Paul Embery’s new book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class is reviewed by Andy Stowe.
Coffee has never passed this reviewer’s lips, never mind skinny latte macchiato wankuccino; he considers quinoa food fit for hamsters; his bus driver father died when the oldest child was aged eleven leaving his mother to raise five children on a widow’s pension and the money from a part time job as a home help. It’s only necessary to make these biographical revelations because a big part of Paul Embery’s schtick is that he’s the authentic voice of the working class.
Born in Dagenham, a post-war town borough to the east of London he’s at his most lyrical when reminiscing about the area before all the immigrants arrived and made the place inhospitable to the white families who felt compelled to move out. He’s laugh out loud funny when he compares their “fears over cultural erosion” to the experiences of Native Americans and Indigenous Australians.
An executive member of the Fire Brigades Union, Embery was one of the tiny number of people who consider themselves on the left willing to appear on pro-Brexit platforms with racists like Nigel Farage. His ideas are a mishmash of Daily Mail editorials, a Stalinist contempt for cosmopolitans, especially rootless ones and English nationalism. At a moment when former Workers’ Revolutionary Party member Bill Bailey is charming the nation on Strictly Come Dancing, ex associates of Workers Power’s youth organisation are working for Boris Johnson alongside former cadre of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Embery may also be hoping for an invitation into the corridors of power.
After a while the reader has to give up making notes of the most reactionary ideas otherwise, you’d never finish the book.
Early on he mourns the death of “old-fashioned concepts such as patriotism, self-discipline, conscience, religious belief, marriage…respect for tradition.” His ideal country seems to be Japan because it has kept out immigrants in large numbers. In his view a major problem with the modern Labour Party is that “faith, family and flag” have been replaced with an attachment to social liberalism. A writer allegedly so naive that he didn’t appreciate that his comment about “rootless cosmopolitans” was a Stalinist euphemism for Jews can’t be expected to know that “faith, flag, family” evokes Vichy France’s slogan of “work, family, country”.
He compounds this historical blindness with an inability to put developments in British politics into a broader setting. The populist wave he chose to ride gave the world Trump, Modi and Orban. Britain isn’t immune from these global trends and Joe Biden was right when he called Johnson “Britain’s Trump”. The limits of Embery’s political understanding are those of a nationalist who supports redistributive politics and his mission is to articulate, not challenge, that “distinct sense of grievance among the English”.
It was his stance on Brexit which gave Embery his current prominence and it’s in that section of the book that his thinking his most muddled. A reasonable defence of his position would require an examination of how a working-class militant ended up being a fig leaf for a project created by the most reactionary forces in British politics. As far back as 1975 Enoch Powell, an MP even other Tory MPs thought was too racist, was arguing against what was to become the European Union. The idea bubbled away in right wing fringe groups until Farage made it the central idea of a party which won millions of votes and pulled the Tories along with them.
There was never any doubt that it was about anything other than stopping migrants coming in. Embery even cites a poll on page 52 which showed that the priority for two thirds of Leave voters was ending free movement completely “even if it meant disruption to the economy”. What he does get right is that the Labour vote has been declining over a long period and his judgement that the party’s adoption of neo-liberalism in the Blair years contributed to that is correct. We can also agree with him in his observation that the fast track to influential jobs in the party is not political experience gained as an activist but getting a position as a researcher straight out of university. All bureaucracies are self-selecting and self-serving and Labour’s is no exception.
Although he is broadly sympathetic to the Corbynite economic programme Embery is silent on the campaign that was fought against Corbyn’s politics. The entire weight of the British ruling class, its media, institutions and parliamentarians (including the bulk of Labour MPs) were united in their determination to smash up his leadership. They relied on many of the themes that Embery takes up – Corbyn wasn’t patriotic enough, he was a threat to national security. It was a brutal ideological war, one that Corbyn really didn’t know how to fight. The British ruling class drew on reserves of nationalism and reactionary ideas that Corbynism didn’t effectively challenge.
There is a culture war going on and Paul Embery is on the wrong side of it. His conclusion is that the left’s problem is that it wants an “open, progressive and diverse nation”. He does articulate what sections of the white English class feel. What he doesn’t get is that it’s precisely when the working class rejects the ideology of the ruling class that it starts to act for itself. It has to reject deference to the monarchy, the myth of white English superiority, the elevation of imperialist war into a nationally unifying sacrament.
The book would have been completed before Keir Starmer’s recent turn towards those very values of family and flag, so in his way Embery was catching something of the zeitgeist created by last year’s massive election defeat for Labour. That will explain the buzz it has created, yet in its way it will prove to be as inconsequential as the year’s other political publishing sensation Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife since you can read variations of what’s in it most days in the Daily Mail at a fraction of the £15.99 Polity Press charge for the book.