Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left

Culture Wars: The Media And The British Left
Curran, James, Ivor Gaber, Julian Petley
Columbia University Press, 2006

It may have been just one of those interesting coincidences that surface from time to time, but this book’s release to a North American audience landed on this side of the Atlantic in the same month and nearly on the same day that British lefties were attempting to redefine their world in the current climate of globalization. And it should come as no surprise to those who have followed and studied the behaviour of the left in Great Britain, that the enemy within proved far more dangerous than the enemy without. It is no secret that leftist thinking has undergone a significant transition from the days of Ramsay Macdonald, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson. Their Labour Party, carefully crafted as an alternative to the existing order since the days of Keir Hardie and the Fabian Society, was moving away from those issues that provided a foundation for the trades union movements and the collectivism of the welfare state. The new left was far more interested in issues that focused on race, gender and sexuality. The shift would prove to be dramatic and troublesome, both for the party elites and their constituencies.

On April 7, 2006, the weekly New Statesman published the results of a gathering of journalists, academics, activists and students in O’Neill’s, a London City pub not far from the British Library on Euston Road. The participants were not about to accept Francis Fukiyama’s contention that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the success of the United States signaled both the triumph and sanctity of capitalism and the inevitable end of history. As we know, the rise of militant religious fundamentalism has proved otherwise. The group abandoned what they considered worn out sectarian approaches to problem solving, instead encouraging democratic socialists, progressives and liberals to join together to reshape the global community into a kinder and gentler society. The manifesto condemned leftist thinking based, as they stated, on a “blanket and simplistic anti-imperialism.” To the shock of that constituency, the manifesto contained praise for the functioning aspects of American democracy, a surprise move that brought plaudits from the likes of Christopher Hitchins. As well shall see, the Euston manifesto was the result of a long journey from the dark days in urban and suburban London that our three co-authors have articulated.

Before we begin our analysis, a quick word about British politics. In spite of assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom is still very much a unitary state. Unlike the United States, Canada, Australia and other liberal democracies, Britain has no state governments. As a consequence, local councils take on an importance not usually experienced in North America. As much as Americans use off-year elections to pass judgments on the current administration, British voters turn to local councils for the same purpose. It is not unusual to have a strong central Conservative government facing a significant number of local councils governed by the Labour Party. And it is precisely this scenario that attracted our three authors.

The book is an unapologetic defense of the left in power in the critical years when Margaret Thatcher was running the empire from Whitehall. There is absolutely no pretence to objectivity of any sort in this dialogue. In fact, the suggestion of conspiracy, not unlike that in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, continues to rear its head throughout the text. At the very base of the argument is the claim that the Fleet Street press conspired with the Thatcher government to first discredit certain Labour led local councils and then set out to curb their powers and reduce their effectiveness. In fact, Thatcher’s government abolished the umbrella Greater London Council to, if you believe the authors, get rid of its leader, one “Red” Ken Livingstone. But more important to this dialogue was the kind of issues seized upon by the press. It was here that the local councils had made the shift within the Labour Party to address the problems of the New Britain, problems which emerged from massive immigration, a shift in economic focus from manufacturing to knowledge-based initiatives and the emergence of individual rights campaigns, something to which the British were not accustomed.

What we have in this book is ample evidence of the overt use of innuendo on the part of both the aggressors and the recipients. With the possible exception of the public broadcasting system, the authors contend that the majority of the press was solidly pitted against the “political correctness” of the local councils yet, in the final analysis, they do not credit the media with being so persuasive that the Labour Party lost control of many of these institutions. In fact they didn’t, the reasons for which are a discussion for another day. But as anyone who has had the misfortune to live under one of these so-called equality-seeking regimes, there is more to this kind of story than that the matter of claims of reckless behaviour had indeed a basis in fact. It is far too easy to on one hand support the efforts of these councils, which in many cases were noble concepts, and on the other dismiss excesses by blaming them on faulty execution. As the McGoldrick case, which is well documented in the book notes, totalitarianism can be just a step away.