by James Brown
On the evening of January 11th, which was actually the early morning of the 12th for the Australia-based interviewee, our Staff Writer James Brown spoke with the head of the Sydney Policy Lab, Marc Stears, about his new book Out of the Ordinary, in which he argues politics needs to reconnect with ordinary life.
You can read James’ review of the book for Strife Journal here.
James Brown (JB): First of all, Marc, could you give me a break down of your recent history, of what you have been up to – you were of course at the Labour Party with Ed Miliband during 2010-15 – and then talk a little bit about what you’re doing at the Sydney Policy lab.
Marc Stears (MS): Most of my career I was an academic, mainly at Oxford as a political theorist and historian of political ideologies. I then moved into politics around about 2010, when Ed Miliband became the leader of the Labour Party and there was all sorts of excitement about potential renewal for social democratic politics, which lasted for five years of ups and downs.
The biggest down of all was losing the election in 2015. It was pretty grim, and Ed himself is just beginning to talk and write about what happened, why it happened, and what it felt like. And I guess ever since then, I have been trying to find a way of resuscitating some of the most interesting arguments we were having back then. So, I ran the new economics foundation as CEO for a couple of years, and then moved to Australia where I am running the Sydney policy lab, which is an effort to combine academic research in public policy with community organising, grassroots mobilisation, participant research, and policymaking. Essentially, we try to bridge the gap between academia and community organisations.
JB: You talk about bridging the gap between community organisations and academia, and that definitely comes across in the book. Just to begin with, could you sum up some of the key arguments that you are trying to get across in Out of the Ordinary?
MS: I remember when I first thought about moving from academia into politics. We used to go up to Parliament and meet MPs, and I was really struck by how almost all of them were obsessed with what I would call ‘bigness’.
So, the very first question you got was, ‘what’s your big idea?’ And they would be looking for this kind of moonshot – the one big thing which is going to solve all the problems in British society or the economy or politics. At the time I kind of struggled with this because, I guess, I did not have one big idea.
Over a while, I just came to think that it was kind of a silly question, really, and that political change and social change does not happen like that. It is not a sort of big boom which sorts everything out. Instead, it is a much slower, calmer, sometimes harder process, which has to be rooted in people’s everyday experiences, in their everyday lives.
And so, that became an obsession when I was in politics – that so many people were looking for the big, easy answer, rather than the complicated, small answer. I became obsessed with discovering whether this argument was a new one or whether it had been around before. I was working a lot at that point with Maurice Glassman – Lord Glassman as he is now – and Morris always had the argument that everything had gone wrong in 1945 because the Attlee government had been such a success and given everyone this idea that you could have a big, single reforming government which did something amazing, like create the NHS, and that that should be the model for politics. Maurice always said that the model of politics should instead be located in people’s neighbourhoods, in their families, their local communities – not always in that big answer.
Because 1945 was that kind of moment, I wanted to look at what had happened before that and what happened immediately after it to try and discover whether this argument between bigness and smallness had been present at the time. And essentially that is what the book claims. It says that actually, right from the 1930s and forties through into the fifties, people were really having that exact debate about whether you should be looking for a big utopian answer to all the problems of the country and the world, or should you be thinking more local, smaller, or incrementally? And I tried to kind of paint a picture in the book of the people on the second side of that debate.
JB: How would you describe all these people advocating the Ordinary, like George Orwell and J.B. Priestley? Would you be prepared to call them a school of thought, the ‘Ordinary school of thought’ perhaps?
MS: I basically think that is right. I mean, it is a struggle, this one really, because what I discovered in the book is that these people in some cases did not know each other, while others really disliked each other. Dylan Thomas’ view of J.B. Priestly was extraordinarily bad while Orwell was incredibly dismissive of almost everybody, especially the people that I put him in a group with.
Then others, like Barbara Jones, were very much individualists. They did their own work and they very rarely cited or engaged with others. So, they are not a school in the sense of people who sit down in a seminar room or in a common room and come up with a collective view. They never published collectively and they did not write manifestos, but the claim in the book is that, nonetheless, there was a spirit or a sentiment which animated their work and which they all had in common. They did actually feed off each other as they created their work.
One of the things that I am pleased about in the book is being able to show that these characters – who are so different, and as I say, who often disliked each other so much – nonetheless inhabited a shared intellectual viewpoint.
JB: So in the book, you bring all these people together and establish this Ordinary school of thought as the solution to what you diagnose as a political health crisis in Britain. You say that Britain cannot get a grip on its past and cannot build an inclusive national identity. Would you go as far to say that Britain faces a culture war, or is that just a hyperbolic label? What is going on in the country with its identity?
MS: I think that is a great question. Look, my instinct is that it comes down really to disdain. I mean, I think there is still an incredible amount of disdain that many, otherwise very well-meaning, politicians have for ordinary people.
That disdain takes different forms. For example, on the populist right, there is a view that ordinary people can be manipulated and should be manipulated – that you should play the lowest common denominator of xenophobia. This is something that is more pronounced in the US than in the UK, but it is clearly present in Britain too.
On the left, meanwhile, I think it is more often this sense that people do not know their own interests and that they are not smart enough to be able to design programs of policy or change. That is a kind of more well-meaning disdain, in a way, but it still is disdain in the sense that it argues that the person in Westminster knows best. And this is very deeply ingrained.
When I was in politics, we used to float ideas about devolution or democratisation and Ed Miliband was fabulous at trying to advance those arguments. But the vast majority of the political establishment was extremely sceptical that you could have a politics which was more participatory, more bottom up – more grounded in everyday life – just because they thought that ordinary people were not up to it. Everybody always quoted that mythical bit of Oscar Wilde, that is not actually an Oscar Wilde quote, when he says, ‘there aren’t enough weekends for socialism,’ meaning that ordinary people do not really want to be engaged in politics.
So, I think that is the fundamental culture issue: Westminster-first, Whitehall-first, centralisation and elitism are the dominant forms of thinking about politics across left and right. The people in my book were struggling against that and trying to argue intensively against it. We have seen other versions too, though. That same debate was had in the 1960s, and then again in the eighties. More recently, there have been instances where people have argued that to solve political problems, you have to have more faith in everyday people’s capacity to be active agents in that process.
JB: Why is it that the Ordinary was completely left out of politics from 1945 onwards and is to this day – how did that come about?
MS: There was a big argument on the left throughout the 1930s about how to achieve reform after the Depression, and then again after the war. There were those who thought that the solution had to be small scale, had to be localised, had to be democratised. For example, people had plans for workers control of industry and localised health and welfare responses. But this argument was beaten by big, welfare state solutions, nationalisation, and for the public corporation model of nationalisation – which is really just like a private company but owned and run from London.
So, the opportunity was missed in 1945. But as Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP, has shown, Attlee himself was torn between the two different approaches and there were parts of Attlee that wished his government could have gone for the more localised and more democratic roots, but it just did not happen. Over time, the alternatives became forgotten. You got a process of path dependency and it just got harder and harder to move out of the direction in which the country was headed.
This is Part One of our interview with Marc Stears. Part Two can be read at this link.
James Brown is a PhD candidate in history at Northumbria University. His focus is on Soviet dissidents and their use in the politics and international relations of the Cold War. He previously studied at Glasgow University, doing a Master’s in East European, Russian, and Eurasian studies. During this time he studied Russian and wrote his thesis, ‘Returning to Machiavelli: Giving Belarus-Russia relations the Original Realist Treatment’, which received the prize for best dissertation from the Centre for East European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at Glasgow.
James is a Staff Writer at Strife.