Old Fritz and Old Wilf
Last week, I visited Germany's Versailles, the splendid Sanssouci summer palace of Frederick the Great at Potsdam outside Berlin. It was enchanting, and the palace itself - only twelve rooms in total - has astonishing rococo work. But the magic was the memories it awoke of studying Frederick the Great, the commanding Prussian king of the eighteenth century, at school rather a long time ago.
Walter Batty was brought up, as I recall, in Warmfield near Wakefield, which - when he was young - had its own grammar school. I visited him there a couple of times. He lived with his elderly father, whose great passion was keeping a couple of pigs, for which Walter was forever boiling potatoes as feed. He had a fairly humble background, and for a head of department at a direct grant school, a fairly humble lifestyle.
The story went, indeed I think he told me it, that Walter secured a scholarship to University College, Oxford to read history. He was a contemporary there of Hugh Trevor-Roper. They both got Firsts, but Walter's was the better First. He was asked to do doctoral research but declined. He needed to earn a living to help support his parents and so went into school teaching. He helped me to follow a similar path (not the teaching bit, mind) - to Oxford (Keble, with an exhibition) to read history, and securing a First. It took me another thirty-five years to get my PhD.
All this was brought to mind by Fritz's Potsdam palace. And it prompts me to say, very belatedly - thanks, Mr Batty!
Corbyn and Sanders: turning left
The Hindu, one of India's leading daily newspapers, published yesterday a piece I wrote about the Corbyn/Sanders phenomenon, and what it says about social democracy both sides of the Atlantic. Here's the text as I submitted it:
Jeremy Corbyn has been whipping up the sort of fervour that gives him the aura of a latter-day Godman. In a British (or more strictly English) political landscape largely devoid of excitement, he is generating levels of enthusiasm way beyond anything seen in the UK's general election earlier this year.
The Labour party MP recently addressed a rally in central London. The main hall was fully booked well in advance. Two overflow rooms were filled to capacity. So Corbyn resorted to climbing on top of a fire engine to address the hundreds milling around on the street, unable to get inside.
It's not the fiery oratory that's attracting the crowds - Corbyn's a staid, low-key speaker. He's not a political rock star - he's 66, bearded, vegetarian, teetotal, with a dress sense that hasn't changed for decades. There's no new message - Corbyn's hard left political views have barely shifted since he was elected to the British Parliament in 1983.
He's about as far to the left as it is possible to be as a Labour MP: anti-war, anti-austerity, anti-nuclear, and a supporter of such unfashionable causes as higher taxes, renationalisation of key industries and greater powers for trades unions.
And if the bookmakers are to be believed, he's on course to be the party's new leader.
The comprehensive Conservative party victory in May's election led to despair in the ranks of the opposition Labour party. They hadn't seen the result coming. Within hours, Ed Miliband resigned as party leader. A gaggle of contenders to succeed him argued that Labour needed to learn the lesson of its defeat - it had to win the trust of middle England, develop more business-friendly policies and edge towards the centre ground. But the groundswell of support for Corbyn suggests that party members are heading in the other direction and determined to push Labour further to the left.
When Jeremy Corbyn announced his intention to stand for the party leadership, he was seen as a 100-1 outsider. He was well short of the number of Labour MPs required to endorse his nomination, and is now a candidate only because he persuaded colleagues who didn't support him to sign his papers.
If Labour MPs alone elected the party leader, Corbyn wouldn't have the ghost of a chance. He's likeable and hardworking - but a serial rebel against the party line and leadership.
But the ballot extends to all party members, and to registered party supporters - and it costs just £3 (Rs 300) to register. Tens of thousands have been signing up. A few are supporters of other parties who want to make mischief. Most are genuinely enthused by the prospect of an old-style socialist leading the Labour party.
There are similar stirrings in the US. Senator Bernie Sanders - in his seventies, also an avowed socialist and even more of a maverick than Corbyn - has got more traction than expected for his campaign for the Democratic party's presidential nomination. He too has won support mainly from the young, many of whom see the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, as too much part of the system to be able to challenge and transform it.
Across the English-speaking world, a decade of hardship and economic recession has failed to produce the sort of progressive, left-wing political tide often evident in troubled times. The Occupy movement, which promised so much, has delivered little enduring political legacy. A financial crisis for which the bankers and big business are widely seen as being to blame has led not to greater emphasis on social justice, but an ever more glaring inequality.
In a few countries profoundly affected by economic collapse - think of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain - new left-wing forces have emerged. In Britain and the United States, it's the old-time leftists, Corbyn and Sanders, who have been beneficiaries of a soul-searching within social democratic parties which feel as if they have lost their way. The hard-line socialists, with their unchanging message and evident sincerity, offer hope - a commodity in short supply in progressive politics.
Sanders won't gain his party's nomination; Corbyn could well win his party's leadership, though the race has some way to run - we'll get the result in mid-September. As yet, the chorus of voices - within Labour and beyond - insisting that a party led by such a committed left-winger will be unelectable appears not have eroded his support.
Tony Blair, the former prime minister, mocked those Labour party members whose hearts were with Corbyn; his message to them. "get a transplant!" Blair is by far the most electorally successful leader Labour has ever had - but his stock is now so low within the party, any barbs he delivers boomerang to the benefit of those he's criticising.
Some of Corbyn's rivals - there are three other candidates, none of whom have impressed - have already said that if he wins, they won't serve as a shadow minister. There have been mutterings that Labour might split. That's unlikely. The party's last big split in the early 1980s saw a swathe of right-wing MPs form the Social Democratic Party, which won a series of by-election victories but quickly faded. Left-wing breakaways have been of still less significance.
Corbyn's supporters contend that the danger is not schism, but a Labour party that fades into irrelevance because it has lost its radical vision. They argue that new forces such as environmentalism and Scottish nationalism have managed to engage with young idealists, and Labour also needs to have a clear, principled political message.
Yet when the established market-based economic system is facing such profound difficulties, when the big corporations and the banks are so distrusted and when the digital revolution demands new ways of working and thinking, it is troubling that radicalism's most vibrant manifestation is a reworking of a tired ideology and style of politics. New times require new thinking - and there's not much sign of that on the left.
The photo at the top of this piece is taken from the Cleveland Leader, which published an article way back in June about the parallels between the two socialists.
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