I first came across the name of Jeremy Corbyn during the height of the Thatcher years, when he briefly burst into our national consciousness after giving a minute’s silence for eight IRA terrorists killed by the SAS at Loughall Partly in disgust and partly in glee, I informed my socialist father of his actions. ‘Prat!’ was his response. ‘You can understand why people don’t want to vote Labour, can’t you?’ he added, sighing.
Indeed you could. When Corbyn entered the Labour leadership contest, he was written off a joke candidate; a ghost of Labour’s politics past, no more than an embarrassing reminder of Labour’s unelectable days of socialist purity. Now he looks on course to win the leadership he is very much the ghost of politics present, and that is not just Labour’s problem, but an indictment of our politics as a whole.
Corbyn, as we all know, finds his support from that considerable chunk of our people who have never been reconciled with the capitalist system: although Margaret Thatcher psychologically liberated much of Britain from thraldom to socialism, her work was only partially successful, and in some areas the necessarily harsh decisions made matters much worse. In large parts of the once industrialised North, South Wales and of course Scotland, the sense of cultural humiliation and loss greatly reinforced existing prejudices. This was followed by Gordon Brown’s cynical sovietisation of these core Labour voting regions and subsequently the banking crisis, which shook confidence in capitalism in even its most ardent supporters.
Unsurprisingly, the result of such repeated psychological reinforcement has created an anti-enterprise and anti-capitalist culture that today deeply disfigures individual lives and even whole regions. This is at its very worst in Scotland – once the land of Adam Smith and the Protestant work ethic – which now seems to regard capitalism as an entirely culturally alien, English philosophy. The go-getting, entrepreneurial metropolitan elite, with their notorious cultural insensitivity to the rest of the country, simply does not understand how bad the situation is, and getting worse.
Corbyn won’t win any elections, but what he has laid visible is a deep canker, always present but largely ignored, within our national political and economic culture. The great risk is that as the new machine age automates huge numbers of routine jobs away, whole classes of people will become all but unemployable. At that point, large areas of the country could be culturally lost forever: perhaps little better than Greece without olives, sunshine or tourism, or even Scotland without the oil. If that happens, then Corbyn and his successors will not only be the ghosts of politics past and present, but the ghosts of all our political futures.