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Monday 19 February 2024

Compromising Men

Nine years ago I wrote a piece entitled Uncompromising Men. It began with a quote from Braveheart :

Uncompromising men are easy to admire. He has courage; so does a dog. But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble.

That piece was all about the appeal of the demagogues, the ones who don't care about rationality. That was back in 2015, just before the rise of Trump and Brexit and all the other nonsense we've had to put up with. Don't get me started. The whole thing just makes me unbearably, viscerally angry.

Like, way more angry, righteously angry, than these two butthurt whiny little snowflakes.

But with the resurgence of Labour, I've been thinking about this quote a lot again lately. While last time I looked at it in the general terms of how rational thinking can lead to monstrously irrational, idiotic conclusions, this time I want to consider the quote from a different, much more specific perspective.

In fact I want to sell you something, or rather, someone

I want to sell you Keir Starmer.

Because, as I'll cover, I've been dead wrong about people before, I approach this with the utmost caution. And this will hardly be a conventional, "isn't he just sooooper lovely ?" sales pitch, far from it. There'll be a good deal more subtlety than that.

Prologue : The joy of self-righteous misery porn

It doesn't seem to matter how objectively successful Labour are, the more staunchly left are in a state of perpetual misery. Not legitimate concern, or being (quite rightly) overly-cautious about their thumping lead in the polls, but something quite different : genuine self-loathing. They complain endlessly about how Labour isn't doing enough to address this that and the other, despite the rather obvious fact that Labour are not yet in power and an election hasn't even been called. For Labour to not promise them a vision of paradise is quite literally, for some of them, an unforgiveable sin. In fact doing anything other than actually physically punching random Tories in the face is an act of cowardice that must be opposed.

Winning the election by appealing to the other side ? Hah ! That's for wimps. Only making ludicrously Utopian promises is acceptable, and even that, I think, is marginal, as though they dare not take actual power because to do so would inevitably sully their ideological purity. They enjoy having enemies on the right more than they do actually trying to effect change. They want to be the protest group, not the ones who have to get their hands dirty by cleaning up the mess.

I'll quote myself in response to one such piece :

I am not sure what crazed hell the author is living in, but it makes me want to tear my hair out and scream. Years and years we’ve been promised magical unicorns, fantasies of a no-deal-all-the-deals-Brexit, with or without ways of dealing with Schrodinger’s ethically different immigrant who’s coming over here to steal our jobs and our benefits… but, no. That’s not the problem at all. The author has decided it’s Starmer’s Labour who are the problem, for setting realistic expectations.

The barrel of nonsense is ever bottomless. Good grief.

Large parts of the left seem to have fallen into an ideological purity hole of self-hatred quite unlike anything the right have to deal with. True, a sizeable segment of the right do oppose any and all foreigners as though they were literal vermin, but by and large they possess a good deal of moral flexibility so long as they have the sweet scent of electoral victory. In contrast, for many left-leaning political commentators, sometimes the whole point seems to be in making claims that only a small fraction believe in : not to convince people these ideas are true, but more as a way of finding out who they want to have dealings with and who they'd prefer to spit on in disgust.

This is a form of toxicity I've likened to a horseshoe, with naivety on one side and cynicism on the other. True, criticism is a powerful engine of progress. But if you won't accept anything less than your own view of absolute perfection, if you can't accept that things have gotten better if they don't meet your exact demands, then you'll never be happy. Ever. All you'll accomplish is making both yourself and everyone else perpetually miserable. That's no way to live.

1) My abusive political ex

Full disclaimer : I used to be a Corbynite. It was a brief but real occurrence, because I fell victim myself to the appeal of the uncompromising attitude. Finally someone properly left, who wanted to nationalise things that damn well should be nationalised, who seemed to tick all the obvious morality boxes rather than trying to kowtow to big business and banks. I was prepared to go quite a long way in apologising for some of Corbyn's more (with hindsight) questionable statements, the ones about Hamas being our friends and suchlike. 


My disillusionment came quite suddenly, not completely out of the blue but even so there is a single moment which sealed it for me : his refusal to back down after losing a confidence vote. To me that went manifestly against all principles of common sense. No matter how great the policies are (and I still support many of them), if you can't actually work with your own team, you're politically dead, and no amount of CPR is going to save you at the point. Can't be done. Persisting in the face of this is just dragging everyone down.

"Rise, Corbyn, RISE !"

Had I known at the time about all the anti-Semitism and anti-NATO lunacy, I'd have jumped off the Corbyn bandwagon even sooner. I'm still pleased that at least my Corbynite period was short, a few months or so before I realised this guy really really wasn't the moral messiah he all but claimed to be. He was in fact quite a lot worse than a very naughty boy.

Later, I even compared Corbyn to Trump, painting them as two halves of the same coin. I think that's basically accurate : Corbyn is a raving ideologue whereas Trump is a fascist. Corbyn will go hell for leather after any policy he thinks is correct because his moral ideals dictate it so, even at the cost of actually being able to enact that very same policy. Trump will act without any moral scruples whatever so long as he believes it will further his own interest. They're both just leaders of different bizarre personality cults.

