Thursday, 19 February 2009

Mailer, Freud, Blair/Brown, Philip Collins: Coincidence? I think not

'Coincidence, what do you make of it?' So Tim Madden asks his father Dougy in Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance (a book, you may have guessed, that is rarely far from my thoughts.) In fact, Tim already has a theory on the matter:
'I believe we receive traces of everyone's thoughts... I think when something big and unexpected is about to happen, people come out of their daily static. Their thoughts start pulling toward one another. It's as if an impending event creates a vacuum, and we start to go toward it. Startling coincidences pile up at a crazy rate...'
Freud didn't buy coincidence, no sir, but Jung did. Freud thought there was a causal explanation for dual manifestations that we would otherwise see as uncanny: basically a repetition of old mental habits congealed around buried traumas, familiar repressions, always wearily likely to resurface. But Jung defied his former master, arguing that coincidence, 'syncronicity', pointed toward something meaningful - 'big and unexpected', even.
Now, it is no coincidence whatsoever - in fact, a matter of hard causation - when the scholarly think-tanker Philip Collins (pictured), a former habitue of Tony Blair's Downing Street, writes an op-ed piece in the Times strongly critical of Gordon Brown's goverment, and a rash of media comment on said piece breaks out. The Evening Standard reports said piece as news. The Spectator nods its head fiercely in agreement with Collins. For The Independent Jon Cruddas MP rates the Collins critique as a worrying recurrence of scarlet Blairism, never quite brought under control or inoculated against.
What is the substance of said critique? Collins argues that Brown is a creature of obsessive manouevring and positioning rather than of any fixed and worthwhile principle: in short, that he would never espouse 'equality', say, because it's 'good' or 'right' but because it's 'politically useful', and that he thinks of 'crime' as 'a political event rather than an infringement of liberty.' (So much, then, for all that supposed 'integrity' Brown used to wear as lightly as sainthood.) And as a consequence of this obsessive tendency, in light of recent events, Collins believes that "Labour now finds itself just to the left of sensible on everything."
It's scarcely a coincidence of note, given my recent musings, that I should seize on the sight of Philip Collins leaning heavily for his analogy upon the general incorrectness of Freudian theory, which he does like so:
'The strain of repressing the traumatic past - devalued currency, winter of discontent, public spending run riot, the regulatory regime of 1997 - and the task of displacing the present - “it all started in America” - is exhausting [the Brown government's] capacity to act. The only response is a series of dreams as wish-fulfilment - the Prime Minister will become the international sultan of regulation, the economic news will be good by the end of the year. The truth is that Labour was never going to win on the economy. It was just a daydream, on Freud's definition, in which the hero wins out and achieves his heart's desire...'
An instance of the sadness as Collins sees it is that Labour under Brown has 'bogged itself down in guidelines for rhubarb crumble recipes and instructions for playgrounds to be painted' rather than bolder strokes for improving schools. (He invokes the name of the Department for Children, Schools and Families rather as a sort of Grey Lubyanka.) But of what measures would Collins himself approve, were he nearer to the levers? He thinks Michael Gove’s plans to 'free schools from the control of local authorities' are the right idea, because Labour could and should have done it already. More generally he's on the side of 'plans to improve literacy... transfer power to local authorities...reform of policing', all of which seem to his eye to be written off or forgotten. In brief, the small-c-conservative, liberal, pragmatic New Labour project has been spitefully abandoned, and the excuse of the international banking fiasco is no sort of a fig-leaf.
You can sense Collins' special concern over the notion that Labour has wound up chasing the Tories' lead just like an opposition party. For wasn't Blairism about making Labour the natural party of government? It seemed to me at the time that this was attempted mainly by outflanking the Conservatives, triangulating them in Clintonian fashion by adopting any elements of populist good sense that the Opposition managed to display. Has Cameron now triangulated the Blair Project? Collins seems to think he's seized the opportunity:
"[Cameron] says that he wants to give people the power to instigate referendums on, for example, council tax increases. He wants to change the assumption that local authorities should have to beg Whitehall for permission to act. He wants a referendum on elected mayors in the big cities. An imaginative Labour party should be exploring all these ideas."
Too much in there to quibble with, other than to say I'm not much interested in either of those referenda and I don't know enough about how local government does or doesn't work in the shadow of Whitehall. But I'll look forward to the next column on the subject, and finish instead on this business of coincidence. I happen to know Philip Collins a little bit through a mutual friend, just as his predecessor in the post of Blair's chief speechwriter, Peter Hyman, was once my editor at a student newspaper. Coincidentally I ran into Philip late last year at the same hotel to which we'd taken our respective families for a 'weekend break' (though Philip had his laptop with him, such was the workload...) As for Peter, I routinely see him pushing his kids on the swings at the same municipal park to which I take my little girl.
After 10 years of Blair's premiership I daresay we all felt to some extent that we could ventriloquise him a bit, 'do Blair'. I certainly tried my hand at same in Crusaders. Maybe I felt myself sufficiently qualified for such mimicry on account of having spent some time in the company of a couple of the fellows who best received the traces of Tony's thoughts (a la Mailer)and so could put well-minted words directly into his mouth?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just wanted you to know I found this article extremely thought-provoking. It draws, or perhaps you imply that Mr Collins draws [and others] some interesting analogies at the juncture of coincidences in political policy, process, timing, nous and success.

In simple terms, the whole house of cards is falling down around the ears of the present government and prime minister, but it's more than just "events, dear boy".

Well, some of us have always concluded it would collapse, events or not.

Perhaps it really IS time for my flight of fancy the other day to grow some wings.