really enjoyable in parts.

However, it does appear that the text aims to shed some light on a few important issues. It is in this context where the level of seriousness is quite hard to discern. It may be true that one should bear in mind that happy couples:

“could insult each other and not expect to be misunderstood. Half the art of falling in love- attaining the foolish intimacy…”

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The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

This famous winner of the Prix Goncourt is an intriguing melodrama set in Europe and the United States. The action takes place in the period when the unity of the French Resistance comes to an end after the Second World War closes. Philosophers and their friends lose their ideological certainty as the Cold War begins.

The confusion felt by French intellectuals in that period is understandable. Fascism may have suffered a massive defeat, but revelations about forced labour in the Soviet Union were difficult for sections of the left to accept. Further, the dynamism of American capitalism threatened European political autonomy, while authoritarianism prevailed in Spain and Portugal despite this emerging hegemony.

Simone de Beauvoir was not a generous observer of the characters in her narrative. Despite her feminism, she judged the mistakes of women harshly. This is partly the legacy of existentialism, which arguably overstates the importance of choice in determining what happens in the complex lives of people. For example, she put these words in the mouth of her main character:

“It’s a horrible thing, a woman who labours to lead a man’s hands to her body by appealing to his mind.”

Roy Jenkins by John Campbell

This excellent biography is the result of ample research into the life of a divisive politician. Jenkins steered vital liberal legislation through Parliament as a Labour Home Secretary. He was perceptive about the decline of the UK as an international power. However, he did participate in the disastrous splitting of the Labour Party during the 1980s. Further, he succumbed to the courtesy of Tony Blair and failed to achieve domestic constitutional reform.

At one time, the social legacy of Jenkins seemed assured. His reforms ushered in a tolerant era. In addition, his role in the European project appeared to have tied the UK into a prosperous club. It was therefore possible for some commentators to overlook the negative impact of his personal ambition on the progress of the British labour movement.

Unfortunately, the difficulties of the Eurozone, the ill-advised Brexit vote, and the disastrous election of Donald Trump have all thrown the values of Jenkins up in the air. The truth is that social liberalism requires an economic foundation to thrive. Without understanding solidarity, the left will always be too weak to fight the forces of reaction. Perhaps the late Tony Benn was best at summing up Jenkins after all:

“a man who had great talent, a great capacity for friendship, wildly ambitious, and who believed in maintaining the Establishment and the power of the Establishment, first in Britain and then in Europe.”

The Impartiality of the BBC and Andrew Marr

“what’s not recognised is that the role of the liberal intellectual establishment is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go.”

Noam Chomsky

Today, the liberal journalist Andrew Marr gave the Prime Minister of the UK quite a tricky time. He asked Theresa May questions about the apparent limitations of the British nuclear deterrent. In particular, he pressured the Conservative leader to say if she had known about a specific malfunction prior to a debate about Trident renewal.

Marr was arguably restoring faith in the institution for which he works. After it had been revealed in the press that a different BBC journalist had misled the public about the views of Jeremy Corbyn, it was important for the state media that its reputation for political neutrality was regained.

However, citizens should not be manipulated by this turn of events. Marr could have been called Red Andy at university, but his role here was seemingly a conservative one. When May made a rhetorical gesture toward a country that works for everyone, he might have questioned her sharply about food banks, international inequality, environmental degradation, regional problems, and democratic deficits. By posing calmly as an unbiased interviewer, he allows the political class to maintain business as usual.

Theresa May as Hedda Gabler

The Norwegian relationship with the European Union was discussed during the UK referendum campaign. Norway has positive economic links with the supranational organisation, but has little political influence over its direction. Nevertheless, this model could have been appropriate for the UK in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

The Prime Minister has instead chosen to interpret the referendum result in a more radical manner. Her aspiration for a patriotic Brexit puts her political concerns ahead of national economic considerations. However, it is her quixotic threat to the European Union in advance of the negotiations which makes the observer think of a famous Ibsen character.

The idea that the UK should invent itself as a tax haven if it does not secure a decent deal from the European Union would not be problematic if it did not have negative implications for the bulk of the British population. David Cameron will be remembered by historians as the Prime Minister who was destroyed by hubris over Europe. It could well be that the administration of Theresa May is recalled in a similar way. As Tesman said in Hedda Gabler:

“Shot herself! Shot herself in the temple! Fancy that!”

Off Message by Bob Marshall-Andrews

This text is an indictment of the militarist and authoritarian dimensions of the New Labour project. The rebel MP was hostile to the Third Way project because he was wary of the harsh social attitudes that were partly concealed by its bland ideological surface. His appreciation of freedom meant that he was never won over by the policies of triangulation. A moderate in his economic views, he did not become a true convert to the liberalism of the market.

For the reader, the humorous tone is arguably a relief. This prevents the details of the assault on liberty from becoming tedious. The use of droll anecdotes illuminates the dogmatic mindsets of the establishment.

Critics may contend that the author has not sketched out an alternative to the guiding philosophy of New Labour. However, the writer indicated the kind of principles which may have prevented the slow drift towards disastrous neoliberalism. Wearing his learning lightly, the backbencher quoted Oscar Wilde:

“But the best of the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious.”