The unifying factor of these weird bedfellows is an incapability of rational, critical thinking. Neither of them ever stop to consider if their policies are sensible, optimal, or even workable. The one is so convinced of it that questioning them is like asking the old, "do owls exist ?" or "are there hats ?", while to the other, the correctness of their ideas is utterly besides the point. Neither are the least bit able to compromise, with Trump's inability to form a coherent sentence (let alone an actual policy that can't be expressed in three words or less) being little more than the random firing of whatever passes for neurons in the soup-like ectoplasm that substitutes for his brain. Being inconsistent is not at all the same as reappraising and re-evaluating one's position.

2) My new crush

Which brings me to this guy :

Be still my beating heart !

I thought about subtitling this post, "Why I Want To Marry Keir Starmer And Have His Babies", but I resisted. Not least because I've made such mistakes before (though I do at least try and record them publicly), but also because it would totally belittle my own point. Starmer is not a white knight, and so, paradoxically, this is precisely why I I think he's absolutely fucking amazing : he isn't trying to be one. He's not even trying to portray himself so. Rather the reverse : he's making it as clear as day that he's not a political saviour about to turn the tide of political omnishambles and lead us back to whatever rose-tinted view of the past one happens to have. He's just going to do as much as he can.

This, I have to say, is bloody genius. A would-be hero living in the real world can hardly help but fail against the onslaught of the cynics and brute reality. In fantasy, the plucky hero gets to slay the evil dragon. A more realistic version would be that the hero fights the dragon, gets badly wounded, but manages to negotiate with the dragon so that it has to stay in its cave most of the day and only venture out to eat a few sheep instead of the local maidens. The end result is actually pretty decent for all concerned, but the hero looks like a colossal tit for making absurd promises and everyone wanders off feeling disillusioned as fuck.

Starmer isn't doing this. He is, in effect, promising to negotiate with the dragon from the outset. You don't have to like this approach, but you can't exactly accuse him of attempting to promise things like, oh, I don't know, a feckin' bridge to Scotland over a munitions dump.

And the dragon analogy breaks down here because he's not really promising anything that I would say is anywhere near such gross appeasement. The hard left will see any appeal to Brexit-voters (or favourable comparisons with Thatcher) as unforgiveable, but that's because any mention of such things causes them to fly into a blind, chuck-the-toys-out-of-the-pram temper tantrum. And when you go back from the headlines and read what was actually said, all too often the headlines are deeply misleading. Especially the Thatcher thing, in which nothing he said actually praised Thatcher herself or even her methods : "sought to unlock Britian's potential" just speaks to her believing she was doing the right thing. There's nothing controversial about that.

Look, I hate Thatcher and would cheerfully spit on her grave if I wasn't afraid this would cause a ghastly zombie Thatcher to rise up and throttle me. She was detestable. But unlike the latest incumbents of the highest office in the land, at least she did genuinely believe she was acting in the interests of the country.

Or, preferably, several pieces.

And these supposed u-turns... hang on a minute, are they in power ? Has an election even been called ? No and no. So it's anyway a bit of a stretch to call merely "changing one's mind" a u-turn. And if you genuinely realise that either (a) a policy wouldn't be a good idea or (b) a policy wouldn't actually work, then the only responsible thing to do is to pull it. Carrying on regardless... that's the Rwanda madness. 

Incidentally, I don't have any problem with Starmer not labelling the Rwanda scheme for what is is : horrendously vile and utterly reprehensible. If not using the sort of chest-thumping language I'd agree with is the price to be paid for not getting the scheme enacted, then I am absolutely fine with that.

I'm not going to go through each of the supposed u-turns, but I will just pick up on the most prominent : a climb-down on the £28 billion climate investment. For a climbdown is what it is, not a u-turn. Nowhere have Labour said they no longer support green investment or any of the rest of the policy : quite the opposite. Now it's perfectly possible that not being able to invest that specific amount is the wrong economic choice; I'm not an economist but my instinct is that that is the case, that investing this money would be a good idea. But that's all I've got to go on, gut instinct. So I'm perfectly prepared to believe that it's also just not possible right now. And as I set out here, this change is pretty much bang-on the conditions I stated for the ideal u-turn a whole three years previously.

The ironic thing is that if anything this makes me trust them more, not less. Being able to say, "we considered this idea, found it wouldn't work, had to scale things back a bit here and cancel a few things there"... that's rational. That's sensible. Seeking actual workable solutions is far better – far better ! – than clinging madly to rabid ideological puritanism. I respect people who change their mind when they can justify why they've done so, especially when they've not used the delusional hyperbole that was the hallmark of the Johnson misadministration. At no point has Starmer given the impression of getting uncontrollable boners at the thought of green energy or whatnot, so having to tone things down a bit seems perfectly fair and reasonable in my view.

And of course they get extra credit for doing this ahead of time. Now is precisely the time to work out a coherent set of policies, which necessarily means ditching some. Doing this when in government would be a different story... for that, look to the current "government".

3) The rebound guy ?

I'm very much conscious that I could be making the same kind of apologies for Starmer as I did for Corbyn. And I'm not entirely sure that I'm not doing this, at least to some extent. That is of course the problem with the compromising man : one has to deal with their changes of stance and then decide whether they were correct or not. With the uncompromising men one always knows what their stance is, but they're usually right only by chance.

So do I want to actually celebrate these changes of opinion, rather than merely defending them ? No. Not because I don't agree with them, but because I want to avoid making political heroes out of my, ahem, political heroes. I think we'd all be a lot better off accepting imperfect-but-basically-honest leaders for what they are : as flawed as the rest of us. But surely seeing them in this way, accepting their faults with our eyes open, is an awful lot better than deifying them. Surely having someone who never promises paradise is better than someone who pretends everything is practically perfect already. I would love to have someone who would promise to nationalise all essential services and fund everything by a wealth tax on the richest, but even more than this, I'd love to have someone who can make real, tangible gains, even if they're not as brilliant as I might like.

This may seem like a strange sales pitch, but that's the point. Starmer has learned the lessons of Blair, especially that leadership means saying no to your own side. Not all the time, obviously, or they wouldn't be your own side. But sometimes, you mustn't promise people things they want but can't have even if they would work. There's no virtue in being uncompromising about the impossible : that's Brexiteer logic. 

My sales pitch then, is that not acting like a standard snake-oil salesman may lack the classical type of emotional appeal but it it's absolutely what we need right now. We need to wake up from the farce of austerity and Brexit fantasies with a good splash of cold water.

4) Limits

But when is compromise a virtue ? Not when it becomes appeasement. Not when you start acting against your moral principles. Saying, "we need more coal and oil" would be a step too far, as would "we need to support the Rwanda bill", and certainly, unforgivably, would be, "we need to help the rich more than we need to help the poor". Those sorts of policies would be the point where I would agree that Labour are no better than the Tories. But simply not investing as much in green energy as originally planned, not being afraid to help businesses (while protecting worker's rights), not being able to create certain schemes because of actual lack of resources to do so... nah, give me a break. Any driver knows that slowing down is not a u-turn !

And anyway, sometimes u-turns are a damn good idea...

I find this lack of perfectionism inspirational, in its own bizarre way. Here is something to believe in because it's achievable, not because it's utopian. To actually get back to really, really boring politics after years and years of increasing rabid, incoherent rhetorical nonsense... it's like a warm balm for the soul. I want things to be as utterly bland and dull as possible, much like Mark Drakeford in Wales (though for an excellent, detailed analysis, see this Wales Online piece).

I think I got sick of the exciting politics quite a lot sooner than everyone else, but it seems at last that most other people are finally seeing the virtues of not having to pay constant attention to Westminster as though it were a mandatory-viewing HBO drama. That actually, not having to worry about whatever crisis the idiots in government will bring today would be really quite enjoyable in its own way, even without suddenly giving everyone a puppy and a solid gold house. That slow but steady progress might be better than chaotic, unworkable revolutions, and that actually, while magical fantasies of puppies and gold houses for all might sound good in theory, perhaps in practise that's not really what we need.


Here, then, is the case for the ability to compromise as a form of nobility. To respond according to the evidence, at least to respond consistently within your own world view, that is noble. Evidence doesn't suggest anything by itself, but coupled with your own models about how things are, it definitely does. And when the evidence and your ideas conflict, it has to be the evidence that wins every time. If you think that the tax breaks for the rich should make everyone wealthier, okay... but when you find that they don't, then you change your damn mind. You don't double down and say you hadn't given them enough tax breaks or other bullshit.

And it has to be constrained in that it can't be counter to one's moral principles. You can't go around proclaiming that you want to help the poorest only to help the richest instead... but it's perfectly fine to do things for them as well. It may feel fantastic to tell people what you really think of them, but if you actually want to make progress, if you actually want to get things done rather than wishing for them... maybe it's better not to rub their noses in it. You don't have to tell the racists they're right. But you have to know when to fight and when not to fight. You have to know the difference between a casually-racist old granny in a country village and a hate-monger who'd willingly drown migrants at sea. One can be reasoned with, the other must be fought.

Far better to have honesty about what can be done and then actually deliver on it than inspirational but ultimately empty and disappointing rhetoric. Better to climb slowly and successfully than soar and crash.

Calm down, Icarus.

The final point is that people are still claiming Labour haven't said very much and don't stand for anything. This is garbage, perpetuated by a media determined to insist that this is still the case presumably because Labour's actual policies (of which there are many) are so boringly practical that they can't be bothered to discuss them. True, they had nothing much at all a couple of years ago, but it hasn't been this way for a good 18 months or so. What they stand for is green energy (the exact amount of investment being a total red herring on that point), stronger local government (I call it radical decentricism, I've read their 155-page report on this and it really is as radical as anything from the hard left), constitutional reform (true, you might not get what you want with Labour on this one, but you certainly won't with the Tories), stronger worker's rights, greater economic alignment with Europe, and above all, pragmatism. 

All of these appeal to boring, actually successful policies instead of trying to placate the fantasies of the racists. And that is more than enough for me. Sometimes the simplest gifts are the best ones